Blackburn Trail Center > Blackrock Hut
Week 2 AT miles: 123.7
Total AT miles: 153.4
I have a tendency at the beginning of any adventure to get excited and overdo it, so a main goal for these first few weeks was to ease into the year by keeping a lid on the daily mileage. I succeeded spectacularly the first week by getting too sick to hike and taking four days off. Week 2 started well but then got away from me.
Day 8: Blackburn Trail Center > Bears Den Trail Center
8.2 AT miles
I was packed up and on trail by 6:00 a.m. in an effort to reach Bears Den before the flood and wind warnings came into effect. The first hour by headlamp was foggy but only a few flurries fell. The rain started around sunrise and took a few hours to really get going, so I only had to deal with the downpour and streaming trails for the last third or so of the morning.
I was nearly to Bears Den and already enjoying the coziness in my mind when I encountered the only terrifying obstacle of the day: crossing VA Route 7 at Snickers Gap. Were we really supposed to cross this busy highway at this dangerous location? I checked FarOut and yes, we were. Running with a winter-weight backpack certainly wasn’t graceful but I made it.
The Bears Den hiker hostel was well worth the early start (and meticulously clean thanks to Fern). Access to the lodge and kitchen in the evening and next morning meant lots of hot drinks and good conversation with fellow hikers. I’d definitely recommend a stop here even if you aren’t trying to escape the elements.
Day 9: Bears Den Trail Center > Whiskey Hollow Shelter
18.2 AT miles
The rain had stopped overnight and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that most of the trails were in decent shape. Stream crossings required more carefully planned routes across the rocks than usual, but I never had to submerge a foot.
Not long into the day, a raccoon and I startled one another coming around a bend. I was charmed by how cute raccoons are out in their woodsy habitat instead of breaking into trash cans. We only stared frozen at each other for a few moments before the raccoon climbed a nearby tree and I was on my way.
The stretch of trail near Bears Den is known as the Rollercoaster for its frequent ups and downs. A more accurate name would be the Rock Piles, since picking your way over the rocks slows you down a lot more than the elevation changes.
This need for a more cautious pace through many stretches made me a bit nervous about completing my planned 18 miles, my longest AT day so far, by a reasonable hour. I had to remind myself several times that an injury would be even slower so I should take my time.
I was also slowed by a nice long break atop a windy hill with cell service at my appointed PCT permit application time. I’d struck out in November with a time of 2:52pm, one of the last time slots in the 10:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m. window. My luck was much better this time around, however, and permits for most days were still available at my time of 11:40 a.m. Pacific. I’m glad to now be able to put other trails fully out of my mind and focus on getting to Georgia.
The Rollercoaster (Rock Piles) ended around the same time, and I was able to pick up the pace for the rest of the afternoon, making it to Whiskey Hollow Shelter shortly after dark. This was my first night in an AT shelter — I fell asleep trying hard not to think about the critters and praying they’d let me not think about them.
Day 10: Whiskey Hollow Shelter > Mountain Home B&B
14.9 AT miles
What a beautiful day on trail! I slept surprisingly well in the shelter and puttered around for over an hour and a half getting packed up and boiling water. This site was exceptionally well-situated and -designed, with a stream flowing a few yards downhill, a great front porch, and an excellent moldering privy that was both open-air and private.
A few of the streams were still more challenging rock hops than usual and there were still some muddy patches, but for the most part, the trail today was smooth walking. The AT even went under the major highway it crossed, so no need to dart across multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic like the past two days.
Toward the end of my hike, I passed two women who were on their lunch break from the fascinating Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, whose enormous, fenced property borders the trail near Front Royal, VA. Among other endangered species, the institute houses Mongolian takhi horses, which I was able to spy through the fence and hadn’t seen since my college semester in Mongolia over 20 years ago.
I spent the night at the wonderful Mountain Home B&B, a combination B&B and hiker hostel in a beautifully restored historic property just steps from the trail. According to the owners the site is still a work in progress, but it looked pretty great to me. I ended my day in the parlor, reading the journal of the daughter who lived in that house during the Civil War.
Day 11: Mountain Home B&B > Gravel Springs Hut
13.7 AT miles
I hit the trail a little before 8:00 a.m., after a delicious and abundant breakfast. It’s amazing that hikers paying the hiker rate at Mountain Home get the full B&B treatment. I think there were 5 types of fruit on my fruit plate, and that was just a side dish! I expect this will be my fanciest “hiker hostel” experience of the trip.
