First, The Last 100 Miles

So, my wife and I have a deadline for finishing out AT thru-hike. Sometimes it is a hard deadline, others a soft deadline, it all depends on what is going on in our world. Since this deadline is in mid-August 2024, we hiked the last 100 miles over the course of several weekends in September and October 2023. My plan is to finish the trail in order, McAfee Knob to Maine, Georgia back to McAfee Knob. I do not want to use these 100 miles, but if the deadline is hard and we a pressed for time, I’ve got them in my back pocket.

Day 1 – Rt 311 to Pickle Branch Shelter

Trail Magic

As far as I can recall it is either hot or raining every time I hike over Dragon’s Tooth. Today is no exception. It’s not raining, but will be pretty warm while we are climbing on the rocks.

We saw a few hikers along the way. Less than I had anticipated, since it is a beautiful late summer day. We played leap frog with one younger hiker, his pack was pretty heavy and he appeared to be wandering, not really in any particular direction.

At the last road crossing before heading up to Dragon’s Tooth, I experienced my first ever trail magic. Two thru-hikers from 2023 traveled down from Ohio to meetup with some SOBOs they had met. I was craving some Frito’s and they had some.


The mileage today was pretty low and we arrived a Pickle Branch shelter in the early afternoon. Got water, set up our tent, found a spot to hang my food, and came dangerously close to falling asleep while resting in the shelter.

A bit later, right when we were pulling food out for dinner, the voices of hikers could be heard coming down the trail. A dad and his two boys were out for the weekend. The dad and one of the boys were very talkative. The other kept putting his head down. I thought he was tired. The talkative boy set up a hammock with no tarp. The early morning weather report said it was going to rain tonight. Dad and the tired boy were finishing setting up in the shelter when another couple showed up with plans to stay in the shelter as well.

After finishing my dinner I moved all my cooking and eating stuff way away from the picnic table. I’m not sure why I did this. The tired boy had taken only a few bites of his dinner when he spewed vomit all over the place. Oh boy. Glad I moved my stuff. Wish I was over there with my stuff and not sitting at this table. My stomach feels queasy. I bet that other couple wishes they were tenting instead of staying in the shelter.

I have two children, grown now, but I recall their youth (mostly) fondly. Whenever they vomited I immediately took all food away from them and didn’t let them eat for at least a couple days. My older son once threw up on a camping trip, in his tent, all over his sleeping bag. If I had any idea that he might be sick, there is no way I would have taken him camping. There are few thing worse than throwing up, one is throwing up on a camping trip, another is having to clean up vomit.

After the boy threw up, his dad told us that the boy hadn’t been feeling good when they were getting ready to leave this morning. He also encouraged his boy to take a few more bites, that he would need the energy to hike out the next day. Needless to say, vomit number two occurred within seconds of those few bites being taken. Vomit number three would not occur until the boy was in the shelter in his sleeping bag. Fortunately (if you can call it that) he had the wisdom to get his head out of the shelter before spewing.

Day 2 – Pickle Branch Shelter to Rt 621

Rain, dreams of vomit, and a deflating sleeping pad kept me from getting a great night’s sleep. The deflating sleeping pad was not a slow leak, I was awoken by the sound of air rapidly escaping something. Very quickly I could feel my shoulders and hips touching the hard ground. Later I would discover the importance of checking the ground for sharp, pointy objects before setting up a tent. Not only did my sleeping pad have a number of holes, but the bottom of the tent and two pretty large gashes in it. We use a Tyvek groundsheet, which had only a small hole. Fortunately the tent we were using was an older one we own and never made the short list for the “real” AT attempt.

There was a rumor that Fresh Grounds was doing breakfast at Trout Creek, about two miles down the trail. We debated rushing down there and enjoying a hearty breakfast, but decided to take our time getting out of camp and to enjoy our instant coffee and hot cereal. There was nobody at Trout Creek when we got there, and it didn’t appear as if anyone had been there for some time.

The rain started while we were descending Brushy Mountain, perhaps a mile or two before we reached our car. The trail crosses Craig Creek shortly before the parking area on 621, but the bridge was washed out. I found the detour to an easy place to cross the creek and waited for my wife to show up. During the last quarter mile or so, we wondered aloud if Fresh Grounds would be at this lot and sure enough he was. The SOBO hikers he was feeding were very involved in a movie, but my wife and I enjoyed some coffee and freshly made home cut fries.

Trail Magic

The Iconic Fresh Grounds and his Leap Frog Café!

Day 3 – Wind Rock (Near Mountain Lake) to Sarver Hollow Shelter

Another beautiful late summer weekend on the AT in the mid-Atlantic. The morning was cool and misty, the sun would burn off the clouds soon enough. The spider webs, strands of silver stretched out across the trail, were easy to duck around. Today we are tackling 18 miles, plus an extra half a mile side trail to the shelter. This is our longest day on the trail since the Foothills in the Spring.

Towards the afternoon we started crossing paths with a bunch of SOBOs. At this time of writing I cannot recall their names, but they were all fit, fun to chat with, and very curious about the next water source.

We planned to stay at Sarver Hollow shelter because it is so far off the trail. When we come around this way during our “official” hike, I probably won’t want to walk 0.4 miles down into a hole only to have to climb back out of it the next day. This was an opportunity to experience the place while the extra miles are fun.

The sun was setting as we pulled into the shelter site, so we quickly got our tent set up and found the water and a place to hang our food.

Scooping water

This is a hole and the water is maybe 1/4″ deep.

A couple doing a flip flop were staying in the shelter, we enjoyed discussing their experience doing the trail together and the strategies they used for saving time and money during the hike.

Day 4 – Sarver Hollow Shelter to Rt 621

The sun had not risen, but the sky had begun to lighten when we started climbing out of the hole back to the trail. As we climbed, the sun started peaking out over the distant mountains until it was full blown morning when we got up to the trail. This side trail is much steeper coming back up to the trail than it was going down to the shelter.

Purple sun

Look closely to find my wife in the lower left corner.

Today we got the trail to ourselves. During most of the day we were on the ridge with beautiful views into the valley. The miles pass too quickly on these beautiful days, especially when the trip is short and the office is waiting. Soon we were back at our car, arrived at home, and started looking forward to our next trip.

Perfect day!

The author’s wife in her happy place.

Day 5 – Wind Rock (Near Mountain Lake) to Wills Field

My sister, the vet, dropped us off near Wind Rock. The weekend promised to be nice, but the temperature was borderline cold and the wind was howling. The start of the hike is all downhill and it is hard to warm up. Dew from the overgrowth does not help.

We hiked this stretch last year and only saw one other person. Today we encountered one thru-hiker (flip flopper), four section hikers, and a couple people just out for the day.

We set up camp in Wills Field, over looking Peterstown WV. The wind was pretty brisk so we used the four extra tie downs on the tent, having learned our lesson on the side of Mt Whitney just a few weeks prior. The temperature wasn’t too cold, but the wind made it feel very cold, I think that’s called wind chill.

Wills Field

Chilly evening at Wills Field.

Strangers in the Night

At about two in the morning, I awoke to my wife’s stirring and voices outside of our tent. They were shining lights directly at us. Who does that in the middle of the night. I had been sleeping pretty soundly, so it took a moment for the voices to register. “They’re just hikers,” one said. “Yeah, just hikers,” the other replied. What else would we be, I thought. After a few minutes the lights swept away and the visitors continued on. Weird.

Day 6 – Wills Field to Pearisburg

We woke early to bright stars shining over Peterstown. My wife suggested that we hike for a while before having coffee and breakfast. My hands were freezing from packing up the frost covered tent, so I quickly agreed. I didn’t think I could operate my lighter to light my stove. The sun had not risen when we set off.

Cowboy Camping

Less than a mile down the trail, I saw the glow of a fire just off the trail next to some scrub trees. There were two large bodies curled around the fire. No sleeping bags, no packs, no gear. Very likely these were our late night visitors. Being courteous, I did not shine my headlamp directly on them. My curious wife, however, was not bashful about lighting them up. She figured they were the same two that woke us up in the night. The two men appeared to be law enforcement, unprepared law enforcement. Later in the week I asked some Pearisburg police officers if they ever cowboy camped, “Nope, we sleep in our beds every night.”

By noon we were entering the Celanese safety zone where we had left our car the day before. We had not eaten our the lunches we had packed so that we could enjoy a good meal at Tangent Outfitters just a few miles down the road.

Celco safety zone

The author entering one of his favorite parking lots.

Day 7 – Pearisburg to Doc’s Knob Shelter

On our last few trips I experienced some pretty significant foot pain, so this weekend the miles would be low and the breaks often. The weather promised to be beautiful on this late Fall weekend.

