View Full Version : Trip Report (long): First Time Solo: Southern District SNP

04-30-2014, 23:29
I recently completed my first solo backpack which covered the Southern District of the Shenandoah National Park. I am not the most experienced backpacker so this was a pretty exciting trip for me. Most of my backpacking was back in 2004-2005 in preparation for going with my son to Philmont. Since then I have tried to go for a weekend once per year, but didnít get a chance to go last year. Most of my backpacking has been in the Grayson Highlands area. I work out at our YMCA two to three times per week and I have been practicing walking around the trail at our local lake with a full pack. I do a five or an eight mile walk. The longest I have ever done in a day was 13 miles on the last day at Philmont and that was mostly downhill. I am 51 years old, 6í5Ē and 260 lbs so I am not the most young and svelte man in the woods. My gear is lightweight, but not ultralight. With me going backpacking a couple of nights per year, itís not a good investment for me.

I started my trip on a Thursday afternoon, being dropped off at Swift Run Gap. Hightop Mountain loomed in front of me and I was quickly reminded that I donít get a chance to walk on long uphill climbs and I think I could feel the altitude(I live at 300 ft above sea level) a little as well. I made up to the top after several rests. The spring at the top was flowing pretty well. My goal was to make it the 9.5 miles to Simmons Gap by 6pm, water up at the spigot, and find a place to tent for the night. I made it there and took advantage of the picnic table there to have a dehydrated meal supper. I did not see any place to stay for the night so I started walking again at about 6:45pm and was not able to find a place to tent until a mile later at the top of Weaver Mountain. I hung the bear bag, set up the tent, and I was quickly out for the night.

On Friday morning I was on the trail by 7am. I knew it was supposed to rain in the afternoon and I wanted to complete as much of my walk as I could before the rain. I had done a circuit hike near Loft Mountain three years ago and I thought I remembered that the Dundo Picnic grounds had picnic tables under cover. My goal was to walk the 12 miles to Dundo by 1pm, take a long break, and then stay at or just beyond the Blackrock shelter on Friday night. I didnít see another person on the trail until I saw some day hikers just prior to Loft Mountain. Just after that I saw a bear cub (my only bear of the trip) and then ran into a few thru hikers. I was struggling going up the hills. It was frustrating and embarrassing. At some points I was stopping to rest every fifty yards. It started raining just as I got to the Dundo picnic grounds just after 1pm. Drat, no cover on the picnic tables. The wind was picking up so I set up my small tarp on the leeward side of the pit toilet buildings that are there. I ate lunch and then laid down to take a rest and wait out the rain. I was tired. The problem was I was pretty sweaty and the rain and wind was coming harder and the temperature dropped. I started getting a little hypothermia and teeth chattering so I went into the pit toilet, got on my dry sleep clothes, and got warm and safe. I know that sitting in the pit toilet was probably not the right thing to do, but it was the smart thing to do. The rain and wind was coming down heavy now so I moved all my gear inside, made one of the best cups of coffee I have ever had and waited out the storm. Finally after about two and one-half hours total the rain subsided to a trickle. I put on my gear and started walking again. Within fifteen minutes the rain and wind stopped and we had brilliant sunshine. I stopped at the Blackrock summit to see clearly across a cloud filled valley. I made it to the Blackrock shelter at about 5:30pm. I thought about going another mile or two, but with the great water source and already setting a PR in distance at about fifteen miles I decided to stop. I set up my tent instead of staying in the shelter to stay out of the way of the thru hikers (and I snore loudly). There were two thru hikers already there and shortly after six more arrived. I had an enjoyable time with the fellowship with the thru hikers. They were all great people and I left with a great admiration for them and good thoughts headed their way.

