Appalachian Trail: Rip Rap Trail Parking Area to Jarmans Gap

It is day three of hiking, and Birch and I have hit our stride. This hike was very easy and – to be perfectly honest – a bit boring. The trail is lined with mountain laurel, rhododendrons, and ferns. The train itself is wonderfully smooth. After a short ascent we were fortunate to have a 3-mile descent. That was very unusual and very much appreciated. The only challenge was that, being the first on the trail, I was ensnared in quite a few spider webs.

Along the way we came across another area where a fire had occurred, long ago. It is so neat to see how resilient a forest can be. While there were not many tall trees, there was plenty of new growth.

My favorite part of the trail was at mile seven, when we came across a section of the trail blanketed in wild flowers. The butterflies were numerous and too busy tapping the flowers to worry about a couple of hikers.DSCN0576

Appalachian Trail: Simmons Gap to Loft Mountain Camp Store

Birch and I have not been on the AT in a while so I was excited to be going on an 8 mile hike, and even more excited about the prospect of hiking four days in a row. Loft Mountain Campground is a perfect place to hang out for the week while we indulge in some time on the AT.DSCN0543

The hike from Simmons Gap begins with a 500 ft./ 1 mile ascent. About 15 minutes into the hike, Birch shouted, “Bear, left!” Where? I didn’t see it. “No, the trail bears left,” he said with a grin. Yeah, very funny. Unfortunately, his sense of humor was in fine form the entire hike.

The trail goes up, down, up, then down. We stopped at an overlook to have a snack and met a father/son duo hiking from Georgia to Harper’s Ferry. I think it is so cool to see families doing the trail together.

I was fascinated when we went through a section of the trail that had experienced a major forest fire this past spring. The area is really bouncing back. The birds seemed to be very happy here. DSCN0550

After hiking a while once more, we were startled by a commotion in a tree about 10 yards ahead of us. A bear half leaped, half stumbled out of the tree! I’m very glad he saw us before we saw him because “Bear, left” was much better than having the bear land on top of us.

We ate lunch at a viewpoint and were ready to be done. The heat was getting to us! How awesome was it to end the hike at the camp store, where Gatorade and a cool shower awaited!?!.

Appalachian Trail: Swift Run Gap to Simmons Gap

For a second weekend in a row, Birch and I stayed at Loft Mountain Campground so that we could hike the AT in Shenandoah. This weekend was much cooler. For me, that makes a BIG difference. Cooler weather cuts down my fatigue as well as my need for fluiids.

After dropping one car off at the turn off for the Ranger Station (Simmons Gap) we pulled over to the side of the road with the other car just south of the Swift Run Gap park entrance.  The first part of the hike is straight up, about 800ft in about 1 1/2 miles. Since its the beginning of the hike, I felt pretty fresh and it was very manageable. As you can see from the photo below, the view was well worth it. This is High Top Mountain. It isn’t as crowded as some of the more popular areas of the park, and this makes it a nice destination in itself.DSCN0519

After admiring the view, down we went! The trail descends about three miles, passing the Smith Roach Gap Fire Road. I couldn’t help take some photos of the ferns near here. So beautiful! DSCN0523

After crossing the parkway at Powell Gap we ascended less than a  mile before we got to a beautiful overlook. There was a sign there (made of sticks) marking this as the 900 mile mark of the AT (from the south, of course.) Tod and I used this as an opportunity to take a nice long break. After eating our sandwiches we put on our fleece jackets and made coffee. It is times like this on the trail that make all the hard work worth it. We really enjoyed the opportunity to relax and enjoy our surroundings.  We could see the parkway way below us, houses in a town far away, and an incredible blanket of trees that seemed to go on forever.

DSCN0532

Coffee + hiking + view = bliss!

Coffee + hiking + view = bliss!

It was a quick hike back to the car, which was less than two miles away. When we exited the trail we realized that there was a small parking lot across the road from the Ranger Station entrance that we could have used. This is good info for next time, when we continue our southward adventures.6-16_7

 

Lewis Mountain Campground to Swift Run Gap

A beautiful day and an eight mile hike is a great combination for a June day. We began our hike at Lewis Mountain Campground. There is limited parking by the camp store but there is plenty of parking near the  picnic area. The AT is a gentle, downhill trail for about a mile before leveling off. The easy trail is a nice break before the gentle slope UP that brought us to the top of Bald Face Mountain. There really aren’t any switchbacks (it isn’t steep enough for that) but there were several spots where they had these really cool set of stairs. (It feels a bit magical to ascend up stone steps in the middle of a forest!) I was hoping that there would be a great view but no such luck.  There is a nice slab of rock and boulders at lewis mountainthe peak. It is a perfect place to stop for lunch but the foliage prevents one from seeing the countryside.

Birch and I pressed on until we reached the bottom of the mountain near the South River Falls Trail. We knew there was a picnic area about a mile away but we decided to have lunch here.  I’m glad we did. This spot has a number of nice boulders for sitting. The picnic area turned out to be about 1/10 of a mile off the trail. Along the way, there is a variety of vegetation. My favorite is always the mountain laurel. However, there were giant (I mean GIANT!) ferns that I liked as well.mountainlaurel

The last part of the hike was about 1 1/2 miles up (perhaps 500 ft change in elevation) and 1 1/2 miles down. Along the way we met a really nice family from New Zealand, taking a 5 month vacation on the trail. Their son was probably 5 or 6 years old. He was having a great time. After all, he had just seen a snake! I’m always amazed at how the AT brings so many people from different walks of life together.

We reached our other car, parked at Swift Run Gap, in no time. Afterwards, we visited the Loft Mountain visiting area for some blackberry ice cream. Hiking + ice cream! Perfect!

Shenandoah is known for Blackberries. Blackberry ice cream? Yum!

Shenandoah is known for Blackberries. Blackberry ice cream? Yum!

Appalachian Trail: Fishers Gap to Lewis Mountain

Hello Shenandoah!

Now that it is early May, the foliage in Shenandoah National Park is finally starting to awaken. Birch and I were excited to get back on the trail. It has been ages since we’ve hiked in green foliage.5-7_1

The weather in the area has been wet and cold. When we arrived at Fishers Gap it was foggy and raining. Not exactly the type of weather one would choose for a 10 mile hike. Still, we donned our rain gear and started off. The birds sang to their heart’s content, clearly unfazed by a little dampness. This, and the stunning green all around me, lifted my spirits so that I hardly noticed the weather.

The first part of the hike is a pretty gentle uphill climb. We had fun meandering around Big Meadows Campground and even got to see our tent. (We often stay there while hiking in the park.) By the time we reached Milam Gap, the rain had stopped. We cross the road continued up to Hazeltop, which is at about 3,800 feet. Despite being at a high 5-7_9spot in the park, I can’t say that this is a hike with a lot of views. There are very few vistas. Instead, the real value is of this hike is taking in the beauty of the forest.

Wildflowers everywhere!

Wildflowers everywhere!

The trail in this section of the AT is remarkably smooth. It wasn’t until we got to Bearfence Mountain that things got rocky. We skipped the option of doing the rock scramble here (we’ve done that before!) and stuck to the AT. There are a series of switchbacks that takes one down the mountain before ascending once again to Lewis Mountain Campground.

Despite the weather, we completed this section feeling great. I’m so glad we didn’t let a few raindrops deter us!

5-7_175-7_20

 

Appalachian Trail: Mile 38 (on Skyline Drive) to Fishers Gap

Springtime! As the weather warms up, so does our desire to hit the trail. Birch and I decided to continue our southward journey on the Appalachian Trail. We dropped off our car at Fishers Gap and then waited expectantly at the side of Skyline Drive, hoping for a ride to mile 38. The first car stopped!

The first few miles of the trail wind upwards. It is a relatively long but gradual ascent that offers several good views. This area, Stony Man Mountain, is the highest elevation for the AT in Shenandoah National Park (3837 ft.) We passed a boy scout group learning to climb and volunteers doing trail maintenance (thank you!). Otherwise, it wasn’t busy.  IMG_0383

Shenandoah is still in early Spring. There are sprigs of green grass here and there but the trees are still bare, unlike the elevations below. This means that views can be had in many places along the trail. Still, I was a little surprised that there seems to be little progress towards tree cover here.

