A ladybug on the mountain grass
Since the Texas road trip was postponed, I spontaneously set out towards Maryland for the Naval Academy Graduation Ball. Originally, the pre-existing plans for the Texas road trip prevented me from attending, and so the alternate plans were more than welcomed. The North Carolina to Maryland trek takes six or seven hours, depending on traffic, and so I decided to split up the journey. Stopping in Shenandoah National Park, a park I’ve been wanting to visit for quite some time, didn’t add too much time to the trip and presented a fantastic hiking/camping option.
Upon arriving, I opted for the yearly entrance pass. For anyone considering driving through Shenandoah more than once (even just twice), it’s impossible to pass up. A one-time entrance, valid for seven days, costs $15, while a year pass costs $30. I definitely expect to return for camping over the summer since the park is only a bit over four hours away.
In any case, I picked up a park map at one of the visitor centers, and did a quick internet search on my phone for some of the popular trail options. The map provided by the park did not give this information, saving these tips for small pamphlets which had to be purchased. Next time, I’ll definitely take a bit more time prior to visiting in order to plan out my activities.
If I had had all the time in the world, I would have attempted the Cedar Run Loop or the Old Rag Mountain Trail. The Cedar Run Loop is a difficult, 8.0 mile trail that features plenty of waterfalls. The slightly less strenuous Old Rag Mountain Trail, 9.0 miles, has less stair stepping and waterfalls, but reaches to the summit of Old Rag Mountain. I’m a sucker for waterfalls, so I’d have selected the Cedar Run Loop if I’d had the necessary day to spare. Hopefully, a friend and I will be able to include the day trip in our adventures towards the end of June.
Considering my final destination was north of the park, I began my drive at the southern point of the park (Rockfish Gap Entrance) and enjoyed the opportunity to travel along Skyline Drive. Quite a few quick stops in the form of roadside lookouts and mountain top views were necessary, and the a large portion of the day was spent chasing whims. A quick internet phone search revealed the top rated hiking trail to be Dark Hollow Falls, a 0.7 mile one way stretch leading to a 70 foot waterfall. Located near the Byrd Visitor center, at mile 50.7, the trail head is smack dab in the middle of the park’s North to South span.
Most hikers could easily cover the 1.4 miles in an hour or two, with the trip to the waterfall entirely downhill and the return trip requiring a bit more exertion. I took my time, of course, clambering over the rocks to the side of the maintained trail and wading through the shallow portions of the stream to get the desired angles for my photos. Hiking alone with a camera is wonderfully freeing, lacking the guilt that invariably accompanies the repeated uttering of the phrase “Just one more photo!“‘ or “Five more minutes, that’s it, I promise…” to one’s adventure partner. Additionally, adventuring on a weekday, during normal working hours, proved to be an added luxury to the hike and prevented the accumulation of too many strange looks.
I came across a surprising amount of chipmunks along the way, many of which re-emerged after only a few minutes of quiet waiting. Patience coupled with a telephoto lens proved rewarding in getting a couple close ups of the adorable creatures. The spring season also allowed for a fair showing of wild flowers. Between the water, chipmunks, and floral species, I was quite the happy hiker.
The trail to the waterfall Dark Hollow Falls follows the Hogcamp Branch stream pretty tightly, and there were plenty of conveniently positioned benches for breaks from hiking. Although they may seem superfluous on the way to the waterfall, down several spans of steps, I am sure they get good use from visitors facing the return journey. For those willing to branch off the path and risk getting a bit muddy, I found the large rocks along the stream to be just as comfy.
There were several smaller rapids along the path, growing in size as one nears Dark Hollow Falls. My favorite spot along the trail (perhaps even rivaling the waterfall itself) was a cluster of larger rocks that border the rapids to the right and overlook a small pool below. Unfortunately, the next group of hikers to come along seemed to like my idea and ventured off the path to join my vantage point. There’s something about a fancy camera that signals to others that you must have found the best spot for photos. In any case, I strongly recommend getting off the established trail. As lovely as the hike is all by itself (and obviously I can’t say this enough), venture off the beaten path!!!
