Trip Report: Tuscarora Trail, Section 1, 12/7-12/8

Posted by Michael Martin on

So, let's see, there's a winter storm bearing down on DC and everyone is doing their usual, mass hysterical, freak out? The National Park Service has closed Skyline Drive, rendering the beginning point of the Tuscarora Trail inaccessible without a 4-5 mile "warm up" hike up Little Devils Stairs?

Obviously, it's time to go backpacking!

By the time all was said and done, and the logistics had been ironed out, a crew of nine DC ULers headed out for the first section of the Tuscarora Trail. Hawk Eye, Karan, Doug, Mimi, Darwin, GQ, and Savage met me at Vienna, then we drove out to the Signal Knob parking lot. Marc was waiting there with a trunk full of his excellent home-brewed Christmas ale. Good stuff: even before noon. We wisely left the vehicles with AWD in this lot, then drove for the beginning of the hike at the foot of Little Devils Stairs.

Now, you may note that Little Devils Stairs is really some distance away from the southern terminus of the Tuscarora Trail, and you'd be right. But we figured (correctly) that Skyline Drive would be closed, and besides, adding the steep climb up the eastern face of the Shenandoah is a more appropriate way to begin a project like this, anyway. Soon enough, we were scaling this steep ravine, the stream making it quite wet. At first, it felt like a typical late autumn day with temps in the 40s and no snow or ice, but as we reached the heights, the trees were covered in frozen rain. We passed Keyser Run Road, then turned right on Sugarloaf Trail. We paused to admire the views and take photos at Hogback Overlook. No traffic on Skyline Drive, and no other hikers or backpackers the entire trip. A little bad weather gives you solitude (as well as fun things to photograph).

Finally, we turned south on the AT for a few steps, and came to the southern terminus of the TT. We photographed the moment for posterity, and began the long descent along Overall Run, stopping for a little break to admire the falls. The descent along blue blazes continued for a good spell, and the trail became rather wet. We passed Thompson Hollow, and continued towards 340. Mimi marveled at how much warmer it was. Indeed, by the time we reached 340 in the afternoon it felt like a nice summer day. The sky was blue: it seemed hard to believe a storm was on the way.

We wandered along the roads on the western side of 340, basking in the sun light. U-Turn made what a naive observer would conclude was a wrong turn. It was actually a savvy way of tracing a "U" on the face of the earth: it also tacked on some extra mileage, as Karan, Mimi, and Hawk Eye were starting to agitate for their veteran member status as this long day continued. The cows stared at us as we passed. "Who are these backpackers?" they wondered. "Don't they know the trail's over yonder?"

The sun went down as we crossed the South Fork of Shenandoah on a bridge that was only a foot or two above the river, and the light vanished as we ended the road walk where the Forest Service land of the GW national forest starts. We took a break and got out headlamps on. An SUV paused, "You do know there's a storm coming, don't you?" Indeed we do!

We climbed for the eastern ridge of the Massanuttens along the old road grade that dates to the Revolutionary War. Apparently, George Washington himself had this road made when he feared the Continental Army would need to withdraw to Fort Valley. Long climbs at the end of a long day are tough. We paused to re-group a few times, but the lights soon appeared in the valley beneath us. It was a peaceful and beautiful night: a reminder of why night hiking can be so rewarding.

But we were all glad to drop into Veach Gap and reach Little Crease Shelter. A cheer went up when I declared that we had walked a 20-mile day, and veteran member status was due. Marc occuppied himself with a fire while most settled ito the shelter. GQ, Darwin, and I slept outside. We passed the time chatting, staying up to nearly 10pm!

Up at 6am, on the trail promptly at 7am. The snow started falling thick--big, beautiful flakes. We climbed back to the ridgeline, then made our way through, ultimately, 2-3 inches of gorgeous powder. Sherman Gap, Shawl Gap, then the descent past Elizabeth Furnace. We ended the section where the Massanutten Trail and the TT diverge and walked 0.5 miles to the Signal Knob parking lot. We'd all had fun in the snow, but the roads were looking dicey. Time to start thinking about getting home.

Marc headed home; Doug drove Mimi and Karan directly to MacMahon's pub in Warrenton. Will, without whom all would have been lost, drove me, Hawk Eye, GQ, and Darwin to our cars at Little Devils Stairs. GQ and I both failed courage checks. Ain't no way I'm driving in this storm. We collected our things from my car and Jimmy's, then we left them and headed to the pub! On the way, we saw several scary accidents, including a Mustang that spun out right in front of us! Savage is a heck of a driver, and got us where we were going.

A MacMahon's, a celebration, and then a very slow drive back to Vienna. But everyone made it home safely. I was treated to the rare pleasure of taking the metro home. When I reached King Street, there were no cabs, I walked home in the freezing rain: by far the worst weather of the trip. As I told Fancy Pants, we were safer on the trails than on the roads.

So, about 28 miles or so, about 6,000 feet of gain, 25 hours total elapsed time, and a new batch of DC UL veterans. Chapeau to all. I had a battery issue, so you guys with good GPS data, please post.

When I started the TT, I wasn't sure how much I was going to enjoy it, but this first section was great fun. It was a kaleidoscope of different terrain and weather, and we had a great group. I especially enjoyed how the TT stitches together so many familiar sights in an unfamiliar way and gives you a deeper sense for the lay of the land. You really have the sense of undertaking a journey. Thanks, everyone, for making the trip happen!

Darwin posted on

The trip report is great, indeed it was a fantastic outing on the wild in every sense of the word. Tough climbs hard long distance walk whit a full backpack and not just a day backpack...Just the way I do like it.

Cheers to every one an all of you.


AKA Sherpa/Lone Wolf

Jimmy posted on

Great report!

P.S. - New tires are on vehicle now.

A former member posted on

I am grateful for having had prior experience driving in similar conditions, at night, coming back from a Washington Backpackers Meetup at Whitegrass in January 2009.

I had practiced and was ready, but somehow conditions never seemed to warrant breaking out "we're doomed, doomed!"

Will posted on

Definitely one of my more stressful drives! But the Batmobile never lets me down. Great trip report Mike, for a fun and unique route! Hopefully I can tag along for some other TT sections.

Mignote posted on

Great trip report, thanks Michael!

Karan posted on

Great trip report Michael. Very well written.

For those of you interested in looking at the trip on a map, check this out :-

(Switch from 'Google hybrid' to 'Google terrain' over at top right for elevation contours)

Michael Martin posted on

Karan, I really dig the map data. What total mileage did you record?


Karan posted on

Thanks Michael.. My GPS said we covered 29.3 miles..

Joffrey Peters posted on

Wow, that's a lot of road walking... Does the second section have this much road-walking in it?