VA-42 to US 11& I81

After a month off the trail, Birch and I were eager to get back on the AT. This time, because of the lack of shelters on our route, we decided to do a day trip. Be began our hike just off VA-42, which is a nice well-paved road with plenty of parking. Although the first mile of the hike is through farm land it wasn’t long before we turned into the woods and 9-30-1005began making our ascent to Big Walker Mountain.

It was a glorious day! Cool temps, bright blue sky, a pleasant breeze, and just a hint of leaves turning color. Although steep, getting to the peak was easy.  We stopped for coffee so that we could take in the beautiful view and enjoy the weather.

Before long, we got to a campsite and promptly marched ourselves off the trail. Although we were clearly on some path, it wasn’t the AT. Walking back to the campsite, we searched for the white blazes and got back on track. According to a sign, this spot marks the 1/4 point Northbound.

 

9-30-1426

Davis Path Campsite

We stopped for lunch at the former Davis Path Campsite. This area has a picnic table and a privy but the shelter is long gone. We then hiked the remaining three miles to where our car was parked.

 

On the last mile or so, we ran into a group of volunteers doing trail work. The group included a couple of high school students putting in their volunteer hours that are required for graduation. I don’t think they had ever been on the trail before but I hope they were inspired to hike!

Fall is my favorite time to hike. However, it isn’t without challenges. The water situation was pretty precarious. Anyone hiking this area should make sure to bring plenty of water. Otherwise, this is a wonderful 11+ mile day hike.

 

 

AT: VA-632 to VA-606

Day One: John’s Creek Valley Road (VA-632) to Pine Swamp Branch Shelter.

The night before this hike, Maple and I stayed in the Motel 8 in Radford. We arranged to meet our shuttle driver, Don Raines, at 8:00 on the morning of Friday, June 2, at the AT parking spot off of VA-606. Although I saw the trail crossing, I could see no parking space. I pulled over to call Don, but we had no cell service. Upon carefully retracing the route, we spotted a little nook covered with foliage that was to serve as our parking space. Don was waiting for us. He suggested that, in the future, we meet with our shuttle driver at a place that has cell service and follow him from there. Good advice!

By 9:00 we were on the trail. Rather early on we made the acquaintance of the loquacious “Man of Many Words,” who took our photo for his Facebook page. He was doing a day-hike, trying to get in shape for a thru-hike to begin in March 2018. Good luck to him!

Shortly thereafter we passed a woman our age, a delightful section-hiker from Chicago, “Just Susan,” who, like us, was southbound and planning to hike to Pine Swamp Branch Shelter and, from there, to Rice Fields Shelter. We were glad to know that we would see her again.

6-2_1256At about 12:30 we stopped to have lunch, and “Just Susan” caught up with us and passed us by. It turned out that we stopped too soon, for shortly afterwards we reached Wind Rock. There we met “Barefoot,” who told us that his ex would have put a stop to his hiking, so he is thru-hiking with his divorce papers, I suppose to remind himself of his liberation. We also met “Furiosa,” who also took our photo.

After nine miles, we stopped at Baileys Gap Shelter, refilled our water supply, had conversation with the other hikers stopping there, and made coffee. Rejuvenated, we pressed onward, crossed over Stoney Creek, and continued onward. We had heard from “Roub” that we should stop at the “Captain’s” place to enjoy his renowned hospitality, but, unfortunately, the zip-line to the Captain’s place was shut down due to the fact that he had recently undergone mouth-cancer surgery. We pressed on and, in the growing darkness, after ten hours of hiking, found our tent spot just across the trail from Pine Swamp Branch Shelter.

At the shelter’s picnic table, where we always like to make our dinner, we met thru-hikers Dave, his adult son, Darren, and veterinarian student “Golden,” with her dog ironically named “Killer.” “Just Susan” never showed up, and we wondered where she had stopped and whether we would see her again.

Day Two: Pine Swap Branch Shelter to Rice Fields Shelter

thumbnail_6-3_0912 (1)Day Two started with a steep hike up to Pine Swamp Ridge and Peters Mountain. Birch and I followed a rocky ridge that had beautiful views and a nice breeze. This area is right on the Virginia-West Virginia state line. It is the season of mountain laurel blooming, one of my favorite plants!  One really fascinating aspect of the ridge is that there were many HUGE table rocks.

