Als ich wisse das Morgen der Erde enden wuerde, immernoch wurd ich mein Apfelbaum pflanzen.

Even if I knew the world would perish tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree. - Martin Luther

"Factory work's easier on the back, and I don't mind it, understand, but a man becomes what he does. Got to watch that. That's why I keep at farmin' although the crops haven't ever throve. It's the doin' that's important." Madison Wheeler in Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Tuscarora Trail: Shenandoah National Park to Capon Springs Road, WV

I decided that this summer I would section hike (some day and some overnight) the Virginia portions of the Tuscarora Trail (the Big Blue).  Since I'm local I didn't walk the road sections, but did drive most of them just so I could see where they went.  In general I found parts of the Tuscarora to be beautiful and well marked.  While other parts were poorly blazed, overgrown and not trails I'll return to again.  Parts of the trail run on roads and parts are on private land.  These sections were the ones that were the least enjoyable.  The big plus of the Tuscarora is the lack of use - Once I left Shenandoah National Park I saw very few people on the trail.

Day 1 - Day Hike Shenandoah National Park (near Matthews Arm) to Route 340

The Woodsman hiked this section with me.  We parked a car on the side of 340 near where the trail turns onto Route 628.  We could not find a blaze for the trail head, but knew that it would be well marked in the park so we decided not to worry about it figuring that the trail would spit us out on Rt. 340 and we'd turn north and find our car.

The trail was crowded at the top (even though it was a Monday SNP is always crowded in the summer).  The Tuscarora runs with the AT for a short section - we saw several through hikers.  The trail almost immediately turns West and becomes the Overall Run - Tuscarora Trail.  This is a pretty trail with beautiful views of Page Valley to the west.  There is also a nice small waterfall and another larger cascade beyond it.  The trail is very well marked within the park boundary, but it is best to pay attention to the trail markers and the map as all side trails are blazed blue within SNP (the AT is white blazed).  The descent on this trail is very steep so I was very glad we were headed west and not hiking up the mountain.  Once the majority of the descent is complete the trail begins to cross Overall Run.  This is a plentiful source of water and there are several spots that would make for good camping.  At just over four miles in the trail turns uphill and runs with the Thompsons Run trail.  It then splits off again.  It is soon obvious that you are on the Tuscarora trail - very little foot traffic on this trail so it's narrow, often overgrown and you must watch for blazes.  Pay attention to Park Service (signs) and National Forest Boundaries (red marks on trees) to help establish your location.  Once the trail leaves the Park boundary it does several short uphill sections through open woods on private property.  The trail then descends through a field.  There are no blazes once leaving the woods.  However, Route 340 can be heard in the distance so it is relatively simple to head in the correct direction.  I stepped in a groundhog hole hiding in the tall grass and turned my ankle - this plagued me the remainder of the week. We had met another hiker coming into the park that had warned us that we would cross underneath a brick railroad trestle - there we finally found a blaze.  You walk under the trestle and out someone's driveway (again no blaze) and onto Route 340. 

Day 2 - Route 340 to Elizabeth Furnace

We parked a car at the picnic area of Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area (National Forest land) and then the Woodsman took me to the trail head off of Route 613.  I did not walk the four miles between Route 340 and the George Washington National Forest boundary.  However, the road sections are fairly well blazed and do not get much traffic.  Once crossing Route 340 it should be easy walking.  The trail goes over the South Fork of the Shenandoah  at Bentonville and the continues up Route 613 to the trail head.  The beginning ascent (two miles) is very steep, but the views of Page Valley and the South Fork of the Shenandoah Valley are really beautiful.  The trail joins with the Massanutten Trail (blazed orange) and then begins a descent to Mill Run.  The Little Crease Shelter (about 2 1/2 miles in) is a beautiful little trail shelter with built in bunk beds and a great stone fire pit with seating outside.  There's even a privy and a water source.  This is definitely a place to return.  Hiking in the Veach Gap trail to the shelter would make a lovely overnight backpack with kids.  It's on my short list for the fall.   

The trail then ascends again up the other side of Massanutten Mountain.  This part of the mountain is rocky, but open so there are wonderful views of the North Fork of the Shenandoah and of the Shenandoah Valley.  There are also some nice campsites up on top of the mountain.  I was glad I dropped down over the other side before the afternoon thunderstorm kicked up though - there was almost no cover. As I came across he saddle of the mountain I began to see bear sign (scat, moved rocks, bear logs).  As I dropped down into Elizabeth furnace something bear shaped and moving like a bear (so I'll call it a bear) ran downhill away from me. The descent into Elizabeth Furnace was very rocky and slick because of the morning rain.  I found hiking poles to be a necessity.  Overall this was a very enjoyable section of trail - mostly well blazed and well traveled. I'll be back on this one.  For through hikers, there are water, privies and camping available at Elizabeth Furnace.

Day 3:  Elizabeth Furnace to Shenandoah County Park

The beginning part of this section on the east side of Massanutten Mountain (Elizabeth Furnace side) is well maintained, well blazed and enjoyable.  However, once the trail crosses the Massanutten Mountain Trail at Little Passage Creek it looses all sense of appeal.  The assent up to the Meneka Peak trail is steep, but the switchbacks and pleasant woods make it a very enjoyable hike.  The descent to Little Passage Creek is pretty and well traveled.  However, if I ever did this section of trail again I would make it a loop, skip the remainder of the Tuscarora and turn onto the Massanutten, hike up to Signal Knob and then return to Elizabeth Furnace.  The trail between Little Passage Creek and the second crossing of the Massanutten Trail is the rockiest, most overgrown, most poorly blazed and most full of bear sign I've ever been on.  There are no views on this section and the footing is very poor.  To make matters worse there is no parking when you come out onto Route 747.  The road is very narrow so hikers either need to be picked up or hike the three miles to the county park.  The trail crosses out of National Forest Land and onto two private farms where there are almost no blazes.  If I hadn't seen the river crossing before heading on the trail I'm not sure I would have found it.  The farms and the crossing of the North Fork of the Shenandoah was very pretty, but I'll never repeat this section of trail again.

FYI:  When the trail leaves Shenandoah County Park it does the most strange thing I've ever seen on a trail.  It crosses Route 11, goes up through someone's yard and crosses the railroad tracks.  Then there is a ladder that the hiker must climb to go over a fence and into someone else's yard before eventually spitting out onto streets in a development and then turning onto several different back roads.  In my opinion, this is a section best to be skipped.  There is a 26 mile stretch with no camping choices, little scenery and lots of road walking.  I'm glad that I was local and had car support for this chunk.  Through hikers would be well advised to draft a friend to meet them for the weekend.  Woodstock, VA is a lovely little town with great restaurants, wineries and hotels.  My advice would be to spend some zero days with a friend and have them drop you at the top of the mountain where the trail crosses Route 600.

Days 4-6:  Fetzer Gap (Route 600) - Capon Springs Road, West Virginia

This section is best done as a two night backpack and that's how my trail partner and I did it.  There is a very short climb to fantastic views if you have someone drop you at the trail head at the top of Little North Mountain.  Then the descent to Cedar Creek is wide and pleasant (it mostly follows an old road).  Be careful of the "footbridge" that crosses Cedar Creek - it's just a few rotten logs tied together with binder twine!  There are some great campsites near Cedar Creek - one even has a table built.    We pushed on past Cedar Creek and up Little Sluice Mountain where we had wonderful views.  Sections of this trail are rocky, but not horrible.  It is mostly well marked and primarily on National Forest Land.  We stopped for the night near the Sugar Knob Cabin.  Next time I come through I'll remember to reserve the cabin - it's an adorable little shelter and it would be nice to not bring my tent on this section.  There is a good spring near the Sugar Knob cabin and lots of level ground for camping - don't camp within 100 feet though unless you've reserved the cabin from the PATC.

