Appalachian Trail: The country roads that lead to ‘almost heaven’

Hiking along the Appalachian Trail in West Virginia can feel heavenly, as here at the Loudoun Heights lookout point. Photos: Lee Meng Lai

The Appalachian Trail, or simply the AT, in the eastern United States is claimed as the longest hiking-only trail in the world.

It is 3,504km in length and passes through 14 US states, from Maine in the north to Georgia in the south. It runs along the Appalachian Mountains system which includes sub-ranges such as the White Mountains, Great Smoky Mountains and... Blue Ridge Mountains.

This brings to mind John Denver’s famous song Country Roads:

Almost heaven, West Virginia,

Blue ridge mountain, Shenandoah river,

Life is old there, older than the trees,

Younger than the mountains, growing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong,

West Virginia,

Mountain mamma, take me home

Country roads

These mountains are relatively low in elevation. The highest point on the trail (Clingmans Dome, atop the Great Smokies in Tennessee) is just 2,025m.

The AT is overseen by 31 outdoor clubs and jointly managed by the National Park Service, the US Forest Services and the volunteer-based Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).

Hiking along the Appalachian Trail.
Hiking along the Appalachian Trail.

The trail is specifically designed and reserved for hiking, so bicycles, vehicles and horses are prohibited on the majority of the routes. End-to-end, it would take a normal and determined hiker (referred to as a “thru-hiker”) five to six months to complete the trail, taking five million steps.

If you’re not the outdoorsy type, one way to venture into the AT is to read Bill Bryson’s deliriously enlightening book, A Walk in the Woods. If you’re not into reading, then watch the movie based on the book, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, when it hits the cinema.

West Virginia

Where should you go if you just want to enjoy the AT for a day? USA Today suggests “10 Best Places” for that.

One such place is Harpers Ferry, in West Virginia (WV). This historic town is also home to the ATC headquarters; its stone-and-stucco front wall is one of the most photographed sites along the AT because most hikers, particularly thru-hikers, are resolute about their picture being taken there as proof of passage.

I had long entertained the thought of trekking the AT, and had chosen Harpers Ferry as the entry point for a few reasons. One deciding factor was that I was sojuorning in Morgantown, WV, some 265km away. Secondly, the ATC HQ was sited in Harpers Ferry, roughly mid-way along the AT, and I couldn’t think of another place with more information about the AT. Finally, whilst the AT passes through 14 states, the section over WV proper is the shortest, just about 6km, perfect for a day-hike.

The trail crosses Shenandoah River alongside Highway 340.
The trail crosses Shenandoah River alongside Highway 340.

From the ATC carpark I walked about 200m on paved roads before descending a secondary forest path, This led to a bridge that carried part of the AT and Highway 340 across the Shenandoah River. I then began climbing the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The trail was dry except for a small creek. After 4km, I arrived at an intersection. Turning left would take me into a side trail up Loudoun Heights. I turned right, following the white blazes on the trees of the AT.

The trail then followed a path up the ridge, over patches of rocky terrain. The trees were still barren and the sun broke through the thin cover of leaves, warming up the forest floor. I walked another 3km and reckoned I must have reached the stateline of Virginia, although there were no signs indicating that.

Then I met a thru-hiker, trekking up from the south. Hailing from Mississippi, he had started on the AT from Georgia, and it had taken him many months (he didn’t say exactly how many) to reach this point. His name was Hap Henly but in true AT custom, he had used a trail name, William Wallace, when he signed in.

He said, thus far, he had learned to be a better hiker. I turned around and we walked the AT together for 45 minutes before we parted ways. He was eager to have his obligatory photo taken at the ATC HQ before finding some beer to drench in. I wished him luck and veered off the AT to follow the blue blazes along the Loudoun Heights Trail (side trails are marked in blue).

Jefferson Rock is a landmark on the trail. But be careful
Jefferson Rock is a landmark on the trail. But be careful

The historic flight of hand-hewn stone steps marking the start of the southbound section of the Appalachian Trail at Harpers Ferry.
The historic flight of hand-hewn stone steps marking the start of the southbound section of the Appalachian Trail at Harpers Ferry.

National Historical Park

An area of 1,620ha around here has been designated Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which straddles the states of Maryland, WV and Virginia.

Here can be found a web of trails including the three National Scenic Trails (the AT, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath plus the Potomac Heritage Trail) intersecting north of Harpers Ferry town.

In the vicinity are some 32km of side hiking trails of various length and intensity. The Loudoun Heights Trail is a 5km return trip but its highlight is the view from its lookout point.

From the rocky outcrop, one can appreciate the quaintness of Harpers Ferry town, nestled at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. One can also trace the railway bridge crossing into Maryland.

At about 4pm I retraced my steps on the AT back to Harpers Ferry, and passed Jefferson Rock. This cliff side boulder is where Thomas Jefferson (the third US President) first set foot in 1783, struck by the view of the two splendid rivers smashing into each other.

Moving closer into town, I passed two churches, the St John’s Episcopal Church, now in ruins, and St Peters Roman Catholic Church, remodelled since 1869.

I ended my hike by walking down the historic flight of hand-hewn stone steps that marked the start of the southbound section of the AT in Harpers Ferry.

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