So this is what it must be like to hike the Appalachian Trail: up, down, up, down.
What goes up, must come down along Skyline Drive, a 105-mile adventure through Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. High on the Blue Ridge Mountains, the century through the park is fantastic and frustrating, awe-inspiring and challenging, and filled with nature and its freaks. It is blood, sweat and gears.
First off, if you are going to go, don’t do it on a weekend. That’s when America’s national parks are at their worst with the motoring masses and Shenandoah is no exception. Hurry to the bathroom. Hurry to the restaurant. Hurry to the overlook. Hurry to the campground. Cyclists don’t stand a chance at getting a campsite at the first-come, first-serve sleeping places. So, one way to get one is to beg like a bear and ask some family to share. Better yet is to get a backcountry permit and haul butt down a trail to sleep away from the masses and for free. Of course, one must adhere to the rules of the backcountry, which include staying a quarter mile from the road, 20 yards off a trail and 10 yards from a stream.
Weekends, and this is from personal experience, is a chance to suck exhaust all day. By the end of the weekend, you’ll be able to close your eyes and smell the difference between Bmers (BMWs) and Saturns. Aside from sharing the narrow and winding 35-mile per hour road with gas-guzzling brethren from Virginia, Maryland and points beyond, there is the opportunity to gaze through the haze out to a wave of mountains. The leaves of tulip poplar trees turn yellow. Mother and fawn deer forage for food among the fruit-bearing apple trees.
Meet The Masses
Come to an overlook and meet the masses. There was Scraggly Beard Man from Washington, sleeping in his car as he tried to visit as many national parks as possible in 30 days. There was Motorcycle Man, a Maryland boat builder who once spent $450 for a week’s ride down the Mississippi. There was Photo Couple, a husband and wife Virginia shutterbug squad who shot postcards for the park.
On the trail was Walking Man 97, better known as Tom from Cleveland. He was an AT thru-hiker in 1997 out hiking the AT again through the park. If he ever wrote a book about hiking the AT, he would call it “I Wish I Could.”
For someone trying to get a feel for the AT, Skyline is a good place to start. Some 98 miles of the Maine to Georgia footpath go through the park and cross Skyline 28 times. There is also a substantial elevation gain. Small mountains can be tough. Around 3,000 feet is climbed between the northern entrance of the park in Front Royal and the highest point on the road at 3,680 feet. That’s nearly to the highest point in the park at 4,051 feet. From the frequent overlooks, visitors look down upon the Shenandoah River and Valley, the rolling Piedmont country and a nearly 50-mile long mountain mass called Massanutten. When the light is just right, the colors can dazzle, particularly beneath 2,500 feet in elevation.
But there is one big strike against the park — pollution. Some of the haze comes from water vapor, wind blown dust and forest fire smoke, but most comes from industry to the West in the form of pollutants such as sulfates and nitrates. Instead of a clear picture, it’s like looking at a work of art through water-filled goggles.
The Skyline is a place for deer. Thirteen whitetail deer were let loose in the park in 1934. Now about 5,000 call the park home. Before the alarm clocks go off in the RVs is prime deer viewing. Cycling the road just after sunrise is a chance to see the deer as they come out of the woods and gingerly cross the road. Even better is to camp off the AT in a stand of apple trees. As the sun goes down, the deer come out and scrape through the fallen remnants of autumn, looking for morsels. One, so intrepid, comes within 5 yards of the tent, ears standing and eyeballs the tent and the creature beside it.
The uphills can be a grunt and the downhills a blur, but Skyline Drive will always be a memory for anyone who cycles it.
Marty Basch is riding his bicycle from Maine to Georgia, using the Appalachian Trail as a rough guide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.