Trip Recap: Shenandoah National Park - March 2016
Shenandoah National Park is located just a short drive west from Washington, DC, making it a popular destination for people living near our nation’s capital. The park includes 200,000 acres of protected hills, hollows, woods, and waters in the Blue Ridge Mountains (the same mountain range as the Smoky Mountains).
Shenandoah was established as a National Park in 1935 but the creation of the natural features of this area began long before that. The massive rocks that protrude from the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are mainly granite made from ancient magma, are over 1 billion years old. Humans have lived in the area for at least 8,000 years, and evidence of their visits for hunting and trapping can still be found in the park. Europeans settled the area in the 1700’s, and people still lived in the quiet hollows of Shenandoah until the park’s establishment in the 1930’s.
Just like the Smoky Mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains within Shenandoah National Park create a mix of habitats with their changing elevations and corresponding climates. Most of the landscape in the park is made up of hardwood forest, but some coniferous trees can be found, especially at higher elevations.
Shenandoah National Park is home to over 190 species of birds, over 50 species of mammals including black bears, over 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, and over 35 species of fish.
Ever wonder why the Blue Ridge Mountains have blue ridges? Since most of these mountains are forested, photosynthesis (the process plants use to convert sunlight into energy) is occurring throughout them. Photosynthesis produces water vapor, which creates a haze that appears blue at the tops of these mountains. Food for thought.
The group this time was Katie, Mark's sister Hillary, Mark, and the dog Nali. Shenandoah is one of the few dog-friendly National Parks, so we couldn't pass up the opportunity to bring her along. She really enjoys the trail.
We did things a little bit differently this time. Instead of backpacking 5 days straight, we did an overnight in one section of the park and then did a 4-day, 3-night trip through another section of the park. Much of our trip was along the Appalachian Trail (AT).
Day 1: Jones Mountain
We started out from the trailhead at the Graves Mill Boundary (Rt. 662), hiking up Graves Mill Trail towards Staunton River Trail.
This section of the trail followed the Rapidan River.
We ended up on Jones Mountain Trail and veered off to Jones Mountain Cabin (a rentable PATC cabin in the woods). We found a spot to camp near the cabin.
We set up camp, cooked, and prepared to hang our backpacks full of food on lines to keep them away from wildlife - most notably black bears who are the kings and queens of stealing food from backpackers.
It is extremely important for both human and bear safety to secure your food and garbage from these animals. Bears who get food from backpackers or other campers learn to associate people with food, which creates a very dangerous situation for the people and for the bear. Many bears who learn this bad habit from careless, reckless tourists have to be repeatedly relocated or destroyed. Others end up injuring people looking for a free meal.
We saw some eye shine that looked similar to bear this night, but our headlamps were not powerful enough to illuminate the creature - only the eyes - so it could have been a large deer or a black bear. Nali (our dog) was not happy at all with the nighttime visit.
Tip: Things always look different at night than they do in the daytime, especially in the woods. To more easily find your food storage site (which should be around 100 yards away from your sleeping area), you can put your trekking poles in the ground with a marker or with reflective tape as a makeshift “trail” marker. This helps us get to and from our tents and our food without wandering into a thicket or veering off path at night.
The following morning we hiked out the way we came in and drove to a new trailhead along Skyline Drive near Bearfence Mountain Hut.
We camped on the hillside near the hut under Bearfence Mountain.
We met some locals who were on a multi-day fishing trip through the park. One local named Zack who worked with an outfitter called Shenandoah River Adventures spoke to us about his family history living next to the park, the Civil War battles that took place in the area, and the way that the US government evicted the former residents of the Shenandoah National Park area. Apparently there is still some resentment from this federal move and the families that used to live in the woods of the park are still found in the valley area.
There are no campfires allowed in the backcountry of this park. The only places fires can be built are in the designated fire pits/fireplaces of the backcountry huts and frontcountry campsites. We were happy to share one such fire with these fishermen on this evening.
We left Bearfence Hut and hiked south on the AT for about 5 miles.
