Trail Love Letter: The Priest and Three Ridges

AJW's Taproom[Author’s Note: This is the third installment of a monthly series to pay homage to some of my favorite trails. These are not trail guides, per se, but rather tributes to some of the finest running trails in the United States.]

Just off the shoulder on the south side of State Route 56 in Central Virginia is a small dirt parking lot. With barely enough room for eight cars, this pulloff has, for decades, been the launching pad and self-supplied aid station for mountain trail runners to run “The Priest and Three Ridges.” Beginning innocently enough with the crossing of the footbridge spanning the Tye River at 930 feet altitude, climbing and descending Three Ridges at 3,790 feet, and then finishing with a nine-mile out and back to the summit of The Priest at 4,063 feet, the iconic “P/3R” as it’s locally known is generally regarded as the ultimate East Coast hill workout for those training for the big mountain races out west.

Measuring around 23 miles and climbing and descending just over 7,500 feet, Priest/Three Ridges involves some of the most consistent vertical gain and loss of the entire Appalachian Trail. With just a few sections of rocks and roots, this trail section is notable for its runnability when compared with other trails in the area. Most people who take on the full run begin with the 14-mile Three Ridges Loop which ascends on the Appalachian Trail and descends the Mau-Har Trail, a technical side trail that forms a connector between the Maupin Field Shelter and the Harper’s Creek Shelter. Then, after refueling at the aforementioned parking lot, the final nine miles are spent ascending and descending over 3,000 feet on The Priest, a stately mountain that stands watch over the scenic Tye River Valley.

As is the case with many things in Virginia ultrarunning, the allure of Priest/Three Ridges begins with one man, legendary Virginia ultrarunner David Horton. Horton, now 71 years old and retired from running, spent hours and hours on Priest/Three Ridges during his prime. A two-time Hardrock 100 winner and Barkley Marathons finisher, Horton credits his success to repeats on the slopes of P/3R. Several of Horton’s protégés, including such ultramarathon luminaries as Clark Zealand, Bethany Patterson, and Jonathan Basham, have also cut their teeth over hours and hours on this iconic section of trail.

Former Grand Slam of Ultrarunning record holder Neal Gorman set the fastest known time on P/3R back in May of 2012, becoming the first recorded person to complete the course in under four hours. Gorman held onto the FKT for over eight years until local mountain goat Michael Dubova lowered the mark to 3:45 last October.

When I first moved to Virginia in 2011, everyone in the local running community implored me to get out and run P/3R and within a month of my arrival. I was escorted through the course by Jeremy Ramsey, himself a renowned runner in Central Virginia whose exploits on The Priest included an otherworldly 25:30 descent which is, as far as I can tell, the fastest anyone has ever bombed down that mountain.

During the eight years I lived in Virginia and trained for mountainous 100-mile races in the west like the Western States 100, Hardrock 100, and Bighorn Trail 100 Mile, I was a regular customer on P/3R where I often ran with groups and on my own. My biggest single day out there was in late spring of 2016 when I was training for Hardrock. After discussing it with Horton and hearing about his training in the 1980s and ’90s, I decided to attempt a “Quad” as my final long run before heading out to Colorado. I had heard stories of Horton doing the Quad back in the day and I wanted to give it a shot. Consisting of two trips up and down Three Ridges and two trips up and down The Priest, this run packs just over 13,000 feet of climbing into 38 miles (to maximize vert, the Quad skips the Mau-Har section). After getting that done I knew I was ready for Hardrock.

There are, of course, epic trails like The Priest and Three Ridges in many places around the world. Yet, to me, there is something singularly distinctive about this piece of trail, an iconic American footpath across an ancient mountain range, that makes this just a little more special and, in my opinion, something that should be on every ultrarunner’s bucket list.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Dogfish Head Brewery Hazy O!This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Taproom favorite Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware. I was lucky enough to get my hands on their newly released Hazy O!, an oat-milk-centric hazy IPA. When I first heard about it I thought, Beer with oat milk in it? Yuck. But then I took my first sip and oh my gosh was it good! This unique beer is brewed with four types of oats–malted oats, rolled oats, naked oats, and oat milk. And the resulting beer is slightly sweet, juicy in a balanced way, and, not surprisingly, creamy at the end. Now that Hazy O! is being released nationally, I suspect it will be one of the top beers of the summer.

Call for Comments

Do you or have you run the Priest and Three Ridges route? Leave a comment to share your stories.

Runner enjoying Priest and Three Ridges view

Photo: John Andersen

Bridge on Priest and Three Ridges route

Photo: John Andersen

Sophie Spiedel and her dog on the Priest and Three Ridges

Photo courtesy of Sophie Spiedel.

Group of runners on the Priest and Three Ridges route

Photo courtesy of Sophie Spiedel.

There are 12 comments

  1. McLane Grow

    Love this route, and this part of Appalachia! Have spent many nights camped on top of the Priest. Took my now wife on a backpacking trip a few years ago, and our chosen route took us up from the Tye River to the summit of The Priest. That climb is even more brutal when lugging a 30 pound pack. Also knocked out the P/3R route as a training run before my first ultra, Promise Land in 2017. Special place! Thanks for highlighting a Virginia classic! Cheers from Roanoke, VA.

  2. Tim Spaulding

    Shout out from Forest, VA!

    In 2018 I ran “The Quad” as a final-ish tune up before my running my first 100 miler (Western States) and my buddy, Todd Thomas, was gearing up for The Bigfoot 200. We started at 9PM and had nothing but a cold, soaking rain for the first 6 hours. The trails turned into creeks with several waterfalls forming near the summit. One of the most serene moments I’ve ever had running was summiting 3R for the second time as the night sky began to dissipate. In a matter of minutes, the deathly hush of the night gave way at first a single bird song and then what sounded like hundreds of birds trumpeting the break of a new day all while being enveloped in a silver cloud that caused the sun’s rays to fragment into a warm glow.

    I don’t get out there often enough but after reading your write up, the quad is going back on the calendar as a final tune up for my summer 100.

  3. Chris

    Have been meaning to get to this route, and now since you reminded me, gonna fit this in before Bryce in May. Thanks for a great review, and going to keep a look out for Hazy O, tonight IS Friday after all. Cheers

  4. Dan

    Great write-up. When my wife and I thru-hiked the AT (2019), this was an unforgettable stretch on the trail. And indeed, there’s something about it that just invites you to run. In our case, it was our own fault for running late to catch the hiker shuttle to the Devil’s Backbone brewery, and I think more than a few day hikers feared for their lives as we careened down the Priest descent at full speed and with full packs. Can’t wait to get back out there someday with just a vest!

  5. Bethany

    This is the one of the best runs around. Try 3 Priest repeat for 9,000 feet of gain. It was one of my many runs in preparation for WS in 2016 and was glorious.

  6. Gary Hearn

    A classic route indeed. I have been there when Harper’s Creek was bone dry and when melting snow created gurgling streams under the rocks within 200’ of the summit of Three Ridges. That area was absolutely devastated in Hurricane Camille in 1969, all the rocks in the swales are the remnants of the mud slides that occurred.

  7. Corey Gray

    I haven’t done this route in awhile but I love the formations up on Three Ridges. I feel like I am running through some Celtic fortification ruins. Will start hitting Three Ridges from the north now that John Andersen has showed me the super secret AT relic trail from Wintergreen that cuts off 4 miles from my place.

  8. Ben Wyrick

    The closest I can get to Silverton until June. Good call, AJW! Repeats on Elliott’s are also on the menu, of course.

  9. Amanda

    WOW. I grew up in Maryland and would do this as a winter and summer overnight hike as a teenager- I loved every section of the trail and knew every segment by heart. I had forgotten about it until seeing this article 20 years later. But reflecting back on it, that was my first foray into trail running- sometimes with a heavy pack on, uphill, just for the fun and challenge of running uphill (with a heavy pack on?) as fast as possible just because you can. Thank you for the reminder and I’m glad it’s become an iconic trail running locale nowadays. When did I become old? Ha.

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