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That Backpacking Trip Through Shenandoah

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Living in Indiana for so long, I yearned to experience the wonder of the trail. I had just assumed I would take to hiking, despite the lack of Indiana trails. What I liked was the idea of trail life, of testing your limits, and the independent nature of the thru-hiker. A thru-hiker I am not, though now that I’ve gotten my boots broken in on legit trails, I can make the claim that I am a hiker. Day hiking soon became too easy. After experiencing the Smokies for the first time in 2015, I knew I wanted to try backpacking.

Over spring break of this year, I went with Alex on my first overnight backpacking trip to the Smokies. I had a great time, and the unusually clear skies and warmish temperatures of the Smokies in springtime made for a good experience. Since then, I wanted to tackle a more challenging trip (isn’t that how it always goes?), so we planned a four-day excursion through Shenandoah on the Appalachian Trail. After a tiring summer spent at school, though, I wasn’t entirely sure I would enjoy it, especially considering we’d be heading out during the very worst of summer weather – heat, humidity, and bugs galore! But the only other option was to stay home and do things we typically do when we’re at home, and that would be a letdown.

Our route began at Wildcat Ridge Trail, ending at Skyland. We planned to cover the distance in four or five days on the AT, heading out on Thursday. We actually meant to start at the Riprap trail junction, but I accidentally drove past it on Skyline Drive, ending up two miles south at the Wildcat junction. Big Mistake #1.

Our first day was a 13-ish mile hike into Loft Mountain Campground, starting just before noon, ending at 6:30 PM.

This is Blackrock summit, as is the first picture up above. I was stingy with the pictures since my iPhone chronically lacks storage, and I didn’t take one of the awesome boulder structure that I believe was the actual summit area.

We detoured to Blackrock Hut a few hours in to filter water. These water stops took half an hour each, since we would pump first and finish with the Steripen for good measure. At the hut, we saw a trail log with a mention of our NOBO AT thru-hiker friend with whom we had hiked 11 miles in New York last week. We made the ridiculous .6 mile trek (uphill, of course) back to the AT, where a group of other backpackers warned us about some bear cubs up ahead. We ended up seeing one of those cubs, noshing on blackberries (we’re assuming), giving us the “Yeah so?” look from a safe distance. Once it ran off the trail, we walked by, clacking our hiking sticks together, requesting safe passage aloud for good measure.

By the time we made it to the campground, checked in, and got to our reserved campsite, we had just enough time to trek to the campstore for dinner provisions – my new favorite soda, Dr. Wham, and ham to boost our elbow pasta with chicken bouillon broth dinner. The humidity was ridiculous and we needed the sodium boost. We also got to shower. If you ever want to experience luxury on the AT, Shenandoah is one way to do it. You can stay at every campground and get a shower if you so desire, if the fees for the campsite and shower are worth it to you. If you’ve really got the dough, you can hike lodge to lodge.

Loft Campground was a pain on foot, since it’s very spread out, with a decent walk from the campground to the showers/campstore, but we enjoyed this campsite the most of the three sites where we stayed. The sites ($15/night; $1.75/5.25 minute shower) were spacious and offered a good amount of privacy. Big Meadows is the most popular and pricey, coming it at $20 for a campsite and $1.75 for a 5.25 minute shower. Lewis Mountain Campground is the smallest, but $15 for a site, $1 for a 5 minute shower, and easy to get around on foot, with the bonus of a real bathroom for a shower.

That’s the MSR Hubba Hubba NX tent. Very cozy for two people, but lightweight, durable, and easy to set up. Alex is basically a master at tying knots now, and he tied the guy lines down no problem. Eventually, I should practice this.

Hair report: I found that pigtails kept the hair off my neck the best.

We double-filtered our water the entire trip. The Steripen is good for clear bodies of water, which most of the springs we used were not. Alex filtered the water through a pump and I followed up with the Steripen. He also brought chlorine tablets as a backup.

Next morning, we got an earlier start at 9:45 AM. Fueled by four bags of homemade granola, we powered through four hours of uphill, downhill, bug-infested trails without a problem (other than the gnats and flies). Nonetheless, this day would be challenging for both of us. The first picture is of me UV-ing the pumped water, and the second is of Alex next to a surly AT marker, a sign of the day to come. Those thru-hikers sure got a sense of humor.

I forget how long of a hike this day was. I think it was around 14 or 15 miles, made tougher by relentless hills, our first onslaught of gnats, and the thunderstorm a couple miles from camp (no lightning, thankfully). We needed a second water stop at Pinefield Hut. Total breaks for the day clocked in at one hour-thirty minutes, including a half hour for lunch. We take our time eating lunch, what can I say?

We somehow misjudged the distance that day, and were disheartened when we came up to the trail post at Simmons Gap to discover that not only did we have six more miles to the hut, but the ranger station did indeed have water, which the map did not specify. It was on this section of the trail when thunder loomed in the distance. Eventually, we stopped to hastily put the rain covers on our packs before the rain hit, preventing a big mistake. We nervously made our way on the trail, surrounded by blowing trees and slippery rocks. We crossed paths with a barefoot southbounder donning a poncho (who needs heavy rain jackets!), happily marching along the trail. We marveled at his ability to cover the terrain barefooted, and I wish I had asked to see the soles of his feet. Judging by his seemingly good spirits, he probably would have shown me. I called him Hobbit.

Arriving at Hightop Hut at 6:15 PM, we made quick work of setting up the tent and cooking dinner. As dinner boiled, I peered into the hut after noticing a lone backpack. I didn’t see anyone around it, and wondered if Merlin, the friendly NOBO thru-hiker I briefly met, whose tent was set up away from the hut, left his pack there. Not that that made any sense. Eventually, I realized someone was sleeping behind their pack, and I had been staring at them like a creep. Sorry, hiker.

Let me state for the record that I have yet to shit in the woods, as Bill Bryson put it. So he may not have completed the entire AT, but he has one up on me in that regard. Not that I was afraid of doing it, since I definitely did not hold everything in, I simply figured, why not wait until a toilet? Alex keeps making fun of me for it.

Big Mistakes #2-7:

#2: We’re not so great at reading mileage on maps. Our estimates were pretty close, and for the purposes of this trip, we didn’t need to be accurate since we had planned point-to-point destinations. We just hiked more than we intended, is all.

#3: Granola made for an incredible energy-filled breakfast, as our two best days were after a heavy breakfast of granola (4 cups homemade granola mixed with 1 cup instant milk powder; add water), but it was THE HEAVIEST FOOD ITEM I CARRIED. It was so heavy. At the end of the hike, four bags remained. I brought two bags per day per person — way too much. Three bags per day, at most, split between the two of us, would have done the job.

#4: Realistically, we should have focused on food that could be eaten quickly while hiking. We brought Poptarts and ended up hating it by the end. Choking down a dry Poptart on the trail, or for a quick breakfast, was disgusting. They also require delicate handling, which is bad for hiking. Snicker bars were our friend. The six we brought were supplemented by two bars that we purchased at the overpriced campstore. Next time, no Poptarts, less granola, and more Snickers bars or other easy to eat items that provide a quick boost of energy. Common sense should have kicked it, too. I had read enough thru-hike reports, and many of those hikers don’t eat a hot breakfast.

#5: I somehow forgot to pack two of my sports bras and had to make do with the one I wore on the drive to VA. Three sports bras is a bit excessive, though, and next time I’d just bring two total to switch out.  I don’t mind the extra weight of additional clothing since I’m only out there for a few days.

#6: Somewhere between Hightop Hut and Lewis Mountain Campground, I dropped my roll of toilet paper.

#7: I learned that my backpack did not fit properly. I have an Osprey Aura 50 AG. I didn’t get fitted, but I read many reviews (from Outdoor Gear Lab, various user reports, and Youtube videos) and liked the idea of the anti-gravity air suspension, not taking into consideration the part of the OGL review stating that the Aura AG didn’t handle heavy weight well. My torso is just shy of 18-inches, and some reviewers had good luck sizing up to a medium. Because of the “on the fly” hip belt adjustment that accommodates a wide range of body sizes, the hip belt wouldn’t strap tight enough for me with the size medium. Total big rookie mistake. While, Alex’s Atmos 65 AG did fit him well, he agreed that he wouldn’t want to carry any heavier of a load in it. So, I’m looking at a couple other packs.

