Loonie and I just wrapped up the AT southbound section hike in SNP (Shenandoah National Park) and it was great! This hike was unique in that we would spend alternating nights on the trail and in lodge rooms or cabins. SNP is one of the few places on the trail you can do this. Its an ideal place to get someone started in backpacking. You’re never far from Skyline Drive if you need assistance or decide it’s not your thing. There’s the lodges and restaurants where you can sleep in a regular bed, use a regular toilet, take a shower and get a hot meal. At the same time, you’re never far from reconnecting with the trail and trail-life. We found the trails and shelters to be well maintained – the PATC (Potomac Appalachian Trail Club) does an amazing job of keeping things in shape. As this was a snail-paced 9-day trip, I’ve broken it up into two parts. Once again, Loonie took tons of great pics but I haven’t had a chance to go through them yet so, for now, you’ll have to put up with my crappy shots. Let’s go…
We parked the van at Simmons Gap and got a shuttle to drop us off at the Panorama Overlook at Thornton Gap (US 211), just under 45 trail miles north. Turns out that it was one of the limited number of free admissions days to the park and, combined with the fact that it was a Saturday, beginning of the “leaf season” and the weather was fantastic, day hikers were out in full force. On top of that, one of the most popular day hikes in the park is the 1.9 mi AT south-bound hike from the Panorama lot to Mary’s Rock. We had LOTS of company on the climb to and at the overlook. Once there, we dropped the packs, had a snack and snapped pics with the throngs of tourists.
After some time there we moved on, quickly leaving the crowds behind. With loaded packs, the climb to Mary’s Rock was stiff but now the grade was much more gentle and 1.4 easy miles and more awesome views later we were at Byrds Nest 3 Hut (SNP’s equivalent of a shelter). This was our original destination for the day but it was still early and we wanted to position ourselves closer to Skyland where we had reservations for the following night.
We moved on, reaching The Pinnacle after a mile and a bit over 400 ft of elevation gain. View was great from here as well. While there we met a nice young lady from D.C. who works at the Kennedy Center for Performing arts. She was cool and we enjoyed talking with her as we hiked on to the Pinnacles picnic area. Once there we parted ways – we had an early dinner there and stocked up on water before moving on to find a place to tent for the night while she drove on to Skyland. We declined her generous offer of a ride there as we didn’t want to miss any trail miles. Unfortunately, neither Loonie nor I can remember her name. Hopefully she’ll read this and drop us a line. We want to go back to D.C. on our anniversary and it would be cool to get in touch with her.
With full bellies, full water bottles and fading light we moved on about one mile, finding a small spot off the trail to make camp. By this point headlamps were required to accomplish the task but before long we were snug as bugs under the quilt. Thank goodness the new duo pad had arrived from Exped just days before we left home. The insulation it offered was welcomed, especially on this night…the coldest of the trip…with temps in the upper 30’s.
We had just over 3 miles to go the next day to get to Skyland where we had a room waiting for us so we took our time moving down the trail once we broke camp. This day’s weather would be a repeat of the day before – mid 60’s, light breeze and clear skies. The views would be even more dramatic though. Just over one mile in and we were at Stony Man Overlook with an awesome view over the valley below as well as Little Stony Man Cliffs and Stony Man Summit above which we would soon be visiting.
We spent a bit of pack-free time there taking it all in before moving on. One mile of climbing brought us to Little Stony Man Cliffs. Packs came off and more pics ensued.
Packs back on, we proceeded a half mile more up the AT and a quarter mile climb up a side trail to the summit of Stony Man. Once more, we shed the packs and spent some time taking it all in. We had commanding views down on the two overlooks we had just visited as well as the Allegheny Mountains to the west. While there, we broke out the stove and had a hot lunch before moving on.
It was less than a mile, all down, to the road into Skyland. We checked in at the office, got our keys and made our way down to the building housing our room. From here too we had an excellent view to the west. Showers out of the way, we grabbed dinner…the Bison Meatloaf for me and the Pot Roast for Loonie…both excellent! Topped it off with their signature Blackberry Ice Cream Cake…again, excellent! Back at the room, we got some things together in preparation for hiking out in the morning and then hit the sack.
Day three’s destination, Rock Spring Hut, was just 4.5 mi up the trail so we had time to enjoy a big breakfast at the restaurant before setting off. Bellies full, we hit the trail. With the exception of being a couple degrees warmer, the weather was a repeat of the previous two days – beautiful! We passed the stables shortly after leaving the lodge. Took some pics of the horses and moved on.
