Day 17, May 14, 11.2 miles: Outside Daleville, the A.T. and the Blue Ridge Parkway begin a dance of sorts, running parallel or crossing at various intervals, for the next 140 miles to Rockfish Gap outside Shenandoah National Park. I won’t see BRP until tomorrow but will come well within a mile of it on my way to Wilson Creek Shelter.
The trail runs beside I-81 for the first 1.2 miles before crossing under it and then over US 11. Vegetation in areas like this is distinct. Plants signal civilization as much as paved roads and restaurants. The understory is thick, brushy, and weedy, often dominated by large stands of nonnative invasive plants. At VA 311, showy Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) demonstrates its appeal to gardeners. Around Tinker Creek, Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera maacki) and Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) are in flower and prevalent. Their fruits attract birds in late summer and are spread far and wide.
Near the interstate, Multiflora Rose and Japanese Honeysuckle Vine grow in impenetrable tangles. I find Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) too. It’s raspberry-like fruit is tasty, but the plant looks vicious with stems covered in long, blood-red bristly hairs.
Some native plants are common in these places too. Often they are early successional species known as ‘pioneers,’ the first to come in after a major disturbance. Among the early trees are Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and Black Cherry (Prunus serotina). Poison Ivy is a native vine, but as is the way for many plants, particularly vines, it takes advantage of the extra light associated with roads, fields, and development to do what all plants must do — photosynthesize food to grow and reproduce. Humans hate the skin rash it causes, but birds love its white fruit.
Fullhardt Knob Shelter is five miles from Daleville. It is a 1200-foot climb over three miles to its location at the summit. Rather than walk a short side trail to the shelter, I take advantage of the sunny, pleasant weather and stop for lunch a little further along the A.T. The trail down from the knob follows an old fire road with an easy grade, then descends more steeply to Curry Creek.
Wilson Creek Shelter is 2.5 miles away from the creek, and there are two short but steep sections to climb. They will tax my strength. My pack has never been heavier, containing enough food to reach Buena Vista, VA, in seven days, including a fresh jar of peanut butter and eight ounces of olive oil.
A half mile from the shelter, is a small kiosk with a handwritten historical account of the colliers pit that was on this site 200 years ago. Not a pit at all, it was just a 50-foot round, flat area with no rocks or roots, downhill from plentiful timber, where trees could be burned into charcoal to fuel nearby iron furnaces. It’s an odd sign…written in architect’s lettering, now faded, stuck in the middle of nowhere.
During the final climb, I come upon an older man who appears to be struggling. He stops every few steps and leans far to his left side. As I pass I ask if he’s OK. He smiles and says yes. He’ll be stopping at Wilson Creek too. “It’s 175 paces ahead,” he announces. “That’s very specific,” I say, and start to count. He’s off by 100 paces; I arrive in 72.
This gentleman is “Steamer,” retired from the FBI. He and his brother began section hiking the A.T. in the 1990s. Their final outing brought them south to the Tye River 95.6 miles from here. His brother began feeling poorly and could go no further. He was diagnosed with cancer and died. Later, “Steamer’s” wife was diagnosed with cancer. He cared for her throughout her illness and lost her too. He’s remarried now and is headed to the Tye, where he will complete the A.T., spreading bits of his brother’s ashes as he goes.
“Steamer” sleeps in the shelter. The surrounding area is quite level with several good tent sites — my preference. One other man, a southbounder, arrives and sets up his tent. He tells us of a good stream a “quarter” mile up the mostly flat trail. It’s more like a half mile, and I cannot say that it is any easier to reach than the 0.3-mile water trail located downhill from the shelter.
Day 18, May 15, 17 miles: When planning this section, I scheduled a stop at Cove Mountain Shelter (different Cove Mountain) 13.8 miles away despite its lack of a reasonably close water source. The ATC book mentions possible water down a steep, unmarked, 0.5 mile trail — not very helpful. If the day goes smoothly, I will continue another 3.2 miles to campsites at Jennings Creek. If not, I’ll need to have plenty of water in my pack.
I’m on trail by 7:25 and pass the next shelter, Bobblet’s Gap, 7.3 miles away in 3.5 hours. Elevation gain is gradual, and the trail surface is fairly smooth. For eight miles, five before this shelter and three after, the A.T. and Blue Ridge Parkway dance so close to each other, they merge on maps. At Blackhorse Gap, the parkway is visible to the right. The first crossing is Taylors Mountain Overlook, followed by a close brush at Montvale Overlook and a second crossing at Great Valley Overlook.
