Tag Archives: Woods

Appalachian Trail backpacking with Alistair: Ashby Gap to Harpers Ferry

12 November – 14 November 2022

My good friend Alistair β€” who I walked with in the Peak District earlier this year β€” 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 β€” around 5pm this time of year β€” 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 πŸ™‚

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 β€” our final “summit” of the trip β€” 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

Buzzard Hill Appalachian Trail hike

[Editor’s note: this hike took place at the end of August, the week before my and Lexi’s wedding, when everything was extremely hectic. It was the perfect antidote to the stress we were feeling at the time. And now, I’m finally catching up on blogging!]

Length: 9 miles — Height gain: 3,000ft

Known as the “roller coaster”, this section of the Appalachian Trail is an hour drive outside of DC, to the north of Shenandoah NP, and somewhere we had not yet explored.

AT South sign

AT South sign

The trail duly lived up to its name with hardly a flat mile as we climbed and descended all day. Our reward was a stunning lookout from the summit of Buzzard Hill. We gazed out at an endless sea of wooded hills, entirely natural and devoid of man made intrusions.

Hiking south along the AT

Hiking south along the AT

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View from the summit of Buzzard Hill

View from the summit of Buzzard Hill

The team at the summit

The team at the summit

First signs of fall

First signs of fall

This turned out to be one of the harder hikes I’d done in the DC area, on account of the endless up and down. My calves ached for days after this one! The view was one of the best though, so this is definitely going in the memory bank as a great day out.

Check out the hiking guide – information on this site here.

New Zealand Part I – The Kepler Track

β€œFiordland, a vast tract of mountainous terrain that occupies the south-west corner of South Island, New Zealand, is one of the most astounding pieces of land anywhere on God’s earth, and one’s first impulse, standing on a cliff top surveying it all, is simply to burst into spontaneous applause.” – Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See

Kepler Track Day 1

Murchison Mountains, Lake Te Anau, Kepler Track Day 1

28 November 2013: We were a party of four (yours truly, my girlfriend Lexi, my brother Pete and his girlfriend Lisa) lacing up our boots and making last-minute adjustments to our backpacks at the start of The Kepler Track, a 60km tramp in Fiordland National Park, in the South Island of New Zealand. Ahead was four days of backpacking through alpine mountains and beech forests, from summits to sandy shores, where we would be bathed in sunshine, battered by wind, and dampened by rain.

Kepler Track Day 1

Alpine tarn, Kepler Track Day 1

Our walk began from the door of our hotel in Te Anau. What better way to start than straight from the breakfast buffet station, no driving, no more procrastinating. We picked up our hut passes at the Doc centre en route, a little way outside Te Anau. The weather forecast looked promising, which was all I was hoping for at this stage. Day Two of the walk was the “alpine” day, when we would spend all day above the treeline, crossing some of the ridges of the Jackson Peaks. As long as the weather permitted us access to the higher mountains, and our walk could proceed as planned, I would be happy. At this stage, all looked good.

The route followed the shore of Lake Te Anau to Brod Bay, with the beautiful Murchison mountains as a backdrop (see the first photo), before beginning a long climb through beech forest, eventually emerging above the treeline and finishing at the Luxmore hut. The sun shone, we sweated our way uphill in shorts and t-shirts, reaching the hut around 5pm. The views that opened up as we emerged from the forest were spectacular, at once justifying the effort needed to reach that point.

Sunset from the Luxmore Hut looking out over Lake Te Anau

Sunset from the Luxmore Hut looking out over Lake Te Anau

The Luxmore hut was pleasant and comfortable (as were all the huts on this walk) when judged by the standards of some prior trips (when we’ve been known to sleep on the snow slopes of Mt Blanc in a blizzard sans tent for example). It’s been a while since my last hut trip (I think the Swiss Alps in 2011?) but, as often at mountain huts, it had a welcoming, convivial atmosphere (although, beware of the “socks-ygen”, as the hut warden Peter informed us, from 30 pairs of fruity hiking socks, that would also be present in the atmosphere if we didn’t open a few windows and ventilate the dormitory that night). I was dog tired at day’s end, but insanely happy to be in the outdoors again.

We woke to a slightly different forecast which, rather unsurprisingly for this region (one of the wettest on earth), predicted rain and stronger winds. No bother we thought! We had all the right gear and it certainly wasn’t too dangerous. We would be just fine, with a dollop or two of old-fashioned stoicism.

Kepler Pano

Panorama from the Kepler Track over Lake Te Anau

“A bit breezy on top, maybe a bit damp too” were the words of the hut warden as we left. Typical understated Kiwi humour. It was indeed a bit breezy (reaching 100km/h we were informed at the next hut!), which made for a rough-and-tumble sort of day and a well-earned dinner. The thick cloud scudded across the sky, revealing, hiding and teasing us with dramatic views of the mountains and lakes all around us. My brother and I made the short detour to climb Mt Luxmore, which was a relatively quick scramble to the summit and tremendous views over Lake Te Anau. We caught up with the girls at the Forest Burn emergency shelter, where we stopped for lunch and enjoyed a brief respite from the rain.

Summit of Mount Luxmore

Summit of Mount Luxmore, Day 2

Kepler Track Day 2

Kepler Track Day 2, can anyone spot Lexi in the photo?

