Today, we explore one of the most infamous sections of the Appalachian Trail. Get ready for the ups and downs of Northern Virginia's Roller Coaster.
MILLS KELLY: One of the most infamous sections of the Appalachian Trail is Northern Virginia's Roller Coaster. Which is where I am right now, walking up one of the many hills in this section of the trail. Hikers named this the Roller Coaster because it goes up and down and up and down.
KELLY: Why am I out recording while walking uphill in this torturous section? Because here at the Green Tunnel Podcast, we go to the ends of the earth, or at least different sections of the AT, to bring you stories about the history of the trail and many of the iconic locations along the trail.
KELLY: Next time though, I'm going to pick a flat section.
KELLY: Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly, and I’m your host. Fresh off the AT
KELLY: In this Iconic Location episode, we’re taking you to one of the most frustrating sections of the entire Appalachian Trail – Northern Virginia’s infamous “Roller Coaster.” The Roller Coaster is a 13-mile-long section of the trail between Ashby Gap and Snickers Gap. What distinguishes this section is not its length, but the up and down nature of the trail’s route. Over those 13 miles hikers gain 3,800’ in elevation and lose 3,720’ in elevation. Up and down. Over and over.
KELLY: We wanted to find out why anyone thought putting a trail at this location with all those ups and downs was a good idea, so we spoke to Chris Brunton, one of the people who created the Roller Coaster back in the 1980s.
CHRIS BRUNTON: My name is Chris Brunton. I'm a volunteer with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and also with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. I have been working and walking on the trail for over 30 years. I live in Harpers Ferry, very close to the trail, and I am the district manager for the AT from Harpers Ferry for the 32 miles going south into Virginia as far as Ashby Gap, which is Highway 50 and that includes part of the Roller Coaster.
KELLY: Since Chris helped create the Roller Coaster almost 40 years ago, he was able to tell us the origin story of this brutal section.
BRUNTON: It goes back to the 1980s. In those years the trail actually ran for 15 miles on a highway. Because in the early years after Myron Avery and his crew, Frank Schairer and those people laid the trail out, they put it in the woods on land with an okay, a handshake okay from the landowners who said, “Yeah, you want to go in our woods. That's not a problem.” And so, the trail was there, and it was on both sides of Virginia Highway 601.
KELLY: But as the decades passed and the number of hikers on the trail grew, having a long-distance hiking trail crossing your land seemed less and less wonderful to some of those landowners.
BRUNTON: As those old landowners died out or moved out and the land changed, the new owners coming in suddenly realized that people are walking in our woods and trespassing “No Trespassing” signs and fences and stuff like that came up. So, the club had to then, bit by bit, push it out onto the highway to Virginia, 601. So, we had 15 miles of walking from Highway 50 at Ashby Gap all the way to Snickers Gap at Highway 7, and three miles on the other side.
KELLY: Of course, hikers didn’t go to the Appalachian Trail to hike on a road.
KELLY: In the late 1980s, the National Park Service turned its attention to Mount Weather, where that 15-mile road walk was. They acquired a corridor of land for the trail on the west side of the mountain, and then it was time for the PATC to build a new stretch of trail through the forest.
BRUNTON: I was at that time a new member of the PATC. I'd actually joined them, because I I like to hike, and I was learning the different hikes, trails and stuff like that. Somehow the club had got my name, and they called me and said, “Hey, we'd like you to put together a crew and start building the new AT. We're going to call it the 601 Project.”
KELLY: It took Chris and his crew almost two years to build the new trail, but when they were done, hikers no longer had to hike on Route 601. Of course, they did have to start walking up and downhill.
KELLY: A lot.
BRUNTON: Because we couldn't get the ridge we had to go through the woods and down the side of the mountain with all these drops and ups and downs, and then we were confined in the fact that the trail corridor was only approximately one thousand feet wide.
KELLY: It’s those ups and downs in that narrow corridor that make the Roller Coaster so much fun for hikers. But how did this section get its name?
BRUNTON: So, it happens that my wife and I, we manage the Blackburn Trail Center and have done for years. And I was reading in the logbook a note from a hiker who'd come through and spent the night, and he said, boy, that was a heck of a roller coaster ride today.
And a couple of weeks later I saw another one, same thing. “Yeah, that roller coaster I was planning to go on walk on a few miles to get closer to Harpers Ferry. But, boy, that beat me up, and I’m spending the night here.
BRUNTON: And so finally we realized they were talking about so many ups and downs ups and downs. We did not name it Roller coaster. The hikers did.
KELLY: Not everyone’s a fan though.
BRUNTON: I do get a lot of grief from hikers. “Why did you make it like that?” I do tell hikers, “Hey? You can still walk the old trail, if you want to.” “Oh, yeah, how do we do that?” I say, “When you cross Highway 50, instead of walk into the woods, turn right, walk up to the top of the mountain, and turn left on 601, and walk for 15 miles on the route”
KELLY: Not surprisingly, pretty much everyone chooses to hike in the woods. Even with all those ups and downs.
KELLY: Speaking as someone who has hiked the Roller Coaster twice in the past six years, I can say that it is certainly challenging. But it also has some very beautiful features. Are those beautiful features worth the effort? To find out, all you need to do is park near Route 50 or Route 7 and hike it yourself. As the signs at each end of the Roller Coaster say, “Enjoy the ride!”
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KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Today’s episode was produced by me, Mills Kelly. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are our executive producers.
KELLY: A special thanks to Chris Brunton for sharing his knowledge of the Roller Coaster with us.
KELLY: That’s it for today. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you again soon!
Chris attended school in the United Kingdom, and he moved to the United States in 1970. He was employed as a manufacturer rep. and retired in 2014.
Chris has hiked and worked on the AT for 30 plus years. He currently lives in Harpers Ferry, W.V. .