The Huemul Circuit El Chalten Patagonia is one of a few ways for mere-mortal for hikers to see the vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the 2nd largest non-polar ice field.

Bikepacking the GAP Trail and C&O Trail from Pittsburgh to Washington DC is a superb mix of natural beauty, wooded trails, quaint towns, & American history. It’s the perfect introductory trip for those new to bikepacking. But it’s just as suitable and rewarding trip for accomplished riders. Virtually all of the trail is away from traffic on flat, wide, non-technical dirt trails (double track) that do not require great riding skills.

The Finger Lakes Gorges should not be missed. And don’t let their popularity dissuade you from hiking and exploring these gems. Like Yosemite or the slot canyons of Utah, these gorges are held in high regard for a reason so hike them!

Chile’s new Patagonia National Park has it all — the high glaciated peaks of the Andes, wide valleys with ice cold glacial rivers, forests of southern beech hanging with moss, & startlingly green glacial lakes. It may soon be the “Yellowstone of South America”

The Cerro Castillo Trek might be the best trek in Patagonia you’ve never heard of. It rivals drama and beauty of the Torres del Paine W Trek, yet has far less visitors.

We believe this is the best guide to the Torres del Paine W Trek and Circuit Treks, in-print or online. This guide was inspired by Alison and I finding a scarcity of accurate and up-to-date information anywhere…

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)

Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

The hike ends in historic Harpers Ferry, WV and it’s well worth an overnight stay and exploration. “Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is considered one of the best walking parks in America. The views are sublime, the history compelling, the restored town a work of historical art.” (from the National Park Service Website)

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…

AT Section Hike - Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry

“[You] MUST BE THIS TALL TO RIDE!”
The start of The Roller Coaster, an infamous section of the AT with over 10,000 feet of elevation change in only 13.5 miles! And that was only part of our FUN for the day. Alison’s face says it all.

Top 5 Highlights of this Section of the AT

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
AT Section Hike - Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry

Overview map of the 54 mile route.

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

Transportation Time

  • START: 2.5-3.0 hrs downtown Washington DC to trip start near Front Royal, VA (via commuter bus and Uber),
    • NEW OPTION: Megabus has a new Washington to Front Royal direct run (2.2 hours)
  • END: 2 hrs from trip end in Harper’s Ferry, WV to Washington Union Station (via train)
AT Section Hike - Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry

Beautiful mountain meadows and views: Alison hiking up to one of the many great vistas at Sky Meadows Park.


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,

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. And finally, we discuss the places we most enjoyed on the hike in both text and photos.

What’s in this Trip Guide

Waypoint and Mileage Table

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

Maps and Guides

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

This hike is quickly accessible via train (Amtrak) from most major Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cities. For us, it only took $13 and 2 hours on public transportation from our front door to hiking on the AT! And that was on Memorial Day weekend! We missed all the heinous holiday traffic, serenely traveling on the train.

$13 Train: From tip end at Harpers Ferry, WV, it’s only an hour and $13 via train to our front door in Washington DC!

Logistics – Getting to and From the Hike

Trip Start

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.

AFTERNOON OPTION

  • 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 (ask to go to Trumbo Hollow Hike Trailhead). 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.)

NEW MORNING OPTION

  • Megabus has one trip a day from Washington Union Station, leaving at 9:20am arriving Front Royal Crooked Run Park & Ride at 11:40am (cost $30).
  • From there, you can Uber (about 15 minutes, $20) to the start of the trek (ask to go to Trumbo Hollow Hike Trailhead).

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.

Trip End

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.

Backpacking Skirt

A crisp fall morning on Day 2, perfect for some hiking on the AT!


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.

Relaxing at the recently constructed Jim and Molly Denton Shelter. It has a picnic pavilion and

Relaxing on an Adirondack “Bench” at the recently renovated Jim & Molly Denton Shelter. It has a covered picnic pavilion and a solar shower!

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.

hammock_dawn_at_blueridge_va-1200

Sunrise above our hammocks at the Blackburn Center.

Day 2

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).

Lunch and snack at the shaded picnic table at the Bears Den.

Lunch and a feet-up rest at the shaded picnic table at the Bears Den. We grabbed a couple of 50 cent Cokes out of the fridge!

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.)

Trail Magic! at the Blackburn Center.

Cold beer and chocolate cake trail magic at the Blackburn Center. Who knew these two food groups tasted so good together?

Into Harpers Ferry – The Final Day

Rt 340 Bridge across the Shenandoah River as you enter Harpers Ferry

Rt 340 Bridge across the Shenandoah River as you enter Harpers Ferry.

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.

Rough Greensnake

We saw a number of these beautiful, and delicate Rough Greensnakes as we approached Harpers Ferry.

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

guide-shack-cafe-1200

Adventure Alan under the sign for Adventure and as always finding the best coffee in town! The Guide Shack Cafe is veteran owned, veteran operated and sources its coffee and food from veteran owned Co’s! It opens early for coffee/breakfast.

Desert canyons are some of the most stunning places on earth. And contrary to the hype of high adventure and disaster in technical slot canyons, with flash floods & amputating arms—many beautiful canyons are low risk and perfect for backpacking and hiking. No rock climbing or rope needed. As such, you should seriously consider non-technical canyon backpacking in Utah.

  • Best time to go: mid-March to May | mid-September to October (or even November)
  • Special skills needed: This post covers much of what you need to know. It includes tips on how to purify and best manage your water in a dry desert environment (don’t stress it’s not that bad!).
  • Navigation: Explains how canyon navigation is different from regular hiking/backpacking and what you’ll need to know.
  • Special gear needed:  While there is no need for ropes or climbing equipment, our section on the Right Gear will make canyon travel easier and safer. And there’s a section on desert canyon clothing tips, including sand resistant shoes that are also good for wading.

Canyon travel or canyoneering is mountain climbing in reverse. Rather than striving for the highest point to look down, you are in the bottom of a canyon with the world above you. It is a more intimate and enfolding way of viewing your surroundings.

Utah Canyons offer some of the best hiking & backpacking in the world

These canyons are stunningly beautiful and except for a few, lightly traveled. I can think of few places that offer as much solitude. Alison and I find the sparse beauty and solitude of desert canyons a deeply spiritual place. One that draws us back year after year for their peace and serenity.

