A TYPICAL EVENING at the Bears Den Trail Center near Bluemont, Va.: Two men are harmonizing on a Buddy Holly song in the stone-walled living room, watched by a lean, deeply tanned woman munching microwave popcorn. All three are barefoot, taking a rest from their hike along the entire 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail.
In the kitchen, a teenage girl and her dad are preparing a spaghetti dinner after a day canoeing the nearby Potomac River.
On the forested mountainside, just a few hundred yards away, a pair of couples sitting on a quartzite outcropping are viewing a spectacular sunset and the misty valley below.
A little more than an hour's drive from the Beltway, on the eastern edge of Clarke County, Bears Den is among the less-known destinations for outdoor enthusiasts from the Washington area.
This fall, foliage hikes and kayaking trips are on the schedule. "It's a great time to be in the woods, since the bugs are pretty much gone and it's cooler," says Rob Carey, program manager of the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship, which operates Bears Den. "There's still plenty of wildlife and seasonal changes in nature to watch."
Bears Den is a welcome sight for hikers along the AT, which runs on the western side of the property. In the basement's bunk quarters, they can get a shower and communicate with friends via e-mail. The kitchen allows guests to cook a meal that doesn't depend on a wood fire or artificial fuel.
"It's a great place, not what you are expecting on the trail," says Alaskan Richard Larson, who stopped at Bears Den in July during his northward trek to the AT's terminus in Maine.
Larson began his hike April 29 in Georgia, and among his adventures was an encounter with bears who tried to pull down the food storage bag he had hung on a tree branch.
Despite the name, guests rarely see ursine intruders near Bears Den. One animal regular is Mr. Clunk, a cardinal who makes early morning visits to peck at his image on the casement windows.
Bears Den welcomes non-hikers and groups, who can stay in single-sex bunk rooms upstairs or in a cottage nearby in the woods. The kitchen has two stoves to accommodate multiple cooks and is well stocked with pots, dishes, silverware and other necessities. The dining room features several long tables for family-style meals. There's also a campsite for those who want to sleep on the ground, but campers and other guests can still enjoy the civilized offerings of the Bears Den store -- ice cream, frozen organic pizza and a variety of snacks. Maps, trail guides, handmade hiking sticks and other AT paraphernalia are also on sale.
Built as a mountain retreat in 1933 by Washington physician Huron Lawson, the two-story home includes a curved, acoustically friendly living room, which allowed Lawson's wife, an opera singer, to give recitals for friends. The stone turrets and other castlelike architectural features reflect the places the couple visited during their many European vacations, Carey says.
Once slated for development as a resort, the 66-acre Bears Den property was in limbo for many years until the house was restored as a hostel in the 1980s. The nonprofit Blue Ridge Center, which took over management last year, is expanding the functions of Bears Den to include environmental education, instruction in hiking and wilderness skills, and other programs that "connect you with nature," Carey says.
The walls of the Bears Den living and dining rooms are lined with photographs and stories about Benton MacKaye and other AT pioneers who dreamed up the epic pathway through the eastern U.S. mountains. Detailed maps explain the urgency for land conservation to protect the "viewshed" of the trail from the encroaching sprawl of the Washington region.
Nearby attractions include fishing and boating on the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, strolls through the Virginia State Arboretum and pick-your-own fruits and vegetables at Great Country Farms in Bluemont. The farm is at the western end of the scenic Snickersville Turnpike, a country road that winds 14 miles to Aldie.
The Blue Ridge Center, about 20 minutes north in Loudoun County, is also worth a visit. Created to preserve local heritage and demonstrate organic agriculture, the center's nearly 900 acres feature 12 miles of hiking trails, a historic homestead and a farm market selling free-range lamb, beef, poultry and eggs. The center offers volunteer opportunities such as care of the gardens and habitat restoration.
BEARS DEN TRAIL CENTER -- 18393 Blueridge Mountain Rd., Bluemont, Va. 540-554-8708. www.bearsdencenter.org. Lodge bunks, $18 per night, $6 children under 12; private room, $50 per night; cottage (sleeps up to 10), $65 per night; AT hiker bunk room, $13 per night. Women's hiking and kayaking trip, Oct. 28-31. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 740-592-3496.