Last summer, Michael and I day hiked a loop in Shenandoah—down Slaughter, up Conway, and over Bearfence. As we were thinking about ideas for a low mileage trip, Michael recalled the nice campsites along the Conway River Trail. It’s an area that DC UL hasn’t visited, at least in my memory, and a trip idea was born.
Our original loop was a bit too short for a backpacking trip—12ish miles—so I looked at ways to extend it, first trying for Pocosin Hollow until we learned that the boundary access for that trail was closed. I then looked to the north. The map shows a now unmaintained 4×4 road that connects the Conway River Road to the Cat Knob area. A little research yielded feedback that the trail existed but was a bit rough. I devised Plan A and then Plan B depending on how the 4×4 road looked when we reached that point—we’d either take the 4×4 road if it seemed decent or stay on the fire road back up to AT.
Saturday morning, we gathered at Vienna. It’s been a while since I’ve been there and the construction in the area has changed how the exits route—that being said, it’s easy to follow the new routing. The day started well as everyone made it to the north lot and we divided up into cars for the drive out to Shenandoah.
Our route had us starting at Milam Gap and then taking the AT south to Bearfence. This was a nice stretch of trail, and the weather veered from cloudy to clear as we made our way along it. I crossed my fingers that we’d get clear weather for Bearfence so we’d be able to take full advantage of enjoying its 360-degree views. We crossed paths with Steve, Andrew, and other Strenuous Hikers out for the day, and then began our scramble over Bearfence.
I’ve heard others say that Bearfence is harder than Old Rag—as a not great rock scrambler, I don’t subscribe to that comparison. The scramble is shorter and involves one airy move, which can be bypassed easily, and there are far fewer people on it. We all hoisted our way to the top and took time to relax. A father with his young son was also enjoying the views—Mark R. helped them navigate the final bit of the descent, and the young boy was briefly tempted to follow us and become our newest veteran member. As he did not have a gear list, I reassured the young boy that the way back to the car was the much cooler route.
From there, we started the long descent down Slaughter Trail which veered between being an open path and grown over. We reapplied Picaridin and continued to make our way down, stopping for a brief break as we joined the Conway River Trail. From there, we proceeded to the excellent campsite that Michael remembered—enough room for our shelters and a nice area to gather. The conversation was wide-ranging as some of us enjoyed the whiskey that Jason had brought along with him—ultralight gear, alcohol vs canister stoves, bonobos and orangutans, and so on. Saran demonstrated an excellent throwing arm for our near-perfect bear hang. As the light began to fade, Michael and I retreated to our hammocks early to relax while the rest of the group continued the conversation.
Sunday morning, we hit the trail just after 7 a.m. and continued our walk along the Conway River Trail which merged into the Conway River Road. And then it was decision time #1. We arrived at our 4×4 road which would take us over to Cat Knob. It looked decent enough so we decided to go for it. And it was decent for a while—a bit overgrown at times but nothing too terrible. We made our way steadily up the trail.
Decision time #2. Michael was in the front and arrived at the intersection with the Cat Knob Connector Trail—it was overgrown and looked rough. Staying on the 4×4 road would bring us to the Jones Mountain Trail. Given the choice, we opted to stay on the 4×4 road. Sure, it wasn’t the best of trails—the footing was a bit rough, and it was overgrown. But it certainly looked better than what was the Cat Knob Connector Trail.
We walked along the 4×4 road. Mark R. and I dodged some of the stinging nettle that started to pop up along the path. Nothing too bad. I could see some of our group ahead entering a sea of green. “It looks like the trail is overgrown a bit more,” I thought to myself as I got closer. And then, “that can’t be.”
Oh, but it was. We were entering a field of waist-high stinging nettle. I’ve never seen it that high. I tried using my poles to brush it aside but it was a losing battle. I kept my arms high and tried to avoid as much as I could, but it still found a way to nip me at times. In the front of the group, Christy tried to charge through it, only to find that it made matters worse. Eventually, we emerged out of it but it was not a fun section.
The 4×4 trail more or less petered once we gained the ridge. Michael bushwhacked a path over to the Jones Mountain Trail and we all made our way over to it. Relieved to be on a trail, we headed over Cat Knob and then dropped down to the intersection with Laurel Prong. Our original plan had us descending to Rapidan and then climbing back up to Skyline Drive. Given how challenging the 4×4 section turned out, we opted to stay on the Laurel Prong Trail to spare the group another long climb. We enjoyed a post-hike meal at the Big Meadows Lodge and then made our way home.
Kudos to the newer members on this trip—An, Matthew, Saran, and Tyler—for maintaining high spirits during what turned out to be more of an adventure that we initially planned for a low-mileage trip. (And this was Saran and Tyler’s first trip with the group!)
Would we do this route again? Probably, but with the caveat that one should treat it like a bushwhacking trip and do it in that timeframe. Definitely not in the summer.
Congratulations to our new members—we look forward to hiking with you again! And we promise to avoid stinging nettle fields the next time.
Credit to Mark R for the featured image. Let us know if you spot anything interesting in the background.