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Thorton Gap to Ashby Gap - Part 1

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As noted before, a problem with section hiking is that you find gaps in your effort to complete all parts of the Trail. For me, that turned out to be a section between Thorton Gap (TG) in Shenandoah National Park (SNP), and Ashby Gap (aka U.S. Highway 50). A dozen or so trips to SNP has resulted in my covering everything from Rockfish Gap to TG, and I had made plans to complete the rest of SNP in a very piece-meal manner. However, recognizing that I would have to do Compton Gap to Ashby Gap at SOME point, I decided to do the whole thing in one fell swoop.

The obvious problem arose -- HOW was I going to manage getting to each end of my trip? Shuttle's work schedule makes her unavailable until August, there's no mass transit to either place (or even NEAR either place!), and I could hardly hike 40 miles and then back, even in steps. As expensive as shuttles are, I resigned myself to having to use them.
I then noticed that there was a shuttle service (pretty much) right in the middle of my hike. Specifically, the Terrapin Station Hostel at Compton Gap.
The Thru-Hikers Companion even stated "Free slacks for hikers staying 2 or more nights." So I figured I could stay two nights -- one at the start, one in the middle, and maybe even one at the end -- and get at least one of my shuttles at no charge.
My original idea was to do this during National Parks Week in April, when access to SNP (indeed, to all national park locations) is free. This idea had to be scrubbed when I noted that FRTSH does not open till April 28th. I put my mind to finding a way to avoid paying the admission fee to SNP. When I finally realized that this trip was going to cost about $120 for a four-day car rental, $30 for gas and tolls, and who knows how much for a shuttle; the $15 fee to enter the Park didn't seem too bad.

I phoned Mike Evans of FRTSH to arrange two nights of a stay. He responded that he would prefer that people park at one end of their journey, hike to (and stay) at his place, get shuttled to the other end of their journey (ie, move the hiker's car from starting point to ending point), and then hike from his place to the other end. This seemed acceptable to me, so we agreed on arrival dates and likely shuttle efforts.

I have learned (DEFINITELY the hard way) that the key for me completing a decent amount of miles in a day is to start early -- ie, before dawn, just when there's enough light to see the Trail. At this time of the year, that meant waking up at 5am and hitting the trail at 6. I have found that this is not a problem if I hit the sack when it gets dark at 9pm. But how was I going to start at TG at 5am on Day 1 of hiking?
Solution: stay within SNP. Specifically, at Matthews Arm Campground (MAC). Since this place isn't even open until mid-May, I figured I should have no problem getting a good camp site even if I showed up late in the afternoon. I would then awake as early as I could, drive to TG, and begin my walk.
What was doubly-good about this choice was that MAC is about half-way between TG and Compton Gap. So, if my first day's hike did not go well, I would still have a place to stay at the end of Day 1. Better still, I would not need to carry my tent or sleeping gear on this Day 1. The only catch is that I would have to pay for a second night even if I decided to hike past MAC. I decided that, if I made that choice, I would simply eat the $15 charge for a second night, and have a back-country permit ready if needed. I figured this would mean I was (in effect) paying the campground $15 to watch my stuff for the day.

Although my planning and reservations seemed to be working out without a hitch, I found that one thing I can not control is the weather. As with my other three back-packs this year, rain became more and more probably on the days I was going to be on the Trail. I decided to simply deal with it.
It was thus no surprise that my drive to SNP featured rain -- and sometimes downpours -- for about half the drive to the Park. Surprisingly, however, there was not much traffic; and I got to SNP well before darkness. My hopes for seeing a bear were realized when a mother and cub greeted me from the road even BEFORE I had paid my entrance fee! Sadly, they ran off before I could even get my camera out. However, I did get to see a snake on the road and a rainbow in the sky. I also saw deer, but I find these to be so common that they are almost a nuisance in the park.

No surprise -- there was nobody at the campground entrance station, so I just filled out the form for a campsite, taking the one designed for backpackers. It had a bear box, meaning I could leave my food at the campsite even while I was hiking on Day 1. While doing so, I recalled the time that I did this at Big Meadows a few years previously, and, despite being careful to fill out credit card info, I got a notice to show up at the office. When I got there back then, they admitted they had made a mistake of not looking for a CC number. "Not again," I vowed!

