Trip Report: Go Wild! (Wild Oak and Shenandoah Mountain Trails) March 18-20, 2022

David O.; Photo credit: Alexander

After two years of COVID, and at the dawn of Spring 2022, DCULers were more than ready to go wild—and we did! 

Of course, when we go wild, we do it lighter, earlier, and farther. Primal yells, an early morning barefoot crossing through the icy, swift-moving Ramsey’s Draft creek, a 27 mile Saturday, and two water carries up 2,000 feet to two “dry” camps made this trip the real deal. Even a Superman like Chandler (“Willie Wonka”) conceded, “this was tough!”

This trip was a Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness 45 mile loop, primarily using the Wild Oak and Shenandoah Mountain trails. We started and ended at Camp Todd, fully using the weekend. 

We arrived late Friday night at 10:30 p.m. in carpools from the Vienna Metro. Long range weather forecasts predicted cold rain, rain, and more rain Friday night through Saturday with highs in the low to mid 40s—hypothermic weather.

I immediately regretted my decision to admit Emily on the trip. She was not a Veteran Member, but I made an exception to include her on this VMO-ranked trip on Willy Wonka’s recommendation. He had hiked with her on the DCUL low-mileage “White Rocks” trip and reported that she did well. However, that trip was a total of 19 miles, split over two days. The “Go Wild” trip featured a 27-mile day on Saturday alone. I did my best to vet her in advance of the trip—but could she really keep up on a trip of this level? Was she too green to go wild?

Of course we were all tired from the prior work week and long drive to the mountains. The combination hit Daniel (“Heavy D”) particularly hard. The Friday night hike was a 3-mile steady climb up 2,000 feet to a “dry” camp by headlamp. The hike alone burns the legs. It is tougher to do it with a pack heavy with the weekend’s food and enough heavy water sufficient for the night hike, the overnight, and the next morning. Tired, he sought out others to join him making camp at the base of the mountain, saving the climb for Saturday. I suggested that he might want to rethink this because adding the 3-mile climb to the 27-mile day on Saturday challenging could be unpleasant. I suggested that if he delayed the climb he should wake up early to start with us the next morning from the summit. 

We started hiking in a tight line. Within minutes we came to a creek crossing with no obvious ford. The thought of getting wet feet so soon inspired some to chart out a high-water route, adding a mile or two to the evening. As we were debating the choice, Alexander (“Mr. Woo”) shook his head in disgust, pushed his way to the front, and defiantly marched across the frigid creek and started up the mountain. Shamed, the rest of us started to follow. Before getting our feet wet, Logan spotted a good rock hopping opportunity downstream and led the remainder of us across dry.

I presented my night hike philosophy to Willy Wonka as we climbed: night miles are free miles; if you can’t see them you can’t feel them. He resisted the urge to smack me with his hiking poles.

We arrived at the summit of Little Bald Mountain and quickly made camp. I suppressed a wild “Tarzan yell” when Logan pointed out that two other backpackers were already camped there. 

Just before getting into my tent I saw a bear hurrying down the trail right at us! (Technically, it was a “bare”—a bare-chested Heavy D. He reconsidered his plan to camp at the base of the mountain and made the climb. He got so hot he stripped down to shorts and his bare chest). 

Officially, we hiked 3.16 miles with a 1,944 elevation gain. We all slept well despite the full moon shining into our tents like Mack truck headlights.

I shouted a wake-up call at 6:00 a.m., shortly before sunrise. So as not to disturb the non-DCUL campers at the summit too badly, I only yelled “DCUL!” Logan later, wisely, suggested that using our club name was ill-advised—it let the others know who disturbed them. I should have yelled “Washington Commanders!”—or some other organization everyone already dislikes.

I told everyone I intended to start hiking at 7:00 a.m., but most left well before then with headlights dancing down the trail. Heavy D was still in his tent, slowly packing up. Satisfied he was awake, though, I started down the trail behind Willy Wonka, Emily, and Mr. Woo. I quickly overheated and stopped to strip off a couple of layers and Mr. Woo waited for me. Willy Wonka and Emily continued down the trail. I assured Mr. Woo that we’d catch up to them quickly.

