54 Miles of Northern Virginia in April: Harpers Ferry to Front Royal, Part 2
This is the sequel to my post about the first half of this section hike. You can read part 1 here!
April 30th: Ten Miles to Rod Hollow Shelter
We awoke to another crisp morning but sluggish mental state on day four of this hike tented on the lawn at Bears Den hostel. It was only a matter of time before our city legs said “Hey, wait a minute…”
I’m usually the one who sleeps in, yet I was up earlier than I wanted to be, tired, and wanted to just get going because of it. My hiking partner was not feeling great in general and his ankles weren’t so happy with him, as he was using this hike to further break in a new pair of boots. Cue the inevitable clash at some point when it comes to hiking with a partner.
Both people don’t always have good and bad days on the same day, and this was the first time we had to have some debate about what to do. He didn’t think he was going to make it very far that day, and we actually considered just hiking three miles to the next shelter and calling it a day. This frustrated me, but I took a refresher in my mind to repeat “remember why we’re here” to myself.
We eventually sauntered inside to the kitchen of the hostel, where there were pancake mix ingredients and directions out on the counter next to a waffle maker. I joked about not wanting to be the one to mess it all up, and we got to know another hiker as he made the batter with us. Five minutes later I battled the waffle maker as I pried batter off in front of a small audience of hikers as we realized we forgot to spray it first.
This was just what we needed to get ourselves going. The waffles still tasted great and were a luxury considering we may have not stayed there in the first place. After a few laughs with other hikers and dishes done, we hiked out a few hours later in the morning than we had the previous few days.
We took things slow and grew aggravated with each other quickly again as we discussed how we were going to navigate this day of hiking. I finally realized that I needed to only speak of small goals, and we spoke of each landmark that day as if we were going to camp there for the night.
That strategy paid off. We reached the Sam Moore shelter after three miles of hiking, the point that my partner originally said would be his stopping point while he was still in the wakeup process that morning. We rested, snacked, perked up a bit and continued on. The temperatures started to warm drastically compared to what the past few days had been like, and we continued to have beautiful, sunny weather.
We stripped some layers off and played guessing games with how close we were to the top of each uphill section by gauging how tired of going up we were.
“No, you’re not tired of it enough yet. Wait until you’re really sick of it and then we’re probably a tenth of a mile from the top.”
We’d check our location then, and holler in victory every time this system turned out to be starkly accurate.
Seven miles into our day, we took a long break on a beautiful open sloped area next to a creek. Although none of the tent sites were flat, we contemplated staying there so we could enjoy the sounds of babbling water all night. Already having gone four miles further than originally declared in the morning, it was my hiking partner who decided we had it in us to press on another three miles to Rod Hollow Shelter. There was a chance of rain that night and the next day, and it would be to our advantage to hike further on the current day so we had less hiking to do on the rainy day.
End of the Rollercoaster
Just before arriving at the shelter, we reached another trail milestone – the end of the rollercoaster! We discussed our overall consensus, and deemed that it wasn’t that bad. Granted, we had perfect weather, broke it up into two days, and the previous section of the trail we each had hiked prior to this was in Maine where the terrain was a lot more challenging. Don’t let the nickname of a section of trail scare you! I don’t want to undermine the challenge that it is, but after this experience I know it’s possible to hike it in a way that can be more fun than difficult.
Rod Hollow Shelter
There were a handful of people at Rod Hollow shelter that night, so we opted for some secluded tent spots right at the beginning of the side trail to the shelter. The forecast no longer called for rain overnight, but rather starting in the late morning the next day. We made a pact to wake up really early to stay more dry than not during our next day’s hike, and set our alarms for 4:30 AM.
Right as the sun set and we were zipped in our tents beginning to drift off for the night, we heard another hiker roll up and set up at the open spot right next to us. My partner poked his head out of his tent and gave him a courtesy warning.
“Hey just so you know, we’re planning on waking up really early tomorrow.”
“No problem, I like to wake up early too!” he responded.
We looked at each other and shrugged in an unspoken agreement that he probably didn’t mean 4:30 AM type of early, zipped our tents back up in the haze of a sleep process already begun, and were out for the night.