That being said, the waterfall itself left no room for disappointments and was quite impressive for its proximity to Skyline Drive. I hardly expected such a beautiful, pristine waterfall to be a mere 0.7 mile hike away from the main road when I ventured into the park. At seventy feet, the water flow was broken up into two adjacent sections that lend to its picturesque view from the trail.
While there is a viewing deck at the top of the falls, the perspective from the base of the waterfall makes the viewing deck rather forgettable in comparison. I was happy that I had brought along my tripod so that, even in the absence of a companion, I could get a photo of myself in front of the waterfall.
I had to be particularly careful while carting my camera along the front of the waterfall, across the stream, because moss covered the rocks pretty thickly. My favorite view was straight on, a bit off the trail, and directly in front of the pool. Although the water was chilly, I couldn’t resist jumping in once I felt that my photography duties had been fulfilled. No hope for a hot shower that day, and likely not before the Naval Academy Graduation Ball the next day, helped the argument to attempt to shed the accumulated mud (or at least get it out of my hair!) Normally, I have a hard time settling for cold showers, but waterfalls are always an exception.
It wouldn’t have been hard to spend more time near the waterfall, and it was certainly tempting to continue down the trail farther, but I didn’t want to let it get too late in the day before I made some effort in setting up camp. I had some vague idea of heading toward the camping grounds at Big Meadows, or at least visiting the visitor center to obtain a bit more information regarding trails and back country camping regulation.
On the return hike, however, I spotted two grazing deer on the other side of the stream, perhaps forty yards away. For the next two hours I fancied myself an Indian, or some other character reminiscent of Pocahontas, and did my best to get closer to the two deer. I didn’t have the foresight to switch to my telephoto lens before beginning my mission, but the 18-55mm worked just fine.
I afforded myself a single step for each minute that passed, luckily clearing the slippery stream without significant mishap or noise, and painstakingly creeped closer. Each time I erred and made even the slightest sound, their entire bodies would tense up and I would receive an intent stare. Those brief sprints of time, in which I felt the full attention of the deer upon me, seemed to slow time to a stand still. Each time, I was sure that the two deer would catch wind of my game and sprint away. By some miracle, however, my efforts were not in vain, and brought me within five feet of the marvelous creatures!
I have never before been so close to a wild animal, at least not one that rivals me in size, and even the most carefully selected words fall short in describing the experience. Many times I wondered how the thundering sound of my shutter didn’t betray me and send them leaping away. Moments before stumbling across their path, I had been mentally going over some difficult personal struggles for the hundredth time. The slow, careful progression in approaching and admiring the majestic animals eliminated every trace of negative thoughts from my head. There is nothing quite as therapeutic as nature.
Altogether, I spent several fantastic hours following the deer, watching them eat, and photographing them. While these two occupied a large portion of my time, I spotted a number of other deer in the surrounding woods. It was later in the afternoon, still a ways from the sun setting, and so surprising to come across so much wildlife. Other reviews of the park, however, mention the abundance of deer time and time again.
It’s hard to follow up my adventures along Dark Hollow Falls with the remainder of my evening. I decided against the campgrounds of Big Meadows, simply because $20 sounded a bit steep for a spot on the ground, and set off on the back country roads of the park near the Thorton Gap Entrance Station. Since I planned on a remarkably early morning in order to make it to Annapolis by nine a.m., I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to minimize the remaining drive time along Skyline Drive. My tent and sleeping bag came in handy, and I slept soundly until being awakened by rain late into the night. The downpour kept me from sleeping after that, but it made for a perfect opportunity to make it to D.C. for sunrise! All in all, my day trip to Shenandoah proved to be the perfect way to start off Summer 2012.