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.
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).
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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