Chasing More Waterfalls

The target for last Saturday’s hike was a loop including both the White Oak Canyon Trail and the Ceder Run Trail. The trail was said to be difficult, but very beautiful because of its numerous waterfalls. We would be climbing from the base of the mountain ridge all the way up to the Skyline Drive – the road which runs along the ridge of the Appalachian mountains in the Shenandoah National Park.

I would be the first to admit that I was a little nervous at first about this hike. This was the first time in a long while that I was tackling a challenge like this. But I also had reason to feel some level of confidence. I believe I have successfully built up the relevant muscles, and my stamina, with my exercise routines and other activity over the years. This mountain was not about to stop me!

It was a long drive to get to the trail head. At some point during the drive we had to leave the bigger roads and drive on smaller country roads. We passed through farm lands and small villages. We even passed through the village of Syria close to trail head. The trail head was on private property just outside of the park boundary. The parking area was bigger than the one for the trail head we had visited the previous week. And they also had porta-potties in the parking area this time. I had to visit one immediately on arrival. The coffee that I had along with my breakfast during the drive had done its deed!

There were already many cars in the parking lot by the time we arrived. There was a somewhat large group of people who were getting prepared to hike. The backs of a few of the vehicles in the parking lot were open and people were putting on their hiking gear. This was serious stuff! It looked like people knew what they were doing. And so did the two youngsters with me.

We brought out an additional pair of hiking poles from the car to carry with us this time. I had also sprayed Scotchgard to my hiking boots prior to the trip to prevent them from getting wet if they should go into the water. It actually worked! We also carried a pair of flip-flops just in case one had to walk in the water itself. We ended up not having to use them.

It was 34°F when we departed the car. We were appropriately dressed, perhaps better prepared than the previous week. Soon after we entered the park,we came to a point in the trail where we had to decide whether we would tackle the loop that we were hiking in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction. We followed the direction shown on the map that we were using and headed in an anticlockwise direction. We would be going up Whiteoak Canyon Trail first.

The trail took us straight up the canyon. The Robinson River was our companion for this section of the hike. This experience of walking uphill beside water that was flowing downhill was very different from the experience of the previous week. The water flow was more significant, and so were the waterfalls. The trail was also tougher. There were switchbacks, some of which were clustered together in short lengths to allow us to gain height within short distances. We found ourselves climbing from the bottom to the top of big waterfalls all along the way. The trail was wet in parts because of recent rains, and we could also see some water flowing from rocks beside the trail in some sections. Perhaps the pictures below can help tell a story, starting at the bottom of the trail and ending just where we left the river side.

We came to a point in the trail where we had to cross the river over a bridge.We left the Whiteoak Canyon Trail just beyond the bridge and got onto the Whiteoak Canyon Fire Road, the first step in connecting to the Ceder Run Trail in order to complete the loop. It was quite a steep uphill climb on this road,but we were able to pick up speed because of the nature of the surface we were walking on.

At a certain point, we got off the road and onto the Skyland Big Meadows Horse Trail. At this point we were walking parallel to the Skyline Drive which we could see just above us.This trail took us to the start of the Ceder Run Trail. We stopped at the intersection of the trails for lunch.It was a very short walk from there up to the parking lot on the Skyline Drive that was nearby.I wanted to check out the wayside display there.This parking lot also provided access to one of the trails to the Hawksbill Mountain viewing point, a place we had hiked to during our visit to the park last year. Hawksbill Mountain is the highest peak in the park.

Lunch did not take long, but we cooled down significantly during that short period of time. My fingers started to freeze, and I was not able to get over the numbness until a few miles further into the walk. I was also consuming more food during this walk when compared to our previous outing. We had expended more effort with the climb during this first half of the hike compared to last week. The elevation profile shown on the map page of the website linked to at the beginning of this blog tells it all.

It was going to be all downhill from this point onward. I started using the hiking poles. I had used them the previous week to cross a stream after my first experience of getting my shoes wet, but this was the first time in my life I was using them for regular walking (if you can call it that!). What a difference in experience! It almost felt like I was cheating. The poles provided so much additional stability. I could confidently step down over the uneven rocks on the trail without fear of losing my balance. I am now a convert, and I now understand why all the experienced hikers use the poles.

Ceder Run Trail was a very different experience for me from Whiteoak Canyon trail. The trail was generally steeper and rougher, and I had to exercise extreme caution. Going downhill is generally more challenging for me. It took me almost an hour to cover a mile of distance in one of the particularly challenging sections of the trail. The wetness of the trail, the fallen leaves, and the irregularity of the rocks on the trail in certain sections did not help, especially when all of these conditions were encountered all together, at the same time. There were also a couple of crossings of Ceder Run where the stream was flowing swiftly, and where the route across the water over the rocks that we could see appeared to be dicey. The hiking poles made the crossings easy to tackle. And, as a backup, I had the Scotchgard on my shoes! Go Scotchgard!

