I rearranged my work schedule, cleared my social calendar, packed my bags, and waited...
...until the day of, when I checked the weather and saw it was scheduled to thunderstorm every night that weekend. Discretion is the better part of valor; I stayed in town. Work kept me homebound through the next two weekends, and more thunderstorms through a third... would I ever get to take this trip?
I finally set out on the 19th, nearly a month later than intended. Despite the delays, I was excited: it would be my first proper backpacking trip, my first chance to use the Osprey overnight pack that had spent four years holding hats in my closet. Whatever happened out there, it would be an adventure.
To get there, I retraced the route I'd taken to Old Rag Mountain that winter; the Whiteoak trailhead was just a few miles south from there off VA-231. The drive was uneventful except for a tense moment when a family of geese waddled onto US-211 right in front of my car. I braked hard and managed to stop just in time. The poor gander wound up three feet from my bumper, honking his head off as if he'd had the right of way. (Maybe he thought he had?)
As I approached the mountains, I noticed that their upper ridges still looked brown compared to their lower slopes. The leaves had come in weeks ago back home; had they not yet up there?
Soon after, I pulled into the Whiteoak Canyon parking lot, which was tucked into a narrow stream valley at the end of Weakley Hollow Rd.
A pair of friendly rangers at the kiosk fixed me up with a map and a backcountry camping permit in case I couldn't get all the way to Big Meadows. My plans to hike there in a day surprised them, though one conceded that I "might be able" to make it. Challenge accepted. The campground was only twelve miles away, according to my calculations, and I had all day to get there.
Only twelve miles (and nearly 3000' of gain). You can see how new I am to backpacking.
The trail continued up the valley, which was interlaced with dozens of little streams:
The air was full of butterflies, for some reason--and also gnats and horseflies, I realized as soon as I got sweaty enough for my scent to attract them. I wouldn't have seen half as many if I'd gone in April, but, then again, I'd have had to carry twice as much insulation to stay warm overnight.
The trail stuck close to the main stream, passing several swimming holes:
|Get back here, LarLar, that water's deep!|
Eventually, it crossed it. I soaked a shoe on my way across, but the new "trail runners" I was wearing were much more permeable than the old leather hiking boots I wore last year, so it dried within minutes. For that trail, on a warm day in May, permeability was definitely preferable to watertightness.
Not long after, I reached the first waterfall. The trail passed high above its bank, so I ditched my pack up top and scrambled down for a better view:
I'd expected a series of cute little cascades, but that one must have been at least fifty feet high.
Where there are waterfalls, however, there's also vertical gain. Just past that point, the trail turned into steep switchbacks. Oof, those were hard with my pack on. But the view back down the valley was worth it:
|Scratch what I said last post. I like these hills green even better.|
The trail grew rockier as I ascended:
|Not quite New-England rocky, but the pack sure made it feel that way.|
weaving through some pretty rough terrain. There were cliffs below:
|with mountain laurels clustered at their base,|
|with little whaddaya-call-ems clinging to their sides,|
and over in the distance, a second set of falls. That one was too far from the trail to get a good picture, but the third was pretty much the quintessential waterfall: a long, straight cascade.
It must have rained recently, because the whole valley was brimming with water. The trail continued past some dripping cliffs:
|"Yuck, soggy rocks."|
and up a brief paved stretch (remnants of an older CCC trail?).
And then, nearly two hours after I'd begun, I reached... the halfway point.
|2.5 miles? Seriously? That's all?|
Exhausted, I flopped down for a break. Maybe those rangers had been right--maybe it was silly to plan on getting all the way to Big Meadows in a day. But it was only 11 am: even if I kept to this snailish pace, I'd reach the AT before sundown (around 8:30 pm, this time of year).
Right after I resumed hiking, this zippy-fast day hiker came up behind me. "Did I startle you?" he shouted. (Judging by the fact that I'd been muttering to myself, as I'd imagine a fair number of people do when they think they’re alone in the woods...) He followed me up the next rock-stair switchback, then darted around me as soon as the trail was wide enough and bounded out of sight. I gritted my teeth and slogged along after him. I’d be matching you step for step, you little punk, I thought, if not for this stupid 30-lb. pack.
