A.T. Prep: 5 Day/Night Hikes I Tackled Before The Trail
In a world where time seems to slip through our fingers so effortlessly, there is one way to make it slow down: announce a thru-hike. Then, I promise you, Father Time will stop in its tracks, dangling you precariously above the pursuit until you’re fully indentured to the indomitable excitement. At least that’s what happened to me after announcing my upcoming thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail – life felt devoid of forward movement, making six months feel like a year. Luckily, containing my unbridled anticipation was easy to do with an ever-growing collection of thru-hikers on YouTube and Reddit. When I wasn’t living vicariously through the world-wide-web, day hikes pushed me forward. Here are five day-hikes (or night hikes) I tackled after deciding on my 2021 thru-hike!
Signal Knob Loop Trail
- George Washington National Forest
- 10.0 mi, loop, 2,217 ft. elevation gain
With Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” barely audible through the crunch of fallen leaves, this night-hike was a celebration of the October 2, 2020 harvest moon – and wow! The lunar light led us forward as the brisk Friday night enveloped us in all its wild wide-openness – easily the best feeling ever after a long week behind the desk. I remember feeling free and deeply connected to my gratitude. My future as a thru-hiker no longer felt like a distant dream but a silhouette made visible by the Harvest Moon itself!
Looking Glass Rock + John Rock Trail
- Pisgah National Forest
- 6.1 mi, out and back, 1,729 ft. elevation gain
- 4.9 mi, loop, 1,082 ft. elevation gain
My pals and I found ourselves in the North Carolina mountains during the January 2021 inauguration because we prefer fires at camp to our city’s streets. As Washington, D.C. residents, the Capitol insurrection left us ready for a trip away. We rented “Pop’s Cabin” near Pisgah National Forest, putting us a ten-minute drive from the Looking Glass Rock and John Rock trailheads.
First, we climbed Looking Glass Rock for a GORGEOUS view at the top. Despite having no memory of my birth, summiting Looking Glass Rock somehow made me nostalgic for the memory. Housed in the trees for most of the hike, the trail opens up at the end for an exposed and expansive view of Pisgah National Forest – the type of overlook where you can differentiate the small amygdala crowds from their counterparts by seeing how close they get to the edge.
Then, we climbed the neighboring John Rock Trail to capture a gaze at the rock we had just conquered. The reward of hiking is that you can visibly see where you came from and where you’re going, making progress something that can be fumbled with. It was empowering to crop up on John Rock and ponder Looking Glass Rock over yonder. The trail gives a home to the intangibles of milage and time – and boy, that home has quite the view!
Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- 10.6 mi, out and back, 2,919 ft. elevation gain
No, the kitschy candy kitchens and mind-numbing traffic didn’t lure us to Gatlinburg, TN. The Smoky Service Days did, where we helped remove natural fuel in the historic Daisy Town near Elkmont campground. We planned absolutely nothing for this five-day journey down south other than the service, relying on our instincts to find a shower and sleep. And, this lack of expectations afforded us the trip of a lifetime – we were so happy to be so free. At 4:00 pm, we decided to catch our shut-eye at the Mount LeConte Shelter, embarking on a nigh-hike of Mount LeConte via the Alum Cave Trail.
Hikers were sure to pass their judgment as we trekked upward with our headlamps, but honestly: we felt secure and safe. At this point, I had faith in our physical abilities to make it up the trail, I felt confident in the trail conditions, and I was elevated by the positive attitude we’d been wearing that day. Nothing could stop us, and nothing did. This hike encapsulated the divine moment where I began to identify as a thru-hiker, where the silhouette at Signal Knob was no longer the outline of a dream but the outline of myself. We arose early, catching the sunrise that would become my favorite moment of 2020. I highly recommend this hike.
Maryland Heights Trail
- Harpers Ferry National Historic Park
- 6.6 mi, loop, 1,541 ft. elevation gain
Thomas Jefferson claimed the view atop Maryland Heights is one “worth a voyage across the Atlantic,” and I bet you a two-dollar bill that you’d say the same thing if you do the climb! Offering a rewarding view of historic Harper’s Ferry and the Appalachian Trail, Maryland Heights is shady but strenuous, with most of its elevation gain occurring in a concentrated area in the beginning.
We did this hike after flirting with the idea of a thru-hike a few years ago, and it was hard. It made me reconsider my inclination for the journey, yet after intentional physical and mental preparation, we came back this March and crushed it. Challenging moments make potential visible, and following through to grab it for yourself is an experience I hope everyone can experience at least once. On the summit of Maryland Heights this March, I had the potential that materialized on the hike years ago in the palm of my hand, and rest assured, I’m clinging on tightly.
Old Rag Mountain Loop
- Shenandoah National Park
- 9.4 mi, loop, 2,680 ft. elevation gain
They say to surround yourself with people who push you, so when I set out for an ambitious morning trek of one of the best hikes in the world on a slippery Sunday morning, I knew I’d be fine alongside my housemate Fern, who is accompanying me on the thru-hike, and college-friend Alex, who will meet us out there for a section! Two centaur-like beings with legs that march up mountains unphased, Fern and Alex kept spirits high in the patter of rain.
As we scurried up sketchy scrambles and extended our palms forward and back to help each other up the rock, the power of partnership consumed me. I’d walk way further than 2,193.1 miles for friends like these, and the fact that they’ll accompany me on my north-bound journey is special. I cannot wait to deepen my existent friendships while on the trail and form new ones with the people I’ll meet along the way.
Let’s start our friendship now! Find me @faithbreads on Instagram to join me on my upcoming thru-hike of the A.T!
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