Monday, September 14, 2015

Labor Day Backpacking: Central District of Shenandoah National Park

We helped our friend Wildtype, finish section hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) through Shenandoah National Park over Labor Day weekend. We hiked the 35 miles of the central district from Swift Run Gap to Thornton Gap. The shelter spacing worked out a bit awkwardly. Our first day, to Bearfence Hut, was only 9 miles, but our last day, from Rock Spring Hut to Thornton Gap, was 15 miles. We have done a fair bit of backpacking this year, but 15 miles with full packs was a little bit ambitious.

Day 1: Swift Run Gap to Bearfence Hut: We started out in the clouds at Swift Run Gap. After a couple of hours, they cleared up, though. We climbed steadily to Lewis Mountain. There aren't really any views to speak of in this section, but it is a pleasant walk. We heard from other hikers that the spring is somewhat unreliable at Bearfence Hut, so we topped off our water at Lewis Mountain and got cold drinks from the camp store. After a quick mile to the shelter, we had cold cider and beer with dinner.
Starting in the clouds at Swift Run Gap.
 Solanum carolinense (Horse Nettle). This member of the Nightshade family was blooming in several places along the trail.
Chicken of the Woods fungus on a log.
Switchbacks coming down off of Baldface Mountain.
Ferns, moss, and lichen along the side of the trail.
An interesting fungus on a log.
We pitched our tent at one of the tent sites just south of Bearfence Hut. We thought tt looked "flat enough." We were badly mistaken. We spent the entire night trying not to roll down the hill.
Bearfence Hut.

Day 2: Bearfence Hut to Rock Spring Hut. We had eleven miles to do on our second day. We couldn't have asked for better weather. It was a beautiful, bright and sunny day.
We made a short detour about a mile into our day to hike up to the top of Bearfence Mountain. Michael and our friend are on rocky overlook near the top. Back on the AT, on the way down Bearfence Mountain, I caught my heel on a rock and turned my ankle pretty hard. For a few minutes, it looked like we might have to call the hike off. Michael wrapped it up and, after a few minutes,  I gingerly continued down the trail. We were going to have to hike a half mile to the next road access anyway. Slowly, the pain diminished and I made it all the way to Big Meadows, seven more miles, where we took a long break. After some discussion, we decided to continue. I won't lie, the last two miles weren't much fun, but we made it to the shelter just fine. We were treated to the sight of a bear in the woods near Rock Spring Hut while we were cooking dinner. That sounds scarier than it was. It was skirting wide around the shelter, avoiding coming too close on its way over the ridge.
The AT near Hazeltop Mountain.
A butterfly on a Cirsium vulgare (Bull Thistle - I think. I didn't get a very good picture of the leaves).
A Monarch caterpillar on milkweed.
The view from the rocky overlook behind Big Meadows campground. The trail skirts around to the west of the campground and mostly stays out of view of it. It is actually one of the prettier parts of the trail through this area.
Looking north towards Hawksbill Mountain from Big Meadows Campground.

Day 3: Rock Spring Hut to Thornton Gap. Another day of great weather and this was probably the day we got the best views. Initially, the plan was to hike to Skyland Resort, four miles away, where I would wait for Michael and our friend to go get the car and come back and get me, which would allow our friend to finish his hike. As we started hiking, though, my ankle felt much better and by the time we hit the coffee shop at Skyland, I decided to keep hiking. We got really lucky as we were returning to the trail after our coffee: we saw a mother bear with her cubs in the woods. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get any clear pictures because of the shade in the forest, but lets just say, they were so cute! The rest of the day went pretty smoothly. The last couple of miles were hard, but that was mostly because we haven't done that distance in a long time.
 Sedum telephoides (Wild Live Forever) on one of the rock slides on Hawksbill Mountain.
 We had lunch on Little Stony Man Mountain.
Near Jewel Hollow Overlook, we found this Timber Rattlesnake right beside the trail.
 Another look at it.
The trail near the junction with the Mary's Rock trail.

We had a good hike, it was fun to meet the other section hikers at the huts, and we really enjoyed helping Wildtype complete Shenandoah National Park.

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