Humpback Rocks and Appalachian Trail, Virginia

Humpback rocks from the Blue Ridge Parkway

Humpback rocks from the Blue Ridge Parkway

Last weekend we were in South Carolina suddenly for a funeral of someone near and dear.

That was a particularly hard time for me and my friends, and while seeing them helped in the way of support, there is one other prime way I get my therapy… the woods!

I do a lot of processing and thinking out on the trail, and at the very least, a good hike just clears your head and makes you focus on the challenge and the experience in front of you right at that moment.

This was much needed as well, because distractions from the loss were much welcome. With a 700-mile drive, I was also happy to split it up on the way back and stay in a trail town and get a nice hike in in one of my favorite areas. That would be central Virginia, near Shenandoah.

Humpback rocks from the blue trail

Humpback rocks from the blue trail

Much of the Skyline drive was still closed for post-storm blowdown cleanup, so we aimed just south of the park, along the Blue Ridge Parkway at the trailhead for Humpback rocks. I had researched a few hike options of course and this one looked perfect for time and distance, with a big payoff view.  This of course also means crowds on a weekend. We arrived on a late Saturday afternoon. Late enough to find parking, but not late enough to miss all the crowds.

I was hopeful as we started up from the picnic lot that all these people leaving would mean we would have it mostly to ourselves. Well, that’s not how it turned out. There were large groups of students from nearby James Madison University coming to hike. I am sure this is partly because Skyline was half closed.

Linus atop Humpback rocks

Linus atop Humpback rocks

But I think its great when anyone hikes and loves it as much as I do so I try and grin and bear it with the crowds. I knew it would likely be the case.  Glad to see kids in their 20s take in nature in place of an afternoon kegger!

We took the blue trail from the lot which climbs quickly and somewhat steeply to the ridge line. Rocks were plentiful, as were views of Humpback rocks above. We paused many times to catch our breath and wait for hikers to pass on their way down.

The Blue Ridge Parkway below Humpback rocks

The Blue Ridge Parkway below Humpback rocks

Luckily it was only .8 to the rocks so we preferred to get it over with first and do a gentle longer descent. I explored the rocks as much as I could with the crowd, and got some pictures both from Fielden Stream and a student. The views were glorious and I tried to walk a bit farther out than I was first comfortable with, and this approach seems to be working. I get a little sketched out on some of the bigger straight drop offs, and since there’s a lot of those on the trail, I’ve worked on addressing that by pushing my limits and picking hikes with a lot of that so I can get over it 100%.  A work in progress, but I enjoy them a lot more now.

We talked to a family who had a Beagle (or mix) with them as we have a Beagle, and then there was still another .25 miles to climb to where the Appalachian Trail intersected.  The summit was not much farther but I figure I will hit that when I come through this section anyway.

Linus on Humpback rocks

Linus on Humpback rocks

It was a nice, long, gentle descent of switchbacks down the A.T. on the back of the mountain.  We chatted and even got to hold hands in some wider spots! It was just as we were getting down to the final trail junction that we heard a crashing in the trees down the hill. We started banging our poles together and singing songs out loud and just then I spotted a black animal in the tree branches where we heard the sound. We had continued to move and just slow down and remain alert. It scurried off and so did we. As it’s likely it was a cub, momma was probably not far off.

At the trail junction I found a child’s backpack, forgotten on a rock. It was full of food and a water bottle so I picked it up and packed it out the last half mile up the carriage road to the lot.

Humpback rocks

Humpback rocks

I emptied the food into the bear proof trash container and left the bag at the kiosk, hoping it would be reunited with its owner. I’m not holding my breath though because if it was a tourist they are likely long gone and not going back to see if someone carried it out for them. A student or local, maybe… always in ridge runner mode out there!

We reached the lot within under 2 hours. It’s been a while but not bad at all for our first outing together in months! That’s for 4.2 miles including a big steep uphill and time playing around on the rocks.

View of Shenandoah National Park from Humpback rocks

View of Shenandoah National Park from Humpback rocks

The sun was beginning to set and we enjoyed views of Waynesboro from the Blue Ridge Parkway and then went to our hotel and favorite Chinese place across the street. We passed the Devil’s Backbone Brewery on the way to the hike and really wanted to go there but it was in the opposite direction quite a bit from our hotel. But we were excited to spot it and will definitely go there when we hike this section for real.

 

A great hike, and a night in a trail town, is good medicine indeed.

FIelden Stream

FIelden Stream

Miles: 4.2

Bears: 1 (and probably more we didn’t see)

— Linus

Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, DAY 2

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

Temperature: 90’s

– Linus

With our trail shuttle/angel Rhonda

With our trail shuttle/angel Rhonda

Bell flower?

Bell flower?

View from Bearfence summit

View from Bearfence summit

Big bear! First sighting!

Big bear! First sighting!

View from Hazeltop Summit

View from Hazeltop Summit

View from Big Meadows Summit

View from Big Meadows Summit

Another incredible sunset from the lodge

Another incredible sunset from the lodge

 

Appalachian Trail. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, DAY 1

Saturday June 30, 2018, 9pm EST

I’m sitting in our great little cabin room at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park writing this just past hiker midnight.

We just got back from viewing a stunning sunset over the valley below, Massanutten Mountain beyond and the ever expanding Chicopeechee. We had a great family catchup and dinner (including a delicious blackberry cobbler and blackberry ice cream) at the Big Meadows Lodge and the spectacular sunset began to evolve quickly as smoke from the fire pit just below the dining area sent aromatic summer scents our way, enhancing the moment.

Fielden Stream and I arrived at the trailhead at Smith Roach Gap around 130. We drove 5 hours last night and 3 hours today to get here from Connecticut. This was a section we hiked part of last year with the kids. They were missed today. I wanted to complete this bit as a first, warm-up hike of the trip. It was about 4.6 miles and with the side jaunt to the Hightop hut and back, it clocked in around 5 miles. We also reunited a thru hiker there with his croc which was dropped on the trail and we found on the hike up.

We were silent for much of the hike, hoping for a bear sighting and making the 1,000ft climb and ascent at our own paces with some nice shared moments and vistas in between.

Tomorrow we’re camping at Big Meadows campground after an 8.3 mile hike, though we are not hiking into the campground as originally planned. We hope the family can join us for a picnic or BBQ at the campsite tonight.  Lets hope the weather is as great!

Miles: 4.9

– Linus

Columbine on Hightop Mountain

Columbine on Hightop Mountain

Linus and Fielden Stream on Hightop Mountain

Linus and Fielden Stream on Hightop Mountain

Shenandoah Trail signs

Shenandoah Trail signs

An incredible sunset

An incredible sunset

 

Back to Harpers Ferry and Beyond – Part 2

Shenandoah NP Vista

Shenandoah NP Vista

After a brief rest stop in Front Royal for some breakfast we got to the Shenandoah National Park entrance and I was pretty much giddy. One thing about reading all the A.T. guides and stories is that you picture these majestic places and some you never can fully imagine until you see it for yourself. Skyline, and Shenandoah, is one of those. For 109 miles or so Skyline drive follows what was once the original path of the A.T. The trail now parallels the road sometimes closely, sometimes not. The road, like the trail, travels along the winding mountain ridges — climbing, descending and twisting up and down past almost 100 spectacular views to the valley below. Almost every one has a pull over spot to take it in without holding anyone up behind you. I lost count of how many pictures I took, and just reveled in the glorious eye candy before me. Its certainly been hard to pick just one or two of each amazing spot to show you here. We will be back sometime to hike the whole thing!

Skyland

Skyland

We drove through and checked out one of the campsites near Mathews Arm, and then stopped for lunch and a hike at the largest wayside in the park, Skyland. It has numerous cabins you can rent, and a glorious dining hall hanging over the cliff side with views to the valley thousands of feet below. A few thru hikers and section hikers were enjoying a fairly luxurious break as well. Though they worked much harder to get here, for sure.

