How to Section Hike Virginia V: Front Royal to Harpers Ferry
Distance: 55 miles
Terrain type: Woodland trails and some open fields. A choppy mix of short climbs and descents through much of the section.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Best seasons: Spring or fall
Start: US 522 trailhead, Front Royal, VA (N38 52.682, W78 9.044)
Finish: High Street, Harpers Ferry, WV (N39 18.989 W77 45.350)
Approximate time frame: 3-5 days
How to Section Hike Virginia on the Appalachian Trail
After leaving Shenandoah National Park, the AT continues north along a series of low ridges, traversing the horse farms and exurban landscape of Northern Virginia and skirting the border of West Virginia until it crosses the Shenandoah River to arrive at Harpers Ferry, WV.
Want to section hike more of Virginia? We’ve got you covered.
The Lay of the Land
By the time you reach Northern Virginia on the AT, the big mountains and high elevations are well behind you. In fact, the trail only twice grazes 2,000 feet in elevation as you descend to the low point of Harpers Ferry, a mere 300 feet or so above sea level. But don’t get the impression that the low elevations mean you’ll be sauntering along in the flatlands. You’ll find many climbs and descents along this section, and while they’re not generally very long, they can present a stiff challenge at times.
After the more isolated sections of Virginia to the south, you’ll notice the proximity of population centers as well. You’ll cross several busy highways, and, depending on the season and time of the week, you’ll encounter your fair share of day hikers and weekenders as you traverse this section.
Which Way and When
To me, there’s only one direction to go when hiking this section, and that’s north. There’s nothing more satisfying than crossing the bridge over the Shenandoah River and finishing your hike in Harpers Ferry, the home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Catch a shuttle from Harpers Ferry to the trailhead on Rt. 522 near Front Royal, or use a couple of cars to support your trip. I’ve used Mark “Strings” Cusic in the past when hiking in the area and found him very reliable
Whether shuttling or using multiple cars, there’s plenty of parking available at the Harpers Ferry National Historic Site visitors’ center. Check their website for directions, and check in at the visitors’ center for a parking pass. Navigating the trail is easy, and the AWOL AT Guide will provide all the info you need.
This is a relatively short hike, so if you’d like to add some more distance to it, consider heading a bit farther south and beginning in Shenandoah National Park. From the Thornton Gap entrance station (Rt. 211), it’s an 81-mile hike. From the Swift Run Gap entrance station (Rt. 33), the distance is 116 miles.
You won’t find mountaintops with opportunities for summit selfies in this section, but it doesn’t lack for variety. Here are a few highlights.
Mile 18: Sky Meadows State Park
Sky Meadows State Park features a number of open meadows and, in the right season, some impressive wildflowers. It’s a pleasant section to hike through, with well-maintained trail and even some conveniently placed park benches, perfect when you’re looking to take a break.
Mile 24: The Roller Coaster
This somewhat infamous 13.5-mile section of trail features a series of short but tough climbs and descents. Don’t blame the trail maintainers—the route was necessitated because of encroaching housing developments.
Mile 34: Bears Den Hostel and Bears Den Rocks
Bears Den hostel is located in a wonderful old stone building, once a vacation home for a wealthy DC couple. Now run by the PATC, accommodations are reasonably priced and well maintained. It’s a must-do stop if you’re looking to get off the trail for the night. Nearby Bears Den Rocks offer an excellent view to the west. Catch a sunset there before you turn in for the night.
Mile 52: Loudon Heights
Accessible via a loop trail, Loudon Heights offers panoramic vistas of Harpers Ferry and the Potomac River. If you’ve got the time, it’s well worth the extra 1.6 miles of hiking to take in the views.
Mile 54: Jefferson Rock
Thomas Jefferson famously described the view from here as “worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, but the view to the north toward the Potomac River is a fine prospect.
Given the short distance this section covers, resupply is not a major issue. If you’ve decided to start to the south of this section, Front Royal is an obvious resupply stop. Between Front Royal and Harpers Ferry, your options are somewhat limited. Your best bet is to plan appropriately and carry what you need for the trip. If you must pick up extra supplies, here are your best options.
Mile 9: Linden, VA
Accessed via VA 55, the Monterey Convenience Store is located 1.2 miles to the west.
Mile 34: Bears Den Hostel
In addition to being one of the best hostels on the AT, you can pick up a few short-term resupply items at Bears Den.
Mile 48: Keys Gap
Bear Feet Retreat Hostel, located only 0.1 miles from the trail, offers full hostel services, plus shuttles to local stores and restaurants (extra fees apply).
You’ve Completed Virginia!
Or maybe you’re just starting. Whatever the case, hiking the entire AT through Virginia, whether it’s part of a thru-hike, or as a series of section hikes, is an accomplishment that any backpacker should be proud of. With over 550 miles of trail between Damascus and Harpers Ferry, the AT through Virginia should be considered one of America’s iconic hikes. I hope our series helps you tackle this great challenge!
Featured image via Kat Ignatova
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