Pete above the South Arm of Lake Te Anau

Pete above the South Arm of Lake Te Anau

The scenery more than made up for the weather. We felt ALIVE! The elements forced us into the present, the here and now, a coarser, more primitive existence for a day, no bad thing in our modern, tech-obsessed lives. I, for one, would not have traded places with anyone that day.

On the march

On the march – “a bit breezy on top”

Kepler Track Ridgeline

Fantastic views from the ridge line

A Kea

A Kea (the only alpine parrot species) outside the Hanging Valley Shelter – they are inquisitive, mischievous creatures

Descending off the ridge

Descending off the ridge

A series of stepped sections along the final, narrow ridge below the second shelter (the Hanging Valley shelter) felt slightly precarious in the wind, but we were at last safely below the treeline. What a day it had been. We still had several kilometres to go, down through the verdant Fiordland rainforest, where seemingly everything, except the odd twisted tree, was coated with moss.

Fiordland Forest

Twisted tree in Fiordland forest

Fiordland rainforest

Incredibly verdant Fiordland rainforest – moss was everywhere

Iris Burns Falls

Iris Burns Falls

The second half of the walk, from Iris Burns hut back to Te Anau, was of a different nature to what we had encountered so far. With the mountains behind us, we spent these final two days among the trees, where the landscape was measured in metres, not kilometres. The joy was in the detail, the vividness of the green mosses, the precise geometry of the fern fronds, the stark black of the tree trunks against the white misty backdrop.

Kepler Track Day 3

Misty rainforest, Kepler Track Day 3

Hiking through the rainforest

Hiking through the rainforest

Enjoying the silence and beauty of the forest

Enjoying the silence and beauty of the forest

Our third and final night on the track was passed at Moturau Hut, on the shores of Lake Manapouri. After a night in the mountains, a night in the forest next to a waterfall, it was fitting to finish with a night on the lakeshore with a sandy beach. After dinner we were treated to a sunset to remember. It began with some incredibly warm light breaking through under the cloud base, which had everyone scampering out of the hut and down to the beach with cameras:

Lake Manapouri Sunset 1

Lake Manapouri Sunset 1

The light kept improving as the sun’s rays filtered between the mountain tops, reflecting in the lake:

Lake Manapouri Sunset 2

Lake Manapouri Sunset 2

And the final act was the best of all, as the colours turned pink and illuminated a lone cloud over the mountains:

Lake Manapouri Sunset 3

Lake Manapouri Sunset 3

Our fourth and final day of tramping took us from the Moturau Hut all the way back to Te Anau. It was a straightforward day, with little up or down, through forests and along rivers. A mellow day of walking, giving us plenty of time to reflect and scheme up future adventures. The sun was shining and the team were in high spirits as we departed the hut:

The team at Moturau hut

The team at Moturau hut, start of day 4

Lexi headstand

Lexi couldn’t resist a quick headstand on the beach before we set off

Wire bridge

Wire bridge, day 4 of the Kepler Track

Amongst the ferns

Amongst the ferns

After four days, 60km of walking, three huts, two keas, two rare whios (blue ducks), more sunshine than we expected, amazing views and more ferns than you can shake a stick at, we were all too soon back in Te Anau. The walk had passed far too quickly, and I felt sad to be back in civilisation so soon! But we had more adventures planned for this trip (story of a future blog post) and this trek had been a wonderful four days with wonderful people, and for that I will always be grateful.

Kepler Finish

Kepler Finish – back at Te Anau, DOC office, and the end of the Kepler Track

Southern Shenandoah National Park Photos

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

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After a busy summer dominated by work it was high time for a weekend getaway to the woods. I’ve come to love the subtle beauty and rich woodland experiences that characterize any trip to Shenandoah. We had booked a wonderful cabin – High Laurel Inn – for the weekend. Situated on the edge of the National Park (the back fence of the property is the Park boundary!), it was the perfect spot. We could hike from our doorstep.

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Our home for the weekend

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The front of the cabin

Day 1: 14 September 2013 / Paine Run Trail and Trayfoot Mountain Trail Loop / 10 miles

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The leaves are turning; fall is on the way

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On the Appalachian Trail

The halfway point of the day’s walk was also the most spectacular viewpoint, the summit of Blackrock mountain:

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A contender for the best vantage point in the Shenandoah National Park perhaps?

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Me and Lexi on the summit of Blackrock

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Blackrock mountain summit panorama

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Onwards to our next summit, Trayfoot Mountain

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Snakeskin

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Yogini Lexi showing good form on the shoulder of Blackrock Mountain

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My own attempt

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Hairy caterpillar

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Beware of the Yellow Jacket Wasps on Trayfoot Mountain – I was stung 4 times after stepping on a ground nest on the trail. I can tell you they HURT!

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Wooded mountains

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Sunset from the balcony of the cabin

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Meet the locals

Day 2: 15 September 2013 / South River Falls / 8 mile out and back

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On the Appalachian trail

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Spot the caterpillar

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Looking down to South River Falls

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Humbled by the scale of it all

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South River

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Trail through the woods

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Lexi finds the clearing

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Wild flowers