Hiking Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)
Anxious to begin our journey, Jeffrey and I got an early start and reached the north end of Shenandoah National Park earlier than expected - before 11:00 A.M. We were uncertain how long it would take us to drive there from our home town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania so we only had a short day of backpacking planned. We decided to drive the length of Skyline Drive to get to our starting point 90 miles away instead of staying on interstate 81. The drive was slow but worth it, whetting our appetite for what lay ahead, and slowing us down to a much more comfortable speed of 30 miles per hour. Along the way, we checked out a few of the overlooks, and stopped for some refreshments at Skyland Lodge - about half way through the drive. As we pulled into the parking lot of Skyland Lodge, we saw a mother deer and two young spotted fawns. They seemed quite tame and were not afraid of humans, cars, motorcycles, cameras or any of their usual nemeses. All wildlife in Shenandoah is protected, and it is probably years of safety that has made them so tame.
We arrived at out starting point, the Riprap Parking Area at 2:15 P.M. and were a bit disappointed to see that there were no parking spaces available. There was one space right against the trailhead - a handicap space - that I wondered about. The trail disappears into the woods steeply and rockily and I couldn=t help but wonder about the real functionality of a handicap space there. This was a parking lot with no lookout. I hated to do it for a number of reasons, but I parked my car on the grass, we packed up, and headed out.
The first portion of our trip took us just 3.6 miles along the Appalachian Trail to the Blackrock Shelter. After almost 7 hours of sitting in our car, we were both a bit stiff on the initial hot climbs. Along the way we passed a fellow doing some trail maintenance with a gas powered weed eater. Jeffrey thought it was pretty cool, and I always get warm fuzzies seeing people spend their Saturday to make my vacation better. We thanked him as we passed. The trail was much softer and better maintained than our usual stomping grounds: the notoriously rocky Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania.
My lower back was really beginning to hurt on the final ascent towards the shelter and I was
a bit concerned because I=ve never had pain like that when hiking before. We reached the shelter at 3:45 P.M. and found that there were 11 other people staying at the shelter already. We didn=t see them all there, but there were a few, and an awful lot of backpacks swinging from the shelter=s rafters. Jeffrey and I searched the surrounding area and found a somewhat rocky but private spot a bit up the hill to pitch our tent. We cooked up our heaviest meal - potato cheese soup, and hiked down the hill again to socialize with the folks at the shelter. We arrived to the sound of a flute and felt a bit like charmed snakes. And indeed, while we were talking, we saw a snake curled up in the stone of in the fireplace. There were two groups of people staying in in the shelter. One was a scout group led by a flute playing systems analyst from North Carolina. There were a handful of scouts of assorted ages. This was their last night out and they gave us tips on good places to stay. They were definitely a very rugged bunch - purposely camping far away from water so they would have to carry enough water with them. We learned that when we arrived at camp earlier, they were out doing some additional hiking so that they could meet a requirement of hiking more than 20 miles in one day. The other was a family of sorts who was beginning a northern journey through the park on the Appalachian Trail that they expected to last about one week. The oldest among them was an aerospace engineer with a Scottish Accent.
We marveled a bit out how us nerds love nature - contrary to the stereotypes. He (Miles) was hiking with his son (Ian) who was 22 and destined for the Peace Corps in a few weeks to teach science in the South Pacific, Ian=s friend (Andrew), and Andrew=s sister (Angie). We chatted until the sun went down and watched the deer scurry down near the shelter to check us out. Then we headed off to our tent and fell asleep in a serenade of locusts. The deer wandered near us all night long and I kept wondering if we were in danger of being stepped on. The rest of the night was spent rolling downhill into Jeffrey and awakening to his gentle nudges to keep me from crushing him altogether.
Sunday, August 20, 1995, Day 2:
We awoke for good around 7 A.M., enjoyed a quick breakfast, said our goodbyes and headed on down the trail. We began on the Appalachian Trail until we reached the intersection with Jones Run Trail. As per our plans, we steeply descended Jones Run Trail down to the run and the waterfalls. The descent hurt my toes some, and when we got to the bottom and took a siesta, I examined them to find that I had rubbed one of the small toes on left foot pretty raw. I should have stopped earlier to care for it. I bandaged it as best I could, and we played in the rocks some before we headed up again on the Doyles Run Trail. The thing about the Appalachian Trail is that it generally takes the highest path, so that every time we strayed from the trail it always meant the same thing: a long steep descent followed eventually by a long steep ascent. This ascent seemed particularly steep. We climbed for 2.2 miles and gained 1500 vertical feet. Eventually, we saw the spring behind Doyles River Cabin and were thrilled. Really thrilled. By then, the trail was getting more crowded with day hikers heading down and I was alternately amused and annoyed by the dumb questions they would ask. One near the top asked, AHow many minutes to the falls?@
At the top, we rejoined the Appalachian Trail and headed towards Loft Mountain Campground - our evening destination. We accidentally took a shortcut through the campground, and arrived at the well stocked camp store. We bought some yummy low-nutrition foods and some hammocks on a whim. I tried to call my mom, but she wasn=t home. The family we saw at Blackrock Hut was there enjoying the showers and junk food before continuing their journey. It was shortly after noon, and we decided not to spend the night on Loft Mountain as originally planned. We passed on the showers figuring the refreshment wouldn=t last long, and headed towards Ivy Creek Maintenance Hut about 3 miles along up the Appalachian Trail. We knew there would be water there, and we figured we=d find a camp spot within a mile radius of there. When we arrived, the camping didn=t look too ideal, so we decided to continue on to Pinefield Hut, another 4 miles up. This decision skewed all our plans since we had planned to get off the Appalachian Trail at Ivy Creek Maintenance Hut on Monday morning and head into the Big Run Watershed. We figured we=d work it out later, and we continued ahead on the Appalachian Trail. En route, we saw some wild birds that were either turkeys or peacocks. They were very large and one had spectacular blue features. We also saw more deer, and some bear dung near the shelter (yup, they do poop in the woods.)
We were tired when we reached the shelter after almost doubling our planned mileage. The toe I rubbed nearly raw going down Jones Run Trail hurt on all the downhills, but overall I felt strong despite a bit of soreness in my shoulders and back. Jeffrey was strong as always and as usual always a bit in front of me. We both had to stop and gasp on a few of the climbs, but I suppose that=s to be expected.
There were already two older women in the shelter, and we knew the family from the night before was heading this way, so we decided again to pitch the tent in the woods behind the shelter again. The spring was unprotected and barely running, so we had to iodize the water. Miles, the eldest and apparently least in shape of the family was first to arrive - a feat that surprised even him. Perhaps it was the wine and beers the younger boys were carrying from the camp store at Loft Mountain that slowed them down. When the boys arrived, they said they had seen a bear not far down the trail. The women said they had seen a bunch of bears recently too. Initially, I was very reluctant about seeing bears - my fear exceeding my curiosity, but in all the stories I had heard, the Shenandoah bears seemed quite tame and shy, and were more afraid of us than we were of them. So now, I had prepared myself mentally to see a bear, and in fact, I really wanted to.
We made some Mexican macaroni for dinner and again spent the remaining hours of light revising our plan, and chatting with the folks at the shelter as we spied on deer spying on us. At one point, the fire was getting low and people were blowing on it to stoke it, but nobody had much luck. Then, Jeffrey stepped forward and emitted a hurricane-like gale that turned the hot embers into a roaring fire again. We were all impressed and decided his trail name should be Adragon breath,@ but he respectfully declined.
The two women, both retired, told us their stories. One (trail name: Polo) started a south bound thru-hike last summer with her husband (trail name: Marco), but had to drop out in Harper=s Ferry when the Pennsylvania Rocks took their toll on her and left her with an infected toe. Her husband continued without her. She is continuing where she left off last year, hiking 380 miles with the other woman, and then picking up her husband for the remainder of the trip. The other woman is section hiking the Appalachian Trail. They seemed like very nice and very smart people, and I=m certainly impressed that two women of their age are so fit and have their act together well enough to hike such distances. One thing I found particularly interesting when talking with them was their insistence that the only proper way to hike the Appalachian Trail was to only stay on the Appalachian Trail and never take a side trail (blue blaze) regardless of distance, never hitchhike or walk on the road (yellow blaze) and certainly never let somebody drive a backpack to the next shelter in order to hike a day without it (slack pack). It intrigued me how intense and certain they were about this because many people would argue that they are not true thru-hikers because they are not hiking the whole thing at one time. I always imagined a big portion of the thru-hike experience to be the amount of time spent doing it -- and I always suspected that was even more important than passing every single white blaze. Some of the blue blazes were really spectacular, and I can=t say I would be so rigid if I were thru hiking, but of course, if I were, it=s entirely possible that my perspective would change. We all believe what we need to.
Monday, August 21, 1995, Day 3:
We woke early and ate some really disgusting chocolate pemmican for breakfast. As per our new plan, we followed a spur trail to Skyline Drive and hiked nearly two miles along the drive to get to the trail head of Rocky Mount-Brown Mount Trail, the route that would take us into the Big Run Watershed. It was quite hot and unprotected on the roadway and we were glad for the relative shade of the trail. Rocky Mount Trail lived up to it=s name on both counts. Perhaps overgrown with low lying bushes, weeds, and poison ivy, and lacking in shade trees should also be appended to the name. One particularly neat feature of the trail was the sandstone had eroded in places so that the trail had a thick and comforting layer of sand on it. Jeffrey chased deer and salamander off the trail, and continued to break through the spider webs as usual. We heard a strange sound in the valley that could have been a dog or a bird or neither of the above. I wasn=t sure I wanted to know what it was.
It was much more humid than it had been the previous days and the ascent took a toll on both of us. The condition of the trail combined with the steepness and the heat made this extremely difficult trekking. We took frequent siestas to enjoy the views and say silent prayers for Big Run to be running full and cold. Neither of us wanted to have to hike back out again today because there was insufficient water. Jeffrey was a bit sick from the heat and from not eating enough but he was still hiking faster than me. His routine seems to be to go faster and rest more often, and mine is to maintain more of a steady cadence. It works out well for us both. He hikes ahead and then waits for me while I hike more slowly but don=t need to stop as often. We thought we were making lousy time, but in the end, it turned out to be not so bad.
After many grueling switchbacks - up and down, we made our final steep descent into the watershed. Much to our delight it has a good clean flow. We stopped and soaked our swollen feet as the pain of the challenging hill dissolved into exhilaration. Another hiker crossed the run while we were resting. He was the first we had seen all day. We joined Big Run Portal Trail in the wrong direction, but quickly righted ourselves. We passed through the forest severely damaged by a fire in the late 1980's accidentally set by a camper lighting his camp stove with paper. There was quite a bit of destruction, but many of the trees were still standing - in some cases still alive, although many were without leaves. Still hot, we missed the shade they would have provided as we followed along the gently sloping riverbed. Since it was August, fording the river was easy, and shortly after the forth ford, we found our oasis: a campsite off the trail in a moderate clearing. We stripped down, suited up, and splashed our hot and stinky selves in the cold water. There was a nice deep wading pool, some falls we called Athe Jacuzzi@, and a Aslide@ of rock and moss. It was the first time we felt really refreshed since we had left, and we were both euphoric.
We set up camp, took a brief nap and made some salsa soup with corn cheese dumplings for dinner. The soup was excellent and thick but the dumplings were a bit big -- like heads, so I=ll have to remember to make them smaller next time. While we were eating, the hiker we had seen earlier passed us again carrying a fishing pole. We asked him where he was camping and he replied, Aabout 300 yards upstream!@ What are the odds? He said he hiked in from Skyline Drive via Rockytop Trail, and that he had seen 4 bears. Jeffrey had to force himself to eat because he was still not feeling well. The hot soup combined with the hot air was actually overwhelming, so we moved our Adinner table@ to the stream and finished our dinner with our toes in the cold water. While we were eating, we saw some soap bubble wash downstream and figured they were from the other hiker. Jeffrey felt better after he ate, and so did I.
