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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 17 - Shenandoah National Park

Updated on April 27, 2013
Some backpackers enjoying a view along the AT in the Shenandoah National Park.
Some backpackers enjoying a view along the AT in the Shenandoah National Park. | Source

"The trail was beautifully graded and smooth. We were able to cruise along quickly through the pleasant woodlands."

Acquaintances

We were at Rockfish Gap at the entrance of Shenandoah National Park. We had just met up with our hiking partner Mark, and we still had the entire day ahead of us. We met a Park Ranger and set up our campsite plan for our trip through the Park. Then we started down the trail. The trail was beautifully graded and smooth. We were able to cruise along quickly through the pleasant woodlands. By the end of the day we had traveled 19 miles to Blackrock Shelter and we were pleased with the hiking in Shenandoah National Park. Like along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the trail followed the road closely, cutting back and forth across it numerous times. That night, as I lay in my sleeping bag on the shelter’s platform, I heard some rustling near the shelter and turned on my flashlight to see what it was. The light revealed some deer grazing in the open area around the lean-to. It was the first of many deer we would see in the park. Shortly after that I drifted off to sleep.

We found a good place to spend most of the hot part of the next day at Loft Mountain Campground. There was a store and a restaurant so we spent a lot of time there after hiking 7 miles from Blackrock Shelter. As evening came on we shouldered our packs and hiked another 6 miles to get to Pine Field Shelter. During the evening at the shelter some acquaintances joined us unexpectedly. First we came upon one of the “Chaw Brothers” we had met in Damascus Virginia. Unfortunately one of the brothers had ended up having to quit the trip. The other one was carrying on solo. Later on, as darkness was closing in, the “Turtle”, a guy we had met about a week earlier, showed up.

When the “Turtle” arrived at Pine Field Shelter, we all greeted him and the first thing he wanted to do was to relate a conversation he had with a woman at one of the campgrounds. The woman saw him during the heat of the day laboring along with his pack. She came up to him with a concerned expression. "Is that pack heavy?" She had asked him.

"No ma'am …," the Turtle started out, trying to tell us what he had answered her in a deadpan voice, but every time he tried, he ended up falling into a fit of giggles. Finally he got his line out, "No ma’am,” he said, “I've had this pack surgically attached to my body." He thought that it was about the funniest thing he had ever said to anyone. We laughed along with him, as much amused by his antics and giggling, as we were by the story itself.

We quickly came to enjoy hiking along the AT in the Shenandoah National Park.
We quickly came to enjoy hiking along the AT in the Shenandoah National Park. | Source
The trail was well graded and smooth.
The trail was well graded and smooth. | Source

"First it was often the practice to make a grand entrance into camp."

Thru-Hiker Rendezvous

On occasions where we were part of a group of thru-hikers that converged on a shelter for a night, it was generally a festive occasion. First it was often the practice to make a grand entrance into camp. Everyone had their own style. Some let out a special whoop, shout, or call to announce their arrival. Others made the scene by walking up casually and making a wisecrack. Of course those that were already at the shelter or campsite were not to be outdone. They made their own wisecracks, or cried out with their own special whoops or shouts.

Once the arrival and greetings were done, the thru hikers would get down to the business of comparing notes. They would ask each other who they had run across lately and they related the information they could provide - This hiker got off the trail to visit family for a week, that one got hurt and had to lay up for a while. We haven't seen any shelter log entries from another one in a while. Did we pass him?

All this conversation normally took place while dinner was being cooked. Dinner preparation was always accompanied by a background noise like three or four blowtorches hissing simultaneously at varying speeds. The noise came from the stoves the various hikers were running to cook their dinners. Backpacking stoves all work along the same principle – a source of fuel forced through some tubing and out of some tiny holes in a burner with a crisscrossed brace that supports a pan or a pot. All the thru hikers we encountered uniformly used backpacking stoves to cook their meals. Cooking over a fire would take far longer and required that there be an ample quantity of dry wood at each campsite. Collecting firewood every evening and every morning for a cook fire took time that thru hikers typically did not want to spend.

To use stoves for cooking required carrying fuel. Many stoves operated with a specific fuel canister filled with butane or propane gas. Mark’s stove was of that design. Used conservatively, the canister of fuel lasted for weeks. When opportunities arose, Mark would have to buy new canisters at sporting goods stores along the way. The canister and his entire stove was very light, and Mark did not use it every day. Often he would have meals that did not require cooking. We used Dave's Coleman Peak One stove which was designed for liquid gas fuel. Officially it was supposed to use Coleman fuel which could be purchased at sporting goods stores in 1 gallon cans. Those large cans were, of course, far too unwieldy for backpackers to carry, so most people carried small aluminum fuel bottles that they filled with Coleman fuel. Between the fuel held in the stoves tank and the fuel in the fuel bottle, the Peak One could also be used for a couple weeks before needing to get more fuel. Dave and I cooked with the stove every night and often for breakfast too. We each carried a fuel bottle, so we could cover a lot of distance between having to restock our fuel supplies. When it came to restocking, the big gallon Coleman fuel cans still didn't work for us since even with both our bottles there was no way we could carry an entire gallon of fuel. Luckily for us, the Coleman Peak One stove, at least in those days, was very versatile and could run on unleaded gasoline. That made it easy on us. When we came to a town where we had to resupply, we would go to the gas station, fill up our fuel bottles directly from a gas pump, and pay the relatively inexpensive cost for about a quart of unleaded gas. Then we were done with that chore and onto our food shopping or laundry. Over a long period of time, using unleaded gas probably was not as good for the stove as using Coleman fuel, but for the duration of the trip it worked for us and it was a very convenient and economical practice.