After lunch we raided the gift shop, and then drove over to the parking lot nearby for the Stony Man trail. I researched many of the overlook hikes in the park, and this one was the best option as it was short enough to do on a break to stretch our legs, and also was physically manageable by everyone in our group. Again this time we had the leisure of being day hikers, walking only about 1.2 miles round trip from the trailhead at about 3,700 feet through Rhododendron and Laurel thickets on a mostly gentle path to the breathtaking views of Stony Man summit. My only regret is not seeing them all in full bloom a month or so ago. The second highest peak in the park, Stony Man summit extends out on a rocky precipice 4,014 feet up, with sweeping views of the park, Skyline drive, the town of Luray, VA and the Washington and Jefferson National forests beyond. Very little work for such reward.

Linus on Stony Man, SNP

Linus on Stony Man, SNP

There is even a horse path that comes up to the summit before the outcrop from the stables at Skyland, and you can park your horse at a hitch (is that what you call it) before walking out to the summit ledges. We shared the first half mile of the walk with the A.T, and then it continues on to the Little Stony Man cliffs below where we stood now. Those cliffs also have famous views and had we more time we would have made a bigger loop of it.  Unfortunately a group of at least 20 teen girls from a sports camp in the area poured out onto the precipice just minutes after we arrived there, now marring the view, and the experience.

Yellow bird, Shenandoah Vista

Yellow bird, Shenandoah Vista

While I fully support and encourage the idea of getting youth to such incredible places, and seeing the joy and appreciation of this place on all their faces, their leader clearly had no idea about how this might impact those around them. He should have led them out in smaller groups, taking turns on the summit ledges, so that the others already there could continue to enjoy it without crowds blurting OMGs while taking selfies. On another day, I might have left a polite note on their van about sharing the space more respectfully, but I was in vacation mode and too busy taking it all in in whatever way I could. And anyway, Fielden Stream found a side trail down to an unspoiled part of the ledges and we had a few minutes to soak it in, take our own photos, and head back.

C&O Rail Museum, Clifton Forge, VA

C&O Rail Museum, Clifton Forge, VA

We wound along another 60 miles of Skyline drive over Big Meadows, Pass Mountain, Loft Mountain, and eventually to the southern end at Rockfish Gap as we came into Waynesboro. I knew from my A.T research that it had a lot of amenities for hikers including a very popular all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. But the town was much more than we expected. We dined at a fusion Asian restaurant with lots of flare, recommended by the hotel — surely the nicest Holiday Inn we had ever been in. They had pancakes till midnight and a 24 hour pool!  Then the next morning we visited the fantastic Rockfish Gap Outfitters and while there Fielden Stream got a new hiking skirt and we left a raincoat found on the A.T in a hiker box. A trail angel had come by looking for hikers who needed rides and said at one point in the peak of the hiker bubble he was shuttling 60 a day to and from the trail a few miles away! The girls found a gas-station-turned-cross-stitch store and Jiffy Pop and I went to Waffle House and had a nice chat with some locals before it was time to head on back to W.V.

New River Gorge Bridge

New River Gorge Bridge

The drive west was equally lovely, as the mountains continue on the other side of 81 and never really end once you’re in West Virginia. We stopped in a historic little town called Clifton Forge (Virginia), rife with C&O railroad history. They have a rail museum there and much of the town looked to be still somewhere in the 1950’s, including where we ate lunch. It was very quaint and I felt like we stepped into Back to the Future. We then drove on to our lovely cabin on the northern end of the New River Gorge National RIver.

The New river, despite its name, is one of the oldest in the world, older perhaps than the Appalachian Mountains themselves, perhaps older than the Nile. And like the Nile, it flows upstream. The end result, especially here, is 50 or so miles of towering mountains on either side of the river gorge. The incredible bridge across it, when completed in 1977, was the world’s longest steel single-span arch bridge. To give you an idea how deep the gorge is, the height of the lower arch above the river is the equivalent to stacking two Statue of Liberties on top of the Washington Monument!

