The Three Ridges along the AT in Central Virginia is touted as one of the most popular circuits in the Mid-Atlantic. With frequent and expansive views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, ample camping, and terrain that is just rugged enough to whet even die hard backpacker's need for a little challenge, it is easy to understand why this ranks as a regional favorite.
At the end of 2015, Jordan, Jeff, Elisabeth and I planned to backpack the Three Ridges loop with the addition of Spy Rock, Crabtree Falls, and the Priest. I thought the views and waterfall would be a great way to introduce Elisabeth to backpacking. Despite being in the last quarter of marathon training, the climb from the parking lot to Spy Rock left me gasping and my quads and calves burning. Elisabeth survived the trip with guts, determination, and a belly full of tuna noodle surprise. The views were outstanding from both Spy Rock and the Priest, but it was obvious after the first day that the almost 50-mile route was more challenging than I had anticipated. We bailed before hiking the Three Ridges. (Total point-to-point route shown in CalTopo map below. For the Spy Rock, Crabtree Falls, and Priest section we stopped at Crabtree Falls Highway).
Fast forward to the end of November 2016. Jordan and I were both recovering from upper respiratory sickness, but in dire need of some time outdoors. (I'm convinced city life and office work are the root of these colds!) The 20-ish mile Three Ridges loop (shown in red on the CalTopo map below) from Reed's Gap was the perfect remedy. Though 20 miles can often be a day trek for us, we opted to make the route extra relaxing and leisurely by breaking the loop into a two night backpacking trip.
On Friday night we met at the Wal*Mart parking lot in Haymarket, VA where Jordan left his car for the weekend. We arrived at the Reed's Gap parking lot just off the Blue Ridge Parkway hours after dark. The stars, unhampered by light pollution or clouds, were brilliant. The air was unseasonably warm.
I hadn't been backpacking since Labor Day Weekend, but my Jade 40 hugging my back was like visiting with an old friend- comfortable. We climbed a couple hundred feet and about a mile up to the ridge line where we would spend most of the next day. There were numerous established campsites and we hunkered down without the rainfly at an available site that was sheltered by bare trees. With so few miles to hike, we comfortably turned off alarms and phones and fell asleep under the rising moon.
Shortly after sunrise began illuminating the tent walls, we rose, ate breakfast, packed, and began to trek. In hindsight, we could have left our tent and sleeping necessities on the ridge while we hiked for the day as the trip lollipops back to the ridge. Within a mile and a half of hiking from camp, the trail drops from the ridge into a ravine where the Mau-Har Trail and the AT intersect. We continued south along the AT. Turning onto the Mau-Har trail leads to a 6-8 person shelter, a privy, and numerous well-established tent sites.
Climbing back out of the ravine up Bee Mountain, along the Three Ridges, and across Chimney Rock we were greeted with view after spectacular view. During our trip, views were a little hazy, but the ridge lines and dramatic (by east coast standards) landscapes are certainly not to be missed. In particular, we enjoyed climbing and playing on the rocks at Chimney Rock. For people backpacking the trip differently than our loop, there are several established campsites on this section of the ridge, but the ridge is dry.
From Chimney Rock, the AT descends again to an intersection with the Mau-Har Trail. Before the intersection, the trail crosses Harpers Creek where a shelter with privy and water is a stones throw from the trail. When we reached the Mau-Har trail intersection, I was reminded that if I'm going to SoBo section-hike the entire trail, I will have an outstanding 2-mile section from Crabtree Falls Highway to this intersection to revisit.
Shortly after turning onto the Mau-Har Trail, signage for a detour to a waterfall are worth following. Jordan and I climbed down to the waterfall and the photos we snapped of the flowing cascade are among the best of the trip. Seeing the plunge pool at the toe of the waterfall, we thought of Dave and Joffrey. Though the day had warmed up to comfortable shorts and tee-shirt weather, neither Jordan or I could bring ourselves to take a dip in the chilly pool. The trail continues along the Campbell Creek and numerous swimming holes leave open invitations for warmer days.
The elevation gain and climbing of the ridge during the morning were countered by the terraced descents and flat on this section of the trail. As we moseyed along, shifting weather patterns brought wind storms of fallen leaves. The trees lining the trail creaked and moaned. Before long, we arrived at the clearing for the shelter which was already occupied by a couple of men with cases of beer and handles of whiskey. Hopefully some of the nearby campers were planning to help finish some of the booze. Jordan and I continued on the Mau-Har Trail to the AT and retraced our steps along the ridge. When we found a site with a sufficient westerly view, we setup camp and enjoyed a campfire by the setting sun.
Overnight the wind was ferocious and the t-shirt weather we enjoyed the previous day was replaced with a light dusting of snow on our tent. As we watched the sunrise from the warmth of our sleeping bags, snow flurries lazily fell from the sky. The winter-wear we scoffed at packing and schlepping all day was put to good use for the hike back to the car.