Looking for a 2-day backpacking hike near Washington, DC
May 15, 2014 8:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to plan a last-minute backpacking trip this weekend. I'm looking for suggestions for a good 2-day (~12-16 mile) circuit hike that's within a 2 hour drive of Washington, DC.

I'll be with one other person. We're both in excellent physical condition, although neither of us have been "properly" backpacking in a few years. I'm not originally from the area, and am completely oblivious to what our options are.

We have a few preferences, although I'm open to any suggestions or alternatives:
  • Our plan is to drive out of DC early Saturday morning, and return Sunday night. We both need to work 9-5 on Friday, and would prefer to not have to leave at 4:00 AM, or to spend the entire day in the car.
  • We would prefer a circuit hike (or, at least something that doesn't require us to backtrack along our entire original route), and would prefer for the most difficult (or longest) portion of the hike to be on Saturday.
  • We'd like to (legally) camp in a secluded area that doesn't require us to pack in all of our water (I have a purifier).
Ramsey's Draft looks like it satisfies most of our requirements, although the drive from DC is a bit longer than we'd prefer. 3 hours in the car would significantly eat into our day, no matter how early we leave..

Specific suggestions are welcome. "Somewhere in the Shenendoas" isn't exactly helpful.
posted by schmod to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Have you seen Hiking Upward?
posted by COD at 8:30 AM on May 15, 2014

Duh - yes you have. I plan all my hikes from Hiking Upward, although we normally car camp and do 2 day hikes, returning to base camp each night where the cooler is stocked and the steaks are ready to be grilled. I also own this small book with a bunch of circuit hikes in Shenendoah laid out. REI might have it, if you can get out to Tysons.
posted by COD at 8:33 AM on May 15, 2014

I did Ramsey's Draft many years ago and we drove out on the Friday (from Williamsburg), and camped maybe 1/2 hour from the parking lot (I don't remember the actual spot). I don't know whether that would be an option for you - this time of year, you could park at 8PM and still have a bit of daylight for getting to the campsite and setting up... It's a nice hike, though!
posted by mskyle at 8:33 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Signal Knob in Strasburg, VA (near where 66 and 81 converge) is a 10 mile loop with some variation offered by nearby Tuscarora Trail.

posted by xiix at 8:34 AM on May 15, 2014

Also: Dolly Sods. It's been many years, but I recall it being very scenic, and easy to hike off-trail if you want to piece together a longer route.
posted by TDIpod at 8:40 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: xiix: "Signal Knob in Strasburg, VA (near where 66 and 81 converge) is a 10 mile loop with some variation offered by nearby Tuscarora Trail."

Aha. I've climbed at Elizabeth Furnace, and had no idea there were long hikes nearby.

This is stupid, but I cannot find a decent map of the area for the life of me [It's 2014; why are park maps not online?]. Any suggestions?
posted by schmod at 9:07 AM on May 15, 2014

One of my regrets is that in three years living in the area I never went more than a few miles down the Great Allegheny Passage, the trail on former railroad and canal paths that goes from Washington DC to Pittsburgh PA. Because it is all old rail grades, it might be flatter than you want. But you could start directly from DC-- no need to drive anywhere, and hike as far as you can in a day, then turn around and come back on the second day. You would be sharing the trail with bicycles. One day if I ever come back I want to ride or hike the entire distance. Have fun!
posted by seasparrow at 9:11 AM on May 15, 2014

Appalachian Trail around Harper's Ferry, or the C&O Canel towpath around Seneca, MD.
posted by Rash at 9:37 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

When my partner and I lived in DC and went backpacking in the summer, our usual M.O. was to reserve a camping spot in one of the campgrounds in Shenandoah National Park for Friday night, and start our backpacking trip on Saturday morning from there. This let us work a full day on Friday and arrive at the park pretty late (like 9pm) without worrying about trying to start hiking and finding a place to camp in the dark. This seemed like a really common approach, you hear people pulling into the campgrounds and setting up their tents up through midnight on Friday nights.

Our favorite dispersed camping sites in SNP were along Big Run Portal. We'd basically do the loop suggested here, simply reserving a campsite at Loft Mountain for Friday night and then leaving from there on Saturday morning. There are a ton of really great campsites near the trail (but fairly hidden) nearly every time you cross a stream in the Big Run Basin itself. The other side of the mountain had some nice camping right past the confluence of Doyles River and Jones Run. That side was particularly nice in late spring/early summer, as you get lots of little waterfalls to look at, and in the fall with the changing leaves.
posted by iminurmefi at 9:42 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, if you do decide to go to SNP, their website has a really helpful index of suggested trips that lays out exactly where you're likely to find good campsites along the different trails. I'd focus on the two-night trips as a pretty high proportion of those have you spend the first night in one of the organized campgrounds (where you can generally reserve a site) or have a small 1.0 to 1.5 mile hike for the first day, which you can easily combine with their suggested second day to create a one-night backpacking trip.

That index is here: All Trip Guides by Number of Nights

Useable maps of the trails in each section of the park are here: Hiking Maps

We found the trails immediately around the organized campgrounds were pretty busy on summer weekends, but there wasn't too much competition for dispersed camping sites, especially once you get away from the far north end of the park that is the shortest drive from DC. Looking back, it kind of makes me laugh that we had far more nights of solitude where we didn't see anyone for a good 12-hour stretch while backpacking there compared to backpacking in Colorado where there are fewer people and the national/state parks and forests are ostensibly less crowded.
posted by iminurmefi at 9:51 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

schmod: The Google map at the hiking upward link is about as good as you're going to get, I suppose. Another topographical map w/ parking lot labeled here: http://www.midatlantichikes.com/id84.html

You can camp at Elizabeth Furnace campground (http://tinyurl.com/3kdb2n2) the entrance to which is off Fort Valley Rd. not far from the parking lot for the Signal Knob trail head.

I've done the trail twice, both times starting at the northwest corner of the parking lot & hiking counter-clockwise. Halfway through the circuit you'll reach the Signal Knob overlook. At that point, you can back-track about a mile to the white Meneka Peak trail to go southeast along the ridgeline, which is the less challenging route. At the overlook, you can continue down the fire access road (parallel to the ridgeline & toward the reservoir) to catch the blue trail & ascend again. The fire road is boring, but the 2nd ascent over the ridge is much more challenging than the initial 5 mile route to the overlook.

Good shoes/boots are a must for this trail. There are a lot of rocks and scree to jab into your feet and twist your ankles the entire way.
posted by xiix at 10:49 AM on May 15, 2014

schmod: This diagram does a reasonable job displaying your options for lengthening your hike outside the standard 10-mile circuit (which comprises the orange/blue loop at the top of the drawing).
posted by xiix at 10:54 AM on May 15, 2014

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