The real moment of truth came early, before the start, in fact. As Mark and I pulled up to the Buck Hollow trailhead, the portal to our planned adventure, there was only one question: would all of us be able to park here? It’s a small lot, after all, and on a sunny spring Saturday, especially, it was bound to fill up fast. Fortunately, Shane, Rob, and Nirmal were already there, Mark found a spot, and Jonathan arrived soon thereafter, completing our crew. Had we arrived a bit later, we may have had to improvise a new route. Instead, a little after 9:00, we set off into the still-cool forest, fresh legs marching off into a fresh morning.
And oh, what a morning it was. I seldom say something’s perfect, but between the glorious greens and the deep blue sky, the budding leaves and blooming flowers, the sunshine and crisp mountain air, this was pretty darn close.
Up Buck Hollow we went. Tender new growth gave way to hardy mountain laurel and bare branches as we approached, then crossed, Skyline Drive and made our way up the Appalachian Trail. Even higher up, though, life was bubbling up.
First stop, Marys Rock. Not even noon yet, but already a bunch of visitors shared the spot with us, with more coming. A light wind surprised us with its chill. We stopped to eat and enjoy the commanding view of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and more of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the north. On this clear day, visibility was outstanding.
Down below, we saw a line of cars awaiting entrance to Shenandoah National Park at Thornton Gap. No wonder so many wanted to visit today. As we left Marys Rock, we passed more and more day-trippers converging on the overlook. Things quieted down as we made our way back down the AT, southbound toward the Pinnacle. The best vista here came just shy of the actual peak, at a rock ledge, where we basked in the sun and relaxed for a bit. Shane even kinda took a nap, and after another snack, the rest of us felt like we could have, too.
We managed to rouse ourselves, though, and leisurely retreat whence we came via the AT and Meadow Spring Trail. Many other hikers were on the trails this afternoon, and all seemed to be enjoying the gorgeous weather and surroundings. Flowers, sunlight, views, and wait, what’s that…another butterfly? Life is good.
Across Skyline again, we left the crowd behind and let the Hazel Mountain Trail lead us gradually down into verdant “Hazel Country,” where settlers once farmed and lived before the Park came along. More idyllic scenery ensued.
Unsure whether we’d encounter flowing water again today, we all filled up as we crossed the Hazel River. I’d planned for us to camp a little further down trail, near the junction of the Catlett Spur and Hazel Mountain Trails, but once there we didn’t find enough suitable space for us all to stay comfortably together. Though fairly flat, this small area largely was too overgrown, rocky, or wet to call home for the night.
Thankfully, Shane remembered a good spot (or spots) along the White Rocks Trail, where we were planning to walk Sunday anyway, so we turned around and made our way there. By the time we reached camp, pretty near the Hazel Falls, it had been a full day of nearly 15 miles (if my phone’s distance tracker is to be believed). We were all grateful to have a nice spacious place to ourselves. Coming here turned out to be a good choice. Dinner followed as the light lingered. In great DC UL fashion, a wide-ranging conversation unfolded, where I for one learned some interesting things, not least of which was that steel produced since the dawn of the Atomic Age (till recently, anyway) contains radioactive isotopes. (I always forget to check for those when I shop for steel!) Night fell and we retired to our shelters or ‘cowboy camps’ (no rain forecast).
After a surprisingly blustery night–I believe I wasn’t the only one who put in ear plugs to mute the noise–we took our time getting ready Sunday morning. Having changed course the day before, and with some extra distance done, we decided to head straight back to the cars today instead of reversing the planned circuit that included the Hazel River and Hazel Mountain Trails. Shane left early, having checked out Hazel Falls (AKA Cave Falls) the evening prior. The rest of us descended the short, steep spur trail to the Falls and enjoyed the secluded intimacy of the scene.
The sun was out by the time we reached the cars just before 11:00, by which time we’d covered around 7 miles. (Again, a rough approximation.) I half-expected to find a small line of new cars eagerly awaiting our departure from the coveted parking spots, but it was nowhere to be found. Off we drove. Rob, Nirmal, and I enjoyed a post-hike brewery stop for lunch, a pleasant way to cap off a very pleasant outing. Thanks to all for making it a good time.