Author Archives: benlcollins

Sunset hike up Loudon Heights

29 March 2021

7.9 miles / 1,702 ft height gain / 3 hours 4 minutes

For some time, I’ve wanted to hike one of my regular mountain loops at night. This week, the conditions aligned when I missed a morning slot (too tired!) but still wanted to get out for a decent hike. A night hike was the solution!

I set out after dinner, having kissed my kids goodnight, since I wouldn’t be home before they went to bed.

There’s something special about the light in that hour before sunset. The sun is low in the sky. It’s warm and everything glows. The world seems more relaxed, even nature feels like it’s winding down at the end of the day.

I’ve hiked this trail many times in the past two years, but it felt new doing it at a different time of day. The views were different. Maryland Heights looked magnificent, basked in the evening sun.

I reached the junction in 47 minutes, about 5 minutes slower than usual on account of the big dinner I’d eaten just before setting off. I saw a handful of other hikers on their way down, but then had the mountain to myself, another advantage of going late.

I reached the lookout around 7.20pm, about 10 minutes before sunset. I stayed through the sunset, marveling at the light show and indulging my nature photography passion.

I enjoyed another half hour of fading light, watching a beautiful orange and mauve sky slowly fade out like a puddle evaporate on a hot day.

It’s been so long since I’ve been out in the mountains at night that I harbored a little trepidation about the darkness.

When I made it back to the junction I could barely see my feet on the trail, so I donned the headtorch for the last hour home. The world abruptly shrunk to the narrow beam of light on the trail ahead. I was only spooked twice by rustling in the trees beside the trail. One of those times, when I shone my torch in the direction of the noise, I saw three pairs of eyes staring straight back at me. Deer. Gave me a fright though!

I made it home at 9pm, a little over 3 hours after setting out. A great adventure!

Next, I’d like to try a full night hike, setting out at 9pm.

All these photos were taken on a Google Pixel 5 by hand.

View of Maryland Heights in the evening light
Split rock with Maryland Heights in the background
Beautiful evening light on the Loudon Heights overlook trail
Sunset over Harpers Ferry from Loudon Heights lookout
The rocks lit up briefly before the sun set
Yours truly at the overlook
Lower town of Harpers Ferry at sunset
Potomac River and Harpers Ferry lower town at sunset
Split rock at sunset. Compare with the earlier photo of split rock
Passing the power lines on the way down, as the light ebbed away
I spent the last 45 minutes following the narrow beam of my headtorch

Winter Hiking Season 2020/21

The winter of 2020/21 will go down as an outstanding winter hiking season!

Two things contributed to that: firstly, we live along the Appalachian Trail so have an abundance of great mountain hikes on our doorstep, and second, we had a decent amount of snowfall this winter.

I’m writing this in mid-March so my memory is a bit hazy now (pandemic days all blend into one) but I recall at least 3, perhaps 4 or even 5, snowstorms that each dropped 2 – 6 inches of snow.

Here are highlights of the best snowy walks:

16 December 2020: Snowy walk up Loudon Heights

10.5 miles / 1,828 ft height gain / 3 hrs 32 minutes

Loudon Heights lookout in the snow

More shots on Instagram here, here and here.

23 December 2020: Harpers Ferry to David Lesser Memorial Shelter along AT

19 miles / 2,848 ft height gain / 7 hours 4 minutes

David Lesser Memorial Shelter

A long hike along the Appalachian trail with Lexi. Fantastic day out. Read the full write up here.

More photos on Instagram here.

22 January 2021: Beautiful scenery on the Stone Fort Loop

8.7 miles / 1,592 ft height gain / 2 hrs 37 minutes


Absolutely stunning early morning light on top of Maryland Heights on this loop.

More photos on Instagram here.

31 January 2021: Snowy Stone Fort Loop

10.5 miles / 1,683 ft height gain / 3 hrs 16 minutes

Top of Maryland Heights in the snow

Lovely, long walk in the snow around the Stone Fort Loop. There was already one set of footprints on the trail, which was helpful along the top of the ridge where everything was white.

More photos on Instagram here.

7 February 2021: Walk in a winter wonderland around Virginius Island, Armory Trail and Nash Farm loop

7.7 miles / 856 ft height gain / 2 hrs 34 minutes

Winter wonderland!

Beautiful winter walk around Harpers Ferry!

More photos on Instagram here.

14 February 2021: Loudon Heights to overlook

7.7 miles / 1,693 ft height gain / 2 hrs 39 minutes

Loudon Heights lookout in the snow

Great winter hike up Loudon Heights. It was the most “mountainous” it’s felt, with big views, lots of hoar frost, icy conditions and lots of solitude. Reminded me of climbs in Scotland and the Alps.

More photos on Instagram here.

19 February 2021: Armory trail loop

4.7 miles / 511 ft height gain / 1 hr 41 minutes

No footprints here. Breaking trail through fresh snow.

This hike was memorable because I got to break trail through fresh snow for the whole Nash Farm section.

More photos on Instagram here.

22 February 2021: Winter hike around Stone Fort Loop plus all the extras

12.7 miles / 2,299 ft height gain / 4 hrs 25 minutes

Maryland Heights lookout

The one and only hike where I needed the Yaktrax traction spikes on my boots. I wore them for the whole ascent and descent of the Stone Fort loop, where compacted snow was slippy.

This was an outstanding hike. I was enjoying being out alone on the mountain so much that I explored some of the side trails I’ve never been down before.

