Cascade Canyon to South and North Forks, Grand Teton National Park

Birch and I woke up early on July 22 so that we would be on one of the first boats to cross Jenny Lake. This crossing was the best way to get to the Cascade Canyon trailhead and it had the added bonus of providng us with a beautiful view.

Cascade Canyon is one of the more popular day hikes in the park, but few people make it much past inspiration point, a spot that affords a nice view of Jenny Lake. We were on the trail by 8:15 am so it wasn’t crowded. The first mile or so was very steep, with a 1000 ft. ascent through a canopy of pines. The trail was wide and easy to navigate. Several times we had the chance to look down at Jenny Lake and we took our time going up the trail, stopping at spots to enjoy the cascading water and the river that roars through the canyon.

At the Jenny Lake boat dock.

I must say, Birch and I have finally found our trail legs. We are now used to the elevation and to carrying heavier packs. This made the ascent pretty easy and it wasn’t long before we were on a fairly flat trail. At one point we ran into a Park Ranger who warned us about the Marmots. Apparently, they like chewing trekking pole handles, backpack straps, and other things that taste salty.

At around 4.5 miles we reached the fork in the trail. We turned south to go on the “South Fork”. Finally, we were on the Teton Crest Trail! We began a steep incline and crossed several rapids/rivers. Luckily, the trail was in good shape. There was no snow and it was dry.

Immediately upon entering the camping zone we saw a great camp site. Without hesitation,we took it! We had amazing views of several peaks, including Grand Teton itself. The site was on a river that lived up to the “Cascade Canyon” name. As we looked out our tent, we could see a waterfall on one side, and the mountains on the other. We arrived pretty early (around 11:30 am) so there was plenty of time to relax.

At about 5 pm, a hiker named John and two of his friends joined us in camp. They had been on the trail many more days than us and John was carrying quite a load, including 40 ft. in rope, an ice axe and about 30 pounds of camera equipment. He told us that the rest of the South Fork was not to be missed. So, after dinner, Birch and I took a long hike (sans backpack!) up the trail. We took water and bear spray and went as far as we could while still being able to get back to camp before dark. The side trip was well worth it because we saw an enormous water fall that must have dropped thousands of feet down the side of a mountain.

Sunday morning was chilly! We had coffee and breakfast, then packed up and descended the South Fork until we came to the North Fork. This trail had many open expanses that enabled us to see for miles. The views were breath-taking! The trail is well maintained with stairs in many spots. Before long we encountered bolder fields. Then we saw snow! The snow was mostly off the trail until we got to within a mile of Lake Solitude. The last few yards up to the lake were snowy and icy.

We arrived at the lake just in time for lunch. What an amazing sight, to see so much snow and ice in July! The trail is not well marked so I can see why the park rangers were cautious about people backpacking in this area. Lake Solitude is at 9100 ft. in elevation and we would have had to go another 1300 ft or so in elevation to cross a pass under difficult conditions.

Fortunately, our plan was to camp on North Fork. We went back down the trail and found a spectacular site about halfway down the mountain. The camp had a nice stream for water. However, the best thing about it was that it had a large boulder/ledge with a fallen tree for seating. This had a view that was jaw-dropping. And we had it all to ourselves! Birch made coffee and be basked in the sun while enjoying our surroundings.Late that night we woke up to star gaze. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a night sky!

The view from our campsite.

The next morning was bitter sweet. This would be our last day on the mountain. As we descended, I took time to take enjoy my surroundings. Before long we were at the fork that brought us to the Cascade Canyon trail. The farther we descended, the more day hikers we saw. We were back at the boat before lunchtime. It was done all too soon!

Death Canyon, Grand Teton National Park

Maple and I had planned to backpack the Teton Crest Trail since before we made our backcountry reservations in January, but a late June heavy snow made our plans all but impossible. Two Park Rangers in GTNP informed us that residual ice and snow made the higher passes treacherous and that hikers were turning back because they could not make out the path. The rangers suggested alternative routes.

The first such route that we managed to secure was an overnight in Death Canyon. Athough terribly disappointed, at first, in our change of plans, I must admit that this hike proved to be both challenging and rewarding.

Not having a 4-wheel drive vehicle, we had to park our car where the pavement ended and begin our backpacking venture a mile before the trail officially began.The trail, once begun, was uphill, and would remain uphill most of the way. The only significant downhill was from Phelps Lake Overlook to where the Death Canyon Trail splits off from the Phelps Lake Trail. All told, we climbed 2,000 feet in elevation, despite the downhill section. Definitely, the hardest section is the ascent up to Death Canyon itself. Once inside the canyon, the ascent becomes more moderate until one reaches Fox Creek Pass, and we made our camp under Fox Creek Pass.

