I had a couple good days of hiking this past weekend out in Shenandoah National Park. 35 miles on Saturday and 38 on Sunday. Not huge days but were solid training back out in the mountains. It was the first great weekend of spring and it was wonderful seeing so many other people enjoying the beautiful weather after several lonely hikes this winter.
You can check out the GPS files for each day here and here. I’ve tried keeping a good training log to track my progress and for transparency but it’s been harder than I anticipated. At least these two files give some idea of what pace I hit, how long my breaks are, and where and when I may need to adjust my pace and mileage.
On Saturday I woke up at 5am and made the two-hour drive from Richmond to the Old Rag parking lot. I was out on the trails by 8am and on the summit of Old Rag a little over an hour later. It was the first time I had climbed that mountain in over 10 years and I was amazed at how much fun it is. The rock scrambles slowed me down and set me behind early on but I was having so much damn fun I stopped worrying so much about hitting the miles.
I descended down the backside of the mountain and then quickly began the climb up to the Appalachian Trail and Skyline Drive. The AT in Shenandoah is arguably the most well-maintained extended section of the entire 2180 mile long trail. With that said though, it is super easy hiking that hardly reflects the trail that I am going to hike this summer. So usually on these day hikes I try to hike on the AT as little as possible and instead opt for the blue blazes jutting off the AT to get some gnarlier trails and more elevation gain.
Saturday was mostly uneventful hiking and I made it back to my car around dusk. I drove over the mountains to Luray and destroyed a milkshake and some onion rings before heading back to camp in my car at the trailhead parking lot.
On Sunday I didn’t get as good of climbs in and instead got stuck on the AT for longer while I was trying to get out for a short section on the Tuscarora Trail. I recently read about Sean Andrish’s Tuscarora Trail record and wanted to step foot on the trail myself. He mentioned how brutal it was and while I knew a few miles couldn’t be fully representative of the whole trail, I thought at least I’d get a taste. The descent started off gradual and had an incredible waterfall toward the top.
I saw dozens of other day hikers and thought the trail was pretty tame. It quickly became apparent though that the well maintained trail was just for the day hikers to check out the waterfall. As soon as I passed that attraction, the other hikers disappeared and the trail dropped steeply via a rock and dirt slide down into the valley. For the first time that weekend my pace dramatically slowed on a descent. If the entire 255 miles of the Tuscarora Trail is anything like those first few miles, Sean’s 89 hour record is absolutely insane.
I draw out my routes for these hikers with about as much rhyme or reason as a toddler with a crayon. I open up my map of the park, usually in some hurried state the night before I head out, find some trails that loop together, pick a parking lot somewhere convenient along the loop, and hope the mileage is something between 35-45 miles. Usually I’m pretty good at winging the distances but I have had to cut off sections and add-on loops to get me back around dusk. The major problem though is that some of the trails I pick are gnarly horse trails that seemingly haven’t been hiked in months. Late in the day on Sunday, beginning my ascent up from the west side of Shenandoah, I started up a trail covered in knee-deep leaves. I stumbled through, tripping over every unseen rock for the four miles back to the top.
Having had a late start Sunday morning and relegated to a crawling pace late in the day, I watched the sun set when I still had several hours left to hike. I was up on the ridge and it was absolutely beautiful. The stars came out quickly and with no moon, I was treated to an incredible starry sky. For as often as I do it, solo night hiking is still an incredibly disorienting activity. For years it was the most despised part of my adventures but no matter how well I planned, I nearly always ended up out past dark. In the last couple years I have lost my fear of it but still am not completely comfortable alone in the darkness. Any hiker alone in the woods in the dark is practically guaranteed to hear voices. And while they sound like they are just up the trail while you’re hiking, they completely disappear when you stop, leaving you with the eerie feeling that someone doesn’t want you to hear them.
Well after sunset I was stoked to find the trailhead that would take me back down to my car. But despite clear marking I still doubted I had made the right decision. Choosing the wrong trail down to the valley would have been a detour of several hours and would have put me out into the early morning. Considering I had class the following day I couldn’t have been more elated when I saw a sign denoting .6 miles to the road. Out on the road I still had a mile jog to the car which I can’t imagine how a runner on a highway in the middle of nowhere late at night appeared to any of the cars that drove by me. I was thrilled to be back at my car but earlier in the day I had remembered I had an assignment due by midnight so I had to race off to get wi-fi in the nearest town.