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.
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.
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.
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.