Category Archives: Hiking

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: 11.1 miles / 2,720 ft ascent / 4 hrs 59 minutes walking time
  • Day 2: 15.2 miles / 3,653 ft ascent / 6 hrs 21 minutes walking time
  • Day 3: 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!

Crowded Clough scramble on Kinder Low with Alistair (Peak District, UK)

29 June 2022

Hike & Scramble / 11.6 miles / 2,499 ft ascent / 5 hours 44 minutes

Hope Valley, Peak District National Park, UK

Alistair is one of my oldest friends. We met at the mountaineering and walking club at university and over the years we’ve walked across the Pyrenees together, done countless trips to the UK mountains (e.g. this Scottish adventure), traversed the mountaineer’s Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, and spent 5 months together in the Andes of South America, nearly getting to the top of Aconcagua together.

However, since my move to the States 10 years ago, we’ve only seen each other once, briefly in 2014 for a short walk around West Kirby Marine Lake.

This year, June 2022, I was in Peak District for 2 weeks with my family, my brother’s family, and the UK grandparents, for a big family reunion after years of Covid restrictions. Alistair lives just around the corner, so it was easy to meet in the Peaks for a day walk together.

Alistair suggested a scramble up Crowded Clough onto Kinder Low and then walking a circuit around the head of the Edale valley.

We had great weather for it!

Alistair on the way up Kinder Low. Crowded Clough is the prominent dark scar, where the stream bed lies.

We began from the village of Edale, also the start of the Pennine Way, and headed up Kinder Low. It was great to catch up on news and reminisce about adventures past.

Looking back towards Edale

Near the top of the climb we entered the stream bed and began the short, wet, but entertaining scramble up Crowded Clough.

Alistair scrambling up Crowded Clough
Higher up on the scramble, which went up to the left of the stream. Fun!

Near the top we had the option to take the path towards the summit of Kinder Low, or complete the scramble up a final awkward chimney. Being the purists that we are, we opted for the scramble.

It was a few bridging steps followed by a heave and a struggle to push up and out of the bowels of the mountain. Here, Alistair demonstrates the sideways traversing technique to exit the top of the chimney:

We continued on over the plateau with the weird stones to the trig point at the top of Kinder Low.

Me and Alistair, some 23 years after our first summit together

From here, we continued around the head of the valley, past many Duke of Edinburgh youth groups (which is how I started my love affair with the mountains), to Brown Knoll, Lord Seat, and eventually Mam Tor.

Crossing the flagstones over Lord Seat

The section from Lord Seat to Mam Tor was more of a defined ridge line, as opposed to open moorland that we’d crossed earlier in the day.

On the ridge towards Mam Tor
Summit of Mam Tor

From Mam Tor, which was rather crowded, we descended to Hollins Cross pass, before turning north into the valley and back to Edale where our cars were parked.

Alistair on the way down to Edale

Back in Edale, we stopped to refuel at the excellent Penny Pot Cafe before our respective drives home.

One of the best parts of climbing mountains is the license to eat whatever you want after a big day!

Truly a top day out with a great friend. The best of days.

Gritstone Edge Walk With Pete (Peak District, UK)

24 June 2022

Hike / 26.1 miles / 3,206 ft ascent / 10 hours 29 minutes

Near Gardom’s Edge, looking west to Baslow

Whenever my family and my brother’s family get together, Pete and I like to squeeze in an adventure together. Last time, in 2019, we did a great walk in the Glyders of Snowdonia. This year, as we were holidaying in the Peak District, we explored the gritstone edges and moors of the Peak District National Park, an area I have not spent much time in before.

It being close to the summer equinox, it was light ridiculously early so we set off before breakfast (we joked it was our alpine start). We left the house at 5.30 am, and began walking just before 6 am from the Robin Hood pub (picture in the background and an excellent country pub to boot!):

Smiling despite the early start 🙂

Our route was an out-and-back along the western gritstone edges in the Peaks, including: Gardom’s Edge, Baslow Edge, Curbar Edge, Froggatt Edge, Burbage Edge, and Stanage Edge (similar to this All Trails route).

Yours truly looking out towards Baslow

Shortly after crossing Clodhall Lane, on our way up to Curbar Edge, we saw a basking adder on the trail. Despite Pete and I living in parts of the world where snakes are more numerous, this was my first sighting of 2022!

A basking adder, one of the few species of venomous snakes in the UK

The route traversed a series of escarpments — edges — that we followed along the tops. They ran generally south-to-north, punctuated by roads running east-to-west.

Consequently, the expansive views we enjoyed were generally to the West, into the central Peaks. But we could also often see the next edge on our route to the north (or south on the return leg).

Yours truly on Curbar Edge

Roughly halfway through the outward leg (so, one quarter distance for the day) we walked through Longshaw Estate, passing close by the sprawling Longshaw Lodge:

We traversed Burbage Edge in thick mist, which lent an end-of-the-world feel to the place. Views towards the valley disappeared over the edge.

Burbage Edge

The best thing about these days is not the scenery of course, nor the adventure at hand. No, it’s spending a full day with my brother and chatting and goofing around together again. I miss doing this more frequently.

