40 miles in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. My first East Coast backpacking trip. Appalachian Trail beauty. Bears, centipedes, a snake and an endangered lizard. Lush dense forests and cascading waterfalls.
Day 1- Big Meadows Lodge to The Pinnacle.
Taking my first few steps on the Appalachian Trail (AT) was much like my first few steps on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT); I felt humbled to be walking the same ground that so many incredible people had in years past. Only this time, instead of feeling a sense of longing for the unknown, I felt a deep sense of longing for the known. When I hiked 50 miles of the PCT two years ago, I wanted so so badly to be like all the thru-hikers I passed along the trail; my injury on my first Continental Divide Trail (CDT) attempt earlier in the year had sent me home with only a 100 mile taste of what it was like to be a thru-hiker. Stepping foot on the AT I smiled to think of all my hiker-family friends that have passed this way before me, and I missed them, and the trail and wanted oh so badly to be heading to Katahdin, the trail’s northern terminus.
But I’m not here to hike to Georgia or Maine, I’m here to do a 40-mile loop in Shenandoah National Park (SNP). My plan was to hike north from Big Meadows along the Park’s ridgeline for about 17 miles along the AT, then drop down into the wilderness in the Park’s Central District and make my way back south to where I started.
I’m visiting Baltimore for a conference and so I decided to fly in a few days early to experience some East Coast hiking. I rented a car and drove through horrendous traffic getting from the airport to SNP, of course it was 5 p.m. on a weekday and I had to skirt both Baltimore and Washington D.C. to get there. Argh!!! I hate sitting in traffic! I drove the winding road up into SNP after dark and could only guess at the sights I was missing, but frustration over the traffic quickly dissipated as I drove past the National Park sign and onto Skyland Drive. Skyland Drive runs along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains through Shenandoah National Park for 100 miles.
I checked into the Big Meadows Lodge, a historic lodge built in 1939 and now listed on the Register of Historic Places. I stopped into the lodge bar where the musician was wrapping up with John Denver’s “Country Road Take Me Home”, the audience singing along:
Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.
Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.
I hit the trail at 11 a.m., a little later than I’d like, but I had to make some stops at the camp store for a gas canister and the Visitor’s Center for my backcountry permit. The Visitor’s Center had a great exhibit on the National Park’s history as well as on some of the US’s most significant environmental landmarks like the Air Pollution Control Act 1955, Wilderness Act 1964, National Preservation Act 1966, National Environmental Policy Act 1969, Water Pollution Control Act 1972, Endangered Species Act 1973 and more. I smiled as I walked by a few emotive quotes on my way out:
“Wilderness is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…”- Wilderness Act 1964.
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay till sundown, for going out… was really going in.” – John Muir, 1938.
“The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond our reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth.” – Edward Abbey, 1968.
After leaving my car at Big Meadows Lodge, I found the trail on the west side of the campground. A sea of bright green maple trees and ferns welcomed me. Acorns and, strangely, centipedes littered the trail. What a beautiful forest! Most of the first day was a similar scene with the trail making the occasional detour out of the forest to a rocky overlook where there were views of the forested hills of the Park, Skyland Drive meandering along the ridge, and the farmlands of Virginia stretched out below.
I spent the whole day on the AT and loved it. I was expecting the trail to be packed with day hikers and backpackers, but in the first 8 miles to Skyland I only saw 1 other person! Where was everyone? There’s many millions of people that live nearby, I know there are, I saw half of them last night sitting in traffic with me. What a wonderful treat! Aside from the occasional sound of a car or motorbike floating down from Skyland Drive, it was really peaceful.
At about mile 8 the trail went right by Skyland Dining Room and so I decided to stop in to grab a burger instead of cooking my ramen noodles when I hit camp later in the day. Good choice, it was a gourmet burger of some kind with bacon blackberry marmalade. Yum! As I left a group of AT section-hikers were loitering outside the building, my gear must have pegged me for a long-distance hiker and they immediately said hello and introduced themselves. “Nice to meet you Georgia Peach, I’m Elevated” I could hear myself saying to one of the guys. “Are you nobo or sobo?”, he said. I wish! It was great to talk trail for a while with them, I love the instant connection the trail community has.
I walked another 8 or so miles after Skyland, the highlight definitely being the view up on Little Stony Man Peak and the black bear I saw in the forest nearby. I thought I was doing well on time as I hiked into the Pinnacles day-use area at around dusk, the Ranger had suggested I may find somewhere in that area to camp but I must have misunderstood as the day-use area was marked with “no camping” signs and the forest beyond that didn’t present any opportunities. I got out my headlamp for some night-hiking and landed up going another couple of miles before I found a small flat spot in the forest up on the summit of The Pinnacle. As I set up my tent, a dozen or so centipedes were making their way along the forest floor and up onto the bark of a nearby tree. Odd.
