10 Best 2-3 Day Virginia Backpacking Trips on the Appalachian Trail

by Johnny Molloy | Posted: Jun 22, 2016 | Updated: Oct 19, 2016

Comments: 27 Comments

 

The Appalachian Trail courses 550 miles amidst Virginia’s mountains, passing through Virginia’s rich array of public wildlands, such as the Jefferson National Forest, Washington National Forest, Shenandoah National Park and lands along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Appalachian Trail acts as the spine to a connected trail network covering thousands of miles of pathways threading through the aforementioned places adding to the backpacking possibilities in the Old Dominion.

Using the AT and its connector trails, we can create fantastic 2-3 backpacking adventures, traversing vast woodlands, untamed wildernesses and scenic features from old growth forests to waterfalls and overlooks. Being Virginia, there’s always a little history added to the mix.

So, pack your tent and sleeping bag, strap on your pack and let’s hit the AT for some rewarding 2-3 backpacking adventures in Virginia’s highlands.

 

—APPALACHIAN TRAIL, VIRGINIA CREEPER LOOP—

Virginia Creeper Trail

Nearest Town: Damascus

How Long: 13.8-mile loop

Elevation Highs and Lows: 2,190 low point, 3,410 high point

GPS trailhead coordinates: N36° 38.645′, W81° 44.407′

Why Go: Historic rail trail, stream, trail shelter, partial views

The Skinny:

This fun circuit in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area cruises up the gorgeous Whitetop Laurel Creek Valley on the famed Virginia Creeper Trail. A steady but very mild grade takes you to meet the Appalachian Trail. Climb to the crest of Straight Mountain, where partial views can be had before reaching Saunders trail shelter and a second night’s camping option. Take the AT back to the trailhead, switchbacking downhill off Straight Mountain.

The Camping: Campsites are bountiful along the Virginia Creeper Trail. Your primary overnighting option along the AT is the Saunders Trail shelter and adjacent tent sites.

What You Need to Know: Backpackers will see beauty throughout, but they will also see other hikers, backpackers and bicyclers on the Virginia Creeper Trail — this is not a circuit for solitude seekers.

Nearby Attractions:

  • Mount Rogers Outfitters
  • Virginia Creeper Trail
  • Old Mill Restaurant
  • Barter Theater

 

— APPALACHIAN TRAIL, ELK GARDEN TO FOX CREEK—

Nearest Town: Trout Dale

How Long: 17.0-mile end-to-end

Elevation Highs and Lows: 3,400 low point, 5,240 high point

GPS trailhead coordinates: Start: N36° 38.767′, W81° 34.984′ End: N36° 41.85′, W81° 30.26′

Why Go: Two wildernesses, high country panoramas, wild ponies

The Skinny:

This is the highest elevation segment of the entire Virginia portion of the Appalachian Trail. Situated at Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, this part of the AT presents fine views from beginning to end. Along the way it passes through rare and lofty spruce-fir forests and nears Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia. Numerous rock outcrops jut above meadows where wild ponies graze and blueberries ripen late in summer. Part of the trail passes through Grayson Highlands State Park.

The Camping: Backpackers can choose 3 trail shelters along the way or find their own tent site in numerous wooded areas.

What You Need to Know: Beware wind, fog, rain and cold weather in this most high country.

Nearby Attractions:

  • Park Place Drive-in
  • Virginia Creeper Trail
  • Hungry Mother State Park
  • Grayson Highlands State Park

 

— APPALACHIAN TRAIL, FALLS OF DISMAL TO NEW RIVER—

Nearest Town: Pearisburg

How Long: 22.0-mile end-to-end

Elevation Highs and Lows: 1,620 low point, 4,000 high point

GPS trailhead coordinates: Start: N37° 11.259′, W80° 54.058′ End: N37° 19.757′, W80° 45.063′

Why Go: Stream hiking, views, ridge running, lesser-trod trail segment

The Skinny:

Start your hike off with a splash at Dismal Falls, a captivating cataract that is much prettier than its name implies. From there, take the Appalachian Trail northbound, cruising up valley of Dismal Branch. Enjoy some streamside Appalachian Trail hiking, relatively unusual within Virginia’s AT trail mileage. Rise to the top of Flat Top Mountain, flirting with 4,000 feet in elevation before joining Pearis Mountain, where views await from several locations, including the famed Angels Rest, where you gain an expansive aspect of the New River Valley from commanding heights. The final part of the adventure leads down to the brawling New River.

The Camping: Backpackers have their choice of two trail shelters, as well as campsites along Dismal Creek and some ridge top locales near springs.

What You Need to Know: This area is blessed with ample springs, creeks and other water sources, unlike some other stretches of the Virginia AT.

Nearby Attractions:

  • New River canoeing, kayaking and fishing
  • Nicholas R. Anderson Observatory
  • Mountain biking at Pandapas Pond
  • Cascade Falls

 

— APPALACHIAN TRAIL, ROANOKE TRIPLE CROWN—

McAfee Knob

Nearest Town: Roanoke

How Long: 28.0-mile end-to-end

Elevation Highs and Lows: 1,460 low point, 3,190 high point

GPS trailhead coordinates: Start: N37° 22.716′, W80° 9.370′ End: N37° 23.471′, W79° 54.392′

Why Go: Visit three view laden rock outcrops — Dragons Tooth, McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs, plus more views from Hay Rock and still more places

The Skinny:

This end-to-end backpack encompasses the three most desired vista points for Western Virginia Appalachian Trail adventurers. Start with a climb up to reach the AT, then head southbound doing a modicum of rock scrambling to reach Dragons Tooth, with 360° panoramas. Head north, crossing the Catawba Creek Valley then rising to Catawba Mountain, where McAfee Knob awaits, the most photographed spot on Virginia’s Appalachian Trail. Continue onward, circling Carvins Cove Reservoir, coming to the Tinker Cliffs, a long stone vertical dropoff that will leave you dashing from view to view. Lastly, pass huge angular Hay Rock, as well as more geological wonderments before ending the adventure at I-81 near Daleville.

The Camping: Backpackers will pass four shelters on the way, plus other assorted campsites on this mostly ridge running trip.

What You Need to Know: Expect company at Dragons Tooth, Tinker Cliffs and especially McAfee Knob.

Nearby Attractions:

  • Local Roots – A Farm to Table Restaurant
  • Read Mountain Preserve
  • The Roanoke Star atop Mill Mountain
  • Paddle Roanoke River

 

—THUNDER RIDGE, JAMES RIVER FACE WILDERNESSES—

Nearest Town: Glasgow

How Long: 17.3-mile end-to-end

Elevation Highs and Lows: 678’ low point, 4,225’ high point

GPS trailhead coordinates: Start: N37° 30.458′, W79° 31.409′ End: N37° 36.299′, W79° 23.345′

Why Go: Elevation variation, The Guillotine, two wildernesses, James River Bridge

The Skinny:

This hike traverses two wildernesses while starting high atop the Blue Ridge and ending down near the James River, making it more down than up. Leave the Blue Ridge Parkway northbound on the AT. Pass over Apple Orchard Mountain, your high point – and the highest point on the AT until New Hampshire — after entering Thunder Ridge Wilderness. Walk under the geologically captivating Guillotine. Continue ridgetop hiking, entering big James River Face Wilderness at Petites Gap. Undulate through the heart of the wilderness, scanning for views of the James River down below, then make the long descent to the James River, saddling alongside gurgling Matts Creek. Reach the James River, where an impressive hiker footbridge spans this mighty Virginia waterway.

The Camping: Backpackers pass two trail shelters, Thunder Hill shelter early in the hike and Matts Creek shelter late in the hike. Another camp is located by Marble Spring and more sites are along lower Matts Creek.

What You Need to Know: Be prepared for varied weather conditions, since elevation changes exceed 3,500 feet.

Nearby Attractions:

  • Otter Creek Recreation Area
  • Natural Bridge of Virginia
  • Scottos Pizza
  • Paddle James River

 

—MOUNT PLEASANT SCENIC AREA—

Nearest Town: Buena Vista

How Long: 11.5-mile figure-eight loop

Elevation Highs and Lows: 3,110 low point, 4,030 high point

GPS trailhead coordinates: N37° 45.581′, W79° 11.730′

Why Go: Meadow views, fields, good campsites, half loop possibility

The Skinny:

This panorama-heavy upland hike rolls through a mix of woods and fields atop the Blue Ridge. Leave Hog Camp Gap on the AT to scale Cole Mountain, with its vistas and highland meadows. Descend to Cowcamp Gap, leaving the AT on the Old Hotel Trail, where a rolling track takes you through more mixed woods. You can cut off the trip halfway near the trailhead or join the Henry Lanum Trail to make a near figure eight. Scale Mount Pleasant, 4,021 feet, where dual summits deliver spectacular panoramas. Ridge run over Pompey Mountain before completing the circuit.

