July 3, 2008: Big Meadows Campground, Shenandoah National
Park. Hogback Overlook to Overall Run Falls (6.5 miles RT)
Last year we had the extreme pleasure of making our Appalachian Trail thru-hike presentation at the amphitheater at Big Meadows so we were really looking forward to doing again in a few days – and this time we would be doing it twice – once at the amphitheatre on Friday night and again at the Byrd Visitor Center on Saturday afternoon. Since we arrived a day early, we had an entire day to do some hiking and take in the refreshing mountain air that only these mountains can provide. “Mom” wanted to start making a collection of waterfall photos, so we decided to spend the better part of the day making our way to Overall Run Falls for her first photo shoot. We parked our car at the Hogback Overlook, a few miles north of the campground, and made our way the 0.4 mile along the AT to where it intersected the Tuscarora Trail. A short 2.85 mile trip down this trail would have us at the falls by lunch and along the way we saw the incredible amount of work that the PATC trail maintainers had been doing – there were new water bars everywhere. As we made our way down the long ascent to the falls we were well aware that this was the easy part of the trip and that the return descent, in the increasing heat, would be make for a long walk back to the car. What we did not know was just how memorable this trip would soon be. As we rounded a corner in the trail, we stopped for a quick drink and commented to each other on how beautiful our surroundings were. As we turned to restart our journey, standing there, just to our left and not 25’ away, was a rather large black bear cub staring at us. We were not sure who was more surprised – the bear or us. As “Mom” reached around to grab her camera, the bear waddled off into the forest before “Mom” could get him in focus. By the time she did, all she was able to capture was his tail disappearing into the underbrush. With the moment all but missed, she put the camera away as we reveled in our special moment. But, no sooner was the camera safely away than I looked to our left and there was another bear – again only 25’ away! This time, the camera was barely out of her daypack before the bear hightailed it down over the ridge where it had come from. It was an incredible experience – but one that is only in our memories and not on film. Since, seeing wildlife is my gauge for a successful hike, whether or not we saw water at the falls was of no consequence – this hike was already a success!
As planned, we arrived at the rocky overlook adjacent to the falls at lunch time. There were several other hikers there sunning themselves on the large expanse of rock hanging above the valley below. But where was the falls? We fully expected to see a raging tower of water plunging to the rocks below us but, instead, saw little more than a mediocre trickle dribbling down the mountainside. Oh well, not to lament – we saw two bears so all was not lost. We spent quite a while there, ate our lunch, took photos of the surrounding mountains and valleys and then headed back. Our expectations regarding the tough climb back up were more than met and our pace was reduced to a crawl. On our way, we ran into a group of hikers who told us they had also seen the same two bears as we had seen and that they were somewhere up ahead. We became excited about the prospect of seeing them again. Unfortunately, they remained elusive and we never saw them again.
We had some time to kill before we could check in at the campground, so we did what we do best – explored. We drove to the Elkwallow Wayside, where we purchased some fuel for our stove and a root beer and ice tea to stave off the thirst we acquired on our trip up from the falls. We also made a trip to the Mathews Arm Campground and looked around. What a nice campground – one we may well stay at in the future. It was now 3:30 p.m. and check-in time at Big Meadows so we headed back. At the registration booth we were met by a friendly ranger who recognized us from the posters promoting our AT talks. He stated that he was anxious to hear what we had to say about our thru-hike and would be at one of our presentations. We made our way to our tentsite, which ironically, was right across the road from where “V&A” parked their RV back in 2006 when they were providing trail support to us during our thru-hike. Oh how the memories of that trip came rushing back and we reminisced about our adventure for quite some time. With our tent and gazebo set up and our two-burner stove and cooler parked on the picnic table (yes we were car camping so we had a few more amenities than in ’06 when all we had was on our backs), it was off to the camp store for wine, cheese and a citronella candle to ward off the incessant bugs. (No Deet this time out). While getting more ice for our cooler, I ran into northbound AT thru-hiker “Growler” who was in the nearby laundry washing some clothes. He had begun his hike on May 15th, so he was making fantastic progress on his trip to Maine. After visiting The Byrd Visitor Center, to check out where we would be making our Saturday presentation and meeting Ranger Julena Campbell, who was our cordial host at the campground, it was back to our campsite for some wine, cheese, crackers and a scrumptious dinner. Our first day back in the heart of the Shenandoah Mountains had been an eventful one and we looked forward to what the rest of the weekend would bring.
July 4, 2008: Big Meadows
Campground to Rapidan Camp and back (10.4 mile loop)
Last night a large group arrived late in the evening for their 4th of July holiday getaway and proceeded to stay up until 12:00 a.m. talking and carrying on. Keep in mind that thru-hikers go to bed early, say 7:30 p.m. or so, (otherwise known on the trail as “Hiker Midnight”), so any noise after 8:00 p.m. is annoying to us. Thru-hikers also get up early, to make the most of cool weather and the hours of hiking daylight, so we returned the favor to our campmates by not being overly concerned about how much noise we made when we got up and made breakfast at 5:30 a.m. this morning. Since we did not have to give our presentation until 8:30 in the evening, we had the entire day to get in some more hiking. Today’s adventure – a 10.4 mile loop hike to the historic Rapidan Camp and back. We could have taken the easy way out and hopped on the tour bus to Rapidan that left each morning but what fun would that be? Rapidan Camp was the summertime retreat for Herbert Hoover and his wife – a place where he could partake in his love of fishing and entertain dignitaries and luminaries from around the world. Rapidan was much like Camp David was for President Eisenhower (who had it built and named it after his son) and for every president that followed him. Today was the day we would visit the remnants of this historic facility.
