Monday, September 17, 2012

Trail Maintenance Workshop: September 16-17, 2012

Peter gives instruction to the crew early in our weekend.
Less than a week after visiting Shenandoah National Parks Mathews Arm Campground for the first time while hiking through the edge of the campground on an AT loop hike, I overnighted there as a part of the 25th Annual North District Trail Maintenance Workshop.  The workshop is a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club event designed to teach new trail maintainers (and prospective ones) some of the intricacies of trail construction.  Since I have temporary custody of one section of the Appalachian Trail while a friend is in Colorado at school, and permanent custody of a second section, I figured I'd better get some instruction on what to do.

We started at 9 AM on Saturday, put in a full day on the trail as a part of one of three work crews, camped overnight, then put in another half day starting at 8AM the next day with the same work crew.  I volunteered for a crew which worked on the Thornton River Trail as it descended from the east side of the Skyline Drive.
The Thornton River Trail crosses the Skyline Drive a
few miles north of Mathews Arm Campground, near Mile Post 25.

We never made it more than a half mile down the trail.   The trail drops steadily, which creates runoff during storms.  Left unchecked, erosion can occur which can create ruts in the trail and risks for the hiker, particularly one with a heavy backpack.

Having several rocks to choose from
did not guarantee the right fit.
We constructed two types of erosion control devices on the trail: water bars and check dams.  Water bars are designed to divert water such as rainwater runoff from the trail to the downhill slope off the trail.  This is done by placing a log or series of stones at a 45 degree angle on the trail, buried in the dirt.  Choosing between a log and rocks depends on which type of material is more readily available in the vicinity, but rocks are clearly preferred as they last longer.  They are also more difficult to properly place.

Either material is to be buried in the trail to a depth where their presence on the trail does not create a problem for hikers on the trail, but still creates a barrier for water flowing down the trail.  The key is to control the amount of water on the trail.  This is done by combining the water bars with check dams in long downhills or steep sections of trail.

Noel makes sure that the rocks are buried
to the right depth.
Check dams are obstructions on the trail designed to stop erosion and slow water flow so that material is deposited on the trail, rather than eroded away.  So these structures are designed to minimize the flow of water then disperse it off the trail before it damages the trail bed. 

After the rocks or logs are properly placed, smaller rocks are used to anchor the obstruction as much as possible, then dirt is placed and graded around the obstruction.  The dirt comes from root balls of overturned trees - hopefully ones that are found close to the trail.

Joining the newbies were a host of members of the PATC's "North District Hoodlums," a close knit but apparently somewhat undefined membership, consisting of folks from the DC/NoVa area that come out to the SNP's North District once a month to engage in trail work and camaraderie.  And wear forest green shirts.  The Central District has a similar group called the Blue and White Group, and the Flying McLeods oversee the Southern District.  It appears to me that the further south one travels, the smaller the group of volunteers, as the DC area supplies a lot of willing labor.  For this reason, I was told that the Hoodlums sometimes travel south over U.S. 211 into the SNP Central District if trails need extra hands.
How do you get a rock in place?  Roll it down the trail!

Our group had a wide variety of folks, and every single one of them was interesting to talk to.  We had a couple of Hoodlums who both taught in Alexandria - one as an environmental sciences teacher, and her husband as a 9th grade English teacher.  There was another couple who met at Johns Hopkins and she was a new State Department employee.  There was a retired Ferrum College Biology Teacher who had recently moved to the mountains not far from Harper's Ferry.  There was an A.T. Corridor Manager (I had never before even heard of that!) who explained to me how he had to mark the boundaries of National Park Service land surrounding the Appalachian Trail.  He lived in Harper's Ferry and his wife works for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  There was a History Professor from George Mason who has a son in the Scouts and used to manage a restaurant in Charlottesville back after he graduated from UVA.  And there was Peter and Noel, the experienced instructors.
The rock seen by the next hiker on the trail
is the tip of the iceberg.

After spending a day and a half volunteering to upgrade a small section of trail in Shenandoah National Park, (the National Park Services states that Shenandoah National Park has over 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the A.T.), I have a new level of respect for the effort that goes into keeping the trails in good shape.  And I'll probably look at the trails I hike in a slightly different way from now on.

After finishing up on Saturday there was an hour until dinner would be served, so I decided to take a quick hike.  The group campsite at Mathews Arm is also the trailhead for the Mathews Arm Trail, which descends to the Overall Run Waterfall and is shown on the map above.  I did not have time to make it all the way down to the falls, but a trail runner told me that there wasn't any water in the falls anyway.  This must have been a big disappointment to a lot of folks, because I was amazed at the number of people on the trail - I am not used to seeing so many people out hiking!  This is clearly a trail that attracts a large number of novice hikers, and had numbers that compare with Shenandoah hotspots like Old Rag, Stony Man, and Dark Hollow Falls.
My trail crew, at the end of the first day.

I was able to manage a 3.6 mile hike in an hour and seven minutes, with an ascent/descent of just over 700 feet.  I was late for dinner, but fortunately there was plenty to go around!  It was a good workout.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A.T.: Elkwallow to Hogback Overlook - September 11, 2012

It is always a good thing to go out on September 11th and hike.  I took a day this year to do just that. The infamous September 11th was a day like this one - crisp and cool, with views that go on forever.  The flag at the Shenandoah National Park entrance station on U.S. 200 was at half mast.  It was cool this day after seemingly solid months of hot, hazy, humid weather.