Before long we entered a meadow that was once an apple orchard. The direct sun was quite a shock after time in the woods. After entering the woods again we finally came to thumbnail_6-3_1306a spring that was 1.5 miles from Rice Field Shelter. This was our last water source before the shelter so we filled up and had  coffee while there. Springs are like any water hole. It attracts a ton of hikers! One thru hiker told us that he was desperately trying to get out of the “bubble” and away from some specific hikers. I can just imagine how unpleasant it would be to be stuck with the wrong crowd.

Once we approached Rice Shelter we were amazed by the breath-taking view. Wow! This is a shelter worth visiting. We set up our tent, made dinner, and enjoyed the beautiful vista. We knew that “Just Susan” was hoping to get to the shelter but we were not holding up much hope to see her, given the 16-mile trek. However, she made it!

6-3_1830

Day Three: Rice Fields Shelter to Doc’s Knob Shelter.

Our itinerary had called for us to make it only so far as the spring and campground on Pearis Mountain, a quarter of a mile south of Angel’s Rest, at the peak of Pearis Mountain. But if we decided to stay there, that would necessitate another 13.5 mile trek on the following day, Monday, and since the forecast for Sunday night and Monday was continual rain, Maple and I decided that we would re-evaluate, upon reaching the spring, whether we could press forward and, perhaps, commit to making it to the next shelter and water source.

The downhill trek, off of Peter’s Mountain, to the bridge over the New River on the outskirts of Pearisburg took us longer than we had expected. We paused and enjoyed a snack after crossing the bridge, near Pearisburg Cemetery. From this point on, we were a little confused about our path, for the AT had been relocated since our Data Book had been printed. For example, we never arrived at Layne Street, Pearisburg, but instead, almost immediately began our ascent up Pearis Mountain.

This two-mile ascent up Pearis Mountain exhausted all of our energy. Near the top, in a grove of rhododendrons, we spotted a doe with her newborn fawn. We passed by Angel’s Rest and soon reached the sign directing us a quarter of a mile off the trail to a spring and campsite. As our water was depleted, we followed the sign, and at the spring filtered our water and made a hot lunch. This helped to restore us, but the trail had taken its toll. We were tired. Even so, as we didn’t want to carry extra water, we committed to making it to the next water source and shelter, Doc’s Knob. This would be a 16.1 mile day—the farthest that we had ever backpacked in a day.

We passed by at least a dozen thru-hiking NOBOs, all intent on making it into Pearisburg to escape the rain. Were we foolish, hiking into the coming storm? Perhaps, but Maple and I were on a tight schedule, and we had already committed ourselves to the trail, despite the weather.

When we finally arrived at Doc’s Knob we found the shelter occupied by a very pleasant man, “Loon Seeker,” and his dog. As there was no place to set up a tent, and as we expected rain, we requested a place in the shelter, and he gladly made room for us. Afterwards, there showed up “Tent Pole,” named for having broken one, and “Loner,” who wasn’t too happy about sharing a shelter with a dog. Given his attitude, we figured he wasn’t too happy about sharing a shelter with anyone.

Doc’s Knob was situated in a very wet and muddy area. Fortunately, there were plenty of rocks around the shelter to step on. This was the first time that Maple and I shared a shelter, but we had little choice, and since we were so exhausted, we fell asleep early and slept soundly.

Day Four: Doc’s Knob Shelter to Wapiti Shelter.

6-5_0716

“Just Susan”

Overnight, it seemed we had dodged a bullet. The rain never came. Then, around 6:30 am, we began to hear the pitter patter of rain on the shelter roof. Birch suggested that we take off to avoid a swampy trail. As we were about to leave, who should come to the shelter but “Just Susan”. She had decided to slack pack going north from Woods Hole to Pearisburg. She was full of energy and that energized us. We wished her well and began our short 9 mile hike to Wapiti Shelter.

At first, I was quite pleased. Despite the rain, I was pretty dry. Much of the terrain was rocky and slippery. This made it slow going. By the time we passed Big Horse Gap and got to the sharp descent to the shelter it began to pour…a deluge! The trail turned into a river and all hope of staying dry was lost.