We picked up water at a stream below another PATC cabin on Pocosin Fire Road. We were unsure when the next opportunity to filter water might be, so we decided to get about one day’s worth of water for each of the three of us and Nali. Unfortunately Mark drew the short straw and carried all of this water - approximately 3.5 gallons - in his pack. Water weighs approximately 8.5lbs per gallon, so this made Mark’s pack about 65 lbs for the next stretch of the trail. Thankfully it was a beautiful hike, but it was also uphill over Bald Face Mountain.
We found a place to camp along the side of Bald Face Mountian and enjoyed a relaxing, albeit cool, evening under the stars.
This portion of the trail was near Skyline Drive, so we occasionally heard the sound of a passing car less than a mile away. This was an odd experience for Katie and Mark, who are used to backpacking in areas where cars mean you haven’t left the trailhead. Shenandoah was odd in this way because it is a very narrow park - the highlight is Skyline Drive, which extends over 100 miles north/south through the entire park. Many of the best views in the park are found from overlooks along Skyline Drive and not in the backcountry as is the case in many other parks.
We left Bald Face Mountain and hiked south and downhill towards South River and South River Falls.
We had heard about the tall waterfall in this area but hadn’t met anyone who had seen it personally, so we were really looking forward to what we might find. We ran into a couple with another German Shepherd on the trail, and of course Nali wanted to make friends. Their dog was large but still less than 1 year old.
Tip: Dogs must be leashed in this park and it is a very, very good idea to leash dogs in any park or backcountry setting. You may think your dog will never run away from you, but the second Fido catches some scent he has never smelled before, or sees a running squirrel, raccoon, or bear, Fido will be high-tailing away from you faster than you can say “where did he go?”. Now, we do let Nali off lead around camp and on some trails that we know well (only where she is permitted to be off lead), but as soon as we see signs of animals, people, or especially other dogs, we put her on her lead just to be safe. Keep in mind Nali has had professional training in Search and Rescue and Obedience. She is exceptionally intelligent, highly trained to obey her handlers’ commands, and extremely loyal, and we still would be very cautious about letting her roam free all the time. Be smart and keep your pets on a lead when you are out in the backcountry. Rangers will not mount a search for a pet as they would a person and letting Fido off lead might mean you’ll never see him again.
We continued along the trail passed the couple with the dog and reached South River Falls Fire Road.
We were originally planning to hike the South River Falls Trail but we wanted an overlook view of the waterfall as opposed to a view from the bottom (we also may have been thinking we didn’t want to climb down off the mountain and back up again, but that’s beside the point). We were not disappointed by the fall. At 83 feet tall, it was one of the tallest waterfalls any of us had seen in the States.
We hiked back up the observation trail and through some private property, a wildlife management area, and onto Pocosin Trail for our final night. We found a good spot where other people had camped along Pocosin Trail and near a small stream and settled down for the night.
Tomorrow would be our last day in the park.
The only rain we got this trip was for about an hour in the morning this day. Mark usually wakes up with the sun, and the rain prevented him from doing so but that was the only inconvenience it caused. Not bad for luck.
Our hike out from Pocosin Trail was full of relics of a lost time in these hills and hollows. Remember, people had lived here for a long time before this was a National Park, just like in the Smoky’s and other parks. We found the frame of an old Ford vehicle, which was almost impossible to identify if it weren’t for the ever-recognizable “Ford” logo on the step rail.
We also ran into an old homestead/mission site called the Pocosin Mission.
These sites are always incredible to view. It really transports you back to an earlier time when people lived simpler lives. Some people still live this way today, but a vast majority of us do not. That’s one of the reasons we backpack - to live life more simply, even if just for a few days. There is something very healing about that, and we cherish it every time we go.
All in all, this was a great trip. Shenandoah, unlike the Smokies and some of the other parks we have camped, wasn't as scenic from the backcountry as it was from the road. Skyline Drive is really magnificent, and we would certainly recommend driving it if you get the chance. Backpacking these hills was as difficult as the Smoky Mountains but not as scenic, which may turn some people around.