So yeah. As I learned that day, hauling an extra 20% of one's body weight uphill isn't exactly fun. All through that middle stretch of Whiteoak Canyon, I felt as though I was climbing unacclimated at 10,000'. Even when I switched to slow, tiny steps, my muscles strained to keep moving; they were pushed past their capacity, with no power left to give.
Fortunately, the trail leveled off not long after that. I even passed the day-hiker while he was off to the side, dawdling over some map on a sign. In retrospect, I probably should have lingered for a map-check of my own, but no way was I going to wait around for him to finish with it.
I hiked on past another set of falls, the largest of them all:
|And the most crowded by far; I didn't linger.|
then crossed a bridge over the river. I don't know if it was the time of day or my growing proximity to Skyline Drive, but there were a ton more hikers on the upper trail, including older folks and families with small children. There were also more birds: I spotted a few juncos and an American Redstart, and I heard a raven kork!-ing in the distance.
The trail followed the river a bit higher:
then turned away and passed through an open, meadowy, stream-filled forest. My impression down below was right: the leaves were still developing up here:
|It can't be that much colder... maybe it's the winds, or the thin soil?|
Around noon, I arrived at a junction with a flat gravel trail. A nifty rock formation stood at the corner: pentagonal columns similar to those I'd seen on Old Rag:
|"If you wanted ketchup for your rock fingers, LarLar, you should have remembered to pack it."|
But then I checked the sign at the other corner:
I'm not that limber, but I sure as heck was lost. Somehow I'd missed the turn a mile and a half back for the fire road that would have taken me straight across to Hawksbill Mountain. That must be why the day hiker had stopped at that map.
Welp, I had no choice but to add another mile and a half to my detour and loop back by way of Limberlost and Crescent Rock trails.
Limberlost was almost wheelchair accessible, though, so I made good time.
|Those things can travel over gravel, right?|
I peeked up at the sky as I went. The forecast had showed "scattered thunderstorms" for that afternoon, but so far it held only patchy clouds.
Crescent Ridge trail, which forked off to the east of Limberlost, was a bit rougher, but still not hard--more disused than truly difficult. It led me along the ridge for a mile or so, then ended at Skyline Drive,
just a few hundred feet up the road from the overlook that shared its name:
|Hawksbill is the one to the left.|
I would say it was weird to see all that pavement and all those cars up this high, but it's actually not that unusual for Eastern mountains.
Despite the cognitive dissonance, those rocks made a good spot for lunch and note-taking. I wrote my fill, then followed a side trail down to the AT.
|"Here again!" the Lars remarked.|
That stretch of the Trail contoured along a steep slope, bolstered at points by a rock wall beneath it. It wasn’t long before I saw my first thru-hiker (easily identified by his pack, poles, beard, and general aura of disheveledness).
A mile or so from the overlook, the trail traversed a rockslide (rather like the ones on La Luz back in Albuquerque).
|Rocks and rooks and rucksacks... all we're missing is a rake wreaking wrack.|
The rocks were marked as off-limits so that the vegetation between them could regrow, so I didn’t stop to scramble.
As I discovered (my map wasn't the clearest), the AT looped all the way around Hawksbill, then met with a spur trail that doubled back to the summit.
|So that’s how you want to play it, mountain?|
About 100 feet up the trail, though, I had the brilliant idea to stash my pack behind a tree, since I'd be returning by the same trail. Best. Idea. Ever. I sprang up the mountain with feet as light as air, free at last to rejoice in the natural beauty. Veeries fluttered down to land on my shoulders and sing along with me…
...until a huge clap of thunder shattered my illusions. Hoo boy. There I was, climbing to a summit in a storm. I dashed up the trail anyway, thinking I could tag the top real quick and run back down (I know, I know, that’s a great way to end up as a “Picnic, lightning.” case), but then it started raining, so I hid under a laurel bush to wait it out.
|"Why is the sky using Water Gun on us, MomMom?"|
Five minutes later, though, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Huh. See, I knew Pamola would forgive me eventually.
