Every once in a while there comes a trip where the after effects linger on for a long time. This year’s Massanutten Loop aka Death March was one of those. DCUL has come to adore this 70 mile loop laden with rocky ridges. Last year, COVID made us scrap official Massanutten trip plans (although there were a couple of off-meetup Massanutten rounds). This year, it was back!
Folks started at different times on Thursday evening from the Signal Knob parking lot. Faceplant and I ran into Water Dog as he was just about to start. We hiked the relatively easy 9 miles to Veach Gap with him, exchanging the lead a couple of times and chatting along the way. We ran into U-turn briefly along the stretch as well. I was elated to be hiking this section in the evening light as the sun set and we caught views of the coiling Shenandoah river in the East. We reached the Little Crease shelter and greeted the hikers who were already there – Dmitri, Shaf, David, Jim, and John. Jonathan (Shenanigans) joined a few minutes later – completing the group. Excitement was in the air – only U-turn and I had done the North Massanutten successfully before, meaning this would be a first for 8 hikers.
After a pleasant night with temps in the 40s, people hit the trail at various times in the morning. A gradual climb brought us back on the Eastern ridge. At ~15 miles, this is the longest ridge stretch on the Massanutten trail. The trail is relatively mild and there are plenty of trail junctions along it. The blooming flowers and the buds announced the onset of spring. At this time of year, one can easily see through the trees to catch glimpses of the Shenandoah ridgeline. Water Dog and David scoped out the panoramic views at Kennedy Peak.
Upon our descent towards Duncan Hollow, Faceplant and I ran into our first water source of the day. We also caught up with Jim, John, and David who was just finishing his break. Jim remarked at the coincidence that we would all run into each other at the same time and we took that as a sign to stop for lunch. Duncan Hollow was, unsurprisingly, muddy and wet as we’ve seen in spring conditions over the prior years – in stark contrast to the dry ridgeline earlier. A gradual steady climb topped us off at the junction with the Strickler Knob trail and then began a swift descent to the base of Waterfall mountain.
Time to tank up and face the toughest challenge – ascend the steepest section on the trail (0.5 miles, 800 ft gain) with a ton of water after hiking 20+ miles in the day. Oh you, Waterfall mountain – we hate you (during) and like you (after)! David, Dmitri and Jonathan had already set up at the campsite before Crisman Hollow road. There were many ranger/cop cars apparently looking for lost hikers who were presumably found later. The rest of the crew showed up by 6. Shaf hiked the bonus miles out and back to Strickler Knob. Pretty impressive hiking all around. The sites were a little soggy, but we made it work and it helped that we had many hammockers. We regaled DCUL stories next to a small campfire.
As I was packing up in the morning, I saw this mysterious figure at our campsite and to my delight, it turned out to be Prius! No, he had not set up a very hard Massanutten variation and bailed last minute just to let the other folks follow his devilish route. Not this time at least 😉 He was mountain biking in the area and showed up at camp the night before, only after pretty much everyone had gone to bed. We chatted for a few and then went our separate ways. The day had started on a great note!
Onwards, we hiked on the rocky Jawbone Gap ridge. We ran into runners from the Happy Valley trail running group. After descending and crossing Moreland Gap road, it felt as if we were teleported to a different world. There was a controlled burn in this area recently. One could still smell the burn. The landscape on either side of the trail had blackened trees, but the trail was untouched. We wondered how this was achieved. Hiking here was pretty cool, it was as if we were walking through Mordor. One does not simply walk into the Massanuttens!
The Short mountain ridge presented another tough rocky challenge to us. We trudged through and descended into Edinburg gap. Shenanigans, Faceplant, David and I took a lunch break near the first stream. A few day hikers strolled by on their way towards/from Waonaze peak. The spring on the climb was flowing extremely well. At the top, Faceplant and I tried a side-trail and came upon a cool viewpoint that I had not seen before. The next miles passed by fairly fast, and before long, we arrived at the hang glider spot, where Dmitri was waiting.
Dmitri was super excited to see a person prepare their hang glider and catch him take-off. I got drawn into it too. We volunteered to help and then assisted the man bring the hang glider to the launch spot (note – we were assistants to the hang glider, not assistant hang gliders). Watching him take off right next to us was super cool – but the coolest part was yet to come. He rose higher into the air, maneuvered his glider over us, and just when he was directly above us, he simply said ‘Thanks!’. Aww man, that was ultra cool! I think there’s a video of it somewhere.
As we descended down into the Little Fort Recreation area, Brian C. was waiting on the trail to greet us and led us to the campsite he had saved for us. We spread out over different sites – some in the woods and some near the proper campsites. Folks again rolled into camp by 6 – a very respectable time considering the hard miles. Brian brought his A-trail angel game and treated us with beer and freshly cooked lasagnas, amongst other goodies. We again had a merry camp gathering.
Perhaps everything had gone too smooth so far and the Massanutten gods decided to mix things up. Starting around midnight, and all the way through morning, we were disturbed by multiple groups of mountain bikers passing right by us. They had their lights at full power and were not quiet despite being next to a campground (Left or Right??). A couple of them even bumped into Jim’s Hammock! We found out that it was an adventure race (this one to be specific). Curses and hours later, we packed up, ready to hit the trail.
I decided to scope out the sunrise view from Woodstock tower and was rewarded with some pretty shots. The final miles went by pretty fast – the descent into Mudhole Gap, the hike past Strasburg Reservoir, the climb to Signal Knob and that final descent to the parking lot. Finally, we were victorious! Jen was there to distribute the rewards: donuts, Pringles, candies, and drinks! Everyone finished by around noon – <70 hours since we started.
10 people started, 10 people finished. That is quite rare for the Death March – Kudos to all the finishers. We hiked 71 miles and gained ~12k feet – with splits of 9/25/23/15 miles. We were lucky to have unusually good hiking weather. Everyone hiked the trail in great form. Jim was christened by the trail name Whole Lotta Cheese. A big thanks to the trail angels Brian and Jen for delivering the goods! The 2021 Death March gets 10 marks out of 10!
Caltopo route: https://caltopo.com/m/HNED (includes the out and back to Strickler Knob)
Meetup Link: https://www.meetup.com/DC-UL-Backpacking/events/276231980/
DCUL Photo Album: https://photos.app.goo.gl/Bgv52ZymAXKdojdb9
Updated DCUL Hall of Fame: https://dculbackpacking.com/hall-of-fame/