I did my first solo trip on 6/11/13 and had a blast!
By my calculations it was 30 total miles and 10000 feet in elevation change.
I left shortly before 6AM Monday morning to iffy weather which quickly turned south. For a few moments, interstate traffic was coming to a crawl because the rain was so heavy. It had apparently been pouring all night in VA, but by the time I arrived shortly before 10, the rain had let up. Things we obviously very wet and visibility was intermittent as there were blankets of clouds and fog moving over the mountains.
I left the Overnight Backpackerís Lot and headed up the trail for Massie Gap. I had studied the topo map and knew the elevation changes were not dramatic, but for the past several years, my experience has been limited to Linville Gorge so I was happy to discover the terrain was MUCH easier. The rain soaked ground however meant that within 20 minutes of leaving the vehicle, my shoes and socks were soggy. Everything was a puddle. Water was sheeting down every inch of hillside and it appeared there were a thousand streams to cross or just splash through.
On the map, just north of the intersection between the AT, VA Highlands trail and Rhododendron Gap trail, it shows the AT and Wilburn Ridge split apart. I thought I was taking the right most trail (the AT) but after a few minutes I came upon a clearing full of cows and the path started to disappear. I finally realized I had taken the Springs trail which is a dead end, but the trail seemed to go on intermittently. Every few minutes Iíd find a rather nice camp site with flat level grassy ground and a fire ring. Eventually I made a short push through the bushes and came out on the balds to the east of the actual trail. I was probably where the N in Wilburn Ridge is on the map. From here I could look at the two rocky peaks on the ridge and see clouds racing over them towards me. In the other direction, the valley opened up to spectacular views that were now visible as the fog finally cleared out.
I sat down on a rock and had a snack before making my way towards the trail. Once I turned south on the AT at the intersection with Pine Mountain things got decidedly muddy. The trail here is very used and was soaked. It also started to rain again. I put on my rain jacket and continued southward on the AT. I was really impressed by the established camp sites in this area. The trees are mostly conifers with what almost looked like groomed grass underneath. I came across a large party and a lady stopped to say high and explained they were volunteers and had been working on the trail. Shortly after passing them I came to Thomas Knob shelter. I checked on the water source, said hi to a group of hikers taking a break while the rain dissipated and the sun came back out. Then I headed towards Mt. Rogers. Along the way up towards the peak, I ditched my pack behind a tree. I quickly made the summit. I was aware there would be no views, so the summit is largely anticlimactic, but I figured if I was going to be that close, I mine as well bag the peak. I made my way down and got several minutes past my backpack picking my away along the trail before I realized I had missed it. I had to double back and find it before heading back the few minutes to the shelter to tank up on water for the night. I used my Sawyer Squeeze for the first time and quickly fell in love.
I had made a female/female adapter for it and cut a rubbing alcohol bottle into a funnel for it. This worked great at this spring. Someone had placed what looked like a piece of vinyl siding unto the ground so you had small water fall. The space would have been too short the hang my Evernew 2 liter bag under and fill it up all the way, but with the funnel on top I was able to get it full in just a few seconds.
Loaded up I headed back past the spur to Mt. Rogers and down the AT. At this point my feet were starting to get sore. I had been warned the trails were rocky, but decided to try wearing my Merrell Trail Gloves anyway. These are zero drop thin soled Ďbarefootí style shoes and the rocks and roots were really doing a number on my feet. Maybe my energy was waning, or maybe it was the extra ~4lbs of water I now had with me, but this part of the trail felt like it took FOREVER. The stretch up Wilburn didnít take long, the stretch to Thomas Knob didnít take long, but it felt like it was forever before I came to the intersection at Deep Gap. I stopped for a snack, but the more I looked, the more confused I was. The plan was to take the Mt. Rogerís trail to the north, but the trail in that direction was obviously blazed white. The trail south into what I thought was Deep Gap was blazed blue. Apparently this is some sort of spur out along Brier Ridge to the VA Highlands and Cabin Ridge trails. I resigned myself to continue and left this intersection which had several fantastic hammock friendly camp sites.
After some time past a hiker coming the other way informed me it was yet another 20 minutes to Deep Gap, great. As I finally passed the gap and headed north east on Mt. Rogers trail I was starting to get worried. There hadnít been an established camp site since Brier Ridge and nothing beside the trail looked suitable as it was far too steep. I was wearing out quick as was starting to wonder if Iíd have to hang across the trail.
