54 Miles of Shenandoah National Park in July: Front Royal to Lewis Mountain Campground, Part 2
This is part 2 of my post about a section hike on the Appalachian Trail through the Northern half of Shenandoah National Park in July. You can read part 1 here!
Day 5: 10.9 Miles to Rock Spring Hut
This would pan out to be an interesting hiking day to say the least, just due to the vast array of moods we went through within one day. We had a little pep in our step that morning, as the first couple miles made for a pleasant hike and we arrived alongside Pinnacle Picnic Grounds where we stopped to take advantage of a water spigot to refill our bottles. I got excited about the flush toilets until taking a quick glance at their condition and decided that the woods were a better choice! The flies and mosquitoes tend to hang out heavily where people hang out, so we skipped taking a snack break and continued on, soon headed for another climb up Stony Man Mountain.
Heading up Stony Man Mountain
This climb felt a lot more gradual compared to the climb up to Mary’s Rock the day before, yet the pleasant jaunt of the morning changed character. The heat of the day began to fully introduce itself, and we were soon being tailed by a group of about 10 young boys and their leaders up the mountain. Not exactly wanting to be caught in the middle of that group all the way up, we used the sound of their voices as motivation to get us up a little faster, until we couldn’t anymore. Their young energy surpassed us as we took a break at the first viewpoint while we eavesdropped in and out of an instructor teaching rock climbing skills to a few people nearby.
We continued up the mountain in peace, but a little frustrated in general at feeling so tired on such a gradual climb. This is when a discussion happened again that had been happening on and off this entire hike so far. My hiking partner wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue much longer. We were soon going to reach Skyland Resort after the peak of Stony Man Mountain. This is a hotel, gift shop and restaurant with a view, located off of Skyline Drive and generally outside of the backpacking budget but could be an oasis in a pinch. He started to talk repeatedly about trying to end the hike there and seeing if we could get a ride home. He wasn’t doing well with the heat, his tent was having problems, and now his ankle was starting to bother him on top of that.
We decided to cut off the discussion and promise that we wouldn’t make any big decisions until we got something to eat at Skyland. The plan was to grab a microwaveable breakfast sandwich from the grab and go selection and then carry on with the decision making process. This technique of waiting until we’re fed to make any big decisions seems to work well in almost every scenario!
Breakfast Sandwiches and Beers at Skyland Resort
The mood then shifted again for the better after reaching Skyland Resort and chatting with one of the section hikers we had met at the shelter the previous night. His hike was ending there, and he invited us to sit at the restaurant with him. Having already eaten my microwaved breakfast sandwich, I wasn’t hungry, but my partner’s eyes lit up at the excuse to have a burger and I knew that this could change the prognosis of our day for the better.
We had a great chat, and after lunch we accepted his invitation to have a beer at one of the tables in front of the building. It started to rain and the three of us moved our gathering under the overhang in front of the gift shop, the hiker waiting for his hostel room to be ready, and my partner using the light rain as an excuse to postpone hiking as long as possible. (I’m poking fun a little bit, but he totally knows that’s what was happening!) I think that the complication of trying to figure out the logistics of how to get home from that point deterred him from wanting to go down that path, and eventually, thankfully, we picked up and hiked on.
Reaching Rock Spring Hut
It turns out our hours long break in front of Skyland Resort did wonders, and we had a most enjoyable hike the remaining 4.5 miles to Rock Spring Hut. The trail seemed to hug the side of the mountains again, with glimpses of views through the trees to one side that followed us for a few miles. We had hoped to find a stealth camping spot somewhere along the trail but never found one we deemed worthy enough, and I’m so glad we didn’t. Rock Spring Hut turned out to be one of my top favorite shelters of my Appalachian Trail hiking thus far.
Of course, I don’t know what the shelter might have felt like in a more crowded circumstance or different weather, but it was surrounded by sloped open woods and tent sites that resided uphill, with a view down to the shelter and the backdrop of a picture-perfect evening. Our only company for the night soon arrived, a momma and baby deer, strolling the knee-high vegetation and munching on it sometimes mere feet from our tents. It made for quite the interesting sleep when they wound up hanging out all night long, causing us to periodically peer from our tents to ensure that the crunching sound waking us up was still just our deer companions.
Although peaceful, my hiking partner had hinted again that he might want to leave from the next major stopping point the next day, so I savored the restless night as the potential last night of the hike.
Day 6: 8.1 Miles to Stealth Site near Hazeltop Mountain
Our first 3.5 miles that morning brought us to Big Meadows Campground, a larger paid campground in the park. My partner was really not feeling this hike and was once again contemplating this as an endpoint. We went with a similar strategy as the day before and waited to make any decisions until we stopped at the campground to use the quarter-fed showers and laundry machines, something that could really change morale after how hot and sticky it had been.
Hotdogs at Big Meadows Wayside
Feeling refreshed, we figured we could at least continue on a mile longer to Big Meadows Wayside, and what had been a rainy morning let up just in time for us to stake out a picnic table and plan our resupply. This turned into our longest unplanned break of them all spent discussing our options.
I knew how he was feeling. I was on this hike on a mission, to complete another section of the trail. He had already completed his thru-hike and was really just there this time to come along because I was going. Being on a backpacking trip simply for the enjoyment of it, with ample opportunities available to end the hike early, feeling beat by heat and humidity, dealing with a leaking tent, and enduring growing ankle pain are complete grounds for wanting to head home and can make the prospect of putting that pack back on and heading back uphill feel agonizingly impossible in the moment.