After dinner, on spring and summer evenings when thru hikers rendezvoused at a shelter, there would often be a little time before darkness fell. Then there would be some quiet talk. That was when the hikers would actually get to know each other a little bit. Questions and answers would pass back-and-forth about hometowns, careers, family, interests, and experiences. They would also talk about hiking plans for the next few days, and often hikers would make plans to hike together for a while, or at least aim for the same upcoming shelters.

The next day Mark chose to hike along Skyline Drive, the road that snakes through the middle of Shenandoah National Park, while Dave and I chose to hike the trail. We found ourselves hiking with the “Chaw Brother”. He was a tall guy with long legs. He set a blistering pace and Dave and I were determined to keep up. We climbed 5 mountains over the course of the day and we took an hour-long break at the best view on High Top Mountain. It turned out to be a 21 mile day. We ended up at Bear Fence Shelter where we met up with Mark again. In the evening the “Turtle” arrived late, as he had the night before.

A typical overlook in the Shenandoah National Park.
A typical overlook in the Shenandoah National Park. | Source
A backpacking stove.
A backpacking stove. | Source
Big Meadows Lodge
Big Meadows Lodge | Source

"It was the classiest place we ate at on the entire trip."

Big Meadows

The next day, after examining our maps and guidebooks, we saw an opportunity to hike 5 miles along Skyline Drive from Bear Fence Shelter to Big Meadows Lodge. Big Meadows was a site in the park with a large hotel, a restaurant, a campsite, and a picnic facility. We, as usual, saw a chance to get something good to eat. It was a short jaunt, and we made it there while it was still morning. Big Meadows was aptly named. It was a large rustic hotel surrounded by fields at the top of the ridge that forms the Shenandoah mountain range.

The day was sunny and warm and the views were beautiful. We bought some cereal and milk at the store to eat, and then we laid down in the field outside the hotel where we could see the views and watch the activity of the people at the hotel, restaurant, and picnic facilities. We relaxed there for a long time propped against our packs soaking up the sunshine. As the day slipped past we read, checked our maps and guidebooks, wrote in our journals, and just people-watched. The afternoon passed and we wondered aloud how much it would be to stay at a nice National Park lodge like Big Meadows. Wondering led to asking and finding out that it would only be eight dollars apiece for a room, which in turn led us to shell out the money.

Soon we were hauling our packs into the room we were assigned. We all showered then marched down to the hotel's main dining room for dinner. The dining room, like the rest of the lodge, had stained wooden paneling. We sat at a table with a white tablecloth and white cloth napkins. We wore the cleanest clothes we had which were our long pants and our long-sleeved flannel shirts. Of course, the only shoes we had to wear were our hiking boots. In the dining room those boots suddenly felt enormous and clunky on my feet. It was the classiest place we ate at on the entire trip.

The interior of Big Meadows Lodge
The interior of Big Meadows Lodge | Source

"We had a great show of lightning flashes and rumbling thunder as we ate our hot dogs."

Layover

Rested and fueled by our sojourn at the Big Meadows Lodge, we made some big miles the next day. The great condition of the trail in the Park and the easy ridge walking resulted in a 27 mile day to Range View Cabin. The cabin was occupied, so Dave, Mark, and I slept under the stars.

We had been noticing that each day was getting progressively hazier, and we were starting to wonder when it would finally rain. Also we were amazed by the amount of deer we saw that day, and all through the park. In Shenandoah National Park, like in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, the deer are protected so that they're almost tame. Often when hiking in the Park it was possible to get extremely close to the deer before they bolted. We met many other hikers during the day. Our best view of the day, and of the whole Park was on Mary's Rock. Just past the view was a restaurant where we had some ice cream.

The next day was May 19th and we hiked out of the Park. We went 14 miles to Floyd's Wayside Shelter, a newly constructed shelter at a beautiful site. The water source was a little far from the shelter, but all in all it was a very good place. I had arranged with my aunt and uncle to meet them on May 21 and Floyd's Wayside Shelter was about 10 miles from the rendezvous point. Therefore, we planned a layover the following day. For a week the weather had been getting hazier and more humid each day. We were expecting a thunderstorm and we had caught a weather report on the radio that was calling for one. We figured we were in about the best place we could be to watch it – a nice cozy three sided shelter, but the storm didn't come that night.

The next day was spent lazing around the shelter. I had a good book to read and I became engrossed in it. Dave and Mark wanted to hike to a store they read about in one of the guidebooks, but I wasn't interested in going. They went, while I stayed and read. They returned with a pack of hot dogs and some bread. We had ketchup in our packs so we ended up having a tasty dinner of hot dogs that evening. It was around dinnertime when the long-awaited thunderstorm finally occurred. We had a great show of lightning flashes and rumbling thunder as we ate our hot dogs. That night I went to sleep anticipating the first chance in over two months to see some family members. We were going to get off the trail for a couple days, get cleaned up, do some laundry, and even do some sightseeing around the nation’s capital. Both Dave and I were looking forward to it.

We saw many deer in the Park.
We saw many deer in the Park. | Source

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      Bim 4 years ago

      I find your descriptions about the people and daily life trail very interesting. I assume you have read books by other A.T. hikers over the years. When comparing your adventures with theirs over the years, what changes, if any, stand out to you?

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