Shenandoah National Park Late Fall Hiking Trip

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November 20

Dad and I were on the road to the Friendly's in Oakton by 07:45 and everything was finally set. I had managed to replace my missing Esbit stove with a Primus canister model thanks to the timely assistance of my parents. I also had a new trowel that they picked up for me at Hudson Trails when they got the stove. I had all my other gear (I do wish now that I had brought the radio) and withe some apple cake that Mom gave me to share with Ron RIchards we set off. Ron was waiting for us and after pleasantries were exchanged I got into his "AT car" and we headed for the trailhead.

We arrived at the trailhead on VA 601, near a blue-blaze trail, just before 10:00 and started climbing the blue blaze trail towards the AT. The Tom Floyd Wayside was, I think, about 1.1 miles from the trail head, most of it up hill. The day was overcast but I did not think rain would ruin the mild 60 degree day we had found ourselves hiking in. We reached the wayside just before 11:00 and stopped for a break. Actually, it turned into a rather long break since Ron had thought, due to a miscommunication on my part, that the self-registration forms for the backpacking permits were at this shelter. They were not. We ended up taking a leisurely break, Ron wanted to get more water, at the shelter and that was fine with me I spent the time reading the shelter log looking for names I might recognize. I saw Load, and Barefoot (I think) but not Zorro. I added my comments to the end of the log and put it back in its rather nice cubbyhole. Surprisely enough, the shelter was still seeing a bit of traffic from Southbounders. There had been at least a couple in the last 2 days.

We left the shelter just before noon and continued on our merry way. The forest is so different now than it was in June. The leaves are all on the ground, mostly dull brown now, and you can see through the forest. No green tunnel here. If it had not been overcast our views would have nod oubt been better than they were, but we did pass several spots which provided us with nice views of the valleys. The leaves do, however, have an affect on hiking. Many of them are quite slippery and you can easily find yoursle walking across a patch that is nearly as slick as ice. The leaves also conceal rocks.

For the most part the trail in this area hasa beeen pretty straightforward and well marked. Certainly easier for me to track than it was in New York (even if Ron wasn't here). As we hiked we chattted about various things though nothing deep. It is just nice to be outside sharing company with someone else. You can choose to chat or not. We choose both options at various times.

Eventually we came to the park boundary at about 13:00 and filled in our permits. I am not even sure the registration station was mentioned in the guide book. I did not know of it. Though we were now in the park the terrain really did not change. It had its ups and downs, but was generlly pretty moderate. Certainly nothing like the Roller Coaster just a couple dozen miles north of here.

Perhaps 90 minutes later on we reached Compton Gap. Those familiar with the AT will be wondering what we could have been doing for all that time. The answer is simple: eating lunch on a ridge. Compton Gap is where I had thought we would begin our hike. But, hey, we got to see some terrain we would not have otherwise seen and since we are not working to a set schedule everything is fine.

The climb to Compton peak, some 500 feet, would prove to be the toughest of the day (we had earlier done some 500 feet of ascent on the pervious mountain). Once at the summit we decided to check out one of the blue blaze trails to an overlook. That 0.2 mile trail was rocky and steep. THe view was OK, but not sueperb. Maybe if the sun had been out it would have been better. The pictures I took should be nice enough though.

By this time it was close to 15:30 and we knew we had to find both water and a campsite. This region doesn't seem to have nearly as many easy to find water sources as exist north of here. In fact, we never really did find Compton Springs (we found a trickle that I suppose was it, but it wasn't marked as anything).

Ron fetched water while I kept an eye on the packs and tried to identify what sort of creature was moving around on the hill above me. It was moving too slowly to be a squirrel or other fast moving little animal, but I had a hard time imagining it was a deer. I'll never know.

We continued down the southern side of Compton Mtn. and finally found an acceptable spot to set up our tents around 16:40.

I tried my new stove for the first time and it worked just fine. Dinner under the nearly full moon was quite enjoyable for the both of us.

