“Which way to the AT?”
He announced himself with a thud as he jumped from the literal mountain of rocks behind me. I was wearing my only pair of floral print leggings that I usually reserve for slumber parties (they were supposed to be my “clean” pants), an old pair of chacos that I rarely wear hiking, and my brand new Osprey daypack, and felt thoroughly out of place by comparison to this rugged, weathered hiker. I stared at him blankly, taken aback by this man who had just fallen out of the sky.
“You’re standing on it.”
It was my third day in Shenandoah National Park, and I had planned to hang out at my campground and take it easy…so, naturally, I was standing on a trail. I like to have a plan. I don’t like sticking to it.
That seemed to be the running theme for this week’s short adventure. I know that I can follow through with an itinerary, since I was quite successful in South Florida. For some reason, though, I was hard-pressed to really dig into Shenandoah before my arrival. I armed myself with a general understanding of the campground options, read a brief description of a few hiking trails, and looked at a few maps before setting off into the unknown.
As luck would have it, Shenandoah National Park is the perfect-ish place to not have a plan. The amenities are out of this world and the staff are some of the nicest, most helpful people out there—rangers and volunteers alike. Most of the hikes I tried were due to the recommendation of a staff member. At one point I witnessed a newer member whip out a gigantic binder that was color-coded and everything because a couple asked to origin of the park name (if you’re now wondering, it’s a native American word meaning “Daughter of the Stars”).
Penny’s First National Park
My draw to Shenandoah (besides the mountains and relatively easy 10 hour drive from Atlanta) was that I could bring my dog. Surprisingly few national parks allow you to hike with your furry friend, even though many allow dogs in developed campgrounds. This trip was Penny’s first time camping, as well as her first visit to a “big NP” national park! I already knew she’d be great in the car since I’ve seasoned her pretty well with many trips up to the north Georgia mountains, but I was unsure of how she would handle being outside in a tent overnight; there was only one way to find out.
The Skinny on Shenandoah
Shenandoah National Park is tall and skinny, with the famous Skyline Drive running the 100 mile length from north to south. 100 miles may not seem like much, but the 35mph speed limit makes everything feel very far apart. Everything—overlooks, trailheads, campgrounds, waysides—is found by mile marker, and if you continue south out of the national park, boom! You’re on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I drove overnight, and we (Penny and I) arrived at the park ridiculously early on the first day. I’m talking 4am ridiculous. It had been a rainy spring so far, and while it was no longer raining, I was engulfed in the world’s thickest fog the second I entered the park. Between the dark and the fog there was no way I was able to drive the speed limit, so the sky had brightened considerably by the time we reached our first stop. I wasn’t able to see any views in those conditions, but the wildlife presence wholly made up for it! I saw at least 15 deer that first morning (as well as a smattering of smaller mammals), which set a nice precedent for the rest of the trip.
Mathew’s Arm Campground
We entered the park from the south entrance and drove north to Mathew’s Arm Campground at mile marker 22.2 (22.2 miles from the north entrance and about 8- miles from the south), where we arrived around 7:30am. By the time I chose my site and set up camp, the park rangers were settled into their posts and ready to take my registration.
I cozied up in my tent to finally get some rest after a long night of driving, with a plan to wake up in the early afternoon for a hike.
Overall Run Falls Trail
Since my campsite was in the back of Mathew’s Arm Campground, I took the fire road to the trail for Overall Run Falls. In hindsight, taking fire roads as part of hiking trails turned into a trend for my visit to Shenandoah, and I was not particularly fond of it. There are plenty of trail options in this area (that still lead to Overall Run Falls), and I would recommend taking a different route than I did.
It was the afternoon, so I didn’t want to hike the entire loop trail. Penny and I hiked down, past one waterfall to an overlook that included the top of Overall Run Falls. The vista here was very beautiful, and there were few other hikers out on the trail. Penny, however, was anxious from the multitude of new experiences of the day, and had a hard time relaxing at the overlook.
The trail was steep on the return…one of my least favorite things about hiking to waterfalls; I like to do the hard part first, usually! In all, I hiked about 4ish miles on this trail, even without hiking the loop.
That evening, I had hoped to find a pretty overlook to take some sunset photos, but intense cloud cover had been rolling in every evening, and I quickly abandoned the idea. Instead, I stuck around camp and cooked myself some eggs and ramen noodles for dinner. I retired to bed that evening with a full stomach, ready to cuddle with my pup.
Snead Farm Trail
I woke up super early on day two, ready to do some more hiking! I would highly recommend this style of travel, especially in national parks. Besides being the only car out on the road (again), I was graced with a morning full of wildlife sightings again…and this morning included a bear! I was so excited to see a small mama black bear with two cubs scurrying up a hill to the west side of the road. This was my very first time seeing a bear in the wild, and I got to see three! Having Penny in the car with the windows rolled down of course didn’t help, though. Always the protector, her first instinct is to bark/intimidate anything that moves. Luckily, this didn’t really affect my ability to see animals on this trip.
I drove all the way to the northernmost entrance of the park on Skyline Drive, and then backtracked to the Dickey Ridge visitor center. I picked up a few trail maps, parked my car at the picnic grounds, and proceeded across the street to the trail.
