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Going For a Drive – Skyline Central Section in Shenandoah

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The wind howls, shaking the branches in the trees in the neighborhood. This, combined with the temperature, kills any hopes I had of doing any hiking.

I sigh. There’s been too many weeks of this. I’m tired of winter. I’m tired of snow, and bitter cold. I’m tired of my knuckles bleeding from dry skin. I’m tired of having to wear my hiking boots everywhere.

There’s no use complaining. Complaining isn’t going to make the wind die down. I load up the dog and my pack into the car. I suspected that this was going to happen, so I was prepared to go for a drive.

So, into the car, and out 66 towards Front Royal, and Shenandoah National Park.

I’ve been having pretty back luck with the park as well. Every time I think of coming out here for a drive, Skyline has been closed. Sometimes this has resulted in more interesting drives, sometimes it just annoys. Some of my attempts to go down Skyline have come from times when I couldn’t hike as it was, doubling the frustration. It’s not the fault of the NPS. They’re just trying to keep people safe. Seasonal closures are to be expected.


This day is of course, no different. I roll up to the booth and the ranger informs me that they have someone checking the conditions, it might be a while. I’m welcome to pull over and wait and see.

15 minutes later … The North District is closed for now, but the central part is open. Time is ticking, and I really want to go drive in Shenandoah, so I do the next best thing and I get on US 340, which goes from Front Royal to Luray.

It’s quite a nice drive, actually. It cleaves closely to the course of the Shenandoah River, so you do get some nice views as you go, as well as access to Shenandoah River State Park, which I’ve mentioned before.

I spotted a historical marker on my left, and decided to stop and take a look. It’s a set of markers describing the historical bridge here, as well as the nearby town of Overall, which used to be called Milford, where a number of battles took place during the Civil War, the Valley Campaign of 1864. The battlefield itself is on private property, so other than the markers, there’s no point in me lingering.

Finally, I make it to the central entrance for Skyline, and of course, the North District is open again. I briefly consider heading north, but I’ve driven it before, and even though I’d like to see it again, I’ll settle for the central district.

After getting my passport stamped, I head in and stop at the first rest stop, which is also the trailhead for a short jaunt up to Mary’s Rock if one is so inclined. For about 30 seconds I entertain the notion of going for a quick hike up there, but as my hands start to go numb and my nose gets cold from the biting 20mph wind, I change my mind.

Sadly, this is a theme that repeats itself throughout the drive. I knew it was going to be too cold because of the forecast, but you know, if the opportunity presented itself I’d at least try. It was way too cold to try.

So, I had to be satisfied with seeing the park from the comfort of my warm car, with occasional jaunts outside to take some pictures.

It is fun to drive along and see some of the parts of Skyline that I’ve only seen a few times from crossing it on foot. It showed me a different perspective, and it brought a smile to my face every time I recognized a crossing. Same thing with the overlooks. It was great to see Old Rag again from high up.

It was also nice to finally see Big Meadow, even though the visitors center and campgrounds were all closed, and the wind was still much too cold and bitter. I was able to get out of my car for a little bit, and I ventured out and looked around some. It looked lonely, but I’d love to take a weekend and stay at the lodge, and be able to wander the meadow.

Back in the car and driving along, seeing the snow scudding along the road, swirling and making little snow devils. I see a few deer occasionally and slow down. They have no fear of me or my car whatsoever. They’re almost tame.

I can’t wait for spring to finally get here. I’m tired of the winter.

Eventually I hit the southern entrance of the central district. Part of me wants to keep going, to head a little further. But I was advised that not all of the southern district is open anyway, there were some road hazards. So, homeward I head.

Skyline 02/27/14

Buck Hollow/Mary’s Rock – Shenandoah National Park

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Hike Summary

This hike.

This hike was something.

What kind of something? I am still trying to figure that out. I feel drained. I’m almost too tired to even write. This hike was tiring, interesting, boring, exhilarating, and ultimately exhausting.

