Trip Report: The Appalachian Trail & Iron Mountain Trail Loop, Thanksgiving Special!

I grew more apprehensive as the AT-IMT trip loomed nearer. This trip was originally attempted in Nov 2014 and the mix of weather conditions and the mileage made some strong hikers decide not to finish the whole thing. A couple of days before the trip, the forecasts were calling for cold rain every single day. Had the forecast not changed, I think we would have cancelled. Fast forward to Tuesday, the forecasts were looking great and we did not have any excuses left.

As I approached my car on Tuesday evening to begin the long drive down to Damascus, I got a text from Crusher that Cassie, David, and him were on the trail. I questioned my decision to leave after work, but overall, Bryan and I made good time and were at the parking lot at 10:30. For what it’s worth, parking here and filling out the parking form on this website worked very well for us. We hiked through the town (the lights on the bridge in town were really cool) and made it to the campsite by 11:30. We tried to setup our shelters quietly and were asleep soon.

Photo: Bryan

On Wednesday, and like most of the following days, we were up early and on the trail at 7. Following the Appalachian Trail, we were warmed up soon by the short climb to the ridgetop as the vibrant sunrise colors dissipated. Cassie had recently returned to the East Coast, so were really chatty catching up on politics and our outdoor trips in 2020, making the miles fly by fast. At the US-58 road crossing, we ran into Susanne – a DCUL Veteran Member, who had thru-hiked the AT this year. She was in the area hiking with her sisters. We chatted with her for a few minutes and then continued on our way.

After staying next to the Virginia Creeper trail, the AT climbs to the top of the Straight Mountain ridgeline where we were united with Crusher at the top. The three of us would hike together pretty close to each other for the remainder of the day, as Bryan and David crushed the miles up in front. Despite a dry season, none of the streams were completely dry, probably helped by the cooler November weather. We descended down to the VA Creeper trail again, and saw some bikers in this section. Lost Mountain Shelter made for a nice spot for a lunch #2 break as we geared ourselves for the tough remaining miles. We saw a few hunters and we would run into more over the next few days. I was glad we all brought orange clothing.

The final climb of the day was long – ~2k ft gain spread over 4 miles. We all felt this one and took our time. The reward – a 5 star view at Buzzard Rock – was spectacular. It was also very windy and cold, and we could see the storm in the distance, so we didn’t stay here long and ducked into the dry, mossy trees. The final mile to camp was easy and we arrived at our destination – a campsite next to Whitetop road. It was a long day, but we had made good time as we all arrived before 4 PM. While Caltopo put us near 19 miles, Guthook, our phones, and Matt’s spreadsheet from the 2014 trip put us close to 20 miles or above. Elevation gain for the day was a whopping ~6-6.5k ft!

The nearby piped spring had a good water flow and the site was protected from the wind. We took our time setting up our shelters and then had a fire going as we had our dinners. Weatherman Crusher kept us posted on the ETA of rain in real time and accurately called the rain at 6 PM. It didn’t rain hard, but we were all tired and retired to our shelters for a long night. It rained some, but not 1.25 inches during the whole night!

We woke up to a foggy morning on Thanksgiving Day, but it started clearing out as we neared the Elk Garden Parking lot. We had our first nice open views here at Basalm Mountain before we started gaining elevation amongst the pine trees. This section took me back to my 2016 winter Grayson Highland trip where I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the area. We took a break at the Thomas Knob shelter, chatting with the shelter occupants who were getting ready to hike. Barely a few steps past the shelter, we all got super excited to run into the wild ponies and had a photo-op going. One of the ponies seemed to really like Crusher. By this time, the thick clouds from earlier in the day had disappeared and it was beautifully and sunny out. Over the next few miles, we struck by the remarkable landscape as we hiked through the open balds of the Wilburn ridge. After a descent, we arrived at Wise shelter where we took a leisurely lunch break and dried our gear in the sun.

The temps felt warm as we climbed and hiked the last open balds of the Stone Mountain ridge. The umbrellas came in really handy in this section. As we hiked past the junction with Pine Mountain Trail, David recounted a trip in the Grayson Highlands years ago with his son where the moral was that the weather can turn around real fast J We descended to the Old Orchard Shelter for our last break of the day where we ran into the hiker we met earlier at Thomas Knob Shelter. We had a fun time chatting with this person from TN, who is seeking to thru-hike the AT next year. He wanted to get a feel of the umbrellas and his reaction “Whoa! This is freaking light!” made us all laugh.