After dinner, Jeffrey and I sprawled out on the ground, loaded ourselves up with bug repellent, and listened. We listened to the locusts awakening for the night, the birds singing playful melodies, and the water babbling. The water would sometimes sound almost human and we would think we heard voices and people walking across the water - but the people never materialized and in the end we were pretty sure they never existed. There=s nothing like the sounds of nature and nothing else.
As we fell asleep later, we heard the mysterious noise again - a bit like a dog yelp at first, but continuing in a rhythmic pattern more like a bird. We listened until we fell asleep.
Tuesday, August 22, 1995, Day 4
We broke camp and hit the trail at exactly 8:15, which by coincidence is the same time we started every other day. We we=re not planning it that way, it just seemed to keep happening.
We were prepared for some climbing - we knew we had at least 1000 feet of elevation to gain, and suspected it would all be towards the end. We followed Big Run Portal Trail on a gradual uphill grade, easily fording three times. The trail was sometimes rocky - as if we were hiking in an overflow stream for the run and we agreed that we would not want to hike there in the spring or in any time of high water.
After about an hour, we took a siesta to rest up for the steep switchbacked ascent we knew loomed ahead. The backpacker we saw the night before passed us. This made Jeffrey happy because he didn=t have to break the spider webs anymore. The ascent was about what we expected and when we reached the top we stopped in Big Run Parking Overlook on the tall grass beneath a perfect shade tree. We enjoyed the panoramic view of the mountains we had just bagged and cracked jokes to each other about the folks speeding through on Skyline Drive and the overlook, either not stopping at all, or sometimes getting out of their air conditioned mini vans to snap another picture of the mountains they=d probably never really know.
It was a short trip on Skyline Drive to the Appalachian Trail and back into Loft Mountain Campground. We grabbed some snacks, took well deserved showers and started laundry. I called my mom again and she was glad to hear I=d both lived and enjoyed myself. Jeffrey called a friend, and said he=d call home later.
We trekked up the campground in the direct sun and found ourselves a big shady spot that seemed remote by campground standards. We pitched the tent and headed 1.3 miles down a cute interpretive trail to the Wayside restaurant for some grub. Bland and greasy, quite generic, and they had no idea what a cheese steak is supposed to be (I=m a vegetarian, and I know), but it was yummy anyway. On the way back, we put our laundry in the dryer and gabbed with people by the store while we waited. A woman with a hyperactive Jack Russell Terrier (my mom has one of these, and they all seem to be hyperactive and untrained) noticed Jeffrey=s Grand Canyon Phantom Ranch shirt and she said she took the mules down but would have much rather hiked. Even the old coot who worked at the camp store agreed that hiking was the only way to go. It restored my faith in humanity.
Back at camp, we set up our new hammocks and hung ourselves in the quiet breeze listening to the sounds of nature now polluted by cars, RV=s, and Jeffrey=s sphincter (no more cheese steaks for him, I swore).
Later, we went down to the amphitheater for a ranger talk. The topic was the changes the park goes through when day ends and night begins. At the start of the hike, the ranger said we=d be following part of the Appalachian Trail. Some people in the group were clearly excited about the prospect, and one even said, AOoh! We haven=t done that yet.@ Some of them appeared to have been at the part for quite some time and I couldn=t help wondering what they=d been doing.
We learned why fawns have spots (for camouflage -- bear think they are spots of sunlight shining through the trees) and some other habits of deer and other animals that live in the park. The park ended at a scenic vista minutes before the sun sank below the horizon like a dunked orange basketball. Michael Jordan couldn=t do any better.
Back at camp, we cooked a pasta dinner by candlelight. The pasta was a bit pasty and I had to chuckle because that - in theory - should have been the most basic meal we cooked, but the pot was too small, and there was not enough water, etc, etc.
It was a well deserved short day, about 8 miles, but we added more than a few miles roaming the campground, walking to the restaurant, and enjoying the ranger=s talk. My toe continued to hurt on the downhills, and caused me to strike my feet to the ground unevenly - which in turn caused more blisters on the rest of that foot. My shoulders were bruised, and my hips were getting pretty raw. I=d gone through an awful lot of moleskin. Jeffrey=s belly was still bothering him. But we were still surprisingly optimistic and as we summited each hill, euphoric. We didn=t have many miles left, and we both wanted to enjoy each moment before reality enveloped us again.