Gems like Paria Canyon, Buckskin Gulch, the Zion Narrows, Coyote Gulch or Grand Gulch are just few of the big name canyons that are easily accessible to anyone with basic hiking skills. But the list of equally superb but lesser known canyons that await you in the Southwest US goes on and on. The Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument may alone have a lifetime’s worth of superb canyons and side-canyons to explore. Many may have only a few visitors every 10 years.

Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

High above the Escalante River: Dawn reflection in a slickrock pool in a remote side canyon. This canyon sees fewer than 10 people per year.


Tips for Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

The good news is that many of your backpacking skills will work for canyoneering. But there are some things that will be new and different. Here are a few to consider:

  1. Canyon travel can be technical and non-technicalThis article is only about “Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah.” This non-technical canyon travel, or what I call “canyon backpacking” is low risk and similar in difficulty to regular backpacking. You don’t need a climbing rope. In some canyons you might need to do occasional calf-deep wading, a fun but safe scramble, or some bushwhacking. But nothing to get excited about. Technical canyoneering with ropes and rock climbing will not be discussed in this article.But at the end of this post I have included a section on tips for the more adventurous canyon traveler.

    What this guide is NOT ABOUT. Many, many specatcular canyons in Uhah are walk in and walk out. No climbing or ropes needed!

    What this guide is NOT ABOUT. There’s no need to do this to see many spectacular canyons!

  2. When to go – Most of the year it is too cold or too hot to backpack in the canyons. Most canyons in Utah have a short season, the middle of spring (mid-March to mid-May) and middle of fall (October-November).
  3. Gear for Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – Having the right gear makes canyon travel easier and more fun. Here’s a link to the Gear List that we use. It’s excellent for non-technical Canyon Backpacking or hiking in Utah.

    A section dedicated to clothing is below.

    paria-02-1600

    Paria Canyon

  4. Don’t stress too much about drinking water – Water, or lack of it, is not the big a deal most “knowledgeable professionals” make it out to be. See: “The Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty.” Many of the better known canyons have well documented water sources so you’ll know how far it will be to your next good water. As such, you won’t be humping a ton of water or in dire risk of dehydration. My wife and I over the last 15 years have routinely carried far, far less than the recommended gallon of water. We have yet to go dry or thirsty. Note: Most canyon river/stream water, if it’s running at all, is too silty and hard with minerals to make good drinking. You’ll get most of your water from springs and from the few clear-drinkable sources of canyon river/streams. For treatment, I prefer the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System.

    xxx

    Neon Canyon, Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument

  5. There is a low risk of flash floods in most “backpacking” canyons – most of the better known “backpacking” canyons are not slot canyons. As such, they are less prone (but not immune) to sudden and devastating flash floods. A slight risk of a flash flood (or far more likely, just high water) still exists in almost any canyon. So you still need to be aware of the weather. During the rare big storm, water levels may rise considerably but not so fast or so high that you won’t have time to find suitable high ground. They will also recede quickly. (Buckskin Gulch is the exception big name canyon with a significant flash flood risk, but the Ranger’s won’t give you a permit for Buckskin if there is the slightest chance of a flash flood. And many hundreds of people hike it safely every year.)
  6. Start small and build – Take some canyon day-trips and expand your skills—locating canyon entrances and exits, finding and managing drinking water, walking through sand, river wading, bushwhacking—generally learning how to make intelligent and efficient progress in a desert environment. Even two or three canyon day-trips will give you great insight to prepare for and execute your first multi-day canyoneering trip. Oh, and day-tripping in canyons is great fun!
    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Grand Gulch, an open air cultural museum of Anasazi pictographs/petroglyphs and ancient dwellings. Note: If you find any artifacts; pottery fragments, arrowheads, etc. please leave them where you find them. The same goes with structures and dwellings. Do not enter them, walk on walls, etc. General rule is don’t touch, don’t move. Leave it as you found it.

    2010ut_pic09

  7. Guidebooks to get you startedSteve Allen has the best and most respected series of guidebooks on canyoneering in Utah. While some of his trips are technical, there are plenty of non-technical trips. And his general advice about canyoneering is among the best for both the non-technical and technical traveler. I have used the Falcon Guide “Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante & the Glen Canyon Region” for canyons that Steve Allen doesn’t cover like Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon, and Grand Gulch. The guide’s specific information on the canyons is adequate but I would defer to Allen for general information on Utah and canyoneering.

    xx

    Hiking in shorts, short sleeves and hatless is a terrible idea! Complete clothing coverage is better.

  8. Clothing for Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – The desert can be a hot, scratchy, prickly place with intense sun. Wear long desert/travel pants like these , long-sleeve desert/travel shirts like these or a Rail Riders Adventure (or EccoMesh) Top, and a hat with complete sun coverage including neck and ears (e.g. Outdoor Research Sun Runner Hat). Light smooth fabrics (like thin nylon) slide easily through brush, absorb little sweat/water and dry quickly. Apply strong sunscreen to unprotected areas like hands or wear sun gloves like these OR ones. For more info See a detailed list of clothing we normally wear.
    Footwear – Boots are not needed or even desirable. Take light trail running shoe like Altra Lone Peaks or Altra Superiors. Fine mesh outer fabric is best (our favorite shoes are the Altra Superior Trail Running Shoes which have a very fine mesh that slows sand entry but lets water drain quickly after wading. And beware, the large-weave mesh popular on many trail runners lets too much sand in. Gore-Tex shoes do poorly. They are too hot, do not breathe well and don’t drain water after wading. (But they do have the advantage of being sand-proof!)
  9. Navigation in Canyons is different than other backpacking areas
    Navigating Canyon Bottoms takes a bit of getting used to. (Don’t worry, you’ll get better at it over time.) There are no signs, no blazes and almost no trails. One might think it’s simply a matter of following the canyon bottom like a train on its tracks. But for those new to it, walking in the bottom of a many branched canyon system can seem more like navigating a hedge maze. At the bottom of a canyon you have limited visibility and to the uninitiated the main canyon can be almost indistinguishable from its many side canyons. It’s much easier than you think to walk by and completely miss your exit ramp or exit side canyon. Over time you’ll get more observant, and pay better attention to small details. Travel in many canyon bottoms is a combination of river walking/wading, bushwhacking through willows (easier) and tamarisk (harder), and sandy bench walking. There is no “right” route: you just figure out what works for you.Navigating Benches Above the Canyon should likely wait until you are a more seasoned canyon traveler. It is usually more challenging than traveling the canyon bottom—with more difficult route-finding, hard to find entrances and exits, potentially technical sections and a likelihood of impassible side canyons and slots blocking forward travel.Note: Contrary to common belief GPS can work in canyons! So with some caveats, the section below explains how to best use your GPS in many canyons — just don’t rely on it!!

