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!