As we passed Skyland North Entrance, it seemed that things leveled out considerably. Eventually we passed the South Entrance and saw the horse stable. (I had no idea that it was there.) The AT south of the horse trail is not well marked with blazes, but it is a well defined trail. A mother bear and her cubs crossed the trail just ahead of us. Finally, a bear!IMG_0384

It wasn’t long before we reached Fishers Gap. This area was full of tourists all taking advantage of the free park entrance offered in celebration of the national parks. At the time, a wild fire had already started further south in the park. We were clueless. Let’s hope the fire is contained soon. This is a beautiful park, and it would be a shame for fire to mar it.

IMG_0377IMG_0386

 

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!

Appalachian Trail: Route 522 (Front Royal) to Jenkins Gap (Shenandoah National Park)

After days of moving north through Pennsylvania, Tod and I decided to hike south, into Shenandoah National Park. We began our hike where we left off, at Route 522. DSCN0116It began as a gentle ascent but soon the trail was a bit steeper and switchbacks appeared. No big deal. It was a cool day and we weren’t carrying a lot of water or gear. (Yay, day hikes!) About 3.6 miles up there was a large boulder formation where we took a break to have lunch — and coffee! Usually we would never stop so long to make a hot beverage but, boy, was it fun. We were actually a bit cold and so we changed into warmer clothes. The view was a bit obscured by trees but it was still nice. What wasn’t so nice was the fact that there were some really ominous storm clouds overhead. I can’t say we were totally prepared.

View from the overlook.

View from the overlook.

DSCN0121
After a long half-hour break we hit the trail again. What a difference from our last hike in Pennsylvania! We encountered smooth trails and only a few rocks. For the most part, the trail was really wide and really flat. A piece of cake! Then the rain came. Fortunately, the leaves and branches served as a nice canopy. We barely got wet. By the time we got to Compton Gap the sun was out.

Compton Gap marked the beginning of one more ascent, up to Compton Peak. We began to see a lot more hikers, all coming down. Perhaps they had just gone up to the peak? We never did see the actual overlook. (I hear that it is beautiful but we didn’t think to stop. It would have taken us off the trail.) The descent was pretty easy. There was a fire in this area in 2011 and the evidence of it still exists. Although there is a lot of new brush, dead trees stand as a reminder of what careless ash disposal can do to a forest.DSCN0127
We arrived at Jenkins Gap (mile 12 on Skyline Drive) less than four hours after we began. It was about 7.7 miles in all, including our long break for lunch. This might be a good hike for folks who are just beginning hiking or getting back into it. There are some steep ascents but most of it is easy. Most importantly, it is so peaceful and quiet. What a nice break from the craziness of city life!

As a footnote, I forgot my trekking poles at Jenkins Gap. I leaned them against the car and completely forgot about them. Within an hour of returning home I was at REI. Can’t live without my poles! The new ones are the same make and brand but they seem lighter. Yay! I wouldn’t recommend my method as a way to get new poles but it is nice to know that equipment is always evolving.DSCN0124

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!

Sugarloaf-Keyser Run Fire Road – Hogback Mountain Lariat

Our final hike of the week was farther up on Skyland Drive, just off of mile 21. This hike starts on the Sugarloaf trail. The forest is newer here, with fewer trees and more bushes, such as rhodendeandrum. Although we didn’t get started until 11 am, we were clearly the first on the trail. Talk about spider webs! I must have looked like a mad women as I used my trekking poles to try to get the spider webs before they got me!

The gentle descent brought us to a T junction with the PineyBranch Trail. After going left we quickly ran into the Keyser Fire Road. This, quite frankly, was a bit boring. However, it was an easy trek back up to Skyline Drive. From here, we crossed the road to go on the A.T. The ascent to the summit of Little Hogback Mountain offered a very nice few.

We then continued on until we started zigging and zagging up to Hogback Mountain. After all our big ascents and descents, it was nice to have one more opportunity to huff and puff up a hill! Luckily, we seem to be getting better at this and we didn’t complain the entire way. It was fun to be on the A.T. in Virginia. We’re getting a real sense of the trail and I’m really enjoying it.

We completed the 4.9 mile hike in about 2 1/2 hours. Not bad! I’m happy we had a chance to do this trail and experience a different part of the Park.
IMG_2816IMG_2813