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Shenandoah Trip

posted Aug 6, 2014, 7:37 AM by Justin P   [ updated Aug 18, 2014, 5:49 AM ]
This past weekend, we headed north to Virginia for a weekend of camping and hiking in Shenandoah National Park.  The forecast for the weekend suggested a lot of rain and thunderstorms, but we hoped for the best.  We met at Walmart in Oxford and caravanned to the park, taking the more scenic route of US-15 north most of the way.  It drizzled most of the way up, but never rained heavily.  And by the time we arrived at the park, the rain had stopped.  We entered the park through the Thornton Gap entrance and after paying for admission, we headed north on Skyline Drive.  In about 12 miles, we turned into Matthew Arm Campground, our home for the weekend.  After checking in to the campground, we all quickly set up our tents in case the rain started again suddenly.  Camping in the rain is a bit unpleasant, but setting up tents in the rain is really no fun, so we tried to get everything set up as quickly as possible.  After everything was set up, we headed out on our hike for the day.  We were headed to Overall Run Falls, the tallest waterfall in the park.  Conveniently, the trailhead for this waterfall is located in the back of the campground, so we didn’t need to drive any more to reach it.  We walked to the back of loop B and started off on the Matthews Arm Trail, which initially is an old fire road.  Following this trail a short ways, we passed intersections with Weddlewood Trail and Beecher Ridge Trail, then coming to the terminus at Overall Run Trail.  To the right, the trail links to the Appalachian Trail.  We turned left, however, following the trail as it headed down through a series of switchbacks to a ridgeline above the creek, the only steep part of the trail.  There was the 29-foot cascade, though it was barely a drip and then a short ways later, we came to a cliff overlook for Overall Run Falls.  Well, we were supposed to be able to see the waterfall from here, but there wasn’t much to see.  Due to the dry conditions of the summer, the waterfall was barely a trickle.

But the hike wasn’t completely in vain.  The cliff overlook had phenomenal views of the surrounding mountains and we sat here for a little while to enjoy the views.

When we were ready, we made the hike back up to camp.  For dinner, Sandy and I headed to the gift shop at Elkwallow Wayside and picked up some sandwiches to eat at camp.  We built a small campfire and socialized for a few hours and then went to bed early.

Saturday morning, we woke up early and started making our way north on Skyline Drive towards the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center.  Along the way, we had to stop for some deer crossing the road.  Wildlife crossings are a common sight along Skyline Drive.  We arrived at the visitor center and got ready for a short hike to warm up our legs.  As we were getting ready, I walked behind the visitor center to enjoy a wonderful view of the valley beyond in the morning light.

Then we got started hiking across the street on Fox Hollow Trail.  Initially, the trail passes through an open meadow with Queen Anne’s Lace and Bee Balm blooming.  Then, the trail headed into the woods and down into Fox Hollow.  We made a quick stop at the old cemetery, with graves of soldiers who had fought in the Civil War.

Then, we finished up the short loop back at the visitor center.  We stopped inside briefly and spoke with a couple rangers.  After the disappointing waterfall yesterday, we inquired about Lands Run Falls.  The rangers suggested that Little Devil Stairs would be more bang for the buck, so we skipped Lands Run Falls and headed towards the parking area for the longer hike.  Sandy and I were a little behind the rest of the group driving south on Skyline Drive, when we had to stop suddenly for a bear crossing!  A juvenile black bear darted across the road and was poking around in the woods.  I tried to get a picture of him, but he was far enough back in the woods that I couldn’t get a good shot.

Then we continued on to the parking lot of Little Devil Stairs near mile post 19 to tell everyone why were late.  After getting ready, we started off hiking down Keyser Run Fire Road, where we saw some beautiful wildflowers blooming along the trail and several Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies on the flowers.  At the intersection with Little Devil Stairs Trail, we continued straight on the fire road.  In about 2 miles, we came to the Bolen cemetery, a much larger graveyard than the one we had seen previously.  We spent a few minutes browsing the cemetery, taking pictures and checking out the gravestones.  The young ages of many of the deceased were a reminder of how harsh life was in the mountains 100 years ago.

When we finished, we continued on the fire road to the end at a parking area, just outside the park, and got on Little Devil Stairs Trail.  Almost immediately, the trail crossed a creek and we stopped here to eat lunch.  While eating, we checked out some of the aquatic life that lived in this area.  There were crawfish hiding in rocks and a surprising number of fish living in a pool below a small cascade.  Despite being so small, the pool hosted a surprising amount of life.  After lunch, we continued on the trail as it ran parallel to Keyser Run heading upstream.  The trail was gradual at first, but got more strenuous as we entered the Little Devil Stairs canyon.  The small creek flowed through a gorge with high cliff faces on either side.  Hiking through the gorge required climbing stairs, rock-hopping back and forth across the creek, and a few areas of rock scrambling.

