No Car Needed Appalachian Trail Section Hike – Roanoke to Shenandoah National Park

As of November, 2017 Amtrak offers service to Roanoke, VA. This makes another stunning section of the AT accessible via public transportation to most of the East Coast. This hike is just south of Shenandoah National Park. It’s every bit as beautiful as “The Shen” but wilder and without the crowds! The guide that follows gives you all the information you need to do this Appalachian Trail Section Hike – Roanoke to Shenandoah National Park. Leave the car at home and hike green!

(lead photo: dawn over the Shenandoah Valley from Cedar Cliffs Overlook. One of the highlights of this AT section is the great ridge walking with superb views)

Appalachian Trail Section Hike - Roanoke to Shenandoah National Park

More superb ridge walking: The Appalachian Trail as it meanders over Cole Mountain Bald.

A Series of Guides to Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail

This is the 3rd installment of our no car needed, Appalachian Trail (AT) Hiking Guides. We are big fans of leaving the car at home when 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, D.C. and/or much of the east coast. This 134 mile AT section could be done in one long’ish week (7-11 days). It would also be a great hike for fall color viewing as it has much less foot traffic than the adjacent Shenandoah Park.

Trip 1: Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry WV to Harrisburg PA, 124 miles
Trip 2: Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry, 54 miles
Trip 3: this post Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Roanoke to Shenandoah National Park, 134 miles

Many sections of the Appalachian Trail were lush with late summer wildflowers like this climb to Saltlog Gap & Bluff Mountain.

Top 5 Highlights of this Section of the AT

  1. Amazingly wild and remote for Central/Northern Virginia. This section goes through many Wilderness Areas with few road crossings and tons of wildlife and wildflowers!
  2. Far less crowded — but as good as or better than the adjacent Shenandoah National Park
  3. Great ridgetop walking with superb views
  4. Cole Mountain Bald and Three Ridges Mountain (both great mountain tops)
  5. Many scenic bridges: including the James River Bridge (longest foot traffic only bridge on the AT)

Overview map of the route – Roanoke VA to Rockfish Gap VA (Charlottesville)

Way less crowded but no less beautiful than the adjacent Shenandoah National Park! The trip starts in Daleville, VA (near Roanoke) and goes 134 miles along the Blue Ridge to Rockfish Gap, the southern border of the Shenandoah National Park. [CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE]

Quick Trip Stats

  • The trip takes between 7-11 days [We did it in 6.5 days]. You can also do it in parts.
  • 0 mile – trip start, Daleville, VA near intersection of I-81 and US 11 (Lee Hwy). It’s about 20 min N of Roanoke, VA
  • 134 mile – trip end, Rockfish Gap, the intersection of the Blue Ridge Parkway and I-64. It’s about 25 min W of Charlottesville, VA, and marks the southern border of the Shenandoah National Park.
  • 23,000 feet of elevation gain/loss

Transportation Time

  • It’s about 5 hours on the train from Washington Union Station* (Wash. DC)  to Roanoke, VA. Train times are convenient, leaving Washington at 4:50pm (right after work) and arriving Roanoke at 10:00pm.
  • It is another 20 minutes to trailhead via Uber or Lyft from the train station.

* NOTE: These trains actually originate in Boston so you can catch the same train anywhere along the Northeast Corridor and it will bring you directly to Roanoke.


THE DETAILED TRIP GUIDE
Appalachian Trail Section Hike – Roanoke to Shenandoah National Park

This guide is meant to supplement the many excellent general guides to the Appalachian Trail (AT). As such,

  1. Our guide gives more details for this specific section of the AT, and in particular how to access it by train and bus from much of Northeast US.
  2. Lighten your load: The GEAR (link) and  FOOD (link) for the light packs we used to efficiently and comfortably hike the AT. A light pack will make the hike more pleasant for everyone!
  3. And finally, we discuss the places we most enjoyed on the hike in both text and photos.

What’s in this Trip Guide

Appalachian Trail Section Hike - Roanoke to Shenandoah National Park

The rocky crest of Three Ridges Mountain had some of the best overlooks of the entire trip. Alan looks south across the valley of the Tye River to the opposing ridge of “The Priest.” [Heavy clouds are the remnants of Hurricane Harvey that devastated Houston.]

Logistics – Getting to and from the Hike

To Trip Start

This hike begins at Daleville, VA, just north of Roanoke, VA on US 220. We recommend taking the train, spending the nite in Roanoke or Daleville, and starting your trek first thing the next morning.

  • As noted, there is a NEW train from Washington Union Station to Roanoke, VA that begins on Oct 31, 2017. The times are well-suited for a week or weekend trek. The train leaves Washington at 4:50 pm Monday-Friday and arrives Roanoke, VA 9:55 pm — about 5 hours. The saver fares are around $37, one way. Slightly different times Saturday and Sunday. See schedules on www.amtrak.com
  • From the train station, you have several options. The train drops you right in downtown historic Roanoke. If you want to get a good nite’s sleep, and treat yourself, stay in the grand Hotel Roanoke (www.hotelroanoke.com), literally across the street from the train station. If you want to get closer to the trail (and stay somewhere a bit cheaper), you can stay steps away from the AT at the Howard Johnson Express, Daleville (a favorite of AT thru-hikers).
  • Either way, you can catch an Uber or Lyft to the HoJo’s or the trail-head (about $25) from the train station.

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.