I was in the Northern District of Shenandoah National Park to hike another section of the Appalachian Trail as I slowly finish the trail through Shenandoah National Park.  I have said before that I find the A.T. very boring through SNP, as it seldom hits the highlights of the park and often winds through the park within about 300 yards of the Skyline Drive.  Others disagree - but really, I'd much rather be hiking the Staunton River Trail or Rocky Mountain Run Trail, or any of about 50 other trails, than the A.T. here.

I have a goal to day hike the entire AT in SNP, and then maybe to complete every mile of trail in each of SNP's three sections.  I finished the Southern District over a decade ago before disinterest set in.  I've been back over the past year to finish it up.  It was easier back in the day, as I didn't have a dog and I could stash a bike at one end of my hike to ride back to my car.  Now I walk the dog both ways.

View from an overlook on the A.T. near the Tuscorora Trail.
This was the final section of the A.T. in the Northern District, so I only have a few small sections in the Central District to finish up.  I had forgotten that I hiked to Elkwallow from the south earlier this year, but remembered when I drove into the parking lot.  But I still missed the turn for the northbound A.T., and ended up hiking an extra half mile thinking I was still on a side trail heading towards the A.T.  Not real well blazed in that part of trail!

Heading north took me across the Skyline Drive and past signs to the Range View Cabin.  Never stayed there, but know that the PATC guide states that it can be very cold in the winter.  After a little bit of a climb, the dog and I crossed the Skyline Drive again and continued climbing.  I passed a marker indicating the start of a side trail the, the start of the 252 mile Tuscorora Trail, which rejoins the A.T. just north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  (Want a really large loop hike?  Here it is!)  At the top of the mountain is the one great view of the hike, from some rocks just west of the A.T.

A boardwalk crosses Jeremy's Run on the Elkwallow Trail.
At the 3rd intersection with the Skyline Drive (Hogback Overlook) I turned around, as I had done the rest of the A.T. last December.  But I turned off onto the Tuscorora Trail to make a loop hike and check a couple of new trails off my list. From there, I proceeded to the Traces Trail, which is a trail that circumnavigates the Matthew's Arm Campground. Coming out of the woods at the campground host station (i.e. tollbooth), we crossed the road and found the Elkwallow Trail, which crossed Jeremy's Run on a boardwalk, then took us back to our starting point in a direct fashion.

Because I had not been able to exercise since Harper's Ferry in August, this was a good length hike for me.  I look forward to returning to the area this weekend, when I am camped at the Matthew's Arm Campground for some training.

Hike Details
Distance: 7.1 miles
Total hiking time: 2 hours, 57 minutes

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Canoeing the James River: August 25-26, 2012

My son's Boy Scout Troop took a canoe trip on the James River, using boats rented from Twin River Outfitters in Buchanan, Virginia.  Buchanan is just off of Interstate 81 a couple of exits south of Natural Bridge.

The outfitter drove us upstream to start our trip in Springwood.  We floated downstream through Buchanan, and camped in Arcadia at a place called Breeden's Bottom Campground.  Although the campground's website claims that they facility offers "Porta Johns" and "handwashing sinks," we didn't see any of those facilities.

I purchased my first fishing license in at least 25 years for the trip, and was really glad I did.  Most of the boys were fishing, so there wasn't a lot of paddling going on.  And I got great instruction from one of the other scouters on how to handle a catch.  It was a fun weekend, even though the weather was a little wet.

On Saturday, we canoed 11.5 miles over 6 hours, 40 minutes.  On Sunday, I obtained incomplete GPS data, but I estimate we canoed about 5 miles.
Floating past Buchanan, Virginia.

The Scoutmaster and another adult keep a close eye on the swimmers.
This fuzzy photo is of a Saddleback Caterpiller.
One of the scouts found out the hard way that these things
pack a nasty sting when you brush up against them.
Stay away!
The outfitter collected our boats and drove us back to Buchanan.

White Mountains: June 24-29, 2012

After dropping my son off at summer camp in New Hampshire, a family member and I spent several days hiking the White Mountains, mostly along the Appalachian Trail. We stayed in a series of high altitude huts operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Although staying in these huts is not inexpensive, the huts offer a bunk and prepared dinner and breakfast each overnight. It is a great way to experience this beautiful area! Here is an account of our trip.

Day 1 - Start to Greenleaf Hut - Sunday, June 24, 2012

My Brother-in-law Ed and I started out early on our first day, as we had to drop his truck at the northern end of our hike and take a shuttle to our starting point.  The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which operates all of the huts we would be staying at on our hike, operates a shuttle for hikers to get from one trailhead to another.  We arrived at the parking lot near Gorham and found it to be packed, but we were able to leave the truck right near the lot entrance, just off the road.

The shuttle took forever, picking us up at 8:40 and not getting us to our starting point until 10:50.  Because the sky was so blue and the mountains so close, waiting was tough!  Our starting trailhead was at the Flume Visitor Center, just off of Interstate 93 in Franconia Notch State Park, at the western edge of our hike.

