54 Miles of Shenandoah National Park in July: Front Royal to Lewis Mountain Campground, Part 1
In late July, I set out with a hiking partner to complete the section of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. This is a distance of about 108 miles. Although we ended this section hike halfway through for various reasons, we had some great moments. Overall the hike was very rewarding, and it was a bummer to head home early. I was hoping that this would complete the state of Virginia for me, but now I’m looking forward to completing this section the next time I can get out there. This section hike brought my total Appalachian Trail mileage hiked to somewhere around 1,750.
As I’ve transitioned from doing very long sections on the trail to being down to finishing my remaining miles in short sections, I’ve come to notice that long distance hikes and short hikes are each enjoyable in their own ways. On this hike as well as the hike from Harpers Ferry to Front Royal that I wrote about in my previous post, mileage seemed to matter less and overall enjoyment of the experience mattered more.
Day 1: 2.9 Miles to Tom Floyd Wayside Shelter
My hiking partner and I climbed out of an Uber in front of Mountain Home B&B and Cabbin (spelled this way on purpose), exactly where we ended our last section hike near Front Royal, Virginia, and began walking southbound on the Appalachian Trail straight into a heat advisory. We were both a little apprehensive about choosing to go through northern Virginia in July when we could do this at any time of year, but I was really craving some time on the trail and this was logistically the easiest location for me to reach vs. my other incomplete sections.
I knew my hiking partner had no desire to hike in the heat, especially when our bodies weren’t adjusted to being out in it every day, but he ultimately couldn’t resist coming along for the hike. He completed a thru hike the year prior, but was happy for another opportunity to be back on the trail.
Temperatures pushed the upper 90s that afternoon, making our three miles on city legs feel like 10. Completely beat by the time we reached Tom Floyd Wayside Shelter, we had no idea what we were in for. This shelter site was located in a steeply sloped area, and as a result all of the tent sites and the water source were spread out and located down side trails that were quite the hike. This might not have bothered us in better weather, but the heat after a morning of travel exhausted us so much that the additional hiking to find an open tent site plus separate trips to get water and use the privy felt longer and harder than the actual hiking we did that day.
Once we set up camp and the sun began to set, the misery of getting there faded and the secluded nature of these tent sites felt welcome.
Day 2: 10.5 Miles to Gravel Springs Hut
Neither of us slept well the previous night as our bodies tried to adjust to the day’s exertion, making our early alarms tough to accept. The understanding that we needed to beat some of the heat gradually coaxed us awake, and the hike out of the tent site before the sun started to peak out felt much better than the hike to search for the site the previous evening.
Just under a mile later, we officially crossed into Shenandoah National Park and chatted with another section hiker at the permit box. Although now inside this invisible border, the scenery remained the same and the woods equally as welcoming.
This day is somewhat of a blur because it was so hot that we just wanted to get through it. We took respite at one particularly nice overlook, basking in welcomed cloud cover accompanied by the perfect breeze along the treetops.
We were hoping to reach Gravel Springs Hut before some forecasted afternoon thunderstorms, and although that goal had to take a backseat to making sure we stayed hydrated and didn’t over-exert, we managed to arrive just as the first raindrops started to fall. Exhaustion seems to cause a low-grade inflation in tempers sometimes, and my hiking partner and I began to disagree on the next steps before quickly resorting to letting each other deal with the impending storm in our own ways. He managed to get his tent pitched in the drizzle so that he could be in for the night, while I headed for the shelter to wait a while.
Seemingly mere seconds later, the downpour hit. It resembled the giant dump bucket at a waterpark more than a rain shower. I was thankful to have the shelter to sit under, because although it had been so hot, we knew the humidity wouldn’t let anything dry if we were to get torrentially drenched.
I set up my tent once the rain settled back to a trickle. To my partner’s dismay, he found his tent leaking in places it never had before, causing much of his gear to get soaked. We were both uncomfortable in our own ways that night, as he slept in dampness while I felt awkward listening to all of the thru hikers socialize that showed up at the shelter within clear sight of our tents and having to walk in front of them every time I had to access the privy or bear box. Although they were friendly, my self conscious mind convinced me I didn’t fit in which made for a restless time falling asleep.
Day 3: 5.7 Miles to Elkwallow Wayside and a Ride to Open Arms Hostel
By now I just assume that on every hike a point will be reached where the plan gets thrown out the window. This time it happened on day three. After the previous day, we had a little morale boost by knowing we were going to come upon our first Shenandoah wayside, Elkwallow, that morning. There are a few of these waysides scattered throughout the park, which are picnic areas that have flush toilets and a gift shop that also carries snacks and hot food options. They are spaced out along Skyline Drive, the scenic road through the park.
We knew we would reach the wayside that damp morning before the grill opened, but were excited because we heard they sold jimmy dean breakfast sandwiches and had a microwave. A couple sausage and egg biscuits and a bag of chexmix later, the morale boost unfortunately proved short lived as I could tell my hiking partner was having a hard time. He’ll openly admit that heat is not his thing, and the exertion in the heat and humidity of the last couple days plus the fact that most of his gear was wet was causing him to not feel very well.
He made a comment about wondering if it was possible to get picked up from the wayside to go into the town of Luray. Like clockwork, another hiker we had previously met emerged from the trees, walked up to say hi and admitted she was thinking about really needing to escape this weather and was going to look up the number to the hostel in Luray. Any question of the right decision was over in that moment, and an hour later the three of us were in a van on our way to Open Arms Hostel.
Although unplanned, we knew we had made the right decision to regroup at Open Arms Hostel shortly after arriving. There wound up being six of us staying there – four of us section hikers, a bikepacker and a previous guest who had come back to visit. We chatted on the porch and petted the resident cats and dogs while indulging in some microwave dinners we picked up at Walmart.
My Phone Dies a Sudden Death
After settling into an upstairs bedroom of this home-turned-hostel in a neighborhood in Luray, I sat down with my trusty iphone 7 to look at some unread text messages. My phone froze, then went black. The home button and power button wouldn’t respond. I plugged it in and had to leave it on the charger for a few hours before it gave me any sign of life. I thought it was coming back to me, but the screen started turning all sorts of crazy colors and never left that state no matter what was tried.
As much as I want to say “Oh it was no big deal”, it did feel like a big deal. Although I could hike just fine without it because I had my paper AWOL guide as backup trail guide and was hiking with a partner, I have a feeling most of us would feel some type of anxiety if our phone completely crashed while on a trip as much as we might not want to admit it. The anxiety didn’t so much come from worrying about hiking without it, but rather knowing that I had to make sure I figured it out before going back to work and wondering if I lost everything that was on my phone.
The hostel owner said that they did have someone in town who repairs electronics and she gave him a call for me, but it turned out he was on vacation. Any anxiety was quickly set aside, because there was nothing further I could do. I didn’t see any reason to end the hike there because of it, but it did put a damper on some of the freedom hiking entails because the thought that I had to make sure I was home with enough time to figure this out before work remained in the back of my mind.
After that, I was given an experience I had never planned on that turned out to be amazing in it’s own way. I had complete freedom from my device. Choosing not to check it is one thing, but not being able to is another. There was no guilt over me that I needed to be answering text messages from those back home every time I got the chance, because I couldn’t. I don’t have any more pictures from the hike past that point other than anything my partner might have taken, because I couldn’t take them. I couldn’t glance at my phone if I couldn’t sleep, or pull out my phone to check the farout app every time I wondered how far I was from the top of a climb. It was like turning back time just a little bit.
Day 4: 11.8 Miles to Byrds Nest #3 Hut
I slept hard and strong after settling into the comfy twin bed at the hostel, and we were dropped back off at Elkwallow Wayside that morning ready to start fresh.