It is now 19:30 and I imagine the temperature is still hovering at 50 degrees. Far warmer than either Ron or I had expected it to me. I hope he doesn't melt away under his Antelope bag from Western Moutaineering. I already feel rather warm under my Western Mountaineering Iroquois which has far less down than his bag.

Tomorrow we will travel to Gravel Springs Hut and probably well beyond it since, if we read our maps correctly, it is only about 5 miles away. I think we can still do the North District and perhaps even a bit more if we put in good full days and can pick up our pace slightly. But, if we don't that will be fine. Ron is an easy person to hike with and I think he enjoys my company too. This should be a great trip.

November 21

I am not sure if I mentioned where our campsite was in the previous entry. Our campsite was on the southern slope of Mtn. COmpton perhaps 0.6-0.7 miles from the summit. While I did not have the best night's rest Ron did. The site was fine for our needs and we both believe it had been used before even though technically it was illegal since it was too close to a trail.

After a restless night's sleep, mostly due to the fact that I could not keep a good comfortable temperature and I kept sliding down a slope, I awoke around 07:00. The morning was showing signs that it would be a glorious fall day. The temperature was around 55 degrees and the sky was beautifully clear. Ron and I did our camp chores at a sedate pace and we were on the trail at 09:00.

The trail to Jenkins Gap was an esy descent. No roots, rocks, or other serious obstructions to foul my footsteps. The trail is also generally wide and that helps too. As the morning wore on it became clear that the day temperatures would probably reach 70 degrees. It wasn't long before I stopped to unzip the pant leggings of my REI convertible pants. The unseasonable warmth also came with lovely blue skies and we were treated to many views as we descended to Jenkins Gap and then began our first ascent of the day up North Marshall.

North and SOuth Marshall Mtns. are named after Chief Justice JOhn Marshall who apparently owned substantial land holdings in this region of the Blue Ridge. The AT summits both of these mountains in a fairly gentle ascent and descent. While not as easy as level ground the gentle climbs, though long (there were some steep parts), were no real challange for either of us. We made good time.

It was during one of our early descents that Ron's day was made. He saw a small, probably a kitten, bobcat cross a trail in front of him. I wish I had seen it. We did quicken our pace some to clear the immediate area just incase the mother cat did not take kindly to our intrusion.

During this time we saw several day hikers and even a few backpackers. The latter were section hiking the AT just as we are doing. At least one of the day hiking groups was a PATC Sunday hike. We met them at a superb view just south and slightly below the North Marshall summit. It seems like PATC hikes leave small red markers in their wake. I suppose they are trail arrows pointing in the direction the leading edge of the PATC group has gone. I hope they pick them up after themselves.

We reached Gravel Springs Hut at 13:00. We had probably spent about 3 and a half hours hiking and had covered about 6.1-6.3 miles. Pretty good pace for me. The shelter is not as pretty as Tom Floyd Wayside. The facility looks less well cared for. However, the privvy is a two-holer and that is something I had not enoucntered before. Gravel Springs Hut does have a nice view of a western valley. That isn't something you often find at a shelter. We had an enjoyable lunch there and were back on the AT just after 14:00. We wanted to go as far as we could before having to camp for the night.

The trail from Gravel Springs Hut to the ascent of LIttle Hogback continued to be mild. We covered the next 1.2 miles in about 40 minutes. However, the next portion of trail would not be quite as easy. While the ascent wasn't terribly steep it was lengthy and that slowed us down. However, that isn't wholly bad since we did have the opportunities to stop and admire several good views of the valley below. I believe we reached the peak of LIttle Hogback , some 1.6 miles from the shelter, a little after 15:00. Our hoped for destination was only about 1.3 or so mile distant if we understood the information given to us earlier by some northbound backpackers we had met.