On the flip side, sitting there trying to figure out the logistics of how to get off the trail can prove stressful in a different way, to the point that it’s often easier to just continue the hike until the planned endpoint. It involves trying to find and call shuttle drivers with spotty service to see if anyone is available on short notice, or procuring a ride in some other way. It means figuring out which town makes the most sense to try to reach with the easiest means of getting home, finding a hotel for the night which means extra expenses, and the list goes on. We discussed the idea that he find a way home while I finished out the hike, but I chose to eliminate this as an option as I had no working phone. It made me feel uneasy about dealing with the logistics of my own transportation home when the time came.
We decided to take it one step at a time again. We weren’t planning on eating at the wayside, but we each indulged in a hotdog. With full bellies, we decided to go ahead and resupply our food as if we were going to finish out the hike. If we didn’t use the snacks we purchased, we’d eat them at home so the money wouldn’t be wasted. After doing all of this, my partner agreed that it felt manageable to continue hiking as long as we tried to find a stealth campsite not much farther down the trail for the night, and on we went.
Camping at Hazeltop Mountain
What an amazing choice we made. We carried extra water with us so we’d have the option to stop anywhere for the night, and just under three miles later we came across a small path to our right. Right next to the trail but behind the tall undergrowth was a small grassy clearing under a prominent tree, with a small path right behind it that lead to an outcropping of rocks with a wide open view. We didn’t even have to think twice, we were camping there for the night.
After so many hot days, the temperature somehow leveled out to be perfect. After setting up camp, I sat on the rock outcropping and ate my cold soaked mashed potatoes while I took in every nook and cranny of the view. My partner rested in his tent and enjoyed the cool breeze passing through. I could have hung out at that spot for days, and aside from waking me up once that night to zip up my rainfly during a brief rain shower, the elements aligned to create the first perfect heavy night of tent sleep we had the entire hike. We didn’t take any pictures, and sometimes that makes it all the more special.
Day 7: 4.2 Miles to Lewis Mountain Campground and Heading Home
Breakfast at the view was windy but breathtaking nonetheless, and it was the first morning that I had to put on the outer layers I had with me to be comfortable sitting still. We lingered a little while to dry our tents out, and my partner commented that if his ankle hadn’t been hurting we probably wouldn’t have found that spot because we wouldn’t have been searching for a place to stop. Sometimes things just work out.
The hike that morning was pleasant but slow, and I knew it was going to be the last day because the agonizing over what to do about the hike didn’t happen. Instead, my partner simply stated that he was probably going to be done once we reached the next big campground later that morning. Frankly, I wasn’t feeling it anymore either, as I was burnt out from going back and forth on the topic every single day and it was mutually understood that it was time to end it.
Passing Bearfence Mountain
We passed the the trail to Bearfence Overlook, a moment I was looking forward to as a point of nostalgia. I remembered doing the Bearfence Rock Scramble when I came to Shenandoah National Park with my friend for the first time in 2017, and I had stared down the Appalachian Trail thinking about how it would be cool to hike it. My hiking partner and I really didn’t need an extra rock scramble in our lives that morning. He still had some fun snapping a picture of me with the sign to send to my friend as I tried to really take in what my past self would have thought if I knew I’d be standing at that same point five years later with so much of the trail under my belt.
Snacking at Lewis Mountain Campground
Upon reaching Lewis Mountain Campground, we pulled out some snacks at a picnic table in front of the camp store and began the process of figuring out how to leave. Although Shenandoah Park is so accessible, it still took some finagling to sit there plotting logistics with poor phone service, long enough that we started noticing some signs that we were being watched and needed to appear as if we had a clear intention to either camp for the night or take off. We were fortunate to eventually find a shuttle driver available that day who happily accepted to come pick us up later that afternoon.
Despite friendly-seeming park rangers, we didn’t feel like we should hang around the paid campground all day until our ride came and opted to head back down the trail a short distance until we found a small clear spot in the woods to hunker down and bask in the patches of sunshine poking through the trees until it was time to go. Elkton, VA was the closest trail town, but we had him take us past and into Harrisonburg, VA so that we could catch a Virginia Breeze bus from the university there the next morning. It was a bittersweet ending to the section hike, but the biggest accomplishment this time was the effort and scheduling it took to finally get back on the trail vs. the actual hike itself.
My Shenandoah Takeaway
As with each hike, this one had a character of its own. The temperatures were much hotter than our previous hike, and the amenities of Shenandoah unique. I was pleasantly surprised with Shenandoah National Park overall! I had in my head that the park would be very crowded, but none of the shelters were packed. I couldn’t help but wonder if the heat deterred anyone, or if it was just simply a less popular time to hike the park than in the fall. The fact that the thru-hiker bubble was mostly past this point in the trail also contributed to less populated shelters.
I also thought that since the trail weaved in and out with Skyline Drive throughout the park, it would feel less secluded with constant road noise. This was not the case. More often than not we were fully enveloped in the woods. I knew that this section of trail would largely be a green tunnel in the summer, but I really enjoy that feeling of being enveloped by the trees and there were plentiful overlooks that deemed rewarding. There were also more stealth camping options than I had heard there would be, the strategy for anyone trying to utilize these would just have to be to carry more water than otherwise deemed necessary throughout the park in order to take advantage of them.
If anyone is planning a hike through the park and is unsure how to handle the resupply situation and mileage breakdown like I was – don’t fret, I promise. The shelters are spaced so that it appears you have to do short days or long days with not many options in between. After being there, I realized that when you factor in paid campgrounds and stealth sites in certain areas, there is a lot more room for mileage variety in each hiking day that meets the eye. The “stealth” sites just aren’t marked in the farout app as they might be on other parts of the trail. The two waysides we stopped at- Elkwallow and Big Meadows – had short-term resupply options, Big Meadows with enough for a full resupply. For hikers looking for a larger resupply, Luray and Elkton can be utilized as full town stops.
Thanks for reading, and hopefully I’ll be back this fall with another update to finish out the park!
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