Our first “big” adventure of the year began on Memorial Day Weekend, we packed up and headed southeast to the mountains of Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains specifically, and Shenandoah National Park. It’s a long narrow park, with Skyline Drive (basically the Blue Ridge Parkway extended) running on top of the ridges straight through the heart of the park for it’s 105 mile length. These are ancient mountains, over 1 billion years old, weathered to half their original size. Evidence of volcanic activity abound.
We arrived early Sunday morning, entering the park from the south end, cruising past more overlooks than you can count. We decided to find an easy leg stretcher of a hike to wake us up, so we headed for Blackrock Summit. But shortly before arriving at the trailhead, we were treated to our first black bear sighting, a big boy off the side of the road eating in a grassy area. We admired him for several minutes, of all our bear sightings in the Smokies in the past, this was by far superior!
We continued to Blackrock Summit, a short 1.5 mile hike mostly following the Appalachian Trail to a very rocky peak. You could spend hours climbing on the rocks, we chose to simply hike through and around them (not quite awake yet). It is believed this is the remains of an ancient volcano, primarily made of greenstone (a metamorphic rock originally formed by magma). Mountain Laurel was just blooming at this elevation. A nice hike.
Check out our Blackrock Summit video:
We continued up Skyline Drive, stopped at the visitors center at Big Meadows, and continued up to Skyland, where we parked for our next hike, up to Stony Man Summit. Another short hike, but with a little more elevation gain. Stony Man is the second highest peak in Shenandoah, at 4011′ it’s only 40 feet below the highest peak (Hawksbill). As expected, Stony Man was crawling with tourists. No way to avoid it, it was a holiday weekend, and right beside Skyland. Still, we carved out our own little spot atop Stony Man and enjoyed the veiws, and watched the Peregrine Falcons. We’re all about stone outcrops with big views.
Check out the video experience of Stony Man:
After that, we headed out of the park to the Shenandoah Valley town of Luray, Virginia. Rare for us, we actually rented a cabin for this trip instead of camping. We knew we were going to do some hardcore hiking, so having a soft bed to sleep in and a hot tub to recuperate seemed like a wise decision. Our cabin was right on the south fork of the Shenandoah River (Gander Island Cabins). The history of the area couldn’t be missed, many civil war battles raged in this valley. The bridge over the river 1/4 mile up from our cabin was burnt down by Stonewall Jackson himself to slow the union army.
That following Monday, Memorial Day, we headed east to Washington, D.C. Our original intent was to split this vacation, every other day, between hikes in Shenandoah and exploring D.C. But this was the only day we went to D.C., seen the White House, monuments, and visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The Washington Mall was completely torn up as they try to repair the surface, apparently. Just not a very pretty sight. There were more things we wanted to do in D.C. (visit the Smithsonian Zoo, Smithsonian Castle, Air & Space Museum) but ultimately, the one day experience there tired us out way more than hiking mountains! So that was our only day in D.C. One cool thing was on our way back to our parking garage, just to the side of the White House, Secret Service came out and held us back while some VIP officials in multiple black vehicles came racing through the streets and straight into the White House compound. The President? VP? Unknown. We did enjoy ice cream from one of the many food trucks there as well!
Walking for miles in sandals around D.C. probably wasn’t a good idea considering we had all these hikes we wanted to do in Shenandoah! So the next couple days we did some “easier” hikes. Or so we thought when we planned them. The hike out to Overall Run Falls was only a 2.5 mile hike out, so 5 mile round trip, not hard at all for us…other than the fact there was more uphill than we expected. It was an awesome hike though, seen two black bear, nearly stepped on a rattle snake, and a milk snake. Now that’s adventure! We played in the first waterfall, but it’s the second waterfall that will take your breath away. There was no trail down to the second falls, probably for the best considering the view point is from the top and that would be a long climb down and back. Overall Run Falls is the highest falls in the park, and I’d say the most spectacular. This is a view that could rival the big views of larger Western parks.
Check out our video for the full experience!
On Wednesday, we headed further into the north section of Shenandoah, up to Compton Peak. An easy-ish hike of maybe 3 miles round trip, with a gradual climb from the trailhead. It follows the Appalachian Trail to the top, where there is an east and a west spur off of the A.T. We took the east one first, which goes down to an amazing rock outcrop, that can only be fully appreciated when you go below it. It is made of huge columnar basalts, 800 million year old lava flows that cooled and solidified into these geometric columns. I stood in awe of them, while Robin challenged herself to climb the loose rock back to the top.
We then took the west spur to the other side of the mountain, where we ate lunch atop a rock outcrop with amazing views across Shenandoah Valley.
Check out the full video:
So Thursday finally arrived, the weather was overcast with the threat of rain, but this was our big day, the hike up Old Rag Mountain. We had been planning for months to do this hike. At 9 miles, 2200′ elevation gain, and a rock scramble that requires some rock climbing skills, we were pumped. Arriving just before 9am, we set off. It’s .8 mile from the parking area just to reach the actual trailhead, then it enters a dense forest with a gradual climb, dotted with boulders the size of a house. Awesome! But that climb all at the beginning of the hike wears ya down quick, so it took us a couple hours before we even reached the rock scramble. Once in though, wow! We’ve never experienced anything like that. Kaden was a bit overwhelmed, but he took direction and powered through it. There is no way to describe that rock scramble, but our video gives a really good account. Once to the summit, we rejoiced. We still had over 5 miles to hike to get back, but we knew it was all easy and downhill. We made it back after 6pm, a long day, but one that still puts a smile on our face.
Watch the video! Just do it!
Friday, we were completely spent. As much as we wanted to be out on the trails, we need to recuperate. We relaxed at the cabin, and then took an afternoon drive into the park. Heading south on Skyline, just watching for wildlife. We hit the jackpot too! On this drive, we ended up seeing 5 bears. Two individual either on the roadside or just inside the woods. But the best was right by the stables at Skyland, Robin spotted a mama bear and two cubs. We watched them play in the woods, then they came out and crossed the road into another stand of woods. We probably watched them a half hour. Kaden loved it!
Here is Kaden’s video when we first spotted the bears:
On Saturday, Kaden and I spent the day together, went for a half day hike out to Hazel Creek Falls & Cave. It was the best hike as far as not seeing other people go, it was just he and I until our return trip almost back to the car. The hike was easy enough out on Hazel Mountain, with a hard climb down to the falls for the last 1/4 mile. The falls were more of a long cascade of falls, and the “cave” wasn’t long at all, just enough for an animal to make a den in maybe. Still a very serene place, that doesn’t get many visitors.
Hazel Creek Falls:
Sunday came, our 8th and final day, time to pack up. But not until one more hike! We drove down Skyline to the Big Meadows district, and hiked the Dark Hollow Falls Trail. It follows Hogcamp Branch, which drains the Big Meadows swamp. The creek quickly turns into multiple cascading waterfalls, very beautiful. Lots of quartzite in the rocks everywhere. We took our time and enjoyed the sights and sounds, knowing this was our last hurrah in the park. On our climb back up the trail, we rounded a corner almost right into a bear family! Less than 30 feet in front of us, on the hillside, was a mama bear and two cubs. We froze, then slowly all three of us grabbed our cameras, LOL. The mama bear didn’t see us as any kind of threat and just kept on munching and moving, the two cubs following along. It was surreal. That made our final tally, 12 bear sightings for the week. What a great way to end our vacation.
Salamanders, waterfalls, and bears, oh my! Video evidence: