Smooth Sailing in Shenandoah National Park

Waiting in line at the coffee shop in Waynesboro I saw a middle-aged man in dress pants, a button-down shirt, and an Arcteryx fleece giving us the side eye. I figured he was judging us, wondering what two dirty guys with neckbeards were doing in a nice third-wave coffee shop. Then he asked us about the trail, told us he used to be a volunteer shuttle driver and paid for our coffees. I had let my self-consciousness and bias get in the way. In reality, nearly every person I’ve met since being on trail, regardless of the region or their background, has been nothing but kind, curious, and supportive (except maybe drive-by tourists). Staring at my phone, the country feels divided and filled with mean-spirited people, but getting outside, moving from town to town, and talking to people face to face I note an opposite perspective.

We got a ride back to the trail from a postal worker turned trail angel named Kevin. After giving him a call he picked us up within minutes and I rode in the backseat of his pickup, with his dog Elvis. Elvis had two different colored eyes and was very excited to see me. There aren’t as many opportunities to hang with dogs and cats on trail as there are back home, so I savored the moment, petting her the entire ride back to the trail.

Entering Shenandoah 

Immediately upon entering the park, the Shenandoahs felt easier than anything we had done prior. The climbs were gentle and the trail surface was smooth. Hotdog and I mused about how simplification enhances the hiking experience. Sending our cooking stoves home in favor of cold soaking was a perfect case in point. We saved the weight off our back, the money spent on stove fuel in town, and the time spent cooking and cleaning our gear. Doing so opened up the time and mental space to focus on the things we value more: walking an extra mile, calling a significant other, or eating a full pint of gelato. A small amount of simplification pays off endless dividends.

Blackrock Surprise 

We set up camp near Blackrock Hut. I enjoyed a calm night of writing as my eyes slowly drifted asleep until my entire world was rocked in a matter of 30 seconds. Heavy rain and thunder had started, ripping one of my tent stakes out and causing my tent pole and half of my tent to collapse inward. I scrambled to open my tent and fix the issue before the rain could soak through my fly and render my down quilt useless. When I lifted my fly I saw a copperhead snake had taken residence a mere foot away from me under my vestibule. “Fantastic”, I thought to myself, “tonight I get to die a cold, wet, agonizing death by snake venom”. My amygdala, however, was already entering fight or flight mode as I packed away my quilt and sleeping pad and sneaked out the other side. Like a child walking up to their parent’s room in the middle of the night, I abandoned my tent and dejectedly walked over to the shelter where Hotdog was sleeping alone. We had a good laugh, tightened our quilt straps, and dozed off.

The Blackberry Boys 

One of the shining aspects of Shenandoah National Park is the numerous waysides scattered along the park’s 100 miles of trail, which sell snacks, and beer, and even include a light fast food-style restaurant. They are especially known for their blackberry milkshakes, which we had heard much about and were far too excited about. 8 miles out of Blackrock Hut we ran into Loft Mountain, our first wayside. When I ordered my milkshake the worker spoke the terrible words I’ve heard far too many times during evening runs to McDonald’s: “Our shake machine is broken”. I settled for Blackberry Ice cream instead. Life is very hard.

When Hotdog went to order his food the cashier asked for his name, to which he replied, “Hotdog”. She replied, “No, I just need your name right now”. He stood firmly and said, “Yes, my name is Hotdog”. The cashier replied, “Ah, of course, it is”, obviously annoyed. When the food was ready, I could see the cooks were confused and hesitant to call out, “Hotdog”. After watching all of this unfold I’ve decided that there are some situations where going by your legal name just makes the most sense.

Fearless Mice 

We left Loft Mountain Wayside with 13 miles to go on a relatively short 21-mile day. We passed by views of ridges carpeted in green and climbed over the wooded peak of Weaver Mountain. The highlight, however, was crossing the 900-mile mark shortly after the climb and then cruising on into camp at Hightop Hut.


We planned to set up our tents at Hightop Hut instead of staying in the shelter, and we were happy that we did. As we ate our cold-soaked ramen bombs on the picnic table, we witnessed some of the most fearless mice I’ve ever seen scurry around our feet before twilight was even over. Wrapping up dinner early I went to lay in my tent and watched as they scuttled around underneath my vestibule. I went to sleep praying they wouldn’t chew through my tent, even if they were fairly cute. Hotdog reported a mouse battle of his own in the morning, but we both awoke unscathed.

The Magic Maybe 

It was a fine sunny Saturday morning in a very accessible national park. It was the type of condition that plants a little seed in every thru-hiker’s mind: “Will there be trail magic today?”. I prefer to ignore the thought the best I can and just enjoy trail magic as a surprise whenever it happens. Hotdog, however, loves to exclaim just before every road crossing, and mind you there are many of them in the Shenandoahs, that he just knows there has to be trail magic ahead. Although I know better, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get my hopes up a little bit every time. Most of the time he is wrong, but to quote the Great One, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” and eventually we scored at the South River Picnic Area.

A Beautiful Breakfast 

The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club had tables set up with hot coffee, deviled eggs, fresh fruit, cookies, and more. We were the first hikers in on a slow day, so we had to make sure all the food they put out didn’t go to waste. Every time we went up for more it seemed like new foods magically appeared. On my second trip, there was Domino’s pizza, then walnut brownies and homemade bread, and then imported Hefeweizen beers. This trail magic stop had figured out how to break me. Fellow hikers we had met in the morning, Rifle, Worm Queen, and 2 Chainz, arrived shortly after us and joined in on the party. Some of the PATC members brought out musical instruments and Hotdog jumped in for a short jam session.

Eventually, we had to enforce some self-discipline and get back on the trail, so we said our thank yous and goodbyes and started heading back. It’s incredible what food can do for your emotional state. We set foot on the trail with the feeling of pure joy and ecstasy as I planted each pole to the rhythm of the rock music in my earbuds. We soon came across a very nice ridge runner and former thru-hiker named The Beast. After noticing we were wearing the same cottage fleece brand, Senchi, we snapped a quick pic together and went on our way. It was a beautiful weekend day so we passed by tons of people out on the trail.

The Prophecy is Fulfilled 

The deer and rabbits in the park were plentiful and extremely docile. They’d stand just off the trail staring at you with curious eyes as you walk past. I felt like Snow White. 20 miles into our day we walked up to Big Meadows Wayside, a larger and more modern building than our first wayside stop at Loft Mountain. We were still on the hunt to sip on a sweet blackberry milkshake. The disappointment at Loft Mountain had only grown our desire bigger. Luckily it all panned out and just as the rain started to come down we made it inside and got our milkshakes in hand. They were overpriced and under-portioned, but they were as delicious as I could have hoped for. Just as we finished up, the rain subsided and the rays of sun extended out to us as we stepped outside. It felt meant to be. We walked the 5 miles to Rock Spring Hut dry and happy.

We woke up early the next morning and hiked over to the Hawksbill parking lot. It was a big 30-mile day and a trail angel, Barry, who we had connected with on Instagram had offered to bring us a trail magic breakfast around 7:30 am. Barry was short on time with a busy schedule but still found what little time he had to come out and support 2 strangers hiking in the woods. Actions like this are what make the AT so special. We felt incredibly grateful as we ate McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches and hash browns.

Trail Starbucks 

Our next stop at Skyland Resort wasn’t much further out. We never intend to stop for as long as we do, but when you walk into a fancy building and see a Starbucks, you have to figure that the powers that be are calling on you to take a coffee break. After wasting enough time to cancel out our early start we hiked on.

Elkwallow Sorrow 

We passed by a few popular day hiking spots. First, we stopped to take in the view at the Pinnacle and then we walked up to Mary’s  Rock. The number of day hikers was unmatched by anywhere we had been before. As we descended to the trailhead parking lot we jumped to the side every 90 seconds to let another group pass. This was truly a lesson in patience. Eventually, we reached the parking lot sourcing all the hikers we had seen, and we walked past onto a much smoother trail. We breathed a sigh of relief.

Our next stop was Elkwallow Wayside, 25 miles into our day. A proper Shenandoah farewell through blackberry ice cream along with a cold can of coke was our carrot on a stick and the fuel we would need to end our day 5 miles away at Gravel Springs Hut. As we arrived, a young couple walked up to the Wayside and pulled on a locked door. “Looks like they’re closed!”, the woman said to Hotdog completely unbothered, “Ya I guess so”, replied Hotdog with a less enthusiastic tone. This couple could drive 5 minutes down the street to the nearest convenience store, but for Hotdog and I this was a soul-crushing defeat. Looking at the soda fridge through the window we cursed at the building and went on our way to finish out the day.

