Trip Report: Hiking in Shenandoah’s Post-Apocalyptic Winter Wonderland

When we pick a weekend for a backpacking trip, we circle a date and hope for the best. For a December trip, that hope is for enough snow to make things gorgeous but not so much that we fear road conditions and the necessitation of snow shoes (unless of course we’re planning a deep snow adventure; then we absolutely want some monster snow). Winter Storm Gail wreaked havoc on some parts of the northeastern United States the week before our December 18-20 outing but barely affected us in Virginia. The end result was freezing rain in the DC area but a blessed few inches in Shenandoah National Park (SNP), our traditional gun-free “safe place” come December open rifle hunting season. A few inches would do the trick for us mountain snow lovers.

We opted for a parking area outside SNP along SR 663 we knew could accommodate our numerous vehicles (no official car pooling to keep things COVID-19 safe) and planned a return hike to one of our favorite sections of the park. We took advantage of various sources of information (friends, Facebook, SNP webcams) to keep tabs on how much snowfall was expected to remain by Friday night and felt good about our proposed route of roughly 18 miles on Saturday along the back ridges of Austin Mountain, Lewis Peak, Brown Mountain, and Rockytop but began to change up plans to return to the cars on Sunday via the Appalachian Trail and Madison Run Fire Road instead of the originally planned snowmelt-swelled crossings of Big Run.

Mark and I were the last of the crew to roll in Friday night at our designated backcountry spot near Madison Run less than a mile from the cars. Far enough to be away from a world of memos and electricity we left three hours behind. Ben, Brian, Bryan, Karan, Kylie, Kyle, and Liz were all set up in individual tents/tarps/hammocks and enjoying our snowy camp. We ended up nine total DC ULers after Susanne ended up not being able to make it (and SNP Guru Claudio wasn’t able to squeeze in last second) — a perfectly sound number to keep things festive but under SNP’s suggested permit group size and Virginia’s newly imposed COVID-19 ten-person gathering limit.

I serenaded us awake at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday to a rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Trail.” I spotted an interesting set of paw prints in the snow inspecting my shelter during the night and realized they were too big for a raccoon variety creature and too small for a bear. Brian said he woke up to the sounds of a pack of coyotes slipping through in the night. I slept through it, fortunately; not sure I would have necessarily loved waking up to a coyote investigation. We set off in the dark up Austin Mountain. We enjoyed the full color palette of dawn and sunrise. The three of inches of snow on the ridge were (almost) perfect for hiking and scenery. Better yet, the icy hoarfrost on the leaves around us added to the crystalline natural wonder. But a few inches of snow isn’t insignificant, either, and made each step a touch more strenuous than usual. And to be fair, the ridges of SNP’s south district set the stage for several thousand feet of elevation gain throughout the day’s route. Ben and Liz opted for a shorter plan for the day and headed over via a cutoff to the Appalachian Trail.

The rest of us enjoyed exploring Lewis Peak and the other open ridges of our journey. Mark gets bonus points for being the only other DC ULer to take me up on my call to bring something festive to wear for the weekend. He and I sported an elf and Patriots Santa hat respectively. More practically, those who had them put on micro spikes to help with traction when needed, particularly as the day warmed up enough to melt some of the snow. They’re not without their own hazards, mind you. Brian got to enjoy me catching the lip of my micro spikes on a root and face-planting into a snowy bush. Hey, if you’re going to fall, snow makes for a pillowy landing.

We spaced out quite a bit after regrouping for a pleasant lunch at a bridge over Big Run near our low mark of elevation for the weekend. The ascent up Brown Mountain to return to the Blue Ridge itself was challenging but offered a lovely enough winterscape to make it all worth it. At the top, with the sun setting and the cold beginning to ice our bones, I met up with Brian again along a completely empty and eerie Skyline Drive. SNP authorities tend to close Skyline Drive for inclement weather and ice, which is one of the reasons I never count on it being open for planning purposes. We didn’t see another soul on the trail that day, adding to the post-apocalyptic feel of a usually crowded national park. We did, however, see multiple animal tracks along our way, including very large bear prints and others more likely to be bobcat. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the hunting prohibition of Shenandoah National Park. To set the mood even more, the sun was obscured throughout the day by wintery clouds, resulting in a hazy backdrop and “Black Hole Sun” orb in the sky.

Our route hit a snag, however. Brian and I could not find the cross-over trail off of Skyline Drive marked on our maps and apps that should have easily connected us to the Appalachian Trail. We were able to follow some footprint tracks of the group but also realized that our folks must have split up a little bit into different directions. We poked into the woods where the trail was supposed to be for a bit before realizing that we did not want to be caught without a trail with darkness soon upon us. We walked up the road another mile or so and eventually bushwhacked in a second time to find our way to Pinefield Hut AT shelter, our camp for the night. Our route-finding concerns evaporated in smiles as we got close enough to smell the fire waiting for us. Sure enough, the others had all employed a variety of options to find their way the last couple miles, from extra road walking to loop around to more creative bushwhacking to the AT.

Pinefield Hut, as anticipated, was a great location for our festive Saturday night together. A few of us spaced out for the evening in the three-sided hut itself, though most set up their shelters nearby. We had the shelter area completely to ourselves and enjoyed the adjoined fire area for several hours. Ben and Liz had heroically stockpiled a healthy stash of downed branches for us to keep our firewood supply strong.

Come the morning, I provided another 6:00 a.m. wakeup carol, “It’s the Most Wonderful Trail of the Year.” As already mentioned, we didn’t attempt to drop down to Big Run for a wet return journey to the cars on Sunday. Instead, we leaned into the empty, abandoned fun of Skyline Drive and hopped back and forth between the icy, desolate road and the AT. The temperature plummeted a bit as the threat of a snow storm loomed but then somehow missed us completely. The day eventually warmed up a few degrees and even presented some sunshine and blue skies by noon. Once we got to the fire road, we really spaced out and enjoyed the long walk down off the slushy mountain. Shortly before finishing up at the cars, we noticed a few day hikers — not zombies, don’t worry — making their way up the fire road too. If it hadn’t been for them, we truly would have been all alone in the park for the weekend.

Once back at the cars we confirmed that nobody had seen Bryan (aka Wolverine) all day. We figured he kept strictly to the AT without the Skyline Drive shortcuts everyone else partook in. He likely added up to three miles to his route. All in all, I tracked 20 miles for Saturday and 12 miles for Sunday. I ended up feeling a bit groggy when I stopped moving and left ahead of the rest of the crew to go get some coffee and wake up enough for the three-hour ride home. Even caffeine wasn’t cutting it, though, so I pulled off the highway for a little nap after an hour. That did the trick. Even on a lovely weekend trip like this, being out in the cold for a couple nights while putting some snowy miles in during the day can take a lot out of one’s overall energy reserves. But, as is always the case, I got the energy back in spades come Monday when I started my work week with a lingering sense of weekend adventure lodged somewhere deep inside me. (Bryan eventually showed up as expected.)

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