Even since the Ankle Incident, I've been itching to get back out into the woods and do some hiking. My mobility and strength have been steadily increasing to the point where I can rock climb and cave well again. But the long-term, repetitive motion of backpacking was the big unknown. One previous short hike had left me pained and morose, so it was with grim determination that I set out on Friday afternoon for the wilds of Virginia...
Massanutten is a long series of north-south ridges surrounding a dugout canoe-shaped valley known as Fort Valley. Apparently, George Washington and his merry lads had planned to retreat to this region should the War of Independance go badly. With its steep outward slopes, limitted access routes, good visibility into the Great Valley on all sides and fertile farmland inside, they stood a good chance of holding off British assults for decades.
I've been staring at the imposing bulk of Massanutten for quite a while driving down I-81 or from the higher peaks of the Shenandoahs from the east and have always wondered what's in there. Having recently aquired a good set of maps and found the directions for the newly created Massanutten Trail circuit hike (71 miles), the time was ripe. It's been quite a while since I hiked anything that wasn't the Appalachian Trail, so it was definitely time for a change.
After some unpleasant traffic experiences on I66 on Friday afternoon, I was late in getting to the Signal Knob parking lot of SR678 at the northern end of Fort Valley. This is the one good access route to the valley where the sizable Passage Creek flows between steep mountain slopes. The creek was crowded with fisherfolk and the day was completely gorgeous. Starting at 5pm, I quickly climbed the Massanutten Trail (orange blazes). The trail was nicely cut and ascended gradually on the slope of the mountain past two decent, if slightly occluded views, one toward the spectacular Buzzard Rocks across the river, the other down the length of the Eden-like Fort Valley.
By the time I'd reached the high ridgeline, the sun was down and it was becoming cold and breezy. According to the trail description, two small campsites were to be found near here and I quickly found the larger of the two. It was a very small, limitted site with level room enough for one sleeping bag. Fortunately, this fit the bill and I set up the tarp and cooked dinner under the spectacularly bright full moon. Lights from Strasburg and Front Royal lit up the valley like stars.
Saturday: The beautiful weather of the day before was replaced with low clouds scudding across a leaden sky. I packed up and set out discovering in about a hundred yards the actual large campsite with more than enough room for a few tents. Oh well, it had been a comfortable bivy.
Two miles farther, after skirting the edge of Maneke Peak, I descended to the great view at Signal Knob. WVPT has a TV tower a little back from the peak, but this did little to lessen the view. To one side the northern Shenandoahs could be seen with Skyline Drive traversing across the western faces. To the west, I could see Great North Mountain along the West Virginia Border. Satisfied, I set out down the tower access road. After a mile on the gravel road with water running down each track, I'd had enough. The Big Blue Trail crosses and after a spot of early lunch, I took a left and headed up onto the ridgeline abandoning the more recent, Massanutten Trail which stayed on the road for the next three miles.
The ridgetop proved to be very exciting. On the more recent maps, it is labeled "For Experienced Hikers Only" and with good reason; the footbed is very rocky and various shrubs and weeds intrude from the verges into the path. Had it not been staying on the sharp ridgeline, this trail would be very difficult to navigate, nigh impossible at night. Still, I rather enjoyed the challenge of the tough terrain and occasional small views to the Shenandoah Valley to the west. My ankle was behaving remarkably well despite this punishment though I was careful about placement and used my hiking poles continuously for balance.
About a mile after this rugged trail became tiresome, the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail rejoined from the valley to the left. From here I continued for another mile on the ridgetop but on conciderably easier terrain. Reaching the violet-blazed Mine Gap Trail, I descended steeply on an old logging road to the valley. My ears popped several times with this rapid loss of altitude (600' in a mile) and I emerged on a gravel road (FR66).
I hiked about 2.5 miles along gravel roads past farms and isolated houses through pleasant forest finally reaching the main Fort Valley thoroughfare, SR678. The day was finally getting the sort of milky sunshine that promisses some mid-day warmth, but doesn't stick around long. I hopped over to the Veach Gap road and reached the trailhead a mile later.
The Veach Gap trail lead gradually uphill through piney forest giving way to hardwoods. A stream joined from the left and eventually got underfoot as the trail wandered up it. My feet were starting to hurt at this point and I was looking forward to a night at Little Crease Shelter. I stopped and talked to a passing hunter, all equipped in camoflague, bow, and tree stand. He'd had no luck today, but seemed in a pleasant mood none the less.
Finally, I attained the main Massanutten/Big Blue trail and turned right for 1/4 mile to the shelter. It was a lovely shelter with stone patio, sitting wall and fire pit. One other resident hiker, Jamie, welcomed me. The time was only 4pm so we set about gathering firewood for the evening activities. Partridges drummed in the distance sounding like a heart murmur crossed with a recalcitrant lawn mower. Darkness eventually fell, I whipped up a batch of Gado-gado, and we spent many lovely hours incinerating slightly damp wood and discussing various and sundry topics. By 10 we retired to our sleeping bags and fitful sleep. Total distance today, about 13 miles.
Sunday dawned much the way Saturday did, but with warmer temperatures and less wind. I was up and practically ready to leave by the time Jamie stirred. It was not an early start for me (9am?) but with only nine miles to go, I wasn't worried about time. After a night of stiffening, my foot was sore and I could barely walk. To my great relief, a few tenths of a mile of walking loosened up the tendons nicely and I was able to climb up out of the Mill Run Valley in good time. Occasional sprinkles failed to lead to steady rain, to my good fortune. Two pairs of startled grouse blasted off from the bushes on either side.
The ridge-top was spectacular with great views through open softwood forest to the east. The Shenandoah wound back and forth in huge oxbows and the distant Blue Ridge was hazy and, well, blue. Rounding a bend in the mountain, I could suddenly see the undulating ridge I would be walking. Spectacular! I could see why George Washington had picked this spot as defensible. The trail became quite rocky as it skirted the summit of Little Crease Mountain. I descended into a col, ascended another long ridgeline and descended again in the course of a few miles.
With six miles and two lunch stops under my feet, I reached a major trail intersection and started down into the valley again. The trail continued to be rocky winding back and forth through spectacular piles of tallus. Two miles of this left me weary. The ruins of Elizabeth Furnace provided an interesting historical perspective on the iron mongery of the past century. One mile to go. Crossing SR768, I climbed a piney hillside and made it back to the car by 2:30. Homeward bound after a good hike.
It was a restful and neccessary mental health hike. My feet behaved reasonably well though I was unable to do the big miles I usually do. All in good time. Massanutten was an undiscovered jewel hidding in plain sight next to the overhiked peaks of Shenandoah National Park. The whole time on the trail I met six other people and two dogs. An equivalent distance in SNP would have netted dozens of people. The trails were rough in places, but Massanutten had a very unspoiled and wild feel I look forward to visitting again. Total milage, about 25 miles.