We approached a trail junction and had difficulty finding the right trail. There only seemed to be four ways to go, but we came from one way and each other turned out to be wrong. Then, Mr. Woo spotted some white blazes on some trees behind several piles of downfall. We bush wacked 50 yards or so—which is a wild thing to do—and found the trail. 

Few know that Mr. Woo is an expert tracker. He concluded that the others missed this obscure turn by the absence of fresh footprints. After a while, the fact that we never caught up with Willy Wonka and Emily confirmed our suspicions. We were ahead of everyone.

Mr. Woo

We climbed a knob overlooking the Valley and I finally released the wild, full-throated Tarzan yell I bottled up the past 2 years. I expected that other DCULers would have heard my call if nearby. However, silence reigned. Mr Woo and I nodded to each other—yes, they missed the turn.

We happened upon a bridge crossing a bold stream. Knowing this was only one of three guaranteed water sources for the entire hike, we “cameled” up, spread out our dew-wet tents to dry, munched on snacks, and waited for our friends to return after having made the wrong turn. And we waited. And we waited. 

Looking at our maps, we concluded that those who missed the obscure turn elected not to make the climb back up the mountain and, instead, took a gravel road at the base as a detour. Or, Emily was in over her head and the others needed to tend to her. I slapped myself for letting a non-VMOer on this trip! Without a cell phone signal, and no better option, Mr. Woo and I pressed onward. 

Around 1:00 p.m. I caught a cell signal and sent out messages and calls to everyone. No one responded—except Emily. Happily, she was ok and on nearby Hankey Mountain, ahead of us. She said she passed Willy Wonka and Bryan (Wolverine) a while back and did not know if anyone was in front of her. She had made the complicated turn I thought everyone had missed. Learning all this, Mr. Woo and I stared at each other confused. Willy Wonka is an exceptionally strong hiker. And, Wolverine? One can easily pass him only if he takes a wrong turn (which he typically saves for Sundays when everyone is waiting for him so we can go home). However, this was Saturday! Emily didn’t really pass Wolverine. Satisfied she was ok, but very confused, Mr. Woo and I pressed onward.

Late in the day Mr. Woo and I got separated and I was hiking alone. I put my earbuds on and shamelessly sang along to the world’s best playlist. After a sustained climb I was on a steady descent and let gravity pull me down and my legs ran from under me. It felt good. I felt wild.

At the base, I came across Adrian. Always cheerful, his eyes looked like one who had done enough hiking for the day. I, too, was feeling exhausted. After chatting briefly together, I pressed onward. Soon, I saw Willy Wonka. Per our maps, it appeared that the last water source for the day was nearby and we were attentive so as not to miss it. We spotted a small camping spot with faint trail that seemed to lead to the creek. We discussed the possibility of an easier way to reach the creek further up the trail, but I persuaded him to take advantage of this “sure thing.” What is the point to risk having to double back? With his pack on he disappeared into the woods to get water. I waited behind for Adrian and Mr. Woo to catch up to me.

When the three of us reunited, we started into the woods after Willy Wonka. Upon seeing the creek below a steep cliff, Willy Wonka shouted out to us a warning that it was too steep. He had wildly slid down 30 feet on his descent, thankfully unhurt. He directed us to a bush wacking traverse full of thorns and sharp branches. (We later learned that there was much easier access to the water a few hundred feet up the trail. Ha, ha. Isn’t that funny, Willy?)

After getting and filtering the water we’d need for the remainder of the Saturday hike, for dinner, and the following morning, we hefted our newly heavy packs and gamely began the toughest climb of the hike. 

That climb was a great climb to have done. It was not my favorite at the time, however. It was short, but very, very steep and it was at the end of the day with a newly-heavy pack. My legs were not working well. I had to stop frequently to catch my breath. The weather took a turn on the warm side and I was sweating in my shorts and t-shirt. At the top of the climb was an uneven ridge with a series of mini-climbs that led to our campsite. I’m in good shape, but Saturday’s hike was tough—almost 27 miles (26.56 miles) with 4,283 feet of elevation gain. 