Now that the weekend was behind us, the crowds had thinned out and we had some trail time to ourselves. The one downside to all of this beautiful, dry weather was that many of the water sources indicated in the trail guide were dry. We weren’t all that confident that the spring would be flowing at Rock Spring Hut but were carrying just enough to get there. So, the plan was to tank up at at a stream near Crescent Rock Overlook if it was flowing and if not, pray for water at the hut. Not much of a plan! Stream was dry. We hiked on up to the overlook to grab a snack, check out the view and contemplate our next move. Just as we shed the packs and took a seat, a camper van pulled up and a couple about our age stepped out. The guy immediately walks over and in a German accent asks “You want some coffee? Tea? Water?” Bingo! Thank you, Lord! The couple, Nobby and Martianna (hope I have those right!) were on an extended road trip and were making their way south after starting in Canada. For us, they couldn’t have come along at a better time! They were very gracious and we talked for quite a while about the trail, each others trips, families and so on. Very nice couple. We accepted their generous offer of water, said our goodbyes and hiked on.
From this point the trail wrapped around Hawksbill Mountain. The sides of the mountain were strewn with boulders – very cool but it would be so easy to break an ankle or leg along here. We opted out of the side trail to the summit since it was getting on in the day. This would be a great day hike that we would try to do the following week. Got to Rock Spring Hut to find one NoBo (North-bound) section hiker already setup in a hammock. Three more NoBo section hikers, a mother, son and daughter, showed up a bit later. We all opted to tent in lieu of staying in the shelter. Unfortunately, the only spots for tenting had been carved out of the hillside next to the shelter. It was a climb to, and precarious walk-slide down from the tent each time you wanted to use the privy or go to the shelter. Not ideal. Just downhill from the front of the shelter, the PATC has a little cabin with a nice view in front. We watched the sunset and headed back to the hut for dinner and some conversation with the other hikers before heading off to bed. As a side note: the spring at the shelter was flowing just fine. Go figure.
Day four’s hike was another short, 3.5 mi walk to Big Meadows Lodge where we would spend the next two nights. We were slow to get started but once we did we moved along at a good step. Weather was nearly the same as the previous three days…maybe slightly warmer but otherwise ideal. This was almost too good to be true! We were spending more time in the forest as each day passed. Fewer views but more solitude and the leaves appeared to be changing color a little each day. It was all downhill for 1.7 mi to Franklin Cliffs where we paused for a few pics.
The remainder of the day’s hike was uphill. 0.8 mi before we reached Big Meadows we came to a small stream which was running at a trickle. I stopped to have a look while giving Loonie a chance to catch up. Just as my eyes moved back up from the stream to the forest I caught sight of a bear. And then another. And still another. A momma and two cubs were making their way up the stream towards us. Up to this point I don’t know that they even realized we were there. They just kept moving slowly, closing the gap until they were within about 20 yards of us. They paused for a drink from the stream, took a look at us and then scampered across the trail and back into the woods just behind us. We tried to get a few pics – with mixed results – and then moved on.
Just before reaching Big Meadows Campground we ran into the three again, only this time they were all scurrying up a tree and out of view in the leaves above. Shortly after that we reached the side trail to the lodge. We left the AT behind for the time being and made our way up the side trail, coming to another spur leading to the picnic grounds. At this point we stopped to have a look over at the picnic area. Turning back to the lodge trail, Loonie stops me and points out that there’s a snake coiled up, sitting right in the middle of the trail. At first I didn’t think it was venomous – seeing as how I’m blind as a bat these days – and, using my trekking pole, cautiously tried to gently coax it to move off the trail. Finally, it slowly uncoiled and obeyed, slithering off into the underbrush, revealing a rattle 3-4 inches long! Alrighty then! Never rattled…just moved on. We watched him for a bit, getting some pics and video. VERY COOL!!! At least I thought so. Loonie, not so much.
Proceeded onto the lodge where we picked up a resupply box we had dropped off before starting the hike, checked in and settled into our cabin. First order of business were showers and then it was off to the restaurant for dinner. Took some blackberry cobbler back to the cabin for dessert which I ate while watching Loonie try in vain to get a fire going. Off to sleep.
I’ll wrap up the remainder of the hike in the next post.
More to come…