Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 9/29/14 – Matthews Arm Campground Southbound to Skyland Resort – 21 miles
The debate about whether to stash some of my gear or carry it all continued in my dreams but with no resolution. If only there was a ranger to consult, it would be SO great to leave it in a bear box and pick it up at the end of the day. At 6:00 a.m. it was still dark, but I was wide awake, so might as well pack up. Too early to eat. No ranger. Guess it’s all going with me. I walked out of Matthews Arm Campground with just enough daylight to see my feet at 6:40 a.m. That mile of road up to the AT was still a mile.
My knee felt okay after a night’s rest but I didn’t think it would last with 21 miles to go today (it didn’t.) I was the first person on the trail so it was my job to destroy all the spiderwebs constructed overnight. The cool and quiet of the morning was peaceful (no cars on Skyline Drive yet) as the trail descended 1.5 miles and crossed the road again. There I saw Elkwallow Wayside 200 yards away, with bathrooms, water, and food cooked to order – when it’s open, which it wasn’t at 7:30 a.m. I had entertained the hope of stashing extra gear there, but no luck. I resigned myself to carrying it all day. Moving on.
Throughout the day the AT intersected other trails, some mentioned in my guidebook (Jeremy’s Run, Thornton River Trail, Neighbor Mountain Trail) and some just short paths to parking areas. Skyline Drive was never far away. Shenandoah NP is an excellent place to try solo hiking or backpacking, easy to bail out and get help if needed.
At Swift Run Gap I crossed U.S. 211 and entered what is known as the Central District of Shenandoah NP, the section most heavily used by hikers, campers and motorists. It is the highest portion of the Blue Ridge crest in the Park. Two of the four frontcountry campgrounds and all of the cabin and lodge facilities are in this section. The highest peak in the Park (Hawksbill) and the highest peak on the AT in the Park (Stony Man) are in this section. In summary: lots going on in the Central District.
From Swift Run Gap the trail climbed to Mary’s Rock. I didn’t expect this rugged, rocky, epic trail reminiscent of the AT through the Smokies, incredibly scenic and incredibly steep, gaining 1,200 feet in elevation in less than 2 miles. The rain forecast for today never appeared other than a 30-second shower as I hiked up the switchbacks.
Step by slow step, stopping frequently to sigh at the view
Views around every turn
A very funky tree bending over the trail
Of Mary’s Rock the guidebook says, “Views from this point are unsurpassed anywhere in the park.” I am a little ashamed to say that I cannot verify this because I skipped the short side trail to it. This is one of the “cons” of long distance days, where time and energy cause great opportunities to be passed by. My consolation promise to myself that I hope I keep is that I will come back someday to support another AT section or thru-hiker and I can redeem this hike (and other viewpoints that I’ve missed).
A well- constructed fireplace at a little camping spot
Virginia creeper in full fall color
About a mile past Mary’s Rock I stopped at Byrd’s Nest #3 Hut, an overnight shelter, where I met a 20-something southbounder whose trail name was Church. His dad had met him for the weekend and Dad was looking like he was toast. The two were very gregarious, full of tales of their adventures, and I gave them some highlights of what was coming up through southwestern Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and into the Smokies.
I was two-thirds of the way to my destination and 7 more miles did not look doable. My water was low and so was my energy, and my appetite was zilch. This is what Clif bars are made for. Like ‘em or not, they really do help get me up and over the tough spots. After chowing one down, I pushed up to the Pinnacle, and this time I did see the view.
Those brilliant AT trail builders routed the trail right through the grounds of Pinnacles Picnic area, past flushing toilets and a water fountain (perfect timing as I was down to my last gurgling slurp). I sat in the grass by the water fountain and watched cars come and go. Then I shouldered my pack and turned to face the highest point of the AT in Shenandoah: Stony Man.
By now any uphill was exhausting, but the weather continued to cooperate and the views pulled me along. As a prelude, Little Stony Man Cliffs was a treat, although busy with people because it’s only a mile hike from Skyland Resort.
View north from Little Stony Man Cliffs
View from Little Stony Man Cliffs – the high point is Stony Man
Okay, so I bypassed the .2-mile (uphill) side trail to the main attraction because my end point was half a mile downhill and I was depleted. Another hike to look forward to on a return trip. Don’t hate me. I finished at about 5:30 p.m.
At Skyland Resort I tried to get a room but they were (of course) all booked. I ate a small meal in the restaurant bar. I’d decided earlier in the day that I wouldn’t try driving 6 hours back home, especially in the dark, so I stopped in Harrisonburg, VA and snuggled in luxury. Drove home in daylight the next day, singing along at the top of my lungs to my favorite music.
Thoughts followed me all day about whether this was fun, was the sense of accomplishment at completion worth pushing this hard, should I have stuck with the original 3-day/2-night plan…musings similar to childbirth. (Don’t expect an objective answer while the panting and hurting are going on.) In hindsight now I can say: I’m glad I did the big mile days to help me learn that I shouldn’t have done them. If I wanted to shorten my hike time to two days, I should have shortened my mileage from the outset, especially since flexibility is easier in Shenandoah than just about anywhere else I’ve hiked the AT so far.
Will someone out there remind me of this lesson the next time I say, "Hey, 40 miles in two days sounds okay, I've done it before."??
'I think,’ said Christopher Robin, ‘that we ought to eat all our Provisions now, so we shan’t have so much to carry.' ~A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh