Oh, Shenandoah | A Weekend in Shenandoah National Park

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Before we decided on Shenandoah for Labor Day weekend, Sly and I spent countless hours googling various rustic cabins in West Virginia, North Carolina, and in the Great Smokies. We must have exhausted ourselves because after all that research I finally admitted to Sly that I just wanted to go some place outdoorsy, but not too far, and have a relaxing weekend. As much as I like ‘roughing it’ sometimes I just want something easy — a place with clean sheets and a private bathroom. So Shenandoah it was. Bad news:  everything was booked online  —  it being the last weekend of the Summer, and us deciding we wanted to stay there so last-minute. Good news: we have always had luck calling the reservation desk for last-minute reservations. And sure enough, they had quite a few rooms still available at both of their lodges.

We chose Big Meadows Lodge.When we checked in the lady at the front desk gave us two keys and told us we had room (singular) 15/16. We were confused but didn’t really question it…until we walked up the stairs and noticed the stairs split off into two rooms. RoomS as in plural. As in more than one room — one to the right of the landing and one to the left.We tried the key labeled “16” and it opened into what we were expecting — a double bed with private bath. Which made us curious about the key labeled “15.” We slowly and tentatively opened the door to room 15…and it turned out to be another room, an exact mirror copy, but with twin beds instead of a double. We walked back to room 16 and walked around. Then went back to room 15. We were so confused — what were we missing? Was something different about the rooms? Were we going crazy? We only paid for one room, why had they given us two? After scratching our heads for way longer than was necessary, we went back to the front desk and told them that they must have been mistaken, that they gave us two rooms and we only paid for one. The lady at the desk replied, “yeeaaahhhh… I wondered when you were going to come back and ask about that.”  Turned out that room(s) 15/16 were sold as a single unit, even though technically they’re two separate rooms, because the fire escape was in room 15 and the only access that room 16 had to the fire escape was through a tiny hobbit-sized door that connected 16’s bathroom with its mirror imaged bathroom in 15. Confused yet? Long story short, if you want to pay for 1 room and actually get 2, ask for room 15/16. It has the extra added (awesome) benefit of a fire escape that is actually a private deck/balcony with the most amazing views.

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The next day while getting coffee at the local bookstore, I perused the postcard rack to see if there were any photos that caught my eye. This is typically what I do when I don’t feel like planning a trip — go to a store, look at the postcards, flip to the back, and read the tiny paragraph of information to try and figure out where the photo was taken. Which is how we “discovered” Doyle’s Falls. We goofed around a large chunk of the day post-bookstore, eating chicken salad on our weird deck and reading and re-reading nature guides bought at the bookstore earlier in the day.

The skies looked ominous by the time we reached the Doyle’s Falls trailhead.  Just as we were getting ready to hike down to the falls, the skies opened up and it poured like crazy, which in turn cleared out all the people at the falls. So we waited. And waited. And watched hoards of soaking wet people emerge from the trail and run to their cars. And ate all our provisions. And waited some more. And then finally the rain slowed to a sprinkle and we decided that it was now or never.

Thanks to the thunderstorm, we had the trail (and the falls) all to ourselves.  The trail was what you’d expect from a waterfall trail — steep –but at just over 3mi roundtrip it was a really short, relatively easy hike with an amazing payoff. The falls were awesome, almost tropical (?) looking with little pools of water that were just perfect for swimming and large flat rocks that were great for lounging and eating the rest of our snacks. I’m sure that my opinion of the falls would be different if I had to share them with a ton of obnoxious people on a hot summer day, but as it was, it was a little slice of paradise.

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With such a late start, we barely made it back in time to shower, eat and watch the sunset from our deck. After dinner (more chicken salad) we read a little bit in the Great Room of the Lodge before deciding to call it an early night. We were planning on getting up at 5am in the morning to eat breakfast, get ready, and drive 1.5 hrs to Old Rag for an 8+ mile hike.

Well…three out of four ain’t bad.

The following morning, we got up at 5 as planned, started getting ready, checked the weather, saw that there was a 60% chance of rain in the late morning (right about the time when we would summit Old Rag) and decided not to chance it. Not that we needed much convincing. Instead, we gobbled down our granola and honey yogurt breakfast, watched the sunrise, and went back to sleep. In other words, it was a pretty perfect morning.

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Of course it never did rain, at least not in the morning or afternoon like the reports said it would.

For our second hike, we consulted our awesome homemade-looking trail guides (picked up for $2 each at the bookstore) for a somewhat easy hike on the Appalachian Trail (from South River Falls to Swift Run Gap). There were no waterfalls or vistas on this portion of the hike, just us, walking through nature, with hardly a soul around, trying our best to remember all the plant and animal names that we learned by reading our nature guide book the previous night.

We saw about a zillion different types of mushrooms, made friends with a butterfly that hitched a ride on my finger for a good portion of the trip, and found a wild blackberry bush (and picked and ate all the remaining blackberries). A few miles in, the trail opened up into a beautiful meadow filled with wildflowers of all kinds and colors. Huge Jurassic-sized butterflied danced around our heads and from flower to flower.

All in all, the hike was just over 6 miles with gradual hills, which we managed to hike in a couple hours, including a break for lunch.

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For the most part we had been eating food that we brought from home (mainly chicken salad, veggies w/dip and fruit and yogurt) for every meal, but after hiking over 10 miles in two days we decided we deserved a reward. Plus, we were craving nachos. And a cold beer.

The dining room was packed with families so we went downstairs to the basement (?) of the lodge to their Taproom and pulled up two seats at the bar. We ordered bbq chicken wings and pumpkin ale served by an older lady with big hair, tons of character, and who called us “sweetheart” and “sweetie pie.” The New Market Taproom has local entertainment on Friday and Saturday evenings, so we stayed a while to enjoy the music (actually pretty decent) and then secured a few seats in the Great Room to watch another beautiful sunset.

After a while the room started filling up with kids and families and people who, generally speaking, were lounging around/talking as if they were in their own living room and not in a public space. When a large group of loud teens showed up dressed like those guys on Duck Dynasty and started playing checkers as if it were a contact sport…well, that’s when we made our exit.

The rest of the evening was spent reading and relaxing in our weird little room(s), aka “Grandma’s Attic” 1/2.

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Initially we didn’t have any plans for hiking on our final day in Shenandoah, but after consulting our $2 trail guide books we found a really short hike (less than a mile) to the top of Bearfence Mountain that talked of “rock scrambling” and “360 degree views.”

Of course the hike was straight up the side of the mountain, with the majority of the “trail” consisting of climbing over rocks (the rocks were marked with blue paint to indicate the path), but what a payoff. We were the first ones at the top (TIP: get to the trailhead before 11am, or even earlier to avoid the crowds. Plus there’s not a lot of room at the summit.) so we were able to enjoy the view, just us two, before the hikers following us peeked their heads up over the rocks.

It’s too soon to say –there are still so many trails I want to explore — but Bearfence might be my new favorite hike in Shenandoah.

When I first moved to this coast from SF I was depressed thinking that I wouldn’t find the same level of natural beauty that one finds so easily in the Western US.  For a long time I was homesick for rocky cliffs, waterfalls that fell right into the ocean, and large meadows surrounded by huge granite walls. Every hike and every campground was immediately compared in my mind to the rosy memory of something grander, better — some place not here. But then I met Shenandoah. And over time, whatever *it* is that makes Shenandoah, Shenandoah slowly seeped into my soul and made me feel at home.

I can’t wait to come back in the Fall.

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