Going Solo

Thursday, June 20. I’ve been backpacking for forty years. But I’ve never gone on a solo trip. That changes tomorrow. I am packed and ready to head out in the morning to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.

During the last forty years I’ve hiked hundreds (thousands?) of miles, mostly with my husband. I’ve always said that I wasn’t interested in hiking alone, that it wouldn’t be any fun without someone to share it with.

Last weekend I looked at the calendar and realized three things: next Friday is the summer solstice, I have a three-day weekend, and I have a weekend alone. Four things–and I want to go to Mount Rogers for an overnight hike. All by myself.

My planned route is a loop, about 10-12 miles total. I’ll take the main trail up from the parking lot, head south on the AT to Rhododendron Gap, take the Pine Mountain Trail back to the AT, continue southbound to Scales, over Stone Mountain, down to the bottom, then camp somewhere along one of the creeks for the night. The next morning I’ll walk past the Wise Shelter, and then up and over to head back to the car, taking the trail back down to the backpacker parking lot.

Friday, June 21. When I drove up to the entrance station at Grayson Highlands State Park, the ranger had two questions: you know about the bear warnings, right? And, you know about the weather forecast? Yes to both. This could be an interesting hike.

Since last summer the Mount Rogers area has had intermittent bear problems at the shelters and along Wilburn Ridge. They’ve installed bear boxes at these locations. Hikers are encouraged to use them or bear canisters for food storage.

There had been severe thunderstorms Thursday night and the forecast was the same for Friday night. The weather up there is always volatile and can change from warm sunshine to cold, windy rain in minutes. You’ve got to be prepared for all of it.

I left the car at 9:30 AM with a 22.5 pound pack. We’ve done this hike so many times that it felt completely familiar, but also completely new and exciting, all at the same time. As I crossed the parking lot, I saw my first bird of the hike, an indigo bunting singing in the top of a small shadbush tree. An excellent omen.

It was really windy as I climbed, sometimes sunny, sometimes ominously cloudy. A bit chilly in the wind without sun. Absolutely gorgeous. Summer meadow grasses and wildflowers, blackberries and mountain laurel in bloom, the Christmas tree fragrance of the Fraser firs. It was so much fun to be out there! Life’s been a bit busy lately and I haven’t had enough trail time in the last year or so. Just breathing the air up there was good for my soul in a way I’d almost forgotten.

I stopped for lunch on Pine Mountain in a little grove of evergreen trees, trying to get out of the wind. There was a jumble of rocks inside, so it seemed like an ideal spot. I was clearly not the first to think it so–there was also a lot of evidence that the horses had spent a lot of time there…

The trade-off for being out of the wind was also being out of the sun, so I didn’t stop for long. By the time I got to Scales the wind had died down a bit and the sun was out for good. I took a break just to sit and be there. And watch the cows.

On the way down Stone Mountain I stopped at a spring along the trail for water. While I was there I met a northbound thru hiker from Germany. For the second time that day. She stopped to talk because she recognized that we’d passed each other earlier in the day as well and found that a bit puzzling, until I explained that I was hiking a loop.

As I continued down the trail, I started thinking about my camping spot for the night. We’ve camped before at a spot that we call the old homesite. There’s a small clearing, a spring, and some overgrown household junk on the other side of trail. When I got there I decided that it was too early in the day to stop and that would leave me a longer hike in the morning than I wanted (since I had to hike out, drive home, then pick up my husband at the airport the next afternoon).

My next two stops were along the creeks at the bottom. At the first spot there’s a nice campsite under a tree. Unfortunately the only flat spot to pitch a tent had a gigantic pile of horse manure. Sigh. I looked around a bit in the more open grassy areas, but every flattish spot was either soggy or full of blackberry brambles. The next spot a little further down the trail was just too soggy. So on I went.

Finally, like Goldilocks, I found a spot that was just right. Out of sight of the trail, close–but not too close–to the creek, flat enough to pitch a tent, and high enough to be dry.

