We left Frederick at 6:45 am and arrived at our end point at Milam’s Gap near mile 53 on the Skyline Drive at 9:40.This was the first of two back-to-back hiking days, and our first earnest attempt at hitchhiking. Since there is only one road through Shenandoah National Park, the beautiful Skyline Drive created by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depression, we thought it would be a safe and easy method to avoid having to shuttle 2 cars. The plan was to park at our end point, then hitch a ride back to our starting point at Big Meadows. From there it’s an 11-mile hike back to our car.
You couldn’t have asked for a nicer day. The blue sky was dotted with wisps of white clouds and the temperature was a balmy 63, about 20 degrees warmer than last week. Not knowing what to expect, we stuck out our thumbs at the first passing vehicles—2 NPS maintenance trucks in convoy. I suspect they are prohibited from picking up passengers, so a strike out at first bat. No worries, other friendly folk are sure to pass by soon. Or so we thought. One kind soul paused to let us know he had no room, and sure enough his Honda Civic was packed to the gills with gear. I wonder what motivates someone to stop only to say they can’t help you? Is it altruism or guilt?
Our spirits sunk with each passing vehicle. Do we look that threatening or is it a commentary on the state of American fear and suspicion? I started to tally the number of passers-by in the palm of my hand. After half an hour of waiting and 12 passing vehicles, finally a car pulled over. The occupants were happy to transport us the 11 miles back to Big Meadows.
It turns out that, we were not the beneficiary of American kindness,
but rather the recipient again like last week, of foreign intervention. A young French woman who works at the French Embassy in Washington, and her visiting parents, pulled over to pick us up. In our 30-minute ride, they were delighted to learn of our hiking adventure, and we were just as interested in theirs. It turns out that the young woman is starting her second year at the French embassy where she works on human rights issues. The family visited Historic Williamsburg and the Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia, and were making their way back to D. C. An unexpected benefit of our AT experience has been the encounters with interesting people along the way.
Once we hit the trail, it was one of the best hiking days ever. We passed some westward looking overlooks that were absolutely beautiful. Usually a blue haze settles in the mountains, hence the name “ Blue Ridge,” but this day was much clearer and the greens of the mountainside were vibrant.
After weeks of rain, water was everywhere. The trails were muddy and it seemed that every rock face we passed oozed with water. It seeped through the veins of rocks. The Appalachian Trail traverses the crest of the mountain, so we were witnessing the origin of what develop into dramatic waterfalls down below. What were mere trickles in the higher elevations morph into spectacular gushers at lower elevations. In the past we have hiked some of the waterfall trails in Shenandoah and they are definitively worth experiencing.
The trickling of water could possibly be the most soothing sound in nature. While inspecting one small waterfall I slipped and broke one of my walking sticks. Its bent shaft took the brunt of the fall that would have otherwise caused me some injury. Here’s a video of one of the delightful streams we passed. https://youtu.be/LogHYZKaX7U
At one road crossing we came across the small Dean Cemetery. The fresh flowers on some graves and the upturned brown soil of a recent burial attest to the continuing presence of a community that once lived in the park.
At this higher elevation, the trees were just beginning to leaf out, so we still had good views through the forest to the valley below and the hills beyond. We made our way back to our car by 4:00, completing 11.5 mile in 5.5 hours.
We rented a room at Big Meadows Lodge and immediately indulged in a refreshing hot shower. Afterwards, we joined the throng for dinner in the rustic dining room. I hate to be too critical, but it’s hard to find anything nice to say about the meal, or even the meal last week at Skyland. Recognizing that remote park locations add to the challenge of operating a hotel and restaurant business, I can’t help but feel that the current concessionaire failed miserably.
Even given the terrible food, there is something magical about staying in a National Park lodge. It’s incredibly relaxing to pause from the day’s activities and not have to rush anywhere. The settings are always fantastic.
May 25, 2016 Bootens Gap to Milam Gap (Shenandoah National Park)
(10 miles 7.5 hours)
On our second day we got to the dinning room when it opened at 7:30. After another horrendous meal (it takes some effort to screw up breakfast) we drove to our end point at Milam’s Gap, arriving just before nine. An earlier start would have been better, but the dining room didn’t open earlier. It seemed that the patrons we observed were not in any rush to get going, so there wasn’t much traffic on Skyline Drive early in the morning.
We stood at the same spot as yesterday where the AT crosses Skyline Drive. Only this time we were headed in the opposite direction. A few thru hikers passed us, including one gentleman wearing a kilt!
It’s a lonely and humbling feeling standing by the roadside. It took a half an hour and five passed-cars to finally get a ride. At 9:20 a kind couple hailing from Long Island, NY took us the 10 miles down Skyline Drive to our starting point.
This section of trail was a bit higher in elevation and the trees where not fully leafed out. So it felt like we were walking back in time. Species that sprouted a full canopy weeks before in lower elevations, were still pushing out their early foliage. It also provided an opportunity to see the vistas, but also cast more sun on us as we walked. So we were a lot warmer.
This section turned out to be a shorter, but a much more strenuous hike. Yesterday had only 2 hills to climb, but today we tackled 4 ups and downs. Our pace was a lot slower and we were tired when we stopped at the Lewis Mountain campground for lunch. Even though it was sunny, we managed to eke out slivers of shade under the trees for a little snooze. As we napped after lunch, Jane and I were both captivated by the early yellowish oak leaves overhead contrasted by the vivid blue sky overhead. A 20-minute respite helped restore our energy.
Other hikers alerted us to a bear and her 3 cubs up ahead. We did manage to catch a glimpse of them in the distance. Other people had close encounters in the parking lot and around Skyland. We also saw rather complacent deer that did not rush off as we passed.
At one AT access point a plastic bag filled with supplies hung from a branch. There were even a few notes to fellow hikers. It’s a reminder of the strong sense of community among AT hikers.
We ventured into Luray (pronounced Loo-ray) for dinner and we’re pleased with Gernnano’s Italian restaurant. They offered a variety of pies including the “Brooklyn” that we ordered with nice fresh-made chunky tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella cheese. They also had homemade pasta dishes that perhaps we’ll sample in the future.