As you can guess from the title I was riding solo this weekend. A work trip scheduled around my birthday was canceled at the last minute so finding a mate to join my impromptu road trip was tough. Regardless I couldn’t think of a better treat than to camp in a national park so I decided on Shenandoah in Virginia! I had passed through the park once before but did not have time to truly explore. I was thrilled to get back and to spend my first night at Virginia’s highest peak, Mount Rogers.
There are a few ways to get to the Mount Rogers summit but I’d suggest starting in the Grayson Highlands State Park. If you arrive late like I did you can still easily backpack. Overnight parking is only $3 but I’d visit again at any price! Just remember you’ll be sharing the land with wild ponies!
Once I arrived that Friday I only had an hour of daylight to spare but that was enough to get above the tree line and just above a wild bull.
I got here by way of the Wilburn Ridge trail which gave me flashbacks of the South Kaibab trail in the Grand Canyon with all the poop. When you enter rhododendron gap you’ll find bigger beasts and bigger poop. I had to sneak my way around a few steeds and bulls that were having a snack. This bull knew exactly where to catch sunset!
Sunrise was also amazingly colorful but the scenery ahead would only get better.
From that point to the Mount Rogers spur I’d be heading south on the Appalachian Trail!
The views from here to the Thomas Knob shelter are awe-inspiring.
Once you reach the Mount Rogers spur trail you’ll feel as though you have been transported to the Pacific Northwest with all the lush, dense overgrowth.
The actual summit standing at 5,729ft has no dramatic view but it was a very special feeling to stand atop the Commonwealth of Virginia!
After checking that off the to-do list I retraced my steps back to the car. A thick fog would make for some really unique scenery.
I would also be lucky enough to meet many more 4 legged friends before heading towards Shenandoah National Park.
It’s a 3 hr drive to the Rockfish Gap (South) Entrance but if you have extra time take the Blueridge parkway through George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. Visibility was very low and I was too set on getting to the park to detour but as soon I began the 105-mile Skyline Drive the fog rolled away!
The incredible Skyline Drive stretches the entire length of the park always staying close to crests of the Blueridge Mountains! Running almost parallel is 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail so the beauty of the area needs no explanation! Even if you don’t hike you’ll still have your breath taken away by the 75 individually named overlooks. Of course if you can hike do! The first must hike is Blackrock Summit (mile 84). It’s a one mile hike to rock outcroppings and an excellent view.
From there I drove to mile 56 to hike and backpack near Bearfence Mountain. I took my time stopping or at least driving through about every overlook turnout. I clearly have FOMV (fear of missing views).
Upon arriving at Bearfence I collected my gear and was ready to spend the night in the woods once again. If you’re looking to backpack you can pick up a free permit from any ranger station. Permit in hand I went searching for a home. When I found that sweet flat ground I’d set up camp and head up Bearfence Mountain. It’s a short trail up with most of it being a rock scramble. The long skinny summit really will remind you of a fence.
At the summit I noticed something unusual. I became stuck between the thought that the spotlight hit me while performing on stage or that I had found the doorway to heaven.
I would later learn that this atmospheric phenomena is known as the glory or Brocken Spectre. I would also read that in mythology the glory was often representing the observer’s personal enlightenment! I certainly felt something special going on.
I didn’t leave here until the sun completely set and it was glorious.
The low hanging clouds were so fascinating. It was hard to believe I was the only person at the summit. I did pass a group of seasoned female hikers going up and they warned me about seeing a bear and its cubs near the start of the trail… That fact lead me to eat and drink everything I had while praying I set up my tent on the right side of “the fence”.
Eventually those low hanging clouds consumed me as did the night. It was time to get back to camp but where exactly was that again? I made a slight error in my return and got lost walking in the foggy darkness with a useless headlamp. At some point as I took one nervous step after the other I started to embrace and enjoy my surroundings. I knew all I could do was be patient and continue searching for my tent. By the time I found it I was completely at peace with the night!
The next morning I would hike the nearby trail to Dark Hollow Falls. This was the one hike I’d been on before and at the time it was very crowded. Luckily for me I was the only car parked at the foggy trail head. I was way too jacked up at 8am!
There were no obstructed views and I couldn’t be happier!
That was followed up by another favorite hike, Hawksbill Mountain Summit (mile 46). You’ll once again find yourself above the clouds but this time at the park’s tallest peak standing at 4,051ft. Hopefully there’ll be another person to capture the moment.
From here you can also see Old Rag Mountain which has the crown jewel of Shenandoah trails and the only trail that does not spur off Skyline Drive.
That was the real reason for the trip so it was cool to get a sneak peak. It was being saved for my birthday the following day so I still had a full day to explore Skyline Drive. As soon as I began driving again I spotted a black bear for my first time ever!
I reacted like the bear was Mike Dikta but refrained from asking for an autograph. It was too cool just as the many overlooks are!
It seemed like a continuous cycle of driving in and out of fog but I was very pleased with the otherworldly scenes like the tunnel below.
It happened to cross under my last hike of the day to Mary’s Rock. The panorama view did not disappoint and allowed me to find a hidden camping spot along the trail.
You are not permitted to camp there but it was the closest I could be to Old Rag without leaving Skyline Drive and I would leave zero trace of my existence.
Later I got back in the truck to finish the night at the highest point along the drive. That happens to be right next to Skyland where you can find food and cold beer! I was able to enjoy a local brew while catching sunset!
From there I’d conquer the night as my truck stayed ready at the Thorton Gap Entrance for an early morning getaway to Old Rag Mountain. By 7:30am I was on the Old Rag trail celebrating 26 years of life! My present was beautiful blue skies!
Very quickly I could see why it’s considered by many to be one of the top trails in the National Park system. The view from the summit is wondrous but the journey to get there is the reason for all the love.
You’ll have to scramble over, under, around and through a playground of huge boulders.
You’ll have an endless amount of viewpoints from each unique rock outcropping.
I was able to relax at the summit for about 30 minutes until another person joined me. For awhile I thought it would only be me and this Woolly Bear Caterpillar.
And this bird.
And of course my trusty day pack!
That day pack and I have seen some amazing places and this was one of the best! I just couldn’t get over how clear it was after such a cloudy weekend. It was a birthday dream come true!
From the high point of Old Rag at 3,291ft they suggest you loop back on the flat Weakley Hollow Fire Road. I didn’t get exciting vibes from trip reports so I decided to return the way I came and I was very happy with that choice.
I would end up running into a lot of people hiking up so I would suggest the loop to minimize traffic. Everyone was very courteous though and seemed to be loving the challenge. The parking lot was empty when I started and completely full by the time I got back. It always pays to start early!
It felt like a successful trip so to conclude the birthday I treated myself to an 8 hour drive back to Atlanta. How could you complain after an experience like that!
Oh and if you’re like me and wonder how the heck did they allow Skyline Drive to be built here? Just know there was certainly some controversy. It would break up the founders of the AT but thanks to the National Park Service and the Wilderness Society this area and its wildlife has managed to thrive! So go check it out and remember Virginia is not just for lovers!