    Paria Canyon

    Paria Canyon

  10. Emergency contact. Much of Utah is remote like few other place in the lower 48. Hikers are hard to see or locate in the canyons, and there may be few or no other hikers to happen by if you are in trouble. Make sure you have your trip itinerary filed with an emergency contact monitoring your trip. I strongly recommend you consider a device like a Garmin inReach (preferred) or a SPOT Satellite Messenger. And here’s a link to a good template for your “Trip Plan” (a trip-tracking/emergency info document). It’s a great idea to have some version of one, even for a day hike!

Tips for those feeling more adventurous

Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

Author on a dawn climb out of the Escalante Canyon. Andrew Skurka waits to go next. photo: Don Wilson

  • Proceed with caution! Make sure you can reverse your route. Even small, seemingly insignificant up-climbs or down-climbs of just 8-10 feet might be irreversible, forcing you to move on without a retreat.
  • If you do decide to do more adventurous scrambling, a 40-50’, 6-7 mm rope can be a huge help to raise or lower backpacks. Without a backpack on, members of your party can more easily balance and safely climb short sections that would be otherwise impassible. This can greatly expand where you can go in canyons. [Again, use caution and always err on the side of safety when “climbing” in the canyons.]

    Tarps are perfect for the desert with its low chance of rain. They are a great way to save weight. I only set mine up when there is a chance of rain, otherwise it stays in my pack. See: Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters

  • Flash Flood risk for less well traveled canyons: some moderately narrow “backpacking” canyons off the beaten path, may be more at risk for serious flash floods. These are not usually the big name canyons with lots of travelers. Choprock Canyon in the Escalante Grand Staircase is an example of moderately narrow “backpacking” canyon more at risk for flash floods.
  • GPS use – See: How to use the iPhone as the Best Backpacking GPS. Contrary to the common statement “GPS doesn’t work in canyons,” I’ve had good success using my iPhone as a GPS when canyoneering. Obviously the deeper and narrower the canyon, the harder it is to get a position fix. But with a little smarts one can use it with reasonable success by opportunistically getting fixes in wider canyon sections or other areas with a better sky view. [And, do not rely on your GPS to navigate the canyons. It’s a convenience, not a substitute for navigation by map an compass and/or a crutch for poor navigation skills. This may be truer in canyons (with their iffy GPS reception) than almost anywhere.]
  • Be safe out there!

Parting Photos

Perfect light: Brilliant oranges and reds from sunlight filtering into a slot canyon. For narrow slot canyons the “magic hour” for photography is not early morning or late evening. Usually it’s close to high noon with the sun directly over the canyon. Only then does the light penetrate, causing the sandstone to come alive and glow.

Perfect light: Brilliant oranges and reds from sunlight filtering into a canyon. For narrower canyons the “magic hour” for photography is not early morning or late evening. Usually it’s close to high noon with the sun directly over the canyon. Only then does the light penetrate, causing the sandstone to come alive and glow.

Buckskin Gulch. One of the longest, deepest and most spectacular slot canyons in the world. Many hundreds of hikers and backpacker safely walk through this canyon every year.

Buckskin Gulch. One of the longest, deepest and most spectacular slot canyons in the world. Hundreds of backpackers safely hike through this canyon every year.

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This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I do not receive compensation from the companies whose products are listed. For product reviews: unless otherwise noted, products are purchased with my own funds. I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.

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.

See a Cuba tourists never see. Hike la Ruta de la Revolución trek which follows the historic route of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara that started the Cuban Revolution—from landing in Cuba in a foundering boat to their famous hideout deep in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Walk for days on wooded trails and mountain roads—see no cars, only the occasional mule cart. Eat dinner by oil lamp with campesino families in remote rural villages. And finally, be one of the very first to do the La Ruta de la Revolución while it’s “undiscovered” and unspoiled. We didn’t see a non-Cuban until we reached Fidel Castro’s Comandancia de La Plata hideout deep in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

The following includes:

  1. A Trip Guide to La Ruta de la Revolución Trek (the only online or in print guide, even in Cuba)
  2. Detailed Route Description and Photo Essay since few non-Cubans have visited this area. It documents the people and places and should give you a good feel for what La Ruta is all about.
  3. Some Travel Tips for the Ruta including info on Cuban Visa
  4. And a List of the Gear we took, including some Insect and Disease Prevention Clothing and Tips
Ruta de la Revolución

View of the Sierra Maestra Mountains from near Fidel Castro’s Comandancia de La Plata hideout and command center.

La Ruta de la Revolución Trek Highlights

  1. La Ruta de la Revolución is a new long trail for the world. As far we know, only four people have completed it in the last few years (and Alison, our guide and I are three). This is an exciting chance to do a trail while it’s undiscovered and unspoiled. [At writing, only one travel agency guides it.]
  2. It has history because it follows the trail that started the Cuban revolution. It follows the treacherous path that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara took from their secret boat landing on the coast (2 dec 1956) to the famous mountain hideout (La Comandancia de La Plata) where they planned/orchestrated the revolution. (Only 21 of the original 82 men made it.)
  3. You’ll see a Cuba that other tourists don’t see. This is not the touristy beaches, antique cars, and clubs of Havana. Instead you’ll walk woodland/jungle trails and remote rural roads often times accompanied by campesinos on foot or horseback as they go between small villages and the farms they work.
  4. Experience the people and homes of a remote and rural Cuba. You’ll stay with campesino families each night in their palm thatch roofed casas. Dinner is cooked over an open wood fire in an earth floored kitchen. You’ll share simple peasant food and conversation with the family in the light of an oil lamp. (For us, this was our favorite part of the trek.)
  5. Finally, you’ll climb through coffee plantations, cross mountain streams and walk through small villages into the refreshing cool air of the Sierra Maestra Mountains. On one side, you’ll have views across the Caribbean Sea and on the other, the vast expanse of Cuba stretching northward to the horizon.
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La Ruta de la Revolución (red rectangle) is located in a remote part of Cuba seldom visited by tourists. It goes through two huge National Parks comprising most of Cuba’s southernmost coast.

