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When the Appalachian Trail Went Through Galax

by Tom Dillon

“Virginia’s Lost Appalachian Trail,” by Mills Kelly. History Press, Charleston, S.C. 2023. 157 pages, $23.99 paperback

“The Old Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia,” by Susan Gail Arey. Independently published, 2023. 116 pages, $27 paperback

Talk about early relocations of the Appalachian Trail, and PATH members who’ve been around for a while will conjure up the removal of the trail in the 1980s from the dry summit ridge of Walker Mountain to Garden Mountain and Chestnut Knob.

But that’s far from the longest relo southwest Virginia has ever seen, even if the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has never bothered to tell much of the story. That’s why it’s fortunate we have a couple of other people on the job. They are Mills Kelly, a professor at George Mason University and volunteer archivist for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), on the job, and Susan Gail Arey, an author of several hiking books.

You see, when the trail was first laid out in the 1920s and 30s, it didn’t go anywhere near Chestnut Knob or Walker Mountain or any of the places today’s trail maintainers are familiar with. Heck, it even missed McAfee Knob, the rock on the Virginia AT license plate.

Instead, the trail headed south from the Roanoke area, passing places called Bent Mountain (with a big waterfall) and Copper Hill, going close to Floyd, Va., and on to what is today Rocky Knob Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Lover’s Leap area and to what Earl Shaffer, the first thru-hiker (in 1948), called the “most spectacular” part of the whole trail. That was the craggy Pinnacles of Dan.

The trail dipped briefly into North Carolina on Fisher’s Peak, site of an early rhododendron festival, then circled back north through Galax and Fries, Va. – where a skiff ferry took you across the New River. From there, the trail headed west across Farmers Mountain and Comers Rock, following the route of today’s Iron Mountain Trail on to Damascus.

That was the route for some 25 years, until the development of the new Blue Ridge Parkway began to usurp much of the trail route and until the Unaka, now Jefferson, National Forest began to grow substantially further west.

With the absence of many trail clubs in the area and the offer of Forest Service land (and work) for the trail, the result was that, in 1952, the Appalachian Trail Conference shifted 300 miles of the trail completely away from the Virginia-North Carolina border toward the route most of it follows today. For some people and places, that was a tragedy. 

Kelly opens his book in Fries, Va., a former mill town on the New River that is well past its heyday, and he’s quick to note an irony. When Benton MacKaye first suggested the trail, he wanted it to benefit not only hikers but also small towns along the route. And the trail did that in places like Floyd, Galax, Meadows of Dan and Fancy Gap – though bearded (or female) hikers were still unusual in the 1930s.

Indeed, the Daughters of the American Revolution chapter in Galax is still called the “Appalachian Trail” chapter, though not many DAR members know why today. And you can still walk parts of the old trail at Rocky Knob, near Floyd and on the Iron Mountain Trail, among other places.

Kelly calls the relocation of so much of the trail another example of the “boom and bust” economic woes of southwest Virginia through the years, where forests were felled and iron and manganese were mined, and then the loggers and miners moved on. His book, he says, is about “what was,” but also “things that could have been.”

He has heroes in his book, many of them the old-timers who helped him decipher the route of the “old trail.” Doug Bell takes him along an old trail route at Copper Hill, Sally Rakes remembers her grandfather’s ferry across the New River, and former thru-hiker Jim McNeely helps him follow the old trail near Floyd.

But he also has the opposite, and it’s clear that he thinks early trail leader Myron Avery was one of them. Avery was not a man to admit he’d ever been wrong about anything, Kelly says, and he proved that in southwest Virginia. He writes: “Someone once said of Myron Avery that when he died (in 1952), he left behind two trails: the Appalachian Trail and a trail of bruised egos.”

However, Kelly says Benton MacKaye would be happy to see the revival of Damascus, Va., today, and he says memories of the old trail are strong in many places. To find that out, all you have to do is visit.

“In a part of America where the past really matters,” he writes, “the Appalachian Trail lives on, inscribed on the inner landscapes of the people who still remember and are determined not to forget.”

The second book, Arey’s, is a shorter treatment of the topic but is filled with lots of color pictures of “what the early AT hikers would have seen.” It’s also in a bit larger format, 10 inches by seven inches, making the pictures more impressive. Arey was promoting it at last August’s AT Vista conference in Tennessee.

Arey says a good bit of the old route is either drivable or hikeable, particularly noting the area around Rocky Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Her book, like Kelly’s, is available from several Web locations, as well as from bookstores.

For those of you who would like to further research “the old trail,” read “The Old Appalachian Trail in the New River Valley, 1931-1955.” That’s a research paper delivered by Jim McNeely for the 2017 New River Symposium at Radford University in Radford, Va. It’s available on the internet, with a PDF format accessible from the link above, as well as in other places.

Photograph of Tom Dillon

About the Author

Tom Dillon

Tom is a longtime volunteer in many aspects. When it comes to trail work, he spends his time helping out with adopted sections of The Appalachian Trail in Virginia and The Mountains to Sea Trail in North Carolina.

Tom’s home watershed (HUC) is Lower Salem Creek (030401011305). This means he is a neighbor creator.

By The Upper New Review

The Upper New Review is an environmental literary arts magazine based in the Upper New River basin, which intersects the states of North Carolina and Virginia in the United States of America in present-day North America. We are seeking out place-based creative works from all over the globe.