Easy Trail, Waysides Stand Out in Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah occupies a special place in my heart. I went for an overnight circuit hike over Thanksgiving 2016 in preparation for what I thought was going to be a thru-hike of Vermont’s Long Trail. I later abandoned the Long Trail, opting for section of the PCT in 2017. I had no idea that I’d be passing through Shenandoah again as a NOBO on my way to Maine.
To my surprise the roughly 100 miles of the national park has been my favorite section thus far.
Rain for Days
After returning from my trip to the coast, I was back at the trailhead along the James. Luckily I had taken a few zeros to avoid the persistent rain that threatened to linger for days, a week, forever? I learned that rain creates some demoralizing difficulties.
First are the waterlogged shoes. Filth gathers on my socks and works its way into the wool. There is nothing as uncomfortable as the abrasion of wet socks. Every step is like stepping into a sleeve of wet sandpaper and my feet paid the price. The skin softens and toe wrinkles have toe wrinkles. My feet go from cold and wet to numb. When this happens, I know the feeling of fire between my toes is soon to follow as the wet grit works its way into my soft skin. I’m left with what I describe as a foot looking like it’s been gnawed on by a rabid dog.
I stayed in the city campground behind the mills lining the South River. Waynesboro has a pleasant downtown area, aside from the vacant shop windows likely abandoned after the rise of department stores and the interstate. I did find a café called French Press and indulged in an offering of their namesake. The barista did not share my enthusiasm for a cup of coffee that didn’t come out of a small aluminum sleeve. The town also boasts Ming’s buffet, appropriately described by AT thru-hiker Sticks as “chronic.”
Shenandoah National Park
You hear various things about everything on trail. One person’s favorite place is another’s least favorite. A section that one may desire to return to again and again may very well be somewhere I loathed. So I’ve opted lately not to listen to anyone’s opinion of a section, a hostel, a restaurant, anything really. My antidote to the “you-gottas” are a desire to experience this trail for myself. After a time you learn to spot the bull and you know a rumor is brewing anytime two hikers are speaking to one another.
I personally loved Shenandoah; here are a couple reasons why.
Trail conditions: The trail tread in the park is near perfect packed dirt and smooth. The grade is slight and easily manageable and the walking is equivalent to that 18-inch dirt sidewalk that makes it possible to just cruise. Sure, the scrambling and rock hopping can be fun, but I prefer that ability to open my stride and really sink into the flow of moving three mph over lush terrain.
Waysides: If you hit about 20 miles a day you have an opportunity to eat at a wayside everyday. My first day I was able to enjoy a soda and get a block of cheese. The second day I resupplied out of Big Meadows store and ate dinner from the grill. I was later invited to share a campsite in the car camping area so that took the hassle of hiking with a bellyful of blackberry ice-cream. Then Elkwallow nearly derailed my plans but I was able to pull away after a few good hours of fooling around. Got to love fully stocked parks concessionaires.
Wildlife: I asked a few visitors what the draw of Shenandoah was. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. The biggest attraction was the opportunity to view wildlife. Nearly everyone was losing their minds about black bear sightings and everyone had a story to tell. I also came across deer, owls, squirrels twitching and jumping around everywhere, a rattlesnake, and a host of insects. One kid walking with his family to a stunning view was much more interested in the world at his feet. He was flipping over rocks and full of excitement and surprise. He said he was counting millipedes and when asked how many he exclaimed “44!”
Park visitors: I went through the park at the beginning of Memorial Day weekend. Needless to say, there were a ton of folks out there. This was a huge complaint of others with whom I spoke. But I learned to accept that there are going to be other people aside from thru-hikers on the AT. I completely abandoned the idea of a wilderness experience of quiet self-reflection. If you’re looking for prolonged periods of quiet solitude go to the Gates of the Arctic. This is the AT.
I got a real kick out of the other park visitors with their carefree and unassuming attitudes. The total absence of superiority, entitlement, and exceptionalism that can accompany thru-hikers is not there. For me it’s a sigh of relief when I have the privilege of speaking to others on the trail that understand how fortunate they are to be there. It hasn’t yet become a home, a lifestyle, a way in the world, and it helps put me into a proper perspective, realigning my attitude and reminding me not to take this whole thing for granted.
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