Cedar Creek
Views of Shenandoah Valley to the east

It rained overnight, but had mostly cleared out by the time we were ready to go.  We walked through a Laurel thicket that was shrouded in mist - it really looked like a fairy tale.  Then the going got tough.  The trail was very rocky (basically walking in an old stream bed) and the descent was steep.  Hiking poles were a must.  There were some great campsites along Paddy Run and lots of good water.  The moss running over the rocks (especially after the rain) made for some very beautiful scenery, but it was tiring to walk.  My ankle was still hurting from the beginning of the trip, and my trail partner knees did not like going down so they were very swollen.  The assent up from Waites Run is long and difficult.  The rocks are huge and I sometimes found it difficult to make the steps up.  I took a lot of breaks.  There are very pretty views though of the mountains you did the days before and the remote nature of the trail meant that we had the trail totally to ourselves.  We really moved slow.  It took us about 9 hours to do 8 miles.  However, I'd go back - the Gerhard Shelter was such a fantastic place to stay I'm eager to return.  A note about the shelter.... there is water BUT it's 3/4 of a mile down a very steep side trail and the spring is very slow.  Be sure to allow an extra 1 1/2  - 2 hours to get water.  It's a must though because once you leave Waites Run there are no other water choices.  Also, once you hit the top of the mountain as you approach the shelter (from the south) there are no blazes - not even once you leave the heath on top of the mountain and hit the hard woods.  The trail was well weed whacked when we were there, but otherwise just take a compass bearing and be sure to keep Shenandoah County on your right and Wardensville, WV on your left.  We had several moments where we wondered if we'd gotten off of the trail and we're both very competent and experienced woods women.  There was also lots of sign of bear on the trail - use the bear bag hanger and pay attention to your surroundings. 

lunch break near Paddy Run
Wild Columbine
Sunset at Gerhard Shelter

East Coast Krumholtz
So a word about the above picture.  Unbeknownst to us the PATC rerouted the Tuscarora trail so that it does NOT go to Hawk Recreation Area after it crosses Route 55.  We expected to come out on Forestry Road 502 and then hike down into Hawk (which would be a good place to camp and get water), but that's not where the trail led us.  The trail matches with the old map (2004) until after the second communication tower.  Then it continues to follow the county line border out to Capon Springs Road Route 16.  Fortunately we had both cell service to call our ride and there was a nice family with a Trail Angel who drove us the few miles down the road to Hawk.  I had checked the website for Hawk Recreation Area before leaving and it lists the Tuscarora as connecting to Hawk. There are also still blue blazes leading out of Hawk (as if they are part of the Tuscarora).  When I went into the Forestry Office (Lee Ranger District in Edinburg) they were able to show me a new map, but were not able to sell me one yet.  They said they were waiting to get them from the PATC.  Apparently the reroute was very recent.  The old Tuscarora is marked like that on the new map, but according to the woman I spoke with at the Forestry office they are still deciding what they are doing with the trail - thus the blazes are still there.  Confusing, but in the end not too frustrating.  We had a fantastic three days on the trail together.

The kids wanted to join me for the end of the week, but I thought it unwise to push on through the next sections as they're a bit long (13+ miles -that's for next summer).  They requested a loop that we've done before.  We hiked in about a mile on the Stoney Creek Trail and camped near the Stoney Creek.  It's a campsite we love.  The kids swam in the creek and the dog enjoyed all the new sights and smells.  It was the first time we took the dog overnight.  She did well with the backpack and fine while it was daylight, but she had a hard time settling at night and had a very difficult time with all of the strangers on the trail on Saturday.  We forgot how crowded the National Forest can be with folks from Northern Virginia.  So after a night with poor sleep and slow progress we all decided at lunch that we had been out long enough and it was time to be done with this year's backpacking trip.  We headed home, cleaned up and went out to dinner - one happy family and one tired dog.

Feet pictures - first one is the end of the first day's hike.  Next one is the end of the last day.  It was a drier week than last year so my feet were in much better shape. Only one bad blister on the inside of my left arch - pretty good for 65 miles or so.  Backpacking has reset my clock to summer.  This is the last post I'll make until we're back to school in the summer - see you in September.