The 80 miles from Rockfish Gap / I-64 up to Thornton Gap in the Shenandoah’s are complete! Took a couple of attempts but we finally checked off the remaining 20 miles in the extreme southern end of the park. Loonie’s sister came along with us for this one. It was perfect hiking weather…in complete contrast to the hike Deep Woods and I did in September. And once again, with the exception of just a smidgen’ of rain the first night after we were tucked away in our tents, it was another blue-sky, dry hike.
Once that was complete, we stayed at Big Meadows Lodge for a couple of nights before the girls went off and did some sight-seeing while I set off on my own to tackle the 61 miles I had remaining between Thornton Gap and Bears Den Hostel. Racing to beat a good bit of rain moving in, I managed to knock that off in four days. Remarkably, the rain held off until the final climb up to the turnoff to the hostel. When it did come it was a mere sprinkle until I reached the hostel itself. Sweet!
We then moved up to Harpers Ferry for a couple of nights for a bit more sight-seeing and resupply. Light rain fell nearly the entire time. From there, the three of us completed the trifecta by doing a south-bound hike from Boiling Springs, PA to Pine Grove Furnace State Park, just over 19 miles. Yet again, we had dry skies for that trip with the exception of an on again, off again sprinkling the last evening. Unbelievable! Weather-wise, at least while on the trail, it couldn’t have gotten much better. Why the good Lord has chosen to bless me with all of the incredible weather in the 900 miles I’ve done so far, I’ll never understand but I am certainly grateful He has, that’s for sure!
Pics from the first part of the trifecta can be found here. Still working on parts 2 and 3. I’ll break each of the three hikes into individual posts. Here goes…
Day One: Rockfish Gap / I-64 Overpass to Calf Mountain Shelter (7.7 mi)
After a frigid night car camping at Loft Mountain Campground, we shuttled from Blackrock Summit parking lot down to Rockfish Gap. Our driver dropped us off at the information kiosk that stands where the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyland Drive meet. After taking a few pics, we set off. Seeing as how this was my sister-in-law Kristy’s first actual backpacking trip, we planned to do the hike over four days. LOW miles and LOTS of breaks. As the date to head to Virginia drew near, it appeared we might see night time temps down near freezing and possibly some rain. Loonie and I talked it over and decided to try to do the trip in three days, staying in the vicinity of Calf Mountain Shelter on the first night. At least that way we would have the option of staying under an actual roof if need be. In hind-sight, we should have left it at four. It turned out that it wasn’t the experience for Kristy that Loonie and I had hoped for. I’m jumping ahead though.
We made our way over I-64 and began the long, gentle climb that takes you up and into the park. Just one mile and one hour into the hike the girls want to take a break for lunch. Just one hour in and I’m second guessing myself about the decision to try to do this thing in three days! Its just after 11 AM, we’ve only gone a mile, we still have better than 6-1/2 miles to go to the shelter and it will start getting dark not long after 6 PM. Not good.
Arriving at McCormick Gap, we came upon a stile over a fence. As someone who has hiked a bit of the trail, my first inclination was to go up and over the stile. After all, they put it there for a reason, right? So up and over I go. Meanwhile, the girls simply walk right through an opening in the fence not six feet away. I thought I would never hear the end of that! We now started our way up Bears Den Mountain. The climb was a bit stiff at first but eased off and we made it to the comm towers at the top. After taking in the view and relaxing a bit on the tractor seats that someone planted in the ground here years ago, we hiked on.
The walk down to Beagle Gap offered some nice views as we made our way to the parking lot. We dropped the packs to take advantage of the port-a-potties before moving on. From the gap, we made our way up Little Calf Mountain. It was getting long in the afternoon and I knew at this point that it was likely I would be setting up the tents in the dark. We made it to the top of Little Calf and took a brief break to take in the view and then began the final, short push up to the shelter.
