What Virginia Blues? 10 Can’t-Miss Landmarks in VA
Like so many other prospective thru-hikers, I conducted a lot of research before taking the leap and beginning my adventure on the Appalachian Trail. This was an attempt to know what to expect and what dangers might inhibit me during my trek. In addition to Rocksylvania, one of the most complained about states was Virginia. Past hikers griped endlessly about the Virginia Blues, saying the state is long, tedious, and maybe even endless.
Hikers stay in the state of Virginia for over 550 miles, which is longer than the first three states of the AT for NOBOs combined. If your major hiking benchmarks are simply the state lines, Virginia is understandably a challenging state to conquer. Personally, I was apprehensive about the entire state and mentally prepared for an incredibly boring experience. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
At the end of the day, Virginia hosted some of my favorite memories and locations. If you’re open to it, the major landmarks of Virginia will make you say, “What Virginia Blues?” Let’s dive into my top 10 can’t-miss Virgina landmarks along the AT. These might just convert you into a Virginia lover.
Located just before the 500-mile mark, Damascus is one of the first landmarks NOBOs hit when they enter Virginia. Along with other favorites such as Hot Springs, NC and Hanover, NH, it’s one of the few trail towns that the AT walks directly through that oozes with charm.
Damascus holds a special place in my heart because it’s the city where my trail family really came together and became a tramily. While we had passed one another on the trail plenty of times before this, many of us stayed together at the Broken Fiddle in Damascus, enjoying a zero day full of beer, relaxation in hammocks, and a movie night (watching Dodgeball) at the end of the day. While staying in Damascus, we also enjoyed Cowboys, a gas station with delicious breakfast sandwiches.
Damascus is known for more than just the incredible on-trail amenities. It’s also where the legendary Trail Days celebration takes place every year. This celebration brings thru-hikers from every year together for a party with music, vendors, and general hiking tomfoolery. I’d recommend trying to reach Damascus prior to this celebration, then shuttling back for it. Most of the hiking bubble will try to time their hike to arrive in time for Trail Days, which can make the trail congested for several days after the festival ends.
If you need a break and to get away from the crowds of Trail Days, try renting a bike and exploring the Virginia Creeper Trail. This gradual paved bike path is another top Damascus attraction and can provide respite if you’re looking to escape the rowdy festivities.
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2. Grayson Highlands
One of my most anticipated locations in Virginia was the Grayson Highlands. Not only is this a beautiful state park, but it also features something that can’t be found anywhere else on the trail: wild ponies. The infamous ponies of the Grayson Highlands are not only beautiful, but they’re also sweet. You might see sweet colts running with their mothers, but please resist the urge to approach, pet, or feed them.
3. Partnership Shelter
The Partnership shelter is unique in that you can order pizza directly to the shelter. After over 500 miles, hikers are developing hiker hunger and can struggle to consue the necessary daily calories. In the midst of this hunger, a pizza at a shelter may be exactly what you need.
Plus, from the Partnership Shelter, it’s pretty easy to get a hitch or a shuttle into the town of Marian. This is what me and my trail family chose to do, enjoying the convenience and amenities of town. Not to mention, Marian housed our favorite Mexican restaurant of the AT, a little joint called Mi Puerto (I highly recommend Mi Puerto and their familia-sized Corona!). If you’re looking for large portions and a major bang for your buck, Mexican is the way to go!
4. El Burrito Loco
Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, you’ll cross the road into a ‘town’ called Atkins. While there are potential resupply options here, this isn’t the reason to take note as you cross US Route 11. Instead, just off of the trail and attached to a gas station is a little Mexican restaurant called El Burrito Loco. Small restaurant, massive portion sizes.
Additionally, if you get vortexed in this little area (which is easy to do), you might experience a beautiful stay at the Long Neck Lair Alpaca Farm or the Relax Inn. While both of these were full when we passed through, I have to give a big shout-out to Cyndie and Ken, the owners of the Alpaca Farm. They shuttled us to our hotel so that we could escape a sudden storm. Burritos and kindness — Virginia at its best.
5. Marathon for Cake
One of the Virginia hostels that will always hold a special place in my heart is the Bear Garden Hostel. It boasts comfortable accommodation at an excellent price, but the stand-out feature is the marathon for cake. If you agree to stay for two nights, the hostel owners will shuttle you 26.2 miles ahead on the trail and you can hike (or slackpack!) a marathon back home.
This was my first trail marathon and the reward was spectacular. When you arrive back, the owners, Bob and Bertie, will greet you with a homemade cake! Lucky me, it just happened to be my absolute favorite (Texas sheet cake) and it was just as delicious as it looked.
6. Dismal Falls
One thing to note about hiking NOBO on the AT is that the weather really starts to cooperate once you reach Virginia. Georgia temps vary between 40 and 80 degrees during the spring and the Smoky Mountains are generally cold. However, Virginia is roughly where the weather becomes consistently warm. This meant one big and exciting thing for me: swimming!
