Mid-week bikepacking overnighter

10th – 11th January 2023

Day 1: Home to Killiansburg Cave Campsite, 16.8 miles

Taking inspiration from Alistair Humphreys with his microadventures, Beau Miles with his backyard adventures, and, my own brother, who has been a strong advocate for mid-week getaways, I headed out for a little overnight adventure of my own this week.

The idea is to leave after a normal work day, head out for your overnight adventure, and then return the following morning, so you can go back to work without missing a beat. Theoretically, it doesn’t eat into work time, and only requires a minimal amount of time away from the family.

I left at 3pm — it gets dark by 5.30pm in January — so I could reach camp in the daylight.

It was fun to load the bike up again in bikepacking mode. It’s been a while! I also had a rucsac with me for camp stuff, since the winter sleeping bag took up the whole seatpack.

Cannondale cyclocross bike loaded up, at the steps to Harpers Ferry
The ride was a straight shot ~17 smooth(ish) miles along the C&O canal
A typical hiker biker campsite along the C&O canal – this one is Killiansburg Cave campsite.
Home from home – a Nemo Hornet 1p. Very comfortable and very light weight. I’m looking forward to more field testing soon.
Had just enough daylight left to squeeze in my dinner before it got dark…
…but not enough daylight to also make my hot chocolate. That was enjoyed in the dark!
Plenty of time in the tent — there was 14 hours of darkness — to write in the journal and read on my kindle.

Day 2: Killiansburg Cave Campsite to home, 16.8 miles

I slept ok, but not as well as those nights on the A.T. last year. The 17 mile ride hadn’t tired me out nearly to the same extent. I sleep best in the tent when I’m completely beat up after a super long day.

I woke naturally as the dawn broke, at around 6.30ish. I popped out the tent and made breakfast in the half-light, then retreated back to the warmth of my sleeping bag to eat the breakfast.

Bizarrely, I managed to tweak my neck during this lying-down breakfast, which made the rest of the day uncomfortable. Curse you, old age!

I got away around 8ish and enjoyed a quiet ride home along the canal, only passing a handful of dog walkers. I was warm and comfortable, despite the temperatures in the low 30’s F (a little above freezing C). It was only my extremities that took a while to warm up.

The campsite at dawn, around 6.30am.
Breakfast with a view, even if it was a tad chilly (the temperature, not the breakfast).
Miles of quiet gravel trail – buenisimo!
The C&O canal and towpath at Antietam Campground
Reflection in the Potomac River, from Antietam Aqueduct
Back at Harpers Ferry, beneath the Maryland Heights cliffs, just before crossing the pedestrian bridge back into town.

Appalachian Trail backpacking with Alistair: Ashby Gap to Harpers Ferry

12 November – 14 November 2022

My good friend Alistair — who I walked with in the Peak District earlier this year — came to Harpers Ferry for a visit and we got out for a 3-day backpack along my local section of Appalachian Trail: the infamous roller coaster section.

We had a fabulous three days, starting with a warm shorts and t-shirt weather and ending with below-freezing conditions, a true changing of the seasons.

Here’s a selection of photos from our hike north along the AT. Enjoy!

Route: Ashby Gap to Harpers Ferry

  • Day 1 (red): 11.1 miles / 2,720 ft ascent / 4 hrs 59 minutes walking time
  • Day 2 (purple): 15.2 miles / 3,653 ft ascent / 6 hrs 21 minutes walking time
  • Day 3 (blue): 12.2 miles / 1,564 ft ascent / 4 hrs 13 minutes walking time

Day 1: Ashby Gap to Sam Moore shelter

Lexi and the boys dropped us off at Ashby Gap, and walked with us for the first mile or so, before they turned around back to the car. It was wonderful to share the start of the trip with the family. Hopefully they’ll want to come with me when they’re a little older.

Lexi and the boys walked the first mile with us – a fine send off! (Photo by Lexi)
Recent rain meant all the streams were flowing, nice to see after such a dry summer
Starting the roller coaster, an infamous 13 miles of trail in VA that goes up and down, and up and down, and up and down, and up and down…
Alistair following the white blazes
Stream crossing near Morgans Mill Road

This section of trail is known as the roller coaster, and for good measure. Over 13 miles, it ascends and descends ten ridges! We certainly felt it in our legs.

We were slightly slower than expected, arriving on the summit of Buzzard Hill in the late afternoon. The light was beautiful. I’ve climbed Buzzard Hill a few times before, but never from the south.

