Sunday, May 31, 2015

Spy Rock, The Priest, and Five New Backpackers

One of my cousins and her family visited last week on their vacation. My cousin and I spent a fair amount of time together as kids.  Since we've become adults, though, we haven't seen each other more than a dozen times, mostly because I moved away. The last time I saw her, her kids were little. Now, two of them are teenagers. Time flies by.

Anyway, they hike a lot in Missouri and they've camped, but they had never put the two together, so I offered to introduce them to backpacking. I thought about a lot of different places that we could go in the Mid-Atlantic. Ultimately, I decided there is no better place to start backpacking than on the Appalachian Trail (AT). While I love Shenandoah National Park, the AT through the park is a little bit dull compared to some of the other places the trail passes through. I finally settled on the first place I hiked the AT: the section including Spy Rock and the Priest.

We borrowed gear from a whole bunch of people (thank you!) and, on Memorial Day, set out from the Spy Rock parking area. The first mile was tough and probably the least pleasant of the trip: a mile walk on a gravel road straight up to the top of the ridge. Once on the Appalachian Trail, things improved markedly. We had a nice breeze and as we climbed, we got glimpses of the valley below through the trees. At Spy Rock, we dropped our packs and scrambled up to the top of the outcrop to find a spectacular view of the mountains and of The Priest - our destination for that night.
The sign where we joined the Appalachian Trail.
 The trail through the campsite near Spy Rock.
Minuartia groenlandica (Mountain Sandwort) on top of Spy Rock.
 The view to the north from Spy Rock.
The mountains to the south of Spy Rock.

From Spy Rock, we headed north on the the AT, descending into a valley before the climb up to the top of The Priest. The flowers along the trail were pretty spectacular. I tend to forget how high the mountains are down there (The Priest is over 4,000 feet), so I was pleasantly surprised to see several high-altitude species.
Clintonia umbellata (White Clintonia Lily)
Rhododendron catawbiense (Catawba Rhododendron). One of the biggest, coolest surprises of the trip was that the Rhododendrons were blooming. In places, both the Rhododendrons and the Mountain Laurel were blooming, almost creating tunnels of flowers.
Cypripedium parviflorum (Yellow Lady Slipper). 

We hiked to the The Priest Shelter for a total of 5.5 miles for day 1. Since we were a big group and we were passed by a lot of thru-hikers, we didn't even try to see if we could stay in the shelter. We pitched our tents at the campsite near turnoff to go down to the shelter. It was a spectacularly beautiful campsite. We got to watch the sun set through the trees. There were rocks for the youngest kid to play on and there was plenty of good water down at the shelter. 
Our campsite on The Priest.

It took us a little while to get going in the morning, but once we did, we were rewarded with a beautiful view on top of the Priest. We stopped for a bit and chatted with three thru-hikers who had been on trail for two months already.
My cousin and her husband on top of The Priest.
Cypripedium acaule (Pink Lady Slipper) near the top of The Priest.

The descent down the north side of the Priest is long, almost five miles. By the time we stopped for lunch on the way down, the youngest kid was pretty convinced that backpacking was not a worthwhile enterprise. Everyone else was in pretty good spirits, though.
One of the older kids spotted this yellow phase Timber Rattlesnake a few feet off the trail. If you click to enlarge, you can see its rattle just below its head.
The last overlook on the way down the mountain.
Rhododendron maximum (Great Laurel)
The two older kids hiking through tunnels of Rhododendrons.
Sedum ternatum (Wild Stonecrop). This interesting little succulent was growing all along the trail on this section.
We finally made it to the road. I greatly underestimated how long it would take us to descend the almost five miles to the Tye River. We weren't in a hurry, but it did mean that everyone was on their feet longer than I anticipated.
We crossed the Tye River and took a nice long break in the shade. While we were sitting there, we made the decision that I would go ahead with the two older kids while the rest of the adults hiked with the youngest. We only had a little over 2.5 miles to go to our campsite, but there were two significant climbs and it had gotten hot. The three of us set off and quickly left the rest of the group behind. We passed a thru-hiker who commented that I was hiking them up the mountain and I responded that they were hiking me up the mountain. We made good time. 

Rather than hiking up over Three Ridges, which is one of the tougher climbs on the AT in central Virginia, we took a left on the Mau-Har Trail. We listened to thunder off in the distance and I kept my fingers crossed that everyone would make it to camp before it let loose on us. We were pretty happy to make it to our campsite, which was right on a pretty stream. About an hour after we got in, the rest of the group came around the corner. It sprinkled a little bit that evening, but we got lucky and the storms completely passed us by.

Our last, shortest day on trail started with a scramble down to some very pretty waterfalls.
This was the third time I've been to this area and this was the first time I had hiked far enough downstream to find these falls.
A black snake curled up on a tree stump on the hike out.
After three short miles, we made it back to the car at Reed's Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had a great hike. The trail was spectacular. It really is one of my favorite sections of the Appalachian 
trail in Virginia. My cousin and her family seemed to have a good time (well...the youngest had a good time when he didn't have a pack on his back). Best of all, I got to reconnect with her and I got to know her husband and kids better. 

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