Fall is a spectacular season to hike in Shenandoah National Park. Reds, golds, greens and browns are dappling the hillsides, deer are on the move, and, if your timing is excellent, bears are falling from the trees and Mennonite women are backpacking along the Appalachian Trail.
Everybody should take time out in the fall to wander into the mountains on what the British would call a “holiday.”
The weather often can be accommodating -- not too hot, not too chilly, preferably dry, low in humidity -- and the leafy colors ought to be simply outstanding if all the requisite conditions materialize: not too wet, not too dry, no early season fluke snowstorms or late-arising hurricanes.
It was with such intent that Bob Mishak and I, two old friends who have managed to find opportunities over the past three decades to venture off into the mountains of New England or across some lake in Yellowstone National Park, went on holiday in Shenandoah in mid-October.
Our plan was simple. We would trek down the Appalachian National Scenic Trail with the usual intent. We wanted to see trees and wildflowers, to hike down leafy trails, cross a stream when necessary, and hopefully spy some birds and deer and, if we were truly fortunate, maybe a turkey or two.
Dropping into the Big Run Wilderness from the park’s Skyline Drive, one of the most gorgeous ribbons of asphalt north of the Blue Ridge Parkway, we had few expectations, except possibly for some solitary travel, a few days of quiet time to catch up on those things that living 1,500 miles apart can slip through the cracks of distance.
Boy were we in for a surprise or two.
The Crumbling Spine of the Appalachians
Though the calendar read mid-October, the daytime temperatures were decidedly summery, with highs pushing 80 degrees even near the roof of Shenandoah. And yet the forest was already in a continual state of seasonal undress, with acorns, painted leaves, and dried branches falling from the forest canopy to the floor throughout the day and night.
They say the Appalachian Range used to dwarf the Rocky Mountains. While that might be so, that was a long, long, long time ago. Today's Appalachians are gentler, more rounded, with thicker forests of hardwoods and softwoods, rippled with creeks that spring from, well, springs, and in many places these mountains are crumbling. But for a range geologists say dates to 300 million years ago when North America and Gondwanaland came together in a tremendous heap, the Appalachians are not going to vanish any time soon and actually are doing quite fine. And the character of the landscape that builds over millions of years makes then an enticing range to explore on foot.
While we joined the Appalachian Trail at Smith Roach Gap in Shenandoah, we soon abandoned the trail at the park's Ivy Creek Overlook, crossing Skyline Drive to the west and venturing down the Brown Mountain Trail with an intent to return to the AT in a day or two.
A trail barely half the width of the AT due to substantially fewer foot-falls, the Brown Mountain Trail is also decidedly more rugged, taking you up onto a mountain with a sedimentary underpinning, one that near the summit's crest surfaces in quartzite cliffs and rubble. From this summit we were sent steeply down to the floor of the park to where Big Run flows serenely out of Shenandoah and on towards the river of the same name.
Heavy rains in the weeks preceding our trip had tamped down whatever dust their might have been and gorged the mosses along the trail with moisture. Between the reds, golds, oranges, and yellows of the leaves and the mosses' kaleidoscope greens -- everything from gray-greens and surf greens to lime greens on up to hunter greens -- the trails were in full holiday dress.
Not long after bedding down near the junction of Big Portal Run and Rocky Mountain Run we were entertained not only by a clear, star-pocked sky, but by an owl -- perhaps a great horned owl? -- that seemed determined to convince some other raptor that this was his/her territory and not theirs. After a series of “hoots” and squawks the silence of night swept the forest.
Now, what makes this experience -- and the one soon to follow the next day -- particularly rewarding is that the Big Run Wilderness is a component of the park's nearly 80,000 acres of officially designated wilderness. Yes, this rugged patch of rocks, dirt, trees and streams on the park’s southwestern flanks, one that is less than three hours from the political hotbed of Washington, D.C., and which is surrounded by 30 million or more people within a half-day’s drive, is officially managed as wilderness, a small island of wild in the midst of urban sprawl.