Enjoying the golden hour light on top of Buzzard Hill (photo by Alistair)
Alistair and me on the summit of Buzzard Hill
View from the summit of Buzzard Hill in the evening light

We left the summit of Buzzard Hill to walk the final mile and a half to the Sam Moore shelter, where we camped for the night.

We arrived just before dark — around 5pm this time of year — and had just enough light to locate a couple of suitable tent sites and find water in the spring.

I had iodine tablets with me for purification, but we both used Alistair’s Sawyer Mini filter, which was preferable as it didn’t alter the taste of the water.

Sam Moore shelter sign – our home for the night
First task on arrival at camp was to retrieve (and filter) water from Sawmill Spring

After the tents were pitched, we cooked and ate dinner with three other hikers at the shelter picnic area. One of the other hikers remarked “I’m surprised to see others out here! I thought I’d be the only one mad enough to camp out at this time of year!”

The warmth of the day continued into the evening, so it was comfortable to sit out, eating and chatting under head torch. The temperature dropped during the night.

Alistair’s tent on the left, mine on the right, outside Sam Moore shelter

After dinner, the final task of the day was to hang our food out of reach of the bears on the metal pole near the shelter.

Then, sleep.

Alistair hanging his food to prevent bears causing any trouble

Day 2: Sam Moore shelter to David Lesser shelter

I slept really well. With darkness from 5.30 pm until nearly 7 am, it gives you a long time to rest in the tent.

Camped next to the Sam Moore shelter (in the background, left of the tents)

I love camping, and living out in the woods, so it was a real treat to wake up surrounded by trees and nature. After retrieving our foods bags, we retreated to our respective tents to cook and enjoy breakfast from sleeping bags, since it was much, much colder than the evening before.

My MSR Pocket Rocket stove still going strong after all these years
Alistair (in blue) and me (in red) ready to depart Sam Moore shelter for our second day of walking.

The second day was more of the same: up and down, up and down, on repeat.

It was hard work, with the heavy bags and lack of backpacking specific fitness. We both remarked that it was one of the hardest days we’ve done for a while. Certainly by the end of the day, my back was stiff and aching from carrying the backpack. Thankfully, my knees, which I was worried about before this trip, felt great and gave me no trouble at all.

Me crossing one of the many streams along the route (photo by Alistair)
Alistair striding out along the AT

We enjoyed the wonderful vistas from the Bears Den lookout and an hour or so later, from the Raven Rocks lookout. I’m familiar with both of these lookouts from previous hikes (this one and this one), but I’m more than happy to return and enjoy them again and again. It was neat to arrive at these lookouts during a multi-day trip this time.

View at Bears Den lookout
Me and Alistair at Raven Rocks lookout

There’s one more ridge line to climb up and over before reaching the end of the roller coaster section. We were looking forward to a section of flatter, easier trail!

Phew! We reached the end of the roller coaster section of the trail
My happy place 🙂

Since the day had taken longer than we expected, we opted to collect water from the Blackburn Trail Center (which we knew had a reliable, outdoor spigot), rather than have to find the spring at the David Lesser shelter in the dark. This proved to be a good move, as the spring is quite a way down the hill from the shelter.

Relaxing on the sun loungers at the Blackburn Trail Center, where we filled up with water
Beautiful views from the lookout just north of Blackburn Trail Center

We arrived at the David Lesser shelter in the dark, but quickly found two tent sites and got situated. We were both exhausted.

It was a really cold night, so we cooked and ate dinner as quickly as we could before retiring to tents to get warm. The David Lesser shelter has a bear box, so we stored our food there for the night.

We walked with head torches for the final half an hour
Dinner in the dark that night!

Day 3: David Lesser shelter to Harpers Ferry, including Loudoun Heights lookout

I had no idea what the view was like from the shelter because we’d pitched in the dark the night before. I woke about 6.30 am and when I saw the orange glow outside the tent walls, I jumped up, camera in hand, and took a bunch of photos. It was beautiful. I was like a kid-in-a-candy shop!

Sublime camp spot below the David Lesser shelter
An amazing view to wake up to!

It was another cold morning, so we opted to cook and eat breakfasts from the porches of our tents. It was bliss, sitting in my sleeping bag with a cup of tea, just enjoying the view of the woods and the silence of just being. I felt more content than I have done for a long time. I was in no rush to pack up and start hiking.

What a spot for breakfast!