Knowing there was no water for fourteen miles the next day at the Calf Mountain shelter, I drank a full liter of water and headed out shortly after 7am with three liters on board. My goal was to make it to the hill beyond Calf Mountain where the communication towers are at and spend the night. It looked level there and it would be a short five mile walk to the Rockfish Gap entrance the next morning where my wife would pick me up. I was thinking how embarrassing it was going to be to walk from the shelter up to the ridge, having to stop frequently like I did on Friday. I headed out and something was different. I had some trail legs! I slowed myself down taking smaller steps and steadily made it up the hill. I had the same success the next couple of ups as well. This was good. I got onto the pretty flat Wildcat Ridge and I was smokiní (for me). It is too bad that there is not a water source on that ridge because there are some nice tenting spots. At one point I took a little rest before Turk Gap and a couple of weekenders (like me) came by and told me about the circuit hike they were doing for the weekend. They had a lot of electronic gadgets on board and one of them had a large sheath knife on one hip and a tied down pistol on the other leg. I just nodded and wished them well. I made the first ten miles to the Sawmill Run overlook at about 11:45am. I knew that the trip up Calf Mountain was going to be hard, but even with a long rest here, I should be at my stopping point at about 4:30pm. HmmmÖmy in-laws were in Charlottesville and I was not going to get to see them for the weekend. Maybe I could hike the last five miles out this afternoon, but that would mean going twenty miles for the day. I looked at the map and, hey wait a minute, the entrance station is a mile inside the park and is nine miles away from here, not ten. I decided to go for it. I called my wife and told her to plan on picking me up at the entrance station at about 6:30PM. I ate lunch and I headed out for my last nine miles at about 1pm. When I got to Jarman Gap I had to make a decision. I knew from the thru hikers that the spring at Calf Mountain was flowing well, but it was .2 miles each way and it was going to take all the old fat man had to make it to the entrance station at 6:30pm. The spring at Jarman Gap was not flowing well, but the creek was. I decided to get a liter of water there and carry it up the hill instead of walking the extra distance to the spring. The realization that I was stretching my physical limits hit me hard during these last nine miles. Calf Mountain was hard as was the uphill past the last gap (McCormick) was a beast. I canít imagine tackling that one if it were wet. One thing I learned walking that last ridge in is that there is a drag strip near Waynesboro and they have racing on Saturday night with qualifying at about 5:00pm. It was an unexpected sound, but one that brought back some good memories of attending drag races.

I was picked up at 6:30pm, took a quick shower at the hotel, and had a great meal outdoors at the downtown mall in Charlottesville with my family and in-laws. It was a fulfilling weekend for me going forty-four miles in three days/two nights, but I have been paying for it. I exhausted my right knee was and was not able to go on the elliptical trainer last night. It is not an acute injury and I am sure I will be fine in another day or so. I plan on doing the North and Central sections of the park next year and I plan on doing it in a six day run. I plan on going southbound again so I can meet new people each day. Some things I will do different is:
-Stay in the twelve miles or so per day range. It will be better for my body.
-Go slower and enjoy the trail.
-Stay at the shelter tent sites where possible. With only walking six hours for an eight hour or so day, there will be a lot of down time and having fellowship at the shelters and having a water source will be a good way to spend the down time.
-Bring more to give away to the thru hikers. I brought some Starbucks via straws of coffee to give away and I gave away an extra trash bag. Next time I will bring several trash bags to give away. They all seemed to be in need of them.
- Leave the pump at home. Itís a pound and the water flow was good enough that using purification tablets was fine.

I am heading to Grayson Highlands in late June for three nights to take my nephew from Florida on his first backpacking trip and I am looking forward to it. We are going to take it very easy to help him acclimate to the altitude and the trail.

I appreciate all of the info I was able to read on these forums to help make my first solo successful.

05-01-2014, 00:31
Congrats on the good time. Sounds like you learned a lot as well.

Rocket Jones
05-01-2014, 06:05
Good report. Glad you had fun.

05-01-2014, 07:58
Way to go! I was in the area Sat. doing a circuit from the bottom up Rip Rap trail, then AT south to Wildcat Ridge and back tovehicle. Looks like I missed you (and the well armed hiker) by an hour or so.I'm sure your comments about water sources will be useful to others researching the area for upcoming trips.

05-02-2014, 11:29
Sounds awesome. I can confirm that the spring on hightop mountain is DELICIOUS.