Day 77: The Shenandoah’s Best Walk
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Excuse me, sir. Sir, can I ask a question about your van?”
I’ll be crossing the Mason-Dixon line in a few days and I’m afraid I won’t be hearing that title anymore. The first time a young man addressed me as “Sir” on this trip, I did a double take. Three months later, it still surprises and pleases me. Mind you, it’s always the locals who say it, not thru-hikers, unless they’re southerners. I’ll miss the respect.
Tentman, one of my readers, tells me to take reports of trail conditions from other hikers with “a grain of salt or downright disbelief.” I hiked out of the campground with the host’s warnings in my head about the horrible trail conditions going north. I have no idea what he meant, as the trail was great and had some of the best walking and views in the Shenandoahs so far.
During a steep descent today, I met a lot of day hikers climbing up one of the more popular summits. Several of them asked me some variant of “Are we there yet?” In general, no one should ask that question of any hiker they don’t know well, and especially someone who’s been walking alone for five hours and needs a little entertainment.
When my kids would ask that question on long drives, Northstar’s and my standard answer was “About an hour.” We once told them that seconds before pulling into Grandpa’s driveway and then left them sitting in the backseat while we “went inside this building (Grandpa’s house) to check something out.”
If you ask me that question on a climb, you’ll get anything from “About an hour” to “This trail doesn’t go to that peak” to a sincere estimate of the actual distance. What you get depends on how bored I am, how desperate you look, and whether you called me “Sir.”
A Rock Scramble
Today’s hike started out with an optional blue blaze trail appropriately named “Bearfence Rock Scramble.” I don’t know about the bearfence, though once again we didn’t see any bears. But we definitely had a rock scramble.
The longer, tougher blue blaze offered a half mile of hands-required climbing and descents, great 360-degree views, and some say-a-quick-prayer sections. Of course, Gus and I took the blue blaze, just to get above the long green tunnel and see some sky.
But what do the purists do? Stick to the official trail, miss the views, and avoid the more difficult option? Hike both trails in a loop? Unfortunately, purists aren’t speaking to me at the moment, so I have no answer.
The nasty blue blaze trail was only a few yards from the “official” AT, highlighting the awesome job the trail designers in Shenandoah National Park have done choosing trail alignments that are usually smooth and well-graded. Which makes me wonder why the entire AT isn’t like that.
I think the AT’s design (grade, alignment, ruggedness, rocks, steps, switchbacks, etc.) reflects the designers’ priorities. Most of the trail was originally built or designed by local hiking clubs or local ATC chapters, many of whom were peak-baggers who wanted to scale as many high points as possible. Even today, most hikers on any given section of trail are day or section hikers, not thru hikers. The trail is designed to meet their needs.
When the AT was first conceived, no one thought hiking the entire AT in a single season was possible, so the trail wasn’t designed with thru-hiking in mind. Most thru-hikers I’ve met wish the trail were designed to get them from Georgia to Maine as efficiently as possible, while taking them past the best peaks and cool spots along the way. Thru hikers have little use for steep climbs that have no views or alignments that miss the best swimming holes or resupply locales.
Not surprisingly, Big Meadows was located at the edge of a very large meadow. More importantly, Big Meadows has a Wayside grill, which was open when I walked in at 10:15, eight miles into my 17-mile hike. Unfortunately, only the breakfast menu was available until 11:00, and I had promised Gus he’d be getting a smash burger patty for lunch.
So, we waited the 40 minutes for the lunch menu and pulled out some snacks to tide us over. Not quite believing me about the burger, Gus ate his entire kibble supply and several of my Cheezits during the wait but still managed to wolf down his smash burger. In seconds. And then walked the next ten miles with a little more wobble than usual.
Out of the Tunnel
The hike from Big Meadows to Skyland Resort is spectacular. The trail hugs the west side of the ridge, which is more open than the jungle I’d walked through the past three days. We not only had views of the Shenandoah Valley, we caught a wonderful cooling breeze blowing up the slope.
The woods along this section were lighter, had less underbrush, and much less of the Tolkienesque Mirkwood feel. It was a forest I’d gladly walk into. And expect to come out the other side.
If you only have time to walk one section of the Shenandoahs, I’d suggest the stretch from Big Meadows to Skyland Resort. Not only does it have the best views and walking, but it’s also bookended by Wayside Grills.
- Start: Lewis Mountain Campground (Mile 918.3)
- End: Skyland Resort (Mile 934.5)
- Weather: Bright, cool, clear and then humid.
- Earworm: Project Hail Mary (I’m hooked)
- Meditation: Ps. 23
- Plant of the Day: Red-berried Elder, Fly Poison
- Best Thing: Smash burgers and Blackberry Milkshakes
- Worst Thing: Walking after smash burgers and milkshakes
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