Grayson Highlands and McAfee Knob, VA
Since my (Bobwhite's) 2011 Southbound thru-hike of the A.T., I have been wanting to return to Southwestern Virginia. More specifically, Powder River and I have discussed doing a big 150 mile section from Rockfish Gap to Catawba in Autumn with our sweet boy Cooper. Well, this year we put in about 25 miles and it was grand... great fellowship with our dear friend Kathleen and amazing scenery and the woods were alive with color. We'll keep that longer hike on our clipboard. Maybe we'll even tackle it as a full-on winter hike... the crazies that we are! :)
Photography: photos on our hikes are primarily taken by my husband Jeff, a.k.a. Powder River: www.jeffsellenrick.com
Our hearts were aglow as we entered the rhododendron tunnel. The woods of Southern Appalachia resonate with us and we long for them from our concrete jungle, Baltimore. Kathleen has committed much of her adult life to serving as an educator naturalist in our National Parks. Most recently, she worked at the Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont. During her time there, she became an expert in fungi. We had a lot of fun identifying many types of fungi on this trip.
We planned to hike for 4.5 days, camping 4 nights on a 45 mile loop hike of the Iron Mountain Trail and Appalachian Trail through Grayson Highlands. On my thru-hike through this section of the A.T. I was doing around 20 mile days. I was hiking with a very strong athlete, "Teeney," and we had our trail legs for sure. The point of this small section hike was to just enjoy our surroundings and each other. Cooper also isn't cut out for 20 mile days, although he could get there if we built him up to it. Cooper enjoys his surrounding via lots of interesting smells, and macro beauty. He's not really a guy for overlook vistas, but more for the "macro" world that is right in front of him. He does have a stance we call "pride rock," there will be a picture later, in which he stands on a nice boulder and surveys the world around him. His goal for the hike was to score lots of treats, especially smoked mozzarella from Kathleen, and score lots of kisses and butt rubs from his lady Kathleen.
If and when we do a longer section hike around 100 miles, we will probably average 15 miles in Fall (fewer hours of daylight) and maybe 18+ miles in summer (more daylight). It is pretty funny how much night hiking we typically do. And we did a bit on this trip too! The frustration of it is always searching for the shelter/campsite and the nagging feeling that maybe you've missed it! Cooper stays on leash during night hikes- his senses are always alert and maybe more so at night when all the animals are out, and we would never want to risk him tracing a scent and then not being able to find us in the dark. Again and again, he proves to us that his night vision is no better than our own. Although his night footing is far superior to our own!
As you can see from the image above, the blaze orange really helps make us visible even in low light conditions- in this photo the sun was setting. We hiked about 45 minutes in the dark before finding our shelter for the night, the Straight Branch Shelter on the Iron Mountain Trail. We chose to start our loop hike heading Northeast on the IMT from the Beartree Parking Area so that we could "build up" so to speak as we made our way around to the magnificent balds of Grayson and the climax of summiting the highest peak in Virginia, Mt. Rogers. (Mt. Rogers is actually covered in trees and there is no overlook on top, or on the way up, but it was cool to see Mt. Rogers from the IMT and know that's where we were headed!) The IMT is "old A.T.": it used to be the official A.T. and then a re-route was developed through Grayson Highlands. We are so glad the official Trail is now through Grayson! It is a highlight for many hikers, especially thru-hikers who do spend most of their days in the Green Tunnel.
The first night was pretty cold but we did ok and Kathleen is now inspired to buy a nice down sleeping bag and replace her old, not very warm synthetic! Cooper once again was inspired to crawl in my bag with me, although he himself has his own sleep system. The photo above is from our lunch break at the Cherry Tree Shelter on the IMT. About a mile after this spot we joined the Appalachian Trail and started moving trail-South.
Cooper is always exhausted after a day of hiking. Here he is wearily looking out from Old Orchard Shelter (our second night camping) towards some guys who had a fire going and were hanging out. He is not one for crowds, even small crowds after a day of hiking. He definitely would not make a good Nobo, one more reason why he is my spirit animal. We set him up warm in the shelter so he could watch us making dinner at the picnic table in front of the shelter. Soon after, we put him to bed in the tent.
The next morning we enjoyed hiking through some abundant green moss and ferns on our way up to the balds...
As soon as we got to the clearing, the beginning of our bald mountain hike, some rangers on an ATV drove up to us and warned us about the impending storm. Half a foot of snow and 50mph winds. We were planning on camping at Thomas Knob Shelter that night, at the foot of Mt. Rogers. Yeah, we changed our minds!!! We instead changed our plans and hiked on the Crest Trail to make our way over to where the wild ponies live (Grayson Highlands) and then make our way out to the road to look for a hitch back to our car!
Cooper was not at all stressed or disheartened about the change in plans!
We found a couple of cars willing to help us. Powder River got in a car with some Texans who were in the area geo-caching and he got to geo-cache a bit with them as they made their way to our car. Kathleen and I hitched with a nice couple out to Rt. 58 where we pitched a tent to stay out of the cold rain and wait for Jeff. Ended up being about an hour wait... the hitch was much longer than we though (17 miles!) . We are always thankful to the generosity we find in fellow man when we hitch. Thru hikers rely on hitches to town to re-supply and it is nothing new to Powder River and I.
We eventually made it to Damascus and were glad to be warm. We stayed at a new hostel for us, Woodchuck's and enjoyed the company of many other hikers who were also glad to be warm and dry. The next morning, we woke up to snow! Sadly we didn't take any photos. We headed out of town with a hiker named Gumby who just so happened to need a ride to the exact place we planned as our next destination of our altered trip: Catawba, VA. We had a great two hour ride getting to know Gumby. We dropped him off at the hostel in Catawba where he planned to stay for a while and do work-for-stay. We then headed up to the trailhead for the A.T. and made our way up to camp at the most photographed place on the A.T., McAfee Knob. We had a nice 4 mile hike to the Catawba Mountain Shelter, where we camped for the night. We attempted to hike up to the knob, and did get very close that night, but darkness and cold wind sent us back down to our sleeping bags. The next morning we left our tents set up and hiked to the knob soon after sunrise.
We didn't stay up there very long, it was incredibly cold and windy. The sky and fall colors made for some awesome photos! We returned to the campsite, packed up quickly and made our way back to the car and the famous Homeplace Restaurant in Catawba!!!
This post is part of the Adventure Dog blog hop, hosted by DOGthusiast and Tiffany's Diamond Dogs every Tuesday.
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