Thornton Gap to Bears Den Hostel Complete!

It would be a major understatement to say that the 61 mile hike from Thornton Gap to Bears Den Hostel went better than the 80 miles Deep Woods and I did just last month…physically anyway.  With the exception of the 9-1/2 mile ride I had remaining on the Roller Coaster on the last day, the difference was like night and day.  61 miles in four days compared to 80 miles in just over seven.  In terms of miles covered, this was my best performance to date.

Why?

  1. I started this hike better than 10 lbs lighter…in the gut.  That was huge!!!  My pack weight was down as well.
  2. I started the hike well rested and well hydrated.  Additionally, I already had an easy, three day break-in period on the hike just completed with Loonie and Kristy.
  3. It appeared as though the terrain would be much more favorable up to at least the Roller Coaster and it lived up to that.
  4. The weather was MUCH more favorable.  Cool temps and decent humidity throughout the hike.  Perfect hiking weather.
  5. I was on my own which meant I simply spent more time actually walking.  Not that that’s necessarily a good thing.  I did miss the company of Loonie and Deep Woods.  It had been some time since I had been on the trail alone, though, and it gave me a chance to reflect on a lot of stuff.
  6. There wasn’t a lot of “Wow Factor” in this particular section.  There were some nice views here and there, especially along the remaining miles of the Shenandoah’s, but it was mostly woodland walking.  Beautiful all the same, but I wasn’t stopping as often to soak it all in.  I wish now that I had backed off the pace a bit.  More on that in a minute.
  7. Speaking of weather, rain was supposed to move in later in the hike and I chose to speed things up to beat as much of that as I could.  The original plan had been to do the hike over five days.  After last month’s performance, I thought that would be a challenge.  Doing it in four seemed as though it would take a Herculean effort but it worked out in the end.
  8. Finally, and most importantly, despite repeatedly telling Loonie that I would be out for four nights, finishing early in the afternoon of day five, she was disappointed when I reiterated this the day before setting off.  I told her I would shoot for completing in four, keeping her posted on my progress.  She then insisted that I leave it at five, stay safe and enjoy myself but the idea of the challenge was already in my head.  Besides, I love being with her.  So there!

Would I do it again?  Depends on a lot of things, but more than likely, no.  As Deep Woods will certainly tell you, I do like to take my time!  Mozie is more accurate.  After being cooped up in an office for weeks or months on end and dealing with all of the crap at work, the last thing I want to do is rush down the trail.  There’s just too much to see.  To smell.  To touch.  And the stillness and quietness are amazing…when you can actually find them on the AT.  So no, I would not want to do the rest of the trail this way.  There were times that I had to remind myself to slow down or stop, even if it was to just listen…to the sound of nothing.  Just thinking about it now makes me want to do it again.  There were times on this hike that felt much like many of the hiker YouTube videos where they race down the trail, seemingly never stopping to look or listen to anything.  Its their hike but that’s certainly not the experience I’m after.

The album is done for this hike as well (go here), and as usual, please excuse the poor quality.  Stupid tremor!

Here’s how the hike went down…

Day One: Panorama Parking Lot / Thornton Gap to Campsite past Gravel Springs Hut (15.5 mi)

Loonie and I were up early and she drove me up to the Panorama parking lot at Thornton Gap, arriving just before 8 AM.  It was tough saying goodbye but at least there was the peace of mind knowing she would be with her sister.  Once on the trail, I set off North, quickly made my way across US 211 and started the climb up Pass Mountain.  It was 700 feet up over the course of a little better than a mile…not too extreme.  But for the first time this season, it felt like I was flying.  I had to keep reminding myself all day that I needed to back off if I was going to have enough left in the tank to pull this thing off in four days.  In fact, I was so focused on making miles that I blew right by the turnoff to Pass Mountain Hut.  I would do the same at a couple of other spots along the trail this trip and I now regret it.  Deep Woods and I always say “You may never pass this way again”.  A reminder to take the time to stop and see all that we can and worry less about flying down the trail.  I missed his counsel now and hiked on.

