Monday, June 28, 2021

More Miles, More Awesome | Hiking Jones Mountain in Shenandoah National Park

Let's Do This!

Yesterday I talked Shira into tackling an 11 mile hike in Shenandoah. Between the hot weather and crowds, we wanted an early start. Which meant that we left DC at 4:00am.

By 6:15am we'd arrived at Bootens Gap, the trail head, and already seen countless deer and a family of turkeys (I assume the big ones were mommy, daddy and the small ones were kids). The sun rose as we drove into the park and we were feeling good. It was looking like we'd get in an epic hike and still be back in DC by the late afternoon to run some errands.

The route (thanks HikingUpward!) called for us to cover Cat Knob Trail, Jones Mountain Trail, Staunton River Trail, Fork Mountain Trail and start and finish on the the Laurel Prong Trail and a short section of the AT. Along the way we were promised one view and a visit to a radio tower.

They're Not Problems, They're Opportunities

About 5 minutes into the trail we ran into, and solved, two problems.

First, I immediately noticed a hot-spot my left heel. I tried to tell myself that the rubbing would go away and soon I'd feel better, but I knew that was a lie. In a few miles, the hot spot would be a blister and for hours I'd be miserable. I stopped, applied a 1 inch length of Leuko Tape over the blister and we were on our way. The blister, incidentally, was due not to hiking gear but to the fact that I'd walk to shul in fancy shoes the day before. And of course, I haven't worn dress shoes in over a year. Curse you covid!

The Leuko Tape was like magic. One tiny strip kept me pain free the entire hike. Long distance hikers / runners preach the value of Leuko Tape and I've dispensed it to others before. But I think this may be the first blister of my own that I've treated. Wow, this stuff works.

The second gotcha was one that we'd struggled with on our last long hike and apparently forgotten about. Shira wanted quick access to the paper map, her phone (which has the digital map) and trekking polls at the same time. The issue: she had no pockets (curse women's pants!). On our last hike I promised I'd set her up with a fanny pack (which are all the rage in the backpacking world), but quickly forgot that promise.

As a field expedient solution I emptied out a 1 quart Ziplock bag and attached the 3ft piece of cordage I carry on my keychain to it. The result was a sort of neck wallet thing that dangled from her bag's sternum strap. It held the map and her phone perfectly and provided easy access throughout the hike. She was quickly sold on the solution and declared it more functional than a fanny pack. By the end of the hike I started brainstorming about how I could craft a more robust version, but she insisted that she likes the Ziplock bag and string solution.

Let's Hike

We made our way through the first half of the hike without incident. I found plenty of interesting plants to photograph and review later for identification, as well as the usual millipedes, ladybugs and caterpillars to stop and gawk at. We saw some crazy fungi, including the the spooky looking ghost pipe and what appeared to be chicken of the woods (yum!).

The view at Bear Church Rock didn't disappoint. Perhaps most importantly, the day was hot and sunny but nearly all the hike was under cover, which made it far more comfortable.

We saw signs that we missed mountain laurel and pink lady slipper blooming, and we were too early for the raspberries. Had we hit any of these at peek bloom I would no doubt be raving as to how amazing this trail was.

We had solitude for most of the trail, seeing 3 or 4 groups of people the entire time. The quiet was nice, but no doubt contributed to the overgrowth of the trail. This wouldn't normally be a problem, but for some sections the overgrowth was made up of stinging nettle. There was one section in particular when we found ourselves walking through a trail that was getting choked out by waist high stinging nettle. Ouch.

By the time we hit the Stauton River Trail, we knew that we'd have to walk considerably longer than the 11 miles promised in the trail description. Part of this was because we added an extra section of the Cat Knob trail, but even with this addition we think the distance of the route is off.

My eyeballing of the map suggested the side trip to the radio tower be a quick one. Of course I was wrong. For nearly a mile we trudged up steep, rocky and unstable ground in hot sun.

At the top, we found not just one radio tower, but a collection of them. If you're a fan of radio towers (and who is?) this may be exciting. For everyone else, this was probably more of a "so what?" moment. Behind one of the radio towers there was a large boulder which offered a nice view. Was this view worth the slog up and knee busting walk down back to the trail head? Depends who you ask. Me: heck yeah! Shira: are you kidding me? No.

Compared to the radio tower slog, the rest of the hike went by with relative ease. Again, I misread the map bracing myself for a massive uphill at the end, only to find that, yes the trail climbed back up to the ridge but it wasn't brutal.

One Last Surprise

As we finished the last .5 mile on the AT, I started to think about this blog post. Specially, about the wildlife we'd seen this trip. Sure, we saw the deer and turkey in the morning, but other than that, we hadn't seen much (not that millipedes and lady bugs aren't special). As we rounded the corner, 500 feet from our car, Shira stopped me: snake! Sure enough, overflowing onto the trail was a big, black snake.

The first order of business was to get pics. Which I'm glad to report I did. And then we had to consider how we were going to get past this guy. By then, another couple had walked up behind us and we discussed our options. Our talking alone didn't scare the snake off, so we made more noise. That finally seemed to do the trick and the snake started to slither back into the bushes. And when he did we all heard the distinct rattle. In no great hurry, Mr. snake retreated part-way into the undergrowth, where I could plainly see his rattle. After a few more moments, he slithered a bit further away from the trail and we made a break for it.

The Shenandoah NPS website reports that there are 16 species of non-venomous snakes and two species of venomous snakes in the park. The venomous include the copperhead and timber rattlesnake. If the rattling sound and visible confirmation of the rattle weren't enough, Google Lens piled on with its assessment: we clearly encountered a timber rattlesnake.

Shira and I have seen plenty of snakes before, but this is our first rattle snack and first venomous variety. This as an especially interesting find because timber rattlesnakes are a State endangered species.

This was a remarkably cool way to close out an outstanding day of hiking.

The Final Take

In the end, we covered 15.1 miles with a total elevation gain of 3,822 feet. I consider the extra mileage a nice bonus, Shira thinks this is a case of false advertising. Either way, it was one epic day of hiking.

Overall the trail was pleasant, well marked, well shaded and had quality water sources. The stinging nettle overgrowth was annoying, and for Shira was enough of a reason to avoid this hike. While I'm more positive about the trail, even I I can't categorize this as a must-do tail. But that's more a measure of how spoiled we are in Shenandoah, which offers countless trails to explore.

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