Walking has been called the exercise that needs no gym, the weight control without a diet, the tranquilizer without a pill, and the fountain of youth that is no legend. It’s a revitalizer, an aid to clear and creative thought, and a preventive for cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, and other diseases.
Plus, it makes for a great vacation. Inn-to-inn hiking gives you the best of the outdoors combined with the pampering of civilization. This article is for those who like rambling along in nature, but think plodding up mountains with a substitute home packed on their backs is work. It’s also for backpackers on holiday from big packs.
After three years of researching hiking trails and the lodging within walking distance, I’ve written a book, The Inn to Inn Walking Guide to the Virginias, published by Menasha Ridge Press. This article describes one of my favorite hikes from the book: the Appalachian and Wheezer trails near Pearisburg, Va.
The climb to Angel’s Rest above Pearisburg is notorious among southbound Appalachian Trail hikers for its punishing incline. Yes, you must endure a 1.5-mile, 1,650-ft. climb before you can sprawl over a boulder enjoying Giles County from a heavenly perspective. For the next seven miles of the hike, you enjoy ridgetop while hiking level ground or descending to cascading Mill Creek.
The ascent to Angel’s Rest has its own rewards. Noise and heat fall away as you zigzag up the slope, moving from thick poplar and oaks to laurel and rhododendron.
The spring you thought was finished revives in azaleas, fire pinks, and lady slippers at 3,770 ft. And fall starts creeping over the summit in mid-September with the first red woodbine and yellow nut trees.
Angel’s Rest looms over Pearisburg. From almost anywhere in town, it’s easy to determine whether a patch of clouds is resting on the tip of Pearis Mountain. When it is, natives say, “The angel is in.”
To reach Angel’s Rest and the Appalachian Trail, take Wenonah St. (US 460 Business) to Pearisburg’s Main Street at the courthouse. Turn right, go three blocks, and turn left on Johnson Avenue. Take the first right (Morris Avenue) and go about .6 mile until you see a tree bearing the white AT blaze and a path entering the forest on the left.
The sense of escape is immediate. You enter into a tight, close bower of greenery and branches; the sky is not visible again until near the summit. Don’t examine the vegetation bordering the trail too closely; the shiny, three-leafed vine is poison ivy. The herb with jagged leaves is stinging nettle — reputedly great in potions, but its prickers give your legs a rash.
The well-worn trail leads into a spring-fed ravine and briefly along an old logging road before settling into a consistent, thrashing course of switchbacks. The path crosses over two ancient rockslides. Watch the feet; a spring seeps under one, making the rocks slippery.
Gradually, the thriving hardwood forest of the lowlands gives way to stunted oaks and shrubs. When you reach the boulders at the top, detour a few hundred feet to the right on a blue-blazed trail for a view of Pearisburg and the twisting New River. The AT continues to the crest of Angel’s Rest and follows along a rock ledge overhanging Wilburn Valley for more spectacular views.
Now you’re coasting. The trail is flat, and only downhills lie ahead. After about 1.5 miles along the ridge through ferns and heath shrubs, the landscape opens up under a power line with good views of Wilburn Valley. From here, the AT descends about 200 feet and turns left. At this juncture, turn right to follow an as-yet unblazed forest service road known as the Wheezer among mountain bikers. If you were coming from Narrows, you’d know why.
Wheezer is a grassy double-track, bordered by mountain laurel and flame azaleas at its higher elevations. As its downward slope increases, you’ll see what local mountain bikers describe as “babyheads,” treacherous loose stones along its eight-switchback descent. You plunge about 1,100 feet in the last half mile to Mill Creek.
Forty miles of unmarked trails fan out through Jefferson National Forest from the Mill Creek area. Several take off from Wheezer on the way down Pearis Mountain. Continue down the double-track Wheezer and veer right when another double track comes in from the left. At Mill Creek, you will reach the pond that was once Narrows’ town reservoir.
