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.

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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.

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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

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

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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!

 

Corbin Cabin and Nicholson Hollow Loop

On June 11, our second hiking day at Shanandoah National Park, Karen and I decided to hike the Corbin Cabin Cutoff Trail to the eponymous relic, now maintained by the PATC, and from there take the Nicholson Hollow Trail back up to Skyline Drive, cross over to the Appalachian Trail, and take that north to return to the parking lot at mile 37.9. The entire trek would take us only 4.2 miles. Trail Head Compared to the Doyle Falls Trail, the Corbin Cabin Cutoff Trail is not as well defined. There were patches of grass growing on the narrow trail, which told us immediately that we were not on one of the more popular paths. In fact, we saw no one on our way down to the cabin. The first quarter mile of the trail is enclosed on both sides by white-flowered bushes. Further down, we encountered a black snake on the path. Black Snake Upon crossing Hughes River–which, I should add, is easily done, as there are large stones marking a path across what is really only a ravine–one immediately comes upon the log cabin built by George Corbin in 1909. It was locked up, but some bees appeared to have made a home in the roof. Karen and I had our lunch sitting on the front porch. Hughes RiverCorbin Cabin We had hardly begun our trek again when we spied the John T. Nicholson cabin on the opposite side of Hughes River. In Nicholson Hollow, before we began our ascent, we also caught sight of a large owl flying from one tree to another. Perched again upon a limb, it looked back at us, and then flew further on. Once we began our ascent, our movement frightened off a black bear, which scampered up the hill, away from us. All in all, it proved to be a great hike for spotting wildlife, as well as getting a little exercise. In the Falcon Guide to Hiking Shenandoah, the difficulty level of this hike is rated as moderate to strenuous.

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!

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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!

Scott’s Run Nature Preserve

I admit, I’m addicted to hiking. Tod’s schedule has made it difficult to hike together so on Sunday I ventured out by myself to Scott’s Run Nature Preserve in northern Virginia. Scott’s run is a hidden oasis in Fairfax County. Nestled between housing developments and the beltway, it is amazing that it has been preserved for nature lovers.

I began my hike off of Georgetown Pike at the entrance near Scott’s Run. The trail was a blanket of leaves.  In fact, along some sections it was really hard to tell where the trail was! The hike was mostly level and would be a great alternative for those with young kids.

Before long, I came to the Potomac River.  According to my guidebook, the shoals are known as Stubblefield Falls. There are plenty of places to sit and enjoy the view. I walked along the river for a while before meeting up with another part of the trail, higher up.

Although some parts of the trails are well marked, it wasn’t always easy to find my way. I’m pretty sure I took a “road less traveled” and ended up on an unofficial trail. I’m glad I finally met up with a major trail and made my way to the area near Scott’s Run. This time of year is so peaceful in the forests. Without the leaves I could see well into the woods. Even though it was cold out, a brisk pace helped me to stay toasty warm! Overall, it was an easy 3-4 mile loop. Well worth the trip!photo-4

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.
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