Despite the challenge, the gorge was beautiful, and made for a very enjoyable hike alongside the steep cliffs and cascading creek.  Near the top was a small waterfall.  The twelve-foot waterfall on Little Devil Stairs wasn’t high, though it had much better flow than Overall Run Falls we had seen yesterday.

Once at the top, the trail leveled off as it ended back at Keyser Run Fire Road.  A family who were just behind us had been attacked by yellow jackets.  Fortunately, Sandy had some hydrocortisone cream in her bag to share with these people to help alleviate their stings.  Back at the fire road, we turned right and hiked back to the parking area.  We then headed back to camp, but it was still a little early, so Sandy and I headed to Skyline Drive to check out some of the overlooks.  We went north and stopped at Rattlesnake Point and Little Devil Stairs overlooks.  From the latter, we could see the gorge that we had hiked through earlier in the day.  There was an old dead tree right at the overlook that looked quite ominous against the storm clouds on the horizon.

We then stopped at Mount Marshall Overlook and Gimlet Ridge Overlook, then started heading back.

Next, we stopped at Little Hogback and Hogback Overlooks, where clouds were rolling in over the mountains.  Back at camp, we ate dinner and then headed south on Skyline Drive.  We made a quick stop at the tunnel parking for some pictures of Marys Rock Tunnel and then parked at Little Stony Man Parking.

From the parking lot, we hiked to the Appalachian Trail and turned left to go southbound.  At the next intersection, we turned right to hike just a short ways on Passamaquoddy Trail to the Little Stony Man View Point.  Although there were some clouds in the sky, the late evening sunlight was beautiful.  Looking north, we could see Skyline Drive snaking along the ridgeline through the park.

After thirty minutes or so here, we backtracked to the last intersection and followed the AT as it switchbacked up to the top of Little Stony Man for even more phenomenal views.  Our plan was to watch the sunset from here, but clouds on the horizon prevented us from seeing the sunset.

However, before it went completely down, there were great views as the sun dipped behind the clouds before dropping below the horizon.  A small pool of water below some rocks here created a beautiful reflection of the evening sky.

Once the sun was no longer visible, we hiked back down to the cars before it got completely dark.  We drove back to camp and had a nice campfire, drinking tequila and beer and eating s’mores, before heading to bed.

Sunday morning, we woke early and broke camp.  We were on the road by 8, arriving at the trailhead for Old Rag around 9.  Despite our early start, the parking lot was already almost full.  Old Rag is a very popular hike!  Our initial 7-day admission receipt allowed us to hike Old Rag without paying another fee.  From the parking lot, we walked down Nethers Road for just under a mile to the end and got on Ridge Trail to begin our ascent.  The Ridge Trail wastes no time in heading up.  For a couple of miles, it was switchback after switchback as the trail aggressively headed up the mountain.  Although it was still fairly early and not too hot, this portion of the trail was very strenuous and we took several stops to rest and cool off from the humidity.  Soon, the densely wooded trail gave way to the rocky open sections that Old Rag is so famous for.  It would be about a mile to the summit and it was almost all rock scrambling.

Although the going was slow, this was an exceptionally fun scramble and made the strenuous hike up Ridge Trail all worth it.  We climbed up, over, under, and through the giant boulders and rocky outcrops along old rag.  At some points, we had to squeeze through a narrow chasm, at others we had to jump across a ravine.  The hike was tremendously fun and very beautiful.  Some of the rocks we navigated around were positioned in such a way as to seem to defy gravity, looking like a giant dinosaur egg perched precariously on the cliff.

Soon, we made it to the summit of Old Rag and stopped here for lunch.  It was a brief lunch, however.  Looking to the mountains in the distance, we could see storm clouds rolling in and it seemed likely to rain.  Old Rag is not a great place to be in the rain as wet and slippery rocks would be treacherous.

So we quickly ate our lunch and continued on Saddle Trail, down from the summit and past Byrds Nest 1 Shelter and Old Rag Shelter.  At Old Rag Shelter, we had a quick bathroom break at the privy and just as we were leaving, it finally started to rain.  Fortunately, we were past the steep and rocky sections of the trail and now on an old fire road.  In a short ways, we turned right on Weakley Hollow Fire Road and took this back to the trailhead.  It rained pretty heavily the whole way back to the parking lot, but I wasn’t going to complain.  The weather forecast had indicated rain the entire weekend and this was the first rain we had actually gotten.  And hiking on a fire road in the rain isn’t so bad.  Rock scrambling and hiking steep, rocky trails in the rain would have been dangerous and we were fortunate to have avoided that.  Back at the parking lot, we changed into dry clothes and started making our way home.  We stopped for dinner in Richmond at Mexico Restaurant for our usual post-hike dinner of fajitas and Mexican beer and then finished the drive home.  Here's a video I made of our trip: