Appalachian Trail: Elkwallow Picnic Area to Thornton Gap

Four weeks ago, Shenandoah National Park was jam packed. Cars were parked on the side of the road, and overlooks were crammed with folks trying to get that perfect selfie with bright tree colors in the background. Tod and I arrived to Shenandoah on November 15 to a vastly different park. The leaves on the trees were long gone, and so were the people.

One of the best kept secrets to hiking is that late Fall hikes offer both solitude and beauty. Tod and I took off from Elkwallow Picnic Area (approximately mile 24 on Skyline Drive) and hiked south on the Appalachian Trail. The woods looked completely different than the last time we were here. The lack of leaves afforded us the opportunity to see through the trees to the mountains in the distance. The sound of leaves rustling under our feet gave us confidence that even if a bear was still around, she could hear us from miles away.DSCN0193

The hike took us up a hill and then leveled off for a couple of miles. We saw signs for Byrds Nest 4 and thought that it might be a nice place for lunch. Unfortunately, it is .6 miles off the trail. With a perfectly good log nearby, we enjoyed a good meal (including a tangerine) while sitting next to the trail.

From here, the trail makes a slight decline and winds around, never quite in a straight path. This is tricky! The leaves at some point were a foot thick and it wasn’t always easy to know whether we were on the trail. (Hint: Please add a few more white blazes in this area for those of us here in the Fall!)

Eventually, we crossed the road and climbed Pass Mountain. We found a perfect spot for breaking out the camp stove and Tod made us some delicious coffee. (We were careful to choose place with rock and few leaves so that we wouldn’t set the mountain on fire!) It was near here that we ran into two different families hiking with babies. The littlest was 3 months old, making him the youngest hiker I’ve encountered on the trail.

DSCN0199As we were finishing our hike and the sun was low in the sky, Tod noticed an amazing thing. The leaves on the ground seemed to shine a bright red. The ground twinkled with color! It was another great reminder for us about why we love hiking. Being in the woods is truly an special experience.

We crossed the road a couple of times before getting to Thornton Gap (near US- 211) where there is a restroom and plenty of parking. In all, we did close to 8 miles. Lots of fun on a Fall afternoon!

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