Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 7/19/14 – Groundhog Trail to Rice Field Shelter – 8 miles
More than a month has gone by since my return from Machu Picchu, filled with work and a non-hiking family road trip vacation up and down the East Coast. I tried planning a four-day trip to Shenandoah National Park to enjoy some more AT miles, but had to pare the scenario down to two days, which didn’t justify that long drive from Charlotte. My good hiking buddy Mike agreed to help me out again closer to home. Seemed like the right time to conquer a demon: Peters Mountain Take 2.
Since I bailed out on this section of the AT at a hard-to-reach point on my previous attempt, I needed to retrace a few miles. The plan was to start at VA 635, hike 13 miles to Rice Field Shelter on Day 1, then hike 7 miles to the town of Pearisbug on Day 2. Of course Mike has hiked these miles more than once, but the bonus part for him was that most of those 7 miles on Day 2 have been rerouted quite recently so they are new to him.
Rained all the way from my house to meeting up with Mike in Pearisburg. Geez, I hate starting in the rain. I couldn’t wimp out, especially since Mike is always game no matter what the weather…and then he told me about his “alternate plan.” He wanted to drop me off at VA 635 and then start from another side trail to cut off some miles for himself. What side trail?
Well, looky there – Mike had found the Groundhog Trail where I bailed out last November. It’s a long way from VA 635 (more than an hour’s drive to the opposite side of Peters Mountain, in West Virginia). Putting on my thinking cap, I decided that if Mike was going to drive there anyway, I may as well join him and reduce distance too (8 miles of hiking to Rice Field Shelter instead of 13). And what a sweet opportunity to come full circle, hiking back up the Groundhog Trail which I had limped down in the dark with a screaming, hurting knee.
Since the mileage would be shortened (and now the drive time, too, since we no longer needed to get to VA 635), I chose to first cover a couple of missing miles through Pearisburg without my backpack. (For those of you who follow every detail, there are about 1.5 miles from VA 634 at the bottom of Pearis Mountain to U.S. 460, skirting past people’s back yards).
Like I said, back yards
And back streets
Next we parked my car at the spot on U.S. 160, where the Senator Shumate Bridge crosses the New River, and headed for West Virginia. The rain had fizzled and the sky remained very cloudy but dry.
Back to the scene of my defeat
We passed through several stiles as we hiked toward Peters Mountain. No cows today, but two deer bounded through the open meadows.
Wildflowers were exploding all around, bee balm, Queen Anne’s Lace, yellow coreopsis.
Soon we entered the trees on the Groundhog Trail and began climbing gentle switchbacks through open forest, still dry. This is a piece of cake! Then the steepness that I remembered creeping carefully down began in earnest, and as we ascended the mountain we entered the cloud mist. The trail became harder to discern. The wet vegetation grew denser and drenched us even before the rain began steadily falling. My camera stayed in its plastic baggie in my pocket.
The last push to the ridge was pretty tough, clambering over piles of small boulders in short switchbacks, squinting with rain running in my eyes, looking for those blue blazes. By the time Mike and I reached the ridgeline our boots were sloshing.
Where the Groundhog Trail meets the AT, I took another photo of the trail sign that rescued me on my earlier attempt of this section. Too wet to take a break here, we began hiking southbound on the AT with Mike in the lead, looking for a better spot.
Mike in full rain gear, including an umbrella and hiking skirt (his practical invention before they were cool)
We didn’t find a better spot. We eventually stopped under some trees at the edge of Symms Meadow to eat a quick lunch, still dripping wet. There I saw a little campsite that I likely would have used last November if I had continued on my original plan. But I’m still glad that I bailed out when I did. And look! I’m back!
No more steep climbing, just gentle ridge walking, which normally is great fun but today not so much because of a stiff wind chilling us through our wet clothing. However, the wildflowers were still awesome…just wet.
Standing sentinel in a batch of tall vegetation was this spectacular Canada lily, the first one Mike or I had ever seen (had to look it up later). It was around six feet tall, looked like a combination of a Turk’s cap lily stalk and the blooms of Gray’s lily. The entire trip was worth this right here!
Come to think of it, I always encounter something extraordinary when I hike with Mike, whether it’s an unexpected snowstorm or deer jumping over us or a bicycle hidden in the trees.
Open areas on the ridge line were filled with milkweed blooms larger than my fist
Turk’s cap lily nodding in the wind
Cloudy days are as beautiful as sunny days
Scenic if you can ignore the power lines
A half a mile after the power lines the trail passes by a big ol’ cell phone tower, excellent reception.
Looking south to Pearis Mountain and Angels Rest
Another half mile of open meadows leads to Rice Field Shelter. At the western edge of the meadow there is a large stone fire pit with a magnificent view of West Virginia farmland and the faint ridgeline of Little Mountain. A half hour after I took this photo the clouds took over and you couldn't see ten feet in front of you.
Turning our backs on the view, we climbed a stile across a barbed wire fence at the edge of the trees to Rice Field Shelter, built in 1996 and maintained by the Outdoor Club of Virginia Tech. At 4:00 p.m., we were the first people to stop there for the night, but more drenched hikers arrived over the next couple of hours.
Hope you’re not shy. The privy is just a toilet placed on a wooden platform, no walls or roof. The newly rerouted AT passes right behind it.
Mike and I both prefer the privacy of tents to the shelter, so the first order of business was to put up tents during the temporary respite from the rain. (A good idea, because while we went to find water the bottom dropped out.)
Note #1: The blue-blaze trail to the water source in current guidebooks is now the rerouted AT, so white blazes are painted over the blue ones. You will think you have lost your mind trying to figure that one out. The spring is a very steep half-mile downhill from the shelter. Get all you need in one trip. If you are hiking northbound, stop at the spring on the way up.
Note #2: And the spring isn’t all that great, either. The PVC pipe was situated in a muddy bank, thus funneling muddy water. Mike and I decided not to filter it, just collected it in containers, and back at camp we let it settle to the bottom and then scooped off the top to cook with. We both still had adequate drinking water to get through our short hike the next day.
At about 4:30 p.m. a 20-something southbound thru-hiker rolled in, trail name Kobama. He started in Maine in May, unusually early, apparently snuck into closed Baxter State Park to climb up Mount Katahdin. He was admittedly a bit unorthodox, said he didn’t like the northbound party mode or talking in big groups or shelters (but didn’t seem to mind my relentless questions), likes to camp off the beaten path, although he set up his tent in the trees near us to escape possible thunderstorms.
At 5:30 p.m., two southbound weekend warriors showed up, doing a four-day section, accompanied by the most well-behaved unleashed dog I’ve ever encountered on a trail. They also set up tents near the shelter.
At 6:00 p.m, three teenage boys and a 60+-year-old family member (cousin? uncle?) out for the weekend appeared, begging for space in the shelter. We said it was all theirs because we were all tenting. This was the first backpacking trip for the boys and they were not impressed with the rain and chill in July. Two of them wore trash bags as rain gear. The uncle/cousin was a congenial, experienced backpacker and was hopeful that the experience would not be their last. Two of them strung up hammocks in the shelter while the others stretched out sleeping bags and pads on the floor. As they cooked supper they hung up wet clothes from end to end.
People at shelters can be the entertaining or annoying – just like anywhere in life, I guess. On this occasion we all enjoyed chatting, but the business of cooking, eating, cleaning up and drying out were most important. Mike said goodnight early and I was snug in my own pink castle before 8:00 p.m.
“Study how water flows in a valley stream, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Also learn from holy books and wise people. Everything – even mountains, rivers, plants and trees – should be your teacher.” ~Morihei Ueshiba