Over the years, my eyes always drifted toward the Shenandoah Mountain Trail on National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map 791. It looked so incomplete and yet so perfect, running in linear fashion down an appealing ridge but split by forest roads and difficult to form a loop that would somehow encompass its entirety. Michael’s suggestion of weekend hiking the Great Eastern Trail’s Headwaters Section, running from Maryland down to the Allegheny Trail, last February started several us on a journey that would lead us down some extremely appealing high ridges and take in the Trout Run, Ramsey’s Draft, and other well-hiked areas like the Shenandoah Mountain Trail from a different trail angle. Boy did it work out. Our latest section hike, running approximately 55 miles from High Knob near Brandywine, WV on Rt 33 all the way down to SR 678 near Fort Lewis, VA was our best time yet on the Great Eastern Trail — though it would take a three-day weekend to make it all work in one go.
Thanks to some great advice from Jeff, Kathy, and Linda (and Tim Hupp’s online guidebook) on the Great Eastern Trail Facebook page, we cut our would-be 70 mile hike a little short. Hidden Valley and some extra road miles would have to wait. We even figured out a way to cache some water on Benson Run Road. Andrew (Hang Glider), Erik (Boomerang), Bryan (Wolverine), and Logan (Smokejumper – trail name story to follow), signed up, drove out, and by 8:20 p.m. we rendezvoused by the side SR 678, our southern terminus, to leave Andrew and Erik’s vehicles. We packed into my new (to me) 4Runner and set out to cache our water up the gated forest Benson Run Road (FR 173). I got to use my four-wheel drive for the first time and Erik showcased his knowledge of the area to override the odd Google Maps directions and get us exactly where we needed to go. Knowing the weather was going to be freezing, we also grabbed some styrofoam coolers to keep our water in liquid form. We hoped it would work. Up on that ridge it’s dry as a bone and without that water we would have to get creative on Saturday night and Sunday. Later that evening we parked at the High Knob Parking Area on Rt. 33 and hiked out into the bitter wind for a chilly night on top of High Knob itself, using the tower as a windbreak as most of us cowboy camped.
We woke up with a smile, despite the howling wind that kept us up some of the night still working its icy touch. The sunrise greeted us and we set forth on Shenandoah Mountain Trail. Our Friday took us along attractive ridges and over Bother Knob, which our trail description noted as the highest point on the Great Eastern Trail at 4,344 feet. Reddish Knob was another treat, with full 360 degree views — though there was a road leading up to its summit and we got to say high to a few drivers in passing. Once done with most of that day’s road miles, we slipped down along the North River Trail and enjoyed its seven stream crossings and sunshine until we came out along another road and eventually found our camp for the night heading up to Tearjacket Knob, around 20 miles of hiking for the day. Friday night was cold and getting colder, unseasonably so for early November. We prepared for lows down into the low teens. We built a big fire, entertained ourselves with libations and humor, and emptied all of our water bottles before heading to bed. Knowing it would freeze, we just waited to fill up and treat the water from the river in the morning. Around that evening’s fire, Logan showcased his uncanny ability to draw all of the smoke and sparks his direction no matter which seat he took up around the fire ring.
Saturday morning we warmed up by shooting the thousand feet up Tearjacket Knob and slipped into more familiar territory in Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness along the Shenandoah Mountain Trail (again). Our first ten miles took us to Rt. 250 and the Confederate Breastworks historic area. We lunched in the sun, used the privies, and met a few more locals. We then set out along the forest roads and trails of Shenandoah Mountain Trail continuing south along the ridge. The views never let up and neither did the cold. I don’t think it really ever got above freezing until noon on Sunday. But we were well prepared and appreciated the cooler weather keeping us sweat-free on the hikes up the knobs and ridges. With a little apprehension we hit Benson Run Road a little after three p.m. and found that our styrofoam coolers worked. We had flowing water! We celebrated by stopping early for the day at 17 miles and built a tremendously large fire to keep us warm and entertained. Smokejumper Logan kindly directed the smoke and sparks his way for us a second time and earned himself a trail name.
Sunday turned out to be the best one yet, though we uncharacteristically left 18 miles to go on the final day. It was worth it. The Shenandoah Mountain Trail south from Benson Run Road to Scotchtown Draft Road was one of the best trail sections we’ve done in the region. The views were magnificent from either side of the ridge and we particularly enjoyed surveying the valley from South Sister Knob’s pleasant and grassy natural overlook area. An oh so friendly bear dog, completely with transponder and wires, joined us for a few miles until he heard the howl of one of his friends and took off bounding away. The final 2.5 miles from Scotchtown Draft Road and Indian Draft Road (SR 678) proved a bit more challenging, however. Without many (any?) blazes we had to get creative to find our way along the “trail.” Luckily for us, Erik (again) took point and successfully guided the group through. We finished early enough in the afternoon. 55 miles down for the weekend and the trail version of the Headwaters Section complete. There are a number of road miles to do to actually link up to the Allegheny Trail. I think I’d like to get back out and get them done!
by Evan “Whiskey Fairy” McCarthy