May 1st: 8 Miles to Whiskey Hollow Shelter
I’m a little slow in the morning. According to others, I’m a lot slow, but I can’t believe them, right? All I know is that having my alarm set for 4:30 meant we probably wouldn’t be leaving camp until 5:30 or 6. We packed up quietly in the dark, wondering if we were waking the hiker camped right next to us. I never heard him budge. By the time we got out of there we barely had to hike with headlamps before dawn greeted us and we stopped at the top of the first hill, profusely sweating wondering what we were doing hiking out with all of these extra layers on even though we were just chilly before the sun came up.
Sky Meadows State Park
The predicted rain kept pushing back, and after only about three miles we found ourselves hiking through nearly flat, beautiful sunny meadows on a wide and well maintained trail in aptly named Sky Meadows State Park. We got really excited about a recently installed bench and I used landmarks like these to help me continue my goal of eating more, taking out snacks when I wasn’t really hungry yet.
Rain at Whiskey Hollow Shelter
We arrived at Whiskey Hollow Shelter when it was barely 12:30 pm, our hiking day finished and mission accomplished. The thunder and rain started mere minutes after. We had expected to get wet for part of our day, but had managed to take our time and still completely dodge it. This was a newly built shelter in 2016, replacing an older one near the same location. It was double-deckered with a covered area over the picnic table, and we chose a 2nd-level spot up the ladder to unroll our sleeping bags and hang out for the rest of the afternoon.
A mist and chill set in while the rain pattered on the roof, and a group of six day hikers arrived and unpacked a meal spread like I have never seen before from hikers. They had a sizeable camp stove, fresh vegetables, meat, and put together some amazing smelling Korean food. These ladies were having a great time and offered us part of their meal, but we respectfully declined as we didn’t know how it would sit with our stomachs and were just generally cautious about sharing food on this hike. We both wanted to keep our chances up of staying healthy.
We sat snuggled in our bags and watched a few different hikers come and go along with pockets of rain throughout the afternoon, and enjoyed some conversation with another SOBO hiker we had met at Bears Den hostel until eventually five of us were settled into the shelter for the night.
May 2nd: 10 Miles to Jim & Molly Denton Shelter
Another slow morning had my hiking partner and I in a little tussle again as we meandered towards leaving the shelter. He was eager to leave but wanted to hike together rather than separately. I wanted to stay and stretch at the shelter, a pastime of mine when filling my natural role as “last hiker out of camp.” The misty open woods around the shelter eventually dampened our nerves and we set off into a flower-infused wonderland on a gradual-grade uphill trail.
Misty woods are just about my favorite type of scenery on the trail, although I found out my hiking partner doesn’t prefer it because it also means humidity. We spent most of our time discussing how pretty the different flowers were that seemed to keep popping up along the sides of the trail, and I learned from the AWOL guide that the single, scattered flower we were seeing all over was called Trillium.
At this point, we had some leeway in terms of what to do with the rest of our hike. There were two points we’d be able to go into town, and I had packed enough food to reach that first point. The second point would add 8 miles from the first stopping point. We weren’t ready to go home yet and opted for the latter.
This meant that we would definitely have to do a small resupply for one more night of camping. 7 miles into the day, we reached Manassas Gap at VA 55. There was a restaurant a few miles down the road with a 711 next to it that we had our sights set on, we just didn’t know how we were going to get there and we were hoping we wouldn’t have to walk.
The Apple House Restaurant and a Ride From Nice People
As the saying goes, the trail provides. There were a few people standing and talking at the small parking pull-off where the trail met the road, and we set our packs down ready to plot our next steps for mission Apple House Restaurant. It didn’t take much.
One of the people said hi to us and I asked him if they’d ever been to the restaurant.
“We’re going there now! Want a ride?”
The best hitchhike ever is not even having to hitchhike.
We got into the car with a couple who had to be two of the nicest people on this planet. It turned out they had recently moved to the area and another couple had just taken them on a day hike before they were all going out to eat. I got the vibe that we were some of the first long distance hikers with trail names they had met on the Appalachian Trail. They’re in for a surprise when the hiker bubble comes through!
Although a little spicier than we both anticipated, my hiking partner and I each downed a pulled pork sandwich at the restaurant, disregarding what future consequences of that might be. The couple that drove us over insisted that they also take us back to the trail even though we declined at first as we still had to resupply.
