Sunday, July 1, 2018
As the day ends with another perfect sunset from the lodge, we are nursing some new wounds and continuing to re-arrange a few things. Yesterday we got a late start and so we skipped ahead to the next section from Swift Run Gap. We will fill that gap on Thursday morning.
Our shuttle got delayed by another client, so rather than a 1030 pickup it ended up being around noon. We had 8.3 miles approximately to do on each of those sections, so it wasn’t really about the miles but the terrain and the pickup / rendezvous later in the day. We had a reservation at the campsite made months ago and we were all planning to go and have a picnic dinner there before Fielden Stream and I camped there for the night. This wasn’t a backpacking overnight anymore, just a cookout and campout to keep logistics easy for the rest of the family who are non-hikers/campers. This was still the plan for most of the day. So we were trying to get back to Big Meadows by 5 so we could throw everything for the overnight in a car or our packs and head down to the campsite.
We’re pretty confident in our ability to cover around 2 miles an hour except in very difficult terrain so even though we got a late start, we figured if we did this section next we could also eliminate the time it would take for the pickup and shuttle back. There were two (and later we would discover -3- ) significant climbs on this hike but a long stretch of gentle downhill and flat in the middle. We planned on a 5pm return to the lodge. During our hike the rest of the family would pick up food for the BBQ.
Our wonderful friend and shuttle driver Rhonda from Harpers Ferry got us down to Lewis Mountain campground quickly and told us about the many many bears she’d seen driving up her previous client from Front Royal. While some might have been repeats, she saw over 20 that morning. It was some kind of sign…
The climb up Bearfence was full of switchbacks, and a bunch of bell flowers. It was not a tough climb except for the fact that the sun was shining down on that southern slope so we got heated up quickly. Luckily there was some relief at the top, and while FIelden took a break at the summit loop trail, I ran up to bag the summit and take in the view from a rocky outcropping. This one was slightly blocked by foliage but it was still a great view. They do also have a half mile long rock scramble hike along the ridge up there, but as we were limited on time and it was very hot, rocky ridge walks with a lot of hand and foot negotiation wasn’t going to work.
From here the trail was gentle and green and followed Skyline drive for a few miles before reaching the climb up Hazeltop. This was a larger climb, about 700ft. It was completely shaded which helped with the long switchbacked climb over a mile long. We were definitely trying to remain quiet so we might see some bears, though I admit I was my regular chatty self for the first few miles.
If not for the fact that I was concentrating on powering up this climb and had little breath to talk much, I probably would have startled the bear away much earlier! As I came around a switchback I heard a loud crash and saw a bear run up the hill about 100ft. It was a very large male, about the size of a smart car. While this was my first bear encounter (finally!) I at least had many years to think about this moment and prepare. He stopped up the hill a bit and stared at me, curious – even posing a bit. I called down to Fielden Stream to let her know, and the bear and I stared at each other curiously while I took a photo (and a funny video with me clearly in a small panic). I put the phone away so I could keep alert and waited for Fielden to come up and have a good look at him, and so our combined presence would discourage him from any aggression.
We waited a few while he made up his mind to saunter off and we picked up our pace up that hill. It definitely helped us up the climb quicker! We told a group of hikers we saw at the next trail intersection about it and as we leapfrogged with them up to the summit and took a lunch break at a side trail to a rock outcropping view, they were ahead of us on the descent and had the next bear encounter. This was also a large male and he was sitting clear in the middle of the trail until one of the wives yelled “oh my god” in surprise, and off he went. When we caught up they told us all about it. Its possible it was the same bear but we don’t know.
The walk down Hazeltop to Milam gap was gentle, and following the gap was almost completely flat until we reached the Lewis Falls trail. It was shady and cool and easy hiking here, and we got used to it. We knew there was a good climb up to Big Meadows but we were unprepared for the hot climb of almost a mile. While there was a breeze by Lewis Spring, the western slope of the mountain we ascended to the lodge was being baked in the sun, and was rocky and relentless at the end of a long hike. We struggled up it, but there were some very rewarding views that we didn’t even know existed when at the lodge last time. We got lots of nasty bites along the way too. Not sure what kind of bugs they are but they are at least as big and painful as black flies and we have welts everywhere!
Still I was glad to have that section complete. My GPS tracker decided to drop the first 3 miles of the hike data when we lost signal completely. This annoyed me heavily but its not like its hard to follow the trail here, especially with all the road crossings… you’re never really lost … maybe only until you come to the next road crossing!
By the time we all re-convened at the lodge, it was getting late and the picnic BBQ and campout was much less desirable. It would have been very rushed, and we were all tired, and FIelden and I were sweaty and hot and covered in these bites. We decided to postpone the BBQ and skip the camping as we would be doing a backpacking overnight Tuesday night.
We showered, had a nice outdoor dinner at the lodge, and retired to bed by 10.
Day 3 will be a zero day where we can wash our stinky clothes, check out the visitor center, do some short walks with the family, have our picnic, and heal. Plus its going to be even hotter today… Day 4+5 will be an overnight from Big Meadows to Stony Man cliffs, with a stay at Rock Spring hut in between. Thursday morning (day 6) we will do our fill-in hike from Swift Run Gap to Lewis Mountain campground, and then we will be done with hiking for the trip, and going down to Luray for a day or two to enjoy the local scene there before heading home.
Animal encounters in short:
5 deer (2 at lodge – all very tame and used to humans)
1 bear ( our first one, just missed a second)
1 barred owl
2 mice (in our cabin again)
Linus’s Miles: 9.6
Linus and FIelden’s miles: 9.1
With our trail shuttle/angel Rhonda
View from Bearfence summit
Big bear! First sighting!
View from Hazeltop Summit
View from Big Meadows Summit
Another incredible sunset from the lodge