I continued on to the summit, running the last hundred meters or so in an ineffective effort to get away from a bee that felt some mysterious compulsion to land on my head. The couple just up the trail from me must have thought I was crazy… hush, you readers.
|"LarLar, get down! You'll set a bad example for the humans!"|
As expected, the views up top (from the summit's newly-renovated observation platform) were amazing. The Blue Ridge marched away to the northeast; the Page Valley lay to the west, two thousand feet below:
But the moment's clear weather wouldn't last long; a ring of clouds surrounded the summit at just about eye level:
Rather than tempt fate, I took one last look at the cliffs along the summit and headed down.
As I was leaving, a catbird flew by and landed about five feet in front of me. I meowed a greeting; it didn’t respond. Maybe I'd insulted its mother? Anyway, I’m sure that left those fellow hikers even more confident in my sanity.
My pack was right where I'd left it, barely even wet from the sprinkling we'd received. As I paused to write down the events since lunch, I heard sirens in the distance—another reminder of how close civilization presses, even in mountains like these. And then more thunder.
I scribbled a conclusion to my notes, then dashed back to the AT, hoping I could outrun the storm and reach the campground first. But it was coming fast:
|...and I was walking right into it.|
A quarter mile down the trail, I saw signs for an AT shelter, so I detoured downhill to wait out the storm in there:
Just as I'd sat down under its roof, lightning flashed again to the south. I'd made the right decision.
A young couple soon joined me under the shelter. They were taking ten days to hike 80 of the 100 miles of the AT running through the park. It sounded quite leisurely, compared to my overambitious hike-plan.
The rain began while we were chatting, loud, hard drops pounding against the roof.
A few more fellows wandered in as the storm went on: a guy I'd passed on my way south, an old man and a younger one who seemed to recognize each other from earlier stretches of the trail--thru-hikers?--and a pair of chatty men. The young thru-hiker said that like me, he'd hoped to camp at Big Meadows that night, but all their campsites had been reserved. I'd thought they operated first-come-first-serve--perhaps they had in April, when I'd planned the trip, but not anymore. This guy had passed a vacant backcountry site on his way north, though, so I figured I'd try for that instead.
A lightning strike hit really close. The old guy and I both jumped; we all felt the thunder.
As I waited, I drank all but the last sip of my water--I'd sweated through the rest of the 2.5 liters I'd brought. I hoped I'd find a spot to refill them along the trail.
Fortunately, the storm didn't last too long. I waited until the birds started singing again, then headed back to the trail around 5 pm. As you'd expect, it was pretty wet:
|Trail used Muddy Water!|
As before, the trail followed the ridge through forests, laurel thickets, and the occasional meadow. Veery songs and raven cries filtered through the trees; every few minutes, a chipmunk darted across the path. I swear, there were enough of them on that ridge to fill a whole chipmonastery.
A mile or so later, I found the backcountry site the guy at the shelter had mentioned. Not only was it unoccupied, it was also much roomier than I'd expected and right next to a gorgeous overlook:
|From later in the evening, but bear with me.|
I plopped my pack down and set up my tent…
…only to remember, as I pounded the last stake, that I was nearly out of water.
So I slugged my last remaining sip, then continued down the trail towards Big Meadows in search of a stream. I wasn’t looking forward to purifying water—would those chlorine tablets in my pack actually kill off all the diarrhea-inducing bacteria? The alternative didn’t bear thinking about; I only had ten squares of TP left.
But today was not the day I'd have to test those tablets. The ridge was dry as a bone, so I wound up hiking a mile out before I found a stream. By then, though, I was barely half a mile from Big Meadows, so I figured I might as well continue on to the good stuff.
Before long I could hear the cars on Skyline Drive and smell the fires of Big Meadows Campground and Montane Recreational Funplex (tm) (Which Hopefully Has Potable Water (It Ought To, It's A Car Campground)). I followed a spur trail up a steep hill...
...and arrived in the middle of some startled-looking guy’s campsite. Begging his pardon, I crossed through his site and into the campground proper.
The place was huge, I soon realized, nearly as big as Smokemont, the 200-site monstrosity where I had the displeasure of sleeping on the one night I spent in the Smokies. But at least Big Meadows had soap in its bathrooms.