They waited for us outside of the 711 as we gathered up enough snacks for the night and deemed that the few bucks we offered them were not necessary, so we returned their favor by leaving them with a couple squeeze tubes of peanut butter they said they’d use. Now there was less weight to carry for my partner who had been eating nothing but that for the past 5 days and was over it, and we felt like we were at least able to give them something back for the most convenient ride we could have possibly come across.
Jim & Molly Denton Shelter
The next half mile was a sweaty one as temperatures reached the 80s and the 30 degree breeze of just a few days ago was long gone. We figured we’d stop at the small tent area at that point, but upon reaching it decided it would be really nice to have access to a privy that night as we started to reap the consequences of eating those spicy pulled pork sandwiches right before strenuous physical activity while unacclimated to hot weather.
The next 2.5 miles were not the most pleasant, but we were still riding on the high from what just happened, and we made it to Jim & Molly Denton shelter as the first ones there. While we were happy for one more day and night on the trail, this was by far our least favorite night of the trip.
It was an incredibly well maintained shelter area, with a game of horseshoe set up in front and a trove of flowers lining the trail to the privy. Sadly, sometimes when we’re in the presence of beauty, other factors take over so that we don’t enjoy it as much, and this turned into a retreat-to-our-tents type of night. It turned out that to walk to the privy, one had to pass through a gauntlet of bees. Not a big deal, but next in the obstacle course was fending off the wasps in the privy and shelter area.
For a little getaway, I walked farther down the AT to the small creek that was the water source and upon sitting down to fill up my bottle, I realized I was eye to eye with a snake who had the same idea, and also had some type of wound sticking out of the side of it’s body. I’m not great with snakes. So, slightly traumatized, I called it a night long before the sun set.
Nice places attract a lot of people, and a lot of people showed up indeed. Some section hikers tented in the other spots near us, a group of thru-hikers slept in the shelter, and a group of people that didn’t fit into any particular category came in later and set up bivys right in front of the shelter along with a pretty sizeable cooking contraption over the fire pit. They cooked a chicken dinner spread until well past hiker midnight.
Feeling a little claustrophobic combined with the spicy food from earlier, I managed to get a really bad stomach ache just after the sun had set and made a couple trips to the privy, either waiting behind someone or having someone wait behind me both times. I woke up my partner and went and sat in his tent for a while. He tried to make me feel better best he could through the daze of some sleeping aids he had taken to escape the crowd himself, and after wishing we had just stayed at the previous tent site and contemplating just packing up, I made another attempt at heading back to my tent to sleep. The next thing I remember was waking up to sunlight and most others on their way out of camp already.
May 3rd: Five Miles to Mountain Home B&B and Heading Home
Hey, if the worst night of a backpacking trip is just not feeling so well with a minor panic episode at a claustrophobic campsite, I’ll take it.
We had a pretty chill five mile hike down to Route 522 after I enjoyed a giant cinnamon roll I had saved from the 711 the day before and was feeling much better. Rather than going all the way into the town of Front Royal at the road, we noticed on the FarOut guide the previous evening that there was a hiker hostel/bed and breakfast walking distance from where the trail met that road.
We had called and arranged to either stop in for the day if we could find a shuttle out of town that same night, or spend the night if we couldn’t. One of the B&B owners recommended a shuttle driver who happened to be available, so we were able to head home that same day. This meant we went the entire hike without paying to sleep indoors – mission accomplished!
The Mountain Home B&B consisted of a hiker hostel in a small cabin, with the restored historic main house serving as the B&B. Since we were just stopping in for the day, we occupied a table on the back patio to reorganize our things and paid a small fee for a shower, laundry and a frozen pizza. Not to mention the offering of lemonade upon our arrival!
We sat back in the patio chairs and sunned our faces while having intermittent conversation with the friendly owner before our shuttle driver arrived that evening. Our driver’s stories from her job as a hiking guide in Shenandoah entertained us all the way to Washington Dulles airport where we caught the last flight out. Arriving home exhausted but satisfied, I can say this was truly one for the books where the hiking difficulties of the trip were overshadowed by good weather and a good time.
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