Copyright © 2015
By Ralph F. Couey
Words and photos
This weeks sojourn took me back to one of my favorite places, the Appalachian Trail south of U.S. 50. This hike, while containing some steep climbs, is one of the easier stretches of this great trail, leaving the hiker with energy and time to take in the wonder. This route goes along the ridge part of Sky Meadows State Park and then into the Thompson Wildlife Preserve. It varies from forest to meadow, and the path is well-marked and not nearly as rocky and rooty as other stretches. It is a pleasure to hike.
There is a small parking area at the foot of Liberty Hill Lane, all but invisible from the highway. For hikers going north, there lies the dangerous crossing of US 50, a four-lane racetrack split by a grassy median, before tackling the infamous "Roller Coaster" heading towards Virginia Route 7.
My route south began with a steep climb out of the parking area, ascending to the top of the ridgeline. As I climbed, I happily saw that the spring wildflowers were still in bloom, including this beauty...
...called a White Trillium, although one of them was distinctly pink. The weather was warm, into the mid-80's, and distinctly humid, a harbinger of the strong storms that would show up later in the afternoon. Also showing off were the numerous dogwood trees in full flower.
The once the initial climb was over, the trail leveled out and widened. Unlike my last foray here in March, the trees were alive with birds, serenading the countryside with their songs. It was on this stretch that I encountered two other hikers, both northbound. One had through-hiked from Georgia, the other was halfway through a week-long backpack trip along the trail. It's always nice to know that you're not ever completely alone.
I popped out of the forest and into the meadows that cover the top of the ridge. There were a couple of natural gas pipeline right-of-ways that gifted a nice view into the valley below.
I saw several deer wandering around, unfortunately camera shy as they bolted as soon as I tried to take their picture. Back into the forest, I passed into Sky Meadows park. Just short of the three-mile mark, I took a rest on that wonderful bench placed at the intersection of the AT with the North Ridge Trail. It was here that last year I had my first of two bear encounters. I sat down and ate a couple of energy bars and drank some water, while keeping my eyes active. Last year, I was sitting here eating a sandwich when, intoxicated by a particularly beautiful day, began to sing. The first few notes resulted in a very loud crashing sound behind me. I leaped to my feet only to see the signs and hear the sounds of the passage of a very large animal, later confirmed as a bear by the park ranger. I think the bear was attracted by the smell of my sandwich and repelled by my singing. I didn't know whether to be pleased or insulted. But there were no bears today. The warmth and humidity of early afternoon had left the forest quiet and perhaps a bit sleepy.
After about 10 minutes, I got up and headed on down the trail, going south until my GPS announced I had passed the three mile mark. I had moved into an area where the heavy growth had closed in on the trail, leaving a rather narrow path to walk.
I got to a fork in the trail, with one path heading further into the forest. The AT is constantly changing, as some parts of the trail are closed for various reasons and new parts opened up. This was one of the old alignments that, rather than following the ridge top, snaked along the side of the hill. This kind of trail is harder to maintain because rain, snow, wind, and just general natural erosion can bring soil, rocks, and downed trees across the path.
It was slightly more difficult, but a gentler slope, and a part of the trail I'd never hiked before. I enjoyed it thoroughly, even though I could see by the many repaired washouts why the trail had been relocated.
Eventually I rejoined the main trail and after a careful descent, returned to the parking area. I had gone, according to the GPS, just under 6.4 miles, a healthy day hike, and a wonderful way to spend a spring day.
Today was also the test run for a new set of clothes. I bought a pair of pants and a shirt made of a light, but rugged woven nylon. The pants, from Rail Riders, were treated with Insect Shield, a substance reputed to keep at bay all those pesky insects. The shirt came from Sierra Trading Post, and I had to treat that one myself, using a spay bottle of Permethrin purchased from Walmart. Both passed the bug test with flying colors. It was a buggy day, but they kept clear of me, except for a persistent cloud of gnats that circled my head for most of the hike. I forgot to treat my hat. Anyway, I had taken with me a hooded net from L.L. Bean which was designed to fit over the hat, and which was also treated. But the bugs never got bothersome enough to need it, although I can readily see a secondary use, keeping the spider webs off my face.
The lightweight fabric also did a terrific job of wicking the abundant sweat away from my skin, and while synthetics you think would be like wearing a baggie, I was actually very comfortable. Unlike cotton material, the moisture evaporates quickly from the fabric and thus doesn't get heavy during the day. As gross as this might sound, it was almost like hiking naked.
A nice day, a great hike, and a great way to start the week.