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On the Trail

Shenandoah's Sweet Slice of the A.T.

You sense history’s weight almost with your first step onto the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Each stride forward comes with the knowledge that you are following in the footsteps of millions of people who have hiked the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) since its completion in 1937. That’s part of the magic of the trail, the feeling when you walk it that you are joining an association no less precious for its inclusivity. But there is also the thrill that thrusting yourself deep into nature brings, the wonder and the joy of strolling under a tree canopy dappled in sunlight, alive with the movement of the small creatures that make their home there.

Ranging from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Georgia’s Springer Mountain, the A.T. runs through 14 states, including Pennsylvania. As many as three million people day-hike it annually; around 2,500 try to “thru-hike” the nearly 2,200-mile-long footpath from beginning to end each year. And then there are the people who trek it for days at a clip, perhaps for a long weekend, or as their summer vacation. Most camp along the way, but for those who prefer to bunk down on a real bed, Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park offers the distinct pleasure of inn-to-inn hiking through one of the A.T.’s most reliably lovely sections.

More than a quarter of the Appalachian Trail cuts through Old Dominion – prompting some frustrated thru-hikers to come down with what’s been dubbed the “Virginia Blues” – and Shenandoah National Park is home to some 100 miles of it. Roughly a 30-mile swath is linked by accommodations ranging from rustic cabins to a newly renovated lodge. Shuttle service for hikers debuted last year, so it’s now possible to leave your vehicle at one property, hike to another, and then hop a bus back to your car. The park has thus managed to make hiking the A.T. more user-friendly within its spectacular confines than nearly anywhere else.

While Massachusetts and New Hampshire also offer inn-to-inn hiking, the trail there passes through steeper stretches with greater elevation gains and losses. Shenandoah’s section is gentler, suitable for less-experienced hikers and even families. The distance between inns is 10 miles or less, so you don’t have to be a world-class athlete to tackle them, but training prior to your expedition isn’t a bad idea, and a good pair of broken-in hiking boots is absolutely essential. Pack light, since you’ll be carrying whatever you need for your stay in the park on your back, and include wet wipes, snacks and plenty of water. Don’t forget lots of layers – even in summer, the weather can turn cool – and rain gear, too.

When I hiked the inn-to-inn portion of the A.T. through Shenandoah National Park last fall, I began at Swift Run Gap on Skyline Drive. The justifiably legendary road on the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains serves up stunning views along its 100 miles. But, at Swift Run Gap, the entrance to the A.T. from Skyline is assuming, marked merely with one of the many concrete posts located along the trail that give directional information about it. They help keep hikers on the straight and narrow, as do the simple blazes painted every so often on trees the trail passes. That’s good news – one of the A.T.’s pleasures is that it extends through some of the nation’s most rugged back country. But this also means that if you step too far from the trail, the surrounding forest could swallow you whole.

The first two expanses of the A.T. I hiked, from Swift Run Gap to Lewis Mountain, and then from Lewis Mountain to Big Meadows, mostly traveled through forest, a pleasing mixture of chestnut and oak dappled with birches and poplars. There were few glimpses of the spectacular views I’d heard so much about, but I didn’t mind. The woods, daubed with a few rays of sun here and there, were magnificent. Massive ferns and brilliantly hued mushrooms, sweet little wildflowers and rounded boulders big enough that I imagined them marbles fallen from the pockets of dozing giants all helped make the journey down the trail so beautiful it brought grateful tears to my eyes. Just as special was the air’s scent – clean and loamy, with a hint of piney fragrance – and the cathedral-like quiet, broken only by occasional bird song and the sound of my feet thudding on the earth.

My third day on the A.T. began rainy and cool, with mist shrouding the ground, curling around tree trunks and low-lying vegetation. I’d only been walking a few minutes when out of the fog to my right emerged about a half-dozen wild turkeys, large and comical. A moment later, with a turn of my head, I spotted a herd of deer to my left, carefully and with breathtaking grace picking their way through a thicket of ferns.

The rest of the hike to Skyland proved rich with reward. A steeper ascent than the previous two days finally provided plenty of jaw-dropping views, and shimmying over what appeared to be long-ago rock slides brought me to tiny waterfalls gurgling peacefully over broken ground. But the memory that remains my favorite is that of the animals walking silently beside me in the mist – travelers, too, on one of America’s most precious stretches of land.

Part of the allure of hiking the A.T. through Shenandoah is rewarding yourself after a long day on the trail with a hot shower and good bed. Here’s where you can get them.

Lewis Mountain Cabins
Rustic and happily homey, Lewis Mountain Cabins provides a nice respite from the rigors of the trail. The accommodations are clean and cozy, and a camp store provides not only a place to stock up on supplies, but also a porch where you can sit on for a spell and trade trail stories with fellow hikers. Opens March 31

Big Meadows Lodge
Built in 1939 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Big Meadows Lodge is more of a rambling campus, with a few cabins, a series of motel-like structures – the rooms here have a funky, retro appeal – and the gorgeous stone and wood lodge building itself. There is a dining room in the lodge, a massive great room, a pub with live entertainment and a craft shop. Wi-fi is available throughout the property, though service is spotty. Wayside, located about a mile down the road, is a great bet for hearty, reasonably priced fare and also boasts a camp store, gift shop and gas station. Opens May 11

Thanks to a newly completed renovation, Skyland now offers everything from cabins to sleek suites with fireplaces. The upscale property also includes a dining room with surprisingly cosmopolitan cuisine and a great view, a pub with live entertainment, a gift shop and a welcoming great room with Wi-fi, a fireplace and a coffee bar. Guided horseback rides from Skyland stables depart daily. Opens March 30

Skyland Shuttles operate seasonally between Skyland, Big Meadows Lodge and Lewis Mountain Cabins. Hiker shuttles are by reservation only and available only on select days and at certain times. For more information about Shenandoah National Park, visit goshenandoah.com or call (877) 847-1919.

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