US 211 at Thornton Gap

Once over Pass Mountain, it was a bit more than a mile more down to Beahms Gap and this time I took a few minutes to take in the view before pressing on.  I ran into Northbound section hiker Turks and talked with him for a bit.  Hiking on, it occurred to me that I might be able to make it to Elkwallow Wayside by noon and have lunch there.  That would be 8.8 miles in 4 hours and put me well on my way of achieving my goal of a bit more than 15 miles for the day.  I motored on, at times practically jogging on the descents.  The gentle, rock-free downhills up to this point were a Godsend to my long stride and I was able to make great time.  Still, from time to time I would stop and stand for a minute or two, take a deep breath and soak up the silence.  The sun was shining, the sky was blue and it was cool.  Beautiful!

I arrived at the wayside, ordered a cheese burger, fries and Blackberry milkshake, sat down at a picnic table and took my first bite of that burger just as the watch ticked to 12 PM.  Mission accomplished…at least part one of this day.  Lunch out of the way, I picked out a couple of trinkets for Loonie from the gift shop, snapped a couple of pics and got rolling again.

Elkwallow Wayside

Less than a mile and 500 feet of up brought me to the PATC’s Range View cabin.  The original plan had been to camp near here.  I hiked on instead, arriving at Rattlesnake Point overlook shortly thereafter.  The incredible view was a good excuse for a short break.  Turks caught back up with me here.  We talked again for a bit before he moved on.  My break continued.  The beautiful sunny weather kept my butt planted on the stone wall of the overlook longer than expected but it was well-deserved.

Rattlesnake Point Overlook

I finally got moving again, passing Turks once more just before Hogback Overlook.  The pace picked up again as I made my way towards Gravel Springs Hut.  If my ciphering was correct, I should make it there by 4:30.  Ending the day there would put me a bit shy of my target mileage for the day but I should arrive in time to tank up on water and still put in a mile or so.  I actually arrived a bit earlier.  Here I ran into Goat Head, another Northbound section hiker, for the first time.  He had already put in a few more miles than I and chose to end his day here.  Just as I finished filtering water, Turks came in.  He too chose to end his day at the hut.  We said our goodbyes and I hiked on once more.

Hogback Overlook

Gravel Springs Hut

Comments on Guthook indicated a small campsite at a rock outcropping with a view just a mile further on South Mount Marshall.  The plan now was to get there, see if anyone had snagged it and, if not, bed down.  I made my way up and arrived to find the site unoccupied.   Excellent!  There was a spot just large enough for my tarp behind the shelter of the rock.  I got setup, had dinner and made my way onto the rocky overlook in time to catch the sunset.  It had been a fantastic day and this was the icing on the cake.  I was really missing Loonie now and wished she was along to experience this moment.

I eventually made my way back to the tarp, crawled under the quilt and nodded off.  Tomorrow was to be an even bigger day and I would need to get an early start.

 

Day Two: Campsite at Jim & Molly Denton Shelter (17.6 mi)

I was up and on the trail before 7:30.  Just how far I would go was anyone’s guess but I thought I would shoot for the Mosby campsite, 15.8 miles ahead.  That would be right on pace.  If I had anything left in the tank, I would move on up to Jim and Molly Denton shelter, 1.8 miles further.  The perfect weather was on repeat so I had that going for me.  I figured the trail through the remainder of the park would work in my favor as well.  Up till now the tread had been nice.  Pretty smooth and few rocks…as far as the AT goes anyway.  Hopefully that would continue.

I quickly made my way up and over North Mount Marshall, stopping for a bit along the cliffs and summit for some pics.  From there it was nearly all down for three miles to Jenkins Gap and I’m thinking to myself that I’ve got this in the bag.  I’m flying!  The 500 or so feet up to Compton Peak were knocked out in short order as well.  Now things got a bit frustrating.  Coming down from Compton Peak to the gap was painstakingly slow.  It was rocky but that wasn’t the biggest headache.  It was Friday now and there was a constant stream of day hikers making their way up to the peak.  Trail etiquette calls for a hiker heading down to yield to one heading up and I now found myself standing on the side of the trail much more than actually heading down the trail.  It was an excruciating 0.8 of a mile to the gap and I thought I would never get there.

North Mount Marshall

Get there I did though.  From here, just two miles more remained in the park proper.  It was downhill on old roads and before I knew it, I was standing at the self-registration sign at the boundary.  The Shenandoah’s were complete.  It’s only on those special, rare occasions that Wilson makes an appearance and now was one, so I got his pic at the sign.

