Backcountry Sights

Photos and stories from the outdoors

Shenandoah Piney Ridge Loop

I returned to Shenandoah National Park this weekend for a short 2-day, 1-night trip to Piney Ridge. In contrast to my visit in March, the temperatures were warm and comfortable, and my water remained in a liquid state at all times during the trip. I loved seeing the park in a different season, and particularly enjoyed revisiting a few spots from the March trip.

Trip Planning

View on Map

The two best maps for this trip are the Shenandoah National Park National Geographic map and the PATC #9 map. Each has its own advantages. The PATC map is more detailed, is potentially more up to date, and is geared specifically toward backpackers. On the other hand, the PATC map is missing mileage increments between trail junctions, which is a feature I love on the National Geographic maps. Either map will work fine; I took a copy of the NatGeo map because I already had one.

I followed one of the pre-made itineraries supplied by Shenandoah National Park, specifically the route entitled “Pass Mountain and Piney Ridge.” The directions on the itinerary are helpful, but you really need a map to navigate this route without errors. Note that the NatGeo map does not mark the lesser used trails and differs slightly from the USGS maps (and potentially the PATC map) as far as trail names and mileage go.

Permits are required and can be obtained from several different Shenandoah visitors centers. They are available free of charge and, to my knowledge, are not limited in number at all (i.e., there is no quota on permits).

Pass Mountain Trail to Piney Ridge

June 10, 2017 | 11.18 mi | +3561′ / -2322′

It takes me a while to get out of the DC metropolitan area. I make it a few miles down the road and realize I’ve forgotten my shoes at home (I wear sandals most of the time). After sitting in traffic for a frustrating 30 minutes, I arrive back home, grab the shoes, and hit the road again. Traffic thins as I put more and more distance between myself and the suburbs. Soon, the 6-lane DC highways transition into 2-lane roads winding through the hills of northern Virginia. I’m beginning to relax already, and I haven’t even begun hiking!

After paying the park entrance fee, I cruise down Skyline Drive, passing a dozen cyclists on the way. I meet briefly with a ranger to get a permit and then hop back in the car for some more leisurely driving to get to the trailhead.

The parking area for the Pass Mountain Trail (or Turn Bridge Trail on the USGS maps) is a small pull-out area a few hundred feet down Highway 211 from the trailhead. Crossing the street is a little nerve wracking – both directions are blind, banked curves and cars fly by at 40+ mph. I listen for cars and make a run for it when it sounds clear.

The first few miles of trail ascend from the highway up to the Appalachian Trail. Initially, the trail is wide and clear. However, after the junction of Turn Bridge Trail and Pass Mountain Trail, the route becomes more… wild. Long grass flanks the single track path and I have to duck under a few leaning trees while making my way upward. Many of the forest wildflowers are still in bloom, which adds some color and festivity to the walk. I’d like to learn more of the plant names; I had to look up the Fly Poison flowers pictured below to find their name.

Amianthium fly poison flower shenandoah

A few Amianthium (Fly Poison) blossoms on the forest floor, illuminated by a stray sunbeam.

Another mile of hiking on mostly flat trail brings me to the Pass Mountain Shelter. I meet four Appalachian Trail thru-hikers taking a lunch break. I join them and chat a little bit, but don’t stay long. The next several miles are mostly flat and almost completely sheltered from the afternoon sun underneath a thick canopy of leaves. The weather report forecasts temperatures in the 80’s and 90’s, but it doesn’t feel that hot in the shade!

forest canopy HDR

Little light makes it through the forest canopy down to me; this photo is a composite of three pictures taken at different exposure levels to capture the sky and trees together.

After passing the summit of Pass Mountain, the trail begins a steep descent to Skyline Drive. I make good use of my new trekking poles (these guys) to reduce the stress on my knees and feet. I’m still working on my technique with the poles and sometimes I trip myself up or roll my ankle because I’m focussed on the poles instead of my feet. This is why I’m practicing now before I head out west in July to hike the John Muir Trail!

At Skyline Drive I leave the Appalachian Trail and take a horse trail to the Hull School Trail. Similar to the Pass Mountain Trail, much of this section is incredibly overgrown. The long grass tangles with my trekking poles, turning them into a literal drag, so I carry them in one hand for a while. The temperature and high humidity are beginning to affect my mood a little. I was hoping for a few views from one of these ridges, but the thick woods block my view.

As I descend to the Thornton River, the landscape begins to turn into a bit of a jungle. Puddles of water block the trail in a few spots and the humidity increases. I pass a couple with their dog who report they are planning on camping near the Thornton River. Perhaps they know a nice dry spot, but I can’t imagine being comfortable here.

I rock hop over the Thornton River but don’t quite manage to keep my feet dry. Oh well – it’s warm and I have plenty of walking left to do, so my shoes will dry! I continue on the Hull School Trail and climb a ridge before dropping down to the Piney River. This little valley is much more pleasant: the ground is dry, there is a breeze to mitigate the stifling humidity, and the forest isn’t quite so overgrown with jungle-like foliage. I take off my pack and rest for a few minutes while purifying a few liters of water. My campsite tonight is miles from a water source, so this water will have to last me until I leave camp tomorrow morning. I briefly consider changing my itinerary to camp near a few springs on the next ridge over but decide to stick with my original plan for safety reasons – I left my itinerary with folks at home and it’s best that I don’t stray too far since I’m traveling alone.

After a relaxing break at the Piney River, I backtrack along the Hull School Trail until I reach the Piney Ridge Trail. Turning north onto this path, I begin the last ascent of the day. This trail, like many of the others I’ve traversed today, is also thick with overgrown grass. Perhaps the park maintenance crews have not had time to clear the brush this season or it could be that these trails just don’t get much traffic. Whatever the reason for the dense plants, I prefer that trails be less-maintained rather than over-maintained (e.g., paved or mulched…). The sense of adventure and exploration is fun!

Up on Piney Ridge, a breeze whispers through the trees and cools me down after the ascent from the Piney River. I begin to scan the surrounding forest for camping sites, but locating a suitable spot proves to be difficult. Although the foliage is less dense than it was down by the Thornton River, the ground is far from clear. I’m really hoping for some pine trees (it is called Piney Ridge); the ground beneath pines is usually clear of thick brush and the fallen needles make for a soft bed.

Within 20 minutes of reaching the flat top of the ridge, I find some pines. Excited, I drop my pack and spring between fallen trees off the trail to look for flat spots clear of plant life (leave-no-trace ethics dictate that campsites not smother plants). I find a perfect little spot a few hundred feet from the trail! I set up my tent but leave the rain fly off. If I remember correctly, the forecast does not predict any rain this weekend and I need a pillow anyway.

nemo hornet tent forest piney ridge

I use the rainfly as a pillow and sleep with a view of the trees on Piney Ridge

Once I finish setting up camp, I boil some water and enjoy CousCous with some dehydrated veggies and nuts for dinner. I’ve brought along a tiny bottle of olive oil to add some calories to the mix as well. After eating, I brush my teeth, pack away my scented items in a bear can and then settle down in my tent to relax. I read  John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra for the next few hours and listen to the local wildlife as the sun sinks lower and lower in the sky.

Normally on solo backpacking trips, I experience a healthy dose of fear around this time of day. Intellectually, I know there is nothing to be afraid of. Bears are easily scared off if they venture into camp, and there aren’t many poisonous snakes or other creatures around. Driving to Shenandoah is probably the most dangerous part of the entire trip. Still, on previous trips I’ve succumbed to at least a little illogical fear. However, I haven’t felt very afraid today! I wonder if that’s because I’m beginning to get used to solo backpacking? I suppose time and more trips will tell.

The sun sets at about 8:30 and I find a good stopping spot in my book. I could turn on the screen backlight or use my headlight to illuminate the Kindle, but I’m tired and don’t really need an excuse to go to bed. I’m trying out a new pad this weekend – a small NeoAir XLite. The pad 47 inches long, so I can easily fit my entire torso and hips on it but my legs are left hanging off the end. To avoid cold feet, I’ve propped them up on my mostly empty backpack which includes a large piece of foam that normally acts as a back pad. It’s an efficient use of gear and I’m proud to have eliminated my heavier (and much bulkier) closed foam pad from my pack. It’s also perfectly comfortable, so it doesn’t take me too long to drift off to sleep.

Return from Piney Ridge via the AT

June 11, 2017 | 11.75 mi | +2105′ / -3338′

I wake up early with the sun and munch on some muesli for breakfast. While muesli is packed with nutrients, it isn’t particularly tasty as a trail food. For future muesli cooking, I’ll probably add some extra dried fruit or let it rehydrate while I sleep as a sort of overnight oats.

After eating, I pack up my gear and make a sweep of the area to make sure I haven’t dropped anything. There’s a faint outline of my tent footprint in the pine needles, but otherwise no trace to hint that I spent the night here. Perfect!

I clamber over the fallen pine trees that encircle my campsite and return to the Piney Ridge Trail. Almost immediately after continuing down the path I find bear scat. It’s definitely recent, i.e., within the past 12 hours, because I scouted this section of trail last night while hunting for a campsite and didn’t see it. Remember how I was comfortable with being alone in the wilderness last night? Yeah, now I’m experiencing a healthy dose of fear. I wonder if the bear ventured over to my campsite last night? The bear can was untouched, so that seems unlikely. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the bear knew I was there; they can easily smell food (and humans) from miles away.

I continue walking up the trail, taking care to make a reasonable amount of noise so that I don’t startle any bears foraging in the dense brush that lines the trail. I step over several more piles of bear scat along the way and wonder if I’m following the bear and how far ahead it is.

Soon I leave the Piney Ridge Trail and turn south onto the more established Appalachian Trail. Because the trail is better maintained, I’m able to walk more quickly and take advantage of my trekking poles again. I also feel a little more comfortable with the bear situation after walking past some thru-hikers camped near the trail.

The AT descends several hundred feet to Elkwallow Gap and the Wayside store there. The store is not open yet, but I’m able to refill my water bottles from a spigot on the back side of one of the buildings. This is one of the only spots to access water along my route today, so I drink as much as I can before filling both bottles and continuing down the trail.

After a climb of several hundred feet, I find myself on an incredibly pleasant flat section of the AT. I encounter a few more piles of bear poop (maybe the bear is thru-hiking SOBO…) but otherwise relish the easy walking. Every once in a while I spot a few blue, hazy mountains in the distance through gaps in the trees. The trail follows the ridge for miles with only gentle ups and downs, the morning air is cool, and there is a nice breeze too!

pass mountain trail

My favorite kind of trail: flat, easy to walk on, and beautiful.

I don’t encounter many other hikers on the trail for a few hours, which I attribute to my early start. I inevitably wake up at or before dawn when I’m camping. If you go to bed when it gets dark, waking up at dawn is usually a very reasonable amount of sleep! However, most people I’ve camped with do not share my early-morning wake times. To each their own, I suppose. I love the quiet and solitude on the trail in the early morning hours.

Eventually, the easy ridge walk ends and I find myself getting a bit of exercise climbing up and down inclines. The Appalachian Trail parallels Skyline Drive through the park and sometimes passes directly underneath the overlook points on the scenic drive. I pause at a few of these points to enjoy the views.

shenandoah skyline drive view blue mountains

You can see how the Blue Mountains got their name!

Despite the slightly more difficult terrain, I make excellent time and reach the summit of Pass Mountain at about 10 AM, which means I’ve covered nearly 10 miles this morning! The weather is supposed to take a turn for the very hot (highs above 95 F!) this afternoon, so I’m gunning for an early return to my air conditioned car. However, I only have a few miles to go so I take a break for a little while on top of Pass Mountain and enjoy looking out on Virginia while eating the rest of the trail mix I packed. A few bees hover around and land on my arms and legs but, as it seems they’re curious and not angry, I let them sniff around. I don’t exactly smell like flowers, so I’m not sure why they’re interested.

pass mountain shenandoah national park

I take a few minutes to eat a snack and enjoy the view from Pass Mountain

The final few miles of trail descends about 1600′. I rely on my trekking poles to ease the stress on my knees and, while I’m moderately successful, I still have to take a few breaks to rest from the joint-pounding descent. I’m glad to finally reach my car at noon. Before going in search of lunch, I walk down the hill a little bit to a nearby creek and soak my feet for a few minutes. The water is surprisingly cold and feels great on my tired feet. I change into sandals and then drive back into Shenandoah National Park.

When I was here in March, my friends and I read about blackberry milkshakes in one of the AT shelter logs. The thru-hikers last summer raved about them, but, because the entire park was closed due to the snow and ice, we weren’t able to try them. The park is no longer closed, snowy, or icy, so I drive to the Big Meadows Wayside store to get a shake as well as some lunch.

The drive from Thornton Gap to Big Meadows lasts nearly an hour and I enjoy glancing out the window. I notice a few of the peaks my friends and I summited in March – they seem much higher and more impressive from the road! I also enjoy reminiscing about the spots we visited closer to the road: the section we slipped down while road walking, the Dark Hollow Falls trailhead where we emerged into the sunshine after surviving a night of single-digit temperatures (F)… so many memories!

big meadows shenandoah national park

Quite a different view from the last time I was here; all the snow is gone! I love the various shades of green in the meadow grasses

Back in March, my friends and I actually came to the Big Meadows Wayside store and begged for access to their running water (ours was frozen solid…). At the time, staffers were just beginning to stock the shelves, so I appreciate seeing the store fully provisioned. I order a black bean burger with fries and a blackberry milkshake. The food is delicious and very filling. I can see why the thru-hikers rave about the milkshake! It’s incredibly sweet – too sweet, really – and the cold dessert is refreshing on this hot afternoon.

lunch wayside shendandoah

I enjoyed a black bean burger, fries, and the famous blackberry milkshake

After eating my fill, I hop in the car, turn on some good music, and meander back up Skyline Drive to Thornton Gap. In the interest of time, I leave the scenic road in favor of a nearby county highway. Cell service is non-existent but I remember the way back to Front Royal from the driving I did here a few months ago. Once on the interstate near Front Royal, bumper to bumper traffic offers a rude “welcome back to civilization” greeting. Oh well; until the next time, wilderness. It’s been a great weekend!

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