One luxurious way to hike part of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Recently, I hiked 30 miles in three days.
It ranks as one of my grandest personal accomplishments. Before I took one step I was confident that I’d be able to do it, but I underestimated how enthralling it would feel, and not just in hindsight—though it is super fun to tell people I did it and bask in their obvious surprise—but while actually putting one foot in front of the other, mile after mile. I loved every minute of it.
Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is a spectacular beauty. Fall proved to be particularly lovely, both in terms of colored-leaf vistas and weather temperatures. If I could have mail-ordered the conditions in which to hike, I got exactly what I would have chosen. Sunny skies, crisp air, then a few hours of unexpected light rain on the last morning that blanketed the woods in mystical fog and lured wildlife out of hiding.
Shenandoah National Park offers more than 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail (a.k.a., AT). Thirty miles may be a mere glimpse, but it’s better than none at all and, crucially, it’s “do-able.” You don’t need to be an athlete nor will you need to take more than a few days off work to complete this route.
This is a real hike in rugged backcountry, but the incline is moderate and there’s no need to lug a tent and lots of gear (just essentials like water, snacks, lip balm, bug spray, hand sanitizer, tissues). Hiking inn-to-inn-to-inn is far more elegant than camping: at the end of the day the reward is a shower, dinner and a clean, comfortable bed.
Ready, Set, Go…
Training was new for me. Up until this point, I’d just decide to hike and then do nothing until the day arrived and just do it. On my last long hike, however, I’d paid a steep price with that approach: my muscles were in agony during and long after it. I decided to do that thing other people do and that I have always been happy to avoid: regular exercise.
I took daily walks, mostly around my neighborhood: I started by walking one mile per day, increasing my distance by adding a mile every week until I was walking ten miles a day.
I took a “no excuses” approach, which means that I exercised almost every day for two months, a lifetime endurance record! When traveling, I included hiking in my itineraries. When summer temps reached 80 and then 90 degrees, I woke up at 5 a.m. and made myself get up to walk before the sun rose in order to savor the coolest possible conditions. I made plans to borrow a friend’s dog, meet up with whoever I could persuade to join me, and came up with other ways to vary the daily routine: I’d mix up the street route, focus on different details of the houses passed (comparing mail boxes one day, doors the next, etc.; I may now be the neighborhood authority on who favors which architectural style) and sometimes, in the most sweltering temperatures, finish my walk inside an air-conditioned mall or warehouse store. Reaching the target distance was my top priority. I missed only a few days when ill. Daily walks worked best for me because whenever I took a day off the next day felt like starting over.
Once I reached seven miles a day, I felt really confident about my physical ability to do the planned hike route, which measures about eight miles per day. I also figured out how much water I’d need to carry. Sure, the trail would be steeper and more challenging than the streets in my neighborhood, which is why I worked up to ten miles a day. Still, I worried: What if there was a lightning storm? What if we were attacked by bears? What if Jill broke an ankle? What if I got bit by ticks carrying lyme disease? All this training could not be in vain: I packed rain gear, insect repellent, noisemakers, and remembered the trail parallels Skyline Drive so it would be possible to flag down a driver in an emergency.
“You need to buy hiking shoes,” my husband insisted. “Why?” I said. “That sounds like money I don’t need to spend.” He persisted and at Mast General Store in Knoxville, Tenn., I tried on a few pairs. Hiking boots look clunky and constricting so I opted for new hiking shoe styles that look like typical athletic shoes. Once standing with one foot in my Adidas and one in Obōz, I realized my husband was right: I needed these. My new Obōz offer more support and an elevated springy loft that may come as close to walking on clouds as I’ll ever get.
I was ready.
There is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing. —Norwegian saying
Day 1: Hike to Lewis Mountain Cabins
Skyline Drive runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park and is the only public road through the park. There are four entrances in; we entered Swift Run Gap at Route 33 in Elkton, Virginia.
The AT is just yards from the guard station at that entrance. A park ranger pointed us in the right direction and Jill snapped a selfie before we stepped between some trees onto the storied trail. It felt at once momentous and like no big deal at all: We were standing on the freaking Appalachian Trail! and it’s a simple dirt path like so many others…it just so happens to stretch 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine, but we wouldn’t be going the full distance.
Under the canopy of trees, amid rocks, fallen branches, ferns, mushrooms, and tree stumps, we walked. Walked, and kept on walking.
“Wait,” whispered Jill, stopping suddenly at one point. There was an eerie silence, not even birds chirping. If a tree had fallen, we would have definitely heard it. “I’ve never been this deep into the woods before!” she exclaimed. Really? Everyone needs to get deep into the woods now and again! It’s invigorating and humbling, a way to refresh and refocus. I was happy to share the moment, and though I’ve ventured deep into forests before, it was my first day in Shenandoah and the quietest woods I remember.
The path was steeper than I’d imagined, though the incline sloped gracefully. Rocks and branches presented some potential tripping hazards; weariness proved to be the greatest threat to gracefulness.
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. —John Muir
Day 1 was exciting. We were finally here doing the thing we set out to do. We were thoroughly enjoying the forest, each other’s company, the friendliness of every hiker we met. The sheer beauty of the forest was enthralling; I don’t think I’ve ever taken more pictures of trees.
By the time we reached Lewis Mountain Cabins we were both ready to stop for the day, yet not overwhelmed by the two days ahead. We checked into our two-bedroom, one-bathroom rustic cabin (one of 10), picnicked on cold sandwiches and apples we’d packed (there’s also a camp store on site that sells food and other supplies), showered, and crashed.
Our basic, clean cabin came equipped with everything we needed: functional plumbing, Internet access, a cozy mattress, heater, and solid walls/roof. Bear boxes as trash containers serve as reminders that this is indeed the woods where unexpected things can happen so take precautions. In addition to the cabins, a campground offers more rustic accommodations. After being on the trail all day, I bought an ice cream sandwich at the camp store just because it sounded good and I surely didn’t need to worry about calories in this instance.
If they started farther south on the AT, Lewis Mountain Cabins can be the first opportunity in many miles that long-distance hikers have to shower, buy supplies, do laundry, and take a break off the AT. “It costs an average of $4,500 to $6,500 to hike the AT,” one park ranger told me, accounting for food, supplies, campsite and other fees. He mentioned one hiker who’d lost 30 pounds in 30 days. “I told him that if he kept going and got norovirus—a real threat, it’s one of the biggest problems we have out here—he’d die. His depleted body just wouldn’t be able to handle it.” Did he quit? “I don’t know,” the ranger shrugged. “I hope so. We only see hikers passing through.” He offered advice about how to avoid viruses: “Never shake another hiker’s hand,” he warned. “Don’t share or borrow anything.” I used wet-wipes on my hands before eating snacks and washed with soap and water once checking into my accommodations. I’ve been home nearly a month now and haven’t gotten sick.
Day 1 Stats:
Altitude 3,390 feet
*The published distance we hiked Day 1 is 8.3 miles, but my app recorded 9.72 miles—indeed, plan for some off-trail walking around camp before and after hitting the trail each day.
Day 2: Hike to Big Meadows Lodge
After fueling up on granola bars, bananas and free coffee from the camp store, we hit the trail for Day 2.
Walking: the most ancient exercise and still the best modern exercise. —Carrie Latet
“The AT is a national scenic trail, designed to offer a reprieve from civilization,” according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “It is intentionally routed away from towns, usually high on the mountains above.” The stretch we hiked is near Skyline Drive, and at some points literally crosses it, but most of the time we never saw the road nor heard traffic. The trail is remote in a way that unclutters the mind and fills lungs with joy.
I had anticipated the hike would offer grand vistas, but the views on Day 1 and Day 2 were mostly trees. Walk any distance, though, and distinctions become clear. In some sections tree bark is mostly black, in others mostly white, in others ferns are plentiful, some are dotted with mushrooms. There are sections littered with twigs and branches, others where huge boulders lean over the path, and some where rocks serve as stairs. While passing through different sections of the forest, the mood shifts.
It’s like the forest has rooms.
Following the AT is easy. White swaths are strategically painted on trailside trees. Trail markers are at all trailheads and intersections. Metal bands are stamped with directional and mileage information. There never seemed to be a need to consult a map. We simply followed the arrows pointing north. We also followed the rules: Stay on the trail, take nothing, leave only footprints.
At one point, maybe seven miles into Day 2, we encountered a confusing mile marker. It seemed to suggest a short loop to our destination, Big Meadows Lodge, though the mileage didn’t seem correct and the trail blaze painted on trees switched from AT white to blue. We took a few steps onto that trail then kept going, debating whether or not it was wise. Were we ‘cheating’ if it turned out to be shorter?
That section of the forest had a totally different vibe than anything we’d encountered up to that point. It was wetter, with streams to cross and puddles to avoid even though it hadn’t rained in days. It was gorgeous, special. A few miles in, we met a couple of hikers who informed us that we could reach Big Meadows continuing this way, but it would be much longer. So we turned around, opting to stick with the AT. (Jill dubbed them ‘Trail Angels,’ and mysteriously, despite their advanced age, slower pace, and the fact that we’d turned around and walked ahead of them, they reached Big Meadows before us.)
Big Meadows Lodge is named for the large grassland nearby. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, it was built in 1939 using stones cut from the Massanutten Mountains and wormy chestnut which is now virtually extinct. It offers 97 rooms, including a main lodge plus rustic cabins with fireplaces. There’s also a dining room, tap room, craft shop, and Wayside station with gas pumps, another restaurant and large store. When we arrived, around 4 p.m., Jill and I headed first to Wayside for hot dinners of cheeseburgers and fries and then stocked up on snacks and T-shirt souvenirs at the store before strolling to the lodge to check in. The whole destination was bustling with people and after hours spent virtually alone it felt like we’d somehow taken a turn into a party at a mall.