I had everything set up by 5 PM, so I had the rest of the afternoon and evening to just enjoy being out. I had brought my knitting, of course, so I worked on knitting a hat and just watched the world go by. There were lots of birds, a few deer, but no hikers anywhere nearby. I walked around a bit, exploring the area and looking for a place to secure my food bag overnight. I made dinner and just relaxed, enjoying being out on the longest day of the year.

Saturday, June 21. I was up early, as soon as it began to get light. I retrieved my food, made coffee and breakfast, and watched the morning. My company was a chestnut-sided warbler in the maple nearby. I sat for a few minutes meditating, and realized that this entire trip is an exercise in mindfulness and presence.

It had been an interesting evening. I first heard thunder at about 10:30. When I looked outside, the sky was full of stars to the east. Not so much in the west. I had a few showers at about 11:30, then things were quiet until about 3:30, when the thunder and lightning woke me up. The rain started coming down hard after the first thunderclap. All was dry inside–so far so good.

I started counting the time between lightning and thunder. Ten seconds. Then eight. Four. Two. Then four again and I resumed breathing. The storm moved off and the rest of the night was quiet.

I took my time breaking camp and I was on the trail before 8 AM. Within ten minutes I had crossed the last creek and passed the Wise Shelter and the 20 or more tents and hammocks pitched nearby. I guess the bear warnings have concentrated the hikers near the bear box locations.

It took about an hour to get to the top of the ridgeline and the trail back to the backpacker parking area. I stopped fairly frequently, mostly because I wanted to prolong my time out and enjoy the glorious morning. I saw deer and turkeys, and heard a hermit thrush, a wood thrush, and plenty of chestnut-sided warblers.

Would I do this again? Absolutely. I discovered that hiking alone allows me to focus entirely on the experience, on the world around me, on how I feel and what I need–when to stop, eat, or drink. I also saw and heard more birds and other animals, perhaps because I was quieter alone or maybe because I was paying more attention. I returned home restored and energized, ready to check my calendar for another opportunity to spend some time in the backcountry.

Chilly Spring Weekend at Mt Rogers


I can’t believe it’s been a year since our last overnight hike together, but 2017 sort of got away from us. Between helping get the kiddo moved to Tuscaloosa, visiting family far away, and plenty of regular old work, we never got another chance.

So we rectified that with a two night backpacking trip to our favorite local destination, the Mt Rogers National Recreation Area in Virginia. It’s an easy two hour drive to Grayson Highlands State Park, where we parked the car in the backpacker lot at Massey Gap, and we were hiking before 6:30 Friday evening.

Spring has been late this year, and even with warming temperatures back home, it was still late winter in the high country. Trees were bare, and early flowers like the spring beauties were only blooming down low. It was under 50F when we left the car, and in the 40s while we sat and watched the sun set at our campsite on Wilburn Ridge. The brisk wind  made it feel much colder, of course, so we were in the tent before 9pm, trying to get warm. Had something of a chilly night (well, one of us did), and woke to semi-frozen water bottles and a glorious sunrise. I made coffee while Dragonfly packed things up in the tent, but we left the quilt out for her to stay warm while we ate hot oatmeal for breakfast. The forecast for the day was for clear blue skies and warming in the afternoon, so we packed up and started climbing Wilburn Ridge toward Rhododendron Gap. We still weren’t too sure of our route – just that we wanted to be camped somewhere near Wise Shelter later that evening. At Rhodo Gap, Dragonfly looked at the map and thought that the clockwise route all the way around Mt Rogers looked doable, so we saddled back up and headed south on the Appalachian Trail toward the Thomas Knob Shelter. There we got some water from the spring, used the very nice privy (this area gets a lot of use), and kept heading south on the AT. We passed a lot of backpackers on the way.

We stopped for lunch in a large clearing overlooking Briar Ridge and the Virginia Highland Horse Trail. Had little packets of almond butter and chocolate/hazelnut spread, dried bananas, and tortillas. Kind of dry and hard to eat — maybe fresh apples would be better in this. Then we hiked down to Deep Gap, where we took the right turn onto the Mt Rogers National Scenic Trail. It’s not remotely scenic — it’s a connector trail that runs four miles up from Grindstone Campground to the AT at Deep Gap. Halfway down, there is a connection with the Lewis Fork Trail, which offers a choice of upward toward Pine Mountain, or down towards the Old Orchard Shelter on the AT. We chose upward. Most of the trail is an old road bed, so it’s wide and well graded, and there was plenty of water coming out of the mountain. The last half mile or so gets off the road and so it gets a lot steeper climbing up toward the saddle in the middle of Pine Mountain, where the LFT intersects the Pine Mountain Trail and the Crest Trail.

