Danielle and I decided that her introduction to DCUL should feature and all-time classic: the Massanutten Valley. Now, there are a number of routes that incorporate bits and pieces of the 73-mile ridge-line trail that circumscribes the valley. We certainly didn’t have the time for the full-Massanutten. Even the half-assanutten would have been difficult to turn into an LM trip. So we landed on the well-known Duncan Knob-Strickler Knob route.
Danielle and I were joined by some other relative newcomers to DCUL: Tom, Dorit, Kevin, and Devin, as well as the veteran Ian. We convened at Vienna at 8 AM, at which point the past evening’s downpour had all but vanished. Breaks in the clouds provided promise for a mild, sunny weekend ahead. And this forecast aligned with what we all had been reading from the usual sources: no more rain past 8 or 9 AM. But as we drove closer to the valley — not even 90 minutes away — the clouds creeped back and brought the rain along with it.
Once at the trailhead along Route 211, the group donned their rain-gear and crowded around a copy of the PATC map of the valley. Eager to get started, I led the group down the white-blazed Massanutten connector trail. After a couple messy stream crossings, I realized that none of this looked familiar. I finally checked my map again, only to realize we had gone about 10 minutes in the wrong direction. Not my best moment. Fortunately, the group laughed it off and maintained high spirits. We crossed the road and headed up the wide forest road towards the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail.
A couple forks in the trail later, and we arrived at the beginning of a short and steep ascent up to the southern ridge of the valley. At this point it was closing in on noon and the rain continued to come down, albeit in the form of a omnipresent mist. The wind and fog greeted us at the top. Finding some cover in a dense stand of trees, a few of us paused for a quick lunch as the rest of the group caught up.
The group followed the ridge for the next 5 or so miles until we reached Jawbone gap. A few of us dropped our packs and headed up to the lookout, just across from our ultimate destination, Duncan Knob. From there we quickly descended down to Turkey Pen Road, where most of us also filled up our water containers before the final hike up to camp. The rain had stopped about an hour before, but the trail up towards Duncan Knob continued to flow as if a water main had burst at the top of the hill. Hiking up, Danielle and I joked that we’re going to arrive and find that our campsite had transformed into a mountaintop lake, based on how much water had been pouring down.
By the time the group arrived at camp, the sun was nearly behind the ridge. We elected to skip the sunset views from atop the Knob in favor of a less-rushed sunrise. Setting up our tents and tarps was a bit difficult given the wetness of the soil. At one point a stake of ours popped out of the barely-holding-itself-together moss. Opaque, loamy water gurgled itself to fill the hole that had been left, as if to remind us that we were practically floating on a giant mound of semi-aqueous sand. Getting a fire started was a bit difficult. If it wasn’t for the firestarters that a few of us brought, we may not have had the roaring fire that warmed us that night. A special thanks to Tom who diligently kept the fire going, somehow, with the soggiest pile of sticks you could imagine. Devin cooked up a Taiwanese soup, while the rest of us reconstituted various dehydrated meals.
Temps dipped well-below the forecast that night. I remember pouring out a liter or so of water from our bladder that we didn’t need. It took about a minute for the puddle to freeze atop the already-saturated ground. We rushed to get our tents knocked down and bags packed before the sun peaked over the eastern ridge. Equipped with headlamps, we climbed up the silurian sandstone rockpile that is Duncan Knob and awaited the blooming aurora of dawn. As always with Duncan Knob, it was well worth the quick scramble.
From there the group hiked over to the well-hidden left turn to Strickler Knob. Unlike Duncan Knob, Strickler Knob features a castle-like protrusion of sandstone. It looks like a set of precariously balanced boulders, announcing themselves to the synclinal valley below. It’s one of my favorites in Virginia.
The group then descended down from Peach Orchard Gap and traced over our initial steps back to the car. Ian, a solid hiker if there ever was one, got all the way to the last ten feet of the nearly 20-mile loop before tripping over the entrance gate. Hungry and a bit raw from the damp wind, the group wasted no time seating themselves in the cars and heading to the Front Royal Brewing Company for a well-deserved post-hike meal.