Creeped-out a little by the abundance of creepy-crawlies, I jumped straight into my sleeping bag and zipped up my tent. Oh the security that a thin layer of cuben fiber and insect netting brings me! I love my tent. I studied the maps for the next day and made my plan to drop down into the Central District. At one point i looked out my tent door and noticed a really strange-looking striped lizard walking slowly by. I learned the next day that i’d seen a Salamander Lizard, an endangered species that only lives on 3 mountains in Virginia, and this happened to be one of them. How cool!
Day 2- The Pinnacles to near Corbin Cabin
I slept great last night! I hadn’t set an alarm and it was 8:30 before I started to stir. I climbed out of my tent and was happy to see that all of the centipedes had crawled back down the tree and walked away. I broke camp and ate breakfast on a nearby rocky outcrop looking down over the flanks of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the farmland of Virginia.
My plan for the day was to peel off from the AT after a couple of miles, cross Skyland Drive, drop down into the Central District and start heading back south by linking a series of trails through the wilderness. My hope was to camp near to Corbin Cabin.
Before I turned off the AT, I passed by a shelter. I’ve heard about the shelters along the AT, there’s over 250 of them along the trail and are reserved for AT hikers. On average they’re spaced about 8 miles apart, and so you could probably hike the whole 2000-mile trail without ever sleeping in a tent if you really wanted to. It was a pretty basic covered structure, with an elevated sleeping platform for hikers to roll out their sleeping pad and share with others. What a different experience that must be to what I experienced on the CDT where I only slept near other people a handful of times. I’m not sure I’d be excited about bunking down in a shelter with 10 other hikers on a nightly basis! With as many people as hike the AT though, it’s a great way for hikers to reduce impact on the environment.
I passed a few groups of hikers as I headed down Meadow Spring Trail and crossed Skyland Drive, it was the most trail traffic i’d seen yet.
Once on Hazel Mountain Trail it felt like I had the whole forest to myself again, happiness! I was so in my zone cruising down the trail that I failed to see a snake stretched out over the trail until I was one step away from it. Eeeek, it took my breath away! I backed away quickly and watched the long black snake as it flicked its tongue in the air trying to ascertain what I was. It didn’t move for a few minutes but then slowly slid forward and disappeared into the forest. I think it was a Northern Black Racer, which I now know to be non-venomous. Note to self: must look where i’m going!
I stopped and had lunch on a log by a stream where Catlett Spur Trail left Hazel Mountain Trail. As I was sitting there a guy came powering down the trail, wearing nothing but his underpants and running shoes. It wasn’t a pair of athletic running pants or anything, this guy was out for a power-walk in the woods with his cotton briefs on. What an odd sight. He paused to say hello and then continued on his way.
The Catlett Spur Trail was a really pretty little trail that seemed not to get much traffic. The forest was very lush, there was even a growth of mushrooms spreading across the trail in one part. I really wasn’t expecting such quiet and pristine hiking in Shenandoah. What a treat!
If Catlett Spur Trail was a treat, Hannah Run Trail was a torture. The first mile of this trail was very very steep rocky downhill hiking. I’ve been really watching out for my knee/IT band and this stretch of trail was bound to do it in and send me back to he Skyland Drive early to hitch back to my car. Argh, I hate you steep descents!
Happily, the trail did mellow out as it dropped into the valley. Just as I was getting back into my hiking groove I was stunned by the sound of something crashing through the forest nearby. I looked up to see a baby black bear bound across the trail a little way in front of me. There were noises coming from the forest in the other direction too which made me think that Mum and the other cubs had chosen a different path. You definitely don’t want to get between a Mum and her cubs, so I backed up a little and stayed where I was for a while, making noise so they knew I was there. My pulse quickened for sure, but it was a very different experience to running into the Grizzly bear and her cubs last summer. Black bears are herbivores and only cause problems for humans if they can smell your food or are protecting their cubs. Here’s a blurry pic of the cub running across the trail, cute little guy!
I made one last turn up Nicholson Hollow Trail and started up my final 2 miles of trail for the day. As I arrived at the point where I wanted to start looking for a place to camp I came across a man setting up his own camp. “Hi there”, I shouted across to him. Poor guy, I think he jumped 3 feet in the air. He said he was really uneasy and the bear element was freaking him out pretty badly. I stayed and talked to him for a while because he seemed relieved to have the company. I was happy to hear that he had a friend hiking down to meet him a little later. I said goodbye and continued on my way, feeling proud at how far I’d come from a few years earlier when every noise in the forest scared me and I would have been feeling just like him. The human brain is so adaptable, we’re really very lucky.
I set up camp about 50 yards off the trail in a pretty little patch of forest overlooking Hughes River. There were still a few bugs flying around and I was happy that my friend Kyle from Thermacell had given me a prototype mosquito repellant device to test out, the Radius. It’s a neat little device that creates a zone of protection from mosquitos at the push of a button. It’s compact, lightweight and USB chargeable, so I love it. It hits the market next year and is winning lots of awards, so keep your eyes out for it. Here’s an interview Kyle gave on the device at Outdoor Retailer this year. Thanks Kyle!
The forest was very peaceful and I enjoyed sitting on a rock and listening to the forest noises and the stream below as I ate my dinner. I can’t stomach Mountain House dinners anymore, I grew very sick of those about 3 weeks before I finished the CDT last fall, so I cooked a gourmet meal of Ramen noodles instead. I still love Ramen, yum!
I inspected my map and made a plan for tomorrow’s route. I had two plans, one that I wanted to hike and another that would be a bail-out option if my knee was acting up after today’s downhill action. I wish I knew how I could fix this silly knee. If you remember I had to bail from my last backpacking trip on the Great Western Trail a few miles early because of it. I went back to PT after that and it’s the same story I’ve been hearing for a couple of years now: “you’re just not built to hike downhill efficiently, it’s not to say you can’t do it, but you’re going to have to put in a lot more work than most people to be able to stay out on the trail.” Argh. Isn’t it ironic that of all things, I chose long-distance hiking to be my passion? Anyway, we’ll see what morning brings.
Day 3- Near Corbin’s Cabin to under Hawksbill Peak via Whiteoak Canyon
I love waking up in my tent! There’s nothing in the real world that can touch waking up to crisp forest air and sunlight filtering through the tree canopy.
I packed up camp and was on the trail by about 8:30 a.m. and soon came across Corbin Cabin. The cabin was built in 1909 and when Shenandoah National Park was established the land it sits on was incorporated into the Park, unlike many cabins in the area it wasn’t demolished. In 1989 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club takes care of the cabin, and rents it out for overnight stays. The doors were locked so I couldn’t look around, but it’s a beautiful log cabin.
I climbed up out of the Nicholson Hollow area up to the Old Rag fire road via a 1.5 mile hike up Indian Run Trail. It was a nice long ascent to get the blood moving this morning. As was the case the past few days, the forest was lush and teaming with little critters. I haven’t been in too many forests with such a dense population of little critters, it seemed that there were little bugs or reptiles everywhere I looked. It struck me as funny that maybe it’s the East Coast way; there’s a huge density of people living along the East Coast and maybe the animal kingdom does it the same way here too? Ha.
I dropped into Whiteoak Canyon from the Old Rag fire road and started down to Whiteoak Falls. I got to a great overlook of the 86-foot falls and stopped to sit on a rock and eat a snack while I watched the water tumbling down. What a pretty little canyon! I had a decision to make about whether to head up to the Skyland Drive from here or continue down the canyon and back up Cedar Run. My knee was doing okay today, so I decided to hike my route as planned.
The canyon was incredibly pretty, the steep rocky trail followed a series of cascading waterfalls. The trail was really busy with hikers, definitely not the wilderness experience I am accustomed to, but worthwhile nonetheless.
I turned off the trail at the Whiteoak- Cedar Run Trail connector and then started the long steep rocky slog up Cedar Run. Cedar Run had some pretty falls but nothing like Whiteoak Canyon. I was drenched with sweat by the time I popped out at the top at Skyland Drive.
I crossed Skyland Drive again and jumped back on the Appalachian Trail heading south. I found a great spot to camp in an uncharacteristically large flat patch of forest about a mile down the trail near where Hawksbill Peak Trail pops out onto the AT. Another delicious meal of Ramen noodles and I was in my sleeping bag ready for bed.
Day 4- Under Hawksbill Peak to Big Meadows
I skipped breakfast and hit the trail early. I noticed when I’d been there earlier in the trip that Skyland had an all-you-can eat breakfast buffet until 11 a.m. There’s rarely a backpacking trip that doesn’t end with me fantasizing about either french toast with a latte or a burger with a beer. Today was a french toast with latte day, so I was on the move to hike to Big Meadows, grab the rental car and head back north to Skyland Restaurant. The plan played out as i’d hoped and made for a delicious finale to a fantastic backpacking trip in Shenandoah National Park.
Thanks for reading!