Wednesday, August 22, 1995, Day 5:
We awoke the usual time and enjoyed a special treat for breakfast: canned peaches bought the night before. Although we prepare our own camping meals, and sometimes even get pretty exotic about it, fresh fruits and vegetables are always what we miss most when camping.
We heard some rustling behind our tent, and thought it was a deer, but closer inspection revealed a frog in the tree behind our tent, which we both thought was odd since we weren=t particularly close to the water. We broke camp near the usual time, and headed down the Appalachian Trail towards Blackrock Hut for another night. The trail had the usual ups and downs. I disliked the downs because of my sore toe, and Jeffrey disliked the ups because he is still not feeling well and subsequently hadn=t been eating well. We hypothesize, too late, that the source of his illness is his allergy medication. He is supposed to take it on any empty stomach and not eat for an hour, but he has been taking it first thing in the morning and eating shortly after - because of time constraints.
Despite our disabilities, we arrived at Blackrock Hut before 11:00 A.M. and decided to hike the remaining miles back to our car. The car was waiting quietly for me, and to our amusement, was now the only car in the lot. We drove back to Loft Mountain for another night of luxurious frontcountry camping and showers, stopping on the way at the wayside restaurant for another meal. We were both struck by how different things seemed now on Skyline Drive - quiet and sterile. Yesterdays oasis at Big Run Overlook looks far less lush now.
But our dallying was our downfall, and when we returned to the campground we found that the site we had the prior night was taken - and that it also was apparently the best and most remote site in the whole place. We wandered around for a long time trying to find something at least a little remote and eventually settled on a tent site that was better than the RV pull through sites along the road - but not nearly as nice as the last site. That, I suppose, is the price to be paid, in addition to $12, for camping in a campground.
We showered, setup camp, and prepared for another evening ranger talk. This talk took place after the sun went down and featured a dark hike on the Appalachian Trail. We all had flashlights but were encouraged not to use them. As we passed through a clearing, we saw so many stars in the night sky it was impossible to tell where one constellation ended and the next began. We were treated to a shooting star. The hike took us to the featured location - a garbage truck - where there were lots of animal prints and some of what the ranger insisted on calling scat (I prefer to call it poop) which we analyzed and decided was probably from a skunk. The ranger told us she=s seen animals there many times at night, and that is why she took us there. Then she played tapes of two kinds of owls with the hope of attracting some. When she played the tape of the Bard Owl, we realized that was the mysterious noise we=d heard in the Watershed. We also learned that what we thought were locusts and crickets every night were primarily tree frogs.
It made me kind of sad to go the remaining distance a day early - almost like cutting our vacation a day short. Although we did all the miles we planned, it still feels a bit incomplete like we deprived ourselves of another night in the woods.
I was much stronger overall than I=ve been on previous hikes and my legs have risen to the challenge and no longer feel stiff and sore every time I stop. The training for this adventure - aerobic training like running and bicycling, and weight training too - really paid off. I feel that my last big hurdle is overcoming my blister problem. That may be as easy as a new pair of boots - or perhaps not. As strong as I felt, Jeffrey was always ahead of me - even when he was not feeling well. He has one tiny-itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny blister and I=m quite jealous on that front.
We saw lots of deer everyday, huge hawks, peacocks (based on several conversations with people, we decided they were peacocks, not turkeys), and heard various other birds and mammals along the way. We did not see any bear, and I=m a bit disappointed in that regard.
Ultimately, this trip has whet my appetite for another backcountry adventure. Now that I know that all of the Appalachian Trail is not as rocky and rough as it is in Pennsylvania, I=m anxious to see more of it. Before we left, I was already thinking ahead to next year=s adventure - and thinking I=d prefer a bicycle trip like we=ve done in previous years. Now, I=m thinking maybe backpacking would be nice again.
The next day we headed east in our car to Williamsburg, Virginia where we saw a bear. At Busch Gardens.