Maple and I crossed over water numerous times, usually on halved logs, that had their sawed, flat side facing up. Once, we had to take off our boots and socks, roll up our pants, and wade across the stream. Even the deepest water that we had to walk over was so clean that we could clearly see the bottom.

Death Canyon has nothing in common with Death Valley. In July, it is green, lush, filled with foliage and wild flowers. We saw many marmots. One, after we set up camp, came quite close to us and checked out our gear. On the return trip, on the second day, we saw two moose, eating close to the trail. One surprised us as he crossed the trail 8 to 10 yards ahead of us.

Before we set up our camp, in the upper reaches of Death Canyon, it began to rain. Maple and I knew that we were approaching our chosen tent site, so we kept going. We were fortunate. No sooner had we set up our tent, than our gentle rain turned into a downpour, a thunder storm and a hail storm. An hour and a half later, the sun was out again, and we laid out our gear to dry.

Death Canyon was awesome. Behind our camp was a racing stream, and in front of us were wide open spaces, with clusters of pine trees and boulders, hemmed in by tall cliffs, down which poured run-off from the snow. No other person was in sight, and it seemed that we had the whole canyon to ourselves.

AT: VA-606 to VA-52

Birch and I were eager to get back on the trail this Fourth of July weekend. We drove down from our home in Maryland – a 5 hour drive! Bubba shuttled us to our starting point at VA-606 and we were on the trail by 12:30 pm. This might be one of our latest starts but we had a very short 6+ mile hike to the shelter.

The hike began near Kimberling Creek, where we crossed a wobbly suspension bridge. At the other end we met a couple of backpackers who were hiking north. They were able to assure us that water was flowing at Jenny Knob Shelter. At this time of year you never know, so it was great news.

It was a hot, sticky day and it felt like we were in a rain forest. The trail winds around ravines and slowing ascends up to a ridge and Brushy Mountain. We hiked beside a stream that is listed as “unreliable” in the AWOL guide and that was a pretty good description. It was barely flowing.

Jenny Knob Shelter

It wasn’t long before we reached the shelter. We were a little surprised to find that we had it all to ourselves. Before long “Wolfgang”, a long section hiker from Germany, joined us. Wolfgang planned to hike from Georgia to New Jersey. He was about our age and was very philosophical about what hiking the trail really meant to him. We enjoyed his company.

By 7:30 am the next day we had completed breakfast, packed our tent, and were on the trail. Although the guide books make the hike look pretty flat it certainly didn’t feel that way. We seemed to be doing a lot more “up” than “down”! The ridge line was beautiful. As we approached Helveys Mill Shelter the woods switched from oaks and birch to pines. There were beautiful blooming rhododendrons too. The trail itself was very smooth and it was a pleasure to be able to look ahead and not have to watch our feet.

The only thing missing was…people. What a difference it makes to be out of the thru hiker bubble! Several miles into our hike a woman named “Maps” approached us going north and remarked that we were the only people she had seen all day. Likewise! “Maps” is a section hiker who has completed a lot of the trail. She was really impressive.

Once we got to Helveys Mill Shelter we had a choice. We could walk down to the shelter to camp and hike out the next day, or continue on another 2.2 miles to our car. It was just after noon and the shelter itself is .3 miles off the trail so the choice was easy. We continued on. After a quick descent we arrived at VA-612. We were really perplexed at our next move. Signage here is really needed! We walked about .8 miles along VA-612 until we came to our car at US-52, near Bland, VA. The big news is that we now have over 700 miles completed on the AT! Our next backpacking adventure will be very different. Look for our next blog to learn more! 🙂

 

 

AT: VA-632 to VA-606

Day One: John’s Creek Valley Road (VA-632) to Pine Swamp Branch Shelter.

The night before this hike, Maple and I stayed in the Motel 8 in Radford. We arranged to meet our shuttle driver, Don Raines, at 8:00 on the morning of Friday, June 2, at the AT parking spot off of VA-606. Although I saw the trail crossing, I could see no parking space. I pulled over to call Don, but we had no cell service. Upon carefully retracing the route, we spotted a little nook covered with foliage that was to serve as our parking space. Don was waiting for us. He suggested that, in the future, we meet with our shuttle driver at a place that has cell service and follow him from there. Good advice!

