ultralight hiking

All posts tagged ultralight hiking

IMG_1538

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.

Morning miles are the best miles.

Morning miles are the best miles.

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.

Setting sun on Stony Man summit.

Setting sun on Stony Man summit.

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.

Later sunset from Skyline Drive.

Later sunset from Skyline Drive.

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.

More humidity is on the way, but early in the morning I could rise above it.

More humidity is on the way, but early in the morning I could rise above it.

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.

Leaving the Shenandoah, this was all I could see.

Leaving the Shenandoah, this was all I could see.

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.

When Joe and I left Damascus, we started into the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, one of the busiest parts of the AT in the south. It was an early spring weekend, Trail Days was happening just a few miles away, and hundreds of hikers were swarming into the woods for the weekend.

20140525-063716.jpg

We hurried into the highlands surrounding Virginia’s two highest peaks– Whitetop and Mt Rogers– just after a cold front had moved through and dumped a few inches of snow. Hikers everywhere were bundling up and hunkering down with the cold and wind. We just hiked a little harder over Mt Rogers and the Grayson Highlands.

20140525-063854.jpg

After the open ridges and wide views of the highlands, the trail through VA turned into more rolling mountains at slightly lower elevations. We also entered the notorious green tunnel, with no open views for days. For many people, that would kill the fun of the hike, but there was plenty of gorgeous scenery, even if it didn’t come from the top of a mountain. Blooming rhododendron groves, quiet mountainside pastures, and long stretches of deep forest were plenty scenic in my book.

20140525-063618.jpg

We kept up a blistering pace along the trail, passing dozens upon dozens of through-hikers, but the blistering mostly happened to my feet. More specifically, five days in a row of huge miles pounded my feet until they were swollen and bruised, which made walking agonizing. It turns out that my leg muscles get in shape much faster than the bones of my feet, so while my legs felt great, my feet did not. Luckily, we were able to take a restful day off high in the mountains at Woods Hole Hostel, one of the most relaxing and idyllic trail stops I’ve had. It helped that there was no cell signal or internet access, so I was able to spend an entire day lazing on the porch, icing my feet, and eating. It was perfect.

20140525-063828.jpg

After plenty of rest, I had another hundred miles through terrain that I remembered as being uneventful, but it was anything but. The long ridge walks with rocky outcrops and mountaintop meadows had plenty of views, and the rhododendron groves continued on. The company along the trail was pretty great, too. I’ve been hiking off and on with several through-hikers, getting a taste of the hiking community. (Shout out to Aloha Niceshirt, since I hear his wife reads this blog)

20140528-195126.jpg

Unfortunately, the heat and gravelly trail didn’t let up on my feet. Maybe they hadn’t healed entirely during the stay at Woods Hole, but I think that even if they had they wouldn’t have done so well with these conditions. The day before reaching Daleville, the temperatures were in the high eighties with humidity so high I couldn’t see more than five miles from the mountain vistas. Now that I’m in town, it’s time for some more rest before the next stretch. I’ve got a new pair of shoes, a full belly, and a stack of New Yorkers to read. Life is good!

20140528-200100.jpg