I must have missed many of the waterfalls on the trail because I had my head down – focusing on the hiking, making sure I would not lose my footing. I had only one stumble! A future hike that will tackle the trails in a clockwise loop is under consideration. But I did not miss all the views. I was being reminded every once in a while to turn back to enjoy what there was to see. Here are the pictures from the hike down Cedar Run Trail.

The water slide on this trail should be very obvious in one of the pictures above. I would be quite scared to do something like this! Apparently this place is a popular spot in summer.

We covered about 9 miles during this hike. It look us slightly less than 6 hours to complete the entire walk. We arrived back at the parking lot at roughly the same time as the group of hikers that we had seen getting ready for their hike in the lot in the morning. They had tackled the trail is the opposite direction as us.

And then it was time to drive back home. We picked up dinner on our way. Once home we settled down to some beer, dinner, and a movie. And then we crashed out. We were quite tired!

The Second Day On the Skyline Drive

We woke up quite late that morning in our tiny home in Stanardsville. The previous day’s activities had worn us out more than usual. It was however still dark outside in the woods, a phenomenon to be expected at this particular time of year in our part of the world. There seemed to be no point in rushing to the park to get an early start for the activities of the day. But, at the same time, there was nothing much to do in the tiny home other than having our breakfast and packing some food for the day. We were on our way to the park sooner than I expected.

Stanardsville was close enough to the park that we were were able to get to our first destination of the day shortly after 9:00am. We were visiting a section of the park in the South River Area, close to the Swift Run Entrance to the park. This was the same place we had exited the park to get to Stanardsville the previous evening.

Once we got back on the Skyline Drive, we headed south towards the Hightop Mountain Parking lot that was close by.

It was still early enough in the morning that there was enough space in the small parking lot for our car. The place also happened to be far away from the more popular sections of the park. Perhaps there were less people that hiked this trail anyway. The goal was to climb Hightop mountain that morning. We would be on the Appalachian trail for the entirety of this walk.

The hike was challenging from the start.The mountainside was all green. In spite of all the green, there were were signs that the leaves were beginning to drop,

In the midst of all of the vegetation, we passed a few random rock formations that appeared unexpectedly beside the trail. It made you wonder how they even got there. The geology of places can be interesting. The Appalachians happen to be an older mountain range (when compared to ranges like the Rockies and the Himalayas). They have been worn down with time.There were touches of yellow on some trees in the higher reaches of the mountain.The view from the viewpoint on Hightop mountain was not exactly what I was expecting to see from my reading of the literature.I had expected something more dramatic and panoramic. We went further along the trail hoping for other viewpoints from the mountain but did not find any. It turns out that a more expansive view might have been possible from the place where we had stopped if I had gotten above the vegetation level to to the right of where we were standing. Perhaps, winter is a better time for such a view.

Hightop mountain is the highest peak in the southern section of the park.

After the hike, we drove further south into the park to the Loft Mountain area, stopping at the Doyles River Parking lot (just beyond Mile 81). Once again, there was enough place to park in the lot itself. After lunch in the car, we headed for the Doyles River Trail to see the waterfalls. The trail marker to the right of the picture below is typical of what you will find in the park.The bands around the top of the post have information about trails that intersect, and about distances to destinations.For a change, instead of heading up a hill after parking the car, we had to hike down a mountain ridge to get to our destination. After all, significant waterfalls are not likely to be found along the tops of the ridges of mountainsides.

The way down was quite steep. We knew that we were in for a challenging time returning to the car.

We had walked just a short distance before we found and took a spur trail up a hillside to the Doyles River Cabin.The Doyles River starts in the vicinity of the cabin, probably as a spring. There is a spring supplying water at the place where the spur trail to the cabin meets up with the main trail to the waterfall.

Much further down the mountain, Browns Gap Fire Road crossed Doyles River and our trail.

The trail also crossed Doyles River just beyond the bridge.

We went all the way down to both the upper falls,and the lower falls.The trail was somewhat difficult in these parts. The waterfalls were also a popular destination, but they were not too crowded.

There were asters blooming everywhere we looked, and all along the trail side.

The climb back to the parking lot from the falls was as difficult as we had anticipated.

We were done with our hiking earlier than I expected. We had been making good time on the trails in spite of the challenges they presented.

We were tired and immediately headed back to Stanardsville. We had to stop at the grocery store in town to buy something that we had forgotten to pack – toothpaste! It had been quite the experience the previous night and in the morning improvising in the absence of toothpaste! Something like this does not happen often.

Getaway had left some goodies in our tiny home when arrived the previous day, including some marshmallows that could be melted over a campfire – to be served as a sandwich with crackers and melted milk chocolate. We could buy firewood and starter material for this purpose from Getaway. (They were stored in the plastic box in the picture below.)We decided to try it out. My attempt at starting a fire was not very successful. We had to settle for one partially melted marshmallow!The wood would not catch fire! One of the logs was smoking a lot, as if it had moisture in it.

We had to abandon our attempt to sit outside beside the campfire for an extended period of time. I was a little upset about the whole experience the rest of the evening.

Dinner that evening was an Italian Wedding soup with turkey meatballs and chicken sausage that Teresa had made at home and brought for the trip. It was delicious and hearty, and went down very well with a couple of beers after the long day in the park. I actually did some reading that evening before going to sleep.

And I was also happy to be able to brush my teeth that night.😊

The First Day on The Skyline Drive

We started our short vacation in the Shenandoah National Park last Sunday.

The Getaway Outpost near the park that we were going to stay at was located closer to its southern end, just outside the village of Stanardsville, VA. My initial thought had been to drive to Stanardsville directly, driving on the main highways in order to get there as quickly as possible. I changed my mind shortly before we started out. We decided to start our explorations of the park on Sunday itself, starting at the northern end of the park. That entrance to the park, just outside of the town of Front Royal, VA, was very easily accessible to us via Interstate-66 – the most direct route to the park from Washington, DC. This was how we usually got into the park. This was also Mile 0 on the Skyline Drive.

I-66 transported us from the crowded suburbs and the unending construction close to the city to the bucolic countryside of Virginia. Soon we were approaching the eastern ridges and the hills and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains.

As we got closer to the park, we could not help but notice that the foliage everywhere was still green.

The Senior Pass that I had just got helped us bypass the longer lines at the entrance to the park. The first order of things was to stop at the Visitor center to decide the places that we wanted to visit within the park. A ranger indulged us with maps and suggestions for places to hike. The places suggested were located all along the park – starting close to the visitor center where we were beginning our visit, and extending to the place that would exit the park to get to Stanardsville (just beyond Mile 65 on the Skyline Drive) at the end of the day.

I could not help but notice that the Dickey Ridge visitor center that we were at was busy, but not overcrowded as it sometimes gets during the autumn season. People from the Indian subcontinent were present in large numbers.

Thankfully, the crowds diminished as we drove further into the park.The first stop was in the Compton Gap Area, just beyond mile 10. We hiked up to Compton Peak West from the Compton Gap Parking area. The parking lot was full but we found some space next to the road.The hike was mainly along the Appalachian trail.

We realized very quickly that this was not going to be like our typical weekend walks along the C&O Canal. The climb started right from the beginning of the trail.

The climbs were significant and persistent.This being the first of our hikes for the week, we had to take more than our usual quota of breaks to catch our breath. I did not think that the altitude was significant enough to be contributing to our troubles.

The Compton peak viewpoint itself was occupied by a group of young people who seemed to have had settled themselves in for the longer run. I had to settle for this picture.You may be able to actually make out the Skyline Drive on the ridge in front of us in the picture above (click on the picture to enlarge it). The roadway itself can be seen in one spot through a gap in the trees. You can see the road better in the zoomed-in picture below.

We did see some yellows on the trail.This being the first day of our visit to the park, we still had hope that we would see more Fall colors.

After the hike, we continued our way south into the park. We stopped at the Elkridge Wayside area and found a picnic bench where we could eat our peanut butter and cranberry marmalade sandwiches.

Along the way, we kept our eyes peeled for signs of seasonal change.

Our next hike was in the Hawksbill area. We took the Upper Hawksbill Trail from a parking lot south of Mile 46. This trail had a shorter climb to the peak than the Lower Hawksbill Trail, but was longer in distance, and also took a longer time. Our choice of trails is a good indication of our mindset when it came to hiking at that stage of our travels. We were conservative in our efforts.

The climb up the Upper Hawksbill Trail was not as challenging as the one we had done in the morning. We did see more signs of early autumn as we made our way through the woods.

The wind was picking up as we hiked the trail. We could hear it howling through the trees by the time we got to Hawksbill peak and the viewing platform there. It was even difficult to hold steady while taking pictures at the top!

Shafts of intense sunlight cut through the dark clouds moving over the valley, lighting up parts of the valley selectively.

As you can see below, the ridge line was clearly visible from the peak. If you open up the pictures below and look at them carefully in sequence, you can zoom in on an overlook on the Skyline Drive near the top of the ridge line. The overlook is on the west side of the ridge (on the left side of the ridge as seen in the picture). These pictures should hopefully give you a good idea of the scope of the panoramic view we were getting from this mountain top.