The guestrooms at the main lodge are akin to remodeled roadside motels of yesteryear, clean and cozy with a retro ambiance. A step up in amenities compared to the previous night’s cabin, Big Meadows is great and offers the basic essentials (shower, mattress, Wi-Fi, etc.) plus a TV, phone, HVAC system, and upholstered chair. The restaurants’ menus feature American favorites like fried chicken, burgers, fried eggs, pancakes and such. Preparations are straightforward and spot-on; I think the French fries would have tasted great in any situation, but after walking so many miles they were fantastic!
Day 2 Stats:
Altitude 3,510 feet
*Our off-the-AT detour added at least three miles to our trek, which we didn’t regret at all.
Day 3: Hike to Skyland
By Day 3 I was loving my new hiking shoes because my feet did not hurt, and loving my daily walks because my legs did not hurt. Preparation paid off. (I did get two blisters, a small bother, already healed.)
After a hearty breakfast in the Spottswood dining room, we set out on the last leg of the trip. Finding the entrance point was a little confusing, but once on the AT we breezed along.
The weather forecast was wrong: There was no chance of rain until four days after we departed, but just as we headed for the trail a light rain began to fall. We forged ahead. Under the tree canopy conditions were more misty than rainy. Cloaked in fog, the woods looked amazing, felt as cozy as a hug, plus deer and wild turkeys felt emboldened to wander near the trail. Ah, nature. It’s a beautiful thing.
An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day. —Henry David Thoreau
The rain stopped and fog lifted. Day 3 is when we encountered overlooks, the realization of the sort of mental vision one has of mountain climbing, where hikers stand on rocks that jut out of the woods into sweeping views of picturesque landscapes. We encountered several such places and appreciated them all.
Each day on the trail differed, from the trail conditions to the views to the people we encountered along the way. On Day 1 we met fellow hikers who were walking the same or longer distance than we planned to cover in as many or more days; one very cute dude was doing a 12-day hike. On Day 2 we met mostly day hikers. On Day 3 we stepped aside for a group that turned out to be at least 30 people, most of whom appeared to be several years older than us.
Day 3 was the most technically challenging hike. Most of the trail was strewn with rocks, varying from stones to boulders; at three different points we had to scramble across what looked like rockslides that had occurred some time ago. We didn’t need any rock-climbing gear or special equipment of any kind, but paying attention and being careful was key to avoid tripping and falling.
Skyland Resort sits at the highest elevation along Skyline Drive. Once a private resort (circa 1910), it’s renovated into the most upscale accommodation I’ve ever discovered at a state or national park. I loved it. There are 178 rooms of different styles—ours, near the main office, felt like little apartments—plus a gift shop, taproom and full-service restaurant that could hold its own against any contemporary farm-to-table Southern restaurant. The food was very good, way better than expected, and a delicious reward at the end of a 30-mile three-day hike. Local ingredients as well as local wines and craft brews are on the menu; whichever Virginia-made brown ale it was that I ordered tasted like a prize.
Completing the hike was bittersweet: While proud of my accomplishment, I was having so much fun that I didn’t want it to end. I could have continued another day or two at least. There are multiple trails in addition to the AT near every accommodation option, so time-permitting you could add overnights to your itinerary and explore more. If inn-to-inn hiking sounds daunting, you could drive from accommodation to accommodation and do shorter day hike loops. There are so many flexible options you can plan an itinerary that suits your goals.
Beyond the Finish Line…
I continue to walk most every day. Typically two to five miles, but it’s an utterly new and different lifestyle for me, one I never specifically sought, would have predicted, or imagined that I would enjoy. I love it.
It is possible at any age to discover a lifelong desire you never knew you had. —Robert Brault
No words I write about the inn-to-inn-to-inn hike in Shenandoah National Park will accurately convey its grandeur. Photos even fall short, but they help fill in some gaps. To see more photos from this hike visit Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
I’d do this same hike again for sure—if you need a hiking buddy call me! I recommend going in the same direction outlined here because ascending is easier on the legs and knees than descending. Plus, each night the lodging and dining gets better and better.
Plan ahead, book early. People I’ve talked to about this experience have a common reply: “I never knew it was possible to hike inn to inn! I want to do it!”
I’ll be looking for more inn-to-inn hiking opportunities. Stay tuned.
The Appalachian Trail was designed, constructed and marked in the 1920s and ‘30s by volunteer hiking clubs brought together by the volunteer-based non-profit Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which was formed in 1925 and works in partnership with the National Park Service. It passes through 14 states, yet nearly a quarter of the trail is in Virginia!
- Lewis Mountain Cabins: Open early April through November; located at mile 57.5 on Skyline Drive
- Big Meadows Lodge: Open mid-May through early November; located at mile 51.2 on Skyline Drive
- Skyland Resort: Open late March through November; located at mile 41.7 and 42.5 on Skyline Drive
For shuttle information, please call 540-843-2110. Service is available March through November and only for hikers who are staying at one of the park lodge locations.
– Photos © HSP Media LLC
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