We eventually got away at about 9.30 am, after seeing the shelter and signing the logbook.

Alistair relaxing in the very comfortable recliner at the David Lesser shelter

This third day was much easier than the two previous days. The trail was flat or downhill mostly, so we made much better time, apart from a few sections of very rocky trail that required more care.

Yours truly on the AT, wearing lots of orange because fall is hunting season (even if it’s not an explicit hunting area, it’s still a wise idea this time of year). (Photo by Alistair.)

As we approached Harpers Ferry, the trail became more familiar to me. Keys Gap, the boardwalks, the power line break, 4-mile camp, the WV/VA state border, and finally into Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

We had plenty of daylight and both felt great so we opted to take the side trail to Loudoun Heights overlook. I wanted to show Alistair my favorite local walk.

Nearly home! Entering Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Boulder en route to Loudoun Heights lookout, with Maryland Heights in the background

We spent a bit of time exploring the lookout — our final “summit” of the trip — before the final descent into Harpers Ferry and home.

There’s something special about finishing (or starting!) an adventure from your doorstep. You walk through the front door, drop your bag, and make yourself a cup of tea, as if you’ve just got back from an hour’s stroll.

Alistair and me at Loudoun Heights lookout, with Harpers Ferry in the background
Last steps along the AT before joining US340 to cross the Shenandoah River
Crossing the Shenandoah, with Maryland Heights on the left, and Loudoun Heights on the right

All in all, a fabulous three days with one of my oldest friends. What more could you ask for!

Best of Fall Colors 2022

November 3rd: The fall colors were especially vibrant this year and although we’ve passed the peak, there is still plenty of color around.

As I was organizing some photos after a recent hike, I realized I had a lot of shots of the fall foliage that were in danger of disappearing on my hard drive. So here they are!

They’re not presented in any particular order. All the photos were taken on a Google Pixel 5 smartphone and lightly edited in Google Photos.

Harpers Ferry Area, West Virginia

Sugar Maple Trees on Bolivar Heights, October 25th.
Another view of the same sugar maples on Bolivar Heights, October 23rd.
View up to the canopy of these same trees, Bolivar Heights, October 23rd. You can see which side faces south and catches the sun.
Looking up between the rows of Sugar Maple trees, Bolivar Heights, October 23rd.
Beautiful red tree between Lockwood House and Brackett House, on the former Storer College campus, November 3rd.
Behind the Lewis Anthony Library, Storer College campus, November 3rd.
The trails are all covered with beds of leaves at the moment. This is on the way up Loudoun Heights, October 27th.
Sugar Maple leaves on the trail up Loudoun Heights, October 13th.
Reflections in the Shenandoah River from Shannondale Springs Wildlife Management Area, October 30th.
Crossing the Shenandoah River on US340, October 27th.
Reflections in the Potomac River, October 10th.
Ruined canal house underneath the cliffs at Maryland Heights, November 2nd.
Rail bridge over the Potomac River, November 2nd.

Asheville area, North Carolina

We spent a week near Asheville, NC, in October for the Founders Summit conference. We took the whole family and managed to fit in a few short hikes during the week. The fall colors were stunning.

Wintergreen Falls, Dupont State Forest, October 17th
At Kanuga Inn & Lodging campus for the Founders Retreat conference, October 16th
From a walk on the trails at Kanuga Inn, October 19th
Hickory Nut Falls, Chimney Rock State Park, October 20th

C&O Bike Tour 2 with the boys (Shepherdstown to Horseshoe Bend campsite, return)

9 – 10 October 2022

After the success of our first bike tour, I was keen to get the boys out for another adventure before the weather got too cold. With a long weekend coming up, and a stable — but cold — weather forecast, it was perfect time for it.

On the last tour, we rode from the C&O Canal Parking at Shepherdstown to lower town Harpers Ferry, over 3 days and 2 nights. This time, we started from the same place but rode upstream, away from Harpers Ferry.

The plan was to ride for 8 miles to Horseshoe Bend campsite, camp for 1 night, then reverse the route the next day to meet Lexi at the parking spot again.

In some ways, it’s an even better route because there are fewer people and less bike traffic. It’s completely in the woods so the scenery is lovely. The surface is good quality crushed gravel with only a few rough patches.

Day 1: Shepherdstown to Horseshoe Bend campsite (8 miles)

We set off after lunch on Sunday. I remember feeling a bit stressed that morning getting ready. But that soon all melted away once we got underway. The boys were really excited again and all smiles as we set off.