Our final edge was the grandaddy of them all, Stanage Edge. I’ve walked and climbed here before, so I was vaguely familiar with the area, although our southerly approach and the thick mist meant I didn’t recognize anything specifically.

The trig point at the southern end of Stanage Edge

We walked most of Stanage Edge, past Robin Hood’s cave, but we stopped short of the road crossing that borders the north edge. My Strava read 13 miles at the turnaround, so we knew we still had a long way to go to get home.

Pete above Robin Hood’s cave

Our route home was mostly over the same ground, although we took the low route beneath the edges when we could.

View down Burbage South Valley

We started feeling weary at this stage, eighteen miles into the walk, as we passed Burbage Edge for the second time.

Burbage Edge on the return

We took a different route through the Longshaw Estate on the return leg, opting to walk around Granby Wood since we’d bypassed it earlier in the day. It was easy terrain through the estate.

Rhododendron bushes on the Longshaw Estate

Our weary feet and creaking knees carried us over Curbar Edge again, and this time the clouds made for a wonderful backdrop to the English countryside.

Curbar Edge
The man, the myth, the mountain: Pete on Curbar Edge.

Not going to lie, the last couple of miles were tiring!

We walked a tad over 26 miles all up, so a marathon distance. Not bad for a couple of old buggers. I think this is the longest walk I’ve ever done in a day (notwithstanding the handful of ultra runs I’ve done, which were further).

My knees are the limiting factor for me now, and they were quite tender by the end of this walk. I didn’t have my poles with me, which would have helped. I do think I can go slightly further though, so the next goal of course is 30 miles in a day.

To summarize, a truly fantastic day out with Pete! One I’ll remember fondly for the rest of my life, along with the myriad other adventures we’ve done together. Cheers bro!

North along the A.T. to Gathland State Park and return

25th May 2022

Hike / 23.8 miles / 2,902 ft ascent / 8 hours 52 minutes

View from Weverton Cliffs back towards Harpers Ferry

Originally I had hoped to get away for a few days hiking or biking, to celebrate finishing a big work project. But I was so exhausted from work and parenting that I couldn’t muster the motivation to plan a multi-day trip. I settled on a long day walk instead.

I left home around 9.45am with plenty of food and water. I wanted to see if I could reach Gathland State Park and return, which I knew would be a long walk.

After walking through Harper Ferry, I had a peaceful hour along the canal. It’s a pretty stretch along the banks of the Potomac River.

I was on the Appalachian Trail for the whole day, so I followed it away from the canal and up Weverton Cliffs. After a snack break at the lookout, I continued onwards, heading north.

Once you’re on top of the ridge, the trail is relatively flat and easy going, so the miles passed easily.

Typical conditions along the Appalachian Trail

I reached the Ed Garvey shelter around lunchtime and stopped there for lunch. I chatted with a few other hikers who were part way through their long hikes.

Time for lunch at the shelter!

The shelter is fantastic, with an upstairs closed-in section, and plenty of camping spots. I will return to stay here overnight someday.

The Ed Garvey shelter, easily the best lean to shelter I’ve seen.

At the shelter I had a choice. Do I turn around and head home, a 17-mile round trip that I did last summer? Or, do I push on to reach Gathland State Park, another 4 further on?

Of course, I chose to continue. I felt good and I was enjoying being out in the woods. I had plenty of food and water with me.

It was more of the same through the woods on the AT north. It’s a nice, quiet section.

I reached Gathland State Park mid-afternoon, and stopped to explore some of the history of this area.

The War Correspondents arch at Gathland State Park, the halfway mark and my turnaround point.

I’ve been to Gathland State Park once before, with Lexi, when we headed north from Gathland to climb Lamb’s Knoll. So the route today closed that gap in my AT coverage.

After another snack, I turned around and headed back south along the AT to Weverton Cliffs.

6 miles back to Weverton Cliffs, heading south now

I didn’t stop at the Ed Garvey shelter on the way home, but I couldn’t resist another stop at the lookout. It’s such a fabulous view!

A lone turkey vulture flying over the summit of Weverton Cliffs on my return

24 miles along the AT is quite tiring and I was stiff and tired the next day. But being outdoors all day is so good for the soul.

All in all, a great day out. I can’t wait to get back out there!

Loudoun Heights Loop Route, with Lexi

18 April 2022

Hike / 9.3 miles / 1,443 ft ascent / 3 hours 18 minutes

Some photos from the Loudoun Heights loop hike that Lexi and I did in April. Amazingly we had snow flurries on the second half of the walk.

Crossing the Shenandoah river, looking at Maryland Heights on the left and Loudoun Heights on the right
This view never gets old
At Loudoun Heights lookout together, with Harpers Ferry in the background

Instead of returning to Harpers Ferry back the same way, we decided to take the old path off the back of Loudoun Heights and then cross the 340 to the canal towpath. This was the first time I’d done this route. It’ll make for a nice shortcut on the Three Peaks hike.

Crossing 340, the old route of the Appalachian Trail
Looking back to Loudoun Heights, from the 340 over the Potomac River
Crossing the footbridge over the Potomac back into Hapers Ferry, contending with unexpected snow