Section - Sept 2003
Southbound from Mt Rogers HQ to Damascus
Coming back into town:
Before getting into the travelogue, it is worth recounting my experience coming back into Damascus after 4 days, essentially alone, in the woods of Virginia.
The first one notes in coming back toward town are the sounds. Still a couple miles away from the edge of town, well up on the mountain, there is the sound of several large dogs barking. This sound, and the noise of aircraft, are about the only civilized sounds I have heard for the last half week. I have heard dogs barking several nights, and occasionally during the day. But the sounds are always the deep barks of dogs I imagine to be at least half my weight.
Then there are a few automobile noises. A honking horn, a truck's diesel engine, the screech of someone's tires that just avoided an accident are all heard. Next, small yard dogs and lap dogs barks are heard. The higher pitched yapping didn't make it very far through the trees. Now that I am getting closer to town, I can hear the racket. Next, I hear a lawn mower. I assume it is a riding lawn mower.
Only a few hundred yards from the opening to the street, I hear the sound of car's tires on the roadway. A little closer and I hear bicycle sounds from the Virginia Creeper trail. Next, voices - just the sound of voice, nothing that can be understood - makes it into the trees only a hundred yards.
Finally, at the tree line, at the top of the steps, the sun floods the ground. My eyes have difficulty focusing on the steps in the brightness. I clamber down the wood steps and across the road... making doubly sure that I am not about to step in front of a car. Which way to I turn my head to check for traffic?? It seems strange, like being in England and never knowing where a car is going to come from.
Walking along the Creeper path into town, people nod their hellos. Time to get back into the social graces of responding to their friendly gestures. I buy an ice cream. No trouble there. Unpack down to my ditty kit to find the key to my truck. Crossing the road to Mt. Rogers outfitters, I walk in, but do not feel like interrupting the talking people to say that I have just gotten back and that I will be taking my truck now... I just walk out after looking through the shelves. A hermit for the last half week, it will take me a few hours to get reacquainted with social interaction.
I didn't know it when I arrived at "Dave's Place" on Tuesday evening, but the next few days would be a great, if lonely adventure. I had arranged with Mt. Rogers to stay at the Hostel and get a shuttle the next morning. Everything was in place when I arrived that evening. I shared the place with a nomadic hiker named Beaker, working his way down the trail to Florida.
On Wednesday, Mike drove me to the Mt. Rogers National Wilderness Headquarters. I snooped around the small museum and talked with the ranger on duty for a few minutes before beginning my hike.
Almost immediately at the end of the parking lot, one comes to the Partnership Shelter. This shelter is world famous for its shower and because pizza can be delivered there. When I arrived, no one was there, however I later found out 6 people had spent the night and had their fill of pizza.
The shelter not only has running water, it also is a two story affair. Weather forecast posted on the wall was for great weather over the next few days.
A half hour into the day's hike, I stopped to change socks. I was testing a new pair of Chaco Z2 sandals and was determined to use socks as much as possible. The coolmax socks I had on, just bunched under my feet and twisted terribly. I put a pair of gold toe polypropylene socks over the coolmax socks.
The trail was through woods that are not yet mature. Most of the trees were only 30-40 years old in this section.
Immediately before crossing the first road, and after filling my water bladder with clean water, I came across some road apples. This is not not very common on the AT, as horses are not allowed on the trail... However, near this farm, no one had bothered to tell the horses they were not allowed to step over the fence and roam the trail system.
I experimented with the self-timer on the camera crossing the South Fork of the Holston River at the bottom of the hill and just after the VA 670 road crossing.
Resting on the far end of the bridge was a long distance hiker named "Hillbilly" from Arkansas. Hillbilly runs a remodeling business back home and had decided to walk the Shenandoah National Park portion of the trail. However, after finishing that in a week, he discovered he was not yet finished. He decided to work his way down the trail to Springer this fall. I left him at Timpi shelter, where he was going to enjoy the fireplace inside the shelter.
Meanwhile, I walked another couple miles to the Raccoon Branch Shelter. The water was good and the woods looked nice.
Another experiment with the self timer. Looks like I am waiting for someone to fix my supper. I spent the night alone at the shelter and had plenty of time to write, play a Native American Flute I had just finished building the previous couple days, and start to relax.
About 7 PM, it became obvious I was to be alone. I went ahead and hung my hammock in the shelter, as I had never stayed in a shelter in my other visits to the AT. On this trip, I used my quilt as a sleeping bag with a hole in it's end through which the hammock support rope is threaded. It worked quite well as an alternate to the large pads I have used in the hammock in the past. However, about 0300 I began to get cold and needed to put on more clothes. I decided that I better use the 16x36 inch pad the next night.
These mountains are what await my foot steps over the next few hours. The trail was chock full of 1000 foot climbs - at least one every day.
Dickey Gap (VA 16) is a popular place for thru-hikers to get to a post office. 2.6 miles away, an easy lift, is the Troutdale PO.
Commer's creek has a nice cascade a mile past Dickey Gap. The road traffic was still audible above the falls and the guide says that this water is not potable.
But a mile or two further along, a nice stream made a great spot to rinse off and to fill the water stores again.
The woods were full of mushrooms of various types. This rather large "DESTROYING ANGEL" (amanita virosa) has white ribs under the cap. They were all over.
There were also a number of these red topped mushrooms. I don't know its name, nor whether it is edible. I didn't try.
I read about this "flower" of a fungus. It is described in Wingfoot's wildflower list. It is called squaw root, Conopholis americana . If any reader has any info on the various fungi, I'd be glad to correct and post.
These thin wood colored fungi looked for all the world like the broken ends of branches.
After some hours, I came to the Old Orchard shelter. Water source was excellent and there was a nice field in front of the shelter. There was a pile of old cedar shingles next to the shelter that would have made nice firewood.
As I was looking out over this field in front of the shelter, an F-15 came over at very low altitude. It was practicing ridge crossings and was quite a surprise!
In back of the shelter, the trail began a 1000 foot ascent of Pine Mountain. What a great view at the top of the trail as I came out on a large bald.
After a day in the woods, it is always exciting to see the sky again.
The bald has a central region of large rocks. In the center of this ring of rocks is a great tent site with level ground and nice grass. Not a good place for a storm camp, but for a nice day it was wonderful.
Views from the tent site are breath taking.
It was a great place to take my shirt off and get some sun.
Then it was back into the woods for a while. The bright sun filtering down through the trees to the fern covered forest floor was a nice sight.
Approaching the "Scales" another bald is visible.
And this bald has a number of fences and livestock.
The trail climbs out of the Scales area and across a large series of fields. I met a couple who were there to look for the "wild" horses of the balds. The trail is marked with fence posts across the fields.
Under some trees near the trail, I came across the first group of horses. These horses are owned by the National Forest Service. They maintain about 120 horses here and in Harriman State park. Bred to live here year round, they help to keep the balds open.
To keep them from wandering far, there are fences around the balds. Hikers get to cross the fences through stiles like this. A hiker can make the turn, but a horse cannot.
Between the bald and the next shelter, the
woods were full of Marginal Wood Fern plants
A bracket fungus caught my eye next to the trail.
Entering the State Park, there are several walk bridges over rushing streams.
The Wise Shelter is rather new. I stayed here alone as well. It worked great to tie the hammock from the front eave to the rafter in the back of the shelter. I stayed up to see the stars, but just as it was beginning to get dark enough to see the Milky Way, the moon came up and washed the sky away. Mars was super bright as it is near the earth.
The next morning, I gathered up my pack contents to put it all back together. On the left is my lunch and snacks for the day. It will go in the outer pocket. The small BS (Bottom to Shoulders) pad acts as a frame for the pack, inside the 3 mil plastic bag that acts as a waterproof liner. My Ursack, hammock, quilt, and warm clothes bag are all easily seen. For a complete list of my pack contents see the pack list.
As I walked out of the woods in the State Park, the views were wonderful. I was well above the clouds in the valley.
Those dark islands are the tops of hills down in the clouds.
The subtle colors of the morning ranged from green to brown to blue of the distant hills.
Sumac trees brightened the pictures and the landscape.
Large rock formations made the hike very pretty. The path was very good. The weather was perfect.
And then I came across lots of the wild horses. They wanted handouts. One nibbled on my walking stick. I tried to stay away from the reach of their rear legs, incase one decided to kick.
I must admit to enjoying my encounter with the horses.
This area of the trail is just fantastic. It is nicer than anywhere I have seen in the Smokies. It is almost as pretty as the White Mountains, but there are no crowds. No camping is allowed in the state park, but there are lots of places in the Mt. Rogers Wilderness that are great for camping and there is no restriction about camping there. Better yet, there are no bears that break into your camp to steal food.
This small newborn was a cute photo subject just before I left the state park.
Mt. Rogers wilderness extends beyond.
If you need a screensaver, any of these pictures are great ones!
The central flat area is a good place to camp. The path is about the ascend that hill in the center.
This is what it looks like near the top, above 5000 feet on a pretty day in September.
I could not stop taking picture after picture.
Composition class in photography will never be this much fun.
The path makes its way through "fat man's squeeze"... but there is an alternate if you happen to be too fat.
The wilderness has it's own group of horses. Here I am approaching Rhododendron Gap.
This breed of horse is small, compact, and able to eek out its existence even in the winter.
Though I did not climb Mt. Rogers, it is only a half mile from the trail. Because no views are available, I decided to pass the opportunity.
One of the most picturesque shelters is the two story Thomas Knob shelter.
As I approached, I was amazed to find a deer just darting into the woods.
I sat down for lunch, and only then began to understand that the deer were clearly interested in a handout. I gave them nothing, but they stuck around to have their pictures taken.
Ok, now turn the other way...
Oh, another deer popped out of the woods to sniff around.
How about if the two of you pose together??
The shelter also has the most complicated and fancy latrine I have seen in the wild. The solar panel drives a motorized fan that makes the thing smell nice. This would be an ideal shelter, but the water was said to be mucked up by the deer and cows. I never found the spring.
A few more miles down the trail I came across Buzzard Rocks. This was another great picture spot.
Southbound, the rocks are just before a 1500 foot descent down and then across the valley below.
Climbing down, I took this picture of the daisy like wildflowers. Though most of the yellow in several of my photos was of goldenrod, these tickseed flowers (Coreopsis lanceolata) were also common. A great resource for identifying flowers is found here.
The Lost Mountain shelter had an adequate spring, but no good way to hang a hammock inside. I spent the night outside between trees... However I was also alone at this shelter.
I arose at 0430 the next morning, walked for a couple hours in the dark with a head light, and followed the Virginia Creeper trail across a large foot path bridge. There was one 1000 foot climb left. I made it up the 2.5 to 3 mile ascent without a stop in 50 minutes. Then it was the long descent to Damascus. You read about my feelings during this descent at the beginning of the narrative.
I hope you enjoyed the travel notes. This is a great hike. Parts of it can be done in loops, either as day hikes or as short overnight hikes. I plan to come back to the Virginia Highlands again and again.
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