But, much of that remaining distance was up Big Hogback. The Hogback moutain has the highest point in the North District of the park at 3.474 feet. To reach the summit of just the first peak, which is not the highest one, we had to climb several rather steep switchbacks. Both of us , though maybe Ron more than I, were feeling the strain. It was becoming quite clear that we were not going to make the recommended goal before it got dark. We needed to find a campsite and ideally a spring. The former are hard to find in this part of the park (at least big enough for two tents). We knew that a spring should exist not too far past the first peak, but knowing it is there and finding it are sometimes two rather different things. The fates and our eyes were kind (yes, I did see the signpost). We found the trail to the spring. As we descended we encountered a backpacker coming up. I am not sure where he was planning on camping that night. Maybe he had a car at the parking area at the foot of LIttle Hogback or ws hoping to find a campsite soon on the northern side of the mountain. I hope he found one. We certainly did not see too many and when we met him sunset was barely an hour away.

We found a decent enough campsite a ways up from the spring and settled into it at about 15:50. The tents went up and we went to fetch water. The spring is pretty close to SKyline Drive, but I doubt we will hear much traffic where we are. Just the wind as it blows over our site which is on the western slope of Hogback Mtn..

It is now 18:30 and I think this night is going to be cooler than the last one. The temperature in the tent is hovering around 50-52 degrees which suggests that it is in the low 40s outside. We have another clear evening and the moon is shining into my tent as I type this. I feel that today was far better than yesterday. We saw some great stuff. Were able to enjoy the wonderful weather, and with luck I'll sleep better toight. I even hear some bird noises this evening. They sounds like a purr or series of rapid taps like a wood pecker might make but much quieter and more pleasing. Of course, there really aren't any insect sounds to be heard this late in the year though a few mosquitos and bees are still flitting around.

November 22

It's 20:25 on a starless evening. The temperature is about 55 degress, but I am comfortably warm. The fire that Caboose started through careful stirring of, we think, the previous night's fire and his own breath is still burning though I do not feel much heat sitting a dozen feet away. We have finished our dinners, set up camp, chatted around the fire, and are now preparing (Ron might even already be asleep) for bed at Pass Mtn. Hut. It has been a long day, but a very good one.

I slept very well at our camsite just below the second (and hightest) peak of Hogsback (section 2 mile marker 2.7). Though the night started out chilly it seemed to warm up as the evening progressed. In fact, by 01:00 when I stepped out of my tent to answer nature's call our campsite was enshrouded in a cloud (Ron was up about the same time and he said he could not even see my tent through the mist). During the early morning hours it rained on and off, but by sunrise that rain had turned into drops falling rom the trees. A morning dew of sorts. But, inside a tent it sounds much worse than it actually is. I imagine the combination of the tent's material and the nearness of the roof account for this. My tent had some condensation at both ends. The foot of my sleeping bag even had a few drops on it. I knew that things would get worse when I pakced the tent up. I really need to learn how to pack the tent so that the moisture doesn't spread from the outside to the inside. Maybe it can't be done, but it seems to me that there should be a way.

We were moving at 07:00, Ron even called over, a revelry of sorts, to me to see if I was up yet just as he sai he would. We managed to break camp at 08:45 and I think our extra speed can be attributed to the fact that we wanted to get moving through the misty, fog covered mountains, to warm ourselves up.

We quickly reached to highest point in the North District, where we both agreed the location of the recommeneded campsite (rememer those hikers from yesterday) was at. I'm just as happy we camped where we did since we had a little shelter from the weather. The views from the peak must be stunning in clear weather, but the fog was showing no signs of lifting even though te day did seem to be warming up from the 50 degree mark.

The descent down the far side of Hogback toward the PATC Range View Cabin was pretty gentle. We stopped at the cabin, looks like a great place, for a snack and on our way back to the AT met a trio of backpackers and their dog heading to Thornton Gap. We would pass each other a few times as the day wore on, but at this first meeting the time was perhaps 10:45.