And speaking of bathrooms: as I crossed the lawn to the nearest one, I came alongside a family of deer that were ambling through the campground without a care in the world. Minivans? Pah! Humans? Whatever! Venison on the grills? That's hardly our problem, is it?
But then I stepped a hair too close, and they freaked out:
If they had any sense, I knew they'd run away from me... but I swear, I had felt the moment when the little logic-switch in their heads flicked off, and I didn't want to end up in their mindless-charge path. So I backed away slowly and gave them room to run away, drawing laughs from the passersby.
I filled both my bottles, then spent about fifteen minutes wandering the campground in search of the ranger station and a better map of the area, since I'd wandered off the Whiteoak-area one around midafternoon. I finally found both at the top of the ridge--right next to the road, duh.
I headed back by way of Startled Dude's campsite, apologizing once more--but hey, it wasn't my idea to put the link to the AT right behind his fire-pit.
By the time I returned to my site, the afternoon's clouds had dispersed. Judging that I had another hour or so of daylight, I fixed myself some supper, then bear-bagged my food--ten feet high and four feet from the nearest tree trunk--and settled in for the night. While eating, I'd spotted some rain-clouds down in the valley:
so I left the tent-cover on.
All in all, I'd traveled 11.5 miles that day: 5 miles up Whiteoak Canyon, 1.1 miles along Crescent Ridge, 2.4 to the Hawksbill summit and back to the AT, 1 to my campsite, and 3 miles round-trip to the Big Meadows faucets. Not bad for a newbie backpacker.
I slept passably well that night. Thunder boomed in the distance as I settled down to sleep, and it rained pretty hard around 9:30-10 pm, but the storms never came too close.
I woke before sunrise to the rehearsal of the Shenandoah Tabernacle Choir, Avian Division. Those birds are loud! As I broke camp, I made up my mind to come back here with binoculars and a field guide... sometime when I wouldn’t have to lug them up the mountain.
|This site was pretty nice.|
With the help of my new map, I picked out a path that took me more or less directly down the mountain, following the Fisher's Gap fire road to the base of the Dark Hollow Trail, then on to the park boundary. From there, I'd walk along some roads through the tiny town of Syria to Weakley Hollow Road, and then back to the trailhead. Seemed doable enough.
I took one last look over the cliff:
|Fog on the river...|
and headed out.
The way down was, well, fire-roady: long, wide, and well-graded:
|What's around the fire-road bend... waiting just around the fire-road bend...|
I was grateful for the gentle incline, though--with that pack on, who knows what plunge-stepping would have done to my knees?
The Falls of Dark Hollow turned out to be right at the base of their trail, so I didn't need to detour to see them. Heeding the warning:
I got no closer than the bridge below the falls:
|Yup, it's another waterfall.|
The fire road went on for another several miles, alternating between rocks and grass, and led me along the side of the ridge and down into the Rose River Valley. To my surprise, I only saw a few other hikers--I guess this isn't a popular part of the park.
The trees grew taller as I descended, their foliage thicker, the air humider. Like Whiteoak Canyon, this valley was full of water: coursing down the streams:
dripping from the cliffs, and puddling in the middle of the trail.
At last, I reached the park boundary.
The trail spat me out at a little cul-de-sac at the end of VA-670. I strolled down the road, past a cluster of worn-looking houses, each with their own squadron of rusting pickup trucks parked out front, and along a long, straight flat stretch.
Just when I was beginning to doubt that this road would ever reach Syria, I arrived:
|Population: Too Low to Fit on a Sign|
and realized that my park maps' scale might not be all that accurate outside the park. Either that, or two miles of asphalt goes by really slow.
I swung through the downtown:
|In all fairness, there were houses on both sides of this field.|
and turned down Weakley Hollow Rd.
And after another two hours of walking, I finally made it back to Whiteoak Canyon. Its parking lot was crammed to the gills; some folks were even paying to park in yards along the street. I felt a little guilty for taking up my spot for so long, but I guess I helped the locals make a few bucks.
All in all, I estimate I walked another 12-14 miles that day--seven within the park and five to seven without--for a triplong total of 24-26 miles. Good to know I can do that in a pinch.
And yes, my legs could barely move the next morning.
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