Construction of the new Amtrak Train platform in historic, downtown Roanoke VA. Service starts on October 31, 2017.  The tall building on the far right with the copper roof is the Wells Fargo Building. The building on the left is the old Norfolk and Western railroad office building. The station is right next to the Historic Roanoke City Market District and Hotel Roanoke, “the vibrant center of downtown Roanoke featuring historic buildings, live theater, museums, art galleries, shopping, a variety of restaurants…”

At Trip End

The trip ends at Rockfish Gap, just before the Appalachian Trail enters the Shenandoah National Park. We found it surprisingly easy to get an Uber or Lyft from there to Charlottesville (we waited 10 minutes). Cost was about $35-45. Once in Charlottesville, take either the Amtrak train or the Greyhound Bus to get back up north.

By Train-cheapest train tickets are $25-30, one way

  • 7:09am, Train 20, The Crescent -comes thru from New Orleans heading north early (goes all the way to New York Penn). But this train is often times late so watch the times on the Amtrak.com app, time is 2 hr 44 min to Washington.
  • 8:52am, Train 176, Northeast Regional ONLY MON thru FRI — this is your quickest option if weekdays work for your hike at 2 hr 22 min. This train ends in Boston.
  • 11:13am, Train 156 Northeast Regional ONLY ON SAT, SUN –this is your quickest option if the weekend works for your hike at 2 hr, 22 min to Washington. This train ends at NY Penn.
  • 3:19pm, Train 50, The Cardinal, ONLY SUN, WED, FRI –comes thru from Chicago heading north (goes all the way to NY Penn) but can also be late so watch the Amtrak app for times. Time is 3 hours to Washington.

These Section Hikes are quickly accessible via train (Amtrak) from most major Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cities. No shuttle woes and miss all the heinous weekend traffic, serenely traveling on the train. [Picture is from our Low Carbon Trip 1: Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry WV to Harrisburg PA, 124 miles]

By Bus- cost around $20, one way 7 days a week

  • 8:45am, 3 hours, (direct service to Washington D.C.)
  • 4:50pm, 3 hours, (direct service to Washington D.C.)

Day 1 of trek, AT railroad crossing is near Troutville VA. Photo: Ron Bell of Mountain Laurel Designs.

Maps and Guidebooks

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-9 – Buchanan VA – Rockfish Gap VA AT Pocket Profile

Waypoint and Mileage Table

The table below is in scrollable window or you can see the table full page here, as a Google Sheet

Tips for Hiking This Section

  1. Shelters are not consistently placed at even distances. You may end up with a longer or shorter day than you wished so carefully plan each day.
  2. There are a few steep and rocky climbs. Make sure you pay attention to elevation profiles.
  3. Late season water can be scarce high on the ridges. It’s good to know where your next water sources are (and if it’s dry have a backup(s) as well).
  4. This section has no on trail or close-to-trail food resupply options. To resupply for food, you’ll need to go significantly out of your way. As such, we did the entire 134 section without resupply for food. This made the hike significantly faster and more efficient.  But our packs were less than 15 pounds including the food we carried. Please see our food list, “Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious” to get the best nutrition for the lowest weight while still being tasty. It matters!

Trip Highlights – a brief Photo Essay

The start of the 134 mile trek in the Daleville/Troutville area is about 20 minutes north of Roanoke, VA.

One of the best parts of hiking the AT is the interesting people you meet and share the trail with. Pictured are Rick Elliot and Kerry (?). I spent the first night of the trip with them at Bobblets Gap Shelter. Both are Vietnam Vets and cancer survivors. Long story short, but they always had plans to thru-hike the AT together when they retired. Then at retirement one of them got cancer and the other put off the trip until his friend got better. Then, when the first got better the other got cancer. By the time they were both well enough to hike they decided to do the trek in 500 mile sections, which is where I met them. Gotta love these guys’ spirit and positive attitude!

One of the many great bridges: Crossing the James River (yes, the same river Jamestown is on). It is the longest foot traffic only bridge on the AT. [Heavy clouds & rain are the remnants of Hurricane Harvey that decimated Houston. It rained hard for 3 days of our hike.]

“The Guillotine” a perilously perched boulder wedged over a narrow slot that the AT passed through. You can see the white AT blaze at the end of the slot.

The tops of ridges can be a bit blustery (see Alison’s hair) but the wildflowers don’t seem to mind.

“I even had a salamander crawl up my leg one night in camp!” We hiked for 3 very wet days in the remnants of Hurricane Harvey. I don’t think I’ve seen as many turtles, frogs and salamanders just lovin’ life!

The rain enhanced early fall colors in the high mountains.

Apples from an old orchard directly over the AT. We picked apples with our feet still on the trail.

Moss covered John’s Hollow Shelter. We weathered some of the worst bands of rain here with sheets of water cascading off the roof overnight (thus the moss). We left warm and dry the next morning.

Trip End – Rock Fish Gap

There is a great kettle corn truck here. It’s even Trip Advisor rated! Get some while you wait for your Uber.

4 replies
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi John, we had no issues with water in late November. I would imagine that in April water would be even more plentiful. Wishing you a great hike and a lot of wildflowers. Warmest, -alan & alison.

      Reply
  1. Norwood Morrison
    Norwood Morrison says:

    Excellent article on northbound hike from Roanoke. However, missed a very obvious southbound hike from Roanoke: McAfee’s Knob, only 15 miles on the Appalachian Trail from Daleville. The most popular and photographed spot in Virginia and perhaps on the Appalachian Trail. Featured prominently in “A Walk in the Woods”.

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      You are correct Norwood Morrison. McAfee’s Knob to be added on another (next?) installment. The decision to do this section first was that it is much longer and far less trafficked than either McAfee’s Knob/Tinker Cliffs and the Shenandoah. Both have heavy day hiker and thru hiker traffic much of the year, and even in the traditional hiking seasons. Warmest, -alan

      Reply

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