into Shenandoah

Apr 17, 2007

Slept in this morning and took forever to get going and get to breakfast, but there was no huge rush because it was still extremely windy outside. We were back at the lodge for scrambled eggs before 10am, and this time the windows weren’t rattling quite so much, and it wasn’t raining, but it didn’t seem particularly inviting either. The staff at the lodge were an odd assortment of locals and young foreigners, seemingly new to the job and probably not really broken in to dealing with the tourist crowd, as it was often hard to get answers out of people. The lady working in the gift shop last night was the exception.

After breakfast we headed down to the visitors center next to Big Meadows, the other big lodge, to get some hiking info. The entire big meadows area had no electricity since at least yesterday, and while the visitor’s center was open and they were willing to give you a flashlight to browse the gift shop, you couldn’t look at the exhibits or watch the movies. We talked to a ranger who was also assisting another visitor looking for suggestions on waterfall hikes, which is what we were interested in too. The ranger, who was perfectly knowledgeable older guy, seemed intent on talking people out of hiking anything that involved hills, comparing every hike’s elevation gain to the equivalent number of floors in a building. So for instance the Dark Hollow Falls trail, which drops about 300 feet over ¾ of a mile, was likened to climbing up the steps of a 30 story building. And the White Oak Canyon trail, which goes by 6 waterfalls, was the equivalent of climbing a 110 story building. Beth said by the time he was done she was so freaked out she wasn’t sure she could handle any of the trails, last year’s Grand Canyon climb down South Kaibab notwithstanding. When the other woman he was talking to said her husband had just had heart surgery a few months ago, he as well as wouldn’t advise any trail that involved getting out of the car.

Info in hand, but without everything we needed for a hike, we went back to our room to get some more stuff, then back almost to the visitor center again to check out the Dark Hollow Falls trail, which is the shortest trail to a waterfall in the park, clocking in at about three quarters of mile one way. By now it was around lunchtime, but since we’d eaten a late breakfast we forged ahead. Once below the parking lot level, the wind was much less and the sun was even coming out once in a while. It was a quick jog down the trail, we encountered a number of people coming back up, probably heading to lunch. At