Pouring rain with temperatures hovering around freezing. All day long. That’s what I interpreted from the weather report I read on Monday the week of our Friday to Sunday Shenandoah National Park DC UL Gamma Trip.* That’s about the worst forecast one can imagine for the mid-Atlantic on a Saturday during which we intended to traverse 20 miles. I warned the group and hoped the incoming storm front would dissipate, freeze, or shift. As the week crept on the front shifted to a rainy Friday forecast and I thought, “great, we only have to hike in and camp Friday night. This will work out fine.” That was my prevailing thought until Friday morning when I gave the weather reports one more intense scrutiny. A few weather reports warned of flooding in the area, with one speculating on a particularly severe bubble that could linger over central Shenandoah National Park, dropping over 1.5-2 inches of rain. As we were camping at the bottom of the ridge not far from numerous rivers and runs, I pinged the group and changed the plan. We would skip camping out in the deluge with flood-risk and drive in super early on Saturday morning to get our 20 mile route in as planned. And so we did.
The rain was fierce on the beginning of our drive but slowly let up as we made our way out. Kind drivers arranged to pick up car-less folks before our rendezvous spot. Karan and Kylie even hosted Suzanne for the evening at their place to ensure she could join. We set our first vehicles at the end of our hike for Sunday morning at the Rose River trail head and drove over to our start at the Whiteoak Canyon lower parking area. The rain was letting up but evidence of flooding was everywhere. We moved storm debris off of one of the lower bridges (joking around as we did so) and slowly drove in without mishap along the raging river next to the parking lot. Some of the group watched in near horror as a deer fell into the rushing water and nearly got swept away before jumping to safety. This proved to be entirely prescient foreshadowing for our group as well. While we had skipped the brunt of the rain, we were literally heading 3,000 feet up Cedar Run canyon while the remnants of the storm were cascading down around us.
Cedar Run was epic. Waterfalls raged. The sound of rushing water was a constant companion. We were lucky, I guess, to have only two particularly challenging crossings of Cedar Run. The first of which presented an option to cross a precarious fallen tree roughly six feet over a raging bit of water or wade a relatively flat spot with water up around the knees/calves. Wolverine and I “woodcocked” the tree by shimmying across. Suzanne – whom I later found out had been named Cascade for FALLING in water on an earlier adventure – skipped across the top of the log like Legolas. I had actually taken my pack off to assist if anyone fell in and was momentarily shocked when I looked at the log again and noticed she was no longer on it. Turned out that she had simply been so fast she whisked across while I was setting my pack down. She is six weeks from starting her NOBO AT thru-hike and with skills like that she will undoubtedly be ready for anything the AT may throw at her. The others pushed through by wading, with various degrees of wetness as a result. We had one more significant crossing further up the canyon that most in the group strolled through but that required me to take my shoes and pants off to dry and keep them dry while crossing.
But other than that – and the challenge of slick rocks occasionally covered with ice or moss – we made our way up the incredibly scenic canyon. We were able to rock hop or – for folks who no longer cared about wet feet/shoes – simply walk through the other water crossings. At one point someone even stopped to take a picture of water pouring off the canyon around us and remarked, “It looks like Rivendell.” It did indeed.
Our hiking route called for about 3,000 feet of elevation gain from our starting point to the summit of Hawksbill, the highest point in Shenandoah National Park. Honestly, it was so challenging just navigating Cedar Run and its waterfalls that the climb itself didn’t seem too difficult. Unfortunately, once we gathered again at the Hawksbill summit it was only to appreciate the dense fog which settled over the Blue Ridge mountains instead of views as far as the eye can see. When we came down off the mountain to continue our journey, the sun and blue skies ironically appeared. We enjoyed the sunshine and hoped for a lovely day the rest of the way. We were treated with more rushing water and gorgeous cascading falls at Rose River Falls and Dark Hollow Falls. We weren’t as lucky with the sun, however, as a drizzle of rain joined us for the middle part of the day. I grew briefly concerned when a pair of day hikers warned me that a particular stream was uncrossable up aways but relieved to find it one of the easier crossings we had already succeeded at that day. We were experienced stream jumpers at this point.
(Hawksbill Summit. Photo: Karan)
After a little forest road walk with switchbacks that inspired some in the group to cut across, we ended up at the gorgeous and historic Rapidan Camp, President Hoover’s Presidential retreat in the late 1920s. I grew wistful to learn that the spot had been picked for its dense groove of old growth Eastern Hemlock, almost all of which is now gone, decimated by woolly adelgid beetles in the late 20th century. It is still a serene and preserved historic site. We enjoyed it for the first time as we rolled through Saturday afternoon. After hiking out of the valley to cross over the Sag (really, that’s its name) we enjoyed abundant greenery from pines and smaller hemlocks, plus rhododendron and mountain laurel, which was around us more frequently. The whole day was full of great trails, but when we finally hit Staunton River Trail to take us toward our end point for the evening, I was particularly blown away. It wasn’t fast going because of numerous rocks, but it was enchanting in ways that the other trails weren’t with moss and vegetation that welcomed us as the river rushed along singing to us. The last few miles up to Jones Mountain Cabin took us through literal forests of mountain laurel. The trunks were some of the largest I had ever seen. I can only imagine how lovely it would be to return during a peak bloom period.
(Jones Mountain Cabin. Photo: Karan)
We had a good day on the trail, all things considered. But the night we had at Jones Mountain Cabin together was legendary. I strolled in toward the end of the group to find Claudio (surprise guest!) cooking away in the cabin with over 50 pounds of delicious food, beer, and whiskey he had huffed in just to wow us with a trail magical evening. The spread of hummus and pita, potato fritters with bacon, chives, cheese, and sour cream paired delectably with cold beverages and made for as good a backcountry meal as can be had. Claudio’s generosity combined with a warm cabin made for a memorable experience for all. As the evening went on, we were also treated to a dark, clear sky full of stars, the likes of which one rarely sees in Shenandoah.
(Bear Church Rock, sunrise. Photo: Kylie)
The next morning we said goodbye to our lovely cabin and headed up Jones Mountain to catch sunrise on Bear Church Rock, where the first group up had themselves a fun photo shoot. The charming vegetation of thick mountain laurel groves continued for another couple miles. Oddly, I ended up with a slight injury that bled more than I expected when I caught the inner part of my ear on a branch while attempting to swing under a fallen tree at full hiking pace.
We descended off of the mountain following new trails that largely had us avoiding backtracking until we crossed Rapidan Camp again. We gathered in the sun to enjoy the peace and beauty of Rapidan before finishing our Sunday of hiking out along the lower Dark Hollow Falls Trail and the Rose River Trail. Most of us cut the road switchbacks even more egregiously than the day before.
(Rapidan Camp. Photo: Sharon)
In what ended up as the final stream crossing of a weekend resplendent with them, Sharon captured the moment after I dropped one of my hiking poles into the water whilst balancing across a downed tree. Then she gallantly went in after it. She said she was already wet. I think she’s just that type of amazing person to jump in a river to help a fellow hiker out.
Between the feast and fun at Jones Mountain Cabin, the brilliant stars of a dark wintery night sky, the challenge and wonder of post storm waterfalls, and the historical experience of Rapidan Camp, it was one of my favorite times ever in Shenandoah National Park. Here’s our route, if you’re curious to check it out too!
DC UL SNP Gamma: https://caltopo.com/m/0Q4J
*This is part of our DC UL SNP Alpha to Omega trip series, a collection of selective overnight hikes in Shenandoah National Park using rented PATC cabins to add a little warmth to our typical backcountry experiences.*