Trip Report: Northern Shenandoah

A.K.A. Shenandoah, the Hiker Strikes Back

April 8-12, 1999

The condensed version:Day 1: Started at sunset and hiked in the dark 3 miles to Denton shelter.
Day 2: Sunny with occasional clouds and spits of rain. Climbed to ridge and entered the north end of Shenandoah Nat. Park. Pitched emergency bivy at mile 15 due to fog, wind, lightning storm and encroaching darkness.
Day 3: Started windy and cold with fog and quickly cleared into very sunny and hot. Traversed impressive views and limped into camp at mile 15. Interesting fellow shelter inhabitants.
Day 4: Rain and wind, strong at times lead to general misery. Another 15 mile death-march across some very interesting ridgeline terrain. An interesting and moving sight and some impressive cliffs and vistas once the rain and fog let up.
Day 5: A few more miles on the trail and then down to civilization via a fire road. The usual assortment of hitchhiking wierdness and a whole lot of Irishwomen in a sinister looking van.

The long version:

Well, for those of you who missed the first episode of our story, a spring break backpacking trip was planned for the middle of March. The ambitious goal was to hike the length of Shenandoah National Park from the southern end at I64 to the northern end at I66 (115 miles). The weather became poor followed by inclement and ending up at a full Foul rating. The hike was cut short after three nights and 35 miles.

Resolve strengthened by this embarrassing defeat and by a number of other annoying, degrading, real-world experiences, I suddenly dropped everything on Thursday afternoon, packed and headed out (such is the joy of an academic life). This time I’d start at the north end and work my way south ‘seeing how far I could get before food or time ran out’.

April 8, Day 1– Arriving at the US55 trailhead at nearly sunset, the same spot used twice before in February and March, I headed south on the AT in the remains of the heat of an unusually Julylike spring day. Quick climb away from the highway noise and through a gorgeous rolling field where I met a woman out walking her dog interested in natural healing, metaphysics (‘which is the same thing as quantum physics’), and healthy living. By the time dark rolled around, I was about a mile from the Molly & Todd Denton “Hilton” shelter, a trully impressive place with solar shower, extensive patio, skylights, and landscaping. Definitely a shelter worth camping at. Slept out under the stars and the Dulles-bound 747s until showers drove me inside.

Day 2 – Awakening early, I chatted with Jim and Susan, self-styled novice hikers from DC and NYC respectively, and headed out. The first few miles are, as such things usually are, plagued with the aches and pains of a body unused to ‘packing and shaking the kinks out of the system. 8 miles in, the kinks were more or less shaken out and I stopped for lunch at the Tom Floyd Wayside. The weather had turned hot and sunny and the long uphill climb was becoming tiring. The plan for the day was to press on to the Gravel Springs Shelter in SNP another 10 miles ahead. While I don’t look forward to 15+ mile days, I realize that every now and then they are necessary to cover distance and get in synch with the shelters. Little did I realize that 15 mile days would become the norm on this hike.

I finally crossed the border into the Park and was rather surprised at the subtle differences that could be detected. The leaves weren’t yet out on the trees, but bloodroot and other wildflowers decorated the forest floor in great profusion. There was less highway noise and things seemed more peaceful. I could feel an incipient sunburn coming on and there were actual black flies. Neither of these were problems I had anticipated given my treatment on the last two trips in the area.

In any case, the day wore on. Off a short side trail I found the Fort Windham Rocks, Catoctin lava outcroppings in the middle of the woods perhaps 50’ tall. Potential climbing sites? I bouldered around a bit in my boots (certainly not the best for the activity) and determined that yes, there was some definite possibility. I humped over Compton Peak, the first mountain of the trip and saw the hazy views.

Scattered showeres and a hint of thunderstorms earlier in the day gave way to concerted rain and distinct thunder around six. There were still three miles to go and I had yet to cross the fairly exposed ridge of North and South Marshall. At Hogwallow Flats, a small plateau immediately to the north of the ridge, I came upon a couple in a tent and decided that now was the time.

And not a moment too soon! Rain turned from normal sized droplets the size of baby peas falling vertically to marble-sized masses of cold water travelling more or less horizontally. Lightning was crashing around and the trees were being soundly thrashed overhead. I pulled out the bivy bag and, without even taking my boots off, dove for cover. It’s a very disturbing feeling being more or less dry but being able to hear and feel every single raindrop slamming into your legs. Fortunately, the storm didn’t last long at its maximum fury and soon tapered off. Andy and Kate (the nice, dry couple from the tent next door) and I searched for the spring on the map, failed to find it, and attempted to cook dinner using the little we had. Rain came back for Act Two and I stood eating my couscous getting good and drenched. It was a dark and stormy night of the type related by ancient mariners.

Day 3 — And morning wasn’t too much better. The wind howled and a dense fog limitted visibility to near nothing. Having neglected to bring gloves on this trip, my hands were chilled to the point of shooting pains as I made may way across the ridge. I had eschewed breakfast in favor of getting moving and getting warm. And by the time I reached Gravel Springs Hut, the sun was out, it was quite warm, and I was good and hungry.

At the Hut, I met the Four Brothers From All Over The Place who, despite it being nearly 9:30 in the morning, were still showing no signs of being ready to leave yet. I set about draping sleeping bag and clothing over anything I could find to dry in the sun and cooking a much-appreciated breakfast. The four brothers displayed warm fraternal harrassment and delay. I played leapfrog with them for much of the rest of the day down the trail.

The Appalachian Trail from Gravel Springs is an excellant example of why hiking is such fun. Enough of a breeze to make things interesting, long long views and interesting, steep, rocky terrain. The many peaks of Hogback Mountain provided a splendid view both west and east. Towards afternoon, I came to Elkwallow Gap, one of the Facilities along Skyline Drive and indulged in the hedonism of running water and a Camp Store. The trail in this section was somehow reminiscent of arid westcoast vegetation–dry, sandy soil, short pine trees in a fairly open forest. Not at all what I expected from northern Virginia.

 

Hogsback Mountain with the Shenandoah Valley in the background.

Hogsback Mountain with the Shenandoah Valley in the background.

By the end of the day, after an unplanned 16 miles, I was pretty well hurting and ready to quit. The sun was lowering and I was starting to hallucinate when I pulled into Pass Mountain Hut, the southern terminus of the northern third of the AT through SNP. There I was greeted by New Hip, a fellow AT section hiker and a couple of through-hikers with their two large dogs (never did get their names). She explained to me that the her pack had been stolen back at Harper’s Ferry and they were ‘stopping here awhile’ while Jake, her husband, took a construction job in the valley below to raise some funds. Meanwhile she was hanging out at camp with the dogs laying in provisions. Provisions, in this case, seemed to be quite a large stock of dried, smoked turkey jerky, shark jerky (of all things) and dried vegetables. Not the kind of people I usually see through- hiking… but to each his own.

Day 4 — Another long day, another 15 miles. From Thornton Gap where the paved road cuts across, the trail climbs steadily for a couple miles up to Mary’s Rock. Very reminiscent of Charlie’s Bunion in the Great Smokies. Surely this would be a spectacular climb with incredible views out into the valley if only I could see more than 30′. The fog had returned and with it a persistent rain and wind. New Hip told me that temperatures were hovering around 40 degrees. The mountains in this section of the park are taller and more rugged than elsewhere. I was reminded strongly of some of the below-treeline parts of the White Mountains. More than once I faced the same sinking spirits, flagging energy and numbness from hiking alone in inclement weather that I faced last month in SNP. The temptation to turn around and head out was strong. But faced with the shame of what happened last time, I steeled myself to stick it out and show Mother Nature who was boss, or at least not admit unconditional surrender.

My spirits were, not exactly lifted, but definitely effected when crossing the Pinnacle. Despite the name, this mountain is little different from many of the others in the area. A moderate climb to about 3700′ along a ridge with periodic overlooks to one side or the other. Operating on my principle of never overlooking an overlook (regardless of visibility), I was standing on one and saw an odd sight. Down below me on one of the large rocks that made up the nearly vertical cliff face, just before everything merged into a nondescript whitish gray, was a crimson and gree rose lying on amidst the lichen and rock tripe. A further search revealed a few more here and there with individual rose petals scattered and wedged in cracks. Obviously they were dropped there and recently, too. But who and why and commemorating what occurrence I do not know. The whole scene was very affecting. Creepy even in a non-threatening way. My own troubles seemed somehow more petty and mundane. I continued on in a contemplative mood.

Somewhere in there the rain had pretty much stopped. There were intermittent views to the west and by the time I reached the summit of Little Stoney Man (Stoney Boy?) the interplay of clouds and sunlight in the valley far below was pretty dramatic. Things were looking up. But by the time I got to Stoney Man proper, the wind and fog had pretty much returned.

But in the final miles of the hike and final hours of the day, the sun did indeed return with just enough intermittent clouds flying around at my current elevation to make life interesting. I ate a packet of instant cocoa and dragged on. The lowering sun gave a golden cast to the dramatic Crescent Rocks. From the western flank of Hawksbill, I could see all the way to the cloud-shrouded and dramatically rocky slopes of Old Rag. Golden sunlight, throbbing feet and a fine sense of accomplishment supported me on the last limping mile past three more deer to the extremely welcome sight of Rock Spring Hut. Ahhh! Pure heaven.

The stay at Rock Spring Hut was indeed a wonderful one. A lovely swing seat has been installed and the view is good. Not a soul was seen except the deer that wandered through around dusk, drank at the spring and headed on. I past the night in foggy, windy seclusion thinking long slow thoughts.

polypodyDay 5 — More of the same. Foggy and wind alternating with sun and wind alternating with just plain wind and wind. Hike out day! A slow start packing the now rather deminished pack and heading on my way. I dropped the pack and spent some time climbing the rather dramatic and entirely worthwhile bulk of Hawksbill to the highest point in SNP at 4051 feet. A full 360 degree panorama of sun and valley and mountains and clouds not a whole lot higher than I was greeted me from the small observation platform at the summit. That and some really incredible winds that threatened to scrape me off my perch more than once.

Back down, to the pack and then a quiet mile and a half along the trail to the Red Gate fire road which switchbacked down from the ridge to Kite Hollow and the paved roads. Easy walking along a long gravel road. When the next switchback below appeared, I would bushwhack down the very steep slope trying to stick to rocks and logs. While ecologically questionable, this move definitely saved perhaps a mile or two of walking. And so I came unto the town of Mauck, VA, a quiet place with few people and many chickens. I was soon picked up by a local fellow in a truck and was spirited to the main road to start the hitchhike back to the car.

Now hitchhiking in this part of the world is a fairly easy thing, but you have to accept some basic tenets. It may take a while, you have to look friendly, non-threatening, tired and disheveled, and you will definitely meet some very unique and interesting people. The usual ride is a local man usually in his forties or later in a pickup truck. Sometimes they are fellow hikers, but more often than not just a friendly native. Very refreshing. Almost never will you be picked up by a minivan, SUV or car. I don’t even bother anymore.

I got a couple rides with the usual friendly Virginians and got dropped off in the middle of farming country north of Luray. Hiked along for another hundred yards or so and was passed by this large white van with tinted glass traveling far too fast. It blew past me and screeched to a halt a little bit further on. The side door opened and a guy looked out at me. Door closed. The van backed up toward me and pulled along side. The door opened again. The inside was dark and damp and smells perfumy. Perhaps incense? There is various Jesus paraphernalia on the dash. Lots of new-age women and a few men are lounging around inside giving each other head massages and braiding each other’s hair.

…okay…

But a ride is a ride and refusing would be rude, so I climb in and off we go. It turns out that all seven of these people are Irish tourists out from New York (where some of them at least are film producers) to see the countryside. “I know this probably looks strange,” says Fergil to me, “but it was the only van we could get.” Mave and James and the others ask a continuous stream of questions about what it’s like to hike the trail. All in all it was quite an enjoyable ride and I was soon back to the trailhead and driving back to civilization in extremely high spirits.

A worthwhile, tiring and very therapeutic trip. Just what I needed. Head rethreaded, priorities reassigned and emotions generally put back in order after some mistreatment by my fellow man (or in this case woman).

Final tally:

  • Day 1 — 3.2 miles
  • Day 2 — 14.9 miles + various side trails
  • Day 3 — 15.7 miles
  • Day 4 — 15.3 miles + 0.6 up Stoney Man
  • Day 5 — about 5 miles + 1.6 up Hawksbill
  • total AT milage, 51 miles.
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