Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
This week's sojourn took me to the grandaddy of all the eastern U.S. hikes, the Appalachian Scenic Trail. This trail, known colloquially as "the A.T." stretches some 2,200 miles from Mount Katahdin in central Maine to Georgia's Springer Mountain in the north-central part of that state. It started as an idea borne by a forester named Brenton MacKaye in 1921 and publicized by Raymond H. Torrey in the New York Evening Post. The states along the intended route came onboard and one of the early trail activists, Myron Avery, was the first to "section hike" the trail (doing the entire length in sections, rather than one long hike) in 1936. The first documented "thru-hike" (doing the trail in one continuous hike) was in 1948 by Earl Shaffer of York, PA. Shaffer thru-hiked the trail in both directions, becoming the first to accomplish that feat. By 1971, the trail's course was permanently established. There is an international Appalachian trail that continues for an additional 1,900 miles into New Brunswick in Canada, although this leg is not officially considered part of the AT.
Every year, hundreds start the long walk in Georgia in early March and April, usually finishing the trail in Maine by August and September. The trail was created to be hiked, and as such has shelters along the trail spaced at a day's hiking distance, usually 15 to 20 miles.
Virginia's part of the AT is about 550 miles long, running from Harper's Ferry to Damascus. You can access the trail at a number of locations, although convenient places to park your car are a bit difficult to come by.
I ordered two section maps covering northern and central Virginia from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and after perusing both, I identified two places where I could climb aboard. One is just off Virginia 7 and Blue Ridge Mountain Road near Bluemont, and the other at the south end of that road, just off of US50 as it passes through Ashby Gap, choosing the latter to start my hike today. After a late start, spending some wonderful hours with my grandson while his Mom ran some errands, I headed west on US50 towards Ashby Gap. This is one of my regular motorcycle runs, so I anticipated little trouble in locating the parking area off Blue Ridge Mountain Road
Although marked clearly on the trail map, the access road ("road" being a highly subjective term here) is hard to locate. It initially looks like a gravel path. Looking closer, there is a teeeeeny-tiny sign that announces "Trailhead Parking." Blue Ridge Mountain Road does have traffic and turning onto this gravel path requires a bit of courage, especially when your wheels hit the top edge and you realize that you can't see the road at all, hidden by a sudden slope and the hood of your vehicle. Once parked safely, I found the access trail leading steeply down to where it intersected the main trail. At the intersection, I turned right and headed north.
Looking through the spring foliage.
Understand that these comments are impressions gained through the eyes of a novice hiker, so keep that in mind when I say the first half-mile or so was challenging. The way was steep and liberally covered with rocks. After that initial gauntlet, the way became less rocky, my feet welcoming the soft, springy feel of the turf beneath them. There are a few level stretches, but most of the section I hiked today was quite steep. I kept reminding myself to pick up my feet, to avoid tripping, but I still managed to catch the toes of my boots on more than one occasion. It was a gorgeous day, the sky an unmarred dome of blue, temperatures in the upper 60's, and despite my abundance of caution, it was still a great feeling to be out on the trail. Spring is at it's height, and while the flowering trees are largely done for the year, the wildflowers are still adding their color to the landscape.
I passed one of the shelters, this one a cabin.
I made pretty good time (for me), averaging a mile every thirty minutes. For once, I kept my iPod in the trail bag and allowed my senses to be filled by the sounds of birds. I got to my turn-around point (2 miles) in about an hour, which turned out to be one of the streams that have carved out the numerous hollows among the steep hills.
And took time for the obligatory selfie...
Smile's for real. It was a great day.
The route back went a bit quicker, as I was now more familiar with the terrain. Even though I was retracing my steps, there was still a lot to be seen by a discerning eye.
A different kind of history book.
I found the access trail back to the parking lot, although the way up was very steep. Once there, I sat on the tailgate of my Highlander and sucked the rest of the water out of my Camelbak. Driving out of the parking area was a lot easier than going in, although there was a surprising amount of traffic. Must have been shift change at Mt. Weather.
I spent some time trying to locate the place where the trail crosses US50 to no avail. I was hoping that there might be a place south of the highway to park so I could do the stretch of the AT that runs south from there through Sky Meadows State Park and the G. R. Thompson Wildlife Management area. It looks like there are two options, one to park where I did today, the other to go into the state park and hike about 1.7 miles to hit the AT. That is going to have to be a full-day excursion.
Unlike my last hike, I had no need of my first aid supplies which was a good thing. But with the shortened day, I still managed to pound out 4 miles before I had to return home. The weather simply could not have been better, and may go down in the history book of my mind as one of the most "perfect" days ever. In other years, I would have spent such a day putting miles on my motorcycle. But as I'm learning, a hike through the woods and up and down the hills is just as soul-satisfying as a long ride.
And a lot healthier for me.