Because the A.T. does not go THAT near to MAC, I spent the first evening covering those parts of the Trail that I might have to bypass when making a return to my campsite. Being an obsessive self-purist CAN be a problem!

I had SOME hope of getting a REALLY early breakfast at some wayside along Skyline Drive. No luck there -- none open before 7am -- so I decided to rely on my usual coffee and oatmeal. As I had packed my car with a cooler containing milk, soda, and OJ; I figured I could have a better than usual start.
After making this decision, I realized to my horror that I had forgotten my alcohol fuel, making my alcohol stove utterly useless. So I reduced my breakfast even further, to juice and cold cereal.

No problems getting my early start at TG, seeing even more deer, and viewing some nice overlooks. Again, I've taken so many photos of overlooks at SNP that I don't even bother anymore -- they all end up looking alike, a "flat" green lower part and a blue upper part. With the grey, gloomy sky making photos even worse, I rarely stopped to even peek at views I used to consider thrilling.
One problem I did have was finding a back-country permit to fill out. They are supposed to be in a box right at the TG entrance station, but the forms were simply not in the box! I decided that, if I proceeded past MAC and got caught without a permit, I would tell the ranger the truth.
Fortunately, I definitely had no problem making adequate progress on the Trail. When I checked miles, I saw that Gravel Springs Shelter was 3.4 miles beyond the road to MAC. I figured I could do this in three hours, meaning I would have to leave Matthews at 5pm, meaning I would have to arrive there at 4pm (figuring I would need an hour to take down and re-pack my tent and sleeping gear). When I arrived at 2pm, my decision was obvious.

Imagine my surprise, however, at finding ANOTHER notice that I needed to show up at the camp office -- arghh! Just as I pondering how to handle this notice while packing up my stuff and heading for Gravel Springs -- without a back-country permit -- the campground host drove by with a park ranger in his vehicle. I waved them down, and asked about the notice. It turns out that the campground staff want to ensure that everyone is familiar with "Bear Aware" practices, and thus wants everyone to initial the form stating they have read the brochure about these. Even though I was quite "Bear Aware" already, having read Stephen Herrero's landmark book, I decided to do things "by the book" and initial the form. It turns out that the office also had the back-country forms I needed, so a trip there was hardly a waste. I made it clear that I understood there would be no refund of my second night's stay at MAC, and I was on my way.

Got to Gravel Springs with no problem, well before dark. There were more people -- and a larger fire -- than I feel comfortable about at this shelter, but we were (once again) able to make room for everybody. Despite the fire, I was unable to make enough hot water to enjoy any of my meals, so I just had (another) cold dinner and hit the sack. Overall, it had been a good Day 1!

Day 2 proceeded a lot like Day 1, with good progress due to getting on the Trail by 6am. It also included no hot water at breakfast, because of my stupidity in forgetting my fuel. I decided to just live with my mistake.

I did have the joy of seeing a nesting of peregrine falcons, on a cliff where the rangers of SNP are trying to restore their presence in the Park. Pigeons -- you have been warned!

I got to Compton Gap by mid-afternoon, figuring I would soon be at FRTSH. Unfortunately, I had miscalculated the distance between the two by about 2.5 miles (don't ask me how!); but still got there in plenty of time to check in and
1) Get a shuttle from there to TG, enjoying every minute of Mike sharing his love of the park.
2) Drive into Front Royal and buy a can of denatured alcohol and a 20oz bottle of soda -- solving the problem my forgetfulness had created. I don't recommend storing or carrying flammables in a car, but where else was I to keep it?
3) Have some dinner in town.
4) Help Mike shuttle some of the hostel people into town
5) See a bear (and FINALLY getting some photos!) while doing so. "That bear is back there all the time," the homeowner noted, as the eight of us enjoyed the view.
6) Get a second shuttle that afternoon, this time moving my car to Ashby Gap parking area, ready to be driven home at the end of my journey.
With FRTSH being a great place to spend a night, I was looking forward to Day 3.