Backcountry Sights

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A Night on the Tuscarora Trail

The Tuscarora Trail is a 250-mile long alternate route to the Appalachian Trail (AT) between Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and Cove Mountain in Pennsylvania. However, it isn’t a very popular alternate so there are ample opportunities for solitude, particularly once the trail exits Shenandoah. I joined some folks from the DC Ultralight Backpacking (DCUL) group for this quick weekend trip along the first 25 miles of the Tuscarora.

Trip Planning

Specs: 25.7 mi | +3800 / -4100 ft | 1.5 days, 1 night

Difficulty: Class 1 [learn more]

Location: Shenandoah National Park and George Washington National Forest | View on Map

Route: The Tuscarora Trail begins near Hogback Mountain on Skyline Drive; we picked up the AT near Little Hogback Mountain, but there are plenty of other parking options within a few miles. Follow the AT to the start of the Tuscarora Trail, then follow this latter route to Elizabeth Furnace in George Washington National Forest (sections 21 and 22 of the trail). This is a point-to-point hike, so you’ll need to arrange transportation between trailheads ahead of time (cell service is mediocre).

Route map

Permits and Regulations: Although this route begins in Shenandoah National Park, you quickly reach George Washington National Forest where dispersed camping is allowed without a permit. As always, follow the leave no trace principles!

Resources: The Tuscarora Trail website is a great place to begin. For more detailed information about camping regulations, visit the George Washington National Forest website. There are several map options for this section of the trail: PATC maps G and 9 cover the entire route and then some. I personally carried the National Geographic map for Shenandoah National Park, as I already owned it and it covers the entire route (including the sections outside the park boundary).

Shenandoah to Massanutten

June 1, 2019 | 16.0 mi | +2000 / -3800 ft | View on Map

It’s a cool, sunny morning, much cooler than it’s been during the past week. I’m grateful for that; backpacking in hot, humid conditions is much fun. Our group of 8 has spent the past few hours traveling to Shenandoah and setting up our shuttle: we parked two cars at the exit trailhead and are leaving the other two cars here in Shenandoah. As soon as everyone is ready, we cross Skyline Drive and begin walking south-bound on the AT. Every once in a while, we catch glimpses of the surrounding countryside through a gap in the trees, but are mostly hedged in by the thick canopy.

About two miles down the trail we reach the junction with the Tuscarora Trail. In contrast to the AT, which follows the relatively flat ridge, the Tuscarora Trail descends steeply. We follow the blue blazes that mark the Tuscarora, passing a small black bear foraging near the trail along the way! There’s no sign of a larger, protective parent anywhere nearby, but we keep on walking; it’s best not to disturb the wildlife.

For a few miles, we’re surrounded by plenty of other outdoor enthusiasts who are also taking advantage of the marvelous weather. Many are hiking to Overall Run, a tall waterfall located only a few miles from the AT and Skyline Drive. We pause for lunch on a rocky outcropping overlooking the falls and chat for a while.

shenandoah overall run
We pause for lunch on a rocky outcropping overlooking Overall Run

After eating and resting, we continue down the trail for several more miles, still accompanied by plenty of day hikers and backpackers. Once we pass the turn-off for the nearby Thompson Hollow trailhead, however, the number of other hikers drops to zero. The Tuscarora soon diverges from the well-maintained park trails, becoming a much wilder, more overgrown path. I love faint single-track trails… they inspire a wonderful sense of adventure without leaving you completely directionless.

The appreciation I and the others feel for the wilderness diminishes abruptly when we begin discovering numerous ticks on our clothes and bodies; the overgrown trail does have some disadvantages. I have fewer ticks than some of the others, likely thanks to my long pants, but still find several burrowed into my skin throughout the day.

An hour or two after lunch, we reach the boundary of Shenandoah National Park and begin a long section of road walking. The countryside is beautiful and stereotypical of rural Virginia (at one point, we’re passed by a bunch of teenagers drinking beer in the back of an old pickup…), but hot without the protection of the dense forest. On the flip side, there aren’t any ticks on the road!

rural virginia
We spend a significant section of the afternoon trekking through rural Virginia on small roads like this one

The road walking seems to stretch on for hours, and the group spreads out a bit as we settle into our own paces. Late in the afternoon, we regroup where the Tuscarosa finally leaves the road. In an adjoining parking lot, a group of volunteers are busy setting up an aid station for ultra-marathoners. Any self pity I’m feeling from the long, hot afternoon is quickly dispelled when I learn that the runners will be nearing the end of their 100-mile race here.

The final push of the day begins with a sandy trail that ascends toward the ridge of the Massanutten Mountains. The sand gives way to rock and the trail climbs diagonally up the ridge until it intersects with the Massanutten Trail and the Veach Gap Trail. Our route follows the Veach Gap Trail a short distance to the Little Crease Shelter. It’s very similar to the AT shelters: it’s got a three walls, a roof, a wooden floor, some plywood bunk beds, and (probably) a healthy mouse population.

Everyone in the group opts to camp rather than sleep in the shelter, and we disperse to set up our tents. Once I have the tent set up, the first order of business is to inspect my entire body for ticks. I find several more, remove them carefully with tweezers, and then kill them. There are several rogue ticks crawling along the inside of my pants, so I remove and kill them too. I’ll leave spiders, ants, and other bugs alive, but ticks and mosquitoes must die.

As dusk falls, we all cook dinner on the porch of the shelter and shoot the breeze for a while. A few ultra-marathoners jog past the shelter while we relax, looking tired and tough. Hiker midnight (9PM) arrives soon and, tired from the long day, I retire to the tent and go to bed.

Massanutten Trail

June 2, 2019 | 8.7 mi | +1800 / -2300 ft | View on Map

I wake up early, a little before sunrise, and pack up my gear. I eat breakfast with the others outside the shelter and filter some water from the nearby creek. Not long after sunrise, we’re on the Massanutten Trail again, climbing back toward the ridgetop. It’s a rocky trail and a great ankle dexterity exercise. It’s also a great place to pick up some more ticks…

massanutten trail
Hiking the Massanutten Trail is an exercise in foot dexterity; there are rocks everywhere!

The climb doesn’t take long, and we’re soon strolling along the rocky ridge line. A cool breeze blows through the trees, and the soft colors of sunrise still linger near the horizon. We spend some time relaxing on a rock that overlooks the Shenandoah River, soaking in the view and enjoying the peaceful morning.

shenandoah river
The Shenandoah River winds lazily through the valley

The Massanutten Trail sticks to the ridge line for several miles; it’s a fun trek, with lots of scenic diversity and careful footwork to keep the mind occupied. A few hours’ walk past our morning lookout spot, the Tuscarosa Trail descends down from the ridge in a series of rocky switchbacks. Almost immediately after leaving the ridge, the humidity increases dramatically, a disappointing change from the comfortable ridge-top conditions.

The trail levels out along the banks of Passage Creek, where the ruins of an old iron furnace remain. I pause long enough to read the informational signs but my feet are tired; I’m eager to get back to the car and — most importantly — to lunch!

The final mile to the trailhead taunts us with a steep uphill climb, just enough to get us all sweaty. We don’t waste much time in the parking lot and make a beeline for a brewery in Front Royal. Thanks to our early start this morning and fast hiking, we beat the Sunday lunch rush and enjoy burgers and beers out on the patio (aren’t we considerate for keeping our stinky selves outside?), a great conclusion to the trip.

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1 Comment

  1. james cox 1 July 2019

    watch out for lime disease…nasty stuff. Sound like a great trip. grandpa

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