6-5_0909

By the time we reached Wapiti Shelter it was surrounded by a moat. Two hikers had just finished up lunch and were continuing on their way. All afternoon, hikers came in to get out of the rain. Each one took off their boots and rung out their socks. We met many wonderful folks, including “Radar” and her dad who were on a south-bound 5-day section hike, like us. Many hikers came in to have a bite to eat. It wasn’t long before the shelter smelled like a combination of smelly wet socks and Mountain House lasagna!

One of the best parts of the afternoon was spending time with “Red Bull”. “Red Bull” was dressed in a kilt with patriotic socks and a flag bandana. He had a serious speaker system that played music for us while we waited for the rain to stop. Despite playing “Hear Comes the Sun”, it didn’t work. We had fun anyway.

By 6 pm the rain stopped. We were joined by “Loon”, a women from Minnesota who hiked 24 miles in the rain. “Down Hill”, “White Sands” and “Paint Brush” joined us. “One Pole” was also at the shelter. He had broken a trekking pole on one of his first days on the trail and we couldn’t quite imagine how one could do that! It was a fun group.

Day Five: Wapiti Shelter to VA-606.

In the morning, Maple and I packed up our wet tent, prepared an oatmeal breakfast, to which we added dehydrated peaches, and said goodbye to “Downhill,” “White Sands,” “One Pole”, and “Paintbrush.” Our backpacks were still wet, and despite the threat of continued rain, we decided not to put on our wet rain gear.

How can I describe how wet and muddy the area was through which we hiked? Between Wapiti Shelter and VA-606 there were sixteen bridges, fourteen of which were within 2.5 miles south of Wapiti. There were also several small creeks, which we crossed over by the help of rocks and logs. The mud was pervasive, and there was no avoiding it, however hard to tried.

We decided not to go to Dismal Creek Falls, since we had heard that the Blue Trail leading to it got one only so far as the rear of the falls, and that one had to cross the deep and swift creek over a log in order to arrive at the front of the falls. Maple and I are not great risk takers, and we were anxious about the condition of our car and about getting home. So, we passed up the Blue Trail.

What we had accomplished on this trip was noteworthy: We had hiked several consecutive days more miles than we were accustomed to. We had hiked a 16.1 mile day, by several miles the farthest that we had ever backpacked. And, we had hiked five consecutive days, which we had done only once before—in the Grand Canyon. Moreover, we had hiked nine miles in the pouring rain and had learned what it means to hike when thoroughly soaked. This was a great trip for Maple and I, and has given us confidence for our upcoming hike in Grand Teton National Park, next month.

AT: Craig Creek Road (VA-621) to Johns Creek Valley Road (VA-632)

Birch and I are thrilled to be on the trail for a second weekend in a row! We dropped our car off at the AT crossing of VA-632, which is along a very narrow, unmaintained dirt road. At first, we weren’t even sure we would get there. We rolled down our window to ask a guy in a pick up truck and he assured us that we were going the right way. However, he pointed out that it would be much easier if we left the car at 601, at the top of the mountain.

Yeah….We know! Oh, the joys of trying to section hike as a purist!

We were fortunate to have Bennett Witcher shuttle us from the drop off point to our destination.

While last week was very warm and sunny, we had no such luck this week. We put on our rain gear and were surprised by how cold it was as we ascended the 1,500+ feet up Sinking Creek Mo5-6_1119untain. We took a picture at the Eastern Continental Divide sign (who wouldn’t?) and found that the next leg of the hike along the ridge was the hardest yet. The wind was fierce! The rocks were slippery. The rain only made things more miserable.

Luckily, this was a very short hike day for us. In no time we were at the turn off for Sarvor Hollow Shelter. We debated just moving forward for more miles and staying on the trail. However, the long descent to the water source, and the fact that the shelter had a cover over the picnic table, convinced us that staying was better than leaving.

Sarvor Hollow Shelter is really nice. It is set near the former homestead of Henry and thumbnail_5-6_1525Sarah Sarvor. In the 1870’s, this was farmland. The remnants of two buildings are still there today. We set up our tent, got water, explored the ruins of the old Sarvor homestead, and enjoyed watching a bird build her nest. Around dinner time, we were joined by two section hikers, one with a dog. “Monkey Crow” had done this section before, BUT…his dog had not. Needless to say, they both have to have the same trail miles, right? What better reason does one need to re-hike the same area? His buddy, “Gadget”, lived up to his name by bringing a very cool swivel chair with him.