My first swim in a waterfall on the Appalachian Trail was at Dismal Falls, a gorgeous water feature located just before Pearisburg. While still rather chilly, the water was refreshing and beautiful. I absolutely recommend taking a dip here, then camping at the nearby tentsites that night. Sweetening my memories further, this was also my first cowboy camping experience. Keeping warm by the fire after drying all my wet clothes as the sun went down was an instant highlight.
7. Angel’s Rest
Not too far after Dismal Falls is Pearisburg, VA. This little town has an excellent resupply option at the Food Lion, which is located close to Angel’s Rest Hostel. This is a well-known favorite on the AT, offering shuttles to and from trail, clean bathrooms and showers, and plenty of tenting space.
If you can’t tell, I was craving Mexican for my entire hike during Virginia, and I wasn’t disappointed. La Barranca satisfied my cravings in Pearisburg and even better, the restaurant offered margaritas to-go, so I was able to enjoy my beverage while sitting around the fire at Angel’s Rest.
If you’re trying to stop a little earlier than Pearisburg, you can always come up short at the Woods Hole Hostel. While I didn’t stay there, I heard incredible reviews from my fellow hikers about the vegetarian, farm-to-table food, and hiker-oriented community.
8. Virginia Triple Crown
Mile: 702 (Dragon’s Tooth)
Mile: 714 (McAfee Knob)
Mile: 719 (Tinker Cliffs)
One major complaint about Virginia is that the state is the epitome of the “green tunnel” and views are scarce. While a lot of the trail travels through the tunnel, you can’t say that there are no views when the most photographed location on the entire Appalachian Trail is located in the state. McAfee Knob (featured below) is a part of the Virginia Triple Crown, three spectacular locations, loved by both thru-hikers and locals alike.
But it’s not just the Big Mac that makes this stretch special. The first of the three Triple Crowns for NOBOs is the Dragon’s Tooth, and this was my favorite of the three. The spectacular view and climbing on the “teeth” was an unforgettable experience.
The second crown for NOBOs is McAfee Knob, a gorgeous view unlike any other. It’s also the most photographed spot of the whole trail, and its close proximity to a trailhead makes it likely that you’ll see a ton of day hikers. Luckily, when I arrived at this location, sprinkling rain tamped down the crowds and I was able to get my picture rather quickly.
Finally, Tinker Cliffs will complete your Virginia Triple Crown. You can stop at several different spots here to admire the beautiful Virginia skyline.
Glasgow is one of the few towns on the Appalachian Trail that has a shelter in the middle of town where you can stay for free! It’s a perfect destination if your wallet is feeling a little light by the time you reach this section of Virginia. But this isn’t just like every other shelter. It offers plenty of space for tenting and even a hot shower where you can clean up.
This shower was especially handy for me after I swam in the James River prior to shuttling into town. Refreshing, but I wouldn’t call it clean!
10. The Roller Coaster
I’m sure many people familiar with it will consider me crazy for including the Virginia Roller Coaster on this list of landmarks in the state. However, the Roller Coaster was part of one of my favorite days on the entire Appalachian Trail. This 14-mile stretch is nothing but short little uphills and downhills, some of them rather steep. But with the right mindset, this difficult section can be incredibly satisfying.
I rode the Roller Coaster with a friend who loved to run uphill (crazy, I know). Meanwhile, I loved jogging the downhill sections. The two of us raced for the first half, laughing each time one of us pulled ahead. If racing isn’t your thing, not all is lost! About halfway through the Roller Coaster is Bear Chase Brewery. This watering hole offers a welcome respite from the many highs and lows of the Coaster.
Finally, you might finish the Roller Coaster and decide to push all the way to Harpers Ferry like I did, wrapping up Virginia on a high note. This was my first 30-mile day, and as I mentioned, one of my favorite days on trail.
Bonus: Shenandoah National Park
It seems wrong to write an article about Virginia and not mention Shenandoah National Park. However, this was not my favorite part of the trail, and here’s why. While the scenery was beautiful and the waysides had delicious blackberry milkshakes, I felt like both were slightly over-hyped. The trail was busy and the waysides were fairly expensive with frustratingly inconsistent hours.
If Shenandoah was your favorite part of the trail, don’t leave a rude comment just yet! We witnessed some of the best sunrises and sunsets of the entire trail. When you go through this section, just be ready for the day hikers, be conscious of your wallet, and make sure to catch a sunset!
Wrapping Up: Forget the Virginia Blues
Despite its bad reputation, Virginia is a beautiful state with a lot to offer. You simply need to know what to look for. If you enter the state expecting the beauty of the Whites, you’re likely to be disappointed. But if you keep an open mind and choose to appreciate the little things, like a good margarita, Virginia might become one of your favorite states. Virginia Blues? Fake news.
Featured image: A Jamie Angle photo. Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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