It always pays to have a Plan B for Shenandoah.
This was the original plan. You'd think since the last snow and ice had fallen on Monday, Skyline Drive would be open by Saturday as temps climbed into the 50s. You'd be wrong. Finding ourselves shut out from our original trailhead, I engaged Plan B [insert joke here]. After a short drive down to Brown Gap, we started walking up the old fire road and were on our way.
After 0.5 miles, we turned left and began to climb. It started steep (1000' in the first mile), but as we got higher, the incline mellowed, we came across large treeless rockfalls, and the scenery opened up. Soon, our gasping breaths behind us, we were basking in the glory of sunny skies, 50F temps, and views stretching from the snow-covered peaks of the Blue Ridge out into the wide field-and-farm-strewn Shenandoah Valley, with Massanutten in the center surveying over all.
I'd purposefully over-estimated the snow but was surprised at just how little we found. Some north-exposed ridges and hillsides had just enough slushy, slippery slosh to make slight sidehilling a royal pain. (A few of us spiked up — we were carrying them anyway, and they did make those short stretches more enjoyable — but they were mostly wasted weight. Still, I'd bring them again.) Most of the trail, though, was bare and dry.
After we joined Rockytop Trail, it was smooth cruisin' on the ridge. Bryan thought a side-trip to Lewis Peak would be nice, and he was very right: the easy two mile round-trip was more than worth the stunning 360 view. The ridge just keep surprising us with burn areas, exposed rock, and views views views. Right as the sun was setting, we started the steeper section down to Big Creek. The tail-end of the group arrived at the big metal bridge that marked our stopping point, and it was firmly dark.
Just upstream of the bridge, we found small social trails leading to spots big enough for a few tents and hammocks, forming pods of 2 or 3. Everyone set up shop at their own pace, then headed back to the bridge to enjoy the water and clear view of the night sky. Sitting on the bridge, eating dinner, sharing stories, staring up at the surprisingly bright first quarter moon and stars as Big Run rushed by below us — it was pretty magical, dudes. Even without a campfire (illegal in Shenandoah).
It cooled off surprisingly fast and was definitely a bit chillier by the water, but it didn't drop below freezing. People seemed to have slept warm and well.
Sunday, we woke up and started hiking about 8:30 (Daylight Savings in effect!). Going up Rocky Mountain, along the AT, and back to Rockytop would have been too many miles compared to the original plan, so we headed up Big Run. It's a very pretty creek, no doubt about it, and we got to know it's beautiful, [b]very cold[/b] water intimately, crossing 8 times in about 3 miles. It was a good way to compare the merits of waterproof boots and gaiters vs light trail runners, and to make me, at least, curse and make funny noises as warm blood rushed back into my chilled toesies each and every crossing. Everyone was a really great sport about spending so much time in knee-deep water despite the fact that it wasn't advertised in the trip description. Way to be awesome hiker pals!
At the top of Big Run, we started another steep ascent, this time climbing back onto the ridge of Rockytop. The tread was more gentle than Austin Mountain but featured the most back-slippery snow of the trip. Still, it went by quickly and pretty painlessly. We were back in big-view country, and it was yet again fantabulous.
Ali, being quite the badass (he broke his knee cap just two months ago, and there he was doing 20+ non-flat miles in 26 hours), very smartly saw that the fire road we had started on the day before joined Rockytop Trail at this junction and decided that his knee would be happier with the more gradual way down. It was a great idea, and I'm glad he thought of it. Jasmine joined him while the rest of us continued back along Rockytop and Austin Mtn. It was that perfect flow. Sun, just-right-for-hiking temps, views, changes in the trail to keep it interesting. We hummed right along and were back at the fire road real fast, with Ali and Jasmine soon easin' on down the road and bringing the Trusty Eight back together again.
Post-hike, we detoured down to Waynesboro for the Green Leaf Grille. It was a little out of the way, but I thought it was great. Would definitely recommend for future groups.
Thanks everyone for a sweet, sweet time. See you back out there.
Great trip write up, Miles! It's been a long time since DC UL has done Big Run!