Thursday, July 2, 2009

Backpacking the Rocky Mtn/ Brown Mtn Trail/Big Run Portal Trail, Patterson Ridge Trail Loop in the Shenandoah National Park

(Double click on the images and that will open up a larger image for viewing)

Another Chapter in my training and gear shakedown prior to tackling the Yellowstone backcountry this summer. Got the opportunity to do some backpacking with my friend JC and his buddy Will. These guys are experts in planning trips so, with a few suggestions about total daily mileage; I just stood back and let them do their planning magic. Will and JC did not disappoint! Based on everyone’s preferences, they chose the Brown Mountain Trail/ Big Run Portal Trail (Big Run Creek)/Patterson Ridge Trail loop including a half mile section of the AT in the Shenandoah Mountain National Park.

After a quick stop at the Total Wine to pick up some Belgian beer, we headed west Friday afternoon, stopped for a sub in Waynesboro and wound our way up the beautiful
Blue Ridge Parkway towards Loft Mountain where we would set up camp for the night. Along the way, a bear crossed in front of us and he kept an eye on us from the safety of the brush as we slowly passed. Not too much further up the road, we spotted a mother bear and her two cubs. The cubs raced up the nearest tree and the sow followed. But after we stopped to get a better look, she came down and stood in defense at the bottom of the tree. Got a taste of the buffalo-jams in Yellowstone, as several cars stopped for a look.

We made it to the Loft Mountain campground and picked out a nice private tent site and set up camp. We reviewed the maps, talked story, and sipped beer as we were serenaded with some bluegrass music from the site next door. We chose our site well!

Saturday morning, we woke up early, packed up the gear, made a quick but hot breakfast, let our flies dry in the early morning light and cleaned up dishes and used the facilities before heading down to the Loft Mountain wayside. We got our NPS backcountry permit at the wayside and had a short walk to the trailhead.

We passed PATC’s Ivy Creek maintenance cabin as we made our way up the trail to the junction with the AT. Will and JC were moving up the trial at a good clip obviously glad to be back in the woods. We passed a few hikers and some maintenance workers
re-blazing the AT on the short 0.6 mile section, but it was nice hiking and we were afforded some nice views that gave us a sense of the climbs and descents to come.

We checked the map as JC recounted boyhood summers spent working the land.

We exited the AT at a Blue Ridge Parkway pullout and hiked along the road to a second pullout where we found the blue-blazed Brown Mountain trailhead. Summiting Rocky Mountain, we found it, well, narrow and rocky.

As we descended from the peak, the rocky formations along the trail were still pretty cool.

We had some beautiful views of the farmlands in the Shenandoah Valley and the Massanutten Peak at the southern tip of Massanutten Mountain.

We continued to descend into a saddle, but could see through the trees the next climb – up Brown Mountain. Will kept us on a brisk pace as he swept the trial clear of ticks for JC and me. Somehow we blew past the Brown Mountain peak and ended up having lunch on the descent.

Continuing on, we were treated to a few more scenic views before making it to Big Run Creek.

We turned left onto the yellow-blazed Big Portal Trail and were able to make all the necessary fords without changing boots.

Will, provided a little excitement by almost stepping on a rattler who was occupying the center of the trail. After coaxing him to move along was unsuccessful, and even though JC seemed pretty sure we could pass outside the strike zone, we gave the snake a wide berth by bushwhacking around. Will, trailblazer and pied piper of snakes, continued to spot rock-sunning snakes at each river crossing.

After about 9.3 miles and a lot of ups and downs, we made camp in a spot off the trail near a deep pool. JC noticed that a lot of the big rocks around the campsite had been pulled out of the ground and overturned – not done by humans he said – BEARS! Bushed and sore, we pitched the tents, laid out the sleeping gear, and headed back to Big Run Creek to soak and pump water to replenish our supplies and make dinner. Paranoid about the over-turned rocks, I emptied my pack and hung all smelly stuff in the trees.

We had a nice time soaking our feet and feeding the monstrous ants that found us to the trout downstream. JC did all the pumping with his MSR miniworks. Thanks JC. Will and I just soaked and filled bottles while keeping an eye on the sunning snake downstream.

After filling all the water bottles and Platypus bladders, we made our way back to camp and started thinking about dinner. We heard a rustling in the trees just outside of camp and turned to see to juvenile bears making their way down to slope towards our camp. Rock-turning on their minds? JC surmised they might have been moving towards a rock outcropping next to the camp rather than aiming for our camp instead. They were easily routed with some yelling, but I couldn’t help thinking they were just retreating until dark…..

I treated a hotspot that developed by not changing my socks at lunch. I won’t forget next time! I got some training time on the MSR Simmerlite stove as JC studied for his upcoming LEED certification test. Will made a nice dinner of couscous, sun-dried tomatoes, and chunks of chicken that was nirvana to our tired bodies and spirits. JC offered us each a hunk of sharp cheddar cheese and an after-dinner chocolate square – pretty high livin’ for the backcountry!

We rechecked all the bear bags and hung our packs. As the sun dropped, fatigue finally won me over and I had to hit the hay. Even though I felt I was tossing and turning most of the night, I must’ve slept pretty soundly because Will said he couldn’t roust me when the bear alarm went out at 2 am. Whether the noise was from bears or deer, all our gear was intact the following morning.

JC made coffee in his customized Nalgene French press – see what I’m sayin’ ? And we boiled water for oatmeal. After cleaning up, and dumping excess water – we only needed a liter for the 3+ miles back to the Loft Mtn wayside; we packed up and made our way to the Patterson Ridge Trail.

What we thought was a steep but quick climb and then lots of ridgeline, upon closer map inspection turned out to be a steady steep 3+ mile climb! I think the “ridge trail” is a little mislabeled! With JC’s altimeter readouts every couple hundred feet in elevation and Wills pacing, we were still hitting about 2 miles and hour. The trail was nice, but clearly not well traveled – wonder why? We were climbing up from the Big Run Creek valley and the Paterson Ridge Trail just kept going up and up and up until finally it leveled off about 100 feet from Loft Mtn wayside. Not often, almost never, but sometimes car noise is nice.

What a great trip! Big thanks to JC and Will for including me in the fun. I feel I’m ready for the challenge of Yellowstone and look forward to the experience with my good friend Tom. I keep learning – about the socks, about my gear, about trail recipes, and about never taking the lead – sorry tick/snake/bear man Will! Can’t wait to do it again!

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