This Guide to the AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry, is an installment of our no-car-needed, low carbon AT hiking Guides. This beautiful section has the infamous roller coaster, along with great vistas like Raven Rock and Sky Meadows Park. It connects two popular AT trailheads—Shenandoah National Park (Front Royal, VA); and historic Harpers Ferry, WV. When combined with our Low Carbon Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry to Harrisburg PA , you have ~180 great miles of the AT easily accessible by public transportation. Hike green!
(lead photo: late afternoon at Raven Rocks overlook. Fall colors just starting)
A Series of Guides to Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail
We are big fans of leaving the car at home when we go hiking. Because the AT goes through or near urban areas, it’s not difficult to section hike portions of the AT using only public transportation. Many of these are among the nicer sections of the AT. This guide is for an AT section hike that you can undertake solely using public transportation from Washington, DC. This 54 mile AT section could be done in one long weekend (3-4 days, e.g. an extended Memorial, or Labor Day weekend). It would also be a great hike for fall color viewing as it has somewhat less foot traffic than the adjacent Shenandoah Park.
Installment 1: Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry WV to Harrisburg PA, 124 miles
Installment 2: This post – Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry, 54 miles
Stay tuned as we add more Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail…
Top 5 Highlights of this Section of the AT
- Blue Ridge Vistas: This section of the AT is just gorgeous. There are numerous overlooks including the famous Raven Rocks, and the endless ridge top vistas from Sky Meadows Park. Because of the wonderful overlooks and clearings on this section, it would be a great hike for fall leaf viewing.
- Blackburn Trail Center: When you arrive at the Blackburn Trail Center, you are greeted by the trail boss and his wife. More often than not, trail magic will appear making the end of the roller coaster that much sweeter.
- Bears Den Hostel: This rustic stone building from the 1930’s is a gem on the AT. The hiker deal for $30 includes: bunk, shower, laundry, soda, pizza and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Our trip didn’t allow us to overnight there, but we did stop for the $0.50 Cokes out of the fridge and a lovely break on the lawn for a snack and rest at a covered picnic table.
- Ride the Roller Coaster: The world renown roller coaster is a 13.5 mile section of trail that closely resembles a roller coaster. Ok, not really. It’s really about 10,000 ft of elevation change in a very short distance that will keep you fully entertained.
- Harpers Ferry Overnight: Any hike that includes an overnight in Harper’s Ferry is a good hike. The town is so lovely, it is always a highlight.
Quick Trip Stats
- The trip takes between 3-5 days
- 0 mile – trip start, Shenandoah Park N Boundary near Front Royal, VA
- 54 mile – trip end, Harpers Ferry, WV
- 2.5-3.0 hrs downtown Washington DC to trip start near Front Royal, VA (via commuter bus and Uber)
- 2 hrs from trip end in Harper’s Ferry, WV to Washington Union Station (via train)
Overview – Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry – No Car Needed
This guide is meant to supplement the many excellent general guides to the Appalachian Trail (AT). As such,
- Our guide gives more detail to this specific section of the AT, and in particular how to access it by train and bus from much of Northeast US.
- Lighten your load: The GEAR (link) and FOOD (link) for the light packs we used to efficiently and comfortably hike the AT. We believe this will make the hike more pleasant for others.
- And finally, we discuss the places we most enjoyed on the hike in both text and photos.
What’s in this Trip Guide
- Logistics: link on how to use trains and other transportation to and from the start and end of the hike
(including a bit of info on lodging in Harpers Ferry, WV)
- Some of our favorite places: link to Photo Essay & Trip Description
- Gear: a link to list of GEAR that made our trip more FUN (kept our packs around 12 pounds!)
- Food: a link to list of the FOOD we took to save food weight but still eat healthy
- Waypoint and Mileage Table: link to Waypoint and Mileage Table
- Maps: link to our recommendations for maps and guidebooks
- Harpers Ferry: link to ideas about where to stay and what to do in historic Harpers Ferry
Waypoint and Mileage Table
The table below is in scrollable window or you can see the table full page here, as a Google Sheet
The Appalachian Trail is possibly the most documented trail in the world. There are many excellent guides. Our favorite guide is David Miller’s (AT trail-name, AWOL) “The A.T. Guide Northbound.”
We supplement it with the following AT Pocket Profile Map(s):
“Appalachian Trail Map AT-11 Front Royal VA – Harpers Ferry WV AT”
Logistics – Getting to and From the Hike
This hike begins at the northern end of Shenandoah National Park. You don’t need to enter the park, just begin on the outskirts of it on the more easily accessed AT crossing of US 522. Unfortunately, as of this writing, there was no public transportation directly to Front Royal from Washington DC. So we had to string together two transportation modes to get to the trip start at around 6:00 pm.
