Picking up from my last post…
Day Four: Campsite near Niday Shelter (15 mi)
We hit the trail a little before 7:30 with no particular goal for the end of the day. All we knew was that we were a bit ahead of schedule and wanted to avoid having two big climbs each of the remaining days. Not having to haul a crap load of water at the end of the day, especially uphill, would be nice as well. Despite my struggles at the end of the previous day, I wasn’t feeling too bad. At least not yet. Some sinus pressure would stick with me throughout the remainder of the hike but all things considered, I thought I was doing okay. As usual, Deep Woods was doing just fine.
An easy 1.2 miles brought us to Kelly Knob. Not quite the view we were expecting but not bad either. Moving on, we began a steep descent over another 1.2 miles to Laurel Creek Shelter. Along this stretch I took the first of two falls for the trip. Some loose gravel gave way under my right foot and down I went. No damage done but Deep Woods pointed out that my forehead was just a few inches shy of smashing into a rock before I came to a stop. Thankfully, I hiked on unscathed. We reached the shelter, took a snack break and hiked on.
Our long, 3.3 mile descent from Kelly Knob bottomed out at the first of a series of pastures we would have to cross. Had the temperature been more favorable, this would have been a spectacular walk. It was still a beautiful walk but hard to appreciate when you’re getting fried by the sun. Some pics now and then and we would hurry along, hightailing it for some shade.
From there, we crossed VA 42 and shortly after came to VA 630. Just down the road, an older gentleman yelled out that he was doing trail magic. This was too good to pass up so we made the short road walk to the gravel lot where he was parked. The cold Gatorade was just what the doctor ordered. Regretfully, I didn’t make note of the gentleman’s name nor get a picture. We sat and talked with him for a bit. He informed us that by doing the short road walk to his truck, we had bypassed a piece of the trail. So, in “purist fashion” we set off to hike it, leaving the packs with him. It took all of three minutes and we were sitting down with our new friend once more. Before we left, he mentioned that as soon as we passed the Keffer Oak (largest oak tree on the southern half of the AT) we would start the steep climb up to Bruiser’s Knob and Sarver Hollow Shelter. He added that trail crews had just put in 200 new steps on the way up. Great. Steps. We thanked him for his generosity and hiked on.
We quickly reached the Keffer Oak and it is indeed huge! With some obligatory photos out of the way, we hiked on. From that point it was 1,100 ft of up over 2.5 miles to top out at Bruiser’s Knob but the vast majority of the elevation gain occurs in about one mile. We bit the climb off in chunks and I tried to count the newly placed steps as we worked our way to the top. Sure enough, it was right around 200. With the tough stretch behind us, we moved on, crossing a powerline cut and passing a number of large stone cairns. A comment on Guthooks said these were used to store apples harvested from the orchards that once stood here.
We reached the blue blaze trail to Sarver Hollow Shelter around 2 PM. It’s a 0.3 mile walk downhill to the shelter and another 0.1 mile to the water source. Neither of us was thrilled with making that trek. Niday Shelter was 6 miles ahead, just off the trail and water was close by so we marched on. We now made our way along a series of ledges. This stretch would have been treacherous if not deadly had we tried to cross it in rain or, worse yet, snow or sleet. It was bone dry for us but the sun baked us as we made our way along. Its a very neat stretch of trail but we happened to hit it at an unfortunate time. We did get to see a couple of beautiful White Fringetrees and one small rattlesnake.
With the frying pan ledges behind us, we passed a sign denoting the Eastern Continental Divide and began a 1,300 ft, 2.7 mile descent to Niday Shelter. By the time we reached it, I was spent. It had been a LONG day (for us anyway) and the sun had sapped nearly every once of energy I had left. Under the circumstances, considering my struggles at the end of the previous day, the ridiculous heat and humidity and the cold I was having to contend with, I thought I had bounced back well. Still, there was no way I was going to move another step North this day. Deep Woods, on the other hand, probably could have jogged another five miles. Ughhh…
We walked down to the shelter to find it and all of the surrounding spots taken. We eventually tucked ourselves into a small spot right next to the trail. Content with the miles we had knocked off that day, we hit the sack.
Day Five: Campsite near Pickle Branch Shelter (10.1 mi)
With all of the extra miles we had put in thus far, we were well ahead of schedule so we decided to back off a bit this day. After the previous day’s exertions, we didn’t want to push the 14 miles to get up to the Dragon’s Tooth. It was supposed to rain the next afternoon so we would need to position ourselves close enough to the Tooth this day so we could make it up and back down the other side before the thunderstorms rolled in on the next.
From the shelter, we had 1.4 miles more of down to VA 621. From that point, we had to tackle 1,500 ft up over a little more than 3 miles. Well graded trail with lots of switchbacks meant that yours truly was not left for dead on the side of the trail. We made it up in good time to find a nice bench beside the trail. Obviously, we made use of it.
Moving on, the trail widened and leveled out. I’m assuming so volunteers can get up here to maintain the Audie Murphy monument, which we reached not long after leaving the first bench. Its a nice monument to one of America’s most decorated soldiers from WWII. He died in a plane crash not far from this site back in 1971. Someone later pointed out that the following day would be the anniversary of his death. Seemed strange that had we stuck to our original schedule, we would have made it here on the anniversary.
