Practical Guide to Backpacking Virginia’s Three Ridges Loop

Practical Guide to Backpacking Virginia’s Three Ridges Loop

About Virginia’s Three Ridges

Virginia’s Three Ridges is a popular backpacking circuit just south of Charlottesville. The 13.1 mile loop is notable for its beautiful vistas along the Appalachian Trail and its many waterfalls along the Mau-Har Trail. Throughout this backpacking adventure, you will climb steep inclines toward Bee Mountain, Chimney Rock, and the Three Ridges summit, offering views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains and the valley below.

We conquered the Three Ridges loop in early October and are here to share our 2-day itinerary to help you plan your own backpacking trip.

Three Ridges Loop Quick Facts

Three Ridges Loop: Quick Facts

Water Sources

Depending on the season, water is plentiful along the Three Ridges Loop. On the first day, you will hike along the Mau-Har Trail which follows alongside Campbell Creek. After heavy rainfall, this babbling brook has many small waterfalls and swimming holes ideal for filling up your water supply. Both shelters have a water source as well. Maupin Field Shelter has a piped spring directly behind the shelter although it has been sometimes found dry according to hikers. Harpers Creek Shelter is aptly named for the creek running directly in front of it. On day two from Harpers Creek Shelter to Reed’s Gap, water sources are less plentiful so we advise planning accordingly.

The protozoan Giardia Lamblia is commonly found in the waters of the Appalachians, therefore it is necessary to treat any water procured from a natural source. While boiling is an effective method to protect yourself from infection, it requires substantial fuel (or a fire.) We prefer the water filter route and always suggest the Sawyer Mini or Micro Squeeze as it is one of the most reliable filters on the market.

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Sawyer water filter

Camp Spots & Shelters

One of the best things about backpacking Virginia’s Three Ridges Loop is the abundance of camping sites. Both shelters are well maintained with a fire pit, privy, and picnic table. Should the shelter be a bit crowded for the night, there are several fire rings surrounding the nearby area where previous hikers have set up camp.

If you prefer a more backcountry experience, you will notice a multitude of fire rings scattered along the trail. We noticed at least 10 or 15 along the Mau-Har Trail alone.  As you will read below, we opted to set up camp at one of these fire rings along the trail rather than at a shelter.


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Day 1: Reed’s Gap to Harper’s Creek Shelter – 5.6 miles

  • Begin at Reed’s Gap parking lot along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We recommend arriving early as the parking lot is small and fills up quickly.  Head downhill along Beech Grove Rd. You will find the white-blazed trailhead at the southern end of the parking lot.
  • The trail parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway before narrowing off into the woods. Here you begin your short ascent of Meadow Mountain. At the top you will see a smaller campsite marked by fire rings as well as an overlook. Continue downhill along the AT.
Backpacking Three Ridges Loop, Virginia
White blaze Three Ridges Loop
  • In 1.6 miles you will reach the intersection where Mau-Har Trail meets the AT. You will also notice a fire road almost directly behind you. I believe this trail leads toward the Love Gap parking area, but I am not entirely sure. At this intersection, you will find a signpost containing a map and helpful trail information including a bear notice and distances to notable waypoints. Here you can decide if you would rather complete the trail clockwise along the AT first (more popular) or counterclockwise along the Mau-Har trail first. The day was rather overcast so in order to better our chances of catching a nice view along the ridge, we opted to take the Mau-Har trail first and leave the higher altitude views for the following day.
  • From the intersection, turn right on to the blue-blazed Mau-Har Trail. You will pass the Maupin Field Shelter, an Appalachian trail shelter equipped with fire ring/grill, picnic table, and an outhouse. It is approximately 3.9 miles from the Maupin Field Shelter to the next, Harper’s Creek Shelter. Despite the somewhat short distance, there are many rock scrambles and a very steep incline so do not underestimate how long it may take to complete this stretch. Hikers with dogs should know that at one point the trail becomes an inclined slab with a very narrow toe ledge. It is not impossible to pass, just a bit more challenging. Our Golden Doodle was able to traverse this portion, albeit very slowly and with some coaxing from “mom” and “dad”.
  • The Mau-Har trail follows along Campbell Creek providing a constant water source for hikers. (May not be available year-round.) You will notice many primitive campsites along the trail, all ideal overnight locations to enjoy the relaxing sounds of a babbling brook.
  • Many hikers will proceed to Harpers Creek shelter for the night, however we wanted to primitive camp along Campbell Creek. We spent the night in a large clearing where the blue trail and yellow trail meet. This is the last primitive camping area before the trail veers away from the creek. If you have begun ascending the steep hill and switchbacks, you have gone too far. This campsite is not only picturesque, it is already equipped with a multitude of fire rings and leveled clearings left behind by previous campers. There is even a bear bag rope to suspend your scented belongings at night. The adjacent creek provided a convenient water source for us to fill up on our water supply. What about that yellow trail I mentioned? That short yellow-blazed trail marks the turn off to Campbell Creek Falls, a 40 ft. waterfall approximately 200 yards away.