- A Omniride commuter bus leaves from multiple locations in downtown DC and goes directly to a commuter parking lot in Gainesville, VA. Cost was $6.50 using SmarTrip card or $8.75 with cash. Heading out of the city, commuter buses only leave in the afternoon “after work.” First bus leaves DC at 3:30pm ish (depending on where you pick it up) putting you in Gainsville around 5:20pm.
- From there, you can Uber (about 30 min) to the start of our trek. This Uber trip costs about $50. Not cheap, but worth not having to shuttle, thus allowing us to do a one-way trek while still going low carbon. And the train ride back is only $13.
- Using public transportation, the earliest you can expect to arrive at the hike start will be around 6:00pm. You should still be able to reach the Jim & Molly denton shelter by dark. (See more options in description below.)
NOTE: The combination of Uber/Lyft with the train (or bus) is a game changer for low carbon hikers. The ability to hook into a scheduled train or Greyhound route makes what used to be a “close-but-no-cigar” hike, into something quite doable.
The easiest thing is to overnight in Harper’s Ferry and catch an early morning MARC train (Brunswick Line) back into Washington DC’s Union Station (or a few Suburban Maryland stops before DC). The MARC trains are super early, but that’s OK as you’ll get back into DC in time to catch many of the early trains and commuter buses to your final destination.
Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights – a Photo Essay
The section between Shenandoah National Park and Harpers Ferry is a rather popular section hike. The multiple overlooks and great overnight camping options make it a very nice section the AT. It follows the Appalachian Ridge for 54 miles through the State of Virginia culminating in a breathtaking walk across the Shenandoah River Bridge into West Virginia and the city of Harper’s Ferry. There is only one park you walk thru, Sky Meadows State Park (which has its own stunning overlook). Otherwise, this section is a nicely challenging walk on the AT.
If you start hiking in the late afternoon/early evening, you will likely stay at the Jim & Molly Denton Shelter. It’s a straight 5 mile shot from the trip start at US 522. You’ll be rewarded with a newish shelter, a lovely picnic pavilion, and a solar shower! Overnighting in Front Royal is another option and there are several hostel/hotel options there as well. (Front Royal hotel owners are well acquainted with AT trekkers and often provide a ride to/from the trail.)
First Full Day
Your first full day (if you started hiking the nite before) will be lovely. Keep an eye out for great overlooks because you come upon them very quickly. Sky Meadows State Park, really does have superb mountain top meadows and views. It’s a great lunch spot. After that, you also get to cross the not-so-lovely, first of two death-defying major highways on this section (no bridge, no stop signs, just put your big boy pants on and run for your life) at John Marshall Highway (VA55). We ended our day at Rod Hollow Shelter in prep for roller coaster day. Several nice campsites and hammock hanging areas are available at this shelter.
First thing up the next day is riding the roller coaster! As the AWOL in The A.T. Guide notes, it’s really “13.5 miles of tightly packed ascents and descents.” Besides an amusement park aspect, this day also contains the Bears Den Hostel (an overnight option). The Bears Den Hostel was our lunch spot and we enjoyed a covered picnic table, a few cokes, and some shade from the sun. Shortly after the Bears Den you cross your second death-defying major highway, Pine Grove Road (VA 7).
If you live after crossing VA7, you get the privilege of hiking up to see the spectacular Raven Rocks overlook (lead photo of the guide). If it’s a weekend get ready for invasion of the day-hikers. The good news is that you drop the day hikers with your first step past the Raven Rocks. We ended our day at Blackburn AT Center which was quite a treat. They have tent sites, and a smallish cabin for hikers to stay in (no shelter tho), picnic tables, and fresh water from a tap. The AT Center is the meeting place for trail workers so there is a lot of activity surrounding the facility. As a result, trail magic often happens here. (Note: the Blackburn Center is a significant drop down and ascent back up to the AT.)
Into Harpers Ferry – The Final Day
Our last day was a walk into Harper’s Ferry. We wanted to enjoy some time in Harper’s Ferry so organized our section hike to do so. After Blackburn AT Center, the last section is fairly flat and offered up a nice stretch for your legs post-roller coaster. Coming into Harper’s Ferry is quite majestic as you cross the Shenandoah River Bridge to enter into the city.
In Harpers Ferry we stayed overnight at the Econolodge as we had heard good things about it. We liked the location. Excellent WiFi and a box of trail magic available for the taking. Breakfast is always welcome and although they said it started at 6:30am, a full breakfast was out for the taking at 6:00am which helped us make our train. (If you arrive earlier or can stay a bit later in the morning, the nearby Guide Shack Cafe has the best coffee in town and serves light breakfast food.)
What to do in Harpers Ferry: Here’s a link to ideas about where to stay and what to do in Harpers Ferry