Our Summer Vacation – Five Nights in Shenandoah Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Nothing beats getting out of the city for vacation. From our nation’s capital, that usually means heading east to the beach or west to the mountains.

This year, I wanted to go a step beyond car-camping and overnight hiking and try a longer wilderness adventure. After reading a few too many trail journals and far, far too many posts about ultra-light backpacking, I asked Tori how she would feel about attempting to hike the Shenandoah National Park portion of the Appalachian Trail. She was enthusiastic, as well as reasonably skeptical about my ambitious plans to emulate thru-hikers who had been on the trail for weeks by clocking 15-plus-mile days on the trail.

We decided that we’d go big, but stay flexible. The portion of the AT that runs through Shenandoah has many “escape hatches” for the beleaguered hiker, including campgrounds, lodges and Skyline Drive, where it’s easy to hitch.

Map

Southern portion of Shenandoah National Park. Red line is Skyline Drive. Dashed green line is the AT. Source: National Park Service.

Our friends Ben and Ariel followed us to the park and we all drove south together after dropping off our Corolla at Compton Gap, the northern-most point in Shenandoah where the AT and Skyline Drive intersect.

Ultimately, we walked about half the park, saw a couple bears, met a few bad-ass through hikers, had a great time and – speaking for myself – worked harder than I ever have before.

No, seriously, let me tell you about my pack weight

Since we were attempting a long hike, I wanted to make sure we cut down on pack weight as much as possible. While I’m embarrassed to say how much time I spent thinking about pack weight, it was probably worth it. My base weight – everything except food and water – clocked in under 20 lbs. Tori sported less than 15. This was largely due to an investment in a relatively light 4 lb. tent and a commitment to making solid tradeoffs between the weight on our backs and our comfort in camp. Neither of us ever felt burdened by our bags in the park, even as we loaded them up with meals, snacks and many liters of water.

Our friends Adam and Susanna, who had hiked most of the Appalachian Trail a few years ago, also urged us to get hiking poles. I’m glad Adam mentioned this to me twice – I needed to hear it. The poles saved my butt a few times, preventing little twists and stumbles and greatly reducing the amount of stress I was placing on my legs.

BeforeAndAfter

We did an overnight in Shenandoah about a year ago. Now we’re a few pounds wiser. Smaller pack, less gear, no big-ass camera. Source: My big ass camera, Tori’s much lighter smartphone.

Animals distract us from animals

This is the most objectively exciting thing that happened to us on our hike:

On our third day, we stopped for a snack in a parking lot. Two women and a young man were getting dropped off by another young man. As they departed, the fellow doing the dropping off told us they had been joking with one another about who would break down and run away from the group first. Tori and I passed them, said hello, and figured they were bound to have as much of an adventure as we were.

A few minutes later, I spied a score of yellow jacket wasps in the middle of the trail hovering around what was either a desiccated animal skull or a pile of scat. All I know is it was grey and there were a lot of wasps. I stopped and surveyed my surroundings, wondering if I was witnessing the aftermath of some minor wildlife act of violence.

Perhaps I was – I looked up and saw two bear cubs and what I assume was their mother.

“BEAR,” I shouted – the same way I heralded the arrival of the first one I’d seen in the wild a bit less than a year ago in the same park. Tori and I backed up, still facing the trail and the bears, so we could warn the folks behind us. One of the bear cubs scaled a tree and looked at me. I have to admit he was pretty cute, but that did nothing to reduce my anxiety given his inability to vouch for his older relatives.

Black Bear Cub - Shenandoah National Park

Representative black bear photo. We did not stop to take our own picture. Source: Larry W. Brown on Flickr.

We told the folks behind us that there were some bears ahead. We quickly learned that this was their first hike in the woods in several years. One of the women, a self-described Air Force wife, had packed a taser in case of bear attack – something I’d not seen before – and she brandished it and made sure it was working – a lightning bolt jumping between coils.

After chatting for a few minutes, we decided to proceed – LOUDLY – down the trail.

Remember the yellow jackets? Yeah, me neither. While I had mentioned them to everyone, we had all unfortunately forgotten about them by the time we decided to hike past the bears. In a complete failure of outdoor leadership, I stepped on them, resulting in one sting for me, zero for Tori and several for the three folks behind us.

Naturally, this improved both the group’s LOUDNESS and speed. One of the women called out that she had packed an EpiPen given her allergy to bees. I searched my mind for any distinguishing characteristics between bees and wasps with regard to human allergies and came up embarrassingly empty.

We rounded a turn or two and informed the folks behind us that we were stopping. I felt terrible about forgetting the wasps – I suppose we all did! – and apologized profusely as we offered up a half-tube of Cortisone Tori had wisely taken from Ariel.

Thankfully, everyone was fine. For three people who had just spent their first hour seriously backpacking – one of them for the first time in 25 years – they took it in remarkable stride. As one of the women put it, ‘Well, I guess I learned I can run with this much weight on my back!’ We ran into them again late in the day and they seemed simultaneously exhausted and committed to their hike.

We saw no more bears that day – and we would see just one more cub on our last day on the trail.

Regardless, as Tori noted, things can turn on a dime when you’re in nature. The serenity we were feeling on our snack break was completely shattered in minutes, replaced by a mix of adrenaline and absurdity.

Still, going into the wilderness, especially a well-developed and mapped tract of wilderness, is less dangerous than driving or hundreds of other activities we take for granted. Indeed, we ran into a family early on our third day – a mother and two young children who described themselves as “flatlanders” from the Carolinas, who had internalized this sentiment completely. The mother said her friends sometimes admonished her for taking her children on long hikes. ‘You don’t know who you might run into out there.’ Well, sure, but you run into a lot less of them. And every single person we did run into on the trail was unfailingly kind.

Hydration and unlocking “full mammal” mode

We made our Shenandoah hike attempt in July, which in retrospect was a bit of a gamble. When we hit the trail with Ben and Ariel, the heat index was surely in the “caution” zone if not the “extreme caution” zone in sunny areas. And we were hiking up mountainsides. In fact, some of those mountainsides even had the audacity to face east and bake in the sun all morning. Suffice it to say, I’m glad we had a bunch of water bags on us, including an extra Ben and Ariel left us with after they hiked back to their car on day 2.

It’s also worth mentioning that July is the end of mating season for black bears, so park employees made a special effort to emphasize the need to hang bear bags and watch out for bears on the trails.

Hiking in the heat and humidity was much more taxing than we expected. We stuck it out for the second and third days, hiking about 13 miles to Blackrock Hut and then 12 miles to Ivy Creek overlook, respectively, but our spirits were flagging. Two long uphills on each of those days left me guessing as to how much pain we’d be in by the time we made it to the next camp. Even the joy of stopping by a Shenandoah “wayside” to get a burger and a milkshake was tempered by walking up a mountain in the afternoon sun to get back to the AT.

By day three, we’d been quaffing and retaining massive amounts of water, pushing our calves and feet hard, and sweating through our clothes. When we ate, we did so knowing we had to, not realizing we were hungry until a few bites into our snacks or dinner. Setting up and breaking down camp – and hanging bear bags – felt more like thankless labor instead of a simple chore.

We had unlocked what we came to call “full mammal” mode, reverting back to fairly basic senses involving thirst, hunger, aches and – in my case – significant body stank. Indeed, I felt about as gross as I ever have in my adult life. My muscles and joints felt more taxed than they ever have weightlifting or running, and I was less than 100% on-point mentally as a result.

At Ivy Creek overlook, we enjoyed the sunset and debated the merits of taking an easy day or pushing ahead for what we had planned as our biggest day yet – nearly 20 miles to Lewis Mountain. After a semi-restful night’s sleep, a cup of coffee each and our layperson’s guess at how the rest of the day’s heat and humidity would shape up, we decided to hitch rather than hike.

To her credit, Tori was in far better shape than I was. She actually started the morning by telling me she was up for 20 if I was. I couldn’t even imagine it.

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Gas station style donuts make us think we are momentarily invincible. I think we ate these in about 20 seconds. Our mammal senses told us they were the greatest donuts ever made.

After just 15 minutes, we caught a ride with a north-bound liquor store manager who took us all the way to Big Meadows, where we toured the visitors’ center and treated ourselves to a lodge stay.

The visitors’ center is darn good; the Park Service presents Shenandoah’s history relatively objectively, including a fair-minded focus on how the feds dispossessed Appalachian people of their homes and heritage as they cleared residents from the land that became the park. They also highlight some frank correspondence from the post-war period when the park’s picnic grounds were finally desegregated. (I honestly hadn’t thought about this before…it used to be federal policy to segregate nature.)

Rest is nice, hiking with a great partner is even nicer

A rainstorm blew over the park after we hitched to Big Meadows and we counted ourselves doubly lucky. Attempting 20 miles in the rain would have been even worse than we had anticipated.

We definitely needed the rest. We also needed the calories. I made quick work of a pulled pork sandwich and we chased dinner with a large ice cream sundae. It certainly beat the mac and cheese and instant potatoes we had purchased the day before at a camp store.

We used a plastic trash bin in our room as a wash basin for our gnarliest items of clothing and draped everything to dry around the room.

We took some time in the lodge’s Great Room to reconnect with the world via wifi. After three days away from the Internet my inbox looked more like a burden than an information hub. How much time do I really spend on email, I wondered, since I probably check it 100 times a day? I sent two emails that seemed pressing at the time, but weren’t, and let Ben know we were at the lodge. He wrote back immediately and forcefully urged me to get off email.

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Great Room at Big Meadows Lodge, which we preferred to Skyland Resort. Source: Tori.

The next day was perhaps the nicest on the trail, We had 10 hours of deep sleep under our belts and we were excited that we had “just” 8 miles to go between Big Meadows and Skyland, where we had reserved a lodge stay many months ago. We were sore, but refreshed, taxed but not exhausted, caffeinated, but not dehydrated. It was a perfect day of hiking. The subtle drop in temperature and humidity made a huge difference. We leisurely sipped a little more than a liter of water each over the day’s hike, a stark contrast to previous days on the trail, during which we had to chug to keep up with our overactive sweat glands.

Our spirits were buoyed and we happily chatted our way through the woods.

This is the most subjectively exciting thing that happened to us on the hike: we realized that after more than a year of dating, we’ve become best friends. Tori is my partner, my confidant and my constant supporter. That was nowhere more evident than on the trail when she helpfully reminded me to eat when I got pale, take it easy when I was trying to stomp a mountain under my feet and sit back and enjoy the sun-dappled arboreal canopy unfolding above and below us. Apparently, I’m pretty okay, too, in her estimation.

If there is a time and a spot where I think I realized this, it was around Franklin Cliffs.

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Thru hikers

If the AT were dotted with places like Big Meadows and Skyland every 8 miles, I’m sure I could do it at a breezy clip and at significant expense. It ain’t – and thus all the more admiration for thru hikers.

On night one, we camped at Calf Mountain shelter, the first AT hut in the park. We met Voldemort and Roxy, a hiker and an incredibly well-behaved pup, who were making big, big tracks in the park, looking to do a flip-flop thru-hike as fall closed in on Mt. Katahdin in Maine. (“Trail names” are big out on the AT.)

They were up and out of camp long before we woke up, surely trying to beat the heat. We read a note from Voldemort at the next hut where we arrived late in the evening. She had gotten there before lunch.

We also ran into Grey Ghost, a retiree who was completing a thru-hike he had put on hiatus after breaking his sternum from a fall on the trail.

The last thru hiker we met – we were too exhausted to catch his trail name – had trimmed his pack down to the bare essentials, including a tarp tent, which gave me some mega ultra-light jealousy. The last time we saw him, we was hiking past our tent as we groggily woke up to the fourth day of our hike.

The trail wins

I had Grey Ghost in mind on Day 6 as my stride began to falter. We were doing “just 11 miles” between Skyland and Pass Mountain Hut, with a small detour for Stony Man, the 2nd-highest point in the park. The view was breathtaking, perhaps so much so that the rest of the trail started to seem monotonous. I got tired of looking at rocks, probably because they were beating the hell out of my feet. We had opted to hike in trail runners to cut down on weight and while they were holding up okay for Tori, my left foot felt like it was getting clobbered.

I was getting mad at the trail – and at the rocks, in particular – especially when I had to catch myself with my hiking poles. I wasn’t feeling great and I let Tori know. We assessed ourselves at Thornton Gap, where Skyline intersects U.S. Route 211, and I didn’t feel safe clambering over more rocks that day. I also wasn’t sure how recovered I’d be for making it another 20 miles over two days back to our car.

I was picturing pizza and Miller High Life, too, and it was tempting to know that they were just three hours away. Thru-hikers, of course, don’t have the luxury of quickly shuttling themselves home.

We decided to bag it and hitched back to the Corolla. This time, finding a ride took about an hour, a slightly frustrating experience since we’d been so spoiled with our first hitch attempt a few days before.

Passing through the park’s Northern District in the trunk of a minivan with some local Virginians and their gregarious Texas relatives, I noted the many points at which the AT intersects Skyline Drive – points we wouldn’t be walking through. I felt a little remorse, but my foot was thanking me.

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Key stats:

Miles hiked: 48.3
Calories consumed: thousands!
Best camp food surprise: pepperoni sticks as an addition to rice and beans

Main gear:

  • MSR Hubba Hubba NX tent
  • Osprey packs: Exos 58 (no top pouch) and Aura 50
  • Big Agnes sleeping bags and pads
  • Sawyer filter and several bags
  • Snowpeak titanium cook pot
  • Trangia spirit burner stove w/ denatured alcohol fuel
  • Smartwater bottles and Tupperware
  • Luxury items: Kindle, headphones and smartphones, Starbucks Via packets
  • Hugs and fist bumps