By 9:00 we were on the trail. Rather early on we made the acquaintance of the loquacious “Man of Many Words,” who took our photo for his Facebook page. He was doing a day-hike, trying to get in shape for a thru-hike to begin in March 2018. Good luck to him!

Shortly thereafter we passed a woman our age, a delightful section-hiker from Chicago, “Just Susan,” who, like us, was southbound and planning to hike to Pine Swamp Branch Shelter and, from there, to Rice Fields Shelter. We were glad to know that we would see her again.

6-2_1256At about 12:30 we stopped to have lunch, and “Just Susan” caught up with us and passed us by. It turned out that we stopped too soon, for shortly afterwards we reached Wind Rock. There we met “Barefoot,” who told us that his ex would have put a stop to his hiking, so he is thru-hiking with his divorce papers, I suppose to remind himself of his liberation. We also met “Furiosa,” who also took our photo.

After nine miles, we stopped at Baileys Gap Shelter, refilled our water supply, had conversation with the other hikers stopping there, and made coffee. Rejuvenated, we pressed onward, crossed over Stoney Creek, and continued onward. We had heard from “Roub” that we should stop at the “Captain’s” place to enjoy his renowned hospitality, but, unfortunately, the zip-line to the Captain’s place was shut down due to the fact that he had recently undergone mouth-cancer surgery. We pressed on and, in the growing darkness, after ten hours of hiking, found our tent spot just across the trail from Pine Swamp Branch Shelter.

At the shelter’s picnic table, where we always like to make our dinner, we met thru-hikers Dave, his adult son, Darren, and veterinarian student “Golden,” with her dog ironically named “Killer.” “Just Susan” never showed up, and we wondered where she had stopped and whether we would see her again.

Day Two: Pine Swap Branch Shelter to Rice Fields Shelter

thumbnail_6-3_0912 (1)Day Two started with a steep hike up to Pine Swamp Ridge and Peters Mountain. Birch and I followed a rocky ridge that had beautiful views and a nice breeze. This area is right on the Virginia-West Virginia state line. It is the season of mountain laurel blooming, one of my favorite plants!  One really fascinating aspect of the ridge is that there were many HUGE table rocks.

Before long we entered a meadow that was once an apple orchard. The direct sun was quite a shock after time in the woods. After entering the woods again we finally came to thumbnail_6-3_1306a spring that was 1.5 miles from Rice Field Shelter. This was our last water source before the shelter so we filled up and had  coffee while there. Springs are like any water hole. It attracts a ton of hikers! One thru hiker told us that he was desperately trying to get out of the “bubble” and away from some specific hikers. I can just imagine how unpleasant it would be to be stuck with the wrong crowd.

Once we approached Rice Shelter we were amazed by the breath-taking view. Wow! This is a shelter worth visiting. We set up our tent, made dinner, and enjoyed the beautiful vista. We knew that “Just Susan” was hoping to get to the shelter but we were not holding up much hope to see her, given the 16-mile trek. However, she made it!

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Day Three: Rice Fields Shelter to Doc’s Knob Shelter.

Our itinerary had called for us to make it only so far as the spring and campground on Pearis Mountain, a quarter of a mile south of Angel’s Rest, at the peak of Pearis Mountain. But if we decided to stay there, that would necessitate another 13.5 mile trek on the following day, Monday, and since the forecast for Sunday night and Monday was continual rain, Maple and I decided that we would re-evaluate, upon reaching the spring, whether we could press forward and, perhaps, commit to making it to the next shelter and water source.

The downhill trek, off of Peter’s Mountain, to the bridge over the New River on the outskirts of Pearisburg took us longer than we had expected. We paused and enjoyed a snack after crossing the bridge, near Pearisburg Cemetery. From this point on, we were a little confused about our path, for the AT had been relocated since our Data Book had been printed. For example, we never arrived at Layne Street, Pearisburg, but instead, almost immediately began our ascent up Pearis Mountain.

This two-mile ascent up Pearis Mountain exhausted all of our energy. Near the top, in a grove of rhododendrons, we spotted a doe with her newborn fawn. We passed by Angel’s Rest and soon reached the sign directing us a quarter of a mile off the trail to a spring and campsite. As our water was depleted, we followed the sign, and at the spring filtered our water and made a hot lunch. This helped to restore us, but the trail had taken its toll. We were tired. Even so, as we didn’t want to carry extra water, we committed to making it to the next water source and shelter, Doc’s Knob. This would be a 16.1 mile day—the farthest that we had ever backpacked in a day.

We passed by at least a dozen thru-hiking NOBOs, all intent on making it into Pearisburg to escape the rain. Were we foolish, hiking into the coming storm? Perhaps, but Maple and I were on a tight schedule, and we had already committed ourselves to the trail, despite the weather.

When we finally arrived at Doc’s Knob we found the shelter occupied by a very pleasant man, “Loon Seeker,” and his dog. As there was no place to set up a tent, and as we expected rain, we requested a place in the shelter, and he gladly made room for us. Afterwards, there showed up “Tent Pole,” named for having broken one, and “Loner,” who wasn’t too happy about sharing a shelter with a dog. Given his attitude, we figured he wasn’t too happy about sharing a shelter with anyone.

Doc’s Knob was situated in a very wet and muddy area. Fortunately, there were plenty of rocks around the shelter to step on. This was the first time that Maple and I shared a shelter, but we had little choice, and since we were so exhausted, we fell asleep early and slept soundly.

Day Four: Doc’s Knob Shelter to Wapiti Shelter.

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“Just Susan”

Overnight, it seemed we had dodged a bullet. The rain never came. Then, around 6:30 am, we began to hear the pitter patter of rain on the shelter roof. Birch suggested that we take off to avoid a swampy trail. As we were about to leave, who should come to the shelter but “Just Susan”. She had decided to slack pack going north from Woods Hole to Pearisburg. She was full of energy and that energized us. We wished her well and began our short 9 mile hike to Wapiti Shelter.

At first, I was quite pleased. Despite the rain, I was pretty dry. Much of the terrain was rocky and slippery. This made it slow going. By the time we passed Big Horse Gap and got to the sharp descent to the shelter it began to pour…a deluge! The trail turned into a river and all hope of staying dry was lost.

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By the time we reached Wapiti Shelter it was surrounded by a moat. Two hikers had just finished up lunch and were continuing on their way. All afternoon, hikers came in to get out of the rain. Each one took off their boots and rung out their socks. We met many wonderful folks, including “Radar” and her dad who were on a south-bound 5-day section hike, like us. Many hikers came in to have a bite to eat. It wasn’t long before the shelter smelled like a combination of smelly wet socks and Mountain House lasagna!

One of the best parts of the afternoon was spending time with “Red Bull”. “Red Bull” was dressed in a kilt with patriotic socks and a flag bandana. He had a serious speaker system that played music for us while we waited for the rain to stop. Despite playing “Hear Comes the Sun”, it didn’t work. We had fun anyway.

By 6 pm the rain stopped. We were joined by “Loon”, a women from Minnesota who hiked 24 miles in the rain. “Down Hill”, “White Sands” and “Paint Brush” joined us. “One Pole” was also at the shelter. He had broken a trekking pole on one of his first days on the trail and we couldn’t quite imagine how one could do that! It was a fun group.

Day Five: Wapiti Shelter to VA-606.

In the morning, Maple and I packed up our wet tent, prepared an oatmeal breakfast, to which we added dehydrated peaches, and said goodbye to “Downhill,” “White Sands,” “One Pole”, and “Paintbrush.” Our backpacks were still wet, and despite the threat of continued rain, we decided not to put on our wet rain gear.

How can I describe how wet and muddy the area was through which we hiked? Between Wapiti Shelter and VA-606 there were sixteen bridges, fourteen of which were within 2.5 miles south of Wapiti. There were also several small creeks, which we crossed over by the help of rocks and logs. The mud was pervasive, and there was no avoiding it, however hard to tried.

We decided not to go to Dismal Creek Falls, since we had heard that the Blue Trail leading to it got one only so far as the rear of the falls, and that one had to cross the deep and swift creek over a log in order to arrive at the front of the falls. Maple and I are not great risk takers, and we were anxious about the condition of our car and about getting home. So, we passed up the Blue Trail.

What we had accomplished on this trip was noteworthy: We had hiked several consecutive days more miles than we were accustomed to. We had hiked a 16.1 mile day, by several miles the farthest that we had ever backpacked. And, we had hiked five consecutive days, which we had done only once before—in the Grand Canyon. Moreover, we had hiked nine miles in the pouring rain and had learned what it means to hike when thoroughly soaked. This was a great trip for Maple and I, and has given us confidence for our upcoming hike in Grand Teton National Park, next month.

AT: Craig Creek Road (VA-621) to Johns Creek Valley Road (VA-632)

Birch and I are thrilled to be on the trail for a second weekend in a row! We dropped our car off at the AT crossing of VA-632, which is along a very narrow, unmaintained dirt road. At first, we weren’t even sure we would get there. We rolled down our window to ask a guy in a pick up truck and he assured us that we were going the right way. However, he pointed out that it would be much easier if we left the car at 601, at the top of the mountain.

Yeah….We know! Oh, the joys of trying to section hike as a purist!

We were fortunate to have Bennett Witcher shuttle us from the drop off point to our destination.

While last week was very warm and sunny, we had no such luck this week. We put on our rain gear and were surprised by how cold it was as we ascended the 1,500+ feet up Sinking Creek Mo5-6_1119untain. We took a picture at the Eastern Continental Divide sign (who wouldn’t?) and found that the next leg of the hike along the ridge was the hardest yet. The wind was fierce! The rocks were slippery. The rain only made things more miserable.

Luckily, this was a very short hike day for us. In no time we were at the turn off for Sarvor Hollow Shelter. We debated just moving forward for more miles and staying on the trail. However, the long descent to the water source, and the fact that the shelter had a cover over the picnic table, convinced us that staying was better than leaving.

Sarvor Hollow Shelter is really nice. It is set near the former homestead of Henry and thumbnail_5-6_1525Sarah Sarvor. In the 1870’s, this was farmland. The remnants of two buildings are still there today. We set up our tent, got water, explored the ruins of the old Sarvor homestead, and enjoyed watching a bird build her nest. Around dinner time, we were joined by two section hikers, one with a dog. “Monkey Crow” had done this section before, BUT…his dog had not. Needless to say, they both have to have the same trail miles, right? What better reason does one need to re-hike the same area? His buddy, “Gadget”, lived up to his name by bringing a very cool swivel chair with him.

The next day, the weather wasn’t much better. The rain had stopped but the clouds threatened and it wasn’t exactly warm out there. As we continued south, a thru hiker named “Camino” told us that it had snowed on the mountain the night before. We passed along farmland near Hwy 42 and I got to “hug” the biggest oak tree on the Appalachian Trail, the “Keffer Oak”.

Birch and I had the pleasure of crossing two major creeks, both of which required 5-7_1143navigating wet, slippery rocks and very robust water flows. We stopped at Laurel Creek Shelter for a delicious hot lunch and coffee before ascending up to Kelly Knob. After one mile of tough going, things got better. Then, we coasted until we had to do the significant descent past 601 and along a narrow, steep ridge.

By the time we completed the hike, the sky had cleared.  For those wondering, we saw a TON of thru hikers this trip. Many more than we could name or list. Many were bouncing along to loud music as they went. We’re looking forward to seeing the South-bounders in a few months!

 

AT: VA-311 to Craig Creek Road (VA-621)

Day One: VA-311 to Camp on Sawtooth Ridge

VA-311 to Pickle Branch Shelter is a strenuous 12.5 miles, particularly since it involves climbing Cove Mountain and Dragon’s Tooth. Maple and I decided to make the stretch a little easier by dividing it into two days, starting our hike on the same day that we drove out to our destination. When we arrived at the parking lot on Craig Creek Road after 2 p.m., our shuttle driver, “Roub”—whose acquaintance we had made at Bryant Ridge Shelter—and his wife “Mama Roub,” were already there, waiting for us. They had very graciously offered to shuttle us, and they were wonderful company. On our way to our starting point on VA-311, they pointed out a popular dining spot among AT hikers, the Homeplace Restaurant, on Catawba Valley Dr. We hoped to go there after our hike—but, alas, it does not open until later in the afternoon. We’ll have to try again.

We knew that it was going to rain, but Maple and I had hoped to make it four miles before camping. That didn’t happen. After two miles, it began to sprinkle, and we found a great tent spot on the ridge. As it turned out, the rain did not begin in earnest for another hour, but by that time we had had coffee, had eaten our dinner, and were comfortable inside our tent.

Day Two: Sawtooth Ridge to Pickle Branch Shelter

In the morning, we awoke to find ourselves above the clouds. The sky had cleared, and it was promising to be a beautiful, though hot, day. We postponed breakfast and got back on the trail by 7:30. Once we got off the ridge, in Catawba Valley, we found the trail muddy and slippery. At one point, a gathering of steers approached us and threatened to block our path. When we arrived at Catawba Creek, we found that the recent rains had made it deep. As there was no bridge, Maple and I had to remove our boots and roll up our pants before crossing. Once across, we rested at a tent spot and had our breakfast.

After crossing Route 624, Maple and I began our ascent up Cove Mountain. Half way up, the trail became quite rocky and began to demand a bit of scrambling. We were told, especially by those going down, that the scrambling would become increasingly difficult and dangerous, that our backpacks would make balancing precarious, and that I might have to use a rope to assist Maple on her ascent. Well, in truth, the scrambling did become more difficult, and Maple and I were both exhausted when we arrived at the top of Dragon’s Tooth, but the ascent was not half so difficult and dangerous as we had been led to believe. We actually made it more treacherous than it had to be, as we made the mistake of getting sidetracked by a false trail that led us up and over several rocks before disappearing

View from Dragon’s Tooth

The combination of heat and physical exertion left us exhausted, and though we stopped for lunch shortly after leaving Dragon’s Tooth, Maple and I still found ourselves plodding along for the last 4.2 miles of our day’s journey. We stopped, probably, every twenty minutes, but eventually found ourselves going downhill toward the shelter. And, once at the shelter, a short but steep descent brought us to the plentiful and cold water of Pickles Branch. There we refilled and cooled off before setting up our tent.

Sharing the shelter with us was a small and pleasantly sociable group of students from Spring Arbor University, in Michigan, led by their teacher, the university’s Library Director, Robbie Bolton. They were enjoying the end-of-semester culmination of a one-credit course called Backpacking and Wilderness Experience. Like us, they were southbound, but there was a second group from SAU that was northbound and that we would cross paths with on the next day.

Day Three: Pickle Branch Shelter to VA-621

Our third day out promised to be another hot one, in the upper 80s. Having had to ration our water the day before, I decided to carry about 1.5 liters extra. We had a four-mile uphill stretch to get to the top of Brush Mountain, where there is a monument to WWII hero Audie Murphie. Surprisingly, there are also two park benches, probably built by the Roanoke ATC.

After three miles downhill, we finally crossed the swift and deep currents of Craig Creek and made it back to our car. What a rewarding adventure!

AT: Troutville (US-11) to Catawba Mountain (VA-311)

Day One: Troutville (US-11) to Lamberts Meadow Shelter

Birch and I continued our AT adventure by starting in Troutville and going south. I should mention that we’ve hit a real milestone on the trail. We’ve shifted from hiking the Appl LAY chian trail to hiking the Apple LATCH ian trail. We’re in the land of “ya’ll’ and it feels great!

Both Birch and I have new backpacks and so during the first few miles I was making adjustments to my back. The first part of the hike is pretty easy, but before long we passed over Tinker Creek (with a new bridge) and ascended about 800 feet to Tinker Ridge. The ridge reminded me of Pennsylvania. Beautiful views of Daleville to the right, and views of Carvin Cove Reservoir to the left. It appears as if there may have been a fire in the area not long ago, but life always seems to spring up from the ashes.


For the most part, this isn’t a strenuous hike. It wasn’t long before we reached Lamberts Meadow Campsite, situated along Sawmill Run. This is a great spot. It even has a bear box and a picnic table. Just up the hill was Lamberts Meadow Shelter, where we set up camp for the night close to the stream.

Being a Friday, we figured we were likely to have company. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before “Sam” came along. Sam recently defended his dissertation, and a hike along the three ridges was just the thing to blow off a little steam. This was his first time on the trail, but you never would have guessed. Soon we were joined by 10 members of the Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club and a ton of other folks. About 20 people in all!

Day Two: Lamberts Meadow Shelter to Campbell Shelter

Today was a short hike, so Birch and I took our time getting up. With 20 people elbowing for room at the picnic table, why not wait? This day’s hike was more strenuous. It started with an immediate 1,000 ft ascent to Tinker Cliffs. Many say that Tinker Cliffs is better than McAfee Knob, and I can see why. It has amazing views and it isn’t very crowded. The trail is very close to the edge of the cliffs, though!

As we descended we noticed evidence of horse traffic. We think there is a trail near Brickey’s Gap that may give some horse owners access to the trail. Brickey’s Gap must have been more populated at one point. We saw farm equipment that once served a purpose, but was long past its prime.

Eventually, we made it to Campbell Shelter, named after some dedicated Roanoke Appalachian Trail members from the 80s. Two father/son pairs joined us and we even saw Sam again for a while!

Day Three: Campbell Shelter to Catawba Mountain (VA-311)

Birch and I were up early so that we could get to McAfee Knob before the crowds. We ate breakfast with “Found It”, a thru-hiker turned section-hiker. “Found it” got his name because he was always losing stuff – then finding it again. Sure enough, he lost his plastic baggies – then found them. It is always nice to see hikers who have earned their names. 🙂

As we neared McAfee Knob the anticipation was huge. I had seen so many pictures of this spot. Would it live up to its reputation? Sure enough, it was gorgeous. A few women were just about to leave, so we had someone there to take our picture. Then…the place was all ours! The sun was rising, the sky was bright blue, and we could see for miles. I’m so glad that we had a chance to experience this in peace.

The peace would not last long. As we descended we met tons of people – and dogs – coming the other way. One of the highlights of our trip was meeting up with Mr. Witcher again. He picked us up at 311 and dropped us off back at our starting point, where we left our car.

AT: Bearwallow Gap (VA-43) to Troutville (US-11)

This past weekend Maple and I continued our southward journey on the AT in Virginia, hiking 20.1 miles, beginning at VA-43, east of Buchanan, and ending in the town of Troutville. Once again, we relied upon a shuttle service provided by Homer Witcher, who is the supervisor of all the shelters under the care of the Roanoke A.T.C. He dropped us off at our beginning point at 10 a.m. on a beautiful, but cold, Saturday morning. The temperature reached up into the 40s in the late afternoon, but with the constant wind, it rarely seemed much above freezing. A beautiful day for hiking, if dressed appropriately. And we were.

We crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway several times on Saturday, and the trail stayed fairly close to it always, until we reached Taylor Mountain Overlook. Here, after having our lunch, we crossed the parkway one last time, westward, and then parted ways with it. From here it was another 2.8 miles to Wilson Creek Shelter, where we were to spend the night.

Our water source.

We knew that Wilson Creek, an abundant water source, was a half mile south of the shelter, and since we weren’t looking forward to adding a mile to our hike (back and forth from the shelter), we took advantage of what appeared to be a small spring that crossed the trail about a quarter mile north of our destination. We filled our dromedary, continued our hike, and arrived at Wilson Creek Shelter before 4 p.m.

Seven young people had arrived before us. Among them were four north-bound thru-hikers, the first that we have come across this year: Hot Rod, Alpine, Sub-Zero, and his partner, Golightly. They had begun their journey in January and were presently accompanied by several college friends on spring break from Illinois–friends who were getting a taste of the backpacking life. At dusk, Maple accepted their invitation to make smores. They were all quite friendly, and it was a real pleasure to get acquainted with them. My only real concern is for Alpine, who has made it a habit to hike at night using his headlamp. Already he has had several falls, and I fear that it is only a matter of time before he injures himself.

Maple and I retired with the sun, played a game of backgammon, and then slept well, bundled up in our long underwear and sleeping bags with liners. When the Sunday morning sun woke us up, we made our breakfast of oatmeal and coffee on the picnic table in front of the shelter. When we packed up, we forgot our sporks on the table. It was an oversight we wouldn’t discover until we stopped for lunch at Fullhardt Knob Shelter. Eating Lipton’s Cup-a-Soup noodles with our fingers reminded us of our dinner along the “Roller Coaster” in northern Virginia, when I had forgotten to pack our sporks, and we had to manage macaroni and cheese with our fingers.

Fullhardt Knob Shelter

Fullhardt Knob Shelter has a cistern from which we were able to filter water. We had planned to spend Sunday night here, but we had made good time, despite the thousand-foot elevation gain between Curry Creek and Fullhardt Knob. And, since we didn’t have sporks with which to eat dinner and breakfast, we decided to hike the remaining 3.8 miles to our parked car on US-11.  Interestingly, after descending from the shelter, we had to pass through some privately owned land, including a cow pasture and a grass covered hillside, which is very steep and not represented on the AT map.

 

AT: Sunset Field (Blue Ridge Parkway) to VA-43

Oh, how hard it is to be off the trail for such a long time! This hike was a long time coming. We first attempted this stretch on December 30th, 2016. Unfortunately, a trace of early morning snow was enough to completely ice over VA-43, making the drive to our destination impossible. So close and yet so far! The hike would have to wait.

On February 11, 2017  Birch and I were shuttled from VA-43 to Sunset Field by Mr. Witcher, an inspiring guy who thru hiked the AT with his family in 2002. Mr. Witcher is a model example of what makes the AT so special. He maintains large portions of the trail, is an expert privy builder, and is kind enough to shuttle folks to trailheads. He gives tons of his time to the AT. (Thank you!)