The Camping: Overnight at the Cowcamp Gap shelter, or at the head of Little Cove Creek. Ridgetop sites are available near Mount Pleasant.

What You Need to Know: A spring, accessed on a spur trail, serves the ridgetop campsites near Mount Pleasant.

Nearby Attractions:

  • Hulls Drive-in
  • Virginia Military Institute
  • Glen Maury Park
  • Original Italian Pizza

 

—THREE RIDGES WILDERNESS LOOP—

Three Ridges Loop

Nearest Town: Amherst

How Long: 14.5-mile loop

Elevation Highs and Lows: 1,660 low point, 3,940 high point

GPS trailhead coordinates: N37° 54.101′, W78° 59.113′

Why Go: Wilderness, views aplenty, streams, Campbell Creek Falls

The Skinny:

This circuit adventure delivers both ridgetop panoramas and streamside scenery in federally designated Three Ridges Wilderness. The Appalachian Trail leads past several outcrops and views as it traverses the spine of Three Ridges. These views are spread out along the route, and include another vista from Chimney Rock. Eventually, the AT drops off the ridgeline into Harpers Creek where there are aquatic campsites. To complete the loop, join the Mau-Har Trail. It meanders the west slope of Three Ridges before dropping into Campbell Creek. Visit 50-foot Campbell Creek Falls. Close the loop by ascending Campbell Creek, passing lesser cascades.

The Camping: Tent sites and one shelter are available on the AT while streamside camps are located along Campbell Creek.

What You Need to Know: This backpack, though short, does have multiple ups and downs.

Nearby Attractions:

  • Luminhaus B & B
  • The Briar Patch Restaurant
  • James River State Park
  • Rockcliffe Farm Retreat

 

—APPALACHIAN TRAIL, MOORMANS RIVER LOOP—

Nearest Town: Charlottesville

How Long: 18.1-mile loop

Elevation Highs and Lows: 1,130 low point, 3,110 high point

GPS trailhead coordinates: N38° 9.174′, W78° 46.366′

Why Go: Views, waterfalls, swimming holes, trout fishing, homesites

The Skinny:

This loop in the southern end of Shenandoah National Park takes you along the crest of the Blue Ridge into the upper Moormans River watershed and back around to the high country. Start on the AT and savor some views before entering the North Fork Moormans River valley. Visit Big Branch Falls before reaching South Fork Moormans River valley, where deep pools and waterfalls await. Ascend the upper part of the valley before rejoining the AT and cruising the high country on the park’s rocky spine. In late spring and summer, bring a fishing rod and swimming trunks.

The Camping: Backpackers will find sites along the stream valleys, but must comply with Shenandoah National Park regulations and obtain a backcountry camping permit, available at entrance stations.

What You Need to Know: This loop entails several crossings of the South Fork and North Fork Moormans River. Bring hiking poles for balance.

Nearby Attractions:

  • Continental Divide Restaurant
  • Monticello Wine Tour and Coach Company
  • Sherando Lake Recreation Area
  • Humpback Rocks Visitor Center

 

BEARFENCE MOUNTAIN, CONWAY RIVER LOOP—

bearfence mountain

Nearest Town: Elkton

How Long: 12.0-mile loop

Elevation Highs and Lows: 1,210 low point, 3,440 high point

GPS trailhead coordinates: N38° 28.068′, W78° 27.445′

Why Go: Waterfalls, views, Bearfence Mountain Rock Scramble

The Skinny:

This challenging loop has it all — overlooks, waterfalls, and geologically exciting hiking. Leave the Blue Ridge and follow the scenic Conway River down through the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area. Next, head into the high country on the rarely trampled Slaughter Trail, passing a pioneer homesite. Pick up the Appalachian Trail then come to the Bearfence Mountain Rock Scramble. The scramble is doable with a full backpack. Fantastic panoramas open in all directions, including the Conway River drainage from where you came, Fork Mountain, Jones Mountain and Cat Knob — one of the best views in Shenandoah National Park. The last part of the hike traces the Appalachian Trail along the Blue Ridge back to the trailhead.

