A Walk in the Woods|
To a large extent, walking in the woods is what this Park and this book are about. Walking is a pleasure, physically and emotionally. Walking is your means of access to the 290 square miles of Shenandoah National Park that you can't get to by car.
The hikes I describe will take you on several kinds of trails:
The Appalachian Trail runs for about 2,000 miles, from Mr. Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia. For information on the trail as a whole, see the pamphlet (not sold in the Park) called The Appalachian Trail, Publication No. 5, issued by the Appalachian Trail Conference, Inc., P.O. Box 807, Harpers Ferry, W. Va. 25425. About 101 miles of the A.T. are within the Park, where it more or less parallels the Skyline Drive. The trail is marked with white blazes; it is graded, fairly smooth in most places, and rarely steep.
Horse Trails are marked with yellow blazes. You're free to use them, with or without a horse. But remember that horses have the right of way. If you meet a horse, or are overtaken by one, please step aside and stand quietly until it passes.
Blue-blazed Trails include all the rest, except a few short ones that can be followed without the help of blazes. Condition of the blue-blazed trails varies. Most are clear and smooth; but some are steep, and some are rough and rocky. In the descriptions of recommended hikes, I will tell you which ones are steep or rough.
Fire Roads. I use this term rather loosely to refer to any unpaved road in the Park, including what the Park calls fire roads, administrative roads, and service roads. Most of these begin at the edge of Skyline Drive, and are blocked by a chain to keep out unauthorized vehicles. Most of the fire roads are also designated horse trails, and are therefore marked by yellow blazes. You may hike on any of the fire roads, if you wish.
On the maps in this book, I've shown unpaved roads with a line of dashes, and foot trails with a line of dots. There's room for some confusion here. Where unpaved roads enter a wilderness area, they have been blocked with boulders to keep out all vehicles, and they have been reclassified as trails. These trails get only trail-width maintenance; but they will look like roads for a number of years, nevertheless. In all such cases I'll go along with Park policy and refer to such routes as trails. When the old roads actually look like trails, I will show them on the map with a string of dots. If they still look like roads, I will show them with a string of dashes.
In a few cases, trails are marked with blazes of two different colors. This shows that two different trails are using the same route; they will later diverge. An example: north of Compton Gap, the A.T. coincides with a fire road for nearly two miles, and the route has both white and yellow blazes.
Note: red or red-orange blazes mark the Park boundarynot a trail.
On older maps you may find some trails marked "fire foot trail". This
classification has been discontinued. The fire foot trails were mostly old
mountaineer trails that received little or no maintenance. They were
intended primarily for use by Park Rangers during emergencies. Some of
them have been upgraded into regular blue- or yellow-blazed trails; the
others have been abandoned. If your map shows fire foot trails, you need
a newer map.
|Shelters, Cabins, and Huts|
The shelters are open-faced structures with a table, fireplace, pit toilet, and spring. They once had bunks for long-distance hikers. But more and more people camped in the shelters, or beside them. The environmental impact was severe, so the bunks were removed. You may not spend the night in a shelter, or within sight of one, unless a severe storm makes it unsafe to camp elsewhere.
A few of the former shelters have been removed; others have been reclassified as Huts or Maintenance Buildings (see below). The five remaining shelters are: Byrds Nest Shelter No. 4, Mile 28.5; Byrds Nest Shelter No. 3, Mile 33.9; Old Rag Shelter (at the foot of Old Rag Mountain); Byrds Nest Shelter No. 1 (on the saddle of Old Rag Mountain); and Byrds Nest Shelter No. 2, Mile 45.6.
The cabins are log structures built or restored by PATC. They have a table and fireplace, bunks for up to twelve people, a spring, and a pit toilet. Both cabin and toilet are locked. If you're hiking near an unoccupied cabin, feel free to look it over. If the cabin is in use, please respect the occupant's privacy. To rent a cabin for yourself, get advance reservations and keys by mail from PATC. Write to Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, 118 Park Street, S.E., Vienna, VA, 22180-4609.
Five locked cabins are close to the Drive: Rangeview Cabin, Mile 22.1; Corbin Cabin,, Mile 37.9; Rock Spring Cabin, Mile 48.1; Pocosin Cabin, Mile 59.5; and Doyle River Cabin, Mile 81.1.
Seven of the former shelters have been reclassified as Appalachian Trail Huts. These have been provided with bunks, and are intended only for overnight camping by long-distance hikers on the A.T. The seven huts are: Gravel Springs A.T. Hut, Mile 17.6; Pass Mountain A.T. Hut, Mile 31.6; Rock Spring A.T. Hut, Mile 48.1; Bearfence A.T. Hut, Mile 56.8; Hightop A.T. Hut, Mile 68.6; Pinefield A.T. Hut, Mile 75.2; and Blackrock A.T. Hut, Mile 87.2.