Eventually around 5PM the ground leveled out some and I stepped down off the trail to a small open area. This was not ideal by any means. I was sort of in a shallow drainage. It had no mud or running water, but the ground was rather soft and soggy. I turned on the NOAA radio to hear there would be more rain. Despite this I setup the tarp in porch mode facing the trail. I took off my soggy shoes and put on some flip flops which felt great after hours of wet socks. I was annoyed to find one of the trees I had tied to was a bit too small and leaned in when I got in the hammock. With the marlin spike all the way up on the tree I finally got it so I just missed being on the ground. I had already setup my big Hammock Gear tarp and had no intension of packing up all 10 guylines again so I could move somewhere else.
Normally I hike with a buddy, we setup the hammocks, and kind of make camp between the hammocks or around the camp fire if we have one. I discovered how wrong weíve been doing it. Taking a hint from Shug I had everything under the tarp laid out on a compactor bag like I was having a picnic. I normally handle the meal planning and take a grease pot to boil water in and we then cook in a freezer bag. I had noticed many of the cooking instructions from Babelfish5 involved letting the meal soak in the pot get to a full boil for several minutes before letting it rest in the cozy. I had a hunch this was the reason some of our previous meals didnít quite turn out. Pouring water into a freezer bag means the contents never hit boiling. After 20 minutes in the reflectix bag, our meals were starting to get luke warm and often werenít quite rehydrated. I found the pot in the cozy stayed almost too hot to eat even after 30 minutes.
For this trip I had purchased an aluminum mug and slapped together a fancy feat stove. I didnít have time to test it, and didnít make a windscreen. The stove was taking forever to prime and I was starting to think it wasnít going to work, but eventually it got going.
I found a risky, but level spot I could set the stove and pot on and found I was able to manage cooking while sitting back in the hammock. I then realized with a bit of organizing I could arrange everything within reach and relax the whole time.
Dinner was a meal I came up with that was somewhere between Sheppardís Pie and a Hungarian goulash and quite tasty.
About midnight, it began to pour down rain hard. I had originally thought I might get through this trip with just a long sleeve shirt to wear in camp, but was very glad I opted to take a fleece jacket as it dropped down to 54F that night.
I woke up around 6 to a world in fog, cold fog. I stayed put in the warm sleeping bag for some time. NOAA radio informed me the area was above average on water for the year, the month, and with the rain that night had set a record for the day before too. My feet were going to be wet again. Breakfast was something Iíll have to post the recipe for, it was sort of a peach cobbler/porridge and quite tasty. Iíll be making that again.
I packed up everything I could before getting out of the sleeping bag and finally hit the trail around 9AM. Within 10 minutes I came to the intersection for Lewis Fork and turned south. At the split, I took the right hand fork as I didnít want to have to climb the Cliffside trail the other way leads to. Lewis Fork is shaped a bit like a mountain road and wide enough in parts to look like an old wagon road only the whole works is far too rocky. Almost the entire trail seemed to be a stream bed with water pouring down the trail. In places it was horribly muddy, but most of it was flowing water.
After a while I came to the intersection with Pine Mountain and Crest which sort of looks like a blueberry orchard. In another few weeks, one could gorge on all the berries that will be ripe.
At this point I made a mistake and Ďbent the mapí and saw what I wanted to see. I wanted to get water at the spot marked just to the west on Crest. Because Crest and Pine are very close and parallel I assumed there would be a spur between the two by the spring. Heading west on Pine, I kept looking for this spur till I realized I was on top of Pine Mountain and past the spring. I doubled back several minutes and found a place I could slip under the fence separating the two, but at this point I wasnít sure which way the spring was. I edged back west a ways and didnít see it so I headed back east. I came across several ponies and some nice looking camp sites and then finally saw a sign for the water.
While facing the sign, thereís a trail beside it that goes behind the sign at an angle. To point this way youíd assume the arrow on the sign would point to 10:30 on the clock like some of the other signs. Instead it pointed directly to the left which would lead you down hill on a bald with no evidence I could see there was a spring down there, nor did there appear to be a footpath heading down the bald in this direction. I did follow the path behind the sign and eventually crossed a stream, but it appeared to be wide open to the livestock which wasnít like the other places I had come across. I decided to wait on water and made my way back on Crest to where I had first gotten onto Pine from Lewis Fork. This was after wasting more than an hour trying to find water. I could of course have filled up at any of the dozens of springs on Lewis Fork I had passed. Oh well.
Pine Mountain to the AT is a nice trail, it alternates every quarter mile or so between being in an open bald among giant boulders, and in stands of conifers or other trees. The rapid changing scenery was nice. At the intersection with the AT I decided to cut across to Crest again which was visible a little ways away. The sun had finally started to break through the clouds and I wanted to stay in the open for a while. I followed Crest to the ridge overlooking Scales and took in the view. In the distance I could see some hikers making their way up on one of the hills on the far side and I could see the long trail for First Peak winding down. After making my way down, I found the spring, guzzled down what I could drink and filled one of my water bottles. I then made my way down the muddy Scales trail to Bear Pen.