The forest along the BRP is rich with flowering plants and singing birds. Wild Pink, Wild Columbine, Roseshell Azalea, Shuttleworth’s Ginger, Spiderwort, Bear Corn, Black Chokeberry, and Rocktwist are colorful. Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana) is in its prime, ranging from deep blue-purple to bright red-purple with sunny yellow anthers atop fuzzy stamens. Rocktwist (Draba ramosissima) forms small dense mats of snow white flowers gleaming in the sun. The common name refers to its habitat among rocky outcrops in the Southern Appalachians and spirally twisted fruit.
It’s the middle of May and the middle of the week. Traffic on the Blue Ridge Parkway is very light. An occasional car or motorcycle passes. I lunch just off the road in a flat stretch of woods, where I am serenaded by the squeaky wheel of a Black-and-white Warbler. It is sunny and warm but not too warm with cooling breezes, a darn near perfect day.
The trail and road cross twice more at the Peaks of Otter Overlook and Mills Gap Overlook. Sharp Top Mountain is prominent on the horizon at Peaks of Otter. Thomas Jefferson climbed this mountain. Less obvious is Flat Top Mountain to the left. The information sign calling attention to the peaks doesn’t make it easy to identify with maps oriented in a different direction and photos taken from vastly different viewpoints.
The BRP and A.T. part company past Bearwallow Gap, the trail proceeding northeast as the road turns southeast. These two pathways will form something of a box. At Jennings Creek, the A.T. will curve east to Bryant Ridge Shelter then southeast. The BRP makes a sharp turn northeast at Harkening Hill. They meet at Cornelius Creek Shelter to run northeast in tandem once more.
Up next is Cove Mountain, thankfully not the same one from a few days ago, but challenging in its own way. It is steep, and there is little forest cover. Exposed to the sun, the climb is hot and the habitat dry. My notes are full of “rocky” warnings, and there are plenty of rocks, however, several stretches with few rocks provide much appreciated relief.
“Steamer” is resting beside the trail. This is a surprise. I’ve been ahead of him all day and he has not passed me. His water bladder leaked leaving him dry, so he got a ride into town on the parkway. On his return, he was dropped off at the wrong crossing putting him in front.
Azaleas are stunning along the rather flat top of Cove Mountain. So are Tiger Swallowtails. A female Fence Lizard plays hide and seek around a tree but lets me take her picture. At the junction with Little Cove Mountain Trail on the right, the A.T. starts down and begins a series of “knobs and sags” over the next four miles. Sag is the local term for gap, I suppose. This side of Cove Mountain is also severely exposed. Many dead snags poke gray fingers out of the dense shrub cover. Perhaps there was a devastating fire.
I arrive at Cove Mountain Shelter at 3:00 and eat a snack. One young girl is sprawled on the shelter floor and barely moves the whole time I’m there. Despite the afternoon heat, climbs, and terrain, the day has gone remarkably well. This last climb was tiring, yet I’ve long been thinking my true destination will be Jennings Creek. The additional 3.2 miles are flat at first then downhill with those “knobs and sags.” There is nothing compelling about this shelter to warrant stopping here, and I need water. I’ll consume 3.5 liters by day’s end.
I reach Jennings Creek in 90 minutes. The knobs and sags are fairly gentle. There are rocky spots on the descent, but it is mostly easy going. At gravel road VA 614, the trail crosses a bridge over the wide, shallow creek. To the left is a gravel parking area and level campsites are behind it, past a gauntlet of poison ivy. “Steamer” shows up fairly soon, as do two other couples and a man who arrives at midnight, setting up his tent in the swinging beam of his headlamp.
I’m very proud of my efforts today. Seventeen miles is a personal best done in 9.5 hours. The most impressive part is my mood. Not once did I shed a tear or even feel downcast. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this.
Day 19, May 16, 8.7 miles: Today will have fewer miles but much more elevation gain. The trail goes over Fork Mountain then up Bryant Ridge and Floyd Mountain. Cornelius Creek Shelter is a half mile past the summit. I leave just before 8:00.
Turkey Beard flowers are beginning to open. Rattlesnake Hawkweed, Deerberry, and Wild Comfrey are opening too. There is more Shuttleworth’s Ginger. A Black Rat Snake nearly as long as I am tall, glides across the trail and poses for photos.
At 10:00, I reach Bryant Ridge Shelter (3.8 miles) tucked on the hillside of a small cove. It is located to the left of the trail across a small creek and up a short, steep bank of stairs. Well-designed, it has many benches, plenty of pegs, a generous covered porch on two sides, windows, and an upstairs sleeping loft. Two hikers I would meet later weren’t very pleased with the loft — it proved too hot to stay in a sleeping bag and too buggy not to! On a chilly, breezy night, it might be cozy. It has a good fire ring with sturdy log benches, though there are only a couple of possible tent sites.