Setting off from Shepherdstown

The trail is beautiful, traffic-free, and flat, so it’s ideal for riding with the boys. At points it drops down steeply to the river, so I had to encourage Owen to look forwards and ride in a straight line. He does weave about a bit but he did tremendously well to ride the full distance on his tiny bike.

The C&O Canal trail is ideal for riding with kids since there is only one way to go and no traffic

When I’m out with the boys, my policy is to stop whenever they want to explore. They don’t want to ride non-stop like I do, they want to see things and engage with nature. It’s the best way to keep them happy and break up the day so we can cover the distance and keep it fun.

On this section of the canal, there are tons of caves to explore, so we stopped at just about every one.

Lots of caves to explore along this section of the trail

We also stopped by the river whenever opportunity presented itself. I’m happy to enjoy the stunning river vista and the boys are happy to hunt for shells, bugs, and fish.

Watching the minnows at Snyder’s Landing boat ramp

I had to encourage the boys to keep pedaling, to keep some momentum, to ensure we could get to camp before it went dark though.

Brothers on the trail together

We pulled into Horseshoe Bend hiker biker campsite around 5.30pm, an hour or so before dark. This gave ample time to set up the tent, make dinner, and, you guessed it, explore the surroundings.

Our tent at Horseshoe Bend campsite

It was a beautiful fall evening and the colors along the river were starting to show. In another week or so, it’ll be sublime!

Beautiful fall colors along the Potomac River

We shared the campsite with one other bike tourer, a gentleman named Mike, who was riding from Pittsburgh to D.C. (this is the GAP + C&O combined, that Pete and I did as part of our 2014 NE bike tour).

Full view of the campsite

Mike had a fire going already when we arrived, and the boys enjoyed this as much for the spectacle of the fire as for the warmth. It was a cold evening, a portent of things to come.

Enjoying the warmth of a campfire and hot chocolate (wishing we’d brought s’mores stuff!)

It was dark by 7.30 so we were in the tent before 8 to read books (Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, fantastic story!).

The boys were asleep by around 9, me shortly afterwards.

It was a cold night! It got down to 34 F. The boys slept right through the night but I woke up a few times rather cold, my old summer sleeping bag not quite cutting it. Not a bad night though, I had plenty of layers to put on.

Day 2: Horseshoe Bend campsite to Shepherdstown (8 miles)

We awoke to a beautiful morning, with mist hanging over the river.

Mist on the Potomac River at daybreak
Waking up in the tent after a cold night. The boys slept as well as they do at home! 🙂

Owen helped me make peanut butter bagels and hot chocolate (for the boys), granola and tea (for me) on the camp stove. Once made, we took the breakfast back to the tent to eat with Dominic, from the warmth of our sleeping bags.

Packed up and ready to ride, morning of day 2

The riding on day 2 was a reverse of day 1’s route. They were a little tired so I bribed them with M&Ms every time we stopped.

Rough area ahead (but it wasn’t bad at all)
Dominic and Owen on the trail
Me bringing up the rear

Dominic found a great rocky beach to explore mid-morning. We found lots of river clam shells (some really big ones) and hung out for a half hour or so playing games and watching the river rush by.

Beach combing along the Potomac

Again, we explored some of the many caves in the area. The boys wanted to go deeper than I was willing to go. When Dominic said “Dad, we’ll have to crawl through here” I said that was far enough 😉

I just need to mention “spider!” if I want to get them out the cave quickly

We had a longer lunch break at Taylor’s landing (incidentally where I met Chuck on a paddle board trip a couple of months ago).

The boys were content to balance on this log and jump back to the shore. Everything is a playground at this age.

The Great Outdoors. Best playground in the world.

We passed a (water) snake on the towpath after lunch. The boys were fascinated. Soon after, we saw a couple of field mice, which would have made a tasty snack for the snake.

Snake on the trail! A water snake (I think)

Half a mile further on, we crossed paths with Chuck and his buddy, out on a bike ride going the opposite direction, and chatted with them for a while.

Then all that remained was to ride the last couple of miles back to the parking lot at Shepherdstown, where Lexi met us.

Lexi took the boys and their bikes, the trailer, and all the camping gear home. I rode back home on my bike. It was a nice to ride a light bike again.

Overall, it was great fun and another successful trip together. Way more fun that sitting around the house and watching TV. I think the boys enjoyed it as much as I did. My goal is to have them enjoy it so they want to keep doing these adventures for years to come.