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[click on map to enlarge] La Ruta de la Revolución (BLUE line) starts in far western Granma Province in the small coastal village of Playa de Las Coloradas. It is here that Fidel Castro’s boat the Granma landed in 1956. The Ruta follows through Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It then climbs into the vast Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra, home to the highest mountains in Cuba and ends at Fidel Castro’s Comandancia de La Plata hideout.

Top Things You Need to Know about La Ruta de la Revolución

Location Cuba’s Southwest Coast
Reference This is the only guide online or in-print for La Ruta de la Revolución. For a good general Cuba guide we recommend Lonely Planet Cuba
Season All year, but the weather is coolest in “winter,” November to February
Duration  6 to 8 days (it’s best to take more time, you’ll get more out of the trip)
Distance ~150 kilometers on a combination of trails and rural roads.
(There is an option to split the route into half each about 3-4 days)
Navigation and maps A far as we know, you are only allowed to do this trek with an “official” guide. And even if it was allowed un-guided, you’d be crazy to try it—even with excellent Spanish and good travel skills. This route is not mapped. And even Cuban maps of the area do not have some of the roads and trails you’ll use. [See Guiding Section in next table]
Physical intensity You need moderate hiking fitness. The first half is mostly rolling terrain—rural roads and farm trails. At times it can be hot and humid with full sun (you are hiking in the Caribbean). The second half is cooler but on steeper mountain roads, ending up on very steep mountain trails.
Gear Travel light! This is a List of the Gear that worked well for us. Given the warm climate and that you’re not carrying food, you might even get by with a daypack or  just about any 20 to 30 liter pack you have, e.g. REI Co-op Flash 22 Pack.
Camera Bring a good one! Alan used a Sony a7R II with a Sony 28-70 F3.5-5.6 lens
Alison a Sony a6000 with a 18-105 f/4 lens.
See more about Selecting a Travel/Backpacking Camera here.
Sleeping You’ll stay most nights with campesino families. This will mean a rural home with very basic facilities—but lovely families and people! See more in our Detailed Section on Sleeping.
Food There are essentially no stores, and only a few meager “restaurants” along the route. Mostly you’ll eat whatever the local people cook for you in their homes. See more in our Detailed Section on Food.
Water We chemically treated all water on the trip. We like these simple and effective Katadyn or Portable Aqua treatment tablets—best travel water treatment going!  See more in our Detailed Section on Water.

 

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Rural Cuba is social. If people are going your direction, they will walk beside you and companionably chat. Along with locals we walked beside this mule team carrying coffee in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Arranging for Your Trek

Cost $1,280 USD for 2 people to do the trek in 8 days. Includes: transport from the airport to trek start, guiding, food and lodging along the route, and transport from the end of the trek back to the airport.
Guiding Bayamo Travel Agent, based in Bayamo, Cuba offers the only guiding. The Ruta de la Revolución Trek is not listed on their site. You will need to email them to make arrangements. As of this writing, the only guiding language was Spanish, although Anley Rosales Benitez, the owner of Bayamo Travel speaks excellent English and could probably arrange for a translator.
Getting there Its easiest and fastest to fly into the town of Holguin, Cuba. There are direct flights to the Holguin Airport (HOG) from the US. Your travel agent/driver will meet you there and transport you to the trip start. Flying into Bayamo would also be an option. Flying into Santiago de Cuba is your third option although it will take longer to get to the trek start.

 

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Trail to Che Guavara’s radio station (Radio Rebelde) the communications center for La Comendancia de la Plata. They would get warned by campesinsos when enemy planes were flying over the area and quickly pull the radio tower down. (Batista’s forces never found the Comendancia).

Most villages along the route are very small. Just a few homes and some farm building.

Most villages along the route are very small. Just a few homes and some farm buildings.

Shorter Route Options

This trip can be broken into two parts, each about 3-4 days:

  1. Option one, the first half is from Playa de Las Coloradas (in Desembarco del Granma) to the small village of Cinco Palmas. It was here that the revolutionaries re-grouped after being scattered into 27 separate groups after a disastrous first battle. In Cinco Palmas, you’ll find a bronze statue of campesinos who helped the revolutionaries on their trek.
  2. Alternatively, option two, if you are interested in a cooler (though more hilly) trek, you can start in Cinco Palmas and hike to the Comandancia de la Plata (Fidel’s hideout).
Route Days km ele. gain meters ele. loss m total ele. change
 Total Route 6 to 8  150 4200  3700  7900
 1st Half to Cinco Palmas 3 to 4  70 1000 900 1900
 2nd Half Cinco Palmas to Comandancia 3 to 4*  80 3200 2800 6000

* Note: Given the 6000 m (20,000 ft) of elevation change, some hikers might consider 5 days for this half

We picked up a horseback rider as we passed a small panadaria (bakery). He rode with us for a few miles, chatted and gave us directions and information about upcoming villages.

We picked up a horseback rider as we passed a small panadaria (bakery). He rode with us for a few miles, chatted, gave us directions and information about upcoming villages, and where to get food.


Sleeping, Food, and Water

"The

Sleeping

You’ll stay most nights with a campesino family. Usually this is a rural home where three generations share two or three bedrooms. There will be a tiled floor family/eating room, and a dirt floor kitchen with an open fire. These homes, while extremely compact, are quite clean. They are inspected by the health department regularly (check the back of the front door for their last health inspection date). The dirt-floor in the kitchen is because there is open-fire cooking. They will probably throw a mattress on the floor in the common room for you to sleep on. [Your guide will take care of all sleeping arrangements and pay the family generously for your stay!]

