AT Backpacking Week

by Carolyn Rand, Overnighter Cruisemaster


Ever since Elizabeth and Eldon hiked the AT for a summer, I’ve wanted to try out the trail for myself. Although I know I’m not capable of doing PA to Mt. Washington like they did, I decided to start at Grayson Highlands and do a loop. Debbie Heilner had been there before and said it was beautiful. Greg Foster suggested we start at the Rhododendron Gap Trail which would be in full bloom. It was stunning.


I sent out an invite to our overnighter group and got 6 eager responses. Unfortunately, due to one irate boss, one toothache and one knee replacement, our final group consisted of Ben Johnson, Debbie and I, so off we went.

On the way up we visited Damascus, a town about 20 miles before the park which the AT runs through. This is where the VA Creeper Bike Trail is.  We stopped in at the outfitter on the main street and picked up a map.


After registering as backpackers at the park, we headed up the Rhododendron Gap Trail toward the AT. The area is also known for the wild ponies that roam the area.  They were very healthy and beautiful for being wild. Once a year they are rounded up and vetted. I learned a thing or 2 from these ponies, which I will mention later on.


We headed south on the AT and set up camp on a bald just north of Thomas Knob Shelter where we knew there was water. The view on Wilburn Ridge was beautiful. That night while lying in my tent, I heard a munching sound. I was hoping it wasn’t mice. I stuck my head out to be greeted by a pony crunching on grass next to my doorway. Now people are supposed to stay away from the ponies and as usual, “don’t feed the animals” to keep the “wildlife wild”. Obviously people don’t observe the signs, because she wasn’t bothered by me in the least. She stuck her head in to say hello and then kept on eating. (One followed Debbie to go to the bathroom in the night which was annoying)


That night those horses never went to sleep. In fact, you could hear the baby ones galloping back and forth, whinnying and playing hard all night. They were smart though. They slept during the heat of the day and were up all night when it was cool. Lesson learned.


The next morning we hiked up to Mr. Rogers, the highest peak in VA before heading on.


From Rhododendron Gap, we took the Pine Mountain Trail instead of the Crest Trail which was more open and less shade. The one we took started out pretty hard with huge boulders to go over, but it was downhill. The Rhododendron bushes that were in full bloom made an arch overhead which shaded the trail for a little while before disappearing.


If you take that trail though, take plenty of water, because there is no water on it until that night.  It was a hot tiring day, the longest and hardest of the trip. I should have taken the ponies’ advice and slept all day.


The rest of the trip, we were on cool trails that were in heavy woods most of the way with lots of shade and plenty of streams for water. We camped at a beautiful sight that night, and actually every time we stopped, I think Ben said he thought we had the “best” campsite.  They were all so beautiful.


The next day, we turned right on the AT and got on the Scales Trail, named for a weighing station in past history. Passing more ponies, and the cross roads, we continued on Wilson Creek Trail to a secluded campsite on Big  Wilson Creek that the AT’ers don’t see.  It was so refreshing to soak and relax there.


That night we got the storm that everyone had been talking about on the trail for a day.  We picked a protected area under a Rhododendron grove in the valley, put up our tarp that Ben had graciously carried for us and stayed dry all night. The creek roared and lulled us to sleep.  I was just glad we weren’t up on the bald.


The next day, the air was cool and the sky was bright blue.  We passed Wise Shelter where people were drying their sleeping bags out.  They didn’t stay as dry as we did the night before. We visited a while and then head on down the trail.

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We crossed many streams, went through tons of gates and over fences which was all fun and interesting.


The last night we camped at Quebec Creek. It was a huge campsite, and I thought many more people would come in as it got dark, but we didn’t see anyone.  It rained one more time that night after we had gone to bed, but the next morning we had clear skies as we headed up out of the valley to the car.


Each day we hiked, I got stronger.  By the end of the week, I didn’t have to stop and rest as much and I felt great. Of course, my pack was 16 pounds lighter by then.  Too bad it was time to go home. I was just getting the knack of it.