We headed out on the service road that wandered through the huge expanse of open fields across from Big Meadows and that turns into the Rapidan Fire Road.. It is in these fields where every morning herds of whitetail deer come to graze and where photographers set up their equipment to capture the beauty of those graceful animals. The deer here are so tame that anyone with a small digital camera can walk to within 10’ of a grazing deer and snap its photo. Being able to do such a thing is both exciting and sad; exciting because those who have never seen a deer up close can do so. Sad because the deer are so tame that they allow humans so close – a situation that makes them vulnerable to being hit by cars. For 6.4 miles, under threatening skies, we walked side-by-side on the fire service road until we crossed the narrow bridge leading to the camp. For an hour or more we wandered around the camp looking at the buildings that still remained standing and reading the many signs describing the facility and the locations of buildings ravaged by time which are now nothing more than foundations and underbrush. It is an interesting and historically significant place and one that everyone should visit. There are tours to the camp each day that include being able to enter some of the buildings and hearing about the camp’s history from a ranger.
We decided not to retrace our steps back to Big Meadows, so we headed back on the Mill Prong Trail, passing Big Rock Falls. “Mom” was finally able to do what had eluded her the day before – capture the wonder of a waterfall on film (or disc in this digital age). After 2 miles, we arrived at the A.T. at Milam Gap. At a nearby cemetery, we stopped to have lunch and rested under a lone walnut tree. With the sky growing even more threatening, we headed back into the woods on the A.T. for the last 2 miles of our trek. Lewis Falls Fire Road, the last leg of the journey, brought us back to Big Meadows and civilization. We made another visit to the visitor center and again met Ranger Campbell and were introduced to Ranger Kathy Moss who would be helping us with our presentation at the amphitheatre later in the evening. While at the visitor center, we rested out tired bones and watched a wonderful movie about the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) who, during the depression, were responsible for building much of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the A.T. and its shelters, as well as other projects around the U.S. that are still evident today. It was remarkable to listen to several of the surviving members of the CCC emotionally talk about the time they spent in the CCC and how it changed their lives. This being the 75th anniversary of the CCC made their comments even more poignant.
Just as we were arriving at the shower house to take much needed showers, the rains came – and hard! By the time we got back to camp, everything under our gazebo was soaked and we discovered we had a few leaks in our tent - nothing major but still a nuisance. Looks like its time to re-waterproof the tent. By now the campground was full of 4th of July vacationers and it was downright noisy. With the rain subsiding a bit, we headed up to the lodge so we could hook up our laptop and transfer our presentation to a USB stick for the evening’s presentation. With that out of the way, it was time for dinner and were we in for a treat. Our waiter was a gentleman named Nikko and he had been our waiter in 2007. That year he spent time telling us about himself and his family. He did not remember us but was astonished when I recognized him and asked him how his family was in Indonesia. His face lit up like a Christmas tree. We had a great dinner with a complimentary desert provided by Aramark – a small, but delightful benefit for our presentation. With dinner completed, we stood on the porch of the lodge and watched a huge storm roll in. Before we knew it, we were driven back inside by a torrential downpour that made its way up from the valley and pummeled the lodge. As it turned out, the rain continued right through our presentation time and washed it out. We still stayed at the amphitheatre, under cover, and talked with Ranger Moss until we were sure the rain was not going to let up. Thank goodness we had another opportunity to give our talk tomorrow.
By 9:30 p.m., the rain was nothing more than a drizzle, so we jumped in our car and drove out to the Old Stoney Man Overlook on Skyline Drive, where we parked and watched the fireworks displays going on in the valley below. Watching fireworks go off underneath a blanket of low-lying clouds was surreal and incredibly beautiful. With the fireworks over, it was back to camp and a well-deserved night’s rest.
July 5, 2008: Big Meadows Campground - 1.5 miles on AT
The rain came back with a vengeance last night and it was still raining when we woke up. Hoping that it would let up soon, we lounged around in our tent and by 8:30 a.m. the sun broke through. As we sat and ate our breakfast of pancakes, sausage, fruit cocktail, coffee and juice we could not help but notice how many folks had had enough of the rain and had packed up and left – including our raucous neighbors. Not wanting to waste any sunshine, we took a short 1.5 mile loop hike on the A.T. from our campsite, behind the amphitheater and lodge and back. We then loafed around until 11:15 when we headed to the wayside for lunch and then to the visitor center to set up for our presentation. The entire staff at the visitor center was a joy to work with and went out of their way to see that we had everything we needed. Our presentation went extremely well and we had 30+ people in attendance, including a couple from Rockville, MD, not far from where we live. There were lots of questions, several people signed our mailing list and we even sold one “Native SoundScapes” CD. We are looking forward to coming back again next year. With the rest of the afternoon free, we made a drive to Loft Mountain Campground, the site of the beginning of our ill-fated winter hike on Thanksgiving weekend 2005. We stopped at the camp store for ice tea, salt and pepper and cheese and then proceeded into the campground itself. We were greeted by a ranger who recognized me from the posters at Big Meadows and asked how our presentations went. On the way back to Big Meadows, the rain started again but by the time we returned, it had all but ended. Again, we had more leisure time so we read and had wine and cheese and watched as a large group of college-aged kids set up camp near us. It appeared that the brief respite we had from all the noise of our previous neighbors was about to end. We were correct in our assumption for they were quite boisterous well into the evening.
July 6, 2008: Big Meadows Campground to Germantown, MD