A rock about to fall on Catherine, smashing her to smitherines


Appalachian Trail, Virginia
April 2008

Last updated April 23, 2008



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Day One | Day Two | Day Three

The first backpacking trip of the year is always a much looked forward to event. I don't backpack during the winter because I hate the cold and the short days. So after five months of no backpacking, I'm eager to sleep outdoors.

The winter is when I get my gear in order. But the spring is when I test things out. After retiring most of my old gear last year, much of what I now have is new. It is always nice having lighter gear but sometimes it takes getting used to. It is rare that I have everything exactly the way I want it on the first try so more often than not it is test, modify, test, modify,..., until I get things perfect. But that can take a very long time.

Getting my gear just right under ideal conditions isn't always so tough but to have it correct on a tough hike in the rain and the cold is quite another issue. If I can honestly say I packed everything I wanted, didn't pack anything I didn't want, and have everything adjusted just right, then I'm sitting pretty.

The forecast as of the morning of April 19, 2008 for the place we'd be backpacking read as follows:

Today: A chance of showers and thunderstorms after 2pm. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 78. Calm wind becoming south between 7 and 10 mph. Chance of precipitation is 40%. New rainfall amounts of less than a tenth of an inch, except higher amounts possible in thunderstorms.

Tonight: A chance of showers and thunderstorms, then showers and possibly a thunderstorm after 2am. Low around 54. South wind between 3 and 6 mph. Chance of precipitation is 80%. New rainfall amounts between a quarter and half of an inch possible.

Sunday: Showers and possibly a thunderstorm, mainly before 2pm. High near 63. Calm wind becoming south between 4 and 7 mph. Chance of precipitation is 80%. New rainfall amounts between a half and three quarters of an inch possible.

Sunday Night: Showers likely and possibly a thunderstorm. Cloudy, with a low around 48. Light and variable wind. Chance of precipitation is 60%. New rainfall amounts between a quarter and half of an inch possible.

Monday: A chance of showers. Cloudy, with a high near 70. West wind at 9 mph becoming north. Chance of precipitation is 40%. New rainfall amounts between a tenth and quarter of an inch possible.

This would not be the ideal weekend...but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be fun.

Day One: Saturday, April 19, 2008

At 0700, Betty, Stacy, Barbara (Barb), Dave, Mike J., and I met at the Broken Land Parkway and Route 32 Park and Ride for Mike's Howard County Sierra Club Appalachian Trail car shuttle backpack in George Washington National Forest and Jefferson National Forest. These two forests combine to form one of the largest areas of public land in the eastern United States.

It took over four hours to get to the trailhead, which lies near the Botetourt and Bedford County line, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway and north of Lynchburg, Virginia. I drove down with Stacy and Betty. I got to see how Betty's Toyota Prius (a hybrid) handles. Very impressive.

At the trailhead, we met Catherine and Bryce.

By 1220, we were off, commencing our hike on Apple Orchard Falls Trail in Sunset Field on the crest of the Blue Ridge in Jefferson National Forest. Our starting elevation was 3472 feet. The view was hazy but at least things were dry.

I expected more greenery being that it was now well into spring. Most of the trees were still bare.

At one of our first stopping points, I found a nice climbing tree and couldn't resist getting an aerial photo of the group. See first photo at left.

Near Apple Orchard Mountain (elevation 4225 feet), we encountered a giant golf ball. See second photo at left. There was a nice clearing, but again, the view was hazy.

Continuing onward, we walked along Thunder Ridge. A downhill into Petites Gap then an uphill onto Highcock Knob got our blood pumping.

The trail maintenance folks did some really nice work putting together a stone stairway that led between two giant boulders that had a smaller boulder trapped between. This gave us the feeling of walking out of a cave. See third photo at left and the photo at the top left corner of this page.

Several pretty white flowers called bloodroot were seen. See fourth photo at left.

We saw a rainbow.

Near one overlook, we managed to get a nice group photo. See fifth photo at left. Looking down into the valley, I noticed that the trees at the higher elevation were mostly bare while those in the lowlands were green.

I observed that my pack kept sliding off my left shoulder. My last pack did this too so I assume the problem is my asymmetry. I made a mental note to look into it later.

With dark clouds approaching, we were eager to get our tents set up before it began raining. By 1840, we reached our destination, a campsite near Marble Spring Shelter. We shared the site with two men and a woman that we referred to as the "Thompson Twins." With the sun getting low and the clouds getting darker, we quickly got our tents set up, filtered water, and ate. Then the rains came. By 2000, I was in my sleeping bag.

After having climbed 2400 feet and hiked 9.89 miles, I was most appreciative to change into dry clothes and crawl into my sleeping bag which kept me toasty like a Quiznos sub. I was wondering if bringing a full change of clothes was unnecesary weight but the extra comfort made it well worth while. I slept like a corporate executive at a Holiday Inn Express.
Click thumbnails to enlarge.

Day Two: April 20, 2008

It really rained hard during the night but my tent kept me dry. There was a little condensation near the foot of the tent but that was minor. Though it wasn't exceptionally cold, the combination of cold and wet would definitely be a problem if my down sleeping bag got wet. Fortunately, it did not.

I heard an owl.

The rain ended by dawn. It was replaced by fog.

By 0840, we were on the trail, continuing north. We left Thunder Ridge Wilderness and entered James River Face Wilderness, both in Jefferson National Forest.

Mike took us to a helicopter landing pad but I never would have known it was used for that unless being told so. It was still hazy but things were starting to clear.

Though we would sometimes walk at our own pace, we usually stopped at trail junctions where Mike took a head count and pointed us in the right direction. See first photo at left.

Soon we came within view of the mighty James River. See second photo at left. I was looking forward to doing this river crossing. I even brought my Crocs.

We ate lunch and dried out our gear at Matts Creek Shelter near Matts Creek (third photo at left).

Today's weather was quite nice. Sunny and warm.

I found a tree with interesting marks. I wonder if some wire was wrapped around it then was later removed. See fourth photo at left.

Bryce saw a pair of eastern fence lizards.

As we neared the James River, we encountered some impressive rock formations. See fifth photo at left.

Not surprisingly, the area around the river was the lowest elevation of our trip. It was also the greenest. See Stacy trekking through a lush forest in the sixth photo at left.

Much to my disappointment (not really), we crossed the river via a foot bridge. See me in the seventh photo and the whole group in the eighth photo at left. From left to right are Mike, Bryce, Dave, Betty, Barb, Catherine, Stacy, and me.

Interestingly, this foot bridge was really a Foot bridge, named after William T. Foot (1946-2000). Bill Foot spent years acquiring $1.5 million to get the 625-foot James River Foot Bridge built, which ensured a safe crossing for trail hikers.

Kayakers in the distance explored the river via boat. See ninth photo at left.

Next to the foot bridge was the train bridge (tenth photo).

Upon crossing the James River, we left Jefferson National Forest and entered George Washington National Forest.

We crossed Rocky Row Run, this time via a short wooden bridge (see Dave in eleventh photo), then arrived at our destination a little later, at 1520.

Johns Hollow Shelter was our home for the evening. Though we had a shelter, we all preferred to sleep in our tents and just use the shelter for eating. The word is that mice are much more likely to stay in the shelter than to bother us in our tents as long as we don't bring food into our tents.

Johns Hollow Shelter is definitely one of the most luxurious campsites I've seen. See twelfth photo at left. There are two fire pits and plenty of room for several tents. There are two latrines though only one is working. But this working latrine is definitely the Cadillac of latrines. It even has a plexi-glass roof and railing around the toilet for wheelchair access...though I don't know how anyone in a wheelchair will possibly make it to the campsite being as it is rather remote. See thirteenth photo at left.

After we got all set up, it started to rain. We hung out in the shelter. The rain died down a little before dusk. I got a nice fire going.

Compared to yesterday, our hike was an easy one. We walked 10.04 miles but only 800 feet in elevation gain.

Stacy taught me to identify a whippoorwill, an annoyingly loud bird with a distinctive song.
Click thumbnails to enlarge.

Day Three: Monday, April 21, 2008

Once again, it poured hard at night but stopped by dawn. It wasn't fun putting away wet gear but I was thankful that I myself was dry.

A large grey moth crawled out from under my tent. See first photo at left. It appeared to have something wrong with its wing and couldn't fly.

In the campsite, there were several trees with white flowers called shadbush or serviceberry. There were also flowers on a dogwood tree. See second photo at left. There were also trees with purple flowers called redbud. See third and fourth photos at left.

By 0850, we were off for our final day of hiking. This was by far the most difficult day. Lots of climbing and a good deal of rain. It didn't pour but it sprinkled off and on for most of the day. If we hiked fast, that just meant we'd have to wait a long time later and get cold. It was often better to just keep moving.

Stacy wasn't feeling well but like a tough Marine, she just kept moving without complaint.

We encountered some turkey hunters hunting from the trail. We did see one turkey on the drive up but that was it. I saw two millipedes (fifth photo) and a red spotted newt (sixth photo).

There were some nice (but still hazy) views of the James River near Little Rocky Row. Looking at the bridge we crossed over the James River made us appreciate what we accomplished in just a few hours. We could see the southeast side of the river (seventh photo) but the northwest was hidden by trees. I climbed some rocks to get a better view and took some photos. See eighth photo at left.

Walking along the Blue Ridge, we passed Saddle Gap, Silas Knob, Saltlog Gap, Bluff Mountain, and finally Punchbowl Mountain. We also passed (though I failed to notice), the Ottie Cline Powell memorial.

Just after Punchbowl Mountain, we ended our long weekend trip where the trail meets the Blue Ridge Parkway. That day, we walked 9.39 miles and climbed 3100 feet. Our weekend total was 29.3 miles and 6300 feet of elevation gain. Done at 1530.

For Mike's route description, see Sunset Field to Punch Bowl.

We bid our farewells and I caught a ride back to Columbia with Betty and Stacy. It rained quite a bit later that night. I think we were glad to get back to our own warm, dry beds.
Click thumbnails to enlarge.

Not all backpacking trips and hikes are going to be nice, dry, warm weather. If they were, we wouldn't appreciate them as much. Sometimes it is enough to just be outside, enjoying the beauty of nature.

A few days later, I read through my food packages to determine exactly what and how much I ate. I'm usually not very good at packing just enough food but for this trip, I really hit the mark. Hopefully, by keeping a record, I can pack appropriately next time. See food survey for the details.