Kurt Rheinheimer shows off his new watch along the Crabtree Falls hike.
On all of our hikes over the five and a half years, it's been my habit to gauge the walking pace of The Greatest Day Hiker Of Them All early on and then project an arrival time at our lunch destination. It's a minor part of the enjoyment of a walk, and even though time in the woods is truly time away from time, it is good to know, say, when the length of your trek out may put you in collision with darkness on the way back. On this particular Saturday morning, on the way out of town for four days of hikes, time upon my wrist had come to a dead-battery halt. And with the new-battery jewelry store not opening till 11 a.m. and time to be made on the road, I walked on in to the nearby Dollar Store and picked me out a fine-looking, big-number, plastic-band watch, handed over my dollar and five cents and we were off, pretty much on time.
Saturday's walk began on the Crabtree Falls Trail along Va. 56 in Nelson County, the lower parts of which were crowded on this pretty afternoon. But beyond the upper falls, we crossed only a few people coming down the from the forest road access to the falls, and beyond that parking lot, along the road and then up the Appalachian Trail to the top of The Priest, we had the pathways pretty much to ourselves, except for an old dog who walked ahead of a ways on the forest road, glancing back now and again as if to see if we were keeping up. Then he walked with us on the AT to the side trail to the Priest Shelter, just shy of the summit. Here, he turned off onto the blue-blazed trail, as if by plan, as if he'd just joined us for the company on the way up for his overnight at the shelter.
At the rocks on the massif, one couple was already spread out for lunch, and another came up during out stay. The views here – of the Peaks of Otter to the south and Three Ridges to the north – fully justify the long, steady climb of some 2,000 feet onto one of the highest mountains in this part of Virginia. And the way back is one of the most sustainedly gentle ways down of any, with neither those pesky little upward interruptions nor any knee-tiring steep spots. (10 miles.)
After Crabtree, we drove on to Big Meadows Lodge, in plenty of time for dinner and sunset in the dining room. The Day Hiker, who suggested this trip, admitted readily that prime among her motivations for doing so was the food at the lodge, which we've enjoyed in the past. And while we could never quite put a finger to specifics, we found ourselves somewhat disappointed with the Aramark fare this time. The service is still impeccable, the presentation good and the menu enticing; but somehow the food seems to have slipped from near-gourmet to just-above-roadhouse. Flavors are just not as sharp as they used to be, the cooking not as precise. Breakfast remains a great treat.
Sunday's walk began with a little exclamation point about walking in Shenandoah National Park: from both Skyland and Big Meadows, you can open your door, step outside and choose from any number of great loop and out-and-back hikes, many including the Appalachian Trail as it winds its way along and across the Skyline Drive. From Big Meadows Lodge, you can be on the AT in a matter of steps. We headed out southward, detoured down to Lewis Falls Trail since we'd never seen it (jaded though we may be after visiting falls in Oregon last summer, we agreed the steep, .6-mile trail down to the falls is marginal in the worth-it department), and continued on to the intersection with the Mill Prong Trail, which leads down to Camp Rapidan, the retreat built by President Hoover in the late '20s and early '30s as a getaway. We'd never been inside the main building before, and the guided tour was a great little lesson in how drastically accommodations have changed over the 80 years since the days of no air conditioning, of hard, rudimentary furniture and beds and a sort of dark, low-slung feel to a place for a president. Our guide noted that Franklin Roosevelt, unable to visit Rapidan because of his wheelchair, built Shangri-La as his getaway (renamed Camp David by President Eisenhower), and Rapidan fell into disuse and neglect. It has received a presidential visit, over the years since, only from Jimmy Carter. We ate lunch along Rapidan Creek, where presidential visitors used to fish for trout.
On the way back up toward Big Meadows, on the steep horse trail where I was of course many paces behind, Gail turned suddenly and pointed off into the woods, where the momma bear and her two cubs had already scurried away before I saw them. My consolation came up on the forest road that leads out into the big meadow, when one cub bounded across the road perhaps 80 feet in front of us.
(Total: 12.8 miles, including the Story of the Forest Trail at Big Meadows.)
Monday took us to one of the classic loops of the Shenandoah: down the Cedar Run Trail and back up Whiteoak Canyon [pdf of trail map here]. This 10.2-mile loop, beginning at Hawksbill Gap Overlook on Skyline Drive, also includes a piece of the Limberlost Trail (now without the hemlocks that used to define it) as well as the Crescent Rock Trail and a short section of the AT.
Cedar Run descends steeply into deep forest, very quickly providing a feeling of being far away and alone. The stream itself parallels Whiteoak Run but with less spectacular falls. It's a fine trail nonetheless, with multiple rock steps and two crossings at pretty points in the stream. The intersection with the Whiteoak Trail provides a respite from the down you've done and the up you're about to do, with a nice stream-side walk along the gentle part of Whiteoak Run.
The ascent is steep and grueling, with a few switchbacks at the start and lots of straight-up climbs. But the series of falls is surely among the top few in the state. At the lowermost, several generations of a family played in the pool and slid on the rocks. At the upper falls were far fewer people, and we ate on a big rock at the base of the uppermost of the set.
The trail becomes more gentle soon after the last falls, and along the connecting Limberlost and Crescent Rock trails, the walking is fairly level as you parallel the Skyline Drive a ways above. The last stretch is along the Appalachian Trail as it goes along the drive closely enough to hear the cars. (10.2 miles.)
On Tuesday, our primary goal was to get to Charlottesville for a Jackson Browne concert in the evening. But The Day Hiker suggested a short morning walk: Hawksbill [pdf of trail map here] is the highest peak in the park at just above 4,000 feet, and an easy, 3.2-mile loop can be made using the two trails up and a mile or so of the Big Meadows-to-Skyland Horse Trail parallel to the drive. The highlight is of course the peak with its views in every direction. The rest of our walking day was carried out in Charlotteville, with a trek to the campus and several out-and-backs on the pedestrian mall. Jackson Browne and his band, with 7:00 pm on the tickets, came out at precisely 7:00 pm and played as precisely as their start time, with one short break and a cool finish with "The Load Out/Stay." We sat next to a fella about our age and talked a little hiking; he said he's done the highest point in 49 of the 50 states and says there's no way he's doing Alaska.