Tweenage Dream 

While walking out of Gravel Springs Hut, hot spots on my toes and legs out of juice from the 30 miler the day before, I had a question spontaneously arise in my thoughts, “when was the first time In my life that I became aware of the AT?”. After some thinking, I traced my memories back to a spring break trip to the Smokies in middle school. While walking up to Clingman’s Dome, I recall that we crossed the AT and my dad told me that it was possible to get on the trail and walk to Maine. I couldn’t believe it. This also reminded me of a picture from the same trip that I have been mercilessly teased over by friends for many years. A chubby kid with transition lenses, camo capris, and a Smokies Junior Ranger badge, I’m standing in a gas station holding a 64 oz mug of MTN Dew. Later when we got to town, in the present day, I ordered 2 subway footlongs and a Little Caesar’s pizza for myself and I couldn’t help but think that hiking the AT was what I was always destined to do.

Friendly Folks in Front Royale 

We finished off a 13-mile day and left Shenandoah National Park by 2 pm, hitching a ride to the town of Front Royale in a pickup truck. We were planning a stay at the Super 8, our first night in a hotel/motel in over 900 miles, with the last one being the Holiday Inn in Hiawassee, GA. To say that we were stoked would be an understatement. Hostels are a great way to make memories and meet interesting characters; each space has its unique personality. But we never seem to get maximum rest at hostels. As introverts, there is something about the neutrality and blandness of a chain hotel that is appealing. No mental energy needs to be spent conversing or processing your surroundings. We simply get to shut down, throw our feet up, and let our bodies do their thing so we’re rested and recovered to tackle more miles the next day.

Before turning in for the night we went for a walk around town. Our priority stop was Basecamp, a hiker rest stop downtown run by the local outfitter and brewery which offers free laundry and showers. They were also holding a package for me from my partner Chey. I unwrapped the huge package and pulled out new socks, shoes, a bandana, and a fresh new button-up sun shirt. The AT has taught me that I don’t need many material things to live a happy life, however, putting a fresh fit on might be the exception. As we waited for the rest of our clothes to finish drying we popped over to the brewery and enjoyed the BOGO hiker discount. Front Royale was doing it right in my book.

I scoured around the outfitter for a mini carabiner after my old one bent out of shape on my last bear hang. I couldn’t find what I was looking for, but the worker graciously gave me the carabiner off his backpack for free. Afterward, we met Iron Mike, a kind thru-hiker from 2023 who gave us some tips on what to expect on the trail ahead. He also offered us a ride around town to pick up our pizza, bring us back to Base camp to grab our things, and then take us back to our hotel. Everywhere we stepped in Front Royal we were met with generosity, and we offered gratitude in return.


Back In our hotel room, we threw on the movie Everything Everywhere All At Once as our bodies slowly went offline. Another great stay in town and likely our last in Virginia. Soon the state lines would start to tick off much quicker.

 

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Comments 3

  • Kelli Ramry : May 21st

    Love the pic of you as a kid.
    I can completely relate.

    When encountering day hikers and other non thru hikers on trail, please try to remember the AT belongs to everyone. Thru hikers are elite,.but also seasonal. Some people love playing in their own backyards….thus dayhikers, weekenders, campers.

    Everyone is worthy and has a place.

    Keep enjoying your hike:)

    Reply
  • Pia : May 22nd

    Your blog showed up on my Google feed this morning. Great read. I’ve signed up for updates. Shenandoah and Big Meadows is a regular destination for us and having moved to Hagerstown, the AT (and other trails) is a short drive from home for day hikes.
    Funny you mention Clingman’s Dome. We went to the Great Smokies for the first time last month and we picked a very foggy day to drive up. We decided to turn around at Newfound Gap and try again the next day after taking a photo by the border sign. As we were leaving, we passed a through hiker hitching a ride. I said to my partner, shall we give him a ride? We turned around, offered him a ride, ended up with a great 25-30 minute drive with non-stop conversation to Gatlinburg where he wanted to re-supply. He was from Manchester and this is his 3rd big hike in the US. We got great tips for some great walks in GB in the process.

    Enjoy the rest of your hike!

    Reply
  • Nature Boy : May 22nd

    Sorry about Elkwallow being closed – there was a big windstorm last month and that section of the park was still lacking electrical power at the time…

    Reply

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