A Thru-Hiker, A Family, and DC UL Walk Into a Shelter: Oventop/SNP Trip Report

My interest in Shenandoah’s bushwhacks was peaked (pun kind-of intended) during our hike up to the Peak on an early winter trip last year. Russ suggested Oventop as a good option for our next outing. Part of the allure, for me at least, was the promise of 360 degree views from the last peak of Oventop. A trip was born! 

The plan was to start from the Buck Hollow trailhead, and follow the Buck Hollow Trail to Skyline Drive where we’d pick up the Meadow Springs Trail and then hop on the AT going north. We hopped out of the cars and pulled out our gear so Russ and Michael could take the cars a mile up 211 to stage them by the Pass Mountain trailhead, our ending point, and then catch up with us.

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Making our way up Buck Hollow. It’s winter! Photo credit: Shane

We started in a winter wonderland as we made our way up Buck Hollow. It has been years since I’ve done that trail, and it is a stout–but beautiful–climb. Despite the forecast calling for clear skies, we wound up hiking into a cloud. Skyline Drive was quiet and misty, and we saw people taking advantage of the closed drive and walking along the road.

No views, though, from Mary’s Rock. Russ, Michael, and I had already decided that we’d depart slightly from the original plan and push the Oventop summit to the following day, all with the hope that the skies would clear. It was clear that we were not getting views today.

But as we neared the Pass Mountain shelter, we weighed adjusting the plan a bit more. The original goal was to camp by the second peak of Oventop, but with a misty day, a looming overnight storm, and the thought of a warm fire, the Pass Mountain shelter was a tempting diversion. We opted to stop short for the day and set up in the shelter.

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Michael gives two thumbs up for the Pass Mountain shelter. Photo credit: Shane

We had company. A thru-hiker who started in November was in the shelter already, and a father with his son and three of his son’s friends were setting up a rather large Coleman tent next to it. Most of the group opted to stay in the shelter, while Michael set up his hammock and Shane his tent in the designated camping area.

The boys, supervised by the father, then set about building a massive fire, which we all enjoyed. All in all, it was a good evening. We scurried into bed just before the snow and sleet started to lightly fall.

Overnight, the temperature rose a bit, and we woke up to the sounds of snow melting off the roof of the shelter. The snow and sleet had turned into rain overnight, and the ground was now a mix of slush and snow. I was less optimistic than Michael, as I took in the surrounding mist. “We are not going to see anything at Oventop,” I remarked. “It will clear,” he replied.

And sure enough as we made our way down the Pass Mountain Trail, hints of blue sky started to emerge from behind the clouds. (Yes, Michael was right.) The bushwhack up Oventop begins as you near a saddle. The Pass Mountain trail swings to the right (if you are descending, as we were) but you can spot the remains of a trail that darts up the mountain straight ahead. That was our path. We began our climb up to the first peak, and found ourselves above the clouds that had settled into the valley.

There is a faint trail you can follow but we were all happy to have the GPS line to follow as there are some spots that can be confusing. When you arrive at the last peak, there is a decent rock scramble to the top and we were able to deliver on the 360 degree views.

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Above the clouds at Oventop. Photo credit: Shane

We had walked in snow to the last peak, but the weather had warmed up so much during our hike that the snow had melted by the time we were working our way back. I fell to the back of the group and could see Shane and Russ rustling branches as they worked their way through a trail thickly grown over with mountain laurel–one of which, as I got to that point, hit me in the face so hard it knocked one of my contacts out. I had a few minutes of panic as I tried to get back the contact back in only to have it fall out again–and this was the one weekend that I didn’t pack my spare eyeglasses. Fortunately, I managed to get it back in. (PSA: always pack your spare glasses.) I found Russ waiting for me, and we made our way back to the Pass Mountain Trail and back to the cars.

All in all, this was a good trip, and it was nice to explore a new side of Shenandoah National Park. Too often, I default to the popular spots but I’ve been making an effort over the past year to explore more trails that I haven’t been on before. The Pass Mountain Trail was a new one for me. As for Oventop, there is a certain sense of adventure to step off a defined trail and find a spot that not many other people have seen.

It’s definitely a trip that would be worth repeating around this time of year, but I would definitely recommend setting it up so that you stay in the shelter. There were some flat spots along the Oventop path, but it is also nice to set up in the shelter–you get the benefit of having a warm place for people to gather and it also evens out the mileage between the two days.

A huge thanks to Russ for proposing the route and to all who joined for the weekend. You can see more photos on our Meetup event page for the trip. 


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