For nearly 50 miles between Front Royal, Va., and Harpers Ferry, W.Va., the Appalachian Trail passes through a fairly low-elevation, narrow corridor. With few rewarding views and a punishing up and down section called The Roller Coaster, the Virginia Blue Ridge might not make the top of any hiker’s favorites list. (In fact, one hiker called this section “hideously boring.”)
But not many people realize this section could be worse. “When I hiked the Trail in 1978, most of this section was located on roads,” Appalachian Trail Conservancy President and CEO Ron Tipton says. “If you hike this section today, you get a very different experience, passing through a protected greenway that provides a mountain experience with old growth trees. Walking through now, hikers sometimes don’t realize how close they are to highly populated areas, including Washington, D.C.,” he adds.
Over the past 25 years, ATC and the National Park Service have worked with private landowners to purchase a trailway with a width of at least 1,000 feet and connect the Trail to other public lands. In the G.R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area for example, the A.T. climbs out of Manassas Gap and follows the crest of the Blue Ridge through a populated area, though the quiet forest belies its location.
There, in the summer months, the forest floor becomes blanketed with white and pink large-flowered trillium, one of the largest stands in the world of the increasingly rare wildflower. With only a bit of imagination, the trilliums’ snow-like presence eases the weight of summer’s heat and humidity. Continuing north on the Trail, hikers pass the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s newly constructed Whiskey Hollow Shelter and geodesic Dick’s Dome Shelter, then walk into Sky Meadows State Park, which affords views of the nation’s capital city on clear days.
Once hikers cross Route 50, they begin a 15-mile section surrounded by private property. Because of the narrow corridor, Trail crews were forced to route the A.T. up and over 10 rocky ascents and descents. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘Ron, I’ll go hiking with you anywhere but The Roller Coaster,” Tipton says, laughing. “What they don’t realize is this section is a great example of the unique success of the protection of the A.T. corridor. The Trail is the longest continuous, publicly owned and permanent protected hiking trail in the world, and nowhere was it more challenging to accomplish that feat than in the Blue Ridge of Northern Virginia.”