The Appalachian Trail features over 250 shelters from Georgia to Maine, spread about 15 miles apart. These shelters are primarily meant for thru-hikers who do not carry a tent or sleeping bag to keep the weight of their pack down, but anyone can use these. If I were to write a review of the shelters the same as I would write one for a hotel or B&B, and apply a star rating system, I would have to give the Thomas Knob Shelter a four-star rating. But if you want to know why I would give such a high rating, you’ll have to keep reading.
The Thomas Knob Shelter on the AT is located about 4 miles from Grayson Highlands State Park and about 7.5 miles from the summit of Whitetop Mountain. The easiest way to access this shelter is from the Massie Gap parking area at Grayson Highlands State Park and hike the four-mile trip across Wilburn Ridge. But thru-hikers or multi-day hikers might come upon this shelter along the trail. Whichever way you reach this shelter, you’re in for a bit of a treat.
When I write reviews about lodgings, I always write about five factors: access, comfort, amenities, price, and location. Although shelters on the AT are completely different (and meant to be this way) I can still apply these basic factors to these simple lodges. A typical shelter on the AT is called a lean-to and features three solid walls with a fourth wall open to nature, a metal or wooden roof, and enough room for at least six backpackers to sleep overnight. But using this basic lean-to as an example, it’s easy to see why the Thomas Knob shelter stands above the rest.
First, there is the access. You won’t exactly park in front of this shelter, but then again hiking to the shelter is part of the experience of spending a night on the AT. The first time I slept at the Thomas Knob Shelter I parked in the Overnight Backpackers Lot at Grayson Highlands State Park and spent about three hours hiking to the shelter. You’ll start climbing up the Massie Gap Trail before joining the AT at Mile 493.9. From here, you’ll hike to the edge of the state park, hike across the three peaks of Wilburn Ridge, descend into Rhododendron Gap, and finally reach the shelter. The views during this hike are stunning and well worth a day-hike at the very least.
Secondly, there is the comfort. While you certainly cannot expect a shelter on the AT to match the comfort of even the most uncomfortable of lodges, this shelter is still pretty comfortable compared to many of the others. You won’t find mattresses or padding of any kind, but you’ll find something else to add to the comfort of an overnight sleep: two levels. The shelter features a large three-walled first floor big enough for about a dozen backpackers to sleep side-by-side. But it also features a small attic space where about a half dozen additional backpackers could sleep. This is a great feature just in case you end up with an overnight partner who tends to snore loud enough to worry the wildlife.
Thirdly, there is the amenities. Shelters are usually placed in strategic locations that offer easy access to a water supply. Water is important to any overnight hiker for cooking and drinking. The Thomas Knob Shelter features a pretty good water source about 300′ behind the shelter, down a little hill. The water source is surrounded by a simple wooden fence to keep the wild ponies away and help keep the water clean. The water source is a natural spring, but can get kinda shallow at times so you may need a water filter pump to fill your bottles. But to me the most important amenity is the nearby compost privy. The small privy is located in a thick bushy area near the shelter to afford you some privacy, and also features a small roof and half walls for further privacy. You won’t find any toilet paper here, but it’s just nice to actually have a place to sit when you need. A final amenity is common at most shelters, but still worth pointing out: a picnic table. It is a piece of comfort that should never be taken for granted on the AT, especially when a shelter is located four miles from the nearest highway (can you imagine carrying the lumber that far just to build a table?)
Fourth, there is the price. Guess what? You can’t beat free. All the shelters on the AT are free of charge for use by anyone. Sometimes thru-hikers will take advantage of hostels in the many trail towns which still don’t cost much (about $10-20 a night). But shelters are free. Despite the free use, there is something you need to keep in mind about trail etiquette: thru-hikers get priority. Many thru-hikers do not carry a tent or sleeping bag because even the best materials would weigh about 5-10 pounds for both, and these hikers want to keep their pack weight to a minimum. The shelters are located about 15 miles apart, which means a hiker will need to cover this much ground every day, regardless of the weather conditions. When they arrive at a shelter, if you have a tent you should be prepared to use it in lieu of a night under a solid roof.
Finally, there is the location. The Thomas Knob Shelter is located in one of the most beautiful sections of the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia. It is located near the scenic Wilburn Ridge, a place that affords majestic views and chances to see roaming wild ponies. The shelter also sits a half mile from the base of Mount Rogers, the tallest mountain in Virginia. A short spur trail will take you to the summit in about an hour. But the best feature of the shelter is located just behind. A small climb gets you atop several large boulders with plenty of room to sit and an uninterrupted view to the west and southwest along dozens of mountain chains. It is one of the most beautiful views in the region which is what makes the full day-hike to this shelter worth every minute.
The Thomas Knob Shelter is a pretty good day-hike away from Grayson Highlands State Park, is fairly comfortable compared to most other shelters, features a few very important amenities for an overnight stay, is free to use, and is located in a great spot in Southwest Virginia. It’s not entirely easy hiking here, but if you’re up for a challenge and in fairly good shape it’s worth the hike out. Spend a night. Walk to the summit of Mount Rogers. Or, if you are a thru-hiker, you won’t be disappointed with a night at this shelter as you continue your trek north to the Wise Shelter or south to the Lost Mountain Shelter.