Franconia Notch State Park encompasses much of the valley created by the Pemigewassett River, and is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places in the East Coast.  I briefly lived in New Hampshire many years ago, and still vividly remember the awe I experienced my first time driving through the Notch.  It is changed since then, with an interstate replacing the old Daniel Webster Highway, but the Interstate's design is amazingly understated.  And the biggest change is the loss of the iconic "Old Man of the Mountain," the New Hampshire symbol which fell off the mountain about a decade ago.

After exiting the van, we worked to adjust our packs.  Ed had a brand new Deuter pack purchased the previous day at the North Conway EMS store, and I was lugging an Osprey Kestel 48, used by my son the week before on a Boy Scout backpacking trip I led through Mt. Rogers in Virginia.  Throughout that hike, my son kept asking if the pack was leaning to the right.  I attributed this to a perceived desire that he be anywhere but on a trail, but as soon as I started walking with his pack, I could tell what he was talking about.  I really should take him more seriously!  It took me until the following day to finally get the pack riding right.

It was almost a mile along flat trails to get to the Liberty Spring Trail, which would take us up the mountain.  I chose the Liberty Spring Trail from several ascending options because it was also the Appalachian Trail, and because it would give us the option to take a short side trip to Mt. Liberty, elevation 4459.  I also wanted to experience as much of the spectacular Franconia Ridge as possible, and the Liberty Spring Trail met the ridge nearly 2 miles further south than the more popular Falling Waters Trail.  It turned out that there were two problems with this strategy, however.  The first is the fact that the shuttle we took dropped us at the trailhead so late that we had little time to dawdle if we wanted to make dinner on time.  And the second was that we discovered the spectacular parts of Franconia Ridge are all on the other side of the Falling Waters Trail anyway.

Posing at the top (almost) of Mt. Liberty.
We reached the ridge after hiking 3.8 miles.  The trail was rocky and steep at times (averaging a 22% grade over the upper two miles), and the only really interesting part was the Liberty Spring Tentsite, which is a series of platforms on the side of a steep slope for campers to use.  At the ridge, time was already a concern but we let a couple of other hikers convince us to drop our packs and do an out-and-back to Mt. Liberty, which was just south of our trail. They had just been down the ridge, they explained, and the different perspective that Mt. Liberty offers made it worth the detour.  We made the 10 minute side trip to an open summit, but the actual Mt. Liberty summit was on the other side of a short, steep chasm.  So counting Mt. Liberty among the 4000 footers we have climbed will have to come another day.

Returning to our packs, we continued north on the Franconia Ridge Trail through a forested ridge top, meeting Little Haystack Mountain 6.1 miles into our hike.  Little Haystack reaches 4780 feet in elevation, making it the first of our 4000 footers on the trip.  Several organizations maintain lists of all 4000 foot mountains in New Hampshire and in all of New England, and it is a big deal among many hikers up there to ascend all mountains on the list.  Little Haystack was above treeline, as was Mt. Lincoln at 5089 feet. 

The Franconia Ridge Trail showing
Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette.
From Lincoln to Mt. Lafayette the trail was spectacular!  On either side of the trail the ridge line dropped precipitously.  To our left was the valley we had come up from, and to the right was the Pemigewassett Wilderness and mountains all the way to the distant, but distinguishable, Mt. Washington.  We felt truly lucky to be on this trail on such a spectacularly clear day, especially since rain was forecasted for the following day.

We reached The summit of Mt. Lafayette after 7.7 miles.  Lafayette is 5260 feet high and is the highest peak in New Hampshire outside of the Presidential Range further east.  These were 7.7 tiring miles, and not just because we had climbed up from 1418 feet high, nearly 4000 feet in elevation.  These trails are more rocky than Virginia trails, and the process of climbing up, over and around rocks can make for a slow hike and sore joints.  We saw a number of hiking groups catering to members (often in mere sneakers) who were hurting from the trek, and these folks had yet to start the steep drop back down to their cars.

Franconia Ridge from the Greenleaf Hut
From the top of Lafayette we dropped steeply on the Bridal Path to the Greenleaf Hut, where we stayed for the night.  AMC's huts are spaced throughout the White Mountains on or near the Appalachian Trail.  Greenleaf is a mile by trail off of the ridge line (and A.T.), and is a popular overnight for families out with relatively young children.  Ed and I arrived at 6:03 PM, just as dinner was called.  Next to us at dinner was a group of French Canadian ladies, who reveled in the wine they had transported from their previous night's stay, at the same Galehead Hut we would be trekking to the next day.

Total hike numbers for our first day:  8.54 miles in just under 7 hours.  Elevation gain was 4,491 feet. We also dropped 1,745 feet, mostly at the end of the day.

Dinner at Greenleaf was stuffed shells, salad, homemade bread, and dessert.  It was fabulous!  Ed and I settled in after dinner with some bourbon and books from the Hut library while we watched the sky darken.

Day 2 - Greenleaf to Galehead - Monday

Looking back at Franconia Notch on Monday morning.
The next morning it was preparing to rain as we left the hut.  Mt. Lafayette was obscured by clouds, but some of the ridge was visible. Below, the notch was clear, even sunny in spots, but we were headed in the other direction.