Climbing Bryant Ridge, I meet “Tip Toe” (CT). She is an older lady hiking southbound. She’s completed nearly half the trail in sections and is stopping in Daleville. This is her first time out since a recent ankle fracture, and she is doing well. She is interested in learning wildflowers, especially Bloodroot. A park ranger told her the leaf looks like Batman. “It really does!” she says. [I looked at every Bloodroot leaf between here and Rockfish Gap — right side up, upside down, sideways — and could not see Batman in a single one of them!]
Floyd Mountain rises in stages too. I lunch at a level stretch. Walking to the second stage, I see skinks and Fire Pinks. There are the smaller lined skinks with blue tails and a large male Broad-headed Skink, with olive brown body and reddish cheeks. He is very camera shy. The Fire Pink is not.
Four-leaved Milkweed is in bud, and there is a small patch of Round-lobed Liverleaf (Hepatica americana, now Anemone americana). Most rich, cove forests contain Sharp-lobed Liverleaf, (H. acutiloba, A. acutiloba), whose white, pink, blue, or lavender flowers grace the woodland floor in spring. Round-lobed Liverleaf likes more acidic soil and is a special find. As the common names suggest, rather than three pointed lobes on each leaf, the lobes are gently rounded.
The final stage of the climb goes through an incredibly rich assemblage of herbaceous plants. This may be due to geology. On the other side of Floyd Mountain is Black Rock Overlook, so named for its dark gray color due to the presence of diorite containing hornblende, a rock associated with mafic soils (closer to neutral pH). These soils support plant species not found in typical acidic mountain soils. The most obvious indicator of a more neutral soil is Wild Ginger, the deciduous cousin of Heartleaf and Shuttleworth’s Ginger, both of which prefer more acidic soil. Great Merrybells is associated with higher soil pH too. In addition to these two plants, I also see numbers of Large White Trillium, Wild Geranium, Early Meadow Rue, Jewelweed, Broad Beech Fern, Bloodroot, Cow Parsnip, and Interrupted Fern.
The ATC guide mentions a rare white-flowered form of Jewelweed (Impatiens sp.) found here. It’s far too early to see any flowers, but Jewelweed seedlings are thick among the other plants. Early Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dioicum) flowers are unisexual and a plant either has female flowers or male flowers (dioecious). Male plants are showy with dangling clusters of stamens.
Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana) is in the same family as Cinnamon Fern and Royal Fern. (I’ll see stands of Cinnamon Fern in the next few days.) Interrupted Fern’s spore-bearing mechanism is rather unique. One or more leaflets (pinna) in the upper middle section of fronds replace green plant tissue with hundreds of tiny sporangia. These smaller, darker ‘leaflets’ appear malformed at first glance. They develop on the emerging fronds and mature quickly. Once the spore has been released, these leaflets wither leaving a gap in the middle of the frond — interrupted.
Cow Parsnip flowers in summer, but there are vast areas of its massive foliage rosettes with coarse trifoliate leaves, pinnately lobed leaflets, and thick, hairy stems. The flowering stems can tower head high or taller.
Cornelius Creek Shelter is on the back side of Floyd Mountain 0.1-0.2 mile off the A.T. on a narrow side path. The water source is first, a fine little spring to the left, and the shelter is further up on the right. No one is there, and I find a decent tent site in back. Just south, the Blue Ridge Parkway sidles beside the trail again, and occasional traffic noise can be heard.
While my water is filtering at the spring, I sit on a log to rest and observe the surroundings. There are Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) leaves on the ground. Some are beginning to flower. A small black bird with bright orange and yellow blotches on his side and tail, perches less than five feet away and squeaks a two-note song at me. My camera, of course, is in my tent. It is an American Redstart. I see a Junco and hear a Tufted Titmouse, Pileated Woodpecker, Barred Owl, Crow, the haunting song of the Veery, and my favorite singer, the Wood Thrush.
“Steamer” and another man with an Australian accent from San Diego arrive and stay in the shelter. Crawling in my tent at dusk, there is thunder in the distance, and it rains lightly.
Day 20, May 17, 12.2 miles: The bird chorus this morning is delightful — the best way to wake up on trail. Not so delightful is shouting through a weak phone signal to confirm an overnight reservation with Blue Dog Art Cafe in Buena Vista, VA, my next resupply point in three days. Also not delightful is a leaking water bladder.
Each night, I slip my backpack into a trash compacter bag and stand it upright in my tent vestibule to protect it from any showers overnight. My pack is standing in water inside the bag. Close examination of the bladder reveals two possible sources. The tube connection has a slight leak that can be stopped by reinserting it. This is intermittent and can be checked. However, there is also a tiny pinhole at the base of the bladder just above the seam. I have no idea how or when this happened. Flipping it upside down and drying it off, I cut a strip of Tenacious Tape to cover the hole. It works, and I can fill my bladder. To be safe, I wedge the base of the bladder into a quart freezer bag. Perhaps this will be sufficient to catch any stray drips. I dry my pack as well as I can. My departure is delayed to 8:30.
