Appalachian Trail Histories

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Hikers along the Appalachian Trail today can count on some sort of shelter approximately every 8-10 miles along their route. Construction of this chain of shelters began in the 1930s, but was not completed until after the Second World War. The original route of the Appalachian Trail in Southwestern Virginia included only one such shelter -- the Rocky Knob build by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937, pictured here. Except for this shelter, hikers along the original route had to camp either in tents or in the ruins of old barns or farm houses along the way. When Earl Shaffer passed through during his first ever thru hike of the AT in 1948, he wrote:
"I finally stumbled into Rocky Knob by starlight and found the shelter was of stone, open on three sides and with a cold wind howling through. I gathered some snags for fireplace wood and a sackful of leaves to cushion the stone floor. The temperature must have been around freezing."

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Hikers along the Appalachian Trail today can count on some sort of shelter approximately every 8-10 miles along their route. Construction of this chain of shelters began in the 1930s, but was not completed until after the Second World War. The original route of the Appalachian Trail in Southwestern Virginia included only one such shelter on Rocky Knob in Floyd County. Hikers along the original route had to camp either in tents or in the ruins of old barns or farm houses along the way.

The Cherry Tree Shelter, pictured here, was constructed right around the time that the AT moved away from its original route along Iron Mountain to the present route that passes through the Grayson Highlands. Some hikers who still followed the old route of the trail into the late 1950s reported staying at this shelter -- the only one west of the New River along the old trail route.

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The old route of the Appalachian Trail in Southwestern Virginia crossed Smith Mountain in northeastern Floyd County. This image shows the view of Cahas Knob in Franklin County to the east of the trail and is taken on the summit of Smith Mountain.

The photograph is one of dozens taken by ATC Chairman Myron Avery during an inspection tour of the trail in Southwestern Virginia in 1932, a tour he made with Shirley Cole, the county agent in Floyd County and the person tasked with overseeing the trail in this part of the state.

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Cutting the old route of the Appalachian Trail from the New River to Damascus along Iron Mountain was one of the most difficult tasks faced by the ATC in its early years. This section of the Virginia was not well mapped and ATC leader Myron Avery had to rely on local knowledge of abandoned roads, forest trails, and hunter's trails to find a usable route between the river and Damascus.

This first page of a much longer letter from Avery to C.S. (Clint Jackson), the Unaka National Forest supervisor in this part of the state, offers some insight into those difficulties. Avery was keen on making sure that his trail guides were precisely accurate and in this letter he says that he seems to be missing an entire mile of trail. The rest of the letter offers two different alternatives for making sense of the route and asks Jackson to weigh in on which one is the correct one.

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The old route of the Appalachian Trail in Southwestern Virginia passed several locations said to be places where men who wanted to avoid service in the Confederate Army during the Civil War hid in the mountains. One such location was near Bent Mountain Falls in northern Floyd County and another was just east of Houndshell Gap in Grayson County.

This section of the trail guide from 1940 -- Guide to the Paths of the Blue Ridge -- describes one such location. It also offers insights into the difficulties the Appalachian Trail Conference faced when routing the trail through this part of the state. Early trail scouts had to rely on maps such as the "Lindenkohl chart" mentioned here, because much of this part of the state had not been properly mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey.

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The old route of the Appalachian Trail passed across Comer's Rock in Grayson County, Virginia (elevation 4,035'). At the time there was a U.S. Forest Service fire tower on the summit of Comer's Rock and the area had been part of the Unaka (now Jefferson) National Forest since 1920.

Like many place names along the Appalachian Trail, there is more than one version of why this summit on the Iron Mountain ridge was named "Comer's Rock." One version has it that a Civil War draft-dodger named Comer hid there to avoid his military service in the Confederacy. Another has it that the lookout simply derived its name from the many Comers who lived nearby.

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This letter from Myron Avery to C.S. (Clint) Jackson, May 13, 1932, provides very useful insights into the difficulties the Appalachian Trail Conference had in scouting out a route for the trail west of the New River in the early 1930s. In the letter, Avery describes his efforts to find a route along Iron Mountain in the Houndshell Gap area between Flat Ridge and Sugar Grove. Even with the help of a local resident, Avery struggled to find a route that suited his needs.

The trail guide for this section makes it clear just how difficult the task was, because in the early 1930s, this region was still largely unmapped by the U.S. Geological Survey. Avery was relying on a military map created by Henry Lindenkohl in 1864. Iron Mountain and the surrounding area had been incorporated into the Unaka National Forest (now the Jefferson National Forest) in 1920, and Clint Jackson was the supervisor of the forest between the New River and Damascus, Virginia. In that capacity, he was instrumental in helping Avery find a route for the trail through the Unaka Forest and then helped to maintain the trail in this region for more than a decade.

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The original route of the Appalachian Trail crossed into North Carolina on Fisher's Peak, just south of the Blue Ridge Music Center (built in 1997). This image shows the Peak in the winter of 1932 and demonstrates how different the landscape was in the 1930s, when the Peak was almost entirely free of trees. Today, it is almost entirely wooded.

The trail guide for this section of trail describes the signature feature of the hike across the Peak as the fields of massive rhododendron bushes covering the peak, a feature that helps to explain why the city of Galax (just a dozen miles northwest) held its rhododendron festival there starting in 1931.

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This image shows the view of Smith Mountain from the Appalachian Trail near Bent Mountain in Floyd County, Virginia. The 1940 trail guide describes the views from the summit of Smith Mountain as is section of the trail as:
Summit (3,368 ft.) affords extensive views of Roanoke and Franklin Counties; Buffalo Mtn. visible to the southwest and Peaks of Otter to the northeast. Cahas Knob is prominent on the Skyline.
Much of the original route of the trail in Floyd County was obliterated by the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the mid-1930s, but this segment over Smith Mountain remained a part of the trail route -- as trail -- until the relocation of the entire trail in Southwestern Virginia in 1952.

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The old route of the Appalachian Trail crossed into North Carolina on Fisher's Peak, just north of the Blue Ridge Music Center along the Blue Ridge Parkway, both of which were built much later. After passing through the resort known as Norvale Crags, the trail looped back northwest into Virginia toward Galax.

This photograph, taken by ATC Chairman Myron Avery in 1932 during one of his hikes along the old trail route, looks west along the Virginia/North Carolina line toward the New River and the Grayson Highlands in the far distance.

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The view north and east from a point along the old route of the Appalachian Trail approximately two miles south of Sling's Gap.

The man in the photograph is Shirley L. Cole, the County Agent in Floyd County, and the original overseer of the Appalachian Trail in Southwestern Virginia. The photograph is from ATC Chairman Myron Avery's personal scrapbooks and was taken during one of several scouting expeditions he took with Cole in the region between 1930-1932.

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This photograph taken by ATC Chairman Myron Avery shows the view of the Appalachian Trail south into North Carolina at Fisher's Peak from Fancy Gap, Virginia. This is one of many photographs of the old route of the trail taken by Avery during his numerous expeditions to this part of Virginia between 1930-1950.

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