My philosophy on life is always evolving, but one formula I’ve found that seems to work well for me is forced spontaneity. It is far too easy to grow comfortable with the Circadian rhythms of our day to day lives, so every now and then, I decide to drop everything and go on an adventure.
Granted, the demands of a job and other responsibilities sometime reduce the feasibility of this. (Alas, it can be difficult being an adult.) So I have to settle for carefully planned spontaneity, fitting the spontaneity into open spots on my calendar.
Such as it was this past weekend, when I decided (only two days in advance - which we’ll consider spur of the moment) to head over to Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park for an afternoon of hiking.
I hadn’t been to Shenandoah in a couple years. But I have been to Shenandoah countless times over the past decade. Throughout college, I visited the Park many times, sharing the experience with lots of good friends and classmates. But I have also visited the Park by myself, which provides a distinctly different experience - a chance for solitude and inflection.
Part of the beauty of Shenandoah National Park is that it’s so close. In less than two hours, you can go from the hustle of the Washington beltway to the tranquility of the forest. Although, as one of the most visited Parks in the nation, Shenandoah can receive its fair share of visitors - especially in the fall, when autumn foliage attracts a steady stream of weekend vehicles along Skyline Drive. Skyline Drive runs the length of the tall but narrow park.
I left late on Saturday morning and arrived at Shenandoah in the early afternoon. I had reserved a campsite at Big Meadows campground, and planned on hiking through the afternoon. The weather was ideal: partly sunny with daytime temperatures in the 60’s - perfect for hiking. First stop: Whiteoak Canyon.
The Whiteoak Canyon trail is one of the most popular hikes in the Park - a 4.6 mile roundtrip hike that culminates with an impressive waterfall. Extending the hike will take you past an additional five waterfalls until you finally reach the valley, far below. Located approximately 42 miles south of the northern entrance of the park - near Skyland Lodge - Whiteoak Canyon is a classic Shenandoah hike. It starts on the crest of the mountain, off of Skyline Drive, and descends - crossing through old hemlock trees and eventually mirroring a stream that bubbles along peacefully until it picks up pace and intensity in its quest to touch the valley floor.
Like most trails at Shenandoah, there is considerable elevation gain (or loss, depending on which way you’re going). This means that half of a round-trip hike will be easy, and the other half will be strenuous. The second half of Whiteoak Canyon is the strenuous part - you will be breathless, and not just from the scenery. On the way down, I noticed all the panting and sweating people hiking back up. “They must be out of shape,” I convinced myself. Later, on my way up, I was panting and sweating just like the rest.
I have hiked Whiteoak Canyon more than any other trail at Shenandoah, and have yet to bore of it. I have had distinctly different experiences on the trail.
On one solo hike early in the spring, I witnessed a black bear - no doubt recently awakened from its winter slumber - lumbering away through the blossoming mountain laurels. (“Away” is always the direction I like to see bears running, so I wasn’t disappointed that the bear didn’t give me time to snap a photo.)
Another year, I decided to hike Whiteoak Canyon in the dead of winter - hoping to get some pictures of a waterfall adorned with icicles. It was not to be. Although it was a mild 60 degrees in D.C. that January - prompting me to head for Shenandoah and not the ski slopes - the Park was still knee-deep in snow from recent storms. I was able to hike a couple miles into Whiteoak Canyon, but soon the trail became icy and I was unable to safely navigate the steep parts. My instinctive survival skills - honed from years of cub scouts and growing up in the wilds of Colorado and Wyoming - chimed in with a convincing “time to turn around.”
Whiteoak Canyon was also the first place I camped backcountry by myself. My first solo backcountry trip, I didn’t stray far from Skyline Drive - I was nervous, and once darkness set in, the sounds of the night began to punctuate an eery silence that hung heavily in the summer air. I don’t think I was able to sleep a minute. My imagination ran wild and my heart raced as twigs snapped near my tent. Deer droppings the next morning provided an explanation for the noisy visitors. I was relieved once the first rays of dawn broke through the thick forest, wiping away the scariness of the forest like an eraser across a blackboard.
My next time backcountry camping at Whiteoak Canyon was much deeper off of the trail - past the series of waterfalls and closer to the valley floor. This time, I was much more confident, and somewhat annoyed for a moment when a chorus of birds woke me up the next morning - then happy when I realized I had slept soundly. The hike back to Skyline Drive - uphill the whole way in hot and humid temperatures with a heavy backpack - was among the most strenuous hiking experiences I’ve had. I ran out of water halfway up and was quite dehydrated by the time I got to my car. Soon after, I bought a water filter for emergencies.
Having camped backcountry off Whiteoak Canyon twice, I considered myself a seasoned pro, and invited several college friends to try it out. We pitched our tents off the trail and then hiked down to the first waterfall for dinner. By the time we got back, it was dark - and we couldn’t find our tents. For about an hour, we stumbled through the forest - sharing one flashlight among the three of us and noticing that we could soon see our frosty breath in the chilly mountain air - until we were utterly lost. With adrenalin running high, we were about ready to resign ourselves to a cold night under the stars sans shelter, when my flashlight reflected back the artificial color of a tent wall. It took a moment before we realized it was one of our tents - we approached it from a direction that confirmed we weren’t even close to where we thought we were. I think we learned several lessons that night, but in retrospect, it was one of the best times I’ve had camping. If your heart doesn’t race every now and then, you’re not alive.
So, with a long history of hikes along Whiteoak Canyon, I decided to revisit my old friend last weekend, making my way quickly to the first fall, pausing on the way only to eat an apple and P&J sandwich.
