Finally, a backpacking weekend with good weather! It had felt like forever since I last backpacked with no rain. Anxious to start the weekend, I left work as quickly as I could, and arrived at the Vienna Metro where I would ultimately meet with Charles and Andrew. Gabby and AJ were carpooling from DC and were running late. With that news, I had them to go directly to camp where we would meet later that night.
Charles, Andrew, and I quickly set off and were in route to Apple Orchard Falls to set up the car shuttle. Man, I forgot how long of a drive this was but luckily it was beautiful out and the drive was pleasant.
Note: When we pulled off to get some gas, I pointed out the Massanutten Range to them and mentioned that was part of the 71 mile ridgeline some other crazy DC ULers were doing. Ridiculous!
After setting up the shuttle, we arrived at the Devil’s Marbleyard trail head at around 9:30. Knowing that Gabby and AJ were there about an hour before us, we set off to go search for them. It wasn’t easy, and probably a bit convoluted in the way I set up the meet point, but eventually we all found each other and headed in for the night at around 11.
The next morning, we broke camp and were on the trail by around 8. The temps were noticeably colder than the day before and we also noticed that the winds were starting to pick up as well. After hiking for a mile we approached the bottom of the marble yard. This was now my third time here, so the novelty of it to me kind of wore off, but it was really nice to see the reactions on the other’s faces. Seeing it for the first time was pretty remarkable from what I recall. We all took some time here to do some scrambling and photo taking.
Continuing our ascent another mile on the Belfast Trail, we came to the junction where it meets the AT. We all regrouped here and this was where AJ told us of his “wardrobe malfunction”. Specifically, the bottom of his shoe (towards the heal end) had completely peeled off. Luckily, Andrew saved the day with some duct tape!! After some quick taping and McGuyvering, the boot was like brand new again!
We continued southbound on the AT and headed towards Highcock Knob. This section of trail is really nice as it reminds me of some of the hiking I did in Colorado where the rocks on the trail were orange and many short pine trees scattered about. After hiking between two valleys, we reached Marble Spring and took the time to fill up on water and get a good snack break. Cached up on water and food, we started the 1st major ascent to the top of the knob.
We regrouped on the other side of the knob at Petite’s Gap (by the road) and took lunch here. While hanging out here, a couple of pickup trucks parked next to us and out poured these folks all dressed in camouflage. With their attire, Charles asked the natural question of if they were going hunting. One of them quickly replied, “Um, no.” Well ok then… As they started hiking in towards Highcock Knob, we noticed that some of them were carrying pistols and backpacks full of beer. Hmm, looks rather shady, but it was no bother to us as they kept to themselves. A moment later, a couple whom were coming down off the trail, asked us if we knew what they were up to. They then proceeded to take pictures of the trucks to, I guess, document their license plates just in case bad behavior was reported. As this was all very strange, we kept to ourselves and moved on.
Next up, was the 2nd and final major climb of the trip. Taking our time we all got up to the top of Thunder Ridge in good form. This climb went very quickly for me as I enjoyed many good conversations with Gabby! Thanks for listening to my mumbo jumbo! While hiking the ridge, we again, noticed how windy it was. I’m going to guess about 30-40 mph gusts. On top of that, the temps started dropping rapidly. At this point, we stopped taking many break and we quickened our pace just to stay somewhat warm.
On our way to the Thunder Ridge overlook, we passed by a backpacker heading north bound who was asking us about where the next spring was. He looked relieved as it was only a quarter mile away and proceeded to tell us that the spring at the Thunder Hill shelter was pretty bad and almost dry. This was very concerning considering that we were planning to camp there. All of us had a good amount of water, except me admittedly. Worst case scenario, I planned on doing a solo water gathering mission for the group once we got to camp.
At the overlook we got some photos and admired the view of where we had come from. It was neat for people to see off in the distance Devil’s Marbleyard. We also met a lot of people wearing jeans and even khaki slacks! We must have been close to a parking lot. We then got back to the trail and hiked the last mile and a half to the Thunder Hill Shelter area.
I noticed something different about the AT when we got up to this point. They rerouted it, sometime within the last 6 months, so that it now runs to the western side of the shelter. No wonder things looked so different. I went to go scope out the area when I camped last and it was now all mostly overgrown with brush. I also checked out the spring situation. To my dismay, it wasn’t just a rumor. It was true that the spring wasn’t great. It wasn’t however, completely dry though. There was still about an inch and a half pool of water. I used a cup to see what the water clarity was like and as I suspected, it was rather silty (but still clean). I reported the news back to the rest of the group; however, we all still agreed to stay here for camp. We still, as a group, had plenty of water, and Charles & I would agree to challenge ourselves to purifying and drinking this water. We called it character building water.
Note: At this point in time, I noticed that I hadn’t seen Andrew purify any water this entire trip thus far. So I asked, “How much water did you carry for this trip?” He replied back with “Just over 5 liters.” I was shocked. When asked why, he said that most of his hiking experiences come from the southwest where you had to carry gallons of water (Hence his new name “Camel”). I quickly reminded him that we were in the mid-east where water was fairly abundant. Oddly enough his decision here wasn’t so bad given the spring situation.
After setting up camp, I was surprised to see that we had the entire area for ourselves! Nice! For a nice change, there was to be a nice quiet night out in the woods. I speak like this because I feel like my last couple trips involved meeting several Boy Scout troop camps. Well, this lasted all of 10 minutes as then a cluster of at least 25 people rolled in. Luckily they kept their distance and were relatively a quiet group.
We all sat around our little campfire ring cooking dinner as Charles and I were filtering out our lovely spring water. I even used my sock (clean) as a prefilter. In the end, the Sawyer filters were a big WIN!! It wasn’t as bad as we thought! Once filtered, the water came out pretty clear and tasted great! Drama about the water was now over. After enjoying some hot meals, we all passed around the whiskey and scotch and enjoyed a nice warm fire. Great time with great people!
Sunday morning, we all woke up to the sounds of howling winds and
cold temperatures. It was about 38 degrees when I woke up. For most of us, this was quick introduction to the cold shoulder season. We got back on the AT southbound and headed towards the Air Force Station Radar Dome thingy… Here, it opens up to a nice meadow with awesome views. Cool area!
After a mile or so back on the AT, we came to the junction for the Apple Orchard trail. In another quarter mile, we came across something we hadn’t seen in a while. Clear running spring water!! It was a sight to see and took advantage of this moment to fill up our bottles. After this, we continued along the trail and were immediately greeted with our first set of waterfalls. Before we knew it, we arrived at Apple Orchard Falls. I took this opportunity to take my tripod out to take some long exposures and to, of course, get an epic group shot!
While hiking out the last bit of trails, we carefully took our time to soak in all the beautiful scenery as the trail meanders around Cornellius Creek. Soon enough though, we were at the parking lot and at the end of good trip. We all hopped into my car and headed back to Devil’s Marbleyard to get the other cars. During this time, I was trying to figure out where we should go for our celebratory post trip lunch. I was thinking of going to the Capital Brewery in Harrisonburg, but AJ mentioned something about Panera Bread the night before. Honestly, all I could think during Sunday’s hike was about was the soup and sandwich combo thing at Panera. Well, it was settled. Yes, something very unconventional for our group, we went and enjoyed a post hike meal at Panera Bread!
After lunch, as we were saying our individual goodbyes, Charles insisted on a group hug. Well, to no disappointment we did and what a group hug it was!! Again, thanks for the great trip guys. I really enjoyed talking with all of you and I hope you guys took away some useful skills and/or thoughts on gear. I hope to meet you all again on the trails soon!
- Jimmy (GQ)