Taking frequent breaks was the name of the game on this hike, and 7.4 miles in we took a nice lunch break at Pass Mountain Hut. I should note here that these “huts” I’m referring to are the same as all other Appalachian Trail shelters, this is just what they’re called within Shenandoah National Park.
Bear activity was clearly a big issue here, as there was a huge sign set up in the open area next to the shelter about food storage and how to deal with a bear encounter. We got some water from the water source right behind the shelter, so conveniently located that we wished we were staying there. Being so early in the day though, we stayed just long enough to snack and never saw any sign of a bear.
A Tough Climb to Mary’s Rock
We only had another 4.4 miles to go to reach Byrds Nest #3 Hut, but we first had to face the climb up to Mary’s Rock and had no idea how much it would challenge us. Shenandoah has a reputation for being an “easier” section of the Appalachian Trail. We had both experienced the far northern parts of the trail, which have a reputation for being difficult, and many of these sections of trail through Shenandoah provided some lovely walking compared to the challenge of the hand over hand style of hiking in New Hampshire. However, these are still mountains. We still had to put packs on and walk up them. While it was hot and humid and we were sweating profusely, it didn’t matter what the other sections of the trail did or didn’t feel like. In that moment, we still had to climb up that thing and it was hard.
We were humbled and had to take frequent breaks to stop in the middle of the trail, take some breaths and a swig of water, and slowly continue, one small step at a time. This part of the trail up to Mary’s Rock took on a different feel than most of Shenandoah so far. It was apparent that it was a popular day hiking spot, as the trail was a little wider, yet rocky. Rather than being enveloped by bright green woods on both sides, it seemed to wind up the outside of the mountain, a wall of trees and rock constantly to the right and a steep wooded slope to the left.
Slight pockets of drizzle brought more humidity than relief from the heat, and about three quarters of the way up we were so hot we realized we weren’t going to make it to the top without taking a longer break. We plopped down at the next opportunity we saw a small rock inlet to our right and waited until our energy stores replenished enough to keep going.
The mood completely changed when we reached the glorious flat grade signaling we had reached the top. The air felt inviting rather than stifling against our skin and treetops lent us their damp shade. We didn’t take the side trail to the actual viewpoint of Mary’s Rock because we saw in the guide that we’d have another opportunity for a view just past it on the Appalachian Trail, our tired minds feeling no need to waste precious extra steps. A peanut m&m break in the breeze upon reaching the outcropping of rocks over a leafy valley was enthusiastically welcomed, and was perfectly timed to end as more light drizzle arrived.
Reaching the Shelter and a Hike for Water
The remaining mile to Byrds Nest #3 Hut was mostly downhill, a well-liked way of ending the day. Another section hiker was hanging out at the shelter when we got there, and we were entertained by his stories of his past experiences living in South America. He had managed to avoid the over half mile round trip hike to get water at this shelter because a day hiker had graced him with some extra water, but my partner and I weren’t so lucky.
We set off to fill our bottles on what turned out to be a nice memory though unpleasant at the time. The trail down to the small stream was an overgrown fire road, and for some reason we both felt this eerie energy that we were leaving the known and entering some less-traveled area of the woods. Although not reality, sometimes that feeling of creepy excitement just accompanies the energy in the air. We were startled by a small snake hanging out near what turned out to be a well flowing water source, but he quickly slithered away.
We had some great company that night to while we watched the fog weave through the trees in front of a glowing sky, both from a fourth section hiker and a thru hiker that showed up later and a doe that leisurely strolled around the area like we weren’t even there. We planned on pitching our tents that night and although there were some great tent spots around, every single one of them had a widowmaker (dead tree) hanging directly overhead. We opted to sleep in the shelter for the first time on this hike with the company of two small mice who luckily minded their own business all night. I think it’s only for this reason that I can say they were quite cute!
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back with stories from the rest of this hike in part 2!
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