Three Ridges Hike via the AT Logistical Page
**We have added The Three Ridges Hike to our list of the Best Hikes in the Southern Appalachians. In fact, we feel confident that this will make our next revision of the Top Ten Hikes in The Southern Appalachians…but we’ll chew on that for a while.**
When we first saw The Three Ridges Hike listed as the best hike in Virginia by Outside Online, we were skeptical. Well, we are skeptics no more. Having hiked the loop in it’s entirety, we can confidently confirm that it is one of the very best hikes in Virginia.
We still consider Old Rag — the current occupant of the top spot on out list of the Best Hikes in the Southern Appalachians — to be superior. But the Three Ridges is certainly a worthy contender for the honor. We might be tempted to consider it second only to Old Rag, though we’ll have to weight that for a bit. There is still considerable competition from the wonderful open country of the Grayson Highlands.
Not only is the hike itself great, but each time we go forth into the Blue Ridge of Virginia we come away with a newfound respect for it. While it may lack the deep and untrammeled wilderness character of North Carolina and Tennessee, the viewpoints are no less spectacular. In fact, we might be tempted to say that Virginia has viewpoints equal to any Southern State. (Note that we haven’t seen much of West Virginia yet, and we have high hopes in that regard.)
We are also impressed with this particular area of Virginia, which are our opinion is extremely underrated as a hiking venue. You hear a lot about Shenandoah National Park, of course; and a bit less but still quite a lot about Mount Rogers to the South; and the Virginia Triple Crown and the Peaks of Otter and the areas near Roanoke and Lynchburg certainly get their fair share of attention.
But vert rarely do you hear about this area, which we would describe as the Sub-Shenandoah; the area south of the National Park, between Staunton to the west, Charlottesville to the East, as far south as the James River. Within this box, some of the best hiking in Virginia can be found. Here is not only the Three Ridges Hike but also The Priest, Crabtree Falls, Tar Jacket Ridge, Spy Rock, Cold Mountain (the Virginia one) and Mount Pleasant, Torrey Ridge, Humpback Rocks, etc. It’s not exactly pristine wilderness but its not so far from it, with any number of great viewpoints.
For those wishing to do the Three Ridges Hike, we would recommend (as we would any Appalachian Hike) that you avoid summer when heat, bugs, thunderstorms and crowds are likely to be at their zenith, and views will be hidden by leaves and thus at their nadir. We would also strongly recommend starting this hike on any day of the week other than Saturday. This section of the AT is practically frothing with hikers on weekends, and many of these tend to move in busload sized groups. The shelters will be full.
We did the hike in the counter-clockwise direction for very specific reasons. However, we have concluded that there is no great benefit or loss to doing it either way. Whatever way you do the loop there will be steep uphills AND downhills on both days. The only major difference is that clockwise the steepest grades are taken as uphills, while the reverse is true going counter clockwise. But really, it’s a wash. Whatever way you do it does not really matter — so long as their is water in whatever campground you chose to stop in. If there is not, and you desperately need to re-water, then returning via the Mau-Har Trail — where there is much more likely to be reliable water — makes the most sense.
Another consideration might be weather. All of the best viewpoints are on the AT section, so if you have clear weather on the first day of the hike it may be prudent to do that section first. Ff on the other hand the forecast for the following day looks better, it might be better to defer the view until then by going counter-clockwise.
We don’t see that there is anything to be gained or lost by coming in from VA 56 and doing the loop south-to-north, apart from the fact that the likely stopping point of such a variant would logically be Mapuin Field Shelter; and this shelter was both dry and much more noisy and crowded when we did the loop. That may have been a fluke; but if we had our choice, we’d absolutely stay at Harper’s Creek. We just liked it better.
The Three Ridges Loop is not an easy hike. It is not in any way dangerous or extreme, and we feel that any reasonably fit person could make it through so long as they can manage a pack with a single night’s worth of gear. But inexperienced hikers may find the combination of rough trails and continual, often steep ups and downs to be physically and mentally exhausting. We would therefore not recommend this loop to beginners; those looking for a first time outing on the AT are encouraged to try North Carolina’s Standing Indian Loop first. It is a bit longer, but much less difficult.
We do not recommend the loop as a one day marathon, though obviously it can be done this way and routinely is. This is a tiring hike with no small amount of poor footing; it’s not one that most people should rush to get through. If you ARE bent on doing this in one day, we would suggest a car shuttle hike from Reid’s Gap South to VA 56, following just the AT. This takes in all the major viewpoints (all of which are on the AT) while avoiding the worst sections of the hike (all of which are on the Mau-Har Trail.) By our reckoning this would be about nine and something miles and could be done easily by a fit hiker with a light pack. In fact, we’re of the opinion that the heavy pack was the principal cause of this being such a tough hike; so if you did not have one…
As we live far from this area, we staged out of the Peaks of Otter Campground well to the south to avoid having to stay in a hotel the night before. However a much better option would have been to stage out of Sherando Lake Recreation Area, just a few miles to the west down VA 664. This would have saved us a huge drive the morning of the hike. You can actually do the Torrey’s Ridge (not to be confused with Tory’s Den, the waterfall) hike right out of this camping area, too.
We will definitely be back in this area for some more hiking soon. Perhaps this time, Fitz Roy will come with us!
For more info on the Three Ridges Hike, visit our logistical page that has all the details.
Did You Know? The Mau-Har Trail takes its name from the fact that it links the Maupin Field and Harper’s Creek Shelters. Mau-Har.