We first retraced our steps back to Mt. Lafayette.  We didn't know it at the time, but the summit of Lafayette was our high point for the trip, at 5245 feet.    It was a steep climb straight up to the summit, with the last several hundred yards above treeline, in the clouds.  At the summit was a sign directing us north on the Garfield Ridge Trail.  We headed down the rocks on the north side of Mt. Lafayette, several times losing the trail and using my GPS to adjust our route by a few feet so we would end up back on the proper route. 

The Garfield Ridge Trail dropped back into the trees, though it didn't matter much to us, as the rain eliminated any views we would normally have enjoyed.  The trail was a series of ups and downs until we came to the steep climb to the summit of Mt. Garfield - essentially a rock scramble.  Dropping down the other side of the summit, we came to the Garfield Ridge Campsite, which was a series of tent platforms near the trail.  We met a couple of hikers here, and one told us that we were about to hit a really steep part of the trail.  Since he was heading in the opposite direction, we laughed at the idea that he had no idea what steep is, because he hadn't summited either Garfield or Lafayette. 

But that guy wasn't wrong.  The descent got steeper and we found ourselves essentially  dropping down a waterfall disguised as a hiking trail, with rocks and water everywhere.  Going uphill, we would ascend so steeply that I'd have to shorten my poles, then descending I would have to lengthen those poles again.  I did that until one pole gave out on this descent, causing me nearly to tumble down the trail.   That pole had to be stored in my pack from then on, leaving me down to one pole.

Bottoming out after Mt Garfield (both literally and emotionally), our trail intersected with the Gale River Trail then climbed again steeply to the Galehead Hut.  We were really sucking wind at this point, and I was amazed at how hard the day's hiking had been.  I could not be feeling too sorry for myself, though, as we were passed by a 60 year old Bostoner (Charlestown, actually) and his son, a professional diver living in Burlington, VT. 

We hadn't seen these guys the night before at Greenleaf, and we found out why at dinner.  They had hiked all the way from Interstate 93 in Franconia Notch State Park, bypassing our first night's lodging and going straight through to our second night hut!  These guys were a lot of fun, and we enjoyed their company through the rest of our hike.   

That day, we ended up hiking 7.4 miles, which took 8 hours, 15 minutes.  It is not often that I average less than a mile and hour when hiking with adults!  This was not our longest hike of the week mileage-wise, but it took the most time of any of our hikes.  It took longer than any other hikes because we went from 4300 feet to 5200 feet, then dropped to 3600 before climbing back to 4400 feet again before dropping to 3400 then a final climb to the hut at 3800 feet.  In total, we gained over 2,600 feet and lost nearly 3,100 feet over steep, rocky terrain.  It was a rough hike, and numbers cannot do it justice.

The Galehead Hut in the rain.
We had read that Galehead is the most remote of the huts, and that it has a spectacular view of the Pemigewassett Wilderness. It certainly was not easy to get to! But we can't speak to the views; they never presented themselves. 

Also at dinner was a man we'd met the night before, along with his son (a junior in high school) and 12 year old daughter.  Those two kids were veritable trail runners, taking a full 90 minutes less time to cover the same distance we hiked. And we were able to spend some time with our roommates for the night (assigned by the hut crew), a young couple living in central New Hampshire while he is at med school at Dartmouth.  They were using Galehead as a base to check off summiting several 4,000 foot mountains off their list. 

There were several empty bunks in our room and we needed every extra hook for all our soaked gear.  Our roommates gave us newspaper, which we wadded up and placed in our boots to try to suck out some of the water from our boots.  With everything dripping, we created a small pond of runoff on the floor, and never did get everything dry before putting much of it on again in the morning. 
This elevation profile shows the portion of the hike between Greenleaf and Zealand Falls Huts.
The descent of Mt. Garfield was the toughest, but note the average grade for a large portion
of the South Twin Mountain climb was 35.7 percent.  Tough climbing!

Day 3 - Galehead to Zealand Falls Huts, Tuesday

We had to put much of the damp clothing back on in the morning, but it didn't really matter, as we were soaked anyway after just a short time on the trail.   No loss of heat in the rain, though, as we headed up steeply almost immediately, rock climbing the Twinway Trail from 3800 feet at Galehead to 4900 feet at the summit of South Twin Mountain over 8/10ths of a mile, about a 25% grade.  And much of that was over 35 percent.  As a result, we had a good sweat going very quickly into the day's hike. 

At the top of South Twin, we were able to get almost above timberline, where the trees were very short.  There were no views through the clouds and the rain.  From there, it was a general downhill hike along the northern edge of the Pemigewassett Wilderness to the Zealand Falls Hut
The view from the Zealand Falls Hut in the rain.
An easier hike than the day before?  No doubt.  But this was a tough day, too, as the rain continued, and due to the wet conditions I slipped off a slick ladder on the trail and tumbled onto some rocks leaving one of my fingers really bruised and painful for days. 