Whenever I start feeling a bit smug or a little too proud of myself, the universe seems to find a way to put me in my place in a thematically appropriate way. I’d been seeing lots of poison ivy vines since Harpers Ferry, especially yesterday and this morning, so was feeling quite pleased with my decision to hike in January when they were easily avoided rather than encroaching on the trail. Not five minutes after another poison ivy riddled section, I came to a large blowdown in the middle of a stream crossing that was impossible to get past without brushing against poison ivy vines… even in January.
I also had a more positive interaction with nature today, when a deer and I encountered one another on the trail. I hadn’t yet crossed into Shenandoah National Park, but she definitely had national park deer confidence. I asked if she would please move so I could continue along the trail and she looked at me as if to say, “How about you move so I can continue along the trail?”
After I made some clicking at a horse type noises, she reluctantly turned and proceeded up the trail, looking over her shoulder to see if she was still stuck with me. Eventually she stepped maybe ten feet off the trail, gave me an annoyed look as I walked past, and then bounded off to join some other deer who weren’t even in the direction of the trail!
Day 12: Gravel Springs Hut > Thornton Gap
14.3 AT miles
I got an early start today, excited for yet another night indoors. I’ve been taking full advantage of my unplanned southbound route by alternating sleeping outdoors in shelters with cozy nights in hostels. After tonight, however, I’ll have to break my streak with a 4-to-5-day outdoor stretch through the remainder of Shenandoah National Park.
Today’s hike was full of wind, ice, and beautiful views down into the valleys on either side of Shenandoah. With winds over 20mph and gusts up to 40mph, my hiking temperature completely depended on how well I was sheltered by the mountains. My sleeves, fleece zipper, and ear band went up and down constantly throughout the day as I went in and out of wind exposure.
Fortunately, nowhere on trail was the wind as bad as at Thornton Gap, where I ended my hike for the day. Other park visitors I met in the restroom while awaiting my ride couldn’t believe that I’d been out hiking in such wind, but I could reassure them that only when crossing Skyline Drive had the winds on trail been anything like those at the gap. The trees and natural contours of the mountain provide an amazing amount of protection where they’re left intact.
Day 13: Thornton Gap > Bearfence Mountain Hut
25.4 AT miles
After a lovely, cozy stay at the Open Arms at the Edge of Town hostel in Luray, I got back on trail with plans to hike my longest AT day so far. I’d decided to try to make the 80-mile trip to Rockfish Gap (and Waynesboro) in 4 days rather than 5 because of the cold temperatures and concerns about condensation reducing the warmth of my quilt over consecutive nights. I ditched the over-quilt when I switched to southbound, so I’d need to try to get indoors every few nights to fully dry out when nighttime lows were well below freezing.
Knowing that snow was expected to start falling overnight, I figured I should try to get some extra miles in today to make room for slower travel the following days.
I saw more hikers today than any day so far, probably because it was a Sunday on a holiday weekend. Most were within a quarter mile of the trailheads where the AT crosses Skyline Drive, but I also encountered three other backpackers.
Around midday I passed a young couple who were out for a 4-day loop in the park. I walked away amazed and impressed that they were out backpacking in this cold, windy weather with snow on the way. About 15 minutes later it occurred to me, “Oh wait, I’m also out backpacking in this weather!” I had a moment of deep appreciation for the opportunity to attempt this challenging thing and share the experience with others out on the trail and supporting the trail.
Day 14: Bearfence Mountain Hut > Blackrock Hut
29 AT miles (most on Skyline Drive)
I awoke to several inches of snow outside the shelter. With temperatures in the low teens overnight, heating water before bed and this morning had taken a long time. Even though Alison at Open Arms had kindly given me extra fuel from a past hiker, I was concerned whether I had enough for 4 days of subfreezing temperatures. I’m using a new stove on this trip and still don’t have a great sense of how long a canister will last.
Wednesday, which would have been my fourth day en route to Waynesboro, was forecast to be the coldest, with possible single digit lows up in the park. Not a good day to run out of fuel.
I remembered that Skyline Drive is shorter than the AT and closes for much less severe weather than the snow that was still falling. The 48 miles from the Bearfence Mountain Hut side trail to Rockfish Gap seemed just possibly doable in two days, getting me to Waynesboro Tuesday afternoon.
Since I’m happy to create my own route as long as it’s on foot, and I tend to view the official path as more of a suggestion, I wasn’t conflicted about the reroute. If anything, I figured having Skyline Drive to myself for two days was a rare experience not to be missed.
Walking the road was definitely faster but far from easy. Every curve is banked and it’s pretty much all curves, so I was almost constantly waking at an uncomfortable angle. For the first couple of hours, I had some tire tracks to walk in from the vehicles that were escorted out as the road was closed. After that it was just fresh snow with the occasional animal track.