I passed a couple dozen hiking parties on my way down. It was a beautiful Saturday, and the Whiteoak Canyon parking lot was nearly full, with large groups, small groups, and singles like me sharing the trail that day.
The amount of recent precipitation can have a direct effect on the “quality” of Shenandoah’s waterfalls. The waterfalls along Whiteoak Canyon are usually reliable, like the Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone National Park. In times of drought, some of the other waterfalls at Shenandoah can diminish to an unimpressive trickle of water.
During my recent visit, there was plenty of water cascading and bubbling down Whiteoak Canyon. The first fall turned in a fine performance, showing off by sending splashes of water far into the air and generating an audible rumble as the water slowly but surely carved microscopic flecks away from rocks, continuing an erosion that has been ongoing for millions of years.
I continued hiking past the first fall, knowing that I would pay dearly for it later. The pitch of the trail becomes much steeper, winding down slabs of rock that form a natural staircase as the trail chases the river down the canyon. Before long, I decided it was time to head back. The pace on the way up was much slower - with frequent stops to catch my breath. Where’s a chairlift when you need one?
By the time I reached the parking lot, my legs and feet were complaining loudly. It was time to check into the campground.
Big Meadows Campground is the only campground at Shenandoah that accepts reservations. Reservations can be made by calling the National Park Reservation Service at (800) 365-CAMP, or visiting on-line at reservations.nps.gov. Sites are $17 a night. I had reserved Saturday night a couple days in advance. Sites are normally completely reserved each weekend throughout the summer and fall. Three other campsites at the park are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Big Meadows is a large complex with lots of campsites, a lodge and cabins for those that prefer a bed to a sleeping bag, a wayside with dining and a campstore, a visitor’s center, a small gas station, and heated, coin-operated showers. You can also buy firewood each evening.
I pitched my tent around 6:30 p.m. and headed over to the wayside, hoping to grab a bite to eat. Unfortunately, the wayside had already closed - which seemed odd, since the campground was full. (The wayside will stay open later once summer rolls around.)
A campfire program is held at Big Meadow’s recently remodeled amphitheater five nights a week at 8:45 p.m. That meant I had some time to kill. I made a dinner out of granola bars, and then headed over to the nearby Dark Hollow Falls trailhead, ignoring the soreness of my legs and deciding to do some twilight hiking.
By the time I headed down the Dark Hollow Falls trail, most hikers had left - only a few cars were left in the parking lot. Dark Hollow Falls offers a reward within relatively easy reach: a 70-foot waterfall over greenstone that is the closest waterfall to Skyline Drive, 1.5 miles roundtrip. As with many trails at Shenandoah, Dark Hollow Falls hooks up with other trails, so you can make a hike as long as you like. In all, there are over 500 miles of marked trails at Shenandoah, including the famous Appalachian Trail, which winds its way across the peaks of the Park.
Most people prefer to hike in the middle of the day, but I find evening and night hikes to offer an unparalleled experience. There are less people on the trail, and an everchanging palette of colors changes the mood of the forest as the sun sets. Wildlife is much more active at dusk, so there is a better chance of seeing a wide variety of animals. Hiking at night is more dangerous, though - bring a flashlight, a spare flashlight, and spare batteries, and watch your step. It’s easy to sprain an ankle at Shenandoah.
I hiked a little bit past Dark Hollow Falls, connecting with a horse trail and hiking along it for a bit. I was then rewarded with the first “moment” of the trip.
What is a “moment”? I consider a moment to be one of those little experiences that will leave an indelible mark on your mind. It’s the highlight of the trip - the thing that you will remember most from the trip, and that will make you want to revisit again and again.
A “moment” can be the difference between a bland trip and a memorable one. Not every trip will have a moment, but it’s great when they do.
What was my moment? Something quite simple: a doe and her newly-born fawn, standing in the ferns just off the trail. The fawn was clearly only a day or two old, as demonstrated by his great difficulty with the whole standing and walking thing. The protective parent kept a cautious eye out, noticing me but deciding I wasn’t a threat as she groomed her little one.
I watched the interaction between mom and child for some time, until I decided it was time to head back up the trail. There’s nothing novel about seeing a deer at Shenandoah - on any given visit, you’ll likely see dozens, often darting dangerously in front of you across Skyline Drive, but I still enjoyed seeing this deer and child.
On the way back, I stopped at the base of Dark Hollow Falls and had a second serene moment. I could see over a dozen large fish swimming in the pools at the base of the falls. I had never noticed them before on past trips, and spent some time watching them swim around and interact with each other - sometimes playfully, sometimes territorially, until the increasing darkness made it difficult to see.
By the time I made it back to my car, my legs were really sore and my lungs burned. But it felt good. It was time for the campfire program, so I headed back to Big Meadows and arrived at the amphitheater just as the ranger began to go through a slideshow.
I was sweating from the rigorous hike up, but knew this wouldn’t last long as I watched others arrive for the program wrapped in blankets. Wearing short sleeves, I darted back to my car and grabbed a jacket. Wise move - the temperatures dropped into the low 50’s and a steady breeze whispered through the trees before the campfire program ended.
Back in my cozy tent and sleeping bag, I was so tired from the two hikes that the sound of neighboring campers talking wasn’t enough to keep me from dozing off.
The next morning I woke up around 5:30 a.m. and quietly packed up my tent. I was one of the first to leave the campground that morning - which is pretty uncommon for me. Exhausted, I headed home, passing a lot of wildlife on Skyline Drive such as countless deer and even a wild turkey standing by the side of the road.
The trip was a great break from my regular life, and I know I will return to Shenandoah in the very near future.
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.