Along the shelter’s trail, there are Starflowers (Trientalis borealis) open. I notice a few more on the A.T. within the next hour but nowhere else.
The trail climbs to Black Rock Overlook and intersects two local trails — Cornelius Creek and Apple Orchard Falls. The 200-foot waterfall is 1.1 miles off the A.T. and is a recommended stop, particularly when the water is high. It will be a lengthy side journey, resulting in a 14.4 mile day, but why else am I here if not to see such sights? The falls trail is not hard and walks beside a stream that feeds the falls and joins North Creek. Near the bottom, the trail crosses the stream on a bridge and descends very steeply to the falls on well-constructed wooden steps. Another bridge crosses the base of the falls to a bench. I sit here for a snack and enjoy the waterfall.
This side trip takes two hours. Combined with my late departure, it is now noon, and I’ve got 9.6 miles to go, including a 1000-foot climb of Apple Orchard Mountain and a steep 600 foot climb over Highcock Knob. The day is sunny and warm with big puffy clouds.
Many of the same plants on Floyd Mountain are found on Apple Orchard. Cinnamon Fern puts in an appearance here. Near the peak is Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), a shrub whose leaves and flowers closely resemble Black Cherry.
Many of the mountain peaks look far more pointy on paper than in reality. This makes it difficult to determine whether or not you’ve reached the top, and gives rise to Appalachian Trail Truism #3 — You have not reached the top until you are going downhill more than you are going uphill. You can turn this truism into a tedious guessing game called “Are We There Yet?” Nothing will make you want to pull your hair out faster than the seemly endless series of negative answers.
The top of Apple Orchard Mountain is one of the few that undoubtedly proclaims your arrival. A Federal Aviation Administration radar facility sits in an open meadow at the summit. It looks like a big white soccer ball studded with lightning rods. In 0.3 mile, the trail passes between two massive boulders with a smaller rock wedged in between — The Guillotine is one of the coolest natural formations I’ve seen. The Blue Ridge Parkway has stayed to the south thus far, and finally intersects the trail before Thunder Hill Shelter and again at Thunder Hill Overlook on Thunder Ridge.
The soils on these mountains as noted in yesterday’s account are very fertile and associated with the Pedlar Formation of granite-like igneous rock. The lush plant growth found in this 50-mile section is attributable to this exceptional soil. There aren’t just a handful of plants, there are thousands — whole hillsides, and the best is yet to come.
I saw a few Large White Trillium — both the white and pink forms — coming into Pearisburg, but there were hundreds, mostly pink, on Floyd Mountain. Big swathes appear on Apple Orchard Mountain. On Thunder Ridge, there are hillsides with thousands of them, all pink and all beautiful. It is breathtaking.
According to Fred Case, Trillium grandiflorum forma roseum may occasionally be found throughout the white species’ range, which spreads up and out in a funnel shape from the Southern Appalachians to eastern Minnesota and western New Hampshire. However, he notes the pink form is considered “locally frequent along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.” No kidding. Wow! Between the beauty of the trilliums and the intoxicating clove scent of Roseshell Azaleas, I’ve been in heaven.
Harrison Ground Spring with campsites is on the descent. I briefly consider stopping here but decide to push on. The trail and BRP begin to diverge at Petites Gap, with BRP dropping to the southeast. Past Petites Gap is Highcock Knob. It’s short but steep and sometimes rocky. I must stop looking at plants and concentrate on moving forward. My feet are really hurting, and I can hear thunder in the distance.
At the top of the knob, the trail hangs a left and descends just as steeply to Marble Spring, a wide saddle with several good tent sites. I arrive at 6:00, set up my tent, and filter water. The spring is lovely. Within 30 minutes it starts to rain but doesn’t last long. I’m able to finish my chores, including dinner, without getting wet. There are four individuals and two couples camping here tonight.
At 8:00 the Whippoorwills crank up. Hank Williams was obviously employing poetic license when he wrote about the “lonesome whippoorwill” who “sounds too blue to fly.” Those suckers shout a loud, flat, mechanical “whip-poor-will” repeatedly, like some über-annoying coo-coo-clock that won’t quit.
There are two of them squaring off over territory. Neither is willing to let the other have the last “whip.” Sometimes they overlap, and the first bird stutters to a halt, as though his rhythm has been thrown off, then starts up again louder and faster. One bird starts yelling “whip-poor-will” so fast I’m surprised he doesn’t hyperventilate. He sounds so ludicrous, I can’t help laughing out loud. Their pissing contest goes on for two hours. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever longed for a gun.
A couple of hours after the Whippoorwills finally go to bed, Mother Nature unleashes a horrible thunderstorm. Fortunately, it is not very windy, but the lightning and thunder are ferocious.