We stopped an hour or so later at Elkwallow Spring to fill up water bottles (Ron generally only carries a liter and camels up by drinking a liter or so at a spring). As we were preparing to leave the spring our fellow backpackers pasted us on what would prove to be the toughest ascent of the day. I am not sure what the name of the moutain is, but the 560 foot ascent was a tough one. The trail followed switchbacks and was well graded, but it was steep. It got the heart pumping (not to mention the sweat glands). Although it was getting into the afternoon I did not want to stop for lunch on the ridge of this mountain and so we pushed on. Ron is a bit faster on the descents and level terrain (I have the edge on the ascents) so he was leading and at 12:40 I found him just arrived at two fallen logs that were ideal for a lunch spot even though they really were not much below the ridgeline. But, the wind was non-existent and the air temperature had definitely warmed into the low 60s so that spot was just fine for lunch. We actually finished by 13:00 and were back motoring down the trail towards Byrds Nest #4 which we soon discovered was 2.4 miles distant. We were making very good time.

Our gentle descent was soon replaced by an ascent that does not seem to be mentioned. I assume it is climbing Neighbor Mtn., but am not sure. At the top of that rise we met the trio and dog packers who were still plugging along towards Thornton Gap. I don't think they were actually travelling that much faster, if at all, than we were. Going down the southwest ridge was perhaps the worst descent, and in some ways toughest trail, we have yet done. It is covered with rocks and leaves (some of the rocks look like broken up cement) and it is just plain nasty. The guidebook says the AT "slabs" the ridge and that seems like a description that fits. It really slowed us down, but we made it to a small spring just before Beahn's Gap around 14:45. By this time we were starting tolook for campsites. The day was taking its toll on Ron's legs and he was ready to stop. We filled up 4-5 liters of water and began to keep an eye out for sites. None presented themselves.

At 15:00 we began our assault of Pass Mtn. This would prove the hardest ascent of the day. Not because it was the steepest but because we , Ron perhpas more than I, were tired. Ron said that his legs were burning. I was tired, but as long as I kept a slow methodical pace was doing alright. Even so, it wasn't until just about 16:00 that we reached the first major false summit of the mountain. Pass Mountain tops out at 3,050 feet and the trail crosses a plateau that is fairly expansive so you cannot see that you aren't quite done climbing until you glimpse a little bump, maybe 50 feet high, several minutes after reaching the plateau. I know I was tired and Ron said he was really feeling it, but we had to keep going since we just did not see any campsites.

The descent of Pass Mountain, about 0.4-0.5 miles, was gentle and a great relief to our legs. But, I was beginning to get concenred about having enough light to set up camp since it was about 16:15 when we really began it. That fear tunred out to be as emphemeral as the fog that had finally lifted a few hours ago. The descent was gentle and the last few tenths of a mile to the shelter were on lovely, wide, pine laden, flat trail. What a joy. We arrived at this stone built shelter just after 16:30. We had done10.7 miles on the AT and perhaps 0.5 off of it.

The hiking day was hard and the views were not spectacular, but it was a good day. Ron spotted a couple white tail deer (I heard one) and we did see some good terrain including the rather impressive blown down trees on Pass Mtn. that were probably felled during a big windstorm last spring.

It is time for bed. My first time actually sleeping in a shelter. I hope I like it. I do have my tent set up just in case (it is really airing out), but I think that this should be a nice night especially since it looks like it is clearing up and the moon is wonderfully full.

November 23

I have done over 80 miles of the AT this year and I finally have slept in a shelter. The evening temperautres dropped to perhaps the low 40s and I was perfectly comfortable all night long. The sun started streaming into the shelter slightly before 07:00 which is about when I really woke up. It is a glorious day though if the morning temperture is anything to go by it'll be again exceptionally warm. We actually woke up to birdsong today. Crows, something that has a call that is slightly similar to a goose honk, and something else that make me think of a car alarm siren though much prettier, and a few twitters and such as well. The birds haven't all left they're still in the mountain hollows. My theory that our time spent in camp is directly realted to the quality of the weather is being born out: the nicest morning yet and we are no where near ready to go and it is 09:10 as I finish this paragraph.

