PATC’s 90th Anniversary Hike #1: The Appalachian Trail between Harpers Ferry and Keys Gap

Bridge over the Shenandoah River at Harpers Ferry
The Route: The Appalachian Trail between Harpers Ferry and Keys Gap.

This is the first section of the AT to be scouted, cut, and blazed by the club’s earliest members in 1927-28. The route was selected in part because the Red Triangle Club, from which PATC would recruit several key members, was doing an annual hike in the area. It was also chosen to demonstrate to potential recruits that extending the trail from New England through Virginia was possible. The three men who made “the first real work trip” for the route later described it as a learning experience, noting in particular that the “boy scout” hatchets they brought with them were not up to the job. Given the poor roads in the area and breakdown-prone cars in the 1920s, the railway station at Harpers Ferry was picked as the starting point, and the crew arrived by train. They found the railroad and town in transition. A devastating flood in 1924 had damaged the rail line and closed the C&O Canal’s commercial operation for good. In 1931, the station and tracks would be moved from where the trail crew found them to the top of the berm where they now rest, safely above the high water mark. Many more changes followed, as Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, C&O Canal National Historical Park, and other parks were created along the AT corridor. New roads and more powerful cars made access easier, and decades of trail work turned a hike that required several weekends’ work into a few hours of nice walking.

Distance: 6.3 miles
Total ascents: 1100 feet

Getting there: Amtrak and MARC trains depart Union Station in Washington DC during the afternoon and early evening: $5 MARC fare (weekday service only); Amtrak fares from $10. MARC trains return to DC early weekday mornings; Amtrak return trains leave at 11:31 a.m. Drivers from DC, MD, and VA turn left at first stoplight after crossing the US 340 bridge into WV and follow signs to the Cavalier Heights entrance station & visitor center. From there, a shuttle bus takes visitors to a stop on Shenandoah St, a short walk from the train station.

Fees: 3-day passes ($5 per person for walk- and bike-ins and $10 for privately owned vehicles carrying up to seven passengers) are available at the Cavalier Heights entrance station, the train station, and the river access parking lot near the intersection of US 340 and Shenandoah St. Credit cards are accepted only at Cavalier Heights.

Useful References: PATC’s “Appalachian Trail Guide to Maryland and Northern Virginia” (2015 ed., pp. 112-133); PATC Map #7 (Harpers Ferry to Snickers Gap); USGS Quad: Harpers Ferry and Charlestown; Park Service trail maps.
The Trail

 Harpers Ferry Train Station

0.0     The train station sits on a berm raised over the foundations of the arsenal raided by John Brown in 1859. From the station, cross the parking lot and Potomac St, then pass through a courtyard parallel to Shenandoah St, which is about a half block to the left. At the next street, High St., cross and go up the stone stairway, following AT signs and white rectangular blazes past Jefferson Rock and views over Virginius Island (a center of industrial activity before the Civil War) and the Shenandoah River. (The white blazes that now mark the full length of the AT were not used by the initial crew. They had some copper tags and wooden slats to mark turns and landmarks. They wielded quickly dulling axes to clear a path.)

 Jefferson Rock

1.0     Descend to Shenandoah St and follow the US 340 bridge to the south bank of the Shenandoah River.
1.3     Turn left (east) at the end of the bridge and follow the AT under the bridge. On the west side, turn up the riverbank and begin the longest climb of the route – the ascent to Loudoun Heights. (The route from the beginning to this point has changed considerably from the initial layout. The US 340 bridge replaced the one most likely used by the founders. Before a flood destroyed it in the mid-1930s, the old bridge crossed the Shenandoah from a point near the train station.)
1.7     Cross WV 32 (Chestnut Hill Rd) and turn east to follow an old, gullied roadbed. (The old road was built by charcoal makers to supply the forges at Harpers Ferry. As the forest grew back after the Civil War, wildfires were among the challenges faced by early and later volunteers in this area. With almost all the land in private ownership, passage had to be negotiated with owners, and few public resources were available to fight fires. PATC responded by funding the acquisition of some parcels, encouraging donation of others, and advocating the creation of parks.)
1.9     Cross the charcoal road and climb, steeply at times, with occasional switchbacks. (As noted by Frank Schairer, who was to become PATC’s first trail supervisor, another painful lesson was about the need for canteens. Finding no potable water on the difficult climb, he noted, “we were all dying of thirst when we got to the top.” Within a year or so, this section might be relocated to ease the grade and help control erosion. When that happens, the route will be somewhat longer than 6.3 miles.)
2.1     Turn west to follow white blazes at the junction with a yellow-blazed trail. Ahead, follow the old roadway west. (Wherever possible, the AT scouts followed roads built by those cutting timber and making charcoal in earlier times.)

 AT sign at Loudoun Heights

2.4     At the crest of Loudoun Heights, turn right (west) once again to follow the AT at a junction with blue-blazed Loudoun Heights Trail. (Up to this point, the route is within Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which was created during World War II. Shortly after leaving the park, the AT passes Civil War redoubts that were built and then abandoned by Federal forces; Confederates under Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson occupied the area in 1862, helping to trap and capture some 11,000 Union soldiers in the town below.)
4.7     Pass the primitive but well used "Four Mile Campsite" (used by many northbound hikers who want to pass through Harpers Ferry early the next morning, because there is no legal camping within Harpers Ferry Historical National Park).
4.8     Cross a powerline clearing. (The path that descends the clearing to the left connects to trails in the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship.)
6.0     Continue straight as another old road intersects from the west. (It took several trips to reach this point. As Frank Schairer reported, “It took us all day to get from south of Chimney Rock to a point about a half mile beyond” on the first day.)
6.3     Reach WV 9 at Keys Gap. (The parking lot and bulletin board with AT information just north of WV 9 are among the many improvements that have made the trail more accessible since 1927. A chronicler of early efforts to build the trail noted that there were few decent roads on the east side of the ridge, and the approach to Keys Gap from the west had to deal with mud, rock, and deep ruts. Before they could cut trail around the gap, volunteers had to push their car up to the crest.)

Further weekend work pushed the trail down to Bluemont. When only two volunteers were available for one of the last trips, they visited a cabin near Keys Gap to seek help. From their own pockets, the PATC pair paid two “mountain boys” 50 cents apiece to work with them for a day on a 2-mile stretch. These were the first recorded paid workers on PATC’s segment of the AT, and among the last. Shortly after the route was done, members of two ancestral hiking organizations, the Red Triangle Club and the Wildflower Preservation Society, enjoyed a walk it with some of the builders. The vision of a through trail along the spine of the Blue Ridge took root, and more recruits stepped up for the next stages of work.
About this series. . .
Between 1927 and today, PATC’s founders and their successors built a 240-mile section of the Appalachian Trail, created the Tuscarora Trail, made dozens of cabins and shelters available to hikers, and took on maintenance responsibility for over 1000 miles of paths in the club’s 4-state service area. The hikes described in this series pass landmarks in PATC’s history and celebrate nine decades of remarkable evolution in our national trail network. Larry Broadwell and William Needham co-write the series, and Brian Goudreau provides the maps. John Hedrick and Chris Brunton contributed to this first entry.