Day 2: Harper’s Creek Shelter to Reed’s Gap -7.5 miles

  • Note: We loved our decision to stay the night along Campbell Creek, however in doing so we cut day 1 a little short. For the purpose of this itinerary, I wrote it as if we stayed at Harper’s Creek Shelter because that is in fact what the majority of hikers do. Just know that if you do stay at our recommended campsite, day 1 will be a bit shorter than the stated 5.6 miles and day 2 will be just a bit longer than the stated 7.5 miles.
  • From the campground, rejoin the blue-blazed Mau-Har trail and begin your grueling ascent toward the AT. This portion of the trail involves a constant steep incline, a bit of rock scrambling, and several switchbacks.
  • Arrive at the intersection of the Mau Har-Trail and AT. Turn left to head north onto the white-blazed AT toward Harper’s Creek shelter.
Intersection of Appalachian and Mau-Har Trail along the Three Ridges loop
  • We stopped at Harper’s Creek shelter to take advantage of the picnic table for lunch. We joined two through-hikers who shared their wild tales of hiking the AT and critters crawling into their sleeping bags. Should you need to refill your water, there is a creek that runs directly in front of the shelter. There are few water sources if any along the stretch from Harper’s Creek Shelter to Reed’s Gap parking lot, so if in doubt fill up here.
  • Continue your ascent along the AT. Around mile 7.2 (distance calculated from Reed’s Gap) you will arrive at the Chimney Rock viewpoint.
  • Around mile 8.9 you will reach the summit of Three Ridges, the tallest point and best viewpoint along this backpacking loop. The path flattens a bit along the ridgeline where you can enjoy white and purple wildflowers along your walk.
  • Continue along passing Bee Mountain summit as you begin your descent toward the original junction where the AT meets the Mau-Har Trail. Right before you meet this junction there will be a large clearing to the right, ideal for group camping or pausing for a snack. We set our packs down and sat along some fallen logs to enjoy a quick snack.
  • Arrive at the junction of the AT and Mau-Har Trail. Continue straight along the white blaze to finish your last stretch of the circuit. You have now completed the “loop” and this is the “lollipop stick” portion of the hike, returning on the same 1.6 mile stretch where you came in. Continue uphill as the trail passes back over Meadow Mountain before descending toward your final destination.
  • At mile 13.1, arrive back at Reed’s Gap parking lot. You did it!

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Trail Highlights

  • 00 miles – Start from the Parking lot heading south along the AT.
  • .8 miles – The trail reaches its first ridge before descending through some switchbacks. There are some camping spots at the ridge.
  • 1.6 miles – Reach the junction of the AT with the fire road and the Mau-Har Trail. Turn right onto the Mau Har trail.
  • 1.7 miles – Reach the Maupin Field Shelter.
  • 4.7 miles – Reach the junction where the blue-blazed Mau-Har meets the white-blazed AT.
  • 5.6 miles – Arrive at the Harper’s Creek Shelter.
  • 7.2 miles – Reach Chimney Rock.
  • 8.9 miles – Reach the summit of Three Ridges.
  • 11.1 miles – Reach the summit of Bee Mountain.
  • 11.5 miles – Reach the junction of the AT and the fire road/Mau Har.
  • 13.1 miles – Arrive at Reed’s Gap.
Backpacking Three Ridges Virgina

Our Experience Backpacking the Three Ridges Loop

This was our first time backpacking the Appalachian Trail. We have hiked various portions of the AT, however, never before had we attempted a multi-day hike with 20 lb. packs on our backs and a fluffy Golden Doodle tied to our waists.

Adding an additional layer of complexity, I was 16 weeks pregnant at the time of this hike. All those things being said, we hiked much slower than expected…as in significantly slower. Our typical pace is about 2 miles an hour but with all of these new aspects factored in, we hiked at about 1 mile an hour.

This slow pace threw off our schedule and we ended up hiking the last 1.6 miles in the dark. Luckily we were equipped with headlamps to illuminate the trail. Unluckily (is that a word?) for us, Black Bears travel and feed primarily at night. We clacked our hiking sticks together and sang “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain” to make noise, but also to distract ourselves from our mounting fear of getting eaten by a bear. (Spoiler alert: we survived.)

Challenges aside, hiking with overnight packs invited a completely different hiking experience. Through-hikers would stop and make conversation with you.

“Where are you from?”

“How far are you hiking today.”

“How’d ya’ll fare in that storm the other day?”

Suddenly we felt part of a community, and it felt great. We have always dreamed about hiking the entire Appalachian Trail and now we are yearning to be part of this community of adventure seekers and outdoor enthusiasts. Don’t be surprised if you see a series of posts about backpacking the Appalachian Trail in the future!

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Guide to Hiking Three Ridges Loop Pinterest

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading your experience backpacking the Three Ridges Loop. And you really took note miles by miles of your hike, so whoever wants to do this loop knows what to expect. That’s really great! Your dog looked fine and enjoyed the hike with you. I wonder if you can do this loop in one day.

  2. I love the idea of doing a hike on the Virginia Three Ridges Loop to see beautiful vistas and waterfalls. We would certainly want to split the 12 mile trek into two parks. Although I am sure we would need some training if we were carrying 20 lb packs on our back! This is a great detailed account for someone to follow in your footsteps. And I bet your fluffy Golden Doodle enjoyed every minute.

  3. Backpacking Virginia’s Three Ridges Loop must be a great experience. I love hiking and backpacking. I appreciate your detailed descriptions and plenty of hiking tips, as water sources and shelters. Preparing for backpacking is essential. It’s great that you also provide Trail Highlights.

  4. Thank you for sharing this detailed post. It is truly helpful for first-timers visiting the Three Ridge Loop. Thank you for sharing the tips and the reminder to treat water.

    Wow! I have never thought about hiking when I was pregnant. You are amazing.

  5. Thanks for this detailed guide, it is super helpful. Good to know that plenty of shelters are available along the trail, should we choose not to carry camping gear. Thanks for the tip about arriving early coz of small parking lot. I love how you met many other hikers along the way and felt like a part of the community. I can feel that!
    Wait what??? You are pregnant? And you did this 2 day long backpacking hike? Wow!!! Awesome! Hats off to you and Congratulations!

  6. Congratulations for completing the hike and of course for the good news on pregnancy. Hats off to you for doing this and you really got me curious with such lovely shots. I love short trails and the best part about this was camping sites along the way. The night part did sound scary with the bears being around but I am glad you did great.

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