St. Mary's Wilderness along the river to the falls and on the St. Mary's Trail to the Mine Bank Creek Trail and back. 8.4 miles.
St. Mary's shares with Dolly Sods, Ramseys Draft and many other Virginia/West Virginia designated Wilderness areas the prominent, central feature of a narrow river gorge prone to flooding, and all of the rearranging of the surrounding area brought on by by the occasional too much water at one time. The sign at the trailhead for St. Mary's talks about Hurricane Isabelle having moved things around a bit back in 2003 and that those effects remain. Combine that with the lack of blazes on trails in Wilderness areas, and you have a walk where you get to pretend a little that you're really out in the wild. The trail along the river does get faint or seem to go in several directions at some points, a situation that creates uncertainty about where or if you need to cross the St. Mary's River, which on this day was apparently a bit lower than usual; some of the guidebooks talk about having to wade across several times, and we never did.
We did, however, at just about the same moment but at different crossing spots on our first rock-hop, both stick a shoe into the water, and both protested to the other about the total lack of necessity of it all. I had made my most difficult step when my pack hit a limb, throwing me off to the side a little and into the drink halfway up one shin. The Day Hiker didn't go in as far, but soaked a shoe when she also got a little overconfident and took her eye off the rocks for a second.
Nonetheless, the river hopping was fun, as was keeping up with the trail till we got to the falls which, while not spectacular, are a pleasing little sight at an equally pleasing site. Back down from that half-mile spur, we got back on the main trail and ascended gently through pretty forest and past several old mining sites and their slag mounds to the intersection of the St. Mary's Trail and the Mine Bank Creek Trail. With an open spot and good sun, we spread out lunch, shared a fresh pair of socks, set single shoes in the sun to dry a little and ate.
On a day forecast to get into the 50s, the air felt like it remained in the 30s even in the sunshine, and The Greatest Day Hiker Of Them All added to her reputation as a result, with an all-out assault on the trail back down – just to get warm, of course. No, we did not repeat the half-mile spur to the falls on the way down, but even with the rock hops and the slow, narrow and rocky spots on the trail, she had us back down in half the time it took us to get up.
Another reason for the hurry down was to get on to Harrisonburg, where we needed to find a room, get a shower and make our way to Clementine's in time to get a table for dinner and the ensuing live music from the incomparable, ever-touring, hardest-working man in the Americana music biz, Fred Eaglesmith, who is, by the way, Canadian. He'd been in Greenville, S.C. the night before, in Nags Head the previous night and Asheville the night before that. His hard-drivin', hard-travelin' four-piece band knocked out many of the Fred classics, including The Day Hiker's requested favorite, "Spookin' The Horses," and mine too – "Water in the Fuel." The star told his usual share of awful jokes as well, including this one:
It's late at night – like 10:30 – and a guy walks into a dentist's office and tells the dentist he's got a problem.
"Well, what is it?" the dentist asks.
"Well, I feel like I'm a moth," the guy says.
"You feel like a moth?" the dentist says. "You need a psychiatrist, not a dentist. Why in the world would you come in here?"
"Well," the guy says, "your light was on."