We hit the trail at 10:00. We could see a large fog bank hanging over the Thornton's Gap area as we left. That fog would affect the rest of our day. When we left camp I think the temperature must have been creeping up to 70 degrees. I certainly was getting nice and warm as we made the mostly gentle descent of Pass Mtn's. southeastern (?) slope. We had one bit of confusion as we came to a service road where the AT jogged right. We missed the turn and wandered the immediate vicinity for 15-20minutes. Workers in the area were doing some sort of sand blasting of a large tank. Ron thinks they were working inside the tank. That must be an awful place to sand blast even if the tank is big. We reached Thornton Gap around 11:30 and the real exciting part of our day began.

The AT climbs approximately 1,200 feet to Mary's Rock in 1.7 miles. The first 300 feet of that climb though steep were on decent trail. As we climbed we both noticed a significant drop in temperature. We were climbing through the fog bank that we had seen from our shelter earlier in the day. The next 300-400 feet of ascent were not nearly as easy. In fact, we did the first 500 in about 30 minutes, but only 300 in the second half hour. THe main reason was the trail had become quite rocky and spent considerable time running along a mountain ridge with a sizeable drop off on the left edge. While I can outdistance Ron on smooth trail he does catch up on the rock strewn sections. It was during this second section that we cleared the fog bank and burst into clear blue sky and sun. The views that we could see of the valley below though obscured by fog promised to get even better as we continued to climb. The last section of the mountain was easier since the trail returned to switchbacks that climbed steeply, but there were far fewer rocks and no ledges to worry about sliding off. We reached Mary's Rock in 105 minutes. Total climb: 1,200 feet; total distance 1.8 miles. Pretty good time for us if I do say so.

Mary's Rock is worth the hike. The views into the valley below are lovely. We could see Pass Mtn., the un-named flat top mountain (looking at a topographical map at suggests it is by JeremyÕs Run Overlook) we had climbed after passing through Elkwallow Gap, and maybe even some of Hogback. We also got to watch the fog bank we had admired from Pass Mtn. and climbed through an hour before as it rolled through the valley. The site is peaceful and on a clear sunny day hlike today the temperature must have nudged up to 80 degrees. If we hadn't heard the occassional traffic sound it would have been quite silent since there really wasn't any other sound to hear. The place is serene and we took full advantage of Mary's Rock by having a lazy lunch and stretching out on the sun-warmed rocks to rest and even snooze a little bit. We did not leave until 15:00. This was probably the best single spot to visit of the entire hike. The view at North Marshall was quite fine, but Mary's Rock is far better.

Our decisions on where to camp are strongly influenced by where water can be found. Meadow Spring was 0.6 miles down the AT and 0.3 miles down the Meadow Spring Trail. We hoped we would find a suitable flat area to camp at that spring since the next known water would not have been for several miles and we knew we would not go that far. The to trail the Meadow Springs trail was steep but not nearly as steep as the ascent trail had been. Meadow Springs Trail was also not very steep and we soon reached the spring itself. While there may have been a meadow there when the PATC hut, whose chimney is now all that remains after a 1946 fire burnt it down, it is now very overgrown and no campsite were to be found (the "no camping" sign is also a bit discouraging). We decided to walk down the trail in the hope that we would find a better site. We ended up walking down to Skyline Drive (SDMP 33.4). For those who want to see the grand views at Mary's Rock climbing the Meadow Springs Trail, then the AT, and the small spur trail to Mary's Rock is by far and away the easier option. The total ascent is only about 450 feet over 1.4 miles. There is a parking area at this trailhead on Skyline Drive.

We filled our water bottles with enough water at the trailhead where a brisk stream (and we later learned a piped spring) was flowing and then started down the Buck Hollow Trail looking for a campsite. Some day hikers said they had seen a flat area by a stream 0.5-0.75 miles down the trail. I'm not sure if we're at the spot they saw or not, but Buck Hollow trail after this point descends steeply to SR 211 and though the views might be great , the guidebook mentions a gorge that sounds intriguing, we needed to find a camp site since it was nearly 17:00 and the sun was essentially down. We bushwacked our way into this site which is not far from a fast running, though not where we crossed, stream, and were all set up within 20 minutes. The land is not the most level I have lain my body down on, but it will do and I think it will be better than the first night's location. We cooked our meals in the dark and watched the stars and moon rise on this clear (I hope it stays this way despite the weather report ROn heard for Winchester which suggests the possibility of rain) , cool - mid-40s - night.

We did not pack big miles today. We trod 3.5 miles of AT and probably experienced at least 2,000 feet of elevation change. We covered another 1.5 or so miles of side trails with perhaps another 800 feet of elevation, mostly down, change. What we lacked in mileage we made up for in effort and the rewards were more than worth it. If I were ever to do a long long distance hike on the AT I would always make sure I took in the best side trails.

Tomorrow we will head back along Skyline Drive to Panorama Restaurant where our trip will come to a close.

November 24

It is 08:00 , the stream is running, I hear an infrequent warble of some bird, and the even less frequent sound of a woodpecker. There are other sounds but I am not sure what they are since they just blend into the background like the indistinct conversations of peopole in a large room. Who knows , maybe a deer is having a drink at the stream: we saw their footprints yesterday. The sky is dotted with small clouds and although the sun has clearly risen I still cannot see it because it is obscured by the mountains to the east.

I slept fairly well in this spot. once I turned my Iroquois bag into a quilt. I am not sure how cold it got, upper 30s to low 40s perhaps, but I was warm most of the time. My hand got nippy at one point , but putting on my gloves solved that problem. I did not slide around so the spot was well chosen. My only complaint is with the condensation on my tent. I think their should be less. The problem is I am not really sure since I don't have a reference point to compare against. I do think I should be pitching it more taughtly so the middle section doesn't sag so much.

We broke camp around 10:00 and climbed back to Skyline Drive. We met a group of students who had just completed a loop hike (Meadon Springs, Hot-Short Mtn., Corbin Trail, and something - something like that) over the past couple or three days. They had been using tarps each night. Maybe someday IÕll try a tarp, but I think that could be tough for me since it would require that I locate good spots to tie it down: a visual challange perhaps. Still, in summer weather certainly a tarp seems like it would be more than enough and it would certainly lighten my load by a couple pounds. They had come down from Yale for Tahnksgiving. They clearly had a good time. We left them packing their stuff up and airing things out and started walking down Skyline Drive towards Panorama. I managed to reach home on the cell phone to arrange a pickup (it had not worked at the campsite) at one of the overlooks we stopped at. The views from Hazel Mtn. Overlook and Buck Hollow Overlook were spuerb. I was especially struck by the deep blue of the mountains as they marched off into the distance. the fog that was moving in the background also added to the splendor of the scenes.

Two images from Hazel Mountain Overlook on Skyline Drive.

We reached Panorama at 11:30 and discovered, not too surprisingly, that it was closed for the season. We had held out a hope that it would be open and we could end our hike with a nice hot lunch. I suppose they canÕt keep the place open this late in the year since there isnÕt enough traffic to justify the expense. My Mom (thanks Mom) arrived about 12:45 and we headed back to RonÕs car. After dropping Ron off and saying goodbye it was off to the second part of my vacation: Thanksgiving with friends and family. A wholly different experience from the hiking with Ron. The hike was completely enjoyable and Ron was a great hiking partner. I think we both got a lot out of our jaunt through the North and part the the Central Districts of the Shenandoah National park.

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