Shenandoah National Park protects 79,600 acres along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains between the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the foothills of the Virginia Piedmont to the east. The Appalachian Trail follows in close proximity to Skyline Drive, the park’s popular tourist road.

Most weary thru-hikers, on the trail since Georgia, find the week-long, 105-mile traverse of the park to be rather luxurious, with mild terrain and easy access to hiker amenities like snack bars and restaurants, grocery stores, campgrounds with hot showers and laundry, and even a pub.

Grand views from Blackrock, Hightop, Stony Man Mountain, the Little Stony Man Cliffs and Mary’s Rock were scenic highlights, while several encounters with bears provided an uncommon measure of excitement.

The day after watching a large male wallow in the jewelweed at close range for a half-hour, I came upon a bear cub in a tree to the left of the trail. Not thinking, I reached for my camera, but was startled by the mother bear in the thick undergrowth immediately to my right. Heart pounding, I quickly backed up the trail out of harm’s way, talking nice to the big bruin all the while until she rambled by.

Between Front Royal and Ashby Gap, what was a long and dangerous road walk on my 1977 trek is now a pleasant hike through woods and meadows. It was along here that I briefly met ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek, who went on to break the Appalachian Trail speed record.

Beyond, a 13-mile stretch of trail called the Roller Coaster takes hikers on a wild ride over steep, tightly spaced ascents and descents. Somewhere amid the huffing and puffing I crossed the 1,000-mile mark, and was happy to hole up and celebrate that evening at Bears Den hostel, a historic stone mansion.


The trail follows the Virginia-West Virginia state line before descending to the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers at Harpers Ferry, the psychological midpoint for thru-hikers. Best known for abolitionist John Brown’s pre-Civil War raid on the federal arsenal, most of the town is within Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.

The headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the organization dedicated to conservation and management of the trail, is located here. I stopped in to register as northbound hiker No. 694 for the year, as well as get my Polaroid taken. It was an emotional moment that connected the dots between 1977 and 2015, and when I stepped back outside, tears of happiness were flowing down my cheeks.

Out of Harpers Ferry and now in Maryland, I followed the towpath of the old Chesapeake & Ohio Canal before climbing to the heights of Weverton Cliffs for a last look over the Potomac.

Some thru-hikers take on the “Maryland Challenge” and attempt to hike all 40 miles of the state in 24 hours. I was content to saunter along the beautiful ridges of South Mountain State Park, the 13,000-acre preserve that extends from the Potomac to Pennsylvania, taking 21/2 days and enjoying every step.

History abounds on South Mountain. Many clashes between Union and Confederate armies occurred on its flanks, at Crampton Gap, Fox Gap, Turners Gap and others. The first monument to George Washington, a milk bottle-shaped stone tower, was erected by Boonsboro citizens in 1827.

I reached Pen Mar Park on a glorious Sunday afternoon to find a pavilion packed with dancers swinging to live big band music. The festive scene spilled out onto the expansive lawn, where picnickers were sitting down to large spreads.

I must have looked hungry, because soon I was invited to enjoy a heaping plate of grilled goodies. This after I had just ordered a large pizza from town for delivery to the park. I ate it all without a problem.

At sunset, I sidled out of the park and across the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania to find a campsite. Six states down, eight to go.

Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast.

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