Three of the former shelters are now PATC Maintenance Buildings,
which are used for tool storage, and sometimes provide overnight shelter
for trail workers. The three Maintenance Buildings are: Indian Run, Mile
10.4; South River, Mile 63.1; and Ivy Creek, Mile 79.4.
Below is a catalog from which you can choose a hike and then look up its description in the text. To avoid unpleasant surprises, please read the whole description before you start hiking. The catalog needs some explanation.
Start, mile, is the point on the Drive where you will park your car. Some hikes start from a campground or other developed area; for those I've given the mile point of the entrance road.
Description. Note that I've mentioned three different kinds of hikes. A round trip hike proceeds to its destination and then returns by the same route. If your main reason for walking is to see things, this kind of hike is as rewarding as any other; on the way back you'll see things that you overlooked before. A circuit hike proceeds to its destination and then returns, all or most of the way, by a different route. A one way hike proceeds to its destination and does not return at all. How can you do that? There are several ways:
Distance. Measured by pushing a measuring wheel along the trail. Recorded to the nearest tenth of a mile.
Climb. This includes not only the net change in elevation, but also all the ups and downs in the trail. Measured with an altimeter. Accurate, I think, to within five percent.
Difficulty. This is a rough indication of how tired you'll get. Hikes are rated from "1" (very easy) to "8" (very difficult). The rating is based not only on distance and amount of climbing, but also on steepness, roughness, stream crossings, etc. But don't take my ratings too literally. A young athlete in training will find all of the hikes easy. An overweight, sedentary, chain-smoking senior citizen will find all of them difficult or impossible.
Time required. I assume that you'll look at rocks and scenery and wildflowers. If your destination is a waterfall, or a viewpoint on a mountain peak, I assume that you'll spend a little time there. The figure is based on a formula: 1.5 miles per hour, with one minute added for each 20 feet of climb, and arbitrary additions for viewing the scenery, for rough or steep trails, and for rock scrambles. After testing a couple of the recommended hikes, you can adjust the listed times in accordance with your own pace.
Note: Pets are not permitted on a few of these trails. Check the signs at
|Suggestions for Hikers|
The short and easy hikes, especially in summer, require no preparation. For the longer ones, planning ahead may save you some inconvenience or discomfort.
Most of our hikes start near the top of the mountain; they take you down into a hollow and back again. Some of the downhill trails are deceptive, so that you can quickly descend a thousand feet without realizing it. Then, when you turn around and start back, comes the unpleasant surprise. You should know, first, your own strength and capabilities; and second, what you're getting into. In the above catalog of recommended hikes, the distance, climb, and difficulty figures tell you what you're getting into. If you don't know your own capabilities, test them by taking a few short hikes first.
The "Time required" figure in the above list doesn't include time for lunch, or a nap, or birdwatching. You may want to revise your time estimate to include these things.
Plan to get back well before dark. On June 21 it's dark at nine o'clock, daylight time. On December 21 it's dark at five, standard time.
Many of the trails have rough stretches where you walk on rocks that vary in size from smaller than your fist to bigger than a basketball. With thin-soled shoes, the small rocks hurt your feet; with any low shoes, walking on rocks is tiring. Sturdy hiking boots that cover your ankles are the best solution to both problems. The boots should be well broken in. If you hike with new ones, be sure to carry adhesive tape. When a boot begins to rub, stop at once. Tape your foot at the rubbing point, so that the boot rubs tape, rather than skin. Don't wait for a blister to develop.
For the longer hikes, a knapsack is almost essential. Hikes start on the ridgetop, where it's relatively cool. As you descend, and as you exercise, you'll feel warmer and begin to shed sweaters and jackets. You'll need a knapsack to put them in. And in the bottom of the knapsack should be extra clothing to take care of a sudden drop in temperature, or an unexpected night in the woods.
Take a hat. It does a lot to keep you warm if the temperature drops unexpectedly. When the weather's hot, a sun-stopping hat helps keep you cool. Gnats and small flies, buzzing around your face, can sometimes be a nuisance. I've found that a broad-brimmed hat helps keep them away from your eyes and out of your ears.
Carry rain gear. Plastic pants, jacket, and hood are light and take up little space. Standing under a tree won't keep you dry, and it can be dangerous in a thunderstorm. You'd think that with all the cliffs and ledges beside the trail, there would be overhanging rocks where you could find shelter from the rain. And there areabout one such rock in every ten miles of trail. In summer, raingear can save you some discomfort. In cooler weather it can save your life.
At any temperature below 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), if your clothes get wet and the wind blows, you're in serious danger of hypothermia. That's a condition in which your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. The only remedy is to quickly get into a warm place and out of those wet clothes. On a long hike, that's impossible. But preventing hypothermia, by using the extra sweater and raingear in your knapsack, is easy.
