Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 9/28/14 – US 522, Front Royal, VA Southbound to Matthews Arm Campground – 19 miles
I mulled this solo backpacking trip over for days and days, how the 40+ miles should be 3 days/2 nights but the shelters are not spaced well. Shenandoah National Park is a puzzle. The AT is never far from Skyline Drive so it’s hard to find privacy for camping…and established backcountry campsites between shelters are sporadic and not marked on any maps or guidebooks. Will there be one where you want one? Can you make one where you need one? One thing I knew: water was scarce. Even at shelters, the designated springs were not always reliable. I didn’t want to carry a lot of water all day in anticipation of none near a campsite. All these variables were swirling in my brain as I started my weekend-that-might-just-be-an-overnight-marathon.
Sharon Johnson, the shuttle driver, arrived at the pickup point a week early and cheerfully called me. When I gently reminded her of our arranged date she remained cheerful and went on to her next shuttle customer of the morning. I worried about her showing up on the real day – but she did, a few minutes early. Sharon’s husband, Tom, had shuttled a group I was part of over Memorial Day weekend, and she is every bit as enjoyable as he is. Elderly, loves to drive, talks nonstop about anything and everything, hard of hearing so I couldn’t answer much – just trust. I only grabbed the door handle two times on our speedy ride.
Started where the AT crosses US 522 at Front Royal, heading southbound
A rocky trail
At about 3.5 miles, the AT enters Shenandoah NP and backpack- ers should self- register if they plan to stay in the park overnight. I still hadn’t made a decision yet on how far I was going today, so I wrote in two alternatives: Gravel Springs Gap Shelter or Matthews Arm Campground. If I chose some random spot in the woods, well, that would have to do.
The first 6 miles felt great, but then my backpack got heavy. Rather than influencing me to make it a short day, I began to lean toward let’s-get-moving-and-shorten-the-duration. Kinda like ripping off a band-aid: it hurts but faster is better than the slow peel.
Yes, backpacking is one of my favorite things, but what I’ve learned about myself is that I’d rather have company. Hiking alone all day is good for the soul, but sharing a meal and small talk with a companion at the end of the day is very desirable. If you like being sociable and constantly making new friends, that is one of the pluses of thru-hiking.
Back to the wonders of the day: an area recovering from fire
Burls like gnarly toes
View southwest from summit of North Marshall Mountain, a sliver of Skyline Drive visible
View north from North Marshall Mountain
From the top of North Marshall the AT descended to cross Skyline Drive and I ran into a ranger-led hike that included some rambunctious children. Once past them, I picked up my pace to stay ahead and climbed quickly to the summit of South Marshall Mountain which seemed empty of people. After clicking a few photos, a woman’s head popped up from the rocks. She introduced herself as Maureen and I warned her that her solitude was about to end as a ranger group was on the move. She laughed and said that she had hustled ahead of them, too. Through her binoculars Maureen showed me a pair of bald eagles riding the wind currents and we had a lovely chat about the peacefulness of the mountains when you can find a moment (nearly) alone. “Nature centers me,” she said.
On South Marshall Mountain
Then the ranger and her entourage arrived. Her group was entranced by her every word, and when she saw me she began to talk about the Appalachian Trail (which they were standing on) and how some people walk all the way from Georgia to Maine.
From South Marshall the trail descended again, passing many great viewpoints, to Gravel Springs Gap. My real decision point of the day came up shortly after that, at the side trail to Gravel Springs Gap Shelter. The side trail was a very steep .2 miles and I needed to get water from the spring at the shelter. I hadn’t crossed any creeks all day and all the marked springs were also on side trails, so this one was as good as any.
The spring at the shelter. Some genius had placed a leaf to help funnel the low flow.
Five people were already stopped for the night (the shelter sleeps 8), which met the sociability criteria, but it just seemed too early to call it quits. I had hiked 13.5 miles and it was just 3:30 in the after- noon. Rain was forecast for the following day, meaning a wet second night. The deciding factor for continuing was...three park rangers setting up a huge barrel-shaped bear trap. Seems that a bold bear had been coming around and had stolen a hiker’s backpack the previous night. I was a bit surprised that they weren’t closing the shelter. Matthews Arm Campground was about 3.6 miles further along the trail and I might even find a suitable little spot before that. Then tomorrow would be a very long day but I would finish up and avoid that rainy second night. So…moving on.
View from Little Hogback Mountain
Ferns fading to rust
A “trail tree”? Some say that Native Americans bent and tied down the trunks of saplings a couple of feet off the ground to mark paths in the forest. Trees grow from their tips rather than en masse, so a tree trunk that is twisted or distorted, whether by nature or man, will maintain that distortion at that height. However, this tree’s bend was much over my head. Probably a natural result of another tree falling on it or a heavy load of snow and ice. What made this so noteworthy was that I saw at least a dozen of these on the AT on this day.
A hole through the trunk like a picture frame
By 5:00 p.m. I was getting near where a right side trail leads .7 miles to Matthews Arm Campground. Of course, .7 miles in meant adding .7 miles back out to the trail in the morning. I began scouting for a discrete place to pitch a tent without the detour. There were a few possibilities, but I was still encountering day trippers because of the many access points to Skyline Drive and didn’t feel comfortable popping up my pink tent. Kept on walking and reached the crossing for the road, where a right turn led to the campground and it was now-or-never time. At this point I’d hiked 18 miles. Going further on the trail wouldn’t guarantee me a campsite and I needed to be settled before dark.
I misread the map and I did not anticipate the mile road walk from that point to the campground and thus did not save myself a detour. I was irritated at that last mile, but it was a chance to practice “letting it go.” At the campground there were few people, self-registration, and I needed a site with a bear box because I had no vehicle for food storage. I wanted to inquire if I could stash some of my stuff and hike light tomorrow, but I never found a ranger on duty.
Camp chores done, cooking and eating, water for tomorrow, in my tent by dark (7:30 p.m.) where I doctored two blisters on my toes, poking them on the edges with a safety pin, squeezing out the liquid, applying band aids, crossing fingers they’ll be okay for 21 miles tomorrow. Such is the glamourous pedicure of a backpacker.
Although the campground was nearly deserted, I could hear a satellite TV inside a pop-up camper.
So…19 miles today, about 21 to go tomorrow. Will it rain? Can I stash my stuff (tent, sleeping bag, stove and fuel) somewhere here and hike light? If I hide it in the woods will animals disturb it? What if I get stuck somewhere and need it?
“It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” ~Wendell Berry