A Peek at Life on the Appalachian Trail

Our six miles on the Appalachian Trail during our tour of Virginia stirred affection and respect for one of the world’s great long-distance paths. In Shenandoah National Park, we entered the AT at the Thornton Gap trailhead parking lot.

The trail led us over a mostly rocky surface with more than 1,700 feet of climbing. We took a quick detour to Mary’s Rock, where Sue took in the view, then we continued southbound to the Bird’s Nest #3 Shelter, one of more than 250 shelters spread over the AT’s 2,190 miles. In order to sleep in the huts, campers must be traveling at least three consecutive days on the AT. The Bird’s Nest featured a rock fireplace, wooden sleeping platform, a nearby privy as well as a bear box and hanger poles to keep food safe. Thru hikers must use the shelter unless it is full, when they may use designated campsites nearby. I ate my lunch while sitting on the platform and imagined the hut filled with sleeping bags and trekkers. I could almost hear the snoring and smell the trail grime.

The higher we went, the less spring we witnessed as the season had delayed its arrival. We passed six or seven northbound thru hikers, who all traveled solo and appeared to be in their 20s. I resisted asking where they started and where their destination was. They all were in a hurry since a storm was moving in, but they took the time for a brief friendly greeting. I wished I had brought along some trail magic (beers?) to hand off as they passed.

Mammoth Cave: A National Park Gem

National parks and monuments are not to be missed and some are backpackers’ dream destinations, so we veered north from Nashville to explore Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park. What did we find? Enough to fill three days. The ranger-led Gothic Tour took us below to walk two miles of the 365 miles of cave, more than twice as long as any cave in the USA. If you time it right, you might be offered a rare boat tour on an underground river. A free ferry took us across the Green River after a roadway sign warned us that the road ”ends in water.” The road across the river leads to a web of wilderness trails for backpackers; permits for overnight trips are available in the visitor’s center. We walked several trails, including the Big Hollow Loop.

We pulled our hybrid bikes out of our trailer to try another park feature: the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail, a packed-gravel path that includes many short (some steep) climbs. We rode to two of the 77 cemeteries in the area, reminders of times more than a century earlier when the narrow-gauge railroad transported people and supplies to communities built around the growing popularity of the cave network. Another great national park, but without the crowds that frequent some.