The next day, the weather wasn’t much better. The rain had stopped but the clouds threatened and it wasn’t exactly warm out there. As we continued south, a thru hiker named “Camino” told us that it had snowed on the mountain the night before. We passed along farmland near Hwy 42 and I got to “hug” the biggest oak tree on the Appalachian Trail, the “Keffer Oak”.

Birch and I had the pleasure of crossing two major creeks, both of which required 5-7_1143navigating wet, slippery rocks and very robust water flows. We stopped at Laurel Creek Shelter for a delicious hot lunch and coffee before ascending up to Kelly Knob. After one mile of tough going, things got better. Then, we coasted until we had to do the significant descent past 601 and along a narrow, steep ridge.

By the time we completed the hike, the sky had cleared.  For those wondering, we saw a TON of thru hikers this trip. Many more than we could name or list. Many were bouncing along to loud music as they went. We’re looking forward to seeing the South-bounders in a few months!

 

AT: VA-311 to Craig Creek Road (VA-621)

Day One: VA-311 to Camp on Sawtooth Ridge

VA-311 to Pickle Branch Shelter is a strenuous 12.5 miles, particularly since it involves climbing Cove Mountain and Dragon’s Tooth. Maple and I decided to make the stretch a little easier by dividing it into two days, starting our hike on the same day that we drove out to our destination. When we arrived at the parking lot on Craig Creek Road after 2 p.m., our shuttle driver, “Roub”—whose acquaintance we had made at Bryant Ridge Shelter—and his wife “Mama Roub,” were already there, waiting for us. They had very graciously offered to shuttle us, and they were wonderful company. On our way to our starting point on VA-311, they pointed out a popular dining spot among AT hikers, the Homeplace Restaurant, on Catawba Valley Dr. We hoped to go there after our hike—but, alas, it does not open until later in the afternoon. We’ll have to try again.

We knew that it was going to rain, but Maple and I had hoped to make it four miles before camping. That didn’t happen. After two miles, it began to sprinkle, and we found a great tent spot on the ridge. As it turned out, the rain did not begin in earnest for another hour, but by that time we had had coffee, had eaten our dinner, and were comfortable inside our tent.

Day Two: Sawtooth Ridge to Pickle Branch Shelter

In the morning, we awoke to find ourselves above the clouds. The sky had cleared, and it was promising to be a beautiful, though hot, day. We postponed breakfast and got back on the trail by 7:30. Once we got off the ridge, in Catawba Valley, we found the trail muddy and slippery. At one point, a gathering of steers approached us and threatened to block our path. When we arrived at Catawba Creek, we found that the recent rains had made it deep. As there was no bridge, Maple and I had to remove our boots and roll up our pants before crossing. Once across, we rested at a tent spot and had our breakfast.

After crossing Route 624, Maple and I began our ascent up Cove Mountain. Half way up, the trail became quite rocky and began to demand a bit of scrambling. We were told, especially by those going down, that the scrambling would become increasingly difficult and dangerous, that our backpacks would make balancing precarious, and that I might have to use a rope to assist Maple on her ascent. Well, in truth, the scrambling did become more difficult, and Maple and I were both exhausted when we arrived at the top of Dragon’s Tooth, but the ascent was not half so difficult and dangerous as we had been led to believe. We actually made it more treacherous than it had to be, as we made the mistake of getting sidetracked by a false trail that led us up and over several rocks before disappearing

View from Dragon’s Tooth

The combination of heat and physical exertion left us exhausted, and though we stopped for lunch shortly after leaving Dragon’s Tooth, Maple and I still found ourselves plodding along for the last 4.2 miles of our day’s journey. We stopped, probably, every twenty minutes, but eventually found ourselves going downhill toward the shelter. And, once at the shelter, a short but steep descent brought us to the plentiful and cold water of Pickles Branch. There we refilled and cooled off before setting up our tent.

Sharing the shelter with us was a small and pleasantly sociable group of students from Spring Arbor University, in Michigan, led by their teacher, the university’s Library Director, Robbie Bolton. They were enjoying the end-of-semester culmination of a one-credit course called Backpacking and Wilderness Experience. Like us, they were southbound, but there was a second group from SAU that was northbound and that we would cross paths with on the next day.