2-12_1329The hike from Sunset Field to Bryant Ridge Shelter was fairly easy. The bare trees gave us opportunities to view the mountains. After reaching Floyd mountain the next three miles were  steep and downhill. My legs were killing me!

We stayed the night at Bryant Ridge, an amazing shelter. It has three stories, with a very large, covered area to just hang out. Water is plentiful. The only downside is that we didn’t find any great spots to set up our tent. I guess with a large shelter, most wouldn’t use a tent anyway.

Lucky for us, we were not alone. Two guys, “Roub” and “Crackin” soon came into camp. Both are expert AT hikers. Roub completed a thru hike and Crackin thru hiked Virginia. We learned a lot of great tips from them. As important, they were just great company.

The next day Birch and I went about 7 miles to Cove Mountain Shelter. Roub and Crackin advised us against carrying water up Fork Mountain, and we were so glad that we took their advice. We loaded up with water at Jenny Creek, four miles into the hike, then went up, up, up until we reached the shelter. We were excited to read the trail log and see a note from our new trail friends. The trail magic was a special treat!

Sunday evening, we decided to skip the tent and stay in the shelter. Luckily, we were well prepared. We brought winter jackets, sleeping bag liners, and other cold weather gear. The temps went from the 70’s to 30 degrees by morning time. Boy, the wind howled and  roared! 2-12_1422

The hike out was beautiful, despite the cold temps. The ridge is lined with pretty green moss, making us ALMOST forget that it was still winter.

 

(Follow Roub’s adventures at: trailjournals.com/Roubaix)

AT: US-501/VA-130 (James River) to Sunset Field, Blue Ridge Parkway

This was the last autumn backpacking venture that Maple and I would have for the year, and (as it turned out) it was also our first hike for the winter of ’16/17, for winter surely descended upon us on Saturday, November 19. But I am getting ahead of myself.

11-18_1532Maple did some preparatory research for our backpacking trip and was told that a dry season had left Marble Spring spent, and that we should expect no available water at Marble Spring Campsite. So, in addition to packing our usual water for the hike, I filled my 4-litre dromedary. Unfortunately, on the way to our beginning point, one of my Camelback bottles leaked, and I found it to be completely empty as I prepared to begin our hike. The situation placed Maple and I in a quandary, but just then a mobile home pulled into the parking lot. I asked the driver if he had any water to spare, and his wife happily refilled my bottle. Afterwards I found that they were there with the intent to be of service to hikers—that they were, in fact, traveling trail angels.

Our hike began by crossing the James River on the longest footbridge on the entire A.T., and then walking westward alongside it for nearly a mile, until we reached Matts Creek. 11-18_093711-18_0938Then we followed the creek to Matts Creek Shelter before crossing it and beginning our ascent up to Hickory Stand. There Maple and I took a break for lunch, and proceeded about a mile before running into two trail workers, Buckeye and Grateful, with the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club. They invited us to sit with them a bit, and we learned that they were also section hikers.

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At 7.8 miles we reached Marble Spring Campsite and found that no one else was there. 11-18_1531The first order of business was to check the spring, just in case, and we found that it was producing a steady but slow current. Once again, caution had prompted me to carry a heavy load of water unnecessarily. Still, better to be cautious than sorry. After setting up our tent and enjoying a cup of coffee, first a young woman (Grizzly) and, later, an older man (Leprechaun) strolled into camp. They both had the “gift of gab” and proved sufficient company for one another, so Maple and I called it an early night. During the night another southbound backpacker (who had sent home his tent!) came into camp.

It had been a warm day, reaching sixty-nine degrees, and the night was cloudless and comfortable. But the following day, during the late morning and early afternoon, the temperature dropped thirty degrees, and a powerful wind came into play, knocking down branches and scattering a fresh layer of leaves over our trail. In addition, dark clouds blew over us, threatening rain. Although Maple and I had 9.5 miles to hike, most of it uphill, we took few and short breaks, as we were afraid we were going to get pelted by freezing rain. Fortunately, we stayed dry and the clouds were blown away in the early afternoon.

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Thunder Hill Lookout

The Guillotine

The Guillotine

We passed Thunder Hill Shelter without visiting it, nor did we spend any time at the lookout on top of Thunder Hill. But we did pause briefly at the Guillotine. Who would not pause before walking under a boulder supported by two granite walls? That boulder may have been where it is for centuries, but it nevertheless looks like it is waiting to fall—just like the blade of a guillotine.