True the backcountry of Big Run is no Yellowstone or Glacier backcountry. While those two National Park System icons cover a combined 3.2 million acres of Rocky Mountain high, as the late John Denver would have you know, none of those acres lies within officially designated wilderness. And yet those acres are much more wild than what Big Run can offer.
While we heard the calls of Northern flickers and owls, and saw deer and trout in the backcountry of Shenandoah, we also heard planes, trains, and automobiles from our toehold in the Big Run Wilderness and could even spy towns and highways from the roof of Brown Mountain. Similar backcountry excursions in Yellowstone have delivered howling wolves, chortling sandhill cranes, and foraging grizzlies.
But Big Run was about to produce something neither of us had ever encountered in our lives.
Finding Bears in Trees And Mennonite Women on the Trails
After that night near the junction of Big Portal Run and Rocky Mountain Run, we headed slowly up out of the basin, climbing ever upward along the Big Portal Trail over a bed of freshly minted fall leaves. There were the bright reds of Black Gum trees, gold-hued hickory leaves, orangish sugar maple leaves, and yellow tulip poplar leaves. And rising above this colorful path were asters in full bloom, while hugging the trail were mosses and ferns. Salted into this duff were millions of acorns, rich mahogany in color, nutritious gold for squirrels and bears alike.
A relatively broad swath cut from the forest that parallels -- and hopscotches -- Big Run for a good way, the trail from time to time allows side-by-side hiking, perfect for conversing while enjoying the warm October morning.
We were barely 15 minutes from our camp when Bob shouted “bear!” But this bruin wasn’t loping along or foraging amid rotten logs or the waning vegetation on the forest floor, where I immediately looked. No, it had possibly spent the early morning, or perhaps the entire night, in a crook in a tree some 20-25 feet off the ground when he either saw or heard us.
Desperate to be gone, the bear began to scoot down the tree. Unfortunately, his grip was either too weak, or his flight instinct too heady, and he wound up plunging the final 8-10 feet to the ground and darting off into the forest. (And yes, bears do bounce!)
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been too surprised by either the hooting owl or the gravity-demonstrating bear. Perhaps an encounter on the first day of our hike should have warned us that this was going to be an unusual walk through the woods.
You see, not ten minutes after we parked at Smith Roach Gap on that first day and shouldered our packs but a troop of seven women hiked by. Now, this normally wouldn’t be too much of an unexpected sight, aside from the group’s number, but these women were from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Yes, they were Mennonites, dressed from neck to ankle in full-length dresses colored orange, blue, buff and even purple. Their heads were topped by bonnets, their faces stretched by smiles.
While we soon passed them by, they later caught up with us at the AT’s Pinefield Hut where we, and they, would spend the night. First-come, first-served be damned, we weren’t about to hog the spacious hut to ourselves and relegate them to a night on the ground no matter their willingness to pitch their own tents.
Our only request was that we could use the picnic table to cook our dinner. With that granted, we headed up the hillside to pitch our own tent.
When we returned with our stove and freeze-dried food they already had a fire blazing in the fire pit. Water was boiling for their peas, macaroni and cheese, and sausages -- some wrapped with dough -- were speared on sticks and dangled over the flames.
Most of the women, who ranged in age from 22 to 32, said they had been hiking or backpacking before. Some had made it to Grand Canyon National Park for day hikes and even Little Wild Horse Canyon in Utah. Only one had never been backpacking before, which might explain why her pack was much larger than the others.
Joyful and ready with a smile, the women, who at times spoke English, or German, or a mix of the two, were on a three-night, 30-mile trek. They giggled at themselves trying to hang their foodstuffs from the bear pole near the hut, each one taking a turn to lift their bundles with the heavy staff up onto a hook high overhead.
After darkness closed in and we sat near the fire talking, each of the seven discreetly and momentarily stepped out of sight and changed into PJs or sweats to bed down for the night. The next morning they were up by 7 a.m., and, after a breakfast of the past night's leftovers, they were back on the trail by 8:30 a.m.
While you're not likely to see falling bears or Mennonite women backpacking on your own fall sojourn into Shenandoah, the odds are good the season's colors will be on display.