Howdy folks. Below is a list of things not to miss on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. They are listed in order of trail location from south to north with Trail Days having its own special place at the end since it is the only “event” on the list. The rest of the things to do can be experienced year-round whether you’re thru-hiking, section hiking, or just out for the day. Virginia’s a great state on the trail and the things to do and see are as varied as you would expect over 400 some odd miles of hiking trail.
The Place "Damascus"
“The Place” in Damascus is a hiker hostel located in the southernmost trail-town in Virginia. For decades the Methodist Church, which owns the building and is situated next-door, has run the hostel for thru-hikers and bikers passing through town. It is open to all and though the large Victorian era house has plenty of space most of the year, Trail Days normally finds it filled to capacity. There are plenty of bunks and a small kitchen for those who are tired of dehydrated food and eating out. The church asks only that visitors leave “The Place” as they found it and there is a box for donations if you feel inclined. All visitors are; of course, welcome to attend services at the church next door. The “homey” feel of this bunk house, the Victorian architecture, and the central location to all town services make this a “must-visit” location while hiking near Damascus, Virginia.
Wild Horses on Mount Rogers
Climbing out of the deep valley where Damascus is nestled, the hiker will arrive at the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia at 5,729 feet, is located within the recreation area and, while not on the Appalachian Trail, it can be reached by following a short (about .5 mile) blue-blazed side trail. Just north of the side trail a hiker will likely encounter the wild horses that are year-round residents of this section of trail. Nobody seems to know exactly how the herd developed but they are now an integral part of the hiking experience in the recreation area. When passing through be sure to keep an eye out for the herd. Picture taking is welcome, but the local rangers ask that hikers do not feed the horses.
About 63 trail miles north of the trail town of Pearisburg hikers will arrive at a short blue-blazed trail to the “Dragon’s Tooth,” a huge limestone rock formation. The rock’s location is breath-taking as the formation allows hikers to scramble above the tree-tops and view Catawba Valley hundreds of feet below. The views are to the north and east, exactly the direction that the Appalachian Trail takes, so a north-bound hiker can look forward and see the next 15 miles or so while a southbound hiker can look back with satisfaction on a section already accomplished. Within the Dragon’s Tooth view-shed is Catawba Valley, where the “Home Place” is located. McCafee’s Knob and the Tinker cliffs can also be glimpsed across the expanse.
The Home Place
Food. You never meet a hiker who doesn't enjoy eating. For many thru-hikers, the Home Place restaurant in Catawba Valley, Virginia serves the best food on the entire trail.
The Home Place is an all-you-can-eat establishment. No-one leaves the restaurant hungry and if you’re into southern home-cooking in the traditional sense of the term, you could hardly do better eating at your grandma’s. The settings and serving methods are “home-style” where large plates of food are passed around the table and the phrase “pass the biscuits, please” is heard often and loudly. Fried chicken is a specialty.
The restaurant is located in the quaint community of Catawba in a house that is well over 100 years old. To reach it from the trail, turn west on Virginia highway 311 where it intersects the AT and travel down the mountain into Catawba. It’s a small valley town with only a gas station and the Home Place. The restaurant will be on your left.
The hours of operation for the Home Place vary from year to year, or even from week to week, so it’s a good idea to check their Facebook page here or to call ahead before you make your visit. The phone number is (540) 384-7552.
Located just a few miles north of where highway 311 crosses the Appalachian Trail, McCafee’s knob is considered by many hikers to have the most scenic view in the state. A short 3.7 mile hike from the road will take you to the Knob. The hike is slightly uphill, though not terribly strenuous. The hike passes several streams and springs along with two classic trail shelters.
McCafee’s knob is one of the most photographed locations along the entire AT and you’re likely to have company on nice weekends. Because of the high traffic, camping is not allowed at the summit, but one of the shelters you passed on the way is usually available. Be sure to get a couple of good photos of you and your hiking partner with Catawba Valley stretched out beneath you. Autumn is the best time to visit but the views are great year-round. After visiting this scenic outlook, a dinner at the Home Place will help you gain back the calories you burnt on your trip.
Pancakes at Weasie's
Whether you’re thru-hiking or just finishing up a day hike in the Shenandoah National Park, Weasie’s is a great place to stop and fuel up. This restaurant is located in downtown Waynesboro and serves traditional diner foods. What makes it famous on the trail, however, is the “thru-hiker” special. This is an order of endless pancakes. Well, not exactly endless. You can eat as many as you’d like, but the pancakes start huge and then work their way up to ridiculous. The current record is only in the teens for number of cakes consumed. Stop by on your way through and see if you can break it.
Shenandoah National Park
This is one of America’s greatest national parks. Most visitors come via car just to drive the skyline drive. As a hiker you have many options for hiking in the park, but the AT runs down the center like a branch from which almost all of the other trails are only offshoots. The trail was built in this section with the help of the CCC in the 1930’s and those guys did not fool around with their construction. Look for gentle grades, few rocks or obstacles, and great views. For the long distance hiker, the trail through the park is almost like a walking buffet. With restaurants and developed campgrounds every few miles you might just get spoiled.
Permits are required for the park and a fee is charged. The forms can be picked up at any entrance. If you’re a thru-hiker or other long distance hiker the entrance is free. Just simply pick up a permit by signing a log book at the north or south end of the park.
Autumn is a great time to visit, but it is also the most crowded time of year as tourists and day trippers arrive from nearby Washington D.C. and its suburbs.
The Blackburn Trail Center
The Blackburn Trail Center has been an AT presence in northern Virginia since 1979 when the cabin was acquired by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. This club, which maintains a large portion of the trail in northern Virginia, keeps the cabin and associated shelter open for hikers year around, although a caretaker can only be relied to be present during the spring, summer, and fall months. This idyllic setting can also be rented out for private functions such as weddings and parties.
The Blackburn Trail Center is located just off of the trail about 15 miles from the Virginia-West Virginia border with the AT. Most summer nights there is an informal potluck dinner prepared by the caretaker and whoever may be visiting at the time. Donations to help cover food and maintenance are appreciated. If you’re hiking in the area, the short 0.2 mile side trail to the cabin is well worth the trek.
Bear's Den Hostel
Owned by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, this hostel is an imposing stone castle perched high on the Blue Ridge in northern Virginia. Built in 1933 by a professor at nearby George Washington University, the structure has served as a home, hostel, and was once proposed as a country club. Today, hikers of all types can stop by for a night’s rest and a home cooked meal.
Where the short, 200 yard, side trail meets the AT there is an excellent overlook to the west. This is a great location for sunsets over the famous Shenandoah Valley farmlands as well as boulder hopping for those feeling a bit energetic after dinner.
Placed last on our list, but definitely not least is Trail Days. Trail Days is held during the first half of May each year in the small southern Virginia town of Damascus. It’s a gathering of thru-hikers, past and present, along with thousands of town folk and other lovers of the Appalachian Trail. It is a true festival that turns the tiny town of several hundred into a city of several thousand for days on end. The highlight of the festival is the hiker parade, but there are also live bands, seminars, vendors, and equipment repair shops. Trail Days is traditionally one big party celebrating the Trail and is an even not to miss if you happen to be in southern Virginia during the first half of May. If you want more information on the event, the town of Damascus has it’s Trail Days website here: Damascus Trail Days