Monday, July 13, 2015

Hiking the AT in Shenandoah National Park

A view from a Skyline Drive overlook that intersects the AT
I've never hiked more than a quarter mile of the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but from the accounts of Clever Girl and others, it's a true wilderness hike. For seventy miles the trail goes up and down some of the highest ridges east of the Rockies. Between Fontana Dam and Davenport Gap the trail only cruises one road, and comes close to another in a couple more spots. Before Clingmans Dome or after Newfound Gap, the closest way to get to the front country are several miles of steep rocky trails. All in all its a challenge akin to the wild parks of the west.

Shenandoah, however, is not quite as wild.

Yeah, you're still very likely to run into bears, snakes, and other denizens of the Blue Ridge. And sure, there are still rocks, mud, and steep uphill climbs. But on the whole, the part I hiked (roughly Rockfish Gap to Big Meadows Amphitheater) was a veritable hiker highway. Throw in the frequent crossings of Skyline Drive and the campstores and waysides overflowing with cheap beer and ice cream, and the park resembles less a wilderness and more a 100 mile long city park.

Provided a hiker is in good shape and isn't suffering from ailments of the feet or knees, casual 15 mile days are reasonable, and 30 mine days are within reach of the speedsters. Were you to average about fifteen miles a day, you'd hit a campstore or wayside about once every other day, save for your first and last. Even slowpokes like me could run into them every third or fourth day.

Whether you are a hiker, rider, or driver, the waysides are worth a stop just for the blackberry milkshakes. Also good is the blackberry cobbler, particularly with the hand dipped blackberry ice cream.

The one downside to Shenandoah is that you are pretty much committed to staying at either the front country campgrounds, or the huts and their associated campsites. While well maintained, these can be inconveniently placed, requiring alternating longer and shorter days. You can camp virtually anywhere in the back country, but I saw only a few places worth camping. Most of the area along the trail is steep and rocky, or covered in second growth thorny hells. For the through hiker, this shouldn't be a problem, as the longest distance between huts is about 13 miles. But for the novice and the easily winded, it can create a logistical quandary.

If you are looking for a great place to introduce yourself to the Appalachian Trail, then Shenandoah is for you. There's enough challenge to let you know what you're in for, while being more forgiving than other places. Also, it's one of the few places along the trail where you can get $1-2 beers and drink them in the open. For the through hikers, usually with an accompanying ice cream bar.

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