We arrived to find the shelter and nearly every tent space occupied. One gentleman graciously offered to slide his tent over to allow us to set up Kristy’s tent, if it would fit. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t. We were able to squeeze her in on a path leading up to another tent. I had her tent up just before dark set in. Then it was on to mine and Loonie’s, erected by the aid of headlamp. Dinner was by eaten by headlamp as well, after which, Kristy headed off to bed while Loonie and I joined a few people around the camp fire in front of the shelter.
It had been a long day after a long drive to get to the park but the weather was spectacular and, despite the slow start, I was happy to be on the trail once more.
Day Two: Campsite near Wildcat Ridge Trail (7.3 mi)
Light rain fell on and off throughout the night and with the cold temps, we woke to a bit of condensation in the tent. We got an even later start this morning and everyone was long gone before us. I got the tents down and everything with the exception of the food and cooking stuff packed and went to filter water. On my return, the girls still weren’t ready to go. It was 11 AM before we finally set off. The minutes of beautiful hiking weather were slipping away and regardless, if I didn’t keep the girls moving, we would be making camp by headlamp once more. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s setting up camp by headlamp. Needless to say, Bulldog was not a happy hiker.
Once on the trail, we had a 1-1/2 mile descent, crossing a power line cut on the way, followed by a bit of a bump up and back down to Sawmill Run overlook. We dropped the packs there to have lunch, though we didn’t fart around long. There were 4-1/2 miles yet to go to reach our destination for the day, a campsite half a mile past the Wildcat Ridge parking lot.
From there the grade was gentle up to Turk Gap, after which it got a bit stiffer but nothing we couldn’t tackle. We passed the turnoff to the Wildcat Ridge parking lot and made our way down to the campsite. Thankfully no one was there. Now that the weekend was behind us, the crowds had thinned out a bit and we hadn’t encountered many other hikers throughout the day. After our experience at the shelter the night before, it was nice to have this site to ourselves. I knew that the stretch we would cover this day would be particularly dry so I had cached several liters of water here before starting the hike. After retrieving that, we made camp and had dinner….just before darkness settled in.
Day Three: Blackrock Summit Parking Lot (6.8 mi)
Looking forward to the hot showers and “normal” food that awaited us at Big Meadows, we got going a bit earlier this day. Two miles in, nearly all down, brought us to the Riprap Trail parking lot. We stopped here for a snack and to give Loonie a chance to tend to some hot spots on her feet. Moving on, we had a short, sharp ascent that landed us at the junction of the Riprap Trail itself.
From that point, the trail trended down for three miles more to Blackrock Gap, with a couple of very short, stiff ups thrown in. Reaching the Gap, Kristy decided that she had had enough climbing over the course of the last three days. Understandably so. Loonie and I were really hoping the Boiling Springs to Pine Grove Furnace hike would be a much better experience for her.
A 700 foot ascent over the next mile to the summit of Blackrock was all that stood between Loonie and I to complete the Rockfish Gap to Thornton Gap stretch of the Shenandoah’s, 80+ miles, and there was no way we were stopping now. Seeing as how we would have just 0.6 mile to go past the summit to reach the van (1.7 miles total), Loonie and I chose to drop the packs, leave them with Kristy at the gap, hike up and over Blackrock to the van and then come back for Kristy.
Loonie took the lead on the climb and she flew up in record time (well, ok, record time for us) and we reached the junction with the trail to Blackrock Hut. It was official at this point. 80+ miles of the Shenandoah’s complete. We snapped a couple of pics and moved on, stopping only for a few minutes at the summit to snap a few more. Loonie then proceeded to lead us down to the van, chewing that up in short order.
From there, it was back to pick up Kristy, turn around and head north for Big Meadows. We put the showers on hold and went straight for the food, which of course was topped off with a serving of the Shenandoah’s signature Blackberry Ice Cream Pie! We spent the next day doing a day hike up to the summit of Hawksbill, watched the sunset from Blackrock and then some time in the meadow stargazing. Beautiful!
The following day would be an early start. I had 61 miles standing between me and finishing everything from the southern end of the Shenandoah’s to Pine Grove Furnace State Park in PA. Almost go time!
More to come…