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The casa we stayed in the first night. It’s a typical rural village home— plain wood walls, a corrugated steel roof, and glassless windows. There’s a tiled floor main room in the front with 2-3 bedrooms partitioned off to the left. In the back is a dirt floored room (man standing in it) that serves as a kitchen and storage room. This was the only home we saw with a television. In most homes, electricity is just a few fluorescent bulbs used from 7 to 10 pm.

An outhouse on the property will handle biological needs.  There is no running water in the homes so you’ll bathe in an outdoor area with a barrel and a dipper. We found it glorious after a long hot, sweaty day of hiking. We hand-washed our clothes in a laundry tub and hung them up to dry overnight.

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Most homes have 3 generations and up to 10 people. This girl is sleeping on the floor of the main room as there isn’t a bedroom for her.

Until the route becomes more established with set/pre-arranged places to stay each night there is a small possibility you’ll sleep outside in a tent or hammock. Either because you stop hiking for the day before you reach a suitable village, or because with three generations of people in their home there isn’t enough room for you to sleep. But you still will get dinner, breakfast and to bathe. We brought our own hammocks, but most people will likely be more comfortable with a a light backpacking see the List of the Gear we took.

Every home we stayed at kept, goats, chickens, and pigs. This casa at the base of the Sierra Maestra Mountains was the only place we stayed that had running water (piped from a mountain stream, see cistern in front).

Every home we stayed at kept, goats, chickens, and pigs. This casa at the base of the Sierra Maestra Mountains was the only place we stayed that had running water (piped from a mountain stream, see cistern in front).

Food and Water

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We shared a 5 liter bottle of treated water (left in photo) that would last us about 1/2 day until we had to refill it and chemically treat water again. Picture is the start of the trek through the wooded trails of Desembarco del Granma National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is one of the longest sections of the trek without water. It’s also one of the hottest sections.

Food

As of this writing, buying your own food along the route is not an option. There are essentially no stores, no towns and only a few meager “restaurants” along the route. You’ll eat whatever the local people cook for you in their homes. We had two meat dinners and one vegetarian dinner, based entirely on what our hosts had in their homes the day we arrived (unannounced and unplanned). We always ate a big dinner, and had some bread/butter for breakfast. For us, lunch was a catch as catch can. (But you should request with your travel agent/guide what meals you want.) Your final option, although a heavy one, is to buy food in a grocery store in Cuba before the trip and carry it with you. We did not do this, rather we carried about 5 energy bars each.

Ruta de la Revolución

Oil lamp lit dinner with a campesino host family. They moved the table to make room for our drying laundry which you can make out in the background. Simple food of rice, beans, yuca, yami (a type of sweet potato), bananas and a small amount of extremely cooked meat. In the morning, they refused payment from us saying that it was what they were supposed to do as good people. (They finally relented when we insisted they take the money, if not for themselves, then for their daughter.)

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This was the only bodega (small store) we saw on the route. It’s few goods are artfully arranged on the shelves to semi-disguise the reality that there’s little inventory. There’s no refrigeration and no perishable food. [That’s a working scale on the counter since most stuff rice, beans, sugar etc. are all weighed and sold in bulk.] There was nothing we wanted.

"We

Water

This route is in rural Cuba with lots of farm animals living around every home. We chemically treated all water on the trip. The “best” water you find (if not all) will be trucked into the village. With the number of farm animals everywhere, we stayed away from water in the streams. And in the hot weather, during the dry season, many streams may not be running. We also carefully treated all our water and ended up carrying more than we would of liked. Don’t assume water will be plentiful while hiking.

water-tablets

This route is usually hot and water sources are far apart so you’ll carry a fair amount of water. We shared a 5 liter bottle of treated water that lasted us about 1/2 day until we had to refill it and chemically treat water again. We like these fast, simple and effective Katadyn or Portable Aqua treatment tablets. You can also use these Aquamira Water Treatment Drops which are more economical but a bit more fussy to use.


Detailed Route Description and Photo Essay

Part 1 – Overview of the Route – A Walk Through Culture and History

Be sure to soak up all the history on this route. Every day has points of the interest from Fidel, Che and the revolutionaries long and dangerous trek to their final mountain retreat. So keep an eye out for markers, monuments, plaques, etc. We saw cleared farm areas (makeshift camp sites for the fighters), markers for various events and battles, and even Che’s command center in Minas Frias. Our guide was great at pointing these out to us and explaining as we went along. By the end of our trek, we found that we knew more about this historic trek than most Cubans.

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There are some strange historical markers/sites like this preserved section of a culvert marking the place where Fidel Castro crossed under a road to go undetected by Batista’s forces!

You’ll also walk though farmland and small villages, some with historical context, but all worth exploring. For us, the highlight was visiting and staying with the campesinos (rural farmworkers). We saw a way of life from almost hundred years ago in the U.S. They still use ox carts!

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Coffee is still carried from the mountains by mule.

The first half of the Ruta de la Revolución is mostly flat. It can be hot and humid as you have yet to climb into the cooler mountains. The trek starts by walking the length of Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a unique coastal karst (limestone) habitat. Much of the trail is lined by trees and there are numerous markers explaining the historical events that occurred the first three days of the revolutionaries trek. The first half of the trek ends in Cinco Palmas where it is possible to take a road out. The small village of Cinco Palmas is where the remaining revolutionaries re-grouped after their disastrous first battle scattered them into 27 separate groups. Here you’ll find a bronze statue of the local campesinos who helped the revolutionaries.

The gate into Minas del Frio.

The gate into Minas del Frio. This where Che Guevara had his secret command/training center during the revolution. Now it’s a mostly decommissioned military base deep in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. At this point, we are getting near la Comandancia de la Plata and our guide is asking military personnel about directions.

After Cinco Palmas the trek gets hillier but also a bit cooler. Expect plenty of ascending and descending each day. You’ll climb through coffee plantations, cross mountain streams and go through small villages up into the refreshing cool air of the Sierra Maestra Mountains. On one side, you’ll have views across the Caribbean Sea and the other, the vast expanse of Cuba stretching northward to the horizon. On your last day, you’ll culminate at the Comandancia de la Plata. The only way to get there is literally trekking through the jungle just like Fidel and the revolutionaries. Our last day on the trek had 3000 m (10,000 ft) of elevation change!