Walking up the old road we went through some open woods. Dragonfly heard some vireos calling, so we stopped and looked for them. We had terrific views of a male blue headed vireo, then she saw a male yellow-rumped warbler in full breeding plumage. While I was looking for that with the binoculars, I spotted a male hooded warbler — a spectacular wood warbler, who then spent ten minutes showing off his bright colors as we watched. (The photos at the link do not do him justice. He was stunning.)

We had planned to spend the night at that saddle. It’s a popular spot, with good water at a couple of springs, nice views, and plenty of tent sites. But we arrived at 3:00, too early to stop for the day. So we got some water and took the Crest Trail, toward Scales, where it intersects the AT and a couple of other horse trails. The Crest Trail is mostly in the open, and it has terrific views of the area. Lots of hikers here, too, mostly large groups of kids. After we stopped at Scales, we headed on yet another horse trail, the Scales Trail, back toward the state park and the Little Wilson Creek area. On a previous trip, we had noticed a terrific little campsite well off the AT down near Little Wilson Creek. Even with all the hikers in the area, the site was far enough off the trail that no one was there when we arrived around 5:30. Got the tent up, changed clothes, and made dinner, then we sat around in the cool air as the sun set over the ridge above us. Had some chocolates and a wee nip of Scotch before heading off to the tent. Temps overnight were warmer, though we still had a hard frost on the tent in the morning – but no ice in the water bottles.

Dinner was one of my personal favorites: a Knorr “Broccoli Alfredo” noodles and sauce meal, to which we added dried tomatoes, freeze-dried peas, and half a bag of real bacon pieces. Sort of a backcountry fettuccini carbonara. We shared it, but on a longer hike I could have eaten the whole thing in about five minutes.

Got up early Sunday morning to a cool, bright morning. With no breeze, it was warm enough to sit out with our coffee and some granola for a bit before packing up. Headed back to the car, and we were home before noon. Ended up with about 15 miles for the weekend, more than 12 of them on Saturday. Came back down the mountain refreshed and ready to do it again.


Gear Notes: As usual, the first trip of the year always presents some gear issues. I like to putter around and check all the gear before a trip, make sure everything is working, etc., and I mostly did that. Of course, the one thing I didn’t check was our water filter, which did not work at all (it’s the regular Sawyer filter, so I’m sending it back for a replacement. It shouldn’t ever fail.) I do carry chlorine dioxide tablets for a backup, and we used them all weekend.

The Zpacks Triplex tent is still working very well, easy to set up and spacious. Zpacks stuff is expensive, but if you have the money I think this tent is worth it. A couple of years ago we switched from individual sleeping bags and pads to a shared quilt and a double sleeping pad (the Exped Ultralight.) This saves at least two pounds in total weight, but it’s not without some challenges, especially as the lows get down below freezing at night. Just like at home, when one person moves, it can suck cold air inside any gaps, or pull the covers off the other person — which is mildly annoying at home with the thermostat at 64, but far more so when it’s 30 degrees out. On the upside, the sleeping pad did very well in the cold. It has some insulation built-in, and we never had any cold spots under us.


An Easy Day

Sunday, May 28. Lost Mountain Shelter to the Straight Branch parking area, about 10.5 miles.

It wasn’t raining when the alarm went off at 6am, so we packed our gear and got breakfast started. By 7am it was raining off and on, so we retreated under the tarp I had set up for just this occasion. We can eat and hang out in a dry space, finish packing, then pull down the tarp and start walking.

Got on the trail right at 7:30 and we were at Creek Junction at 8:30. We decided after the long day Saturday that we’d take the Virginia Creeper Trail to the car, so we started down the Creeper at a moderate pace. I’d mentioned to Ben that we could stop at 11am for lunch at the Creeper Trail Cafe, and if we were a little early we’d just wait. Well, we were an hour early – we were making 3mph on the level trail, an old railroad bed. So we kept going and hit the car by 1045, and drive to Damascus for lunch.

