My heart dropped when I realized I couldn’t make DC UL’s annual Massanutten Trail 71 mile trek in March. I just couldn’t pull away from a day or two of work that week. So I bided my time and grabbed the next weekend available to head out and do the hike as a makeup adventure, my sixth Massanutten overall after starting the tradition with Brian and Andrew in 2010. While I thought I might end up doing the trip as a solo challenge, a few folks decided to join and support, the weather ended up being nearly perfect, and it turned out that my Makeupanutten had all of the traditional ingredients: a returning Massanutten finisher (me), a first-time finisher (Max!), a Halfassanutten participant (Sophie), a Mininuttener (Sharon), a trail injury sacrifice (Chris), a new variant finisher we will call the Markanutten (Mark, duh), and lots of trail magic provided by Pete Taylor, Shane, our own beer caches, and Mark’s youngest daughter.
It began the way all Massanutten adventures started, with an afternoon stroll on Thursday to hike the ten miles or so to Little Crease Shelter for the night. In the past I had always started later in the dark and got to watch the lights come on in the valley from high up on the ridge. This time I actually got to experience the trail in the daylight and enjoyed the experience. I started off alone from the Signal Knob Parking Area at 2:30 p.m. and met up with Sharon at the top of ridge. We hiked along together and were greeted by a merry, welcome sight at the shelter: a roaring fire, Pete, and Mark laughing and talking, and beers chilling in the spring. This would set the tone for the weekend. Lots of hiking, sure, but lots of relaxing and socializing too. Chris and Max! rolled in over the evening and we went to bed for the night after sharing a story or ten.
Friday, our first big day on the trail, started for me at 5:30 a.m. I was on the trail by 6:00 a.m. with Mark and Chris not far behind. Max! decided to use the weekend to catch up on sleep and chatted with Sharon for a while before hitting the trail after 8:00 a.m. or so. Sharon walked back to her car, having stretched her legs a bit in preparation for her PCT thru hike in a few weeks. She regaled us with her preparation, gear, and ideas for her adventure of a lifetime. It was great to see her. The sky was blue and clear, the sun shining but not too hot, and I enjoyed views as far as the eye could see as I finished the eastern ridge and had lunch on Kennedy Peak. Mark caught up and ended up taking a nap as I continued on. I saw Chris on the way down, enjoying the fine weather as well. Max! was nowhere to be found, though I expected him to come racing by at any moment. We had no idea he took hours to leave camp.
I continued the long haul down and around Duncan Hollow, and then back up near Strickler Knob, and back down and up again to end up at the top of Waterfall Mountain around 5:00 p.m. I was startled to actually pass a backpacker who looked like she was out to do the entire loop, but didn’t stop to talk for very long (she ended up letting Chris and Max! know that she was intending to hike the circuit in six days) and joked with a few trail runners about getting a knee massage as they came down Waterfall Mountain. I dodged a lot of fresh horse pucky on the trail and wanted to see some, but only Mark got lucky enough to meet a few cowboys and their steeds. I got to the top after 24 miles or so and found Pete waiting with some water for us. We noticed that the lovely campsites there were dry and habitable. Mark came up a little bit later and we started a fire to welcome the others. Sophie showed up with beer and snacks, having found her way by car to the Crisman Hollow Rd. parking area without mishap. Our next surprise came when Shane showed up too with soda and brownies! We hung out and waited for the others. After seven p.m. Max! showed up, dropped his pack, and darted back down Waterfall to help Chris up. Massanutten had worked its foulness on Chris and left him a little injured. Shane showcased his trail magic (after awing us with his incredible trivia knowledge) to an even more incredible degree and drove Chris to his cabin a little bit later. The rest of us enjoyed a pleasant evening of beer and goodies around the fire.
The next morning started again at 5:30 a.m. Sophie, Mark, and I stayed together off and on throughout another clear, bright, and gorgeous day on the trail. Max!, we would later learn, slept in until 9:00 a.m. The western ridge is my favorite but gosh it’s rocky. We took a couple short breaks over the day but really just kept on keeping on, and emotionally prepared ourselves for the final six miles to Woodstock Tower that always feel like they go on forever. We ran into a a few mountain bikers up there. Two looked like they were having a good old time — and two looked like they would rather be dead than continue biking on those rocks for another couple hours. Ah, Massanutten. We arrived at Little Fort Campground and, not surprisingly in the great weather, found it completely packed. No bother, we crossed the fixed bridge and made camp in the delightful back area. I stashed beer, snacks, and firewood (hey, it was on sale) on Thursday and Mark dropped off another couple twelve packs of beer as well. We were flush with goodies. The only problem was Max! Hours after we got to camp and he still hadn’t showed up. A friendly campground dweller befriended us, gave Sophie water, and agreed to be on the lookout for Max! Close to sunset, Max! came strolling into camp in good form, having figured out a way to both sleep in and accomplish the toughest Massanutten day of another 24 miles or so. He gleefully remarked that he should have tipped the campground guy, who fulfilled his mission of looking out and guiding Max! to our secret camp on the other side of the stream. We enjoyed our fire- and beer-enhanced evening together, and this foursome reminded me a lot of the early days of hiking the Massanutten Trail in a small team.
Sophie and I were ready to hike again at 6 a.m. and attempted to wake Max! up, per his request. I got a little scared when only after ten minutes of yelling his name, shaking his shelter, and shining light in his face, Max! woke up. I’ve never known someone to enjoy sleeping on the Massanutten so much. We were off, having said goodbye to Mark the evening before. He parked in the middle valley on Thursday in order to cut off the first ten and the last 15 miles of the trail, though fully planning on completing the 50 or so miles of the two big Friday and Saturday sections — the aforementioned newly dubbed Markanutten variation. The day was again sunny and glorious but not really hot at all. We had breakfast with Chris and Pete for some extra trail magic after the first ten miles and had a brief rest at the top of Signal Knob. Oddly, several campfires were still smoking up there but nobody was around. We enjoyed the final five miles of rock, views, and day hikers, and were greeted with our final trail magic of the weekend: Mark had made it home, picked up his youngest daughter, and came back to provide us pizza and soda to celebrate the end of our 2018 Massanutten.
I have to admit, this was the most purely enjoyable Massanutten hike for me yet, though the DC UL Massanutten extravaganza in 2016 was the most impressive combined outing I’ve ever been a part of on any trail. There’s a lot of good ways to do this treasure, “hidden” only a short drive from DC and overshadowed in importance and crowds by big brother Shenandoah National Park. We’ll all be back again for sure.