Bear Pen runs among the balds for most of the way before finally entering the woods, crossing the AT and diving down the far side of the mountains. Shortly after crossing the AT I was expecting an intersection with Big Wilson Creek trail and Kabel. What I came to was a confusing sign that said ďEnd Bear PenĒ and then had an arrow for Big Wilson which kind of made a switchback. Beyond the sign was what I assumed was Kabel but a second sign warned that travel was not recommended because of deep mud.
I wanted to loop around back to Scales on First Peak, but the only way to get there was via Kabel. I decided to have lunch and weigh my options. I was almost resigned to fight the mud but was confused why the map showed the intersection laid out differently than what was in front of me. I also realized I was only a couple minutes past the wilderness boundary. There was no way I was at the intersection for Kabel. I then noticed some mud had been splattered on to the sign. It didnít just say ďEnd Bear Pen trailĒ it also had an arrow pointing towards the switchback. Looking at my map again I realized the switchback was on it. The muddy path was not Kabel, it wasnít anything anymore that I could tell.
Happy to have all that figured out I continued on down and down and down till I finally got to Kabel/Wilsonís creek
Kabel felt endless. It had a lot of mud churned up from the horses and lots of streams running cross the path from all the rain. The highlight was coming to Little Wilson Creek which was shin deep and flowing clean and cold. I tanked up with water for the night, washed my face off, and rinsed the mud out of my socks and shoes while sitting on a rock and soaking my feet in the cold water. Too bad the mud was not over yet.
After what felt like forever I finally got to the end of Kabel around 530, ate a quick snack and decided head partway up before making camp. Along the way I began to worry. The vegetation was changing every so often, but none of it was suitable for hanging. A lot of it was scrub too scraggly to hang from. I made it to the bald where Jackie Street trail comes in to find some camp sites, but they were far more suited to ground dwellers. Finally just before the trail gets really steep before the Second Peak I found a fantastic spot a few feet off the trail. After cleaning up some fallen branches and pushing over a small dead tree that might have been a danger I had a rectangle spot sized just right for my tarp lines to fit in. It was covered in grass with the only problem being an old stump hole in the middle. I found a sort of pyramid shaped rock to the side and slammed it point down into the hole to fill it up. I found the surface now facing up was smooth and once the hammock was hung I realized it was between my legs when sitting in the hammock in chair mode. I hammered some sticks into the hole beside the rock to steady it and ended up with a perfectly placed spot for my cooking from the hammock.
NOAA advised there would be no rain but wind guests up to 30MPH. I discovered my hammock was hung east/west so I closed up the flaps on the west side and left the east side open. This worked great to block the wind while still giving me a view. Dinner was Babelfhish5ís shrimp and sausage jambalaya followed by my own sausage/mushroom/green bean/potato concoction for breakfast.
I woke up around 5AM and started breakfast while I packed up. It was much warmer than the day before and most of my gear had dried out. By 7AM I was on the trail up and over the remaining peaks. On top the last hill above Scales it looked pretty dreary with thunder in the distance and rain coming down in sheets near, but never on me. It was wildly windy which felt great. On the way down to Scales I realized I was moving much slower than the day before and my feet were really starting to ache but on the plus side, they were 90% dry. Once at Scales the weather quickly turned sunny, but the trails were soaked this low in the valleys. I made my way around and chose the VA highlands trail heading west. I broke off on the Wilson Creek trail till it came to the AT.
At this point I made my way on the AT over to the Wise shelter to use the spring there. I was feeling pretty slow but still committed to my plan which was to explore the Wilson creak area before making my way over past Massie Gap and spending the night at the top of Wilburn Ridge somewhere.
After tanking up and doubling back to Wilsonís Creek it wasnít long before I realized I wasnít going to make it. My feet were killing me, my shoulders were aching from the pack. I was no longer enjoying the scenery, just focusing on my feet and trying to ignore the aches. It was time to go home. If I had made this decision while at Wise shelter I could have stayed on the AT and been at the parking lot in under an hour. Since I was halfway down Wilsonís creek, I ended up taking it all the way to the campground and hiking the asphalt back to the parking lot. This felt like it took days and Iím pretty sure there are senior citizens with walkers that move faster than I was. Sitting down in the car was absolute euphoria.
All in all I had a great time. I learned a lot and saw some outstanding sights. Iíll definitely go back some time. Iím happy to find a place I can go in the summer thatís not unbearably hot, in fact on several years, the daytime highs in Linville Gorge have been hotter in October than what I experienced at Grayson in June.