Distance: 12.5 miles
Hike Time: 10 hours (due to injury)
Elevation Gain: 4,500 feet
This is the most difficult section of the Appalachian Trail that I have hiked. There are not any enormous climbs, but there are seemingly endless small climbs as the terrain goes up and down for roughly 10 miles (hence the nickname: Roller Coaster).
Parking can be a challenge. We parked a car at either end of this section. Snickers Gap has a large parking area, but it can fill up quickly.
Ashby Gap has a much smaller parking area (only room for about a dozen cars) and it’s a bit treacherous as you have to turn off of Route 601 and descend down a steep hill. You can barely tell the entrance to the parking lot is there if you haven’t been there before.
Roller Coaster Elevation
Continuing the Roller Coaster
We completed the first few miles of the “Roller Coaster” a few weeks ago, but on this hike we got into the heart of it. As you can tell by the elevation chart above, the Roller Coaster is a continuous series of steep (and sometimes rocky) climbs and descents.
Snickers Gap to Ashby Gap is roughly 12.5 miles and the northern ~9 miles cover the Roller Coaster. The good news for Southbound hikers is that the terrain after the Roller Coaster to Ashby Gap is much flatter and not terribly rocky.
Snickers Gap South via Bear’s Den
Short hikes in either direction from Snickers Gap are popular. Heading North from Snickers Gap takes you to Raven Rocks and the Northern terminus of the Roller Coaster, while hiking South leads to Bear’s Den, another popular overlook less than a mile from the road.
Aptly named, immediately after passing through Bear’s Den Lookout, we had our only black bear sighting of the day; probably a juvenile male that quickly ran away from us (maybe back to Bear’s Den?) after we spotted him. No time for a picture!
Shelters (and cabins)
You pass two shelters in between Snickers and Ashby Gap: Sam Moore and Rod Hollow Shelter. Sam Moore is a small but solid shelter with a great water supply. We didn’t detour to the Rod Hollow Shelter as Dave suffered a knee injury (go figure: the Roller Coaster is rated the 3rd hardest section on the AT).
Myron Glaser Cabin
In addition to the shelters, near Ashby Gap is the Myron Glaser Cabin. You can rent the cabin as long as you are a member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC).
I don’t know anything about the history here either, but I took a quick detour (~1/4 mile) down the spur trail (it loops to the AT) to the cabin. Right before I took the picture I heard a voice and realized that at least two people were staying at the cabin and they were standing outside just a few yards away.
I was hidden by the vegetation, so I took the picture and left without the occupants knowing I was there. That speaks to it’s peacefulness I suppose. I didn’t realize anyone was there until I heard the voice.
1,000 miles on the AT
Near Ashby Run is the 1,000 mile marker for Northbound Hikers. Is it a coincidence that the 1,000th milestone is in the heart of the Roller Coaster? What a treat for thru-hikers!
Finishing the Roller Coaster
If you are not as ambitious as us (hiking the majority of the Roller Coaster in one day) Route 605 (Morgans Mill Road) is a good midpoint for completing half of this section. It appeared as though most people opt to hike the Northern end of this section, as we encountered only about a dozen people South of Morgans Mill Road.
The trail also “narrows” from Morgans Mill Road. Much of the vegetation was overgrown which is a good indication that it is not heavily traversed.
Once you finally finish the roller coaster (just North of the Rod Hollow Shelter) it was a relief. Not only because it’s over with, but because after the Roller Coaster it’s a relatively flat path for about 3.5 miles to Ashby Gap.
The larger trees along this section consist primarily of oak, hickory, and tulip poplar. There are pawpaw patches along many of the lower elevations (and surprisingly in some higher elevations). There are lots of wild berries lining the trail too, providing a free snack for hikers in early Summer. I was surprised that most of the fruits were still not ripe at the end of June.
The more unique vegetation included wild yam, chicken of the woods (again), and violet coral fungus (which I don’t think I had seen before).
Near Ashby Gap, we encountered a couple of trees (I think oak) that had small burls or looked as if they had scales. I’m not sure what this condition is called (see below).
Other than a fortunate encounter with a black bear, we didn’t see many animals. Dave located a small stick insect (walking stick) along the trail and played with it for a minute.
An interesting bird we saw was a Scarlet Tanager. It’s a very bright red bird and it swooped down and was munching on what appeared to be a small frog (or large insect). Dave and I agreed that the bird didn’t look particularly carnivorous, but hey a bird’s gotta eat!
Remarkably we did not see any deer on the trail.