New River Gorge WV Grand View

New River Gorge WV Grand View

Before the bridge you’d have to drive 40 minutes down winding roads and back up the other side after crossing a smaller bridge over the river at the bottom of the gorge. We stopped at the Bridge overlook and then headed for the “Grand View” visitor center. Many trails line the gorge, of all difficulty levels and all start from different visitors centers along the gorge. There is also rock climbing along “The Endless Wall” at the northern end.

Turkey Spur overlook

Turkey Spur overlook

The gorge is so large, it took us 40 minutes to drive from the bridge up north to the Grand View in the south.  We went to the main overlook and for a short stroll with Jiffy Pop, Fielden’s mom, dad, and sister to the northern overlook and then Fielden Stream and I headed off on our own for Turkey Spur overlook, at the other end of the 1.5-mile Grand View Rim trail. Her mom took the road there later to pick us up after we climbed the 100 or so steep steps and newly constructed boardwalks over massive boulders to rewarding overlooks to the east and west.

Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine

Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine

We spent several days in the beautiful cabin, making trips to local artisan shops, barbecuing, and making down-home country meals. The boys took a ‘zero’ and spent the day in the cabin catching up on reading, work, and rest. I took an early morning short hike before the coming rain on the local trails the owner had carved into the hills behind his cabin. The wildflowers and the views were lovely. All in all we had one rainy day out of nine.

We left for Charleston and the wedding and stopped on the way at the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, an old mine turned-museum where they had re-created much of an original mining town including the mine store, the homes, the church, and owner’s quarters.

Cathedral Falls, WV

Cathedral Falls, WV

There was a ride with a tour guide through the old mine which we also enjoyed. He was quite a character and he had grown up in the West Virginia mines himself. It was what you did here.

They also had brought in original historic Appalachian buildings and recreated an old Appalachian homestead including an old shop, schoolhouse, barn, carriage house, and moonshine still.

And while in Charleston we had the opportunity to check out a few local waterfalls recommended by the family, Kanawha Falls and the majestic Cathedral Falls.

After a beautiful wedding, the next morning it was sadly time to go. But the first half of our 11-hour drive was beautiful and included hundreds of miles of beautiful W.V. mountains, and the Cumberland Gap in Maryland. One doesn’t often think of big mountains when they think of Maryland, but the state’s terrain is far more diverse and after the trip to Harpers Ferry in March, and this one, this fact is certain. And this is a vacation we will never forget.

Next week, Fielden Stream and I are back on the Appalachian Trail in New York. Stay tuned!

— Linus

Back to Harpers Ferry and Beyond – Part 1

LIttle Round top, Gettysburg

LIttle Round top, Gettysburg

Last week, we had a most amazing vacation. We were headed to a family wedding in Charleston, WV at the end of the week — 600 miles away — and so we decided to make a road trip out of it which included all of our favorite things. History – check. Wine – check. New places – check. Hiking – of course! It took everything I had not to be left to hike home. In fact I suggested it many times but no one wanted to take it seriously except me! Some other time…

Historical Plaque on Maryland Heights

Historical Plaque on Maryland Heights

We made our first stop at Gettysburg, as we are civil war and history buffs and coincidentally Jiffy Pop’s summer reading is on Gettysburg. One of the English teachers at his school wrote it and I’m hoping he will have this teacher this year.  We toured Antietam in the spring, and Gettysburg was equally as powerful, if not more. Standing on Little Round Top looking down across the battlefield was sobering. It’s easy to see how the topography was responsible for so much carnage and such an advantage to the side that held the high ground. The new museum and facility for the cyclorama were impressive, and we enjoyed a tour to the Spangler farm with re-enacters who taught us about civil war medicine.

