From my 2007 through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I have only two memories of Shenandoah National Park: that it was easy hiking, and that it was fairly boring. This time through, I wasn’t so excited for hiking this section of the AT, but I did learn that my old memories weren’t entirely accurate.
Coming out of Waynesboro, I had lost all of my previous week’s hiking partners. A few had gone into the park earlier in the morning (I chose to take a half day on the first day in the park), but most I had just lost track of in the large town. So for the first three days in Shenandoah I saw no other hikers I’d met before there. With the easier hiking on mellow grades in the park, I was moving faster without trying, wandering through many grassy meadows and crossing Skyline Drive almost a dozen times each day. There were more day-hikers out now– I mostly ran into other backpackers at the few campsites at the end of each day.
My memory of Shenandoah being fairly boring, with all the views concentrated on the road, turned out to be just plain wrong. There were several jagged peaks and cliffs with wonderful views down into the valleys below. The humidity this week was just as bad as ever, so I would try to hike early in the morning and late at night, as the haze and stickiness in the air was settled in the valleys. This turned out to be a good plan. Some of the best views came when the sun was low in the sky, there were fewer people crowding the trails then, and I was able to move faster by hiking long hours. On my third and fourth days in the park, I covered 60 miles of trail, the highest mileage I’ve hiked since the PCT.
Then there was the food. Since Shenandoah is primarily a park devoted to motorists, there are several Waysides and camp stores near the trail. I was able to eat town food almost every day in the park, which turned out to be good and bad. I ended up spending a lot more money on this trip than I’d expected, and probably lost a lot of time that I could have been hiking while I lay on the lawn of the Waysides, incapacitated after gorging myself on pancakes, burgers, ice cream, and soda. Not exactly a healthy diet, but burning 4000 or more calories per day, I finally let my inhibitions go.
That was the good part of hiking through Shenandoah. Unfortunately, being crowded in with a new crowd of through-hikers at cramped campsites in the evenings began to take its toll on me. As I’d feared before this trip, I was smack dab in the middle of the partying, obnoxious, entitled crowd of mostly early-twenties hikers, and I did not care for them. I started to lecture one hiker after he’d complained that the trail maintainers didn’t do enough for through-hikers, which is utter bullshit, but I realized I was essentially talking to a brick wall. In the past few weeks I’ve seen more than two dozen coolers left at road crossings, and countless instances of people going out of their way for through-hikers, but none of those people or the hikers have ever done any trail maintenance themselves, or even joined their local trail club. I’m so sick of the attitude that the hikers matter more than the trail itself, but it seems to be the prevailing mentality.
The last night in the park summed up my feelings pretty well. After having lunch at the last of the Waysides, I stopped at the next campsite, which was already overrun by backpackers at 4 PM. The site was a reasonable size for a campsite, with a shelter and half a dozen tent spots, but by evening there were more than thirty hikers crammed into the dense woods around the site. Without any space for tents, most of us ended up camping on trails around the site, wedged in next to the spring, next to the shelter, and all around. That’s when the mother of all thunderstorms hit, flooded every tent in the area, and left everyone grumpy and soaked. With the ground so heavily compacted by overuse, water had nowhere to go but into pools under each tent. I was up at 4 in the morning, headed out of the park and into the town of Front Royal to dry out in a hotel room with a few of my new hiking friends (including Duff, whom I’d hiked with in Washington on the PCT).
I had a lot of time to think in the night about the overcrowding at the campsite, and in the National Park and Appalachian Trail in general. There’s been a lot of talk about this on the trail this year, since the numbers of hikers continue to grow. I don’t fault anyone for the overcrowding, since the trend has always been that the numbers are growing, but the problems of overuse can’t be fixed by complaining about trail conditions and not doing anything to help the trail maintainers. That’s the only behavior I saw in Shenandoah, and it left a nasty taste in my mouth about the state of through-hiking. At least I was able to sleep well on a hotel bed the next night to raise my spirits.