Trip Report: Paradise Found (Southern Massanutten Mountain Trail Loop to Emerald Pond) June 25-27, 2021

Emerald Pond. Some people—mostly those who have never been to Hawaii—might call this crystal-clear, spring-fed lake on top of Massanutten Mountain prettier than a Hawaiian lagoon at sunset. This was to be the highlight of the Emerald Pond Paradise hike on June 25-27. Five DCULers threw ultralight swimsuits into our packs to seek paradise.

We gathered at the trailhead parking lot Friday at 9:15 p.m. Fully-vaxxed Chris S., Jordan, and I carpooled from the Vienna Metro. We met Alex and Chris T. there, ready to go. Chris T., who lives on the mountain, offered his expertise despite his dislike of hot, humid summer hiking. He set up camp a half mile from the trail head and walked back to meet and guide us. It was a nice welcome. By headlamp, we made our way to camp, quickly set up, and retired.

I called for a late wake up Saturday so that we wouldn’t get to Emerald Pond too early for swimming. Ha! I didn’t think it would be hot enough until noon. So, at 6:30 a.m., I cried out “good morning, DCUL: we pack light, wake early, and hike far!” We hit the trail at 7:30 a.m.

The trail began with a hot, steep climb—1,800 feet by my GAIA app. (Karan thinks my app underreports elevation gain, so I’ll accept “bonus elevation feet” anytime). We reached the ridge sweaty, but found the mountaintop breeze and the Shenandoah Valley view refreshing. We followed the ridge line to Emerald Pond.

The Pond was delightful. I immediately jumped in and swam around as others debated hydrothermal dynamics. (The pond initially looked cold). Ultimately everyone jumped in. It was easy to get used to the temperature and it was very comfortable to swim. Jordan held out until I pointed out he could be in the process of creating his life’s biggest regret if he passed on a dip. He decided to hold out for other lifetime regrets and jumped in. 

We spent a long time at the pond thinking there were not many miles, and a lot of day left, on this low mileage hike. [Insert foreshadow music here]. It seemed better to hang out at the pond than hang out at a campsite with hours until sunset. So, we stayed in paradise through lunch.

The remainder of the hike was heavy on the dirt road theme. I learned Alex loves hiking on dirt roads in the sun. (Just kidding, Alex). Chris S. led a strong pace, floating up every elevation gain. Alex and I extended our sun umbrellas for shade; everyone else walked far from us, pretending they didn’t know us. Alex expressed his uncertainty of the wisdom of the DCUL member ranking system. However, he’s keeping an open mind.

We took a side trail up a forest-fire mountainside for variety and to kill some time. We reached the peak and Alex scrambled down the other side to investigate his theory that the geology on Massanutten was affected by ancient meteor strikes. There were numerous holes in the ground, suggesting meteor collisions. Having just come off from the Donut Hole trail trip where other DCULers had strong theories about Bigfoot and alleged UFO citings, I felt Alex’s thesis was elevating the DCUL discourse. 

We arrived at a trail junction where I intended to break for camp. However, Chris T. told us he knew of better spots halfway down the new trail. Unfortunately, Chris T. is a hammock camper and wasn’t as selective in choosing good ground for camping sites as we ground dwellers. We hiked much further than advertised seeking good ground for tents. On the way down a rock scramble we startled two mountain lions who, fortunately, were more scared of us. (So now, for the rest of my life, I can say—with four witnesses—that I scared off two mountain lions! Darn right I did!) After hitting 15 miles on a promised 12 mile day, we stopped for dinner. Chris T. and I enjoyed a long foot soak in the cold stream nearby while Jordan, Chris S., and Alex cooked early dinners. However, the location was just off a gravel road and we decided not to camp there.  We did tank up with water in case we found a good, but dry, camping spot, at Chris S’s great suggestion.

Chris T. kept us going forward on promises of imminent camping spots. We even bushwhacked for a while, discovering a forgotten trail that Chris T. wants to incorporate on a Southern Massanutten loop he is creating. For one reason or another we rejected all sites we saw. Eventually, though, it was after 5:00 and we no longer needed to worry about what to do all afternoon on a “low mileage” day. Like people at a bar near closing time, as we approached 18 miles for the day, we began relaxing our standards for a suitable camping site. We settled on a spot we definitely would have rejected earlier in the mileage, scattered to set up our tents, and hoped the campsite would still look good in the morning. 

Chris T. ate at his hammock as Chris S, Jordan, and Alex hung out and talked around my alcohol stove as I cooked my dinner. He later joined us. We turned in just before it got fully dark.

Sticking to my “bar at closing time” theme, a whippoorwill bird I silently named “Shut the F Up” sang loudly for a mate all night long. Some birds need to lower their standards or else go to law school!

Sunday morning began with the 5:30 a.m. wake up call: “good morning DCUL, hot apple cider donuts await us!” We hit the trail at 6:30 a.m. hoping to beat the heat and humidity—but they beat us. Our long climb left us sweaty. We also found ourselves as the “special” on the menu for the local tick population. Chris S, Chris T, and I stopped counting the ticks we caught crawling on us. None of the ticks seemed to get beyond the crawling stage, though. Alex and Jordan seemed immune. (Guys, check yourselves very carefully tonight!)

After the climb it was an easy stroll along a picture-perfect stream back to our cars. We had a brief chat with Chris T’s father who was there to pick him up. A historian, he taught us about historical iron production on Massanutten. He said people dug holes for iron ore to feed into the old, giant furnaces we saw here and there. This led to Alex wisely abandoning his meteor theory. Without Chris T, the four of us drove off to the Applehouse for the apple cider donuts I advertised. (It was false advertising—they are actually apple butter donuts, and delicious).

The official stats for the trip: 26.5 miles—0.6 miles/17.4 miles/8.5 miles. The elevation gain was 4,165. It turned out to be more of a MO-level trip than an Applicant-level trip due to the uneven splits, but everyone completed it in good form and attitude. It was a nice, easy hike. The Emerald Pond experience made the trip unusually memorable. It is worth a re-visit.

Happy hiking, 

David O.

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