The southbound climb up Angels Rest is long and steep. Going down the mountain, northbound, is killer on the knees. I have hiked it many times in both directions; neither is fun. On clear days, however, the views from the top are some of the best in the area. Once on the top, the hike is rolling (relative to the climb) ridgeline all the way to Doc’s Knob. We took advantage of all the views along the way and arrived at Doc’s Knob in the late afternoon.

Shortly after we arrived at the shelter a lone section hiker showed up. After getting our tent set up, fetching water, and finding a good place to hang the food, we struck up a great conversation. One of my favorite things about backpacking is meeting new people and hearing their interesting stories. This guy was no exception.

Astro Photographer

He was a few years older than us, had been retired for a few years. In addition to having been on many great adventures, he shared his retirement hobby, astro photography. I have heard of people taking pictures of the moon, stars in the night sky, and even distant planets. This guy, however, takes pictures of entire galaxies. The process is amazing; his camera sits on a tripod for several nights for just one photograph. He uses two telescopes, one focused on something close the other pointed in the general direction of another galaxy. The photographs are nothing short of spectacular. He had many and we were so fascinated by each that we stayed up well past hiker midnight.

Day 8 – Doc’s Knob Shelter to Wapiti Shelter

This short section of trail passes within a mile of Woods Hole Hostel. If you are familiar with Woods Hole, then you know how hard it is to just walk past without stopping. If you are not familiar with Woods Hole, then it is a must experience for any thru or section hiker in the area. I wanted to stop so bad, but it would have made today’s hike way too short and tomorrow’s way too long.

As we set out in the morning I was pretty sure that we would pass no hikers today. The section is pretty, but there is more green tunnel than views. The Fall colors were at their peak and I figured that everyone would be at McAfee’s Knob. I figured wrong. The trail was packed with section hikers going North, section hikers going South, day hikers deciding which direction would have better views, Woods Hole visitors enjoying the beautiful surroundings. We spoke to them all.

This section is only about nine miles and we tried to hike slow and really enjoy our time in the woods. Even so, it was early afternoon when we arrived Wapiti Shelter. We set up our tent, got water, found an excellent place to hang our food, stretched, napped in the shelter, read books on our Kindles, and started discussing what else we could possibly do over the next few hours until dinner time.

My wife dug through her pack looking for something else to entertain us. I was a bit confused by this activity; she should know exactly what is in her pack. Most experienced backpackers know exactly what is in their pack. They may not know exactly what is in their food bag, but they know everything else. If asked, they can probably recite all their gear in reverse alphabetical order.

Surprise, surprise, she found a deck of cards. “How did those get in there?” I inquired. “I think they have been in there since we went to Three Ridges,” she replied. “That was four years ago,” I responded. “Remember, we stopped at that store,” she explained. “Yeah, but you didn’t even have that same pack four years ago.” These are the mysteries that present themselves on backpacking trips. Frequently they can take hours or even days to investigate.

Day 9 – Wapiti Shelter to Rt 606

There are zero views on this section of trail. None. Well, there are some places where the undergrowth is pretty thin and you can see maybe a couple hundred yards into the woods. Even so, I absolutely love this section. The trail mostly meanders along next to a creek in a rhododendron tunnel. In the summer there is ample protection from the sun, the air is cool, and Dismal Falls provides a great place for a dip in the waterfall created pools. In the winter the same tunnel provides shelter from the wind and the air feels a several degrees warmer than on the ridges leading to this section. Birds actively sing for hours in the morning and evening, really only taking breaks during the most extreme weather. Deer, bear, and other large animals a just off the trial. You can’t see them, the bears at least, but you know they are there. Peace is easy to find.

Kimberling Creek

The author’s wife, excited to have 100 miles done, sorry for the weekend to be over.

So, we finished up our last 100 miles, just 2,097.4 more to go to be “official.” I plan to hike these 100 again at the real end of our trip; event though I’ve hiked them many times in the past and always find something new.

Thanks for reading.

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Comments 3

  • Matt Balzan : Mar 22nd

    Best of luck to you two, Mack! Be safe and find joy on your journey! I look forward to hearing about it here as it unfolds and seeing you again on the other side.

  • Russ Hobgood : Mar 24th


    Read your post with interest having passed through that area section hiking. Have fun, keep posting. Oh, the picture, your wife on the bridge. Is that Tye River bridge?

    • Mack McGhee : Mar 30th

      Kimberling Creek bridge, near Dismal Falls.


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