However, if you’d like an intimate, half-mile alternative to the double track, look for a small path exiting on the left side of the sixth or seventh switchback. Follow this trail on an overgrown logging road to a cobbled path along Mill Creek’s waterfalls and pools of native trout. This path, Catwalk, is a super technical, rocky, crazy descent for a biker, but only mildly pulse-quickening for a hiker.
Someone started a tradition of creating rock cairns along Catwalk, and now its course is marked with carefully balanced Buddhist shrines. Ralph Robertson, a local outdoorsman and guide, makes a habit of stacking a new rock on one of the towers each time he passes through. “A cairn represents life,” he says. “Very tippy, but every now and then someone adds a new piece to it.”
Hemlocks, beech, hickories, and oak shelter the trail, and trillium, jack-in-the pulpits, ferns, and ramps — the garlicky spring tonic of the southern Appalachians — grow in profusion from the dark earth. Robertson has seen bear farther up the creek, and, when he searches under rocks, rattlesnakes.
Catwalk and Wheezer converge at the pond that was once Narrows’ town reservoir. Town employees and visiting college students have been working to build a path along the left side of Mill Creek, but no bridge has been completed as of winter 2001, so take the forest road downhill a quarter-mile to the completed bridge on the left. Cross there and make a quick right. In spring, you’ll see at least a dozen species of wildflowers, from the first hepatica and colts foot blossoms in March to Bowman’s root and mayapple in late spring.
The path leads to Poplar Street Bridge. Step right over the bridge and make an immediate left onto Northview Street, which goes about a mile to Main Street. Turn left on Main Street and you’ll see the New River Inn on the right in a quarter-mile. A good dinner spot is Anna’s Restaurant, a block west at the end of Main Street. Linda Lorraine’s Bed and Breakfast
1409 Cabot Dr., Pearisburg, VA
From Linda Lorraine’s porch, her dining room, and most of the guest rooms in her 1908 Georgian-style house, you can eyeball Angel’s Rest — that great heap of mountain you must climb on this hike. Linda Lorraine Jametsky can no longer see well enough to make out Angel’s Rest, but she knows her way around her kitchen well enough to cook up a breakfast that’s a worthy send-off.
Although she’s an expert in concocting low-fat, sugar-free items, she has enough Southern blood to do justice to biscuits and gravy with eggs. Her husband, Ron, makes French toast angelica for the Angel’s Rest bound. And if that’s not enough, anything in the guest refrigerator is up for grabs.
Unlike most other bed and breakfasts, Linda Lorraine’s welcomes children and outdoor dogs. Two of the spacious bedrooms have two queen beds to accommodate families. The four upstairs bedrooms are served by large shared bathrooms, one for men and one for women.
New River Inn and Bookstore
307 Main St., Narrows, VA
The New River Inn and Bookstore got its start three years ago when Narrows newcomer Diana Fields decided she wouldn’t commute to work. Shortly after she made that decision, the house next door to her went up for sale during the week when Fields found an opportunity to buy 5,000 books for $250. The bookstore and bed and breakfast were born.
The New River Inn consists of three upstairs bedrooms and one down — comfortable, unpretentious rooms with pretty bedspreads and antique furniture. A clawfoot tub in the shared bathroom invites long soaks, perhaps accompanied by a cup of the inn’s apricot ginger or Egyptian licorice tea. Guests have their choice of 10,000 books for night reading.
Fields loves catering to hikers and other ecotourists. Her latest move has been to open a canoe and tubing livery.
Innkeepers will help you shuttle your car before your hike or take you back to your car the next morning, but you need to make your request with your reservation. To reach Linda Lorraine’s, take the Pearisburg/Ripplemead exit off U.S. 460 and follow U.S. 460 (Wenonah Street) toward Pearisburg. After entering Pearisburg, take a right on Horsley Drive. As you crest the hill, you’ll see Linda Lorraine’s directly before you.
For the New River Inn, take U.S. 460 to the Narrows exit, turn left on Rt. 61 over the bridge to downtown Narrows, where you will turn left on Rt. 100, the main street. The inn is on the left, just after the post office.
Clauson-Wicker’s The Inn-to-Inn Walking Guide for the Virginias was published by Menasha Ridge Press in April 2001.