The campsite was extraordinary. It had a full panoramic view of Elliott Knob and the surrounding mountains and valleys. Wolverine, Willy Wonka, Logan, and Emily were already there. Adrian and Mr. Woo were not far behind. We set up out tents in the remaining daylight and made dinner around a campfire no one had energy to start. (Had Karan been with us, it would have been blazing)! Mr. Woo produced a raw egg he had been carrying to put in his ramen. Yes. The man brought a raw egg on a backpacking trip without breaking it. Clearly, he mistook this “Go Wild” trip as a “Go Ballet” trip. However, the egg made him very happy. Heavy D soon arrived at the campsite, approaching the wrong way up the trail. He said he took a detour. We all enjoyed relaxing and laughing around the dark campfire, but went to bed soon after sunset. 

Mr. Woo tossing a raw egg.
Logan and Willy Wonka

I did a proper Tarzan yell at 6:00 a.m. for our final day. Sunday was not a simple stroll to the cars. It was the real deal with a planned 15 mile day. As the day before, most everyone left well before my announced 7:00 a.m. start time. Wolverine did not start early, though. He was frustrated that his food bag was missing. He thought someone grabbed it by mistake and he was concerned about facing a 15 mile hike with no food. Logan, Mr. Woo, and I helped him search the woods for his bag. He found it in his backpack.

Sunday began with a long descent down to Ramsey’s Draft. At the creek, we caught up to all those who started early. This was the last water source of the trip and most of us wanted to take off our shoes to cross. The water was frigid. After an initial shock of pain, my feet felt numb. It was hard to feel the bottom, but it was all rocky with extremely slick rocks. We all made the crossing without falling in the drink. After drying our feet we saddled up as a group and began the assent up toward Hardscrabble Knob. Fully inside the Wilderness, I commented on the delightful sounds of the monkeys. (Ok, I suppose they could have been birds that sounded like monkeys, but I saw neither birds nor monkeys, so I’m sticking with monkeys).

I was following Emily and Willy Wonka up the initial climb. Emily was setting the pace—and it was an intense one. Relieved that I was wrong to doubt her physical abilities, I followed her thinking that she would soon burn out—a typical rookie mistake. She didn’t. Willy Wonka stepped out to take off a layer or two and Emily and I continued up. Our pace was just short of a jog and, naturally, we were making good time. Looking at my map and the time it occurred to me—we were within striking distance of making “10 by 10,” ten miles before 10:00 a.m.! I told Emily this and she stepped up the pace. Looking again at my watch and GPS, I told Emily that we had a half mile to go and our pace was just short of the mark. Without looking back to me or saying a word, she started formally jogging with her backpack bouncing on her back. I followed suit. I shouted out the approaching 10:00 hour and Emily increased the jog to a full sprint. We bagged our 10 by 10!

The peak of Hardscrabble Knob had a nice rock formation as a crown. However, an abandoned, dilapidated log cabin and fallen metal fire tower made the place look unappealing. We took pictures nonetheless.

We descended to Hiner Springs and then down the steep trail to our cars at Camp Todd. On the final descent snow flurries began falling. When catching the sun, they looked like shooting stars. We hiked 15.23 miles with 2,271 elevation gain. 

At the cars, Wolverine arrived. There was a bit of concern when he announced that he had not passed Alexander or Heavy D. This was not possible since he was the last one out of camp that morning. Alexander and Heavy D did make it off the mountain eventually, so I’ll just assume this was a glitch in the Matrix.

When everyone arrived, we drove to Staunton Pizza to domesticate over a victory meal. Adrian savored his craft beers; Willy Wonka and Emily demonstrated their wild eating abilities—with Willy Wonka taking occasional breaks to walk around the block so he could make room to eat more.

All together, this trip was 45 miles with 8,498 of elevation gain. My cold rain fears never materialized. It was a great Spring weekend—overnight lows in the high 30s, daytime temperatures in the 40s to 60s. However, it was among the tougher DCUL trips I have taken. The friendship was wonderful, the weather delightful, and trails beautiful. It was wild!

Congratulations to DCUL’s newest Veteran Member, Emily! She led the pack on Sunday. I never doubted her.


I’ll see you on the trails!

— David O.

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