Hiking – Appalachian Trail – Harpers Ferry to Keys Gap

Distance: 12 miles (round-trip)

Hike time: 6 hours

Elevation Gain: 6,900 feet (according to the phone), realistically about 1,800 feet

Map

I started the track about a mile into the hike, so the track is a little short on the map.

Start – Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry is generally considered the midpoint on the Appalachian Trail. The National Park Service operates many of the attractions in the area. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many of the public parking areas were blocked off by the National Park Service. So Dave and I found a makeshift parking space at the edge of town.

High Water

Shenandoah River with high water - 5-2-2020
High water level on the Shenandoah River flowing under US 340

It seemed to rain almost every day in April and the water level was the highest I had ever seen on the Shenandoah. Nasty stuff too! A brown slurry of muddy water cascaded over the rocks (known as “The Staircase”) leading into the Potomac River. As we crossed US 340 on “the trail” we noticed several kayakers enjoying the elevated rapids.

Deer control

After crossing the Shenandoah River, we headed into the woods and up the ridge. We stumbled upon an experiment involving white-tailed deer “exclosures”. Apparently the National Park Service is attempting to determine the impact of the deer population on revegetation. I’m no expert, but I am going to go out on a limb and assume that deer (overpopulated) have a negative impact on revegetation 🙂

More Civil War History

Harpers Ferry and the surrounding area saw some of the bloodiest battles in the American Civil War. Much like the AT in Maryland, there are many ruins of fortifications right along the trail. Dave provided the wonderful narration.

Primarily the fortifications consist of stone aligned to create a wall near the ridge. Not sure whether it was the North or the South who built them, but they have seen better days.

Civil War wall - 5-2-2020
Civil War walls along the AT between Keys Gap and Harpers Ferry

Camping

We didn’t pass any shelters, but the 4 Mile Campsite (4 miles South of Harpers Ferry) was pretty nice considering it is probably heavily utilized.

Flora

One interesting organism we encountered was the “Chicken of the woods” fungi (I think I identified it correctly). I didn’t try it, but apparently if you cook it correctly, it tastes like chicken. Don’t take my advice though. I leave foraging for mushrooms to the experts.

Dave pointed out several Garlic Mustard plants which are considered highly invasive. They are easy to pull out of the ground. We did a bit of “weeding” along the trail in a futile attempt to reduce the spread of the weed.

Fauna

Two of the more interesting (and common) animals we noticed were the American Toad and the Five-lined skink. Both are well camoflauged, despite the skink’s blue tail.

Destination – Keys Gap

Welcome to West Virginia sign at Keys Gap - 5-2-2020
Keys Gap at the VA/WV state line

After roughly 6 miles, we arrived at Keys Gap, the first road crossing on the ridge. It’s not much of a destination, but you get a decent view of Charles Town, WV to the West. There is a parking lot and some information for hikers; especially Northbound hikers as they approach Harpers Ferry. Keys Gap is right at the border of Virginia and West Virginia.

Return

Along the return to Harpers Ferry, we started a conversation with a thru-hiker: Patrick “Trouble”. He was on his 4th AT thru-hike and started this year in Georgia in mid-February. He stated that he had to skip Shenandoah National Park since the trail (and park) is closed due to COVID-19. Apparently the Park Service is handing out $1,500 fines to people who enter the park during the shut-down.

Derailed

We saw a few signs along the trail notifying hikers that the bridge carrying the AT over the Potomac River is closed due to a train derailment several months ago. Patrick had made it to Harpers Ferry but had opted to turn around and stay with friends in Front Royal. We offered to drive him over to Maryland, but he declined. The detour over the Potomac follows US 340 rather than the rail bridge. Hopefully the bridge re-opens soon as Route 340 can be dangerous to walk.

End of hike

Returning to Harpers Ferry over a muddy Shenandoah River

After a few more miles we returned to civilization. 12 miles round-trip made for a great day hike. Generally the trail from Harpers Ferry to Keys Gap is not strenuous. There is a fair amount of small ups and downs. In fact a bit farther south the section is nick-named “The Roller Coaster”.

I was playing with the GoPro again and time-warped the final mile to the Shenandoah River (mostly downhill).

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