Going the Distance in Shenandoah National Park

Seeking new challenges in one of the East's most iconic parks.

In celebration of this year's National Park Service centennial, I've spent many weekends exploring Shenandoah National Park. I've hiked familiar trails but also sought out new areas of the park to explore. By late spring, I knew I needed to mix things up.

Comparatively, Shenandoah is one of the smaller parks in the system. Unlike many of the parks out west, Shenandoah lacks more technical trails and most hikes are less than 10 miles. Looking to challenge myself and keep things interesting, I needed to seek out greater distances. After stringing together a few 15+ milers and overnighters I set my sights on a 20 miler. With some creativity I found a 22 mile loop linking Rocky Top and Brown Mountain trails.

On an unseasonably warm October Saturday, the dog and I set off from the Big Run Loop trailhead off Skyline Drive. The trail immediately dropped down into the valley for two miles followed by a lung-burning climb back up to the ridge line to set up a steady (but much easier) climb to the summit of Rocky Top. After a brief stop to soak in the views of the Shenandoah Valley, we started our descent back towards the valley and Big Run hoping to cover the 5 miles with enough time to setup camp and cook dinner before dark.

Neat boulder field on the top of Rocky Top. Views of the Shenandoah Valley below.

Sometimes I wonder how peaks get their names. It's no mystery how Rock Top got hers. It's rocky, very rocky. With fallen leaves covering the trail, it was a perfect recipe for broken ankles which required careful trekking down the mountain. We passed through some boulder fields and spruce groves on the way down to Big Run.

We arrived at Big Run (mile 10) and quickly found a cozy campsite along the stream. Exhausted, I dropped the pack and put the beer in the stream to chill while I setup camp. Dinner was cup-o-noodle soup. I'm pretty sure I hadn't eaten one of those since college. It was surprisingly better than I remember. We stayed up to stargaze for a few minutes out on the bridge that crosses Big Run a few hundred feet from our campsite. The next day was going to bring two brutal climbs so we called it an early night.

We woke up Sunday, made coffee and breakfast, filled up the water bottles, and geared up for the climb up Brown Mountain. I prefer to ease into my mornings but no such luck on this trip. We started the day off with a 4-ish mile climb up 2,000 feet. I had hiked Brown Mountain a few weeks back to scout this section of the trail in preparation for this trip but I did the trail in reverse. It was a brutal climb with multiple false summits made even more uncomfortable by the summer temperatures. The temperature jumped at least 10 degrees in a matter of feet climbing out of the valley. The cool air must have settled into the valley during the night. It was a weird feeling.

We were greeted with the best views of the trip at the summit. The softer light from a thin layer of clouds accentuated the fall colors that were struggling to stand out from the deep summer greens. It was going to be downhill for the next 4 miles.

The best views of the weekend were at the top of Brown Mountain.

Back along Big Run I nearly stepped on a snake laying in the middle of the trail. It was my first snake sighting in Shenandoah this year and made for an exciting couple of seconds. Thankfully we all continued on our way without incident.

At about mile 18 we linked back up with the Big Run Loop trail that would take us the 4 miles back to the car. I finally spotted trout in a big pool. Some were as big as 12-15 inches. I know the stream are stocked but this is the first time I've actually seen them in the park. This was short-lived, however, as the dog jumped in for a swim and the fish were gone.

After 20 miles we hit the point I'd been dreading since we entered the wilderness the day before: the 2.2 mile climb back to Skyline Drive. One thousand five hundred feet of elevation to climb. My pack never felt heavier. I committed to putting one foot in front of the other until I was at the car. No stopping. Just get it over with.

A little less than an hour later we popped out onto Skyline Drive. 22 miles even. 5,050 feet of elevation gain. Total walking time a little more than 24 hours. Exhausted, sore, but happy to accomplish another goal. The pup was snoring in the back seat--harness, leash, and bell still on.

Another successful weekend in Shenandoah National Park.

Published: November 11, 2016

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Scott Kaiser

Washington