Unfortunately, I once again began the hike to Snead Farm on the fire road instead of a hiking trail. This time, at least, I was hiking a loop trail, and I planned to hike the most boring section of the loop first. While the fire road left much to be desired, I saw some deer prancing across the trail, which added a little bit of magic to the hike.
I would have been fine if that was my only wildlife encounter on this hike.
At the end of the fire road, we reached the small, unassuming Snead Barn. Wanting to take a closer look, I lead Penny over to the barn, at the top of a short retention wall. After standing in one spot for maybe a second or two, I heard a very distinct sound.
You guys, my dog was STANDING OVER A F&#*$&% RATTLESNAKE.
Immediately, I panicked. The grass across which we had walked to reach the barn, however, was all covered in a layer of wheat straw. It was fluffy and my feet sunk into it with every step I took. All this did was further my panic…any step I take, I could step on a rattlesnake. Any step Penny takes, she could step on ANOTHER rattlesnake.
Obviously I’m still not over it.
We made it safely back across the grass. I snapped one or two photos of the barn from that distance, and then hastened away from that terrifying place.
By comparison, the rest of the hike was quite uneventful. Eventually, my heart rate calmed back down to a normal speed. There is an overlook at the summit of Dickey Hill that was nice. After pausing for a beat to look out over Virginia, we safely returned to the car. This hike was about 3 miles.
Big Meadows Campground
Big Meadows Campground can be found at mile 51.2 on Skyline Drive, roughly 30 miles south of Mathew’s Arm Campground. I drove south along the road from Snead Farm toward Big Meadows, picking up a backpacker along the way.
While Mathew’s Arm had been wooded and shady, Big Meadows felt like camping in someone’s backyard. The sites are grassy, with low bushes separating sites from each other. Big Meadows is a huge hub for the park. There are a ton of facilities here—a lodge, restaurant, visitor center, wayside, gas station, laundry and showers. Needless to say, this area of the park was absolutely packed.
I scooped up a campsite for the night and pitched my tent. I also checked out Byrd visitor center before moving along to my next hike.
Hawksbill Gap Trail
My brother recommended hiking the Stony Man trail, but it is unfortunately one of the few trails in the park that doesn’t allow pets (along with Old Rag). Since Stony Man was out of the question, I was told that Hawksbill Gap was the next best thing. I took the 1.7-mile trail to the summit…and while the trail itself was pretty, it was nowhere near the views that are afforded to you at the summit. I stayed at the viewing platform here for a long time, chatting and making friends with other hikers.
Looking back, it’s possible to make Hawksbill Gap into a loop trail along a small section of the AT, and I’m sure that hike would be a gorgeous day hike. Another time, maybe.
Back at camp, I took a shower and made another simple dinner at camp. For those of you wondering, I took Penny into the shower stall with me. Since she is highly anxious, I knew she would whine and bark if I tried to leave her at camp, or in my car (with the windows down), especially since there were so many other people camping with their dogs. Getting Penny into the tiny stall was tricky, but she was fine for the most part once she was inside.
Loft Mountain Campground
I slept in a little later the following morning, and then packed up and continued my drive south. Loft Mountain Campground sits at mile marker 79.5, the farthest south of all the campgrounds. I planned to relax at my campground and read and write for my last day of vacation. Ya know, like, actually relax! So I meandered south on Skyline Drive and headed for Loft Mountain.
Where Big Meadows had been loud and crowded, Loft Mountain was quiet and empty. Being largest campground in the park, the few of us that were camping here at plenty of space to spread out, and plenty of privacy between campsites. Wildlife was abundant in an around the campground since there were so few visitors. At one point, Penny began barking frantically and I had no idea why, until I realized there was a deer standing about ten feet out of her reach. The deer seemed unsure how to react, and quietly stared at her from its safe distance.
Blackrock Summit Trail
Breaking my own rule, I decided to head out for a hike on the Blackrock Summit trail. This trail takes you for a quick, 1-mile jaunt down the AT. I loved everything about this trail. The terrain was packed earth, which was much nicer to walk on than any of the previous trails, which all included sections of gravel or fire roads.
This hike is where our story began, on this very point of the AT. The scenery was beautiful, and I heard the backpacker who had startled me let out a whoop of joy later down the trail; I’m sure he was looking out over the view from his lofty position among the mountains.
With a long drive ahead of me, I took my time winding my way south toward the park exit. I stopped at a gift shop and at the park entrance sign to snap a photo, and then headed along down the Blue Ridge Parkway toward home.
Penny handled the whole trip like a star. She did surprisingly well sleeping in the tent with me, and had calmed down about being at camp around so many other people and dogs after a little while. Part of the reason I wanted to take it easier and not push myself too hard on this trip was because I wasn’t sure how Penny would do. By the last day, it had gotten a little bit hot out for her, but even still, she did great!
While I loved having Penny with me, I hope to one day return to Shenandoah National Park without any pets to hike Old Rag! I would honestly be happy to even stop in the park for just one day for that hike alone.
Of course, I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to camp in the park again. Knowing what I know now, I would probably plan some longer hikes along the AT and skip some of the day hiking, or plan more hikes to waterfalls. It was nice to get a feel for all the different campgrounds in the park, but I think I would base myself at Loft Mountain, if I ever get a chance to camp in Shenandoah again. Overall, it was a pretty relaxing trip, made all the better since I got to bring my sweet Penny!