The final miles went by fast as we gained the last ridge and then it was time to say bye to the AT. The old IMT spur trail is no longer marked, but we were able to find it easily and stick to our original plan, thereby avoiding hiking bonus miles. After a mile or so of rocky/loose soil hiking on the IMT, we arrived at our destination before dark – Cherry Tree shelter. The spring was covered with leaves, but folks were able to clear it and gather water easily. The moon shone bright as we made a fire and enjoyed a lavish meal which included pies. The spirits (!) were high and we were all thankful to be out hiking in the woods in each other’s company.  

Photo: Cassie

We woke up next morning to a lot of condensation on our tents. We blazed through the easy terrain and took our first break at Straight Branch shelter. In the miles ahead, we ran into the local forest ranger – Barry – who was out maintaining the trail by himself. We chatted with him for a few and thanked him for keeping the Iron Mountain Trail north of Damascus in great shape. A few miles ahead, we couldn’t find the Sandy Flats shelter, but saw the privy. This would be our last break before we blazed on the trail all the way to Damascus, concluding the larger northern loop. Besides a couple of hunters, we only saw mountain bikers or a few dirt bikers in this stretch.

In town, we enjoyed burritos at Mojo’s café. We took a detour to our cars to resupply and said goodbye to David who had planned to only do the first loop in order to spend the weekend with his family. I am positive that he would have easily hiked the remaining miles if he had extra time off. We walked out of town and started the long ascent to the ridges. We had planned to tank up at the top of Sugarcamp Branch, but were dismayed to see it completely dry. We carried on, thinking we might score water near camp. The IMT was noticeable more overgrown in this section than its northern counterpart. After 24 miles of hiking, Crusher and I arrived at the marked destination and waited to regroup as it got dark. A jeep rolled by on the forest road and the person in the jeep confirmed that there was a spring close to us and also pointed us to a flat campsite nearby. He drove off and once we were re-united, to our delight, his words turned out to be 100% true! Fire, dinner, and this time we chose to hang our food after we saw gleaming eyes of a wild animal (probably a small bear) in the dark.

With the toughest day ahead of us, we decided to hit the trail sooner on Saturday than our usual time. Right off the bat, we encountered a bunch of short, steep rolling hills as the trail showed signs of overgrowth even more (trail hookers!). The group morale lowered as the challenging stretch continued. Luckily, after the first 6 miles or so, the trail conditions improved, helping us ramp our pace up. A short climb led us past Grindstone Knob, and then we were hiking on the ridge across US 421. At Shady Gap, we took a nice long lunch break. A bit later, we departed from Iron Mountain Trail, and after a short road walk, we were re-united with the AT. Immediately, our spirits lifted as we hiked through wide open pastures and were greeted to nice views!

After a break at Double Springs Shelter, we were all on cruise control mode, i.e. kept a steady hiking pace. At Low Gap, we got water and greeted a SOBO thru-hiker. The lighting was very pretty as the sun started setting. Our destination was Abingdon Shelter and again, we made it to camp before needing headlamps. We spread out and had the whole site to ourselves. We were elated to be done after hiking ~24 miles and gaining 6k ft elevation. We reflected on the past days of hiking as we had dinners around a campfire under the bright moonlight. After making it till 9 PM, we turned in!

On our final day, we hiked as the sky was lit by the beautiful sunrise. We were super motivated and flew past the final miles, taking only one short break as we left Tennessee and ventured into Virginia. We made it back to the cars by 10 AM and stopped for a delicious meal at Mojo’s café again (the owner easily recognized us). Sated by the hike and the meal, we said our goodbyes and started the long drive back. Luckily, the Thanksgiving traffic wasn’t too bad and again we made it to our destination – homes – before we needed to turn our car headlamps on 🙂

Photo: Steve

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this trip. Our splits were ~20/21/24/24/9 for a total of ~100 miles and we gained ~20k ft overall. It was definitely a challenging trip, but our group made it look easy. We all agreed that we were super lucky with the weather. It rained only once (while we were in our tents), and the temps stayed above freezing the entire time. We were treated with some great sunrises/sunsets, and starry, moonlit nights. Having a campfire every night was also a highlight! And what a great group of hikers to share all of the above with! Thanks to Matt for putting this route together! David – I 100% agree with you – This trip was one for the memory bank.

DCUL Photo Album Link: https://photos.app.goo.gl/v8GwsQB5FMVNpPUo7

Route on Caltopo: https://caltopo.com/m/N0QL#

-B.A.

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