One of Zealand's bunkrooms,
with clothes drying everywhere.
I had to shake off the pain and the shock of falling off the ladder and keep going down the mountain.  This time, we generally kept up with the incredible hiking kids we had met the day before, and at one point we even passed them, before beginning the downhill to the Zealand Hut.  But it was because the signs we saw on the trail were confusing - Ed and I took the correct route because we followed my GPS, while our friends followed the signs and went the wrong way.

We reached Zealand after 5 1/4 hours on the trail, hiking just under 6.5 miles.  There was only an elevation gain of 1614 feet in this day's hike, and a loss of 2,762.  This was a much easier hike than the day before. 

The Zealand Falls Hut is the smallest capacity hut in the system and it was hopping when we arrived.  It turns out that many of the occupants of the hut were day hikers who were escaping the weather, which had been only damp earlier in the day but was raining hard when we reached the hut.  We found bunks and set our our clothes to dry before joining the visitors in the dining area. 

Included in the group was a man with three young children.  The youngest was still in a backpack, without a coat, shivering as the group headed it the door.  I hope they made it back to the trailhead in good shape. 

Mealtime at the Zealand Hut.
The Zealand Falls Hut was a delightful place and the others who stayed that night were wonderful company.  This was my favorite night of the trip.  We spent much time talking to a woman who had adopted a girl with family issues from gritty Lawrence, Massachusetts.  The woman had broken up with her partner and had only partial visitation with her daughter.  She told us that they had been to the Whites before to stay in huts, that it helped them bond, and that she treasured this time with her daughter.  She was an amazing woman.

This is the only hut that obtains electrical power by water - the rest use a combination of wind and solar.  And those locations getting power from the sun had to be very penurious with their power during times of extended rain (like when I was there!).  But because the Zealand Hut is at the bottom of a waterfall, they divert some of the water through a tube, allowing them a constant power source.  As a result, this was the only hut where we were not told that lights out would be at 9:30 PM.

The rain was really getting to everyone at this point.  We heard stories of many cancellations at other huts after some solid days of rain, and Ed and I decided to change our future plans by replacing our last night's accommodations from the distant Madison Hut to the closer Lakes of the Clouds Hut.  I had reasoned we could make it all the way to Madison from the Mitzpah Springs Hut, but the weather was wearing us out.

Notice the 2nd hiking pole, sticking out of my backpack.  
It was at the Zealand Falls Hut that I had my biggest boost of the week when I found my new outdoors camera in a hidden pocket in my pack after thinking I had lost it.  As a result, I started taking many more photos than using the cheapo camera I'd gotten as a temporary replacement a week earlier.  Losing and finding cameras appears to be endemic to the Whites, as I had done the same thing the previous time I hiked up this way.  

Day 4 Zealand Falls Hut to Mizpah Springs Hut Wednesday

After breakfast, we packed up our stuff, put on our wet clothes, and headed steeply down the trail.  We had to be at the AMC's Highland Center by noon, when we were scheduled to meet another brother-in-law, Chris.  It was really hard at this point not to feel like we were coming to the end of our journey, as we were returning, though briefly, to civilization, and the rest of the the hike was over a route we had hiked before.  But it was all new to Chris. 

Some of the stream crossings were a little difficult.
The hike was relatively easy compared with what we had seen.  After dropping down from the hut, we passed a couple of ponds and then turned onto the A-Z Trail.  We then split off of the Appalachian Trail for the first time on our hike.  Not much steep elevation gain during this part of the hike, but several dicey stream crossings over waterways swollen by days of rain. 

After cresting the ridge where a side trail lead to Mt. Tom, I turned on my cell phone for the first time since finding my real camera, to get updates from Chris.  We met some folks heading the other way at the ridgetop, and while talking to them I fell off the trail and bent my remaining hiking pole.

We came strolling into the AMC's Highland Center at 5 minutes after noon and found Chris next to the fireplace, exactly as planned.  Chris got to meet our friends, and we got to make calls home and briefly charge our electronics.  

The Highland Center is a hotel run by the Appalachian Mountain Club, and it wasn't at all what I expected.  I felt like we were wild, funky smelling AT thru-hikers wandering into the Waldorf-Astoria.  It was a much less outdoorsy clientele than I had expected.  The best part about being there was the small store in the hotel, where I purchased a replacement set of hiking poles and 3 pairs of socks, guaranteeing me my first pair of dry feet in days that evening.  My old poles went into Chris's trunk for later disposal.

After a quick trip to Chris's car to dump off some particularly stinky clothing and extra snacks, we headed back into the woods, up the Crawford Path, the self-proclaimed "oldest continuously-used mountain path in America."  Ed struggled up this hike, and stated that it was tougher than he remembered it from 3 years ago.  As he slowed down, Chris and I speeded up the mountain, intent on reserving bunks for the three of us.  It turned out to be a good move, as Chris found us an empty bedroom hidden off the main hall, which we had to ourselves that night.  Lots of room to spread out wet clothes; clothes that now started to have a real funky smell to them...

Total distance hiked this day was 8.5 miles, in 6 hours, 38 minutes (including time spent shopping at the Highland Center).  We gained over 3,200 feet in elevation, but also lost just over 2,000 feet in elevation.  Perhaps there was a point to Ed's struggle, as it turned out that this day saw our biggest elevation gain, other than the first day.