Finished with Shenandoah National Park

The downhill continued as I hiked 0.7 of a mile more to Tom Floyd Wayside (shelter) where I pulled off for lunch and to use the privy.  No one was there when I rolled in but I was soon joined by Southbound thru hiker Free Bird and section hiker ’58 Olds.  ’58 Olds had previously thru hiked the PCT and was now doing long sections of the AT.  I talked with them over lunch, made that visit to the privy and resumed my walk.

Tom Floyd Wayside

With the exception of one short bump, the down continued for nearly two miles more to US 522.  Goat Head caught up with me just before reaching the highway.  We hiked on to the road together and talked for a bit there.  He was catching a ride to Front Royal to spend the night before hiking on.  We wished each other good luck and I ran for my life across the highway.

US 522 / Front Royal

It was now three miles and 900 feet of up to the Mosby campsite and it was just after 2 PM.  If I kept moving I might make it to the shelter past the campsite after all.  That would set me up better for the following day.  I would be going through Sky Meadows State Park tomorrow and camping within the park is illegal.  It was either stop short, camp illegally in the park or push on past.  Pushing on past the park seemed to be the best option but it would make for a VERY long day.  However, it would put me within ten miles of my ultimate goal, Bears Den Hostel.  All that would remain on my last day would be the Roller Coaster.  First things first, though.  Get past Mosby and to the shelter for the night.

The trail followed some old roads for a time which equated to a gentle grade.  Eventually the climb got a bit stiff but I dialed back to a pace I could maintain and before long I was at the Mosby campsite.  I was nearly out of water at this point and comments on Guthooks led me to believe not to count on the source here.  The source at Jim & Molly Denton was said to be flowing and it was just under two miles ahead.  I hiked on.

I arrived at the spring and went ahead and tanked up.  There was a nice site to pitch just before the spring but I thought I would hike on to the shelter to check it out and see if anyone was there.  It was empty when I arrived but a young man walked in shortly thereafter.  His dad arrived minutes later.  The day before, another hiker informed me that this shelter was infested with thousands of stink bugs and that proved to be true.  On that note, I chose to take the spot just up from the spring.  The father/son duo picked a site near the shelter to pitch.  Section hiker Just Dave walked in now and he chose to brave the stink bugs.  Fortunately, there was a push broom in the shelter that he used to sweep the majority of them out.  I gotta think that they found their way back in though.

Jim and Molly Denton Shelter

Solar Shower at Jim and Molly Denton Shelter

Tarp up and dinner fixed, I walked back up to the shelter to join the guys around the fire.  The father/son duo had done a lot of hiking in the Shenandoah’s and they shared pics from some of their trips.  It was getting late though, tomorrow would be a beast of a day and I was planning on being on the trail before day break.  That in mind, I hung my food, gave my best wishes to all and headed back to camp.

I was out cold in a matter of minutes and only woke twice throughout the night – once to pee and again to chase off something making a racket in a nearby tree.  No idea if it was a bear but I wasn’t bothered the remainder of the night.

 

Day Three: Rod Hollow Shelter (18.4 mi)

I was packed and on the trail before the sun was up, walking 30 minutes with the aid of headlamp.  The way things would unfold over the course of the day, I would need practically every minute of daylight to reach Rod Hollow Shelter, 18.4 miles ahead.  It was a mile down from the shelter to a power line cut, up and over a ridge (complete with a bench) and then a bit more than a mile down to VA 55 at Manassas Gap.

Once under the highway, I came to a trailhead parking lot on Truckers Lane that was packed to the gills.  You couldn’t cram a bicycle in there.  Now that it was Saturday and the weather was spectacular, everyone and their brother had hit the trail.  From the lot, I had a bit more than 1,200 feet up over the course of four miles before this stretch of climbing would be behind me, so up I went.  For the most part it was a gentle grade but I was content to settle into a slow, steady pace.  I had far more company on the climb than I cared for but I didn’t let that sour my mood.  I was just grateful to be out there.

Crossing under VA 55 at Manassas Gap

Just past the halfway point of my climb, I came to the turnoff for Manassas Gap shelter.  The shelter was just 0.1 of a mile off the AT so I figured it was a good opportunity to check it out and take a quick snack break.  It was after 10:00 and people who stayed the night here were just hitting the trail for the day.  Brought back memories of the hike with Loonie and Kristy earlier in the week!  Among the late starters was a group of five guys that I would cross paths with throughout the remainder of the day and eventually spend that night with at Rod Hollow Shelter.  They began their day’s trek now while I looked the place over, checked my progress on Guthook and knocked off some trail mix.

Resuming the hike, I quickly passed three of the group of five, continuing my steady climb up to the side trail to Trico Tower.  There was nothing on Guthook or AWOL’s guide indicating that the side trip to the tower was worth the 0.5 mile each way trip off trail.  Seeing as how I still had a lot of ground to cover, I didn’t stop at the top, instead passing the side trail and continuing on.

It was now 2.5 miles of down to the turnoff to Whiskey Hollow/Dicks Dome shelters.  I knocked that out, passing more hikers who had left Manassas Gap shelter earlier.  Two section hikers, the remainder of the group of five, were at the junction, one nursing a badly turned ankle while his buddy was determining the best course of action for getting his friend off the trail and back to his car.  At this point, a group of Boy Scouts and their leaders came up from the shelter.  Seeing as they were Scouts, they had everything imaginable to address any possible injury.  They got the injured hiker squared away so that he could at least attempt to hobble his way to the parking lot at Sky Meadows State Park.  Since they seemed to have things well under control, I sat on a log and had a quick lunch.  That out of the way, I headed 0.3 of a mile down to the shelter to filter water.  Two ladies doing an overnight hike were already there having lunch and what a spread!  Deli meats and cheeses, wine, expensive chocolate.  They offered me some of everything but I only took them up on the chocolate.  With the filtering out of the way, I thanked the ladies for their generosity and made my way back up to the AT.  That made for a total of nearly a mile thus far that put me no closer to Rod Hollow (0.1 each way to Manassas Gap shelter and 0.3 each way to Whiskey Hollow).  Before the day was over, I would add to that, pushing the actual miles hiked up to around 20 or so.

Whiskey Hollow Shelter

Back on the AT, it was a mile of up to the turnoff to the Signal Knob parking lot.  On the way, I passed the hobbled hiker and his buddy.  He was actually making good progress, with the plan being to make it to the Signal Knob lot and call for a ride from there.  After assuring me they didn’t need anything and were doing ok, I motored on, reaching the boundary of Sky Meadows State Park less than a mile later.

Entering Sky Meadows State Park

I flew through the park, regrettably passing on the side trip to Whitehouse Overlook.  The weather was spectacular and I can only imagine that the view would have been equally spectacular.  However, it was nearly a half mile off trail and I still had more than five miles to go before reaching Rod Hollow.  At this point, I was wondering if I would have to stop short regardless.  After all, I had to leave something in the tank to wrap up this thing the next day.  I hiked on.

A bit less than two miles of down put me at US 50/17 at Ashby Gap.  This crossing was absolutely nuts, with cars and trucks screaming by in both directions.  Taking a deep breath, I clinched my teeth and raced across.  Once safe and sound on the other side, I nearly fell to my knees and thanked God Almighty for sparing my life!  3.6 miles to go for the day.

US 50/17 at Ashby Gap

Moving on, I came across a Southbound section hiker who informed me that the water source at the shelter was dry and to tank up at the PATC’s Myron Glaser cabin before hiking on to the shelter.  He did say I would soon come to a small stream flowing right over the trail but that it would be best to wait until the cabin.  That in mind, I continued on, crossing the stream shortly thereafter.  I was thinking to myself that it sure seemed a lot easier getting it here and hauling it the rest of the way rather the hike yet another 0.3 of a mile each way to the stream at the cabin.  But no, I hiked on.  I reached the side trail to the stream and cabin and made the 0.3 mile trip DOWN.  I must be a complete idiot for not trusting my instincts.  I got that precious water though and made the trip back up.  At this point I was completely exhausted and ready to get off my feet. 1.8 miles to go.

I was practically crawling by the time I reached the shelter.  Surprisingly, no one was there but that quickly changed when a young couple I had met at the stream came in.  They were hammocking so I still had the place to myself.  Hoping to get another early start in the morning, I planned on staying in the shelter.  About that time, in walks Just Dave.  Amazingly, he started that morning after I did, hiked off trail to a deli for lunch, hiked back to the trail and still made it here just minutes after I arrived.  If that wasn’t enough, he then pulls out a deli sandwich he packed in and proceeds to eat it while I watch.  Ughhh.

Rod Hollow Shelter

Just Dave opted to stay in the shelter as well so there would be no alarm to wake me for an early start.  We got ourselves situated in the shelter, hung our food and were talking when in walks the remaining four of the group of five section hikers I encountered that morning.  They had gotten their hobbled buddy to the Signal Knob lot and then moved up to here.  They proceeded to get a fire going and eat while Just Dave and I watched.  I couldn’t lift a match at this point anyway and it wasn’t long before I was under the quilt and snoring up a storm.  Throw in all of the side treks over the course of the day and I had put in around 20 miles.  While I felt proud of the accomplishment, I was totally spent.

 

Day Four: Bears Den Hostel (9.8 mi)

As you can imagine, I slept in a bit and wasn’t packed and ready to hike until 8 AM.  Just Dave hit the trail a bit earlier but with the offer of a free bed at Bears Den Hostel from the four section hikers (their hobbled buddies spot), he was content to mozie his way there.  It would be a short day for him so he wouldn’t be rushing it.  I, on the other hand, had told Loonie that I should arrive at the hostel by 2 PM.  Considering how many miles I had covered over the previous three days, how exhausted I was before even taking my first step this day and not knowing how difficult my ride on the Coaster would be, 2 PM seemed optimistic.  I would soon find out.

The sunny, blue skies were no more, replaced by a thick cover of clouds.  Rain was supposed to be coming this day, though I wasn’t sure when.  All I knew was that it was dry now and I would attempt to put as many miles under my feet before it did come.  I wished the four section hikers happy trails and got moving.  Less than half a mile later I reached the sign warning me that I was about to start my “ride”.  The hike now became very reminiscent of the trip with Deep Woods a month earlier.  There was little left in the legs to crush my way up any climb.  Looking back now, had I done this stretch on fresh legs, I don’t think it would have been quite so bad.  After logging better than 51 miles over the last three days though, I couldn’t persuade my legs to carry me up any climb without stopping for multiple breaks.  Sometimes I could manage no more than 100 steps (yes, it was to the point of counting steps now) before stopping for a break.

I caught up with Just Dave, though I have no doubt that if he chose to, he could have flipped the switch and left me in his dust.  We hiked together for a bit but I moved ahead when he stopped to filter water and, surprisingly, I wouldn’t see him again.  The seemingly pointless sharp ascents and descents continued and I crawled on.  I had to remind myself a time or two to stop long enough to eat.  When I did, it was no more than a Clif Bar, beef stick or trail mix and then get myself moving again.

It became clear that I wouldn’t make it to the hostel by 2 PM.  Fortunately, I had a signal and was able to get through to Loonie and let her know it would likely be 3 PM before I arrived.  Now it became a question of whether or not I could make that!  I pushed on, crawling and counting my way up each remaining climb.  Each time I got to the top I would refer back to AWOL’s guide to see how many more I had left, hoping that I miscounted last time and had fewer to go than expected.  I reached the turnoff to Sam Moore Shelter and even though it was just 0.1 of a mile off the AT, my race to beat the rain prevented me from making the short trek.  Regardless, I figured I would need every last ounce of energy I had left just to make it to the hostel.  2.9 miles and three climbs left.

I knocked the first two out and finally stood at the bottom of that final climb.  Just then the rain started to fall.  Thankfully, it was never more than a sprinkle until I finished.  It was a bit over 400 feet up over a half mile and it was 2:40.  Despite my excruciatingly slow pace, I eventually made it to the top and the side trail to the hostel.  It was now just after 3 PM.  Crazy!  I said a quick prayer of thanks for getting my sorry butt up here and continued on to the hostel.  There was Loonie, looking as beautiful as ever, sitting at a picnic table under a pavilion.  Mission accomplished!

I now had all of the trail from the southern end of the Shenandoah’s in VA all the way up to Pine Grove Furnace State Park in PA.   240.5 miles.  And all that was left to be officially halfway to Mt Katahdin in ME was the 227 miles between Pearisburg VA and the start of the Shenandoah’s.  Right now, though, the only things on my mind were food, a shower and getting off my feet.  Loonie and I spent the following day showing Kristy some of the sites in Harpers Ferry, at least those that were open.  That evening was spent prepping for our short hike from Boiling Springs to Pine Grove Furnace State Park in PA.  I’ll cover that in the next post.

More to come…

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