Hiking a Roller Coaster
Mountain and valley views and 500-foot ups and downs.
It is said that a complete hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT) involves elevation gain and loss equivalent to ascending Mount Everest from sea level to its 29,035-foot summit – 16 and a half times.
I point this out because no matter whether they start in Georgia or Maine, thru-hikers will be in about the best shape they will ever be by the time they come into northern Virginia. Yet, there is a length of trail here that has gained a notorious reputation for its ability to wear out the hardiest of hikers. The route – replacing one that used to use paved roads – contains close to a dozen ascents and descents of about 500 feet each.
Looking for a cardiovascular workout that would also provide us with several good Blue Ridge Mountain views and a walk through deep, mature woods, Laurie and I hiked this roller coaster of a course last winter.
Like a roller coaster, the AT started out by ascending, taking us higher and higher to Bear’s Den Rocks and a soaring vista of the Blue Ridge tumbling into the Shenandoah Valley. We hung at that high point for only a few seconds, admired the view for a minute or two before, whoosh! – we began the fast-paced dips, rocket-like rises and wide swings outward that the trail would take us over for the next two days.
After three miles of undulating terrain, the view from Lookout Point revealed that our route wouldn’t get any easier as we continued southward.
In another mile, the official AT guidebook says to be on the lookout for an extensive area of ant mounds. These are not ordinary little anthills. Rather, the homes of the Allegheny mound-builder ants rise as high as my calf and encompass a radius of five feet or more. Scientists speculate that the mounds help protect the colony from heat and loss of moisture.
The guidebook also points out that Mount Weather is about 1.5 miles to the west, where we crossed Va. 605 approximately seven miles into the hike. Mount Weather is a Federal Emergency Management Agency facility that has been the subject of controversy and speculation since it was established as a weather observatory decades ago. Although the government has never officially confirmed it, it’s believed to house a massive underground bunker where high-ranking officials will be secreted away in case the country is attacked. Some people go so far as to say there is an entire city underground, with a shopping mall, park and lake. What is known for sure is that a number of congressional members were brought here during the 9/11 attacks. (And that once, years ago, my naive curosity led to a guard finally shouting at me: “It’s just an installation. Look, buddy, you’ve got your water, so just move on!”)
Five more ascents and descents within the next four miles, and we reached our destination for the evening, Rod Hollow Shelter, located in a ravine that shows the scars of former mining operations.
Like kids whose amusement park visit has come to an end, we were saddened that our journey concluded in a little more than three miles the next day. We also knew that we would be willing to pay the price of admission (in this case our own sweat and toil) to ride that roller coaster again and again.
When You Go
The Hike: A strenuous 14-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail’s infamous “Roller Coaster” in northern Virginia.
Getting There: As a one-way hike, a car shuttle will be necessary. Drive westward for less than a mile on U.S. 50 from Paris, Va., turn right onto Va. 601 and leave one car in the trailhead parking lot. Continue northward on Va. 601 to its intersection with Va. 7. Turn left, go .25 mile and leave the other car in the limited parking space at the intersection of Va. 7 and Va. 679. If full, there is a commuter parking lot at the intersection of Va. 7 and Va. 601.
Trail Information: For “Appalachian Trail Guide to Maryland and Northern Virginia,” contact Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 304-535-6331,
An After-Hike Meal
The bison flank steak with homemade steak fries, ratatouille, and smoke tomato coulis at the Village Square Restaurant (540-667-8961, villagesquarerestaurant.com) in nearby Winchester’s Old Town district will go a long way in replacing the carbs, protein and calories you expended during the hike. Try the organic turkey pot pie with a biscuit topping if you arrive for lunch. Some courtly advice: Village Square’s decor is rather stylish, so clean up a bit after your romp in the woods! —LA
A Friendly Hostel
Managed by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club,Bear’s Den Trail Center (540-554-8708, bearsdencenter.org) permits you to enjoy indoor accommodations before or after the hike.The 1933 stone lodge is a favorite stopover of AT thru-hikers, so you’ll probably be regaled with some of their entertaining stories. The hostel is located just .2 mile from the AT’s Bear’s Den Rocks overlook.