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Fidel Castro's house in La Comandancia de la Plata (mountain hideaway and command center).

Fidel Castro’s house in la Comandancia de la Plata (mountain hideaway and command center).

Note: Playa Los Coloradas is worth a day to explore before your trip. The Desembarco del Granma National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and worth investigating for it’s unique ecosystem, its hiking trails, and even a few archeological sites. There is also the Desembarco del Granma museum which has a full-sized replica of the Granma, the boat that carried 82 revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba (the original boat is in Havana). There’s even a walkway through the mangroves to the very place the Granma ran aground.


Part 2 – Detailed Route Description

In our usual “get ‘er done in a hurry” style, we had only allowed 4, possibly 5 days to do the trek. Since the trek hadn’t been done in years, and the last person to do it took 8 days, we were unsure that we’d get done in time. We were even sure if we be able to follow the path correctly. As such we were in “hair on fire” mode from the get go. Most sane people will take longer to do the trek. Among other things you’ll want more time to visit with people along the way, explore the small farms and villages, enjoy the views and take lots of photographs.

Note: Our route description is for the 4 days it took us to do the route. Most trekkers will want to take 6-8 day to fully enjoy the Ruta.

Our Day 1

We had a 5:00 start in the dark to 1) get as many miles we could for the day, and 2) to get the most hiking time in the cool of the morning.

"Our

Day one is filled with Ruta markers highlighting various points of interest along the first three days of the rebels march inland.  The trek begins at Playa Los Coloradas, the beach where Fidel and his revolutionaries landed in Cuba. The boat, the Granma was a US built boat that sailed from Mexico. It was designed to carry 20 men but had 82. As such it was very slow, arriving two days late, and was at risk of sinking by the time it reached the Cuban shore.

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One of the may concrete route markers and explanatory plaques along the first 18 km of the route.

"The

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Monument at Alegria del Pio, the site of the first battle of the revolution. Batista troops ambushed Castro’s rebel forces 3 days after landing. It was disastrous for the rebels with about 1/3 killed, 1/3 lost and the rest dispersed into 27 groups. Only 21 of the original 82 made it to the Comandancia de la Plata. [this site is about 18 km from the trek start]

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We saw children eating helado (frozen treats on a sugar-cane stick) and followed it to the source. This woman on the right had a chest freezer and was running a small side business making popsicles in the bottoms of soda cans using sugar cane syrup.

Our Day 2

Day two begins with some rollers and by mid morning you are walking roads. You pass by the small town of Manteca pretty quickly, and just the other side is another camp where Fidel and the revolutionaries stayed (so you know you are still on the Ruta).

An open air dance hall the morning after Saturday night’s fiesta. The small store had only strong alcohol and no food. We managed to find maltados, a sweet non-alcoholic carbonated beverage flavored with malt.

An open air dance hall the morning after Saturday night’s fiesta. The small “Cafeteria” had only strong alcohol and no food. We managed to find Bucanero Maltas, a sweet non-alcoholic carbonated beverage flavored with malt. It was just OK, but something cold! the extra hydration was welcome.

Continuing on, you acquire a fairly major carretera (road) and walk it until the cut off to Cinco Palmas. Along the major road is a marker where Fidel crossed the road (see photo earlier in post).

The afternoon of the second day we arrived at the small village of Cinco Palmas. It was here that the revolutionaries finally managed to re-group after being scattered into 27 separate groups after a disastrous first battle at Alegria Del Pio. In Cinco Palmas, you’ll find a bronze statue of campesinos who helped the revolutionaries on their trek.

"Cuba’s

From here on the hiking gets progressively hillier and steeper for the rest of the Ruta.  Coffee plantations start as soon after you leave Cinco Palmas. Keep an eye out for coffee beans carried by mule, drying plants, and seedling coffee plants on the side of the road waiting to be planted.

This is how coffee was brewed at every home we stayed. You can see the open wood fire in back to boil the water. (The Sierra Maestra Mountains are the heart of coffee growing in Cuba. Just the right elevation for the best coffee.)

This is how coffee was brewed at every home we stayed. You can see the open wood fire in back to boil the water. (The Sierra Maestra Mountains are the heart of coffee growing in Cuba. Just the right elevation for the best coffee.)

Mother and daughter of our host family. Daughter is in school uniform and ready to head out.

Mother and daughter of our host family the second nite. Daughter is in her school uniform and ready to head out on mule, to her school.

Our Day 3

Day 3 started out with rolling hills, then flattened out a bit until hitting a huge hill. In 1980, the government paved the road on this hill because it was so steep that trucks frequently flipped over on it. It is a stiff climb up to the top at 850 meters.

A panadaria (bakery) in the middle of nowhere. It’s where our host of the `night before worked.

A panadaria (bakery) in the middle of nowhere. It’s where our host father of the night before worked. This is where we picked up the horseback rider as a walking companion.

Fidel's Comandancia de la Plata is somehwere out there in the distance. One of our first views of the heart of the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Fidel’s Comandancia de la Plata is somewhere out there in the distance. One of our first views of the heart of the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

This was the largest building we saw on the trek. It is the only building at the center of one of the largest towns, housing a pharmacy and a min-restaurant. Patriotic slogan, "you soy la revolución," means I am the revolution.

This was the largest building we saw on the trek. It is the only building at the center of one of the largest towns—on a dirt road of course. It houses a pharmacy and a mini-restaurant. The patriotic slogan, “yo soy la revolución,” means I am the revolution.

We chatted with these two young men for a bit but didn't ask what was in the bottle.

We chatted with these two young men for a bit but didn’t ask what was in the bottle (but had a good guess).

We stayed the night in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra in preparation for making the final ascent the next day into Fidel Castro’s Comandancia de La Plata hideout.

View from the front yard of our casa on day 3. Completw rooster and jury-rigged electrical pole.

View from the front yard of our casa on day 3. Complete with rooster and jury-rigged electrical pole.

The father of the family we stayed with was feeding his sick son small pieces of bread between his fingertips.

The father of the family we stayed with feeding his son small pieces of bread between his fingertips.