A bit of time was spent checking that out and we then moved to an overlook, complete with bench, just steps from the memorial. We had lunch, talked with a local and took a long break.
Bellies full, we hiked on, beginning the long 4 mile descent to VA 620 at Trout Creek. It was on this descent that fall two took place. Nothing serious but it demonstrated how the Essential Tremor increasingly affects my gait and balance. Certainly not anywhere close to my hands but its as though I’m telling my brain to tell my feet “Go here”. My brain then tells my feet “Ah, just go wherever you want”. Bizarre. And as Deep Woods rightly observed, fatigue makes it much worse. He was constantly reminding me to slow down and be careful. Fortunately, no harm done.
We finally reached VA 62O to discover trail magic put on by current thru hiker “Snacks” and his fiance. We gladly accepted their offer of a hot dog, chips and cold drink. Snacks mentioned that they saw a small rattlesnake in a clump of shrubs next to his truck. One young lady, worried her dog would get bit, took matters into her own hands, literally. She caught the snake and let it go a safe distance away from everyone. Alrighty then.
We thanked our gracious hosts and moved on, going no further than just across the road to the footbridge over Trout Creek. The packs came off once more so we could fill our water bottles and look at the creek. As tempting as it was to park our butts in the middle of that ice cold water, we chose to hike on. That’s one I would like a “do over” for.
A bit more of a mile up brought us to the blue blaze to Pickle Branch Shelter. The shelter itself was 0.3 mi off trail but Deep Woods secured us a nice spot to pitch just a short walk in. We had hauled enough water up from Trout Creek that we were good for the night and the short hike the next day. The only things left to do were to have dinner and kick back and relax. And that’s just what we did. Another great, albeit WARM, day.
After heading to bed, I kept hearing something moving around in the woods. Not wanting to get up and chase bears off all night like we did on night one of the trip, a preemptive strike was called for…assuming it even was a bear. The racket continued as the animal moved closer and closer. We could see the reflection of its eyes from our headlamps but couldn’t make out whether it was indeed a bear or not. Deep Woods said “You know, it could just be a deer”. All I knew was that if it was a bear, I wanted to “persuade” him to move along so we could get some sleep. It eventually moved in close enough that we could distinguish what the heck it was. Deer. Score another one for Deep Woods.
Day Six: VA Route 624, Four Pines Hostel (6.6 mi)
At some point over the course of the previous two days, we concluded that the most logical choice for ending this hike would be to get off trail at VA 624 and make the short road walk directly back to the car at Four Pines Hostel. 624 was a mere 6.6 miles ahead. From there it would be just 0.3 on pavement back to the hostel. Our original destination was the McAfee Knob trailhead parking lot at VA 311, just 6 miles further up trail. It was certainly doable to hike the 12.6 miles to VA 311 but then we would have to secure a shuttle or hitch to get back to the car. Considering Deep Woods had family coming to stay at his place and I was trying to hike through a cold, getting off early at 624 was the right choice. We were so far ahead of schedule that we would be back home a day earlier than expected.
We woke to cloudy skies and an intermittent drizzle. We packed up and waited, praying for the skies to clear and give the sun some time to dry off the slabs of rock on either side of the Tooth. We farted around some more and I made the long walk down to the privy and back. The drizzle stopped but the sky was still overcast. We hit the trail, still praying the sky would clear up. This was one time I would gladly take the scorching sun.
Our 1,100 ft ascent was spread out over 4.4 miles and not nearly as bad as expected. The more technical stuff was waiting for us on the other side. In the meantime, we made our way up, enjoying some nice views, made possible by the now clearing sky. Awesome! So far, prayers answered. Saw some Fire Pinks and crossed the 700 mile mark. Celebratory pic: check!
Another nice view…
One last push and we arrived. Part One of the Virginia Triple Crown, The Dragon’s Tooth, complete. Our prayers had been answered. Clear blue sky! It’s massive and pictures don’t do it justice. Deep Woods snapped an awesome shot just as a wisp of clouds passed overhead. It looks as though smoke is rising out of the top of the monolith. A girl who arrived ahead of us was brave enough to climb to the top, something I would have happily done when I was younger. Now though, I know that I’m the last person who should be doing such things. We were just fine with having our picture taken while standing much closer to terraferma.
Now it was time to tackle the descent on the other side and we wanted to get down before the storm rolled in. So far the weather had been in our favor. This is a tricky, and at times technical stretch. Nothing to be rushed. A gentleman and two ladies started down just ahead of us and they were crawling along, moving at a snail’s pace. Just as well. I likely would have tried to rush my way down and wind up taking a bad fall. We just gave them some space and waited for them to pull ahead a bit.
We made it down the majority of the gnarly stuff just as the clouds began to move in. Rumbles of thunder in the distance made us step up the pace a bit. Not enough, though, to pass up a few more nice views and check out some beautiful Catawba Rhododendron.
Just before we hit the pavement of VA 624 it began to pour. It was actually refreshing and we were grateful that we had made it up and over the Tooth in good weather. We hustled down the road to Four Pines Hostel, arriving not long after the brief storm moved on. Mission accomplished. It had been a hot, tough hike but we had a fantastic time and left with a lot of great memories.
Some final thoughts in the next post.
More to come…