Forgot to add that we saw a bear!  On the Creeper Trail, just before it leaves the USFS property near Taylor’s Valley, a young bear ran across the trail a hundred yards ahead of us, then ran straight up the side of the gorge. It’s looks like a 60 degree slope, and he ran. I’d find it difficult to climb.

The truck was fine, btw, and the sign said the area was closed from 10pm to 6am, so no overnight parking. Sorry!

After a pizza,  calzone, and some fried shrimp we are now headed out to walk around town and do some shopping before the drive home.

All in all a nice little hike.

An Epic Day

Saturday, May 27. Starting point: Massey Gap. Ending point: Lost Mountain Shelter. 15.8 miles.

Through a complicated series of events, my easy three day 32 mile hike with my friend Ben turned into a two day 26 mile hike. Still not too bad, but further complicating matters, we had to be back Sunday for dinner – after hiking all day and driving three hours. That meant that day one became a 16 mile hike from Massey Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park to the Lost Mountain Shelter, setting us up for an easy 10 mile day to get back to the car.

We drove up Friday night and stayed at a hotel in Abingdon. Got up at 5am and walked across the parking lot to the Huddle House for breakfast. It was good: friendly service and decent food. We drove to Damascus to meet Lone Wolf for the shuttle to the park, and met him at the public library, which has long term parking for hikers.

We had planned to leave the truck there, but I thought we’d have a good shorter hike parking at Straight Branch, a trailhead for the Creeper Trail and AT. We got there and I drove in to the empty parking area. LW followed us in and asked if I’d seen the “area closed” sign. Er, nope. I was putting all my effort into not missing the turn. Huh. Too late to go back – LW had to be at work early. Not sure what to do, so we left the truck with the hope that the Forest Service would leave a ticket rather than tow it. (Or chain the driveway out.) So I’ve been moderately concerned about the truck every once in a while. The odd thing is that the big “Trailhead Parking” sign is still on the main road, and the closed sign is really not noticeable. Also, no gate. Oh well, we’ll see when we get there.

Had a nice ride with LW. We’ve known each other for years both online and in person. We got to GHSP and were on the trail right at 7:30. The forecast was for rain and thunderstorms,  and as we climbed we moved into the clouds as the wind whistled past at 20 mph.

We climbed up Wilburn Ridge, with me chasing after Ben as fast as I could – he’s got 40 years on me, so I never could keep up. Had a short break at the big rock with a view, then at Thomas Knob Shelter. Headed out around Mt Rogers and got to Elk Garden at 11:30 for lunch. Had a short but pleasant break, then climbed Whitetop in an hour. Got some water in the big spring, then took a nice break at Buzzard Rocks. The next few miles were a 2000 foot descent, which killed my knees and wiped us both out. But at the bottom we were only 2.3 miles from the shelter, so we sucked it up and hiked. Got here by 4:30 and found a nice campsite across the trail from the shelter, which is crowded with thru hikers.

We set up tents, and I went to get water. When I got back we could hear thunder in the distance, so I set up a tarp in case we need it for dinner or breakfast or just hanging out. I’ll leave it up all night – I can still hear thunder and it’s gotten quite dark and chilly.

Ben made dinner. He brought gnocchi and some dried tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic. We looked at the directions and the gnocchi need to be boiled – oops, we only have a frying pan. But we added water in the pan to cover them, let them simmer for ten minutes, and the water thickened into a delicious sauce. It was one of the best backcountry dinners I’ve ever had.

(Later) I thought we’d get away with some sprinkles overnight as I heard the storms passing to the north. Alas. Around 8:30pm we could hear thunder moving in from the southwest. The storms got underway slowly, but soon we had very heavy rain and lightning all around us. It rained heavily for about 4 hours – plenty long enough to keep me from getting enough sleep. My ZPacks tent did okay, though it was raining hard enough that water was splashing up under the fly and getting inside. I blocked it with my sit pad to keep my head dry and just got what sleep I could.