Our Day 4

Our Day 4 started out with a steep climb to la Comandancia de la Plata via Minas Frias. It’s an unrelenting climb up into to la Comandancia de la Plata. Our total elevation change for the day was 3000 meters or around 10,000 feet.

Sunrise start into the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Sunrise starts climbing over the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

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The historic Comandancia of Che Guevara is in Minas del Frio (Minas Frias). It was here he organized rebels while Fidel was in the nearby Comandancia de la Plata. Now the area around Che’s Comandancia is mostly an abandoned military base.

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Every child in Cuba goes to school, even in remote rural villages. This group of students, are from a school in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, not too far from la Comandancia de la Plata.

At some point, you turn off the road into a small side track and head into the mountain jungle. The trail gets difficult here—very steep uphills thru a narrow jungle path followed by steep downhills. This was easily the toughest part of the hike. Early on we acquired a second guide (a local campesino) who guided us through the jungle into the Comandancia. (Like Fidel 60 years earlier had a campesino guide them to the site!)

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At some point the maze of small mountain trails confused even our guide (left in photo). We ended up getting a local campesino from a banana farm (right) to guide us through the mountains to la Comandancia de la Plata. Picture is in front of the old Hospital for the Comandancia, which is now under reconstruction.

Signage near the La Comandancia de La Plata, Fidel Castro’s mountain command center. This is at the very end of our trek. But it’s what most tourists see getting out of their 4WD vehicle to hike to La Comandancia, or to Pico Turquino, the highest point in Cuba.

Signage near the La Comandancia de La Plata, Fidel Castro’s mountain command center. This is at the very end of our trek. But it’s what most tourists see getting out of their 4WD vehicle to hike the short 3k to La Comandancia. Having not trekked the 150 km Ruta from the coast, they miss much of the context of the Comandancia de la Plata.

The height of luxury. Breakfast at our casa particular (bed and breakfast) in Santo Domingo at the end of the trek.

The height of luxury. Breakfast at our casa particular (bed and breakfast) in Santo Domingo at the end of the trek.


Travel Tips

  • As of this writing, stand-alone GPS units (SPOT and inReach included) and Satellite Phones were not allowed into Cuba. To confirm, Cuban customs did indeed check our luggage with X-ray machines and also asked us if we were bringing a GPS into the Country. Be forewarned. Strangely, cell-phones with a working GPS are fine. Go figure!
  • Our US cell phones don’t work in rural Cuba (but this may change in the future). But your guide’s cell phone will likely work on some sections of the Ruta. In the bigger towns in Cuba, you can buy Internet cards. On the trek, you will not have this option.
  • We were able to recharge our cell phones at two out of the three houses we stayed in. Electricity will be scarce so don’t expect every house to have it.
  • US debit or credit cards don’t work with Cuban ATMs.
  • So for US Citizens, this is a cash-only country. US dollars will cost an extra 10% to exchange so Euros, Canadian Dollars, British Pounds or any other currency is recommended.  That said, you can change US dollars if needed.
  • CUBAN VISA: US Citizens need a Cuban visa to get into Cuba. We went thru the Miami airport. At the boarding gate in Miami, a kiosk sold Cuban visas good for one visit, for $100/person. We assume this is the same at other airports in the US. Alternatively, you can get a visa through the Cuban consulate. It costs only $50/person however: you will need a passport photo, you’ll fill out forms, provide a copy of your passport and must hand it all to them in person (I provided all the same for my spouse, but it cost $75 since they weren’t there in person with me). A week later, you return to pick up your visa. The $100 airport visa is a much better deal.
  • US CATEGORIES (not really a visa): The US government has several categories of reasons allowing you to go to Cuba. The reason that people have started to go now is that in March, 2016, the US Gov’t added the category of “people-to-people” to their list. You can go to the State Department website to read more about what this means (https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country/cuba.html) see “support for the Cuban people”. As long as you fall into one of these categories, you do not need a visa from the US to travel (but will still need a Cuban visa). We carried our itinerary with us upon returning to the US to prove we spent time with Cuban people, but were not asked for it or anything else at US customs.
  • Remember, you are in a very rural area. As such, we saw virtually no cars on the trek. Almost all transport is either by foot or by horse/mule. There may be options to rent horses/mules along some sections, but that needs to be well organized beforehand.
"Cuba Ready" kiosk at Miami Airport.

“Cuba Ready” kiosk at Miami Airport where you can get get a visa.

Gear for La Ruta de la Revolución Trek

Note: this is a excerpt from our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List which we use for worldwide trekking, including our recent trek into the Jungles of Columbia to  see La Cuidad Perdita (the Lost City). Depending on the time of year, temperatures on the Ruta can vary from the humid 80-90s °F with intense sun at lower elevations, to temperatures in the 40’s to 50’s°F on cool nights in the mountains. There is always a slight chance of rain even in the lowlands. The chance of rain increases when you get into the mountains as they have their own weather.

