The moment I was waiting for – arriving late in the afternoon with taxed legs and a growing appetite to a warm cabin and friends – played out just as I imagined.
(Photo: Peter Silverman)
This was exactly how we designed our trip weeks ago. Back then I took a look at the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s list of rustic cabins in Shenandoah National Park and reserved Range View Cabin for its location exactly in the area of the northern section of the park we wanted to explore as the first segment in our planned Shenandoah series, nicknamed DC UL SNP Alpha. Then we planned two groups with different routes, one a bit longer than the other, to meet up on Saturday evening. Some of us would disperse and camp in the woods nearby per PATC rules, and the others would sleep in the cozy, woodstove-heated cabin. It was the spending time together part I looked forward to. Backpacking during the December/January hunting season in the mid-Atlantic is often a difficult proposition. I tend to give the hunters leeway to have most of our usual forests to themselves during rifle season. Shenandoah National Park prohibits hunting, so it’s our sanctuary with the deer this time of year. Not having open backcountry fires per park rules take some fun away and makes for a bit of a challenge, though. The solution is grabbing a cabin or sharing an AT shelter. Our series was going to use the PATC cabin structure and get the best of the national park AND partially-sheltered camaraderie. And our Alpha trip was a great way to start it off! I smiled as I came into camp around 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. Hammocks were being hung in the trees in the woods and tarps were being put up and tucked away for some privacy. Finally, I entered the open glade of Range View Cabin. DC ULers were readying firewood, getting water from the spring, and setting up nicely for our evening together. My sore legs, having traipsed 20 miles and almost 6,000 feet of elevation gain, were looking forward to the break.
(Photo: Peter Silverman)
The veteran member version of the weekend saw us gathering Friday evening after work for the relatively short drive out to the Shenandoah Valley to park near Heiskell Hollow and hike into the park from the west. I had mailed our backcountry group permit to the park’s main office a couple weeks before and checked in with them on the parking area, so we felt good about our plan. Sharon was able to get out earlier for a little hike of her own and scouted a great campsite for us not too far from the parking area. John, driving in from Pennsylvania, met us at the trail head. The rest of us grabbed refreshments at Sheetz on the way and happily made our short hike into the woods to meet up with Sharon not far from a really awesome-looking swimming hole. A swimming hole none of us would use in the crisp December weather, despite having a little conversation on the way out trying to price how much money it would take to jump in. (Peter hovered at $150. Karan was having none of that and needed $1,000.) Our night started with more than a few of us choosing to cowboy camp because we had seen 0% chance of precipitation in the forecast. No more than 30 minutes later, with most of us gathered together to hang out, however, that “0%” turned into twenty minutes of pretty solid drizzle. The cowboy campers, yours truly included, scrambled to get our shelters up. It would not be the last time on the trip that the allure of staring at the stars as one went to sleep was thwarted by atmospheric conditions.
Thanks to Cassie for assistance with route-planning and Caltopo proficiency (https://caltopo.com/m/T3UA), we woke up Saturday morning dark and early at 6:00 a.m. with a great 20 miles of hard up and down trail ahead of us. It was cold enough for December, mind you, hovering in the 20s at night and up in the 30s with a breeze during the day. Most importantly, however, it was sunny and clear throughout. The type of blue sky and sunny day that filled you with joy every time you stopped to look up or just enjoy the sunlight all around. It was enough to make the brown of a snowless deciduous forest appear enticing. We hiked out of Heiskell Hollow and watched the first rays of sun light up the Massanutten ridge across the valley. We continued on up and over Knob Mountain (with a pleasant little breakfast stop) and then down and back up Neighbor Mountain, which I found gorgeous and definitely a trail I’ll seek out again. We regrouped near the summit for a lunch break before it got a bit too chilly to stay still. We met only one other hiker that morning, a solo backpacker armed with bear spray and a wizard staff. He was ready to fight a Balrog, it seemed.
(Photo: Peter Silverman)
We eventually hiked back to the Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge of Shenandoah and began to meet up with the other group, coming up from the other side of the ridge. The final seven miles or so had us rolling along the ridge in and out of sight of Skyline Drive. It still felt like we had the park to ourselves. The afternoon stayed sunny and brisk. I dropped back from the main group to get some solitary nature time, though the only animals really out on the trail were of the flying kind. I watched a pair of hawks enjoy the easy sightlines through the barren trees to identity their afternoon snack. And that’s when the 20 up and down miles of the day became an afternoon and evening of true DC UL fun at the cabin.
There were cookies and brownies baked by Jen and hot beverages made by the woodstove. Conversations were had deep into the evening by the outside fire and inside around an old wooden table. We talked about all the subjects that we could, and laughed as Marika treated her new isobutene stove like a thermal detonator about to explode. We introduced folks to the baby yoda phenomenon and debated the New England Patriots. We lamented governmental bureaucracy. Above all, we talked about how great it was to be out in the woods together. A huge thanks in particular to Ginny and Ian for their extra care and attention to the cabin, from setting it up, to keeping it warm, and to helping make sure things were in order in the morning.
Since the folks who weren’t sleeping in the cabin were spread out in the woods in the vicinity and there was 0% chance of precipitation, many of us decided (again) it would be a cowboy camp kind of night. When we left the warmth of the cabin for our sleeping spots later, however, some were surprised to see a healthy amount of frost already covering the ground and any gear left exposed. (Fearful of repeating the previous evening, I had set my shelter up as soon as I got to camp.) This was not the weekend for stargazing wrapped in your sleeping bag, though the evening was clear and full of stars. The icy condensation was definitely a factor all night long, and all of us would have to dry our stuff out pretty thoroughly upon returning back home. The atmosphere does funny things with moisture. Even when it was supposed to be dry as a bone for snow or rain. Hey, it gave folks of all stripes some extra moisture-management experience with their shelters. Cassie had just made herself a really cool tarp. Suzanne was trying to get her hammock system tweaked for her upcoming AT thru-hike. Others just brushed the frost off their sleeping bags/bivy sacks and settled in with a smile.
For Sunday morning, the veteran group split into a few different versions. Sharon and John departed with their own specific trail in mind, Cassie and Erik stuck to the original plan of 15 miles with a 7:00 a.m. departure, and the rest of us stayed with the lower mileage group to make sure the cabin was squared away and locked up before doing around eight or so miles back to the cars. The very final bit even had its own adventure: grumpy cows congregated by the gate leading to our parking spots and stared us down. One by one we slipped by them, worried about a quick charge that never did come.
(Photo: Peter Silverman)
And just like that another weekend adventure was in the books. A new series had begun (with the odd twist of the Beta hike already having been hiked), and we looked forward to more Shenandoah National Park trails together, highlighted by the lovely cabins of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC). Do join PATC if you haven’t. Why not support the best cause in the area?