Besides food, extra clothing, and raingear, here are a few other things that you might want to tuck into your knapsack:
A first aid kit with antiseptic, bandaids and bandages, adhesive tape to prevent blisters, and scissors to cut it with.
Matches, in a waterproof container. (As you know, you're not permitted to build a fire in the Park, except in designated fireplaces. But in an emergency, when you must have a fire to keep warm, the rules are off.) You may some day need to start a fire in the rain, with wet wood. Camping stores sell a flammable gel that makes fire starting easier.
A flashlight, with fresh batteries.
Map and compass. For most of the hikes described in this book, the maps in the book are all you'll need. For those that I've labeled "for experienced hikers only", or for backcountry exploration, you'll need a compass and a topographic map (the kind with contour lines.) And of course you should practice reading the map and using the compass before you start exploring.
Drinking water. Take it with you, in a canteen. The springs and streams
may or may not be contaminated by the excrement of hikers, or by drainage
from a developed area. The risk is small, but it's not negligible. If you must
drink water from a spring or stream, boil it first.
|Don't Get Lost|
Because the Park is so narrow, you will never be more than a few miles from either the Skyline Drive or an inhabited area outside the Park. In summer you can't get seriously lost, though you may be inconveniently misplaced for a whilepossibly overnight.
As I've said, if you go exploring off the trails you should be prepared (and willing) to get lost, and able to find your way back. If you stay on the main trails, and follow my directions, and read all the bands on the trail marker posts, you can forget the whole subject. But nearly everybody wants to get a little way off the trail from time to time, to watch a bird, or to follow a shrew, or to photograph an orchid, or for more personal reasons. When you're ready to return to the trail, you may come on a patch of brambles and have to walk around it. And then you come to a hawthorn thicket, and make another detour. Suddenly you're aware that the trail is not where you thought. Clearly, you're going in the wrong direction. The trail is close by, but which way?
No matter; you're equipped for anything. You have extra food and clothing, water, map and compass, and even a flashlight. They're all in your knapsack, of course. You say you left your knapsack back beside the trail? Then you have a problem.
The best time to solve that problem is before you take your first step off the trail. Note the position of the sun. For example, if it's directly behind you when you leave the trail, it will be directly in front as you return. In cloudy weather, take a compass reading, and know the compass direction that will bring you back to the trail. And of course the map and compass belong in your pants pockets, not in your knapsack or jacket, For maximum safety, take the knapsack with you when you follow that shrew into the woods.
Explorers sometimes get lost in spite of precautions. When you know you're lost, your natural tendency is to walk faster. If it's nearly dark, or if the weather's getting bad, you may even be tempted to run. Don't do it. Panic is your enemy. Although the Park is narrow, there's plenty of room to walk or run in circles until you're exhausted.
Sit down and think. Look at the map. Try to figure out where you left the trail, and approximately where you are now. Plot a compass course that will take you back to the trail, and then follow it. If your sense of direction tells you the compass is wrong, believe the compass anyway.
Now suppose you've lost the compass, or for some other reason can't get back to the trail, and darkness is coming on. Then prepare to spend the night as comfortably as you can. You'll have a better chance of survival than if you hurry along until you're exhausted, and then spend the night. If someone knows you're overdue, and if the weather is such that spending the night in the woods might be dangerous, then wait for the search party to find you. It will come, sooner or later.
When all else fails, there's one last resort. If you started at the Drive and walked downhill, then you'll find the Drive again by walking uphill. Or, if you walk downhill, preferably following a stream, you will eventually come to civilization.
That's enough advice for summer hikers. Winter hiking is a separate
subject, which I'll take up a little later.
Camping in the backcountry, carrying your own food and shelter, is a rewarding experience. Doing it successfully is a complicated art, and I won't go into it here. Before you buy your equipment, get some expert advice preferably from a friend who's an experienced backpacker. Second best is to read a book on the subject. Worst is to follow the advice of a salesman, who would like to sell you equipment. After you buy your outfit, test it thoroughly by camping in your back yard, or in a campground, before you start out into the wilderness.
The Park's sales outlets have a number of books on hiking, including:
Circuit Hikes in Shenandoah National Park, published by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. 86 pages, describing 22 circuit hikes of from three to 21 miles. I have described most of these hikes in this book, but from a somewhat different viewpoint. The Circuit Hikes book is small enough to tuck into a pocket. It has a two-color contour map for each hike.
Guide to the Appalachian Trail and Side Trails in Shenandoah National
Park, also published by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. 263 pages.
Describes the trails in both directions. A lot of information about trails, but
with little or no interpretation of what you see. Primarily a book for Walkers.