Day 4  Mizpah Springs Hut to Lakes of the Clouds Hut  Thursday

I think that if we weren't meeting Chris, it would have been pretty hard to keep going, but in the end, I was really glad I didn't cut the hike short.  Still, we heard stories at Mizpah about families that had tried the hike from Mizpah to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut through the alpine zone that day, groups that had to turn back because of dangerous wind gusts.  It wasn't without some trepidation that I put on damp clothes and dry socks (finally!) and headed up Mt. Pierce towards our last hut.

On top of Mt. Pierce.
The trip started out calm, as can be seen from the photo of Chris and me on top of Mt. Pierce.  But as we neared Mt. Eisenhower, a steady wind of probably 40 mph was hitting us.  I was concerned about stopping in the wind, as I was wet to the skin and did not want to risk hypothermia.  

In a sheltered spot along along the trail.
The trees made a huge difference in the wind!  Our trail would be in the full force of the wind when walking over bare boulders, but then it would dip down into 6 foot conifers and the wind would blow over us.  A difference of 10 or 15 feet in elevation and some 6 foot trees would mean the difference between a stiff wind and a still one.  We made sure to time our water stops in the trees or shielded behind a boulder.  And I was relieved when we reached the Lakes Hut just before reaching 4 hours on the trail.  No superhuman numbers today.  We hiked 4.5 miles.  We gained 1,594 feet in elevation, and lost 364 feet.  We did not take any of the side trails over Mt. Eisenhower or Mt. Monroe, so we could stay as much out of the wind as possible.  And we arrived at the largest of all the huts on the cusp of a "no vacancy" evening.

View from the Lakes Hut, Thursday evening.
What do Lakes patrons do when there is no view?  Hang out.
We ended up sharing our room with a man and his two sons, one of which slept constantly after their hike directly from the Highland Center.  And we spent much time looking out the dining room's large picture window in wonder at the world as clouds slowly began to give up their grip on the mountains.  

Day 5  Lakes of the Clouds Hut to the car  Friday

Friday morning started with much promise that the rain might be finally over - promise that seemed to end with a 7 AM rain shower.

Every morning as a part of the breakfast "entertainment," the hut croo who cook and serve breakfast also read the weather forecast created at the weather station on top of Mt. Washington.  On our final morning in the mountains, the official weather forecast was for unstable weather until the afternoon, when a cold front would move through the area.  The skies had cleared again, and we made sure to get on the trail quickly to take advantage of the blue skies for as long as they would last.  We opted not to make the mile trip each way to the summit of Mt. Washington, as each of us had been there before and we didn't know how long the blue skies would hold out.

Last day posing with friends outside the Lakes Hut.
Mt. Monroe is in the background.
Looking northwest from the trail.  The smoke from the Cog Railway chugging up to Mt. Washington can be seen.
We needn't have worried.  By the time we were a couple of miles out, between the basically nonexistent Mt. Franklin and Mt. Eisenhower, we could tell that the cold front was coming through and the weather would be beautiful for the rest of our hike.  A fitting bookend to the terrible weather after our first day on the trail!  and we ended up back at Chris's house in the Boston suburbs at 7 PM, so it is probably just as well that we didn't try to do Mt. Washington.
The Presidential Range, including Mt. Eisenhower and Mt. Washington, in the background.
Looking southeast towards the town of North Conway.
Friday numbers: 7.1 miles in just a hair over 5 hours.  Elevation gain: 666 feet.  Elevation loss: 3,798 feet.  

Total numbers for the week: 42.4 miles in 36 hours, 6 minutes.  14,245 feet gain in elevation.  13,783 loss in elevation.

Despite the rain, it was a great trip.  Every hiker should hike the Whites at some point.  But remember that there is nothing in Virginia that can really prepare you for the trail conditions up there.

Thinking back on the trip, I am really glad I did it, despite the weather.  But it caused some changes.  I now wear a base layer tee that is specifically made to dry quickly and not stink.  I have a new rain shell.  And I think that when I go back, I will wait until the last minute to reserve hut space, as prior to the 4th of July, the huts remain pretty available during the week.  Next time, I am going to make sure the weather looks promising, then reserve a couple of days at the Galehead Hut, using it as a base to grab some more 4,000 footers.  I can't wait!

Grayson Highlands with the Boy Scouts

I led a troop backpacking trip down in the Mt. Rogers area shortly after school ended in June, but didn't have time until now to upload the photos and put together a description.  

On the first day, we met in Charlottesville, drove our vehicles and scouts down to Grayson Highlands State Park, and hiked a little over 3 miles on the Appalachian Trail southbound towards Mt. Rogers.  Grayson Highlands State Park is a great place to drop cars on any hike in this area, as they have a parking lot specifically for long term hikers.  Well worth the $3 daily cost.

The boys were excited to get out on the trail as they had heard that you can see wild ponies near Mt. Rogers.  We hadn't hiked more than ten minutes before the first group of ponies stopped by to see us.  The boys were thrilled!

I had traversed this part of the A.T. the previous Autumn when I hiked the area with my son on an overnight.  So this time we took a parallel trail (actually an older routing of the A.T.), over the peaks of Wilburn Ridge.  This provided some of the most spectacular vistas of the entire hike and is highly recommended.

