Appalachian Trail: Shenandoah National Park and West Virginia

Appalachian Trail to High top

Appalachian Trail to High top

Just got back from my second ridgerunner weekend, and can’t wait to share it but first — the family went for a vacation in Virginia and West Virginia over the holiday. We visited places like Monticello, some great vineyards, and some great BBQ joints! But since this is a hiking blog I will stick to the hiking bits!

On High top

On High top

We did two hikes in Shenandoah National park, a favorite place of ours for sure. The first one we took the kids to was High top mountain, in the southern district close to where we were staying the first few days. It was a 1,000 foot climb from either side of Skyline drive. (at least the road did the other 2,500 feet!).

No bears!

No bears!

We set off late afternoon to avoid the scorching heat and catch the dusk. It was not easy, and since we started out from the wrong side we headed the wrong way into the woods which added 1 mile round trip before i realized when we weren’t climbing up the whole way!). But when we reached the top, everyone thought it was worth it. We took lots of pictures and enjoyed the views before returning the way we came. This is one of the less popular hikes but certainly a great one. It’s not really steep just consistently uphill the whole 1.7 miles. We all sang songs the whole way down which was a lot of fun and a little embarrassing when a thru hiker appeared just after us at Skyline drive!

the other black rock, Big Meadows

the other black rock, Big Meadows

A few days later as we were heading northwest to the town of Luray where we would stay for the next night and enjoy the fireworks, we passed through Thornton Gap in the central district and stopped at Skyland to have lunch and visit the gift shop before hitting Stony Man summit so my daughter could see one of the best views in the park. That’s a short easy hike from the wayside.

Jiffy Pop

Jiffy Pop

But then I heard from some of my hiker friends who were also down in SNP doing another section and they had already left Skyland for Big Meadows, 10 miles or so south. The restaurant at Skyland still wasn’t open for lunch for another 30 minutes so we decided to head down there so I could meet up with them for a bit and we’d be just in time for lunch there.

Rain dancer

Rain dancer

We got to the lodge and sat down for lunch including their famous blackberry ice cream. Only problem was the wayside restaurant was a mile down the road from the lodge restaurant. I waited 45 minutes before I realized they might not have a signal so I drove over to the wayside and caught them just as they were heading out. We talked for a bit, took some photos and I headed back to the lodge to finish lunch. But where to hike here? Do we go back to Stony man? I wanted a nice view and no one wanted a long hike today. Turns out there’s a .2 mile trail to a fantastic view right behind the lodge! They also call it black rock but it’s not the famous one farther south in the park. The view WAS fantastic and we really enjoyed the minimal effort and rewarding views today. Jiffy Pop really helped me push my fear limit a little and be a little more daring about where I’d stand on the ledge!

We had a great stay in Luray and Fielden Stream and I visited a local outfitter where I got some speed laces for my trail runners (the laces always come untied when hiking!) and we chatted with the friendly staff there.

Nature's bounty!

Nature’s bounty!

The next day we drove up to Harper’s Ferry and while we were going to hike the next day before we left, weather was moving in and I was worried no one would want to hike in a downpour. So we drove right to the trail head at Key’s Gap, for this easy 4.5 mile hike along .the ridge saddling the Virginia/West Virginia line and down so we could finish our West Virginia section. I arranged our shuttle with the awesome HalfApp shuttle, my friend and awesome artist Rhonda Adams.

Fielden stream at 4 mile campground

Fielden stream at 4 mile campground

There was an abundance of blackberries though most weren’t fully ripe we did pick out a few and it lifted energy levels and spirits right away. About half way, the possible light drizzle turned into a full downpour with thunder ! I was waiting for the complaints but everyone wanted it to cool things off, and my daughter even did a rain dance and wanted a new trail name so we dubbed her rain dancer! The trail became a river but the hiking while a a bit rocky was easy and we all had fun. We got picked up by Rhonda and she gave us some of her special A.T. art pieces she makes from wood and leather including a very special yo-yo she had 30 years and recently also painted and give to Jiffy Pop. We then went to the hotel to unwind before dinner at a fun hibachi place.

A happy soggy hiking family

A happy soggy hiking family

The next day it was still pouring so either way we would have been hiking in the rain. I was really pleased by their great attitude about it. We walked around Harper’s Ferry and visited the ATC headquarters, spoke with some of the great people that run the organization and bought a lot of merchandise which helps support the trail. Including a West Virginia patch which is now done and Massachusetts which will be soon!

It was a lot of great hikes and I am so glad we all got to do them all together. Jiffy Pop had been to both parks before and loved them and Rain Dancer also fell in love with them so I was a happy dad. I am going to take both kids out individually with me on an overnight later this summer up here in Connecticut, and Jiffy Pop will join us when we do a New Jersey hike in the fall.

— Linus

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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.