The Three Ridges Loop in George Washington & Jefferson National Forest presents itself as a strenuous loop that can be done as a challenging day hike or an overnight backpacking trip. This trail is one of the most popular in Virginia and ranked by Backpacker magazine as one of the top loop circuits in the US. The trail takes you over four summits and will surely get your calves and quads burning by the end of it. Located only about 30-45 minutes west of Charlottesville, this loop contains stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, colorful wildflowers, and cascading creeks. The trail is a ~13 mile long lollipop-shaped loop (see trail map linked at bottom of page for reference), with the majority of trail miles being on a section of the Appalachian Trail. The trek takes you through over 6,800 ft of elevation change, with a total elevation gain of almost 4,000 ft.
My Siberian Husky, Maverick, and I arrived at the Reed’s Gap trail head parking lot at 9:30 pm on Friday night. Our plan was to sleep overnight in the car and get an early start on to the trail the following morning. This plan quickly changed at about 11:00 pm that night when a couple of guys arrived at the trail head parking lot, and started to gear up. I was originally not too keen on night hiking, so I had decided against that idea early on in my trip preparations. However, now that I potentially had some company, I decided it would be fun to chew off a couple miles under the moonlight. The two of them gladly accepted my request for Maverick and me to join along with them. The four of us took off on the trail at about 11:30 pm, and hiked the 1.6 mi of the lollipop “stick” to the point where the trail splits. We set up camp off to the left of where the trail forks along side a group of scouts who had gotten there much earlier in the night. And of course, I fumbled around setting up my new tent for the first time, so it wasn’t until about 1 am that we were settled in our tent.
We woke up at about 6 am. I made some instant coffee and snacked on a protein bar, while Maverick ate his canned breakfast. We packed up and hit the trail by 7:30 am. The friends I had made the night before were going to complete the trail counter-clockwise. I had done enough research to know that hiking from that direction set you up for an intense climb for the last 3-4 miles of the trail. I decided that going clockwise would be best. We were also expecting rain later in the afternoon, and all of the ridge view points were on the AT portion of the trail. I wanted a chance to soak in those views before the rainy haze set in.
During the Appalachian Trail portion of the hike, we were heading southbound on the AT. Going into the trip, I thought I would likely run into some thru-hikers. It was late May and most thru-hikers start at Springer Mountain, GA in late March, averaging 15-20mi per day and putting them in northern VA at this point of the year. After a couple hours in to the hike, we ran into our first group of AT thru-hikers. I offered a few words of encouragement, and took a minute or two to listen and exchange stories. Several of them were enamored with Maverick, and he certainly enjoyed the attention. The majority of thru-hikers I had met were in their early to mid-20s; however, it was encouraging to see a few retirees attempting the +2,100 mile trek (This is a bucket list item of mine – I missed the early 20s boat). The AT portion of the trail had 3 vista views along the ridge, and as expected those views certainly did not disappoint. The visibility was great and you could see for miles across the Blue Ridge Mountains. At one of the view points, a part of me wanted to stop hiking right there and set up my camp for the day. But given it was only 9:30 am, I decided to keep going.
The AT portion of the hike was particularly rugged, with many lengthy sections of dense boulder fields that required you to take your time and ensure proper footing. The ups and downs are not the easiest, and very little of this trail is flat (<10%). If attempting this hike, I would make sure to bring along some trekking poles to keep yourself upright, and take some stress off your knees. I reached the intersection with the Mau-Har trail at about 11:30 am and decided to keep going.
At this point, I wasn’t terribly excited about the “walk in the woods” for the Mar-Hau trail portion. With rain looming, I decided that I was going to try and make a move to finish the entire loop before the end of the day. My body probably would have appreciated a break and some lunch; but Maverick and I were humming along given the terrain (2.5-3mi/hr pace), so we continued with the pace.
We hiked a few miles until we got to a beautiful waterfall at around mile 10. It was then that my lack of fuel in my body started to have some side effects and interfere with my brain cognition. I spent an hour trying to find the trail after visiting the waterfall. I had made the mistake of thinking that the trail crossed the water, and spent a ton of time trying to find where the trail picked back up on the other side. The set of trails stomped out for some previously established camp sites only made this process more confusing. As it turns out, the waterfall section was just an offshoot and not a continuation of the trail. During this moment of haze, Maverick eventually stopped following me, as he was visibly frustrated about us hiking in one direction in search of the trail only to retrace our steps a few minutes later. Fortunately, after about an hour of frustration trying to find the trail, I retraced all the way back to the point where I last knew I was actually on the trail, and found some markers that got us back on track.
The last 3-4 miles of the trail were tough. I had only eaten a protein bar for breakfast and a granola bar as a snack. After climbing over 20K steps with 35 lbs on my back, my energy was depleted. However, my food was in the bottom of my bag, and I did not feel like using any of my remaining energy to unpack my entire bag to retrieve my freeze dried meal. We took several breaks during the last 3-4 miles, slowing down our pace significantly. There were a few times where I had to have a pep talk with myself to keep on going. I ended up turning on my mini-speaker and jamming out for the final miles, just enough of a boost in motivation to get us to the finish line. We finished the trail at about 3:30 pm.
Earlier in the day, I had told a few AT thru-hikers (they were hiking north as I was crossing them going south) that I was completing a loop and would be turning around and meeting back up with the AT later on in the day. They mentioned going to Devil’s Backbone brewery after their hike, and I told them that if I was around I’d happily give them a ride. Much to my surprise, those same thru-hikers were waiting for me when I arrived to the trail head parking lot – and true to my word, I delivered on my promise. I have to admit that my car smelled pretty awful on that drive over to the brewery. It was pungent with an aroma that was reminiscent of my HS football locker room, like I was transporting the shoulder pads of an entire football team at the end of a two-a-days practice. Although, I couldn’t judge them as I had an equally awful odor coming from me as well (deodorant attracts bears!), and I only spent 13-14 miles on the trail. On the drive over, one of them asked me why I chose to section hike that part of the AT, in which I answered “because of the views”. He reflected on his trail miles and mentioned that this section had been one of the more difficult days he’s had since starting in Georgia. This gave me a pretty satisfying sense of accomplishment about what Maverick and I had just achieved. I decided to drop them off at the brewery rather than joining them; I was too tired and already questioning if I’d have the energy to drive home. Exhausted and grateful for the experience, I embarked on the 6.5 hr drive back to Columbus, Ohio.
TL;DR: Trail Highlights
0.0 miles – Start from parking lot on Reeds Gap, heading south on the Appalachian Trail and begin your ascent.
.8 miles – The trail reaches the first ridge and shortly begins to descend through some switchbacks
1.6 miles – Reach the junction with the Fire Road (which heads to Love Gap). Take a left to stay on the Appalachian Trail and pass a few side trails that lead to campsites at the Maupin Field Shelter. The trail begins to climb again.
2.0 miles – Reach the summit of Bee Mountain
3.7 miles – Reach some great views from Hanging Rock. Continue to climb further up through the woods.
4.2 miles – Reach the summit of Three Ridges
5.8 miles – Great viewpoint of the eastern ridge
5.9 miles – Reach the tombstone and take an immediate right up the path to reach Chimney Rock and the best views on the trail. Rejoin the trail and descend steeply.
7.5 miles – Arrive at Harpers Creek Shelter across the creek and your stay for the night. The next morning, cross back over the creek and continue on the Appalachian Trail.
7.6 miles – Cross Harpers Creek and the trail begins to ascend very steeply.
8.5 miles – Reach the junction with the blue-blazed Mau-Har trail. Turn right and follow the trail that parallels Campbell Creek.
10.0 miles – Reach a sign designating a short yellow-blazed trail to a few waterfalls. The waterfalls are only a few hundred feet off the Mau-Har trail. Retrace your steps and continue on the Mau-Har trail.
11.5 miles – Reach the Maupin Field Shelter. Continue straight past the shelter to rejoin the Appalachian Trail.
11.6 miles – Take a left on the Appalachian Trail to retrace your steps back to your vehicle.
13.2 miles – Return to the Reeds Gap parking lot.
*I do not claim to be a writer, forgive me for my grammatical sins.