Sunday, June 17, 2018

Loop Hike: Nicholson Hollow, Stony Man, Whiteoak Canyon, Berry Hollow, Weakley Hollow (~1000-4011')

For the last of my spring-training hikes, I went big: a base-to-summit, dawn-to-hopefully-not-dusk loop from the Old Rag parking area to the summit of Stony Man, the second-highest peak in Shenandoah National Park, and back. As planned, the loop would cover 15 miles; a route change on impulse bumped it up to 18 miles, in which I gained and lost at least 3500 feet. If I could handle this hike, I figured, I could handle anything the southwestern highpoints would throw at me in a single day.

To make sure I could fit the whole loop into one day (because I kind of hate backpacking), I showed up at the Old Rag lot around 7:30 pm on June 15, the day before the hike. The place was quiet then, but the fact that the hand-sanitizer dispensers in all seven of the lot's porta-potties were completely empty testified to the crowds that had come and would soon come again (and cover those rocks in fecal bacteria, I supposed, suddenly glad I'd be hiking the other way. If you want to stay clean, BYOB.)

I tossed my tent into my pack, self-registered for a "backcountry camping" permit, and hiked a mile up the Nicholson Hollow trail until I found a nice flat spot to sleep, in a grove of pines within hearing distance of the river.

Even after pitching my tent and setting up camp, I still had a good half-hour of light-enough-to-see-the-paper-I'm-writing-on. (Isn't summer great?) And then the gloom crept in and the fireflies came out. I watched them drift across the clearing, their glow-bums strobing through the moonless night like airplanes coming in for landing, then fell at last to sleep.

The night was dark--the few times I woke up, I literally couldn't see my hand in front of my face--but thankfully quite short. By 5:30 a.m., I could see the red cloth of my pillow (the last color to return each morning). I lingered in bed for another hour, then got up, broke camp, hauled the overnight gear back to my car, and swapped it for my day pack.

With much lighter steps, I headed back up the Nicholson Hollow trail, intending this time to follow it to its far end at Skyline Drive.

For the first couple of miles, the trail ran parallel to the river up a relatively flat valley. All along the banks, the vegetation looked battered and washed-out, with downed trees and piles of brush all over the place--I'd blame flooding from the heavy rain we'd had all spring.

Half a mile or so past the Corbin Mountain junction (where I'd joined this trail last time), I came to its first interesting feature: a set of stepping-stones across the river:

All above water--hah!

From there, the trail left the river and pushed deeper into the valley, rising gently through the sunlit forest.

I stopped for my first break about four miles in, beside a clearing occupied by a little log cabin:

No idea why it was there--there weren't any interpretive signs or anything. It looks modern-made, though. Maybe it holds equipment for the park rangers?

After that, the trail finally began to rise in earnest, but still nowhere near as steeply as I'd expected of a base-to-ridgeline hike. I kept waiting to hit a ravine wall, or a scramble section, or something more painful than a slightly sloped stroll... but nope, this is Virginia, so the worst I got was a long uphill stretch at the end:

Doesn't this look like an elvenpath?

And then I popped out from the woods onto the grassy margin of Skyline Drive, the highway that traverses the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains all the way through Shenandoah National Park.

For those too lazy to hike up the old-fashioned way.

I crossed the road and headed south. The margin was a little overgrown--it didn't make for the easiest walking--but the road was pretty quiet, so I didn't run into any trouble with cars.

A quarter of a mile later, I arrived at the parking lot for the Stony Man overlook, from whose asphalt vastness I could see across the Page Valley to the Massanuttens:

Split in the middle by New Market Gap and US-211.

and ahead to the apex of my hike, the distinctive cliff-sided summit of Stony Man.

I crossed the parking lot, then dipped back into the woods and onto the AT, which would take me most of the rest of the way there. As through much of Shenandoah National Park, the trail at first ran along the western slope of the ridge, with steep dropoffs to my right. Halfway to the summit, I heard some suspicious rustlings in the woods--a bear, or just a thru-hiker making like one in the woods? Didn't see what it was; and either way, I didn't want to.

Before long, the trail switched over to the east side of the mountain. It took me up and around a few switchbacks:

and then onto an outcropping halfway up the summit hump, called Little Stony Man, from which I could look back the way I'd come:

See the parking lot?

A few steps further, to my surprise, I came across a rainwater-pool full of tadpoles:

At 3700 feet? ...Well, why not?

A short ways on, the trail veered back into the woods. After a mile or so of steady ascent, it forked into what appeared to be a loop trail around the summit. I took the right-hand fork, following the lead of a slow-moving interpretive tour group (whom I soon ducked past). The trail curved around the mountain, keeping under the trees, and then, just when I was starting to wonder whether I'd climbed the right mountain (since this man didn't look stony at all), it led me to a spur trail marked for the summit:

We are there yet.

And sure enough, a few hundred feet later, there were the cliffs:

Somewhere behind all those people.

About half of those folks were on their way out--it seemed I'd caught up to an earlier tour group that was just about to leave--but the other half stuck around, picnicking and chatting and yelling at their kids to quit climbing on the rocks. Which, admittedly, there were quite a lot of, for a Virginia summit. And the views of the Page Valley were amazing:

I clambered over the rocks until I found a secluded nook to rest in (closer to the cliffs than the children were allowed to go):

Looking south to Skyland, my next destination.

