The gray skies and drizzle on the drive to Shenandoah National Park foretold stormy weather, but that didn’t deter four stout DC ULers from forging ahead. Rob, Ben, Stanley, and I had piled into Rob’s pick-up and headed south and west on a cool mid-autumn Saturday morning. No relief from rain after Friday’s downpour, alas, but who backpacks to be comfortable, anyway?
The mist shrouded Skyline Drive as we wound our way up from the Park’s northern entrance. The spooky scene felt fitting with Halloween fast approaching. As we stepped out at Jenkins Trailhead, a chill breeze reminded us that summer weather was long gone.
We set off down the Marshall Mountain Trail, mellow and quiet as we gradually left the road behind. The fall colors were a bit past peak, perhaps, but still vivid, including some bright leaves on the forest floor. The path was soggy underfoot–it even flowed in spots–and crossed several creeks swollen from recent rainfall. There were even mini-waterfalls whooshing downhill.
We broke for lunch by some boulders, then detoured down the side trail to the Big Devils Stairs overlook. Once there, we couldn’t see much, in the fog, but did hear the roar of the waterfall below and even glimpsed it a little, too.
The rain picked up as we headed back. And by the time we reached the junction with the Bluff Trail, it was really coming down. We slogged silently the rest of the way, spirits dampened slightly along with our surroundings. Finally, after a brief debate over which trail fragment to take to the shelter, we reached the Gravel Springs Hut. By about 3:00 PM, no less–tres early for DC UL!
It was good to be out of the rain, which kept coming. The other set up shelters while I decided to sleep inside the hut. One fellow hiker was settled in already: The Chairman, a southbound thru-hiker headed home to his native Georgia by way of the entire Appalachian Trail. Turns out he had thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail this spring and summer, too. Not bad for a single year’s walking… We gathered to dine in the shelter as a few other weekenders came and went–or at least, pitched camp nearby. Without a fire to warm us and keep us up, bedtime came early. The rain stopped around midnight and at some point, the clouds broke, revealing a slew of stars. (If only I had a photo of that to share!)
We rose on the later side the next morning, but still early enough to admire the ‘day glow’ colors preceding sunrise. With just a few miles to go, we took our time getting ready, setting out around 8:30–late for DC UL! We saw a deer or two up ahead as we ascended to the junction with the AT. By now, the weather was clearing and warming.
Up the AT we went, seeing far more folks on trail and road than we’d encountered the day before. It was easier to see the colors, which the sunlight brought to life. Views and photos followed from atop South Marshall, as we looked down over the Shenandoah Valley (and some particularly lively foliage within the Park itself). North Marshall echoed these largely westward vistas.
The trail rose and fell gently as we criss-crossed Skyline Drive. A hiker’s Halloween garb reminded us what day it was. (Boo!) Before we knew it we were driving out of the Park past scores of tourists on their way in or just starting day hikes. Schadenfreude hit as we saw the incoming cars backed up at the Park gate. We were already done! A post-hike pub lunch followed in Front Royal, and then the drive home, with time to spare for trick-or treating. All in all, not bad for barely more than twenty-four hours out in the woods. And a nice taste of fall, while we still have it.
-Daniel (Heavy D)
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