The Camping: Backpackers will find sites along the lower Conway River as well as the upper Devils Ditch. The Bearfence Mountain Hut is available along the AT.

What you need to know: The trail travels through Shenandoah National Park and Rapidan WMA. A permit is needed to overnight within the park but get a permit anyway if you camp in Rapidan WMA, to let rangers know why your car is at the trailhead overnight.

Nearby Attractions:

  • Ciro’s Italian Eatery
  • Solace Studios Fine Handcrafts
  • Paddle Shenandoah River
  • South River Falls

 

— APPALACHIAN TRAIL, THORNTON HOLLOW LOOP—

Nearest Town: Sperryville/Luray

How Long: 15.4-mile loop

Elevation Highs and Lows: 1,440’ low point, 2,960’ high point

GPS trailhead coordinates: N38° 43.439′, W78° 19.198′

Why Go: National park level scenery, old homesites, pretty river, some views

The Skinny:

Backpack the North District of Shenandoah National Park. Travel the once-populated Thornton Hollow and take a walk through history. Camp along North Fork Thornton River. Explore the midlands along Hull School Trail. Visit Bolen Cemetery and hike up Keyser Run Fire Road into the high country. Overnight at the headwaters of the Piney River and complete your loop on a pleasant stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The hiking is neither long nor hard. Trout anglers and history buffs will especially enjoy this backpacking adventure.

The Camping: Backpackers will find sites along the Thornton River and upper Piney River along the stream valley, but must comply with Shenandoah National Park regulations and obtain a backcountry camping permit, available at entrance stations.

What you Need to Know: There are four river crossings on the upper Thornton River Trail. These crossings will be easy rock hops in summer but can be troublesome during after prolonged rains.

Nearby Attractions:

  • Luray Caverns
  • Big Meadows Lodge
  • Victorian Inn
  • Paddle or fish South Fork Shenandoah River

 

 

 

 

 

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27 Comments

Great packing tips! I’m pinning your post for later!

steph says:

Hi, I am looking for a good 4 to 5 day trip end of June. Will have a dog so need tips on where to go. I want views and access to springs and water holes to cool off feet or swim and get water. we do not need camp site we r planing on using hammocks or shelters provided on trails. We did a hike along time ago and this time we want to pack light.

Johnny Molloy says:

Steph,

Shenandoah National Park or Mount Rogers National Recreation Area are good choices since they offer plenty of room and trails.

stepj says:

Johnny, how about a 4 day trip to mcafee. like the one this page. Have you been there is it nice?? DO you have tips of where to start and stop and how to shuttle in or good tips. Is the Shenadoah and mount rogers part of AT and do they allow dogs? I remember we wanted to do apart of the AT long a go in Smokies but they did not allow dogs on trail or something. Thank you for your tips

Steph says:

Johnny, so I think we will car camp in Shenandoah hopfully at loft campground. And use as a base camp and do lots of hiking and site seeing. Have you been there? Do you have tips on good tent sites? Other tips of points of interest in area?
Thanks

Johnny Molloy says:

You are making a good choice. This time of year there will be more than ample sites at Loft Mountain. Drive through the campground (a few times if necessary) and find a site that suits you. Consider levelness, shade/not shade/proximity to restroom/scenic value. There are lots of great hikes in the area — Doyles River Falls, Jones Run Falls, Go to Blackrock, do the Fraser Discovery Trail at Loft Mtn. Take an auto tour on Skyline Drive to Big Meadows and eat lunch. There’s a lot to do! Good luck.

Mike says:

Hey guys, I am looking to do a 5 day trip in the middle of June. I will be going by myself (might take the dog). I am trying to escape the hustle and bustle of the DMV so I am seeking the solitude of the mountains. Does anyone have suggestions for a trip that would put me in a less traveled area? I do not need views, I’m not limited by trail difficulty, and do not necessarily need a camp site. It would be cool to be within a days hike to a river or small lake. Let me know if you have any ideas.

Johnny Molloy says:

Mike, Shenandoah National Park has a big backcountry with plenty of room to roam for a 5 day trip and you can create your itinerary as you go. You muyst get a backcountry permit. The South District is least people and you could find some real solitude.