Day Three: Pickle Branch Shelter to VA-621

Our third day out promised to be another hot one, in the upper 80s. Having had to ration our water the day before, I decided to carry about 1.5 liters extra. We had a four-mile uphill stretch to get to the top of Brush Mountain, where there is a monument to WWII hero Audie Murphie. Surprisingly, there are also two park benches, probably built by the Roanoke ATC.

After three miles downhill, we finally crossed the swift and deep currents of Craig Creek and made it back to our car. What a rewarding adventure!

AT: Sunset Field (Blue Ridge Parkway) to VA-43

Oh, how hard it is to be off the trail for such a long time! This hike was a long time coming. We first attempted this stretch on December 30th, 2016. Unfortunately, a trace of early morning snow was enough to completely ice over VA-43, making the drive to our destination impossible. So close and yet so far! The hike would have to wait.

On February 11, 2017  Birch and I were shuttled from VA-43 to Sunset Field by Mr. Homer Witcher, an inspiring guy who thru hiked the AT with his family in 2002. Mr. Witcher is a model example of what makes the AT so special. He maintains large portions of the trail, is an expert privy builder, and is kind enough to shuttle folks to trailheads. He gives tons of his time to the AT. (Thank you!)

2-12_1329The hike from Sunset Field to Bryant Ridge Shelter was fairly easy. The bare trees gave us opportunities to view the mountains. After reaching Floyd mountain the next three miles were  steep and downhill. My legs were killing me!

We stayed the night at Bryant Ridge, an amazing shelter. It has three stories, with a very large, covered area to just hang out. Water is plentiful. The only downside is that we didn’t find any great spots to set up our tent. I guess with a large shelter, most wouldn’t use a tent anyway.

Lucky for us, we were not alone. Two guys, “Roub” and “Crackin” soon came into camp. Both are expert AT hikers. Roub completed a thru hike and Crackin thru hiked Virginia. We learned a lot of great tips from them. As important, they were just great company.

The next day Birch and I went about 7 miles to Cove Mountain Shelter. Roub and Crackin advised us against carrying water up Fork Mountain, and we were so glad that we took their advice. We loaded up with water at Jenny Creek, four miles into the hike, then went up, up, up until we reached the shelter. We were excited to read the trail log and see a note from our new trail friends. The trail magic was a special treat!

Sunday evening, we decided to skip the tent and stay in the shelter. Luckily, we were well prepared. We brought winter jackets, sleeping bag liners, and other cold weather gear. The temps went from the 70’s to 30 degrees by morning time. Boy, the wind howled and  roared! 2-12_1422

The hike out was beautiful, despite the cold temps. The ridge is lined with pretty green moss, making us ALMOST forget that it was still winter.

 

(Follow Roub’s adventures at: trailjournals.com/Roubaix)

AT: US-60 to US-501/VA-130

Day One: US-60 to Mile 51.7, Blue Ridge Parkway

Having a long day of hiking ahead of us, Maple and I wanted to get on the trail rather early in the day, so we spent the night before at a hotel close to Liberty University in Lynchburgh. We saw plenty of “Vote for Trump” signs and not a single sign in favor of Hillary Clinton. We were definitely deep into central Virginia.

Usually, the beginning of a hike takes us out of a gap and up a mountain or steep incline to a ridge, but this was an exception. A smooth and easy trail, covered in autumn leaves, followed Brown Mountain Creek for nearly two miles. At Brown Mountain Creek Shelter we spotted a couple of backpackers, who appeared to be just beginning their day. Just beyond the shelter is a footbridge over the creek. A mile further we crossed the second footbridge, near a swimming hole, and then left the creek behind us.

10-28-093010-28-111110-28-0951

The trail takes the long way around Lynchburgh Reservoir, but neither of us were complaining, as the trail afforded several nice views through the trees of the artificial lake and damn. Walking around several gullies reminded Maple of hiking the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon, where one has to walk around side canyons and creeks.

After circling around Lynchburgh Reservoir, at about the 6.5 mile point, we crossed the suspension bridge over Pedlar River and, then, began our 1200-foot ascent of Rice Mountain. The trail was still technically easy, but the mountain was the most difficult part of the day’s hike. While hiking up the mountain we came across two other hikers, the only ones we saw on the trail this day.

10-28-113510-28-1136

All-in-all, it was a pleasant day-hike of 10.9 miles. The trail itself was about as easy as one can find on a ten-mile stretch of the A.T., and the fall foliage and cool weather made for beautiful scenery and comfortable hiking.

Day Two: Blue Ridge Parkway to US-501

After a great hike the previous day, Birch and I were really looking forward to this hike. We, were wimps, I admit, and stayed overnight in a hotel. We needed to go over 10 miles and still have time to get home (5 hour drive) so going without all the backpacking gear seemed the best bet.

The hike began with a sharp ascent of about two miles. At the .4 mile mark we saw the turn off to Punchbowl Shelter. Punchbowl Mountain was not too impressive since there were no overlooks. We barely knew we had reached the summit. About a mile later we reached the top of Bluff Mountain and this had an amazing panoramic view of the Shenandoah Valley.

10-29-105610-29-1006

We had a one-mile descent and then things leveled off as we passed Saltlog Gap. There we saw one person camping. It was a pretty quiet day on the trail, considering that it was a Saturday with unusually warm weather.

10-29-1300We stopped for coffee just before Big Rocky Row and 10-29-1301then came to Fullers Rocks overlook. It was the perfect spot to take in the view, eat a sandwich, and rest in the sun. As we made the – descent we began seeing other folks going up the trail for a day hike. This included a rather rambunctious group of boy scouts (maybe 20?) all excited to be on the trail.

The last part of the hike is really beautiful. We walked along a beautiful stream and were able to enjoy a bit of serenity before having to make our way back home. Birch liked this hike better than yesterday but both are great day hikes.

10-29-1457

 

Appalachian Trail: Lehigh Gap to Wind Gap

Tod and I are chomping at the bit to get the Pennsylvania sections of the AT completed. Thus, it may not surprise you to hear that we did three days of hiking in the middle of January. Weather was iffy and we agreed not to hike or backpack in dangerous conditions. However, the forecast brightened and we were off!

The first day was a 5+ mile hike from Lehigh Gap to Little Gap. If you’ve ever read a thru-hiker’s book, they almost always seem to have a picture from the top of Lehigh Gap to illustrate the beauty – and rigor – of the hike. The trail quickly comes to a vertical 1000 foot “hike” that is really rock climbing. As we approached the foot of the trail someone coming from the opposite direction said, “It’s windy up there!” Boy, was she right.IMG_0182

I’m a wimp when it comes to climbing. It helped to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, moving my hand to the next best rock. I didn’t spend much time looking down.  I was able to conquer fear and make it to the top. I would have jumped up and down with my hands in the air like Rocky Balboa had it not been for the fact that the top was just as rocky as the face of the cliff. Tod was very supportive as I growled and groaned. I have no idea how solo hikers do it.

The rest of the hike was through a section of the AT that is diverted onto a grassy trail designed to try to avoid a superfund clean up site. I know. It doesn’t sound pretty and it really wasn’t. One quirky thing about this area is that the blazes were, well, interesting. There were lots of double blazes in areas where there was no change in trail direction. IMG_0185Near the power lines we saw some huge, footlong, super wide blazes along the rocks. On a positive note, this part of the trail was really easy and it wasn’t long before we were at Little Gap.

We stayed overnight in a hotel and were back on the trail the next day by 8:15 am. The weather looked good and we were looking forward to a night camping at a shelter. The hike began in a pretty swampy area, but we quickly made it to the top of the ridge. Imagine what a surprise I had when I looked to my left, only to see people skiing a few yards away! (This isn’t something that most thru hikers would see.) I guess the Appalachian Trail goes right by Blue Mountain resort. I felt some kinship with the skiers since they also like to be outdoors in the winter.

We stopped to make lunch at 11:30 am and by 1 pm we had gone at least 8 miles. Then, it started to snow. This wasn’t expected and made things a bit slippery. Had we not been so tired, and had it not been winter, we probably would have gone the whole way to Wind Gap (about seven additional miles), avoiding a night outdoors. Instead, we tried to make the best of the situation by arriving at Leroy Smith Shelter and setting our tent up inside the shelter.IMG_0179

My favorite part of the trip was hanging out at the shelter, drinking coffee, and watching the snow. Everything was silent. Peaceful. It was really beautiful. Tod and I made dinner and were in the tent ready to sleep by 7:15 pm. Even though it was well below freezing I was warm. By the time we got up in the morning it was 11 degrees, not including windchill. Our stove/fuel had frozen, and making breakfast was not possible.

