Wednesday, November 12, 2008

St. Mary's Wilderness

Over the weekend I hiked St. Mary's Wilderness which is a trail consisting of 10.1 miles with an additional 5.4 mile option to see some waterfalls in the complete opposite direction of the principal loop. I decided to hike the entire 15.4 because I figured the more I could squeeze into this trip the better it would be.

St. Mary's Wilderness is essentially a 10,000-acre plot of protected land on the western slope of the Blue Ridge Parkway just outside of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. "Wilderness" isn't a nickname, it is actually a designation which means the area is NOT maintained and is intended to shift and grow as nature intended with the only interference by man coming as a result of a fire or insect infestation. In summary, there are trails, but if they disappear into the wild, then so be it.

Unfortunately, this hike did not turn out as I had hoped and quite honestly it was a bit of a disappointment. I hiked it on a November day which had temperatures in the 50's during the day which was quite comfortable. Regrettably, I missed the best time to go hiking in the fall as I was strapped down at work for the last couple weeks. Although the brilliant colors were gone, many of the maple trees still maintained amazing colors which were quite a sight from the distance. Higher up on the summits, however, brown was the principal color still on the trees with some color hiding on the duff floor. The weather was about the only thing that seemed to work out as otherwise my trip was easily stumped by trails which were very overgrown, trees crossing the path which required constant efforts to go over, under, or around them, and a very challenging navigational efforts as the unmarked and overgrown trail was only further hidden by the fact that fall had embraced the area with full force and leaves and branches covered everything to the point that it was nearly indistinguishable. My biggest regret is that I added the extra 5.4 mile loop to St. Mary's Falls as I simply never found it. I could hear it in the distance, but the trail was no where to be seen after several miles in. After some efforts to bushwack towards the sound and coming to the reality that it was a roughly 2,000 foot drop off very steep terrain with poor visibility and footing, I decided to cut my losses in favor of not getting injured or lost and instead finishing the rest of the hike. As such, the gloriously described falls consisting of a healthy drop onto massive boulders and mountain laurel will be left for another day.

Overnight temperatures dipped below freezing and my ultra-light sleep system stood up to the weather with the only exception of my feet being "less than warm". Nighttime seemed to last forever as the sun dipped behind a mountain around 3:30pm which left my campsite with a twilight scene for about the next 90 minutes until the sun set shortly after 5:00pm and didn't make another appearance until 7:00am the following morning. After drinking some hot tea and chow warmed nicely from my alcohol stove, I decided to light a fire to pass the time, stay warm, and to dry my sweaty Tilly hat and SmartWool shirt. Normally I don't get the chance to have a fire being that they are prohibited in most national parks, but I was fortunate to be in a designated area where they were allowed since I wasn’t in any part of the national park system. The coals remained glowing most of the night as it was quite windy and offered some entertainment as I tried to sleep.

The following morning I had a 6 mile hike out which I can honestly say was one of the easiest hikes of my life as it was on a nearby park service road which was well graded and wide, despite being full of rocks of all sizes and shapes. I was back to my car within about 2 hours which surprised me how quickly I could move given the right conditions and motivation...and was a testament to lightweight gear.

The picture of the bear above was one I came across about 100 feet from the entrance to St. Mary's Wilderness. It was about 20 feet from me and my unprepared fumbling and bumbling for my camera while facing the blazing sun did nothing but ensure my picture was fairly poor. It was a nice sight, however, and was much more welcomed then the unseen bear who growled at me while I was about 5 miles into this hike. The bear was hidden behind a row of rhododendrons which were as intimidating as walking down an ally between two tightly wedged buildings in the city. If the bear decided to do anything then strike up a conversation, I would have had little options other than to hope I digested poorly. Fortunately, black bears are relatively decent to deal with, unless you have officially overstepped your boundaries or got between it and a cub. As soon as I started talking to it calmly, it quieted down and I pushed forward.
Despite this not being my favorite hike, getting out was better than any day hiding behind a keyboard. I just prefer having as many things to see as possible (valleys, vistas, summits, waterfalls, wildlife, flowers, etc.) as otherwise I’m not sure I’d know the difference between a bad hike and a night in my own backyard.

1 comment:

K.D. Zotter said...

Very well done blog. Extremely informative and definitely on my list of those to keep an eye on. I produce ATHiking... the podcast at and always keep an eye and ear out for factual information.
Keep up the good work.