Taking a Hike – Shenandoah National Park

Old Rag Boulders

Old Rag Boulders

My newspaper column – Taking a Hike – was published last week. This month it is about Shenandoah National Park, and in particular a wonderful hike-scramble up Old Rag Mountain. You can find the column at Hersam Acorn (A hike in Shenandoah National Park) and The Hour (Taking on our closest national park).

I started the column by saying we don’t have many national parks near where I live (southwest Connecticut). Even as I wrote, I imagined a particular acquaintance of mine firing back, “Now wait a minute, you have one 7.5 miles up the road, in your own town”. My defense was that Weir Farm is a national historic site, not the same thing as a park even if it is run by the National Park Service and even if it does have a trail or two. My acquaintance, by the way, works for the NPS at Weir Farm.

This little dialog with myself set me to checking what else the NPS has in Connecticut. I found five “parks” on its website, of which I had heard of two (Weir Farm and the Appalachian Trail). What might the others hold for hikers?

The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail (wow!), to judge from the website, is more an idea than a park, a road route at most for the time being. What about the Quinebaug & Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage Corridor then? Any good hiking there? There probably is, but since this “special kind of park” appears to consist of the northeast of Connecticut in its entirety, I doubt the trails have the customary NPS “look & feel”. In fact, the NPS website directs you to a third-party (The Last Green Valley) to find out what to do in this heritage corridor.

This left the New England National Scenic Trail – “From the Sound to the Summits: the New England Trail covers 215 miles from Long Island Sound across long ridges to scenic mountain summits in Connecticut and Massachusetts”. This sounded promising, a whole new mega-trail to explore! But then its route looked strangely familiar, little more than the established Metacomet and Mattabesett “blue-blazed” trails; and indeed the NPS site sends you to the stewards of the Blue-Blazed Trails if you click “Learn About the Park”.

Talcott Mountain on the Metacomet Trail — courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and “Jehochman”

Talcott Mountain on the Metacomet Trail — courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and “Jehochman”

So what does all this mean? (1) The NPS brands projects that it does not really manage (the A.T. itself is a case in point). I am sure this serves a purpose, and the NPS is still probably my favorite government agency. (2) I stick by my opinion that Shenandoah NP is the nearest true national park to home. And (3) I hope to post here soon about hiking the New England National Scenic Trail, although I doubt I will call it that.

Day Hike Notes – Shenandoah A.T.

Looking north from Hawksbill Summit

Looking north from Hawksbill Summit

I posted a week ago about hiking Old Rag Mountain with Mike and Lou. Mike is a friend from schooldays who I had not seen in 37 years. The next day, Lou – Mike’s partner – decided to take a horseback ride out of Skyland Resort, but before doing so she drove Mike and I to a point on the Appalachian Trail near Big Meadows. From there we hiked back to the resort, leaving the A.T. for a mile or two to take in Hawksbill Summit on a side trail. Lou rejoined us for an evening walk up Stony Man Mountain.

All of our route was within a mile of Skyline Drive. I had assumed the tourist road would impinge on the trail. It didn’t. Maybe this was because Mike and I were mostly distracted by nostalgia, or because it was mid-week in April. I have certainly read about grousing from thru-hikers who hit this section of A.T. in early summer.

DATE: Wednesday, April 22nd.
START: A.T. just south of Big Meadows.
FINISH: Stony Man Mountain, immediately north of Skyland Resort.
ROUTE: Straight up the A.T. (south to north), with “longcut” over Hawksbill Summit.
DISTANCE: 9-10 miles to Skyland Resort, plus 1.6-mile loop of Stony Man.
TIME: 5 hours to Skyland Resort, 1 hour on Stony Man.
TERRAIN: Up and down between 2,900 feet and 4,050 feet (Hawksbill Summit).
MAP: Appalachian Trail map for SNP Central District.

WEATHER: Sunny, then sunny with showers. Very breezy on summits.
WILDLIFE: I am sure there were deer.

PHOTOS: Here.

Evening light in Shenandoah Valley from Stony Man Mountain

Evening light in Shenandoah Valley from Stony Man Mountain

BREAKFAST: Muesli and coffee at Big Meadows Campground before meeting Mike and Lou at the resort.
LUNCH: Hunkering in the shelter beneath Hawksbill.
UPS: Reveling in schooldays reminiscence with Mike.
DOWNS: Can’t think of any.
KIT: Hike was a case in point for layers; mostly mild but numbingly cold when caught by the strong wind. I did not carry gloves, but would have welcomed them on Hawksbill.
COMPANY: Mike, Lou, plus a few other hikers.

Day Hike Notes – Old Rag Mountain

Old Rag Mountain, Virginia

Old Rag Mountain seen from Skyline Drive.

Until two weeks ago, I had visited Shenandoah National Park twice. The first time, in March 1994, my wife and I drove the length of Skyline Drive with a six-month-old baby for company. Baby had a cold. The second time, in May 2014, I drove the length of Skyline Drive with my 20-year-old daughter for company, the snuffely baby all grown up. On neither occasion did we stop to hike. And in all the intervening years I had never thought of SNP as a hiking destination. In my mind, the park was Skyline Drive, and any hikes it might offer would be within sight and sound of the tourist road.

Then, last year, a friend from schooldays in England who I had recently reconnected with online, said he hoped to make a first visit to the US in April 2015 to see his son graduate from a Virginia college. Over the course of 12 months, this became a plan to meet in SNP and start the work of catching up on 37 years. Mike and his partner Lou liked to hike, so we set about the work on the trails.

DATE: Tuesday, April 21st.
START & FINISH: Parking area on Virginia SR 600, eastern edge of SNP.
ROUTE: Clockwise loop using SR 600, Ridge Trail, Saddle Trail, then Weakley Hollow Fire Road back to SR 600.
DISTANCE: 9 miles.
TIME: About 6 hours.
TERRAIN: The summit of Old Rag is 2,300 feet above the parking area, but both ascent and descent are mostly quite gradual, and on good trails. BUT, in the words of the National Park Service, there is “a strenuous rock scramble that requires good upper body strength”. Too true! On the approach to the summit, there is in fact a lengthy stretch involving multiple scrambles that require all kinds of body contortions. It is the only tough part of the hike, but it is tough. Check out what Ranger Bob has to say about Preparing to Hike Old Rag Mountain.
MAP: We used the Appalachian Trail map for SNP Central District. Old Rag is not on the A.T. but the map covers other SNP trails.

“In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, On the trail of the lonesome pine …”

“In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, On the trail of the lonesome pine …”

WEATHER: Perfect.
WILDLIFE: Turkey vultures and unidentified raptors.
PHOTOS: Here.

BREAKFAST: For me, muesli and coffee before driving to the trailhead.
LUNCH: Assorted trail food on the summit, looking toward the ridge 4-5 miles west that carries (mostly invisible) Skyline Drive.
UPS: Mike and Lou’s obvious enjoyment of the hike and scene.
DOWNS: If I have to find something, feeling my knees a bit and wondering if they might one day become the first part of my body to need replacement.
KIT: Fleece needed at the summit. Poles a hindrance on the scrambles (mine no longer collapse properly).
COMPANY: Mike and Lou, of course, plus a quantity of other hikers that was less than a crowd but more than a smattering.