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A Walk in the Woods

  

To a large extent, walking in the woods is what this park and this guide are about. Walking is a pleasure, physically and emotionally. Walking is your means of access to the 300 square miles of Shenandoah National Park that you can't get to by car.

The hikes described in this guide will take you on several kinds of trails:


Appalachian Trail Sign
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown 

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail (referred to as the Appalachian Trail, or just AT in this guide) extends for 2,160 miles, from Mt. Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia. In 1921, conservationist Benton MacKaye proposed the concept of the Appalachian Trail. Work began in 1922 and by 1937, the trail was complete. The trail traverses 14 states. Elevations range from 6,642 feet at Clingmans Dome in Great Smokey Mountain National Park to near sea level when crossing the Hudson River in New York. For information on the trail as a whole, see the pamphlet called The Appalachian Trail, Publication No. 5, issued by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, P.O. Box 807, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425. About 101 miles of the AT are within the park, where it more or less parallels Skyline Drive. The trail is marked with white blazes; it is graded, fairly smooth in most places, and rarely very steep.

Horse Trails are marked with yellow blazes. You're free to use them, with or without a horse. But remember that horses have the right of way. If you meet a horse, or are overtaken by one, please step aside and stand to the downhill side of the trail and stand quietly until it passes.

Blue-blazed Trails include all the rest of the designated trails. Condition of the blue-blazed trails varies. Most are clear and smooth; but some are steep, and some are rough and rocky. The descriptions of recommended hikes in this guide tell you about the specifics of each hike including which ones are steep or rough.

Fire Roads. This term is used rather loosely to refer to any unpaved road in the park, including what the park calls fire roads, administrative roads, and service roads. Most of these begin at the edge of Skyline Drive, and are blocked by a chain to keep out unauthorized vehicles. Many of the fire roads are also designated horse trails, and are therefore marked by yellow blazes. You may hike on any of the fire roads.

On the maps in this book, unpaved roads are shown with a line of dashes, and foot trails with a line of dots. There's room for some confusion here. Where unpaved roads enter a wilderness area, they have been blocked with boulders to keep out all vehicles, and they have been reclassified as trails and have become trails. In a few cases, trails are marked with blazes of two different colors. This shows that two different trails are using the same route; they will later diverge. For example, north of Compton Gap, the AT coincides with a fire road open to horses for nearly two miles, and the route has both white and yellow blazes.

Note: red or red-orange blazes mark the park boundary - not a trail.

 

  Shelters, Cabins, and Huts

The shelters are open-faced structures with a table, fireplace, pit toilet, and spring. They once had bunks for long-distance hikers. But more and more people camped in the shelters, or beside them. The environmental impact was severe, so the bunks were removed. You may not spend the night in a shelter, or within sight of one, unless a severe storm makes it unsafe to camp elsewhere.


Pass Mountain Hut
Photo taken by Charlie Johnson 

A few of the former shelters have been removed in wilderness areas; others elsewhere have been reclassified as Huts or Maintenance Buildings (see below). The five remaining shelters are: Byrds Nest Shelter No. 4, (mile 28.5); Byrds Nest Shelter No. 3, (mile 33.9); Old Rag Shelter (at the foot of Old Rag Mountain); Byrds Nest Shelter No. 1 (on the saddle of Old Rag Mountain); and Byrds Nest Shelter No. 2, (mile 45.6).

The cabins are log or rock masonry structures built or restored by PATC. They have a table and fireplace, bunks for up to twelve people, a spring, and a pit toilet. Both cabin and toilet are locked. If you're hiking near an unoccupied cabin, feel free to look it over. If the cabin is in use, please respect the occupant's privacy and keep your distance. To rent a cabin yourself, get advance reservations by contacting PATC, Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, 118 Park Street, S.E., Vienna, VA, 22180-4609.

Five locked cabins are close to the Drive: Rangeview Cabin, (mile 22.1); Corbin Cabin, (mile 37.9); Rock Spring Cabin, (mile 48.1); Pocosin Cabin, (mile 59.5); and Doyle River Cabin, (mile 81.1).

Seven of the former shelters have been reclassified as Appalachian Trail Huts. These have been provided with bunks, and are intended only for overnight camping by long-distance hikers on the AT. The seven huts are: Gravel Springs AT Hut, (mile 17.6); Pass Mountain AT Hut, (mile 31.6); Rock Spring AT Hut, (mile 48.1); Bearfence AT Hut, (mile 56.8); Hightop AT Hut, (mile 68.6); Pinefield AT Hut, (mile 75.2); and Blackrock AT Hut, (mile 87.2). Please respect the use limitations on these huts. All those associated with Shenandoah National Park in an official capacity try hard to be welcoming hosts to AT through and long distance hikers. Your cooperation is encouraged.

Three of the former shelters are now PATC Maintenance Buildings, which are used for tool storage, and sometimes provide overnight shelter for trail workers. The three maintenance buildings are: Indian Run, (mile 10.4); South River, (mile 63.1); and Ivy Creek, (mile 79.4).

 

  Suggestions for Hikers

The short and easy hikes still require preparation, water, adequate clothing and a map. For the longer ones, planning ahead is essential, will increase your enjoyment, and may save you some inconvenience or discomfort.


A Mature Whitetail Buck
Photo taken by Sean Bordner

Most hikes start near the Drive; they take you down into a hollow and back again. Some of the downhill trails are deceptive, in that you can quickly descend a thousand feet without realizing it. Then, when you turn around and start back, comes the unpleasant surprise. You should know, first, your own strength and capabilities; and second, what you're getting into. In the following catalog of recommended hikes, the distance, climb, and difficulty figures tell you what you're getting into. If you don't know your own capabilities, test them by taking a few short, easy hikes first. Be particularly aware as you consider the popular waterfall hikes. They all involve rather steep descents and in most cases a somewhat arduous climb back.

The "time required" figure in the hike list which follows doesn't include time for lunch, a nap, or bird watching. You may want to revise your time estimate to include these things.

Plan to get back well before dark. On June 21, it's dark at nine o'clock, daylight time. On December 21 it's dark at five, standard time. Do not cut it close. Allow time for the unexpected. While hiking with a group, you must set your schedule according to the abilities of the least experienced member.

Many of the trails have rough stretches where you walk on rocks that vary in size from smaller than your fist to bigger than a basketball. With thin-soled shoes, the small rocks hurt your feet; with any low shoes, walking on rocks is tiring. Sturdy hiking boots that cover your ankles are the best solution to both problems. The boots should be well broken in. If you hike with new ones, be sure to carry products for the early treatment of blisters, such as molefoam or moleskin. When a boot begins to rub, stop at once. Don't wait for a blister to develop.

For longer hikes, a daypack is essential. Hikes start on the ridge top, where it's relatively cool. As you descend, and as you exercise, you'll feel warmer and begin to shed sweaters and jackets. You'll need a daypack to put them in. And in the bottom of the daypack should be extra clothing to take care of a sudden drop in temperature, or an unexpected rain, or even a night in the woods.

Take a hat. It does a lot to keep you warm if the temperature drops unexpectedly. When the weather is hot, a sun-stopping hat helps keep you cool. Gnats and small flies, buzzing around your face, can sometimes be a nuisance. A broad-brimmed hat helps keep them away from your eyes and out of your ears.

Use a bug repellant. In late spring, summer and early fall, plan for bugs. There are many commercial products containing DEET that totally or near totally eliminate the gnat problem. They also protect from the more serious mosquitoes and ticks that can carry disease. Apply bug repellant to all clothing, including footwear, according to the product label. When you finish your hike, check for ticks. Parents should check children closely. If a tick has attached itself to skin, grab it with fine pointed tweezers and remove. Wash the area thoroughly with soap and water. Only rarely does part of the tick remain in the skin. If this happens seek medical attention. For the tick to transmit Lyme disease, it must be attached for 12 to 36 hours. That is why body inspection is most important. Signs of infection include a distinctive rash--often in the form of a bull's eye--and flu like symptoms such as a fever, headache, a stiff neck, muscle aches and or fatigue. If you follow this advice your chances of getting infected are slim. Lastly, if you are hiking with a dog, it helps to apply repellant to the dog's fur and to check the dog thoroughly for ticks when you leave the trail. Dogs, as furry animals, are much more likely to pick up ticks than humans.


Old Rag Trail Access Road
Photo taken by Dave Herman
 
Carry rain gear. Plastic pants, jacket, and hood are light and take up little space. Standing under a tree won't keep you dry, and it can be dangerous in a thunderstorm. With all the cliffs and ledges beside the trail, you would think there would be overhanging rocks where you could find shelter from the rain. In reality, there is only about one such rock overhang for every ten miles of trail. In summer, raingear can save you some discomfort. In cooler weather it can save your life.

At any temperature below 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), if your clothes get wet and the wind blows, you're in serious danger of hypothermia. That's a condition in which your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. The only remedy is to quickly get into a warm place and out of those wet clothes. On a long hike, that's impossible. But preventing hypothermia, by using the extra sweater and rain gear in your knapsack, is easy. Take special precautions if you hike in early spring, late fall or winter and your hike involves stream crossings. Do not start out unless you know the conditions of the crossings and are equipped to handle them. Special precautions are noted on some of the hikes, but be prepared any time a stream crossing is involved.

Besides food, water, extra clothing, and raingear, here are a few other things that you might want to tuck into your daypack:

A first aid kit with antiseptics, adhesive bandages, and adhesive tape to prevent blisters, along with scissors to cut it with.

A knife.

Matches, in a waterproof container. (As you know, you're not permitted to build a fire in the park, except in park constructed fireplaces. But in a true emergency, when you must have a fire to keep from freezing, the rules are waived.) You may some day need to start a fire in the rain with wet wood. Camping stores sell a flammable gel that makes fire starting easier.

A headlamp or flashlight, with fresh batteries.

Map and compass. For most of the hikes described in this book, the maps in the book are all you'll need although contour maps prepared by PATC with many trails identified are strongly recommended. For those hikes labeled "for experienced hikers only" or for longer hikes, a compass and a PATC map are essential. Of course you should practice reading the map and using the compass before you start exploring. The PATC maps are available at the visitor centers and at most area outfitters. They are also available on-line from SNPA or PATC.

Note on Maps. Google Maps shows the major trails in the park. You have to zoom in relatively close and then select "Satellite" view. By selecting "Terrain" view, you can see the contours that the trail follows. While the accuracy of these maps hasn't been verified, they may be a useful complement to the maps in this guide for hike planning.

Drinking water. Take it with you in a canteen or plastic bottle. The springs and streams should not be used for drinking. If you must drink water from a spring or stream, boil it first for at least 15 minutes to eliminate waterborne pathogens, bacteria, viruses and cysts. Alternatively, treat it chemically with iodine or chlorine, using commercially available kits, most of which also have filters.

 

  Don't Get Lost!

A Typical Trail Marker Post
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

Because the park is so narrow, you will never be more than a few miles from either Skyline Drive or an inhabited area outside the park. Stay on the main trails, and follow the directions in this guide, read all the bands on the trail marker posts, and you will find it hard to get lost for long. Always note the position of the sun or use a compass if the weather is cloudy. The most common reason for getting lost is taking the wrong direction at a trail junction.

Now suppose you've lost the compass, or for some other reason can't get back to the trail, and darkness is coming on. Then prepare to spend the night as comfortably as you can. You'll have a better chance of survival than if you hurry along until you're exhausted, and then spend the night. If someone knows you are overdue, and if the weather is such that spending the night in the woods might be dangerous, then wait for the search party to find you. It will come, sooner or later.

If you do get lost, when all else fails, there is one last resort. If you started at the Drive and walked downhill, then you'll find the Drive again by walking uphill. Or, if you walk downhill, preferably following a stream, you will eventually come to civilization. That's enough advice for summer hikers. Winter hiking is a separate subject, taken up a little later.

In recent years there has been an increase in the use of cell phones and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) by park visitors. Experience has shown that they should be regarded as possible secondary aids, but you should always come with guides, maps and careful pre-hike planning. Cell phones do not work in many areas of the park, particularly at lower elevations and in hollows. Similarly, GPS systems often cannot access the multiple satellites needed to provide accurate location and elevation information.

 

  Backpacking

Camping in the backcountry, carrying your own food and shelter, is a rewarding experience. Doing it successfully is a complicated art. Before you buy your equipment, get some expert advice - preferably from a friend who is an experienced backpacker. It also helps to read up on the subject. There are a number of stores that specialize in outdoor activities. Many of the salespeople are experienced hikers. After you buy your outfit, test it thoroughly by camping in your back yard, or in a campground, before you start out into the wilderness.

The park's sales outlets have a number of books on hiking and you can also purchase them through the Sheanandoah National Park Association. The park web site also has information on backcountry camping.

   
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