Mike says:

Thanks for the suggestion Johnny. I have been checking out the website for SNP and they have a lot of good stuff in there. The suggested hikes are great. The only concern I have is that fires are not allowed within the park. I am OK with the rule but to be honest, after a day of walking, sitting in front a small camp fire would be great. I will look into more information on the South District as you suggested but may also try and look at the options in GW&J NF.

Johnny Molloy says:

I hear you on the no fires thing. Other large areas that allow fires are in the national forests. A couple of suggestions are the 71 mile loop of the Massanutten Mountain Trail, the Shenandoah Mountain trails west of Harrisonburg and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area with over 400 miles of backpacking possibilities.

Angie says:

I am interested in hiking the Moormans River loop for a 2 to 3 day hike. Can you tell me where I can get the detailed map(s) for that?

Bill Beyer says:

Hello Folks! My brother and I (both in our early 40’s) are taking a week in April to do some much needed, long overdue hiking/backwoods/primitive camping, brother bonding time in the wild. Him, living in central Michigan, and me coming from Chesapeake, decided to meet somewhere in central Virginia along the AT (he’s never stepped foot on the trail). I’ve been doing a ton of internet searching trying to find the perfect place to accommodate what we hope to accomplish, and I figured that I’d take a break from Google and go straight to the most experienced source. You!
I would like to add that the neither of us are strangers to the wilderness. I’m as comfortable sleeping in a primitive debris hut as I am in a strangers dirty bed.

With that being said, we are looking for a hike with as little amount of physical “difficulty” as possible. The trip is as much about sitting around a camp fire, whittling sticks, purifying our drinking water and eating bugs, as it is about the hike. So needless to say, we’d like to go somewhere that doesn’t prohibit camp fires, and as close to an available natural water source as possible.
I know the trail offers shelters along the way that generally provide fire rings….. and we will likely utilize one or two over the week. But that’s not the kind of “living” we want to do the entire time. I also know that it’s frowned upon to venture off the trail to find the kind of camp sites. SO, if you’re aware of private lands close to the trail that you know we could get permission to sleep on for a day or two…. I’d love to hear about it.

I’d love to hear any and all suggestions as we are strangers to the central Virginia wilderness areas.

Please respond in this forum for all to read and learn….. but if you could cut and paste your reply to my email address, I would greatly appreciate it.

Thanks folks!
Bill

billrbeyer@gmail.com

Bill, since y’all are wanting a less rugged backpacking trip, and want to make fires and want to have good campsites what I suggest is that you do a loop down by Damascus in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. I would start from Damascus and Hike out on the Iron Mountain trail then loop back using the Appalachian Trail or the Virginia Creeper Trail. The trail Network allows for shortcuts and being able to alter your hike. I suggest getting the National Geographic Trails Illustrated map number 786 Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and then go have a ball. Johnny Molloy

Jill says:

My dad and I are planning a 3 (?) day hike starting in Damascus and ending in Grayson Highlands State Park around the end of March (2017). Any tips, suggestions?

Johnny Molloy says:

Jill, Y’all have an exciting time ahead. Be very aware of the weather on Virginia’s rooftop.

I suggest early June for a trip.

Steven Marino says:

My wife and I did that exact loop last year. One suggestion… take the Massie Gap trail in the state park (it runs parallel with the AT for a few miles. Amazing views that you won’t see on the AT.

Brad says:

I’m in Ohio and was looking for a good 4-day trip for spring 2017. Any thoughts about extending one of these? Thanks much…

Johnny Molloy says:

You could go from Damascus All the to the Mount Rogers High Country, that general area is fantastic

Linden to Sky Meadows……great camping at Sky Meadows

ShawnSchofield says:

Bears Den to Harper’s Farry is a very nice 13mile hike it’s in Clarke County rt.7

Shawn,

Thanks for your contribution!

Carla Ward says:

I travel sometimes from Arlington to Berryville in Clarke County and almost always see AT hikers on the shoulder of Rte 7 on their way to and from Bear’s Den. It’s a very nice stretch of hiking and within moments you’re away from the road and feeling surrounded by a real wilderness.

Daniel S says:

Do you think that works for kids? I am looking for a 2 day hike with my 9 year old. Thank you. Daniel

Johnny Molloy says:

Daniel,

You can always shorten the hike and be ready to adapt on a minutes notice, as I reckon you do all the time in traveling with your child. Its great to hear about parents getting their children into the great outdoors. I can’t imagine the amount of electronic living they will do, even compared to our age.