More photos on Instagram here. Videos here and here from the top of the ridge.

1 March 2021: Walk along the AT to the power lines break

9.5 miles / 1,706 ft height gain / 3 hrs 8 minutes

On the Appalachian Trail part way up Loudon Heights

The snow was mostly gone, only lying thinly on the northern slopes above Chestnut Hill road but below the ridgeline.

The upper slopes of the mountain were misty and atmospheric, making for a memorable walk.

More photos on Instagram here. And a video of the conditions here.

So there you have it, nine outstanding and memorable winter hikes, mostly up the mountains surrounding Harpers Ferry.

Between these hikes were many other shorter loops around town and sledding trips with the kids.

I love winter! More of the same next year please. Time to get back into winter camping too, methinks…

A Long Day Walk Along The A.T.

Opportunities for long hikes have been rather limited this year, since our longest blocks of childcare since March have been about 6 hours. But for Christmas, we have the grandparents visiting and staying with us. So that meant we had a full day to go hiking.

We decided to do a return hike to Keys Gap and back, around 12 miles. I’d done the walk earlier this year in March.

It was 28 Farenheit when we left the house at 8am. Chilly! We had a flask of tea, a packed lunch and smiles on our faces.

We covered the ground to Keys Gap easily. First up was the junction, after 53 minutes, much slower than usual. We turned right at the junction, headed south on the AT.

Following the junction comes the Harpers Ferry National Park border sign, then the WV/Va State Line sign, then 4 mile camp and then the pylon clearing on the ridge, which offers great views to the valleys and mountains to the East and West.

It was cold on top of the ridge. The sun was anemic and the cold wind kept us moving along.

When we reached Keys Gap, looking at the AT map showing the next stage, Lex turned to me and said “Why don’t we keep going?”

“Yes, why not!”

We set a new goal of reaching David Lesser memorial hut, 3 miles further on, which would add 6 miles to our day.

Would my knees my survive?

The trail was less rocky and gradually rose from Keys Gap. An hour later and the sign popped up to tell us we’d arrived.

The shelter was fantastic. Well built. Clean, spacious, with a huge deck and view out the front. Certainly on the list for future adventures.

We stopped for lunch and a cup of tea. This marked the halfway point of our hike.

After our brief repast, we turned North on the A.T., towards home.

The afternoon light through the bare trees, with snow on the ground, was magical.

Crossing US 340 bridge in the evening light. We reached home just before dusk fell.

It was a wonderful day out with Lex!

It was a 19 mile hike, with 2,800ft height gain.

Out-and-back hike along the Appalachian Trail to Keys Gap

I suspect loop hikes are generally more preferable than out-and-back hikes, as you avoid covering the ground twice and you get to enjoy new scenery for the entire route.

However, out-and-back hikes have their own special charm.

You go as far as you dare, knowing that when you turn around you’re exactly half-way through.

You see all the same scenery, but from a different vantage point on the return leg. Inevitably, you’ll notice different details and appreciate the chance to take it all in for a second time.

You can mark your progress on the way home (negative splits anyone?). You’ll notice landmarks on your return that give you a refernce point for how far you’ve travelled and how much further you have to go.

Personally too, out-and-back hikes along the same route always invoke visions of the great Antarctic explorers, from Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen, to more modern explorers like Borge Ousland and Ben Saunders. These explorers set off from a base camp headed for the pole, before turning around and retracing their steps home. All of them wrestled with the question of when to turn around. They had to solve the equation of distance remaining versus supplies left. Could they reach the pole before food ran out on the return journey? In the words of Shackleton: “Better a live donkey than a dead lion”.

Luckily all I have to worry about is how tired, hungry and thirsty I’ll be at the end of a pleasant walk!

Here is a selection of photos from a 12-mile out-and-back hike along the Appalachian Trail from home to Keys Gap and back.


Am I too old to wear a hat like this?



Downed trees blocking the path, a result of recent storm damage.



Kinda the “summit” of the hike, at least in terms of a view. A break in the trees provides a lookout to the valley where Harpers Ferry Road runs, and across the Loudon Heights.



This entire hike is out-and-back along the Appalachian Trail, signed with white blazes.



New boardwalks added near to Keys Gap to combat erosion in the wet ground.



Keys Gap! Appalachian Trail!



A little bit of history for you. This area is rich in history as it was one of the civil war flashpoints.



Success! Half way point of the hike. Now I just have to retrace my steps home.



White blaze on the Appalachian Trail.



Power line view on the return leg.



Just after you start descending off the ridge, you see the entry sign to the National Park land. Nearly home!



Crossing a broody looking Shenandoah River at the end of the hike. Harpers Ferry is on the left bank.

Winter Hike Up Loudon Heights

Our first winter in Harpers Ferry was extraordinarily mild.

So much so that this was the only hike I did under winter conditions!

Route on Strava and a short video from the hike.


Just outside the office window.



Before any hikes could happen, I had fun building a snowman with the boys.



Crossing the Shenandoah River.



The stairs at the start of the climb, on the Appalachian Trail.



Appalachian Trail South.



Definition of winter. Low sun. Cold.



Whoever invented the built-in hood system is a genius!



Typical trail conditions.



Can you spot the white Appalachian Trail blaze on the tree?



My destination for this hike: the park boundary sign.



My favorite little section of trail up near the top of the ridge, dead straight and flat through a tunnel of trees.



Frosty not looking so good a day later 😂


If you think it’s beautiful in summer, you should see this place in winter. It’s magical.