There’s a quiet in the deep woods. A natural hush under the canopy of trees, amid fallen branches, scattered rocks, lush ferns, multi-hued mushrooms, and broken tree stumps. Walking where the only interruptions are snapping twigs, chirping birds, rustling leaves touches the soul.
Last fall I hiked 30 miles in three days on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. I loved every minute of it.
Shenandoah National Park is stunning. As it bursts into fall color, hiking conditions can be an ideal combination of sunny skies, crisp air, cool temperatures. Shenandoah National Park offers more than 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a famed footpath that stretches 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine. It passes through 14 states, yet nearly a quarter of the Appalachian Trail is in Virginia.
The specific route I trekked is about 10 miles each day from inn to inn. Hiking to an inn is more elegant than camping since a hot shower, prepared dinner and clean, comfortable bed wait as reward at the end of each day. There’s no need to haul overnight gear, but it’s still a challenge in rugged backcountry with a moderate incline.
On The Trail
Step onto the Appalachian Trail behind the Skyline Drive guard station at the Swift Run Gap park entrance and the trail slopes gracefully up.
The view for the first 20 miles is mostly trees. As you grow familiar with the forest, however, distinctions become clear. In some sections tree bark is mostly black, in others white. Some areas are ripe with fungus, others with ferns. There are sections littered with twigs and branches, others where huge boulders lean over the path. Most of the trail is stomped earth, parts are strewn with rocks.
The sheer beauty of the forest is captivating; I’ve never taken more pictures of trees! Being immersed in such a remote setting unclutters the mind and fills lungs with fresh joy.
Following the Appalachian Trail is easy. White swaths are strategically painted on trailside trees. Trail markers stand at all trailheads and intersections. Metal bands are stamped with directional and mileage information. Follow the arrows north, stay on the trail, take nothing, leave only footprints.
With an abundance of rocks and boulders, the last 10 miles of this hike are the most technically challenging, but also offer dramatic scenic overlooks. No special equipment is needed, just pay attention to avoid stumbling.
Hike north and each night the lodging and dining improves.
The first overnight destination is Lewis Mountain Cabins. There are 10 two-bedroom, one-bathroom rustic cabins, plus a camp store that sells food and other supplies. Cabins are clean and basic, offering essentials like functional plumbing, internet access, a cozy mattress, heater and solid walls/roof.
Big Meadows Lodge, the second overnight stop, is named for the large grassland nearby. Built in 1939, it offers 97 rooms in a main lodge as well as rustic cabins with fireplaces. Guestrooms are clean and cozy with a retro ambiance. Beyond basic essentials, enjoy TV, temperature controls and an upholstered chair. The lodge offers a dining room, tap room, craft shop; the nearby Wayside station has gas pumps, another restaurant and large store. Both restaurant menus feature American favorites like fried chicken, burgers, fried eggs and pancakes. Preparations are straightforward and spot-on.
Skyland Resort, the third inn, sits at the highest elevation along Skyline Drive. Once a private resort (circa 1910), it’s renovated into the most upscale accommodation I’ve yet found at a state or national park. There are 178 rooms of different styles plus a gift shop, taproom and full-service restaurant that could hold its own against any contemporary farm-to-table Southern restaurant. Local ingredients as well as local wines and craft brews are on the menu.
Completing the hike was bittersweet: I was proud to achieve my goal yet didn’t want my days on the trail to end. I shall return!
Shenandoah National Park
Lodging Reservations: 877.847.1818
Specials, packages and shuttles are available; visit GoShenandoah.com/specials/hiking-packages
Visit Virginia Virginia.org