Start Here: How Shenandoah National Park Is a Backpacker’s Nursery

Dispatch 3: Appalachian Trail Training Wheels

SNP September 8–16, 2019

If you are new to backpacking or just considering trying it out for the first time, I cannot highly enough recommend the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park. The park is gorgeous, the terrain humane, and the blackberry ice cream pie transcendent. This section of the AT provides a number of scaffolds to bridge an outdoor enthusiast from car camping to backpacking. The frequency of waysides—resupply points—along the trail means you carry only two to three days’ of food, making your pack relatively light. The trail crosses Skyline Drive 32 times, a comfort if remoteness worries you. The frank beauty and plentiful vistas mean most climbs yield the reward of a view. Basically, it’s a classroom for Backpacking 101.

Resupply Paradise

Along or not far off the AT (a phrase effectively synonymous with along or not far off Skyline Drive), you’ll find plenty of reminders that civilization exists—reminders more scarce along remoter sections of the trail. The route encounters or skirts by four campgrounds: from south to north they are Loft Mountain, Lewis Mountain (which also has cabins), Big Meadows (which also has a lodge), and Matthews Arm. It passes a resort: Skyland. Loft Mountain, Big Meadows, and Skyland have restaurants. Loft Mountain, Lewis Mountain, Big Meadows, and Matthews Arm have camp stores, laundry, and showers. (If camp store resupply options don’t meet your needs, you can mail yourself packages. Address them to the specific campground, c/o Delaware North, 26 N. Broad St., Luray, VA 22835, attn: Your Name, hiker).

Biodiverse Wonderland

The park’s variety of habitats and wildlife are a delight. The scenery seems to change every few miles: some sections go through hemlock groves, some cross meadows, some traverse boulder fields, and some trace ridges with sparse enough tree cover to create the illusion of walking in the sky.

The park has bears, bobcats, deer, chipmunks, chickadees, owls, hawks, wild turkeys, titmice, toads and frogs and salamanders and newts, butterflies, spiders, crayfish, centipedes and millipedes, rattlesnakes, box turtles, carp, bass, and brook trout among its thousands of animal species.

To be sure, backpacking in SNP is still backpacking, which may be glorious but is often challenging and unpleasant. It’s still walking up and down mountains, it’s still carrying 30 or so pounds on your person. There are stretches—up to 12-mile stretches—with no water sources. It rains. It gets hot. It gets cold. There are gnats. There are mosquitoes and flies and bees and wasps and mice and snakes. There are a lot of bears.

Overall, though, the park’s visual charms, benign terrain, and abounding support combine to create a backpacking experience easier than that found on other sections of the AT. It’s the perfect place to dip your toe into the wilderness. Then, with such a rewarding backcountry experience under your belt, who knows? Maybe you’ll tackle a tougher section—or the whole thing—next!

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Comments 6

  • Dog Wood : Oct 27th

    Are you working for the National Park Service now? If not, you should be. Nicely written as always.

    • Notebook : Oct 28th

      Ha! Thanks.

  • Jerky : Oct 27th

    Shenandoah will spoil you though – super, well-maintained trails, easy access to luxuries like food and water, drop dead views on a regular basis. It can be a bit of a shock the first time you hike a section of the AT that isn’t in Shenandoah. It was where I learned to backpack and I didn’t realize just how special a place it is. Nice write-up.

    • Notebook : Oct 28th

      Good point! You gotta rope some people in somehow though … 🙂

    • : Nov 1st

      And why are the trails in Shenandoah so “super, well-maintained”? Folks should know that it isn’t because of the National Park Service, but due to the efforts of hundreds of volunteers who are members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Here’s hoping everyone reading this also volunteers to help with some of the trail work!

  • Monkshood : Oct 28th

    I could not agree more! I made my transition from weekend backpacking to section hiking by doing the SNP section of the AT from Waynesboro to Front Royal first. For me it was the perfect balance between backcountry isolation and just-in-case close-enough civilization. A real confidence booster. Because of park amenities, the one ultimately necessary section/thru-hiking experience that can be avoided is heading into town for a resupply and a zero. Fortunately, after the SNP stretch, the AT still provides over 2,000 miles for developing that skill! Thanks for the great write-up.


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