We left Hightop, making our way up to the actual high top of Hightop Mountain before descending yet again. I made the statement of “Lewis Campground or bust” at the beginning of the day, and I repeated it ad nauseam to myself when my pack started rubbing uncomfortably against my hipbone.

Day three was the toughest for me, and I started dragging by the end of the hike. My pack was feeling pretty uncomfortable, with my aches reaching peak pain mode. Despite it being the shortest hike of the trip at 12 miles, the relentless tree cave of gloom that had been the majority of the trail for the past three days got to me. I’ve had this sensation once before, on a 10 mile day hike in New Jersey — all I remember was being insanely happy to reach a clearing. We came up to Lewis Mountain, where I discovered my lack of toilet paper, chose a campsite, and got to work setting up our tent before the rain came down.

Tent report: we did not get wet.

Toilet paper report: I took a few wads from the camp restroom.

The next day, decisions were made. Lewis to Big Meadows is 8.7 miles, and Big Meadows to Skyland is 8.1 (longer, since we had to hike more to reach the parking lot). I doubted my ability to do a seventeen mile hike, considering how I previously fared, repeatedly speculating that we’d end up spending the night at Big Meadows, finishing up and driving out Thursday.

We started that day with another big breakfast of four bags of warmed granola, in part because we both decided Poptarts are gross, and to lighten up my feed bag weight. With full bellies and a lightened load, we set out on the first part of our final leg of the trip. We moved well, and I enjoyed being able to see the sky without being hit relentlessly by the sun. My mood improved and I concentrated on my breathing and the trail around me.

Not blueberries.

Nearing Big Meadows, the trail stopped being that tree cave of gloom. We unexpectedly came upon an unmarked cemetery on our only road crossing that was not Skyline Drive. As it turns out, there are a few other family cemeteries that existed before the park’s creation. Like many national parks (including the Smokies), towns filled with people living their lives were in tact long before those glorious parks came to be. When I pass remnants of what remain from those times, I can’t help but acknowledge that while I get the privilege of being able to journey through such a magnificent place, it came at the expense of many people who had established families and lives. In that regard, it feels like the entire park is a cemetery.

We reached Big Meadows at 1:30. We felt great, and I declared that it would be ridiculous to stop for the day; we must continue. Obviously, after a lunch break. Since we were able to fill up our water bottles at the picnic area, we saved time by not having to pump filter. Those little breaks really add up, especially when the springs are longer than one or two tenths to reach. Despite there being many falls in Shenandoah, there was a significant lack of bodies of water on this leg of the AT. If you had to fill up, you had the option of detouring to a spring or waiting until you reached a campground.

Back on the trail. Is it over yet? Perhaps because this was the final hike, we were more than motivated to get er done, get back to the cats, and sleep in a real bed. I was bracing for more gloom, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the majority of this section of the trail traverses ridges. Even though the terrain was rockier and Skyland is the highest elevation of the park, we had a far more enjoyable time.

Alex made a trail friend.


More rocks.

Eventually, we reached Skyland where the trail comes out by the horse stables, to discover we had about a mile more to reach the parking lot.

The final mile of any long hike is bittersweet. On one hand, I was proud and relieved to have finished. On the other hand, despite the low points, I was sad that it was over. For many people, they go into a hike expecting to learn life-changing lessons from the trail. Mostly, though, those lessons are learned from retrospection, with perhaps a bit of choice-supportive bias thrown in for good measure. I remember the fun I had now that it’s over and I no longer have to wear the same damp sports bra every single day. But if I think back to my low points on the trail, work through why they happened and what I could have done differently, those are lessons I can apply to the low points of my daily reality, if I am willing.

Enough of that, though. For now, I’m glad I don’t need Poptarts. I learned that no amount of hiker hunger makes those things palatable.


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