Backpacking Shenandoah National Park

At the tail end of a recent business trip I took a few extra days for a section hike in Shenandoah National Park. A couple of years ago I reviewed a book on the ethnography of Appalachian Trail threw hikers for Library Journal. I’ve wanted to visit the trail ever since. I didn’t do a lot of planning: just downloaded a standard itinerary from the National Park website. From Dulles I took a ride-share to Front Royal, Virginia, and the following morning, a taxi from my crappy hotel to the trail head.

Backpacking Shenandoah National Park Day One: Jenkins Gap to Gravel Springs

The taxi dropped me at Jenkins Gap around 11:00 am, and I made my way to the first camp at Gravel Springs with ease, a distance of about 6 miles. Most of the threw hikers are further north by July and August, but there were a few leisurely hikers at the shelter, as well as some other section hikers like me.

A few days before, an adolescent bear had knocked over an empty tent at Gravel Springs–not for any food, but simply because it was curious. As a result the tent platforms were temporarily closed, and the Park Service sent over an enthusiastic young ranger with a paint ball gun to frighten away any curious bears that might wonder into camp in the evening. None, did, however, until after the perky parkee had finished her shift and set out for home. About 15 minutes after she’d gone the bear came trundling through the forest just below the shelter. All the hikers shouted and threw rocks until it ran away.

I started the night in my tent. Even though the other hikers warned me that the bear might return, I was positive I’d be more comfortable there then in the shelter. A night on a hard platform with a bunch of snoring dudes who’d just finished a long sweaty day didn’t sound very restful to me. I woke to a thunder storm at 1:00 am, throwing the cover over my tent and hauling my pack inside with me. After that, it was hard to sleep. The tent cover blocked my view. I felt blind as a character in a horror movie. Every drip from the trees sounded like a footstep in the forest. After a few sleepless hours I slipped into the shelter, heart pounding sort of damp, since I had no bottom tarp for the tent.

Backpacking Shenandoah National Park Day Two: Gravel Springs to Matthew’s Arm

…Plus a Side Trip

Started out about 8:30, and by noon I had reached Matthew’s Arm, where I deposited my bag in a bear box. With a water bottle and a notebook, I set out for a day hike to Overall Run Waterfall, where I arrived around 2:00 pm.

There was plenty of wildlife. Hundreds of small orange spiders with long legs and millipedes on the trail. Butterflies everywhere. Several deer, not all shy. The night before the ranger mentioned the deer in the park suffer from a wasting sickness, like mad cow disease, but the ones I spotted seemed healthy. On the return trip I spotted a bear for the first time since I was a little girl. It was running away from me down a hillside, looking terrified. I got about 12 miles all told.

Back at camp that evening I realized I’d broken a tent pole–again! I managed to rig up a short term solution using duct tape, tent stakes, and rope.

Backpacking Shenandoah National Park Day Three: Matthew’s Arm to Mountain Pass

I left Matthew’s Arm a little after 9:00, arriving at Elkwallow at 11:15. There, I devoured a burger, fries, and shake and bought a few extra items of packaged food. By noon I was back on the trail.

That afternoon, I had my closest encounter with a bear. It was in a tree about twenty feet from the trail, but on a downward slope, so that our faces were effectively level. Scrunched up on the trunk, the bear looked small. My first thought: oh, no, is that a cub? I froze, wondering where the mother might be. The bear and I stared at each other in mutual dismay. Then, so fast I could hardly believe it, the bear scrambled down the tree trunk and ran away down the slope. I think it was have been a juvenile. It only came to about mid-thigh, as tall as a big Labrador, though of course, much fatter, since it was a bear.

I reached the Mountain Pass shelter about 5:00. It was light enough to go on of course, but my feet were sore and I know I had big hill ahead of me. I decided to stay in the shelter this time.

Nights in the Blue Ridge are very, very loud. The Sierras, where I feel most at home, are mostly vert quiet, very peaceful–but here the night was full of the buzz saw drone of what I assume must be cicadas, and the rhythmic croaking of hundreds of frogs.

Only after it was full dark did I realize there were bats in the shelter. I heard this drip, drip, drip on my sleeping bag. I shown my light up to the ceiling and saw a little harry butt scrambling away up the wall. A bat had just peed on me.

The noises continued till 3:30 or so. Then 90 minutes of blessed quiet. After that it was bird time. I got up, having slept maybe two hours all together. I made pasta in the dark, and packed up.

Backpacking Shenandoah National Park Day Four: Mountain Pass to Pinnacles Picnic Area

By 6:30, I was packed and ready to go. I climbed to the peak of Mary’s Rock, and arrived at Pinnacles at about 11:00. There, I rested in the grass, using my broken tent as a sort of picnic blanket and snacking while I waited for my ride. I finished out the evening at the airport Double Tree.


Back home the next night I took an evening stroll around the neighborhood and spotted a family of three deer walking down the sidewalk, including a fawn (hopefully without mad-deer-wasting-sickness that plagues the Shenandoah deer).

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