And then, after I'd fed and watered myself, I climbed over the edge and went looking for a view I'd seen on SummitPost. From a certain (very specific) vantage point, the cliffs of Stony Man block out the trees and crowds and everything, and the summit looks almost like a Western peak: jagged, bare, and scrambly enough to make your fingers twitch with anticipation.

I think this is it?

Of course, those cliffs are only about 20 feet tall, and to get that shot I had to step dangerously close to a Protected Area marked off for nesting peregrine falcons (although, in my defense, I couldn't read the "Keep Out" sign until I was already down there--and nobody dive-bombed me, so maybe I was fine?). I definitely wouldn't call Stony Man the next great scrambling destination in Virginia. But it made a nice break from the rest of the day's Class 1 trails, so I can't complain.

By the time I returned to the summit proper, that tour group I'd passed on my way up had arrived--my signal to head out. I finished off the loop trail, then descended the first southbound spur I found, hoping it would connect me over to Skyland, one of the park's major lodging areas. I'd planned to make a pit stop there to fill my water bottles, enjoy the use of their plumbing, and such.

But, as it turned out, Skyland offered none of that to the unregistered visitor on foot. The place is a rental-cabin village, not a campground. As such, it's built at car-scale, with quarter-mile loops of road between points of interest, and none of its facilities are open to the public, not even a tap.

Oh well. At least I learned a bit of history while passing through.

Fortunately, I'd overpacked on water (or, more likely, under-drunk on my ascent), so I had enough to get me down without replenishment. The question, though, was how. I'd planned to just stroll down the Old Rag Fire Road again, but when I came to the trailhead at the far end of Skyland, I realized that the quickest way to get to the fire road was along the uppermost half-mile of the Whiteoak Canyon trail. Descending [link: that one] would be a lot more interesting than repeating the fire road. Could I make a feasible loop of it?

I checked my map. The Whiteoak Canyon trail would put me out just a few miles down the Berry Hollow Fire Road from where the Old Rag road would leave me. I still had lots of energy and plenty of daylight--it was only a little after noon. Why not take the fun way down?

So I did. The upper section of the Whiteoak Canyon trail was smooth and wide--built for the majority of Whiteoak hikers, I assumed, who start from the top and hike down to the upper falls.

I passed the old rock fingers at the Limberlost junction:

Forgot the ketchup again, didn't you, LarLar?

the handful of streams that feed into the falls:

Splish sploosh.

and then I arrived at the main attraction:

Yep, that's a hundred-foot drop for you.

It was pretty crowded there, as it was throughout the trail, so I didn't spend long at any particular overlook. The terrain was also a lot more rugged than I'd remembered, nearly Class 2 in some spots. No wonder I'd been so tired last year after ascending it with an overnight pack on.

I laugh at them, but those are, in fact, wise words.

As the afternoon wore on, I continued down--step, step, plunge, step step step, plunge, plunge--past more overlooks and waterfalls I recalled from last time:

A little leafier this time through.

and all shapes, sizes, and species of fellow hikers (Shenandoah is one of the few dog-friendly national parks).

At last I reached the bottom:

where a hot and muggy lowland June awaited me. Wonderful. I chugged the last of my penultimate water bottle, shook the water out of my shoes (they'd been soaked as I crossed the creek between the trailhead and the parking lot), and made my way around the lot to the Berry Hollow fire road.

The first mile or so of that road was paved--a little asphalt track through the forest, just wide enough for two cars to squeeze by each other at low speed--and the rest was smooth gravel:

My map had suggested it would be flat, but it actually rose quite steeply from the river bottom to the saddle beneath Old Rag--too steep for comfort for my now-quite-tired legs. I'd been on the trails for so long that for once I was bored of my own thoughts, so I pulled out my mp3 player and started up the audiobook of Jane Eyre I'd been listening to earlier, which I'd left off at the chapter in which she wanders around the moor-towns begging for bread and nearly starves to death.

By the time I hit the junction with the Old Rag trails, I wasn't feeling much better than Jane. I'd been fine all the way down Whiteoak Canyon, but somewhere on this stretch I hit a wall--my legs just stopped wanting to move. They say this happens to marathon runners around mile 20 of 26.2, once their bodies deplete the store of glycogen that powers their muscles. I was at mile 15 of this 18-mile hike, plus I'd lost my appetite for the Clif bars in my pack a few miles back (I'd eaten three already that day, and the thought of more was kind of nauseating). But the nearest edible food was back at the trailhead, in my car, so I set aside the fatigue and trudged on.

And on, and on, and on, down the muddy, footprint-pocked Weakley Hollow Fire Road, past throngs of peppy teenagers still amped up from the Old Rag scramble--but not so amped up that I couldn't pass them, hah!--over the final bridge:

and down Nethers Rd. to the parking lot. Where I promptly dropped my pack, shucked my shoes, and collapsed in a heap on my car.

The time was 4:45 pm. The water in the passenger-seat footwell was lukewarm but delicious. The annual National Parks pass I'd left on my dashboard had partially melted. (Hope I didn't need its magnetic strip for anything.)

Welp, I'd done it. 18 miles in a day, with enough strength left (after a brief rest and a considerable amount of trail mix) to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive home. I was as ready to head West again as I'd ever be.

Or so I thought.

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