There were clearly signs of autumn in this section of the park.

This is a picture of Byrds Nest 2 shelter near Hawksbill peak. There are shelters and cabins throughout the park.Incidentally, Hawksbill is the highest peak in the park.

This was our last significant stop for the day. We drove further south on the Skyline Drive towards our destination for the evening, and left the park at the Swift Run exit just south of mile 65. We took US Route 33 East out of the park towards Stanardsville. We had to descend from the ridge on which the Skyline Drive is located on a winding road which was a little challenging, especially at the advertised highway speeds. The town was a few miles away from the park. We first did a bit of light shopping at the grocery store in town before heading out to the Getaway Outpost just outside of town.

The first evening at the outpost was a bit of an adventure. It was simply a matter of getting used to our own place in the woods.

The inside of the tiny home was quite cozy.

That evening we enjoyed a dinner of fresh pasta with marinara sauce and meatballs that we had brought with us from Gemelli’s Italian Market! I had been having a craving for spaghetti with meatballs during that period of time. It was a part of my physical and mental recovery from my trip to India.

We were quite tired from the day’s activities and crashed out soon after dinner, well before our usual bedtime.

You can read about the second day of our trip here.

Re-engagement and Re-connection

The re-engagement process started in earnest last weekend. The period of time after my return from India had been difficult. I had mostly been in recovery from some strange ailment that had hit me towards the tail end of my travels. The doctors at home could not figure out what I had caught, but whatever it was had thrown a few of my systems off-kilter. I lost a lot of weight – still have not made up the deficit. I was feeling a very strange lack of energy, and, other than a few isolated cravings, had no desire to eat or drink stuff that I usually enjoyed. The situation had kept me indoors most of the time since my return home.

But things could not stay this way indefinitely. I was getting stronger. I had to get out of the house and re-engage with my daily routines. I had to figure out how much I was really capable of doing.

What finally forced my hand was a trip that had been planned about six months ago. We had made arrangements to go down to the Shenandoah National Park to enjoy the autumn colors, staying a couple of nights at a place featuring tiny homes parked in the woods. The booking at the Getaway Outpost was not refundable. Making a reservation so far ahead of time to see the Fall colors had been a gamble.

As it turned out, we were, unfortunately, a little early for the colors of Fall. We could see the beginnings of change in the park, especially in the higher elevations, but the rest of the space was still green and lush. But how could that be a bad thing?! Regardless of the colors, you cannot go wrong visiting the Shenandoah National Park, especially if the weather cooperates. We enjoyed three gorgeous days in the park. We had clear skies all the time we were there. The mornings were quite chilly, more than I expected, especially when compared to home, but the days warmed up nicely for hiking. We had a wonderful time!

We drove to different locations along the Skyline Drive, stopping at a few of the overlooks along the way that provide views of the valleys below the ridge line, but spending much more of our time hiking on trails that started from beside the main road. The park was less crowded than I expected it to be. We were always able to find some place to park the car. We would split the day into a couple of somewhat shorter hikes, having lunch in-between – either at a picnic bench or seated in the car itself. Even though the distances covered in each of these hikes during the day were shorter, they were pretty intense hikes for novices like us, with steady climbs and descents. We covered about 16 miles, and did over 4000 feet of climbing and descending. We pushed ourselves, even when on the rough and rocky trails that we sometimes encountered, taking breaks as needed. We learnt more about our capabilities and limits as the days went by. We were really capable of doing more than we initially thought we could.

A lot of our time was spent on the Appalachian Trail that runs all the way through the park. Destinations on the trails included mountain tops and waterfalls. We walked up to the highest point in the park. We went down to what might be its most popular waterfall. Since the park runs over a hundred miles north-to-south (or south-to-north, depending on your point of view!), we were able to find trails at several spaced-out locations along the Skyline Drive, far away from the park entrances where the crowds tend to gather. We had a lot of time to ourselves on some of these trails, while some of the more popular ones got a little bit crowded. But, surprisingly, even the popular trails were not as crowded as I expected this close to the phenomenon of the autumn colors. We were usually walking in solitude in the woods by ourselves – surrounded by the thick forest vegetation. Whether we encountered signs of autumn was a matter of luck.

This is the year I finally became eligible for the America The Beautiful Lifetime Senior Interagency Pass. I made sure that I got the pass before we set out on this trip. This pass gives me access to all Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and US Fish & Wildlife Service sites all over the country that charge entrance or standard amenity fees for the rest of my life!  I guess this is one of the few perks of growing old in the USA.