Monday, July 09, 2018

Backpacking Awesomeness: Trayfoot Mountain / Paine Run Loop

This past weekend we hiked the Trayfoot Mountain / Paine Run loop in Shenandoah. It's a testament to the number of amazing views and trails in Shenandoah that this hike isn't higher rated. For our purposes, it turned out to be an ideal overnight backpacking route.

At 11am, we parked at the trail head, hoisted our packs and were on our way. After about a mile of uphill we reached Blackrock Summit. The summit is a boulder pile that's just crying out to be explored. For reasons I can't fully explain, my fear of heights didn't kick in while playing on it, which made it even more fun for me. We enjoyed a perfect lunch with an amazing view. This was B's first backpacking trip, and it was ideal to start it off with such an awe inspiring view.

After lunch it was time to knock out some miles. We did another mile, including some steep uphill, to reach the view-less summit of Trayfoot Mountain. A couple of the maps I found online indicated there was a lookout tower there, but alas, I could not find any evidence of it. From there, we walked about 3 miles along the ridge of Trayfoot Mountain, with a healthy dose of downhill. M and B lead the way, often leading Shira and myself by hundreds of yards. Oh, the boundless energy of youth! The fact that their packs weighed a third of Shira's and Mine didn't hurt either.

At the end of stretch on the ridge we found another overlook, though it wasn't as impressive as the first one. And before we few knew it, we were making our final descent from Trayfoot Mountain into the area where we would camp for the night.

As we trudged down hill I noticed a small brown'ish snake curled up and snoozing. It was almost perfectly camouflaged with the trail's muddy sidewall. I didn't grab a photo, and of course, now I wish I had. From looking at this list of common snakes in Shenandoah, I do believe we saw a small Copperhead. Though, without a pic, that's just a guess. I know that when we arrived in camp, we did see another snake, which was clearly a garter. The snakes, plus a couple of toads that B spotted were all the wildlife we'd see during the trip. Though, given all the fresh bear scat, we knew we weren't alone.

After about 6 miles of hiking we arrived at our campsite. The campsite had a massive tree bisecting it, so every time we wanted to go from the tents to the cooking area we had choose between the limbo or hurdles. Still, it was a solid campsite and we had it all to ourselves.

We arrived at the campsite early enough that we had time to explore the 'waterfalls' and 'swimming holes' that were .3 miles away. Perhaps it was due to the volume of water, but the area was just a stretch of fast moving stream. Still, soaking our toes and chilling on rocks was heavenly. This is what backpacking is all about: put in the sweaty 6 miles, earn yourself glorious moments of camaraderie and relaxation.

After an hour of splashing around we returned to camp to cook dinner. It was during dinner that we ran into the fail of the trip. One limitation of Shenandoah is that fires aren't allowed in the backcountry. We had planned for this, and prepared to boil our hotdogs rather than cook them over an open flame. After 20 years of using the same pot, I decided it was time for an upgrade to something more modern. I filled the brand new pot with water, set it on the stove, and watched with horror as the pot slid off the stove.

The problem: our new pot was non-stick, which included a non-stick outside. The coating was so good that the stove legs couldn't get a grip on the bottom of the pot and it kept sliding off. D'oh.

We ended up solving the problem by propping a large rock next to the stove, which provided just enough support to keep the pot in place.

While I obviously need to find a new pot solution, I wasn't particularly upset with the experience. Another key aspect of backpacking is that things don't go as planned. That's more feature than bug. It's this unpredictability that leads to amazing things: like breath-taking views and (supposedly!) copperhead snake sightings, and by necessity it has to lead to some less than stellar experiences as well. Sanitize the experience enough and you'll lose the good with the bad.

For the record, the hot dogs were delicious! For Kashrut reasons we cooked them in True Liberty Bags, which worked out quite well and cleanup was a snap. We also roasted marshmallows over a backpacking stove. This wasn't quite as romantic as cooking them over an open fire, but it got the job done.

While the sun was still in the sky, we went to our respective tents and called it a night.

We all made it through the night without incident; most importantly nobody froze despite the temps dipping down into the high 50's (which feels much colder than it sounds). I polled M and B about their night in the woods. They both said the same thing: it was so dark! And B noted the amazing blanket of stars in the sky. I had taken in this view too at 3:00am, but it was too cold to stand around an enjoy it. As for me, I slept well and woke up without much soreness, thank heavens for Vitamin I (aka Ibuprofen).

After a breakfast of hot chocolate and oatmeal we packed up camp and trudged the 3 miles uphill back to our car. Again, the kids rocketed ahead of us. It was along Paine Run that we saw quite a bit of bear scat, so they were definitely in the area. We also saw a large number of blueberry bushes, though they weren't in season. If you were to hit this trail at just the right time of year you'd be in for quite the blueberry treat.

And just like that, we popped out of the forest and arrived at the car. We dumped our packs, changed our clothes/shoes and before we knew it, we were driving away with the air conditioning blasting.

Taking newbies backpacking is all about balance. Make the trip too easy and they miss out on the joy of the accomplishment that comes from facing a real challenge. But overdue it, and the blisters and exhaustion cloud a good time. Combining Trayfoot Mountain / Paine Run loop with two fit teens and perfect weather made for just the right balance. M and B got to see the views, a tiny bit of wildlife and the joy of taking off a pack after 6 miles of hiking. Thanks to their fitness and a bit of preparation, we managed to dodge blisters, exhaustion and a laundry list of other things that can mar a trip. In short: it was blast, and I'm already starting to plan next year's adventure.

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