Butterfly on Maryland Heights

Butterfly on Maryland Heights

This was a family farm that was close to the battle and ended up being taken over as a Union field hospital, and also cared for 100 confederate soldiers brought in. General Armisted was treated here but died from his wounds a few days later. The privately funded Gettysburg foundation is responsible for this side excursion and did a fantastic job with it. I think the message hit home with Jiffy Pop — he was able to remember many of the names and places that are forever etched in our nation’s history here.

We went on to Harper’s Ferry in the late afternoon. You can read about our first visit in March and our A.T hike here. I loved driving through Maryland past Cacoctin Mountain (another nice hiking spot and trail system) and then paralleling the A.T. to the east at a short distance as it runs atop the ridges of South Mountain before crossing the trail and the Potomac into Harpers Ferry.

Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights

Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights

We stayed at a hotel I wanted to stay at since I saw it in March. Now it’s just an Econolodge, nothing special. But it sits on Rt 340 just .2 miles north of the trail crossing, and out our window loomed Loudon Heights, and the section we did up to the ridgeline in March. I made more jokes about how if I wasn’t there in the morning, to drive to Keys Gap to pick me up. Last time we were up there it was covered in thick snow. I know we will come back here as a starting point to do a big chunk southbound into Virginia or to end a hike of all of Maryland. Easy on, easy off, easy on the wallet. We saw a few backpackers at the hotel but they were clearly not thrus. It was way too late in the season and their bodies, faces and gear were way too clean!  We had dinner the first night at a nice restaurant in Charles Town that we visited last time. The next morning we did the hike up to Maryland Heights I wanted to also do in March after Loudon Heights, but the snow and my knees were not allowing such things at the time.

Maryland Heights from Below

Maryland Heights from Below

While the path up is wide and graded and easy enough for Union troops to drag cannons up, the vertical incline is severe. You gain 1,000 ft in about a mile to reach the lower shoulder of the mountain, passing one naval battery on the way. That was fascinating to see, and imagine it in the conflict, fully active. It is said Abe Lincoln tried to climb up to visit the troops but turned around halfway. We were feeling the burn on the legs too. Once atop the shoulder at about 1100 ft we veered off to the cliff overlook trail. The stone fort trail continues upward another 1.5 miles to the summit with more naval batteries (these are all just earthworks now), more views, and the remnants of an old stone fort. The overlook trail climbs down via switchbacks and a steep scramble to the grand view of Maryland Heights seen in my photo. This view captures the town below, the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, and all three states in one of the area’s most beautiful scenes. A butterfly decided to join Jiffy Pop on his rock perch, and we took a much needed break.

Historic lock along the C&O Canal

Historic lock along the C&O Canal

We ascended back up the 350+ vertical feet to the main trail and then down quickly to the C&O canal towpath and over the Potomac into town via the A.T. where we had an especially satisfying lunch. Fortunately it was 12:55 when we sat down because they don’t serve alcohol till 1pm and I was in need of some refreshment! It was sad to see the major damage done by the fire in town the weekend before, but I am glad that the first responders did such a good job of preventing further damage and no loss of human life occurred.

Jiffy Pop's first ATC visit

Jiffy Pop’s first ATC visit

We toured the historic town museums and shops that afternoon including a visit to the outfitters where my Yankee pronunciation of Loudon was promptly yet politely corrected. We made a donation to the rebuilding fund, and I bought a new ultra-lightweight granite gear food bag. For dinner the second night we went to a winery/restaurant just over the border on the other side of Loudon Heights in Virginia. The state has over 250 of them, and as a wine salesman, and part of a family of wine lovers, we were excited for the meal and wine tasting flights. While the wine was good and the service was great, we unfortunately had a large party of 30 next to us who were quite loud and unruly and made conversation and enjoyment quite difficult. They also ate up a lot of the food and attention of the restaurant, so our overall experience suffered. Hopefully the establishment learned from this experience.

After taking Jiffy Pop to the ATC headquarters for his first visit the next morning, we left for Waynesboro via Shenandoah National Park and the breathtaking Skyline Drive. That will be in part two!

