(Trip Report and Photos by Evan)
It’s possible this trip report will be longer than our actual DC UL Backpacking Friday night to Saturday afternoon circumnavigation of Trout Run Valley. It won’t, however, be as good. We lucked into perfect weather and plenty of meaningful socially-distanced fun. And then we returned home in time for Saturday evening with loved ones. The circumnavigation of Trout Run Valley is a mid-Atlantic classic with all the trappings of a good outing: relative proximity to DC (two hours), gorgeous peaks (Halfmoon Mountain, Big Schloss, and Tibbet Knob), remote campsites (ensconced in the George Washington National Forest), and a proper leg-stretcher of a loop (27 miles). We would use it to ease back into group backpacking and, for some, to test a 20-mile day on our legs without committing to a longer undertaking.
When I organized the trip, I fretted slightly at how loose its parameters would be. Without carpooling, there was no need to arrive at the same time or even necessarily finish together. The crew, all DC UL veteran members, were driving themselves and assuredly self-sufficient. I picked an approximate campsite for Friday night near Halfmoon Mountain and the Tuscarora Trail and we agreed to assemble there for the night. I ended up back in physically at work in DC for the week, and with normal late Friday office adventures, I got delayed in my original planned departure by an hour. I drove myself out to the Bucktail Parking Area not from Wardensville, West Virginia and raised an eyebrow at the number of cars already in the lot. Then I realized: jeez, nine of them were ours. Carbon conscious this was not. I set off on the Bucktail Connector/Cutoff Trail for 3-4 miles of hiking until reaching where I thought the others might be camping. I smiled at the white flowers of mountain laurel in full bloom on the trail and let the city fall away in my mind as I hiked through sunset and twilight. The temperature was in the low 70s and perfect. It would stay that way for the weekend. Fireflies began to sparkle around me as night enveloped the mountain.
Coming upon a roaring blaze in the forest near the trail, I turned my headlamp off and prepared to do a little sneak and surprise on the group. As I crept through the forest, I noticed the bass beat of a large sound system and the giggle of teenage girls. Wait a second, I thought. Not my crew. I snuck back to the trail, turned my headlamp back on, and continued forward. Sure enough, a little around 10:15 p.m. I reached our actual campsite. No fire, alas, but a few folks greeted my arrival. I was the last to arrive and everyone else was already set up. Most were already asleep in their shelters scattered in the forest. We had a planned 5:30 a.m. wake up planned, after all. Jen, Karan, Brian, and Kylie provided great company as we sipped our individual provisions (bourbon for me) and caught up with each other. No fire no problem. Karan turned Jen’s water bottle into a source of light. We attempted to solve the problems of 2020 but agreed it would take some more trail conversation the next day to work it all out. I do apologize for being loud and festive while folks slept. I’m sure I kept one or two up longer than they would have preferred. (Sorry?)
5:30 a.m. rolled around and I belted out a yabba dabba doo to wake the crew up. Several were already up and about. I do love that summer backpacking is pretty darn comfortable in the morning. It’s often less comfortable AFTER the morning, but we lucked out on this trip and spent most of the day in the 60s with plenty of sunshine and nary a drop of rain. Bridget, Sophie, and Christy, after quick morning hellos, promptly marched off together on the trail. The rest of us looked at each other, shrugged, and figured we wouldn’t see them again for the rest of the trip. They certainly looked like they were on a mission. Russ took off soon thereafter. The rest of us packed up and enjoyed the morning on Mill Mountain Trail, congregating at Sandstone Spring to fill up on water. The mountain laurel bloom continued to prove spectacular.
A crew of us enjoyed our hike up to Big Schloss and were surprised to find it to ourselves at 8:30 a.m. We had beaten the normal rush of day hikers. We were a little surprised our advance crew was nowhere to be found. I had intentionally written in the trip description that there were no planned regroup spots throughout the day. So this was how it would go. On we went, watching as the aforementioned army of day hikers made their way up from the other direction. I came upon a family with a little boy hiking in a shirt emblazoned with a star and shield. “Are you Captain America?” I asked him. He gave me a very stern look and paused for a few seconds before confidently answering, “Yes, yes I am.” His dad and I laughed about it as we passed each other on the trail.
As we rolled through Wolf Gap Campground, we counted over forty cars. Most rustic campsites there looked full too, which made sense on this lovely weekend. We continued on to Tibbet Knob. Jen and I met up with each other on the trail and hiked for a while trying to puzzle out how DC UL Backpacking could take up some activism to support Black Lives Matter and to also address our not very diverse group’s appeal and role to and for all people.
We scrambled up Tibbet Knob, found it mostly to ourselves, and settled in for a snack with great sweeping views of Great North Mountain and Trout Run Valley. Surprisingly, a few minutes later Bridget, Sophie, and Christy appeared. We had thought they were miles ahead by now. But no, fate and a wrong turn intervened to keep us all together in this moment. The trio ended up adding themselves a few extra miles by going down the Big Schloss Cutoff Trail and back up the forest road. We were all together on the trail and it felt grand, like a timeless DC UL trip in any year other than 2020. We gave Andrew some congratulations on his first child (already nine months old) and his birthday on the trail. On we went back down Tibbet Knob. Andrew bade farewell and set off on a side adventure and second night out. The rest of us started up a short road walk to connect with Long Mountain Trail.
Turns out, as many times as I had been in the area, I had never actually hiked Long Mountain Trail before. I loved it. The mountain laurel continued to make us feel like we were walking through a florist’s greenhouse. After hiking together for a spell, we spread out again for some solitude to take it all in. We convened at a lovely stream for more snacks and water. As we pounded out the final miles of what would be a little over 20 miles for the day, Karan and I finished the route by swapping nonfiction book recommendations and a mutual rekindled love of history.
Even finishing was festive. Russ pulled some beer out of the back of his 4Runner and we sat in cool breeze and sunlight in the parking area as everyone filed in. From there, strange as it felt for a crew who usually preferred to hike all weekend long, we drove off. A few of us gathered for a lovely picnic of takeout near Front Royal. And that was it. Legs were stretched. By 8:30 p.m. I was arm-in-arm with my beautiful wife enjoying a festive evening on King Street in Old Town Alexandria. How about that? Got our backpacking in and ate our cake too.