The Great Shenandoah Trip Part II
During the first night of our trip to the Shenandoah NP it rained. Quite intensely.
Brian has been through several terrible storms in his tent, the worst probably being an absolutely petrifying thunderstorm in Canyonlands NP in 2007 or so. This night was no where near as bad as that one, but it was probably in the top five in terms of volume of thunder. This was by far the loudest Sylvia had been forced to endure and she was, as one might suspect, highly disturbed.
We were one of the very few people sleeping in a tent in that campground that windy, soggy night; most of the other campers were RV-ers there for extended stay. It’s on nights like that that you come to appreciate the comfort of hard sided walls and a solid roof. But we endured behind our nylon ones until morning.
In fact, the storm blew past by midnight or so, allowing Brian to emerge for a bathroom break. Through small breaks in the still mostly bare trees trees he could see clusters of lights…the small cities of the Shenandoah and Appalachian Valleys, and of the Piedmont lands to the east toward Charlottesville.
It brought to his attention that Shenandoah is a thin strip of highlands surrounded on both sides by populated valley areas that encroach quite closely at times. Shenandoah is in fact only about 70 miles from Washington, DC…it’s a virtual island of wilderness. This is not the case of much larger Great Smoky Mountain National Park to the south. That’s more of an inland sea of wilderness.
At any rate, the next morning did finally dawn, clear but cold. The southern US tends to be warm; the southern Appalachians tend to be less so, especially in Spring. Sometimes they are cold as the Northern Appalachians tend to be. This was one of those times.
We were able to salvage some still dry firewood and re-kindle a fire.
Later we set out for a hike layered up. The weather surprised us once again, as the temperature would climb to over 70 degrees that day.
Our destination that day was one of the most popular features of Shenandoah National Park…Dark Hollow Falls. It’s probably one of the most visited waterfalls in the United States, being located in a popular National Park and quite close to the road, just a relatively modest 1.4 miles hike. Our hike that day would take us here, and to another waterfall, and then along a section of the AT back to camp.
Dark Hollow is often blogged about. You will often see the trail here rated as strenuous, with numerous comments from people complaining about how difficult the hike back up is (it’s a 500+ foot elevation gain.) This is not because the trail is difficult, it’s more because many, many non-hikers attempt this trail, and forget that going down is generally much easier than going back up. Also, because of its location in a major tourist draw, it tends to be visited in summer quite a lot, which is the last season Sylvia and Brian would pick to visit. Slogging back up any slope in the heat of a Virginia July would not be pleasant.
The falls themselves were running pretty good due to the rain the night before. In fact, it was early enough in the season that we saw some ice there.
Like many Appalachian Waterfalls, Dark Hollow is more appropriately termed a series of cascades, whose totally plunge might be around 70 feet. It’s a very nice falls and well worth the short hike, and you can safely get close to the bottom of plunge without a sketchy traverse of any muddy or slick boulders. However, we would not rate this as one of the best waterfalls we have visited. There are bigger and better ones right off the BRP, and still more in western North Carolina.
After visiting Dark Hollow we took a turn down the AT to visit Lewis Spring Falls. This falls is a bit further from the road than Dark Hollow but actually a bit taller (81 feet) and has a bit more of a straight plunge. It’s not as easy to get close to the base though, and we would advise viewing from a distance. There is a fine lookout point with a stone parapet that not only gives a view of the falls but the valley beyond as well.
After the hike we sweated back uphill to the campground along a section of the AT, where the temperatures rapidly began to fall again. By dark it was almost to freezing and we warmed up with another fire, but soon it was raining again, and then turned to sleeting, driving us into the tent.
We awoke the next morning to freezing temps and snow falling in large heavy flakes. Concerned because we were high up with few egress options and not wishing to get snowed in, we piled waterlogged equipment in the car very as hastily as one could with half-frozen hands and made ready our escape.
So hasty, in fact, that Brian’s wedding ring slipped off at some point and was presumed lost. ☹
In fact, this was a trip where Brian was very poorly prepared in general. He didn’t bring enough warm clothing, forcing him to make an emergency purchase at the camp store. The only thing that they sold that both qualified as warm clothing and fit him (barely) was an over[prices Shenandoah NP Hoodie. Not for the first time Brian grumbled about the price but, like any good rube, paid it.
Sylvia spent that night laughing at the spectacle of Brian very snugly wrapped up in his too-tight hoodie. This hoodie, by the way, is still in use…by Sylvia. :-0
However much we were eager to escape, we still found time to stop in the camp store cafe for coffee and a bagel. The sight of the snow falling softly in big wet flakes was beguiling, and Brian reasoned that once down below the ridge the snow would turn to rain and perhaps clear up entirely.
He proved to be right; past Thornton Gap the softly falling snow became a light rain, which abated entirely by the time we reached the bottom of the valley. Within the hour the sun broke out and we drove home via the back roads on a splendid spring day.
We kept a sharp lookout for bears. A fellow camper in an RV, travelling back home after spending the winter in Florida (some people apparently know how to live) had reported spotting one the previous day, but we didn’t. A lot of deer, though.
We left the mountains with some sadness, and arrived home with out gear still soggy. A quick search of the car turned up, to our great relief, Brian’s lost ring buried among the mud and confusion.
(…which he would proceed to lose again, this time for good, a year later while crossing a stream in the Pemigewasset Wilderness of New Hampshire. Neither of us hike with our rings since this incident.)
After all was said and done, it was a fantastic trip that restored Brian’s faith in himself. It had thrown a lot of challenges at us, but reminded us that part of the reason for being outdoors in the first place is in fact to experience just the sort of challenges that modern life cannot supply. Maybe that’s what is missing from it…that thing that everyone says they want to ‘get away’ from into the outdoors.
A valley can be described as a low point. 2010 would be one of the valleys of Brian’s life, losing a year to an injury that might have changed his life. Yet he’d climbed out of that dark valley and would not return.
Peaks awaited him ahead. Our marriage ceremony and honeymoon in 2011, Salkantay and Machu Picchu in 2012, a new Job and the Santa Cruz Trek in 2015, and then the culminating adventure of the Tour du Mont Blanc in 2018 and lately the arrival of our wonderful dog Fitz Roy. There would be other valleys, of course. But we didn’t stay long in any of them, always we kept our focus on the higher things.
But another meaning for a valley is an area of shelter. It strikes Brian that being in the valley is not necessarily a bad thing anyway. Our highest times and brightest days are spent on the peaks, but when we return home, we return to the valley. In the valley lies safely and comfort and community. In the valley is home. Though we might wander far in the mountains, few live there. It’s cold and hard and comfortless. Most who dwell among even the highest peaks do so in the shelter of the valley; when we come home, it is down to the valley that we come.
2010 was a low year in our life but it’s long been left behind. It was into the Great Valley that we emerged from that hole and looked once again to greater things.