 

 

 

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Lower Town Trail

Lower Town Trail

We went here in March for our 5th wedding anniversary to hike, relax, and enjoy the local wineries and the civil war history everywhere. We are also fascinated by that subject, and this is where the famous revolt of John Brown and his abolitionists occurred, eventually leading to the civil war. We didn’t backpack this time as we were staying in a lovely B&B to celebrate the anniversary right!

Loudoun Heights

Loudoun Heights

We were treated to snow one day, and late-spring/early summer temps the next day. It’s evident in the photos that the lower elevations were snow-free, while the mountaintops were not!

For this trail adventure, we decided to hike down the Lower Town Trail to the A.T. from the Park headquarters, across the Shenandoah up to a snowy Loudoun Heights on the West Virginia/Virginia border, and then back down to the other side of town and over the Potomac to the Maryland border. All in all, about 6 miles and change.

Crossing the Shenandoah

Crossing the Shenandoah

As you may or may not know, Harpers Ferry is also where the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is located. Just about .2 miles from the trail in the upper town, it is also known as the ‘psychological halfway point’ of the trail, though the real halfway point is about 30 miles away, just north of the Pennsylvania border. It is here that all thru- and section-hikers can register with the ATC and get a photo in their book, with their trail names and start dates. We weren’t sure this was something we could do as we can only get out in small sections several times a year. However, they were more than accommodating and it was a thrill. It is also the site of ‘Jefferson Rock’ – a balanced stone along the Shenandoah with views of the confluence of both rivers where Thomas Jefferson exclaimed “This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

Registering at ATC HQ

Registering at ATC HQ

At the headquarters, we also got to enjoy the hiker’s lounge, look through the hiker boxes (boxes where hikers leave things they don’t need for other hikers) and get some great new books, A.T. swag and rest our feet for a bit. There’s also a great topographic map of the whole trail I loved, since I am a map geek as well. I don’t mind spending a bunch here because it all goes to support the conservancy, who take care of the trail. To that end, I am a card carrying member of the ATC, as well as the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club). We also got me a cool A.T. earring, which has gotten a very enthusiastic response from other thru and section-hikers on the trail.  And A.T. happens to be the first two initials of my name — convenient!

Jefferson Rock

Jefferson Rock

On a side-note we also made a nice donation to the ATC to have an engraved brick on the new walkway in Damascus, Virginia. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was just yesterday morning at the annual ‘Trail Days’ event, where thousands of past and current hikers come together in this trail community to meet other hikers and ‘trail angels’ and meet representatives of top gear companies who are educating everyone on their latest advances for hiker gear. A goal for all hikers, and manufacturers alike, is to get the lightest gear with the strongest most durable materials. Every ounce counts, especially to ‘gram weenies’, aka ‘ultralighters’. I don’t have the best back either, so this is worth the extra investment these products will cost, and to anyone hiking hundreds or thousands of miles with it all on their back. When I think back to how heavy my external frame scouting pack weighed when it was fully-loaded in the early 80’s, I’m amazed at what 20 years of tech has resulted in. I am much happier with my lighter gear, even if my wallet is empty.  Thank god too for my REI membership — my dividends pay me back in more of the light gear I want.

John Brown's Fort

John Brown’s Fort

Some terms here to explain for the non-savvy:

Trail angels are people who are either former thru-hikers or just hiker-friendly and will set up along the trail and provide free food, rides to the nearest town to resupply and catch a night off (a ‘zero’), or will leave it out along the trail like the cooler you saw in my first entry. And a Trail community is a town that is along the trail where the businesses are friendly and cater to hikers. These usually include shops and residents who run hostels or cabins or allow hikers to camp in their yard, use their showers and bathrooms, and will give you rides back and forth to the trail for minimal fees. We have really enjoyed those services so far in Kent, Falls Village, and Salisbury, Connecticut, as well as Pawling, NY. Damascus, Virginia, where they hold trail days is one of the most famous.