The rest of the trip was a bit like being in survival mode. Packing things up in the cold was not easy. Most importantly, Tod’s fingers were in a lot of pain. (Tod has lived in Alaska and his fingers have had frostbite.) Luckily, the hike to Wind Gap had several things going for it: beautiful views, bright sunny weather, few inclines and manageable rocks. In no time, we arrived at Hahn’s Lookout. We quickly made our way down to the Gap and to our car.

IMG_0180_2I’m pretty proud of us for doing so well hiking in adverse conditions. Part of the fun of hiking and backpacking is testing yourself and being successful. Certainly, proper clothing and equipment is key. I had five layers on and was toasty warm. In the future, we won’t forget to bring the cooking equipment into the tent with us when we  go to sleep so that it stays warm.

Next time? New Jersey, here we come!

IMG_0188

 

Appalachian Trail: Ashby Gap to Manassas Gap

This past weekend Karen and I hiked the second half of our intended trek last month, when we were forced by heat exhaustion to terminate our planned three-day hike at Ashby Gap. The temperature this time was up to 93 degrees—still hot, but not the 100 degree heat index we were up against last month, and what a huge difference a few degrees can make, especially when the humidity is much lower!

The trail from Ashby Gap to Dick’s Dome Shelter begins with a long, steady ascent. Then the trail passes through meadows, where the tall grass along the path is cut by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. We saw volunteers hard at work.

DSCN0058

Our plan was to hike the first day only as far as Dick’s Dome, but we hiked the 4.8 miles in two-and-a-half hours, and as the time of our arrival was still early and there was no one and nothing to do at Dick’s Dome (which, by the way, had little to recommend it), we decided to hike 5 more miles to Manassas Shelter.

DSCN0061

Dick’s Dome

We kept up our pace and arrived at this second shelter with still plenty of light left in the day in which to set up, do our cooking, clean up, and relax. We felt that we had sufficient energy left to complete our trek and make it all the way to Manassas Gap (which was only another two miles away), but instead we kept to our plan of camping out one night.

We found Manassas Shelter to be preferable to Dick’s Dome. At Manassas there are four tent sites, all fairly level, the shelter itself is much larger, and—what makes a huge difference—there is a spring producing cold, clear water. At Dick’s Dome there is a shallow stream, but the quality of the water is questionable.

All-in-all, it was a very pleasant hike. Afterwards, since we were in the area, we spent a night camping out at Big Meadows, in our much loved Shenandoah National Park. Since we have hiked the A.T. as far south as Chester Gap (Front Royal), our future 100 miles on the A.T. in Virginia will be all in Shenandoah.

Appalachian Trail: Snickers Gap to Ashby Gap

Tod and I decided to take a three day backpack trip on the AT by going to Snickers Gap to Manassas Gap. Why does the title suggest that we only got to Ashby Gap? Well, I suppose that is an important part of our story.

As we drove to Snickers Gap the sky started to blacken and rain began to fall. The hottest days of the season were forecast (close to 100 heat index) and we were weighed down with the heaviest packs ever due to the uncertainly of the water supply. To top it off, we were about to tackle the most difficult section of Virginia. What could possibly go wrong?!?!IMG_0128

IMG_0143

A peaceful, smooth part of the trail. Not quite like the rest. 🙂

This section is known as the “roller coaster”. About a decade ago, the AT moved West onto a route that goes up and down, with 400-600 ft ascents and descents, one right after the other, for about 12 miles. Appropriately, it is known as “the roller coaster”. The hike began with a quick 400 ft. climb to Bear Dens Hostel. “Not bad!,” I thought. However, by the time we got to the beautiful area near Sam Moore Shelter, 3.5 miles later, we were shocked to find that we were going at about half our usual pace. At this rate, getting to our intended destination of Rod Hollow Shelter was looking pretty dim. Still, we pressed on, hopeful that we could pick up the pace.

Along the way we ran into a group of hikers who were attending the AT Conservancy conference. They would stop and we passed. When we stopped, they passed. Back and forth, we had opportunities to chat. (The next day, they took a day hike in the opposite direction and we saw them again!)

We used our water filter for the first time in a beautiful stream about a mile north of Rt. 605. Still, it was clear that we would need to stop for the night soon. We looked for a campsite that was supposedly just past Morgan Mill stream. No luck! We were headed up and up.

We never found the campsite. Tired, fried, whipped and beat, we reluctantly set up camp just off the trail near the top of Piney Ridge. I was convinced we were sitting on a bed of poison ivy! Although we had a delicious meal of mac and cheese ready to go, we soon realized that we had no utensils. Ugh! Have you ever eaten mac and cheese (and oatmeal the next morning) with just your fingers!?

Our "campsite"!

Our “campsite”!

The next day we took off determined to make up time and get to Dick’s Dome. After descending to Bolden Hollow there is a sharp turn right, up a hill to continue onto the AT. We didn’t see it! In fact, there is a white dash of paint on a tree near the turn that sort of suggests that one should continue straight instead of turn. (This is only a problem Southbound. North bound folks have a nice sign pointing to where to go. Please add one for those going Southbound!) We went off trail for quite a while before we realized our mistake and backtracked to get going in the right direction again.

We loaded up with tons of water (about 8 liters) at Rod Hollow. Although we had technically completed the roller coaster, the tremendous heat took its toll. The mud from the previous rains combined with the heat made it tough going. We were soaked with sweat and drinking water at a rate that was not sustainable in order to get to the next water supply. Our pace was awful and safety concerns caused us to make the decision to save the rest of the trip for a cooler day.

Yay! No more roller coaster!

Yay! No more roller coaster!

Luckily, we met a couple as we approached Ashby Gap that was willing to drive us to our car. All said, we learned some valuable lessons. Look at the elevation changes when planning trips, bring tons of food for energy, keep in mind trail conditions, and don’t plan tough hikes for 90+ day heat. Most importantly, when it stops being fun or health concerns kick in, take a break!

 

Shenandoah National Park: Doyles River Falls and Jones Run

It has been too long since we’ve hiked the Shenandoah. Tod and I took the opportunity to camp in Big Meadows for a few days and enjoy getting out in the woods. I’m a big fan of water falls, so choosing the Doyles River Falls hike was perfect.

At the trailhead to Doyles River Falls

At the trailhead to Doyles River Falls

What immediately hit me as we descended down the trail was just how beautiful the trails are here in the Shenandoah. After recent hikes  on the AT in Pennsylvania, it was so refreshing to have wide, relatively smooth paths. The trail descends very quickly, from just under 3000 feet to close to 1400 feet in elevation. As we went, the trail soon “hugged” a river. I was so excited to see the first waterfall! I took a picture but the truth is that there were many more spectacular falls to come.

My favorite was one of the first falls (see the photo of Tod). It isn’t as big as some of the others, but the setting is so tranquil! The sound of the rushing water is mesmerizing. I sometimes wonder how folks can some to this park and only go to the overlooks. Boy, are they missing some thing!

IMG_3803

 

For a while we were lucky to have a very easy go of it. However, it wasn’t long before the trail joined at Jones Run Trail. We crossed Jones Run (a pretty small stream, really) then began a long, steep ascent. This was, by far, the toughest part of the hike. According to our guidebook, we knew we would soon reach Jones Run Falls. This was our motivation.

Jones Run Falls was the perfect end to a mile-long trek up the trail. We were not disappointed! Large, smooth boulders afforded the perfect spot for lunch. This area is pretty secluded. We only saw one other couple there.

From here, we enjoyed a more gentle ascent. The woods were so beautiful! It wasn’t long before we were back up to Skyline Drive and we turned right onto the AT. As is typical of the AT, the trail narrowed. In fact, there was one spot where it was completely blocked by a downed bush and tree. For the most part, the AT follows Skyline Drive. However, it is far enough way from the road to give one the feel of being far removed from traffic.

Hiking can be a perfect way to clear one’s head, forget everyday life, and zone out. Why not just relax?!? This hike was another reminder that attentiveness is always important in

A very BIG rattle snake!

A very BIG rattle snake!

the wild. All of a sudden I came across a very lively rattle snake poised on the trail! I stopped, backed away, and ran right into Tod (who always follows behind me). As you can see by the picture, this guy was strategically located. No way we could stay on the trail! We carefully went up into the thicket far above the snake and bypassed the danger. From here, I was much more vigilant.

There are quite a few options to leave the trail at this point. One can go to Dundo Picnic area or Browns Gap, for example. We continued on and were soon back at the Doyles River Falls trailhead. Another wonderful hike that we can check off our list!