Item Description Comments
Backpack for all your gear 30 to 40+ liter backpack Osprey Exos 48 PackULAOhm 2.0 Pack great!, or Hyperlite Mountain Gear SW 2400. See Recommended Lightweight Backpacks for other choices.
Day Pack Just about any 20+ liter pack
REI Co-op Flash 22
Warm climate and not carrying food so you can also use a daypack. Alison used an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 25
Tent Light one e.g. Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 Tent For the slight chance you need to sleep outdoors.  REI Quarter Dome 2 Tent or for lighter options see: Recommended Tents and other Shelters
Hammock Good for tropical climate Tent alternative. Something like an Ultralite Backpacker Asym Zip or Hyperlite Asym Zip
Quilt Fleece blanket or Sleeping Bag Only a light one is needed if at all. We didn’t use one.
Ground Pad T-Rest NeoAir X-lite “Women’s” Perfect size for most. Warm. Super comfortable!
Dry bags These inexpensive dry bags Keep gear dry — especially, cameras, electronics & docs like your passport, etc. and these dry bags have a valve-free air expelling design for compact packing
Clothing  and insect repellents See Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing below for our clothing list and strategy for avoiding mosquito and other bug bites
Trek poles Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Help on muddy/slippery trails. Pers. favorites. 1/3 price but equal to the best poles
Water bottle SoftBottle Water Bottle Need 2-3 liter capacity per person. Can use standard commercial bottle. Or  collapsable ones like these
 Water purify  Chemicals light and effective  Katadyn or Portable Aqua tablets or Aquamira Water Treatment Drops
Camera Camera Equipment  You’ll want a good one. See Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras
Earplugs Foam Earplugs NRR 33 If sensitive to noise. Tight sleeping quarters.
Charging EasyAcc USB Battery (5.4) Charge iPhone 6s ~3x, iPhone 6s Plus or Samsung Galaxy s6 ~2x (5,500 mAh, actual!)
Electronics An excellent kit for travel See “Best Lightweight Travel/Backpacking Electronics Gear” for both on and off trail use
Headlamp Black Diamond Iota Weather sealed. Bright 150 lumens. Can be recharged in the field! E.g the EasyAcc battery pack. Reduce battery waste, and see better!
Toilet paper In waterproof Ziplock bag TP not always at toilets in camp.
Hand sanitizer Travel Size  For use when water/soap not available
Soap Dr. Bronners  Small 1 oz bottle
Towel PackTowl Personal Towel Fast drying. Get one less than 100g (3 oz)
Sunscreen small plastic tube about 1/2 full for face & hands: most of body covered—large hat
Sunglasses Needed!
Lip balm Bert’s Bees or similar Minimal wt for dedicated lip balm
First Aid Kit Meds, wound/injury, foot care A small personal kit see the one in my 9-lb Gear List
Headnet Sea to Summit Head Net (1.2)
Insect repell. Sawyer Picaridin for skin 0.5 oz pump is airline OK small, pocketable, and easily applied in field. Picardin also in lotion is the most effective on the market.
Knife/scissors Wescott blunt tip school scissors More useful than knife – OK for plane carryon
Knife Gerber L.S.T. Drop Point Can cut bread and salami – very light for 2.6″ blade (not carry on legal)
Repair Tenacious patch, duct tape, glue Also consider Aquaseal and a NeoAir patch kit

See our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List for a more complete list of gear.

Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing

This is tropical Caribbean trekking with possible exposure to bug transmitted and water/food transmitted diseases. The CDC recommends visiting your travel doctor (ideally, 4-6 weeks) before your trip to get vaccines or medicines you may need. We got all our travel vaccines for water/food transmitted diseases. And we chemically treated all water along the route. We at well-cooked food as much as possible along the route. None of of us got sick.

A short list of Clothing and Bug Protection (a cool set that you won’t overheat in)

Note: this excerpted from a more detailed article. Best Ways to Protect Yourself Insect Diseases While Hiking some readers may want to investigate it in more detail.

Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika While Hiking

Item Description Comments
A Hat (repellent) Exofficio Bugsaway Hat Bug repellent for upper head area
 B Shirt hiking* RailRiders Men’s Journeyman Shirt w Insect Shield & Women’s Oasis Cool fabric, mesh side vents, sun protection, Lifetime insect repellent (vs. sprays 8-14 hrs)
Shirt (alt) Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’s Also good, widely available via Amazon and other retailers like REI. Lifetime insect repellent.
C Pants hiking* ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’s Available in both Men’s and Women’s.  Light, cool, sun protection. Lifetime insect repellent.
Pants (alt) RailRiders Men’s Eco-Mesh Pant with Insect Shield RailRiders pants have huge side vent on legs for cooling. Lifetime insect repellent.
E G Bug repellent on face neck hands Sawyer Picaridin lotion 14 hrs!
Pocketable Picaridin 0.5 oz spray
Lasts 14 hrs! No odor. Won’t melt plastic. Small, pocketable, easily applied.
 D Physical Prot.  Tuck pants into socks Prevents tick entry into pants. Stops pants legs from “gapping” and exposing ankle to mosquitos
F Physical Prot.  Tuck shirt into Pants Prevents tick entry into pants and lower shirt area.
 H Gaiters Dirty Girl gaiters (fun colors!) or
REI Co-op Activator Gaiters
Seals pants against tick entry. No ankle gaps. Can be treated with permethrin spray.
H Gaiter trap shoe
(optional)
Altra Lone Peak shoes or
Altra Superior shoes
Velcro “gaiter trap” permanently attached to heel of shoe. (adhesive ones that come with gaiters only work for a while)
Rain Jacket Outdoor Research Helium II or inexpensive REI Coop
 Fleece shirt  North Face TKA 100 1/4-Zip  Light and compact travel garment. For warmth in camp at night and sleeping. Good pillow!
 Underwear Patagonia briefs Mens
Patagonia briefs Women’s
Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days
 Bra  Patagonia Active spots bra  Alison’s favorite
Hat regular Outdoor Research Sun Runner Hat Removable sun cape. Adaptable to most situations
Shoes hiking  Lightweight trail running shoes Boots not desirable! Most non-Goretex trail running shoes that fit. You probably own a pair.
Shoes sugg.  Altra Superior Trail-Running
(or Lone Peaks)
Light. Huge toe room. Super comfortable!
Shoes sugg. Inov-8 ROCLITE 295 (20oz) Light, sticky rubber, durable.
Shoessugg. Brooks Cascadia (25 oz) Popular trail shoe, available many stores
camp footwear  Sandals for showering/camp
Socks Inexpensive cotton M’s and W’s
(bring 3 to 4 pairs)
Socks get dirty & stinky fast in hot climate. Best to wear cheap ones & use as rags after the trip. [Can treat with Permethrin if you want.]

* You can treat your own clothing with permethrin spray (Amazon) or REI. This lasts for up to 6 weeks or 6 washings. (For comparison: factory treated clothing is good for up to 70 washings, essentially “life-time” use). Both clothing treatments far exceed the 8-14 hours of skin applied repellents like Picaridin and DEET. And they don’t require the time/attention needed to properly apply repellents to large areas of skin each day.

Note: We took two set of insect repellent pants and shirts — one pair exclusively for hiking, and one pair reserved for dry/camp use only. The reason is that hiking clothes will get wet with rain and/or sweat during the day and will not dry completely overnight. In the morning we just put on our damp hiking clothes (they will be dry in 30-60 minutes from your body heat), and put our dry camp clothes back in our packs. That way we always had nice clean clothes to change into after washing up. A courtesy to the families we stayed with!