I got up at 6AM on Thursday, knowing that this hike would take a while, so I tried to plan ahead to make sure I had the most of the day to get it done in, preferably in the morning before it go too warm. Even though it’s Autumn, we were having an unusual warm spell, and temperatures were almost in the 80s.

I got to the trailhead, and that’s when some of my troubles started. First, my phone GPS wouldn’t lock on. Then, my heart rate monitor stopped sending data (this is a new toy I’d picked up recently) until I realized that putting my phone in Airplane mode is what turned the Bluetooth part off.

Anyhow, once I got all those things fixed, and all my gear adjusted, I was off.

The woods were sort of still wreathed in fog, but it started to burn off as I hiked. Buck Hollow Trail crosses the Thornton river (more of a creek) and follows another intermittent stream on the way, which was gurgling with water, and had a few lovely cascades. Going up was a pretty tough climb, but the views of the autumn foliage were nice, and when I occasionally had to stop to drink or catch my breath, I could hear plenty of forest sounds, like the rattling of woodpeckers, and the arguing of other birds.

Eventually, the trail comes up to Skyline Drive, at the Meadow Spring parking area. From there, the trail continued via the Meadow Spring Trail. This trail was much more crowded, much more than I expected on a weekday, with plenty of hikers making the same (but shorter) trip up to Mary’s Rock.

This was also the first time I got to hike for any significant portion on the Appalachian trail. Granted, it was only really a mile’s worth, but that’s more than I’ve hiked before. I really would love to hike the whole thing someday. After this hike though, it made me realize I have a lot to go before I can tackle such a challenge. I need a lot more strength and endurance.

So, up to the summit of Mary’s Rock I went, and upon arrival, there was a group of Baby Boomer types perched at the top, chatting. I took a break, taking pictures, relaxing, wolfing down another Clif bar. More people started to trickle up to the top, and it wasn’t long before it was almost a traffic jam. My dog was starting to get a little overstimulated from all the people around, so I decided to head back, stopping to take a picture of the old homestead on the way.

Down we went. At Skyline again, I ran across a group of people from (I am guessing by accents) New Jersey who were lost. They wanted to get to Mary’s Rock, so I gave them directions, giving them the map that I’d printed out, since I was on the way back, I didn’t really need it anymore. Hopefully it helped them get there. They were really pleasant people.

The way back down was pretty easy seeming at first, as downhills tend to be. It wasn’t particularly steep, but it seemed like it was taking forever. And then … I came to the rocks and The Stairs. The last mile or so of Buck Ridge Trail, before it joined back to Buck Hollow Trail, was extremely steep on loose rock and gravel. This rock and gravel was not very kind to my already sore feet. The trail builders tried to compensate for the steepness by building steps. These steps are evil. They were shallow with loose gravel, and they were also covered by tons of leaves, making them slippery and very treacherous. I will have nightmares of those stairs. I didn’t take any pictures of the stairs because I was so exhausted by this point (and thirsty, having run low on water, an error I don’t plan on repeating,) that my world just shrank into focusing on shuffling down these stairs, plus the endless sound of crunching leaves.

Eventually, I made it back to the main trail, and then back to my starting point. I almost hugged my car, I was so happy. I had done it. Nine … nay, almost 10 miles in one day. An altitude gain of over 2000 feet. I was, and still am, tired.

I think it will be a while before I do that length/difficulty again. I wanted to see if I could do it, and I know I can, but that it took all of my reserves to do so. I was running on empty by the time I was done.

More Pictures of Buck Hollow/Mary’s Rock Hike

Hopefully I will be able to go on a hike next week, but I am a little worried about the Frankenstorm, AKA the storm currently known as Hurricane Sandy. It is set to hit my area (if the current projections hold) on Wednesday, and there’s the possibility that it might dump snow on me. If that’s the case, I’ll have to think of something interesting to blog about that isn’t an actual hike I’ve been on recently.