We hiked past an area known as Rhododendron Gap before deciding to camp on a flat ridge between Wilburn Ridge and Mt. Rogers the first night.  We hiked just a little over 3 miles to get to our campsite.  It got pretty cold and windy, but everyone seemed to sleep well.

Day 2
Hiking towards Mt. Rogers.
The second day involved 11 miles of backpacking over about 11 hours.  We hiked the A.T. past the Thomas Knob Shelter, then dropped our packs just off the trail to hike up and back down the summit of Mt. Rogers, the tallest mountain in Virginia.  After reconnecting with our overnight gear, we continued southbound on the A.T., passing a trail crew moving boulders on the trail, to our lunch spot at the intersection of the A.T. and the Mt. Rogers Trail.  We split into two groups in the Lewis Fork Wilderness, and agreed to meet up at the Grindstone Campground, a car camp facility at the bottom of the mountain outside the wilderness boundaries.  There, one of the adults could use the Campground's pay phone to make an important business call, and we could reconnect both groups.

We ran into trouble when approaching the Grindstone Campground.  After following the sign indicating a turn off of the Mt. Roger's Trail to the campground, we came upon an area that was totally devastated.  Trees where down everywhere, and the trail was nonexistent.  Fortunately, I could see the campground (and a promised bathroom facility), so we hiked "off trail" to the bathroom and waited in a nearby campsite for the other group while our adult with business needs went off to use the pay phone.

When he came back he was followed by a campground volunteer who explained that a tornado had leveled that part of the forest the previous year.  (Later research established the date as April 28, 2011.) He also explained that the portion of the campground we were in was closed and a ranger could cite us for trespassing if he found us here.

Here is NOAA's description of the storm:

Group shot entering the Lewis Fork Wilderness.

Reluctantly, we moved to another part of the campground, knowing that it would make it harder for the other group to find us.  I complained to the campground staff that there was no indication on the trail that we were approaching a closed area and was told that the Forest Service had planned to put up a sign on the trail the previous weekend.  Now, I know funds are tight in the National Forest, but waiting over a year to place vital information like this is beyond belief.

We eventually met up with the other group, who told us they had been waiting for us for 15 minutes in the same spot we had moved from.  After reconnecting, we refilled water bottles and hiked up the Fairwood Road a quarter mile to the Flattop Trail, which climbed steeply up to the Cherry Tree Shelter, where we spent the night.

Because the day's travels totaled over 10 miles, the scouts could apply the hike towards hikes required for their Hiking Merit Badge.  As part of that badge's requirements, the boys had to write a description of their hikes.  I have copied below some descriptions (without edits) from the boys of the hike.

We hiked 11 miles that day it was Friday 7/15 very Beautiful  and it was one of the most memorable  hiking experience’s  of my life. That day we hiked mount rogers all the way to the top, but let me start from the beginning.We woke with a good breakfast and then we headed off to hike up and down mount Rogers. We hiked about a mile when we reached the trail intersection that led up to mount Rogers. It was a surprisingly easy hike up to mount Rogers.( Even though we hid our backpacks behind a tree.) We got up within a half an hour, and the site wasn’t that amazing the entire view was blocked by trees. At least we could say we hiked mount Rogers the highest elevation point in Virginia.
At the summit of Mt. Rogers.

We hiked back down grabbed our packs and headed down the mountain. We hiked on until we came to national forest area. (In federal wilderness area you can’t be with a group of ten or more people.) So we split up i led a group and my friend Cole led a group. My group hiked down first we where going to meet up at Grindstone camp ground to eat lunch. ( They evan had toilets!) Soon it became far past lunch and we had a while to go still. so we decided to eat lunch on the trail by the time we where done the other group was coming through. Then we waited and split up again. we hiked about four more miles and by then i had to go the bathroom. finally we arrived at Grindstone and we got to go to the bathroom. when we where done we had to wait for the others when the group had arrived and done some important business. After they where done we all set off to Cherry tree campsite we then hiked the steepest trail in elevation i have ever hiked. Up up up we went then finally we where done for the day, but we more adventures for the next day.

We hiked the highest of 5717 ft in elevation above sea level and the lowest of 3705

Break time along the Mt. Rogers Trail.
On June 15th, I hiked about ten miles. That was Day 2 of our 4-day Mt. Rogers backpacking trip. The first important part about the hike was that I hiked up Mount Rogers, the tallest mountain in Virginia. It is 5,728 feet tall. We took our packs off in the woods right next to the Mount Rogers Spur Trail to climb to the top of Mount Rogers, we took our packs off because we’d have to go back down that same way anyway. I thought we’d be able to see far away at the summit but the view was all clogged up by trees. We came back down, got our packs and hiked the AT until we entered Lewis Fork Wilderness area. We split into two teams: Alpha Team and Bravo Team, I was an Alpha member. Both teams hiked the same trail but Alpha was ahead of Bravo. We stopped and had lunch somewhere at Lewis Fork with the Bravo team. We then started off on Mount Rogers Trail towards Grindstone Campground, a setup campsite with flush toilets and running water. We went to the bathrooms, filled up our water, and stopped there and waited for the Bravo team. After that, we hiked the Flattop Trail to our campsite which was the Cherry Tree Shelter. That was our hardest day of hiking.

On this hike I remember we took off our packs in a little circle of trees to make the climb up to Mount Rodgers. It was rocky and grassy for a while but then it was weird because we got into a darker forest. We hiked that for a while. The path got narrow and we made our way to a large rock with a metal plate saying the elevation and stuff. It was pretty awesome because for a second you could be the tallest person in Virginia! We took a few pictures and then hiked back down to our packs. We then took a right down the A.T. and saw some trail work volunteers. It was cool because they were the ones making all the hikes possible. We hiked for a while seeing some pretty views. We hiked for a
Cherry Tree Shelter and our campsite.
while and I got pretty tired. We the switched onto a gravel road and went on until the cherry tree shelter. I was tired and ready for a good nights sleep.

Day 3
The Cherry Tree Shelter is an old shelter along a previous routing of the Appalachian Trail.  A quick inspection reveals serious deterioration, especially to the roof.  We could not convince a single scout to trade his tent for this shelter.  The shelter is on the Iron Mountain Trail, which was designated the Appalachian Trail until 1972, when the trail was rerouted by Mt. Rogers and through the Grayson Highlands area.

After packing up, we hiked along the ridge of Iron Mountain on its eponymous trail, following the old A.T. routing until we intersected with the current A.T. north of where we had hiked it the previous day.    The Iron Mountain Trail was an easy hike, though we had difficulty following it at one point.

Because we had to meet one of the fathers on the Fairwood Road at 2:30, we timed our hike so we wouldn't get there early.  This meant dropping a planned waterfall hike and instead hiding our packs and taking the A.T. north, on an out and back to lunch at the Hurricane Shelter.  The Hurricane Shelter is a much newer trail shelter than the Cherry Tree Shelter, and the difference in construction was amazing.
Lunch at the Hurricane Shelter.

We hiked back and met the parent near the appointed time, and he brought cold drinks and chocolates for everyone, to the boys' delight.  The drinks were really welcome after a warm day of hiking.

We spent about a half hour lounging in the parking lot before starting back up the mountain.  We were heading south on the A.T., eventually hiking back to our cars.  We had planned to camp near another A.T. shelter, the Old Orchard Shelter, but had heard reports that the area would be hosting another scout troop that night.  We had to follow Plan B, which was to hike to the top of the mountain and camp at one of the sites I had heard were among the best campsites in the area.

It was a long haul for the boys, but everyone made it up the mountain and most were appreciative of the grand views from our hard-earned campsite.  We ended up hiking 10.5 miles over a total of 8 3/4 miles, gaining 2,242 feet in elevation.

Here are the boys' descriptions of the hike:

Group shot near the Fairwood Road.
Who is ready for some chocolate?
We started off in the morning we hiked about three miles. Our plan  was to hike to a trail intersection that meets to a trail that led to a waterfall abut eight miles up. By the time we got to the inter section it was too late in the day. So we hiked to a shelter to have lunch i believe it was called the Hurricane shelter. After lunch we went back out to the trail intersection we hiked about four miles we where going to meet Mr.Furrugio he had brought Gator- aid  and candy it was so good then he joined us as we hiked to our next  shelter. by the time we got to the shelter it was full. Then we had to hike to the next campsite which was three more miles up. When we got there i was exhausted ,I will tell you that day didn’t exactly follow up as planed but the camp site was seriously it was the most beautiful spot i have ever set foot on. 

On this hike we packed up from Cherry Tree shelter and hiked on the Iron Mountain trail for a while. It was more of a forest hike than  open grass. Then we went from the Iron Mountain trail to the AT we hiked that for a while going mostly downhill. We then came to a hurricane shelter (although I'm not sure it would have been the best for a hurricane.) After that we went southbound on the A.T. to meet Mr. Farruggio at Fairwood road. First, we took pictures going across about 3 bridges. When we got there it was a really nice surprise because Mr. Farruggio had gatorades and chocalate bars. We rested and got water but then learned that we had 3.5 miles to the campsite. It was a hard finish to the day but we made it and the campsite was definitely worth it!

Morning coffee at our campsite.

Day 4
Our last day of hiking had several adults first hiking a mile each way to a spring to load up on water.  Water sources are at a premium on the top of the ridges, and I knew of only one that was somewhat close.

One of the boys and his dad needed to get back to Charlottesville early, so we set off on the trail to get back to the cars.  We hiked the A.T. back to Grayson Highlands, completing 7.2 miles.  This hike was not far enough to qualify for Hiking Merit Badge, so I did not get descriptions from the boys.

We walked through the area known as The Scales and marveled at the people with campers and little toy sized dogs in the middle of our wilderness.  Then we hiked through the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness before reaching our lunch spot at the A.T.'s Wise Shelter.

At Wise, I split off from the rest of the group, joining the two who needed to return early.  We hiked back to the parking area, where I was able to give them a lift back to their car on the Fairwood Road and drive back to the trailhead at Massie Gap in time to meet the rest of the group.  We camped overnight in the state park's group campsite, and took liberal advantage of the showers - each boy was required to bring an extra bag with clean clothes and a towel so we could return these boys to their parents in acceptable condition!