Appalachian Trail Project in VA - Shenandoah National Park – 10/27/13 – Turk Gap to Loft Mountain Campground - 17 Miles
Good news! The government got over its hissy fit, America’s public lands reopened and people swarmed in, although the leaves were past their peak in many areas and the revenues lost to local economies were gone forever. Jim and I attended yet another Virginia Tech football game on Saturday and left B’burg on Sunday morning at dark-thirty to get to Shenandoah National Park. I had an ambitious 3 days of Appalachian Trail hiking planned, starting with a 17-mile trek from Turk Gap northbound to the Loft Mountain Campground store.
Brief facts about Shenandoah National Park:
· - Established in 1935, similar to Great Smoky Mountains NP in that hundreds of families were displaced to make way for the park
· - Over 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the AT
· - Includes 300 square miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains
· - Total acreage is 196,466 acres
· - Park website says there are between 300 and 500 black bears – the upper range gives about the same density of black bears as in Great Smoky Mountains NP
· - Skyline Drive, beginning at the northern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, runs up the spine of Shenandoah, providing access to all campgrounds, lodges and attractions.
Last-minute check in the parking lot: water, food, camera, hiking poles, gloves, hat. I wasn’t too worried, though, because I knew I’d cross Skyline Drive six times and could always hitch a ride if I needed to bail out. I waved goodbye to Jim as he prepared for his bike ride and then I melted into the woods.
Five minutes later, I began to hear odd sounds, sort of low moaning like a sick cow, or like a person imitating a sick cow. Funny, I don’t remember reading about any open pasture land, and anyway, I’m inside the national park boundary. Is there a person trying to startle me? I turned 360 degrees, couldn’t see any movement, but the trees were swaying. Was I hearing two trees rubbing together? Hey…what is that big black spot…three big black spots…up in the tree over there?
It’s a mama bear and two very large cubs. I think the cubs were crying (or maybe enjoying themselves) because the trees were swaying precariously with the wind and their weight. How did they get that far up anyway? And do they see me?
Feeling brave at a safe distance, I began snapping pictures with both my camera and my phone. Suddenly mama bear decided to descend and reached the ground in barely the blink of an eye. Immediately I turned away and headed up the trail at a quick clip – not running – with my ears primed for any sounds behind me. I frequently looked back over my shoulder for ten minutes or more as I hiked away from the area, but the bears did not reappear.
Well, that was the first few minutes of the day. What else is in store?
The rest of the day was uneventful for wildlife at least. But how about this enormous leaf?
Red-orange bittersweet berries are the most colorful thing in the woods by this time
Criss-crossing Skyline Drive
The geological highlight was Blackrock, which the AT loops nearly three-quarters of the way around to make sure you don’t miss it. It is also easily accessible via a half-mile trail from a parking area on Skyline Drive. Blackrock is a pile of talus rock – Hampton Sandstone, which someone more knowledgeable than I will have to elaborate on -- just begging to be scrambled (there is no “trail” to the top of the pile). However, it’s not as easy as it looks. Some rocks are loose, even the big boulders are wiggly, and an ankle-twisting may await you.
There were people around but somehow no one played “King of the Mountain” while I was up top. The view is 360 degrees. Imagine how glorious it would have looked a couple of weeks earlier when the leaves were in full color.
On top of Blackrock
Lichen patterns on the rocks
The waypoints were frequent, the miles churned out, and by the time I reached the first sign for Loft Mountain Campground I was ready to call it a day. But…although there were several connector trails going through the campground, if you want to pass every white blaze, the AT circumvents it and winds all the way around the south, the east and up to the northern end. There is where I found the connector trail to the camp store. Swiftly I hiked up this little path a bit ahead of schedule, ready to buy a soft drink and check off the day’s progress.
No cars. Not mine or anyone else’s. The place was shut up tight.
My sad conclusion was that the campground was closed for the season and the access road was gated so Jim couldn’t get in to leave the car. I didn’t have the guidebook or larger maps with me, just my elevation profile notes, so I tried to remember details of the brochure we had picked up when we entered the park. Seems like the paved road goes down just a mile or so to join Skyline Drive. Hopefully Jim parked as close to that road junction as possible. Nothing for it but to walk a little longer.
Ah, yes! At the junction with Skyline Drive sits Loft Mountain Wayside, a little gift shop and restaurant, and that’s my car in parking lot! But Jim is not in it…but his bike is… he must have gone looking for me.
I waited a while as I tried to reason what Jim would do. He must have thought he could intercept me by hiking up the spur trail that started by the campground access road and goes up to the AT. But when? It couldn’t have been too long. If he took the trail and I took the road, we would have missed each other. As I puzzled, I saw a car turn onto the campground access road, open the gate and leave it partially open. Choosing to beg forgiveness rather than permission, I followed in my car back up to the campground store. Now there was a cleaning crew there and, yes, they had just spoken to Jim and sent him on up the AT to look for me.
Cut to the chase: after two hours of me driving to different AT access points along Skyline Drive, leaving notes to tell Jim to stay put and talking to everyone I saw to intercept him, we were reunited at the Wayside. I was mainly worried that he would go too far south on the trail, worry that he wasn’t finding me, and darkness was descending. Once we were both accounted for and parsed the sequence of events and Jim’s good intentions, the moral of the story was not to ever come looking for me until I am overdue by an agreed amount of time. The vast majority of the time I can figure things out for myself.
The happy ending was our lovely secluded cabin at Lydia Mountain Lodge & Cabins called "Just Us." The owners very graciously allowed us to change our reservation for early October without a fee. A home-cooked meal, a beer, a hot tub and a warm fire made everything all better.
[Footnote: My hike took place in October 2013, but shortly before this posting in March 2014, this area was devastated by a fire encompassing more than 450 acres, reportedly started by an illegal campfire. The AT and Skyline Drive remain open but the Wildcat Ridge and Rocks Mountain side trails to the west are closed.)
"I may not be there yet but I'm closer than I was yesterday." ~Unknown