PATC’s 90th Anniversary Hike #2: Snickers Gap to Ashby Gap

AT stream crossing between Snickers Gap and Ashby Gap
The Route: The Appalachian Trail between Snickers Gap and Ashby Gap (Linear hike that requires a car shuttle. See note at 0.6 mile, below, for a much shorter circuit.)

This hike parallels the second section of the AT to be scouted, cut, and blazed by the club’s earliest members in 1927-28. It is of special historical note as the area of the first pre-PATC scouting trip made by Myron Avery and several others who took a bus from Washington to Ashby Gap and explored north in October, 1927. By using old woods roads along the eastern ridge and slope, they found that a trail was feasible. Based in part on this assessment, PATC was officially established at the Metropolitan Bank Building in Washington, D. C. on 22 November, 1927. The successful opening of the AT from Harper’s Ferry to Bluemont in time for the annual Red Triangle Club hike in the spring of 1928 resulted in a fourfold increase in trail workers from the original eight. A new goal was set by newly elected PATC President Myron Avery: to reach Linden by November, 1928
     The first challenge in this sector was road access. The only reliable road was US 50 from Washington to Winchester through Ashby Gap. The road to Snickers Gap was dirt and “rough as the devil” and the road from Snickers to Mount Weather (the first leg of this section) was characterized as “just about passable.” There were no bridges; all streams had to be forded. One of the PATC members had acquired a car, and volunteers piled into it every weekend through the summer and fall of 1928 to work on the AT. Their original route passed through Bluemont and proceeded south along the Blue Ridge to federal land at Mount Weather, which had been acquired by the National Weather Bureau in the 1890s as a site for launching kites to monitor wind speed and temperature. Used as a practice artillery range during World War I, it had been largely abandoned by 1928. The PATC crew blazed the route through private property and abandoned federal land along the ridge and its eastern slope. They weaved east and west as guided by terrain and old woods roads. Compared to sections where no logging and charcoal-making had occurred, they recorded that the work was relatively easy.
     Today’s AT takes a different track along the western slope. After World War II, Route 601 (Blue Ridge Mountain Road) was established from Snickers Gap to Mount Weather and eventually extended to Ashby Gap. The Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Railroad, which operated from Alexandria to Bluemont from 1900 to 1939, also contributed to residential development of the area. The new owners opposed a public access trail through their properties, and PATC was forced to relocate it, initially onto Route 601. The 1968 National Trails Act, passed largely due to the advocacy of PATC and the consortium of nonprofits now known as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), established the AT corridor under federal law. Private parcels were acquired, and the trail was shifted west to its current alignment. Crossing a series of deep, stream-cut ravines, some 10 miles of the AT here became known as the “Roller Coaster” for its ten major ascents of up to 500 feet. It is now a much more challenging hike than PATC’s founders intended, and deemed the most difficult section of the AT in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Distance: 13.9 miles
Total ascents: 3000 feet

Getting there: From I-495 (the Capital Beltway), go west on Route 66 and take exit 23 north on Route 17 to Route 50 at Paris. Go left 1 mile on Route 50 to right turn onto Route 601. In about 0.2 miles, turn left to the small parking lot (may be difficult to see from the road). After leaving a shuttle car, proceed 13 miles north on Route 601. Just before the intersection with Route 7, turn left into the trail access parking lot at Snickers Gap.

Fees: Nonr.

Useful References: PATC’s “Appalachian Trail Guide to Maryland and Northern Virginia” (2015 ed., pp. 146-157); PATC Map #8 (Snickers Gap to Chester Gap)
The Trail

The current route of the Appalachian Trail south of Snickers Gap curls around this
large boulder. The route in this area has seen a couple of shifts since PATC's initial
work in 1927-28

0.0     The blue-blazed access trail to the AT starts in the center of the south side of the parking lot a Snickers Gap (named for John Snicker, who operated a ferry across the Shenandoah River to the west until 1764). At an elevation of only 1,056 feet, about 500 feet below the ridge line, the gap had long been a Native American route into the Shenandoah Valley when colonial settlers first arrived in the 17th century. In July of 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early passed through in his retreat from his attack on Washington D. C.
0.2     Turn left at intersection with white blazed AT. (The white blazes that now mark the full length of the AT were gradually adopted to replace the original combination of axe-cut blazes, copper tags and wooden slats to mark turns and landmarks. Myron Avery adopted the vertical white blaze from Will Monroe, president of the New York chapter of Vermont’s Green Mountain Club, who had chosen to use them on his section of Vermont’s Long Trail.)

 "Totem" in the parking lot at the entrance to Bears Den Hostel

0.6     Reach overlook at Bears Den Rocks and enjoy interesting rock formation and fine view west into Shenandoah Valley. Trail on left leads to Bears Den Hostel in 0.2 mi. For a considerably shorter circuit hike, follow the trail to Bears Den, descend the drive eastward to the hostel’s parking lot, and turn left to return to Snickers Gap on a northbound trail. (Bears Den was originally part of a 620 acre estate that ran from the Blue Ridge to the Shenandoah River. When it was put on the market in the late 1970s, the prospect of private acquisition that would again jeopardize the AT galvanized the PATC to purchase the property in 1981. PATC now manages the hostel under the ATC.)
1.2     Cross tumbling stream on a plank bridge.
3.1     Reach peak near Lookout Point (elevation 1324 feet) after a climb of 500 feet. (Ahead on left, mountains visible from Lookout Point to the south and east mark the route of the original AT from 1928 until landowners forced relocation, initially onto the paved Route 601 just below.)
3.5     Cross old road. In another 0.1 mile, blue-blazed trail on the left leads 90 yards to Sam Moore Shelter.
5.1     Reach Buzzard Hill (elevation of 1250 feet) after a climb of 450 feet. (The view to the west into Shenandoah Valley is notable for the ox-bow bend in the Shenandoah as it meanders north to join the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry.)

The 1927-28 route of the AT between Snickers and Ashby Gaps ran past
Mt. Weather, which now hosts a federal facility (pictured) that is off limits to
the public. The current route roughly parallels the original, but is off to the wes

6.8     Cross Morgans Mill Road (VA 605). Mt. Weather and VA Route 601 are 1.4 miles to the left. (The historic Burwell-Morgan Mill lies due west across the Shenandoah River in Millwood. Named for Lt. Col. Nathanial Burwell and General Dan Morgan, the hero of the battles of Saratoga and Cowpens in the Revolutionary War, the mill was a major supplier of wheat flour in the 19th Century. Morgan Mill Road was one of the early wagon transport routes in the area.)
8.2     Another 500-foot climb reaches knoll on Piney Ridge, the highest point on the hike at 1337 feet. View east.
8.8     Cross creek at Bolden Hollow.
10.1     300-foot boardwalk over wet area marks the end of the long ups and downs of the dreaded Roller Coaster.
10.5     Blue-blazed trail on right leads 0.1 mile to Rod Hollow Shelter and spring.
12.3     Blue-blazed trail on right leads to Myron Glaser Cabin (available for rent to PATC members only).
13.9     Turn left on the blue-blazed trail to reach the end of the hike at the Ashby Gap parking lot. (Named for Captain Thomas Ashby of the Virginia militia, Ashby Gap was originally known as the Upper Thoroughfare of the Blue Ridge and was the primary route to Shenandoah Valley. Winchester Pike, the early name of the road through the gap, became US 50 in 1926, one year before the first bus trip by PATC’s founders to scout this section.)

Work on the AT from Snickers Gap to Ashby Gap was probably completed in mid-summer 1928, as the use of old woods roads obviated extensive trail clearing. The more challenging section of ridgeline lay to the south of Ashby Gap. On the original scouting hike of 1927, a second group had gone south as Avery went north. The second team discovered a wilderness without the old forest roads that eased Avery’s path. As the goal was to reach Linden by winter, it was the Ashby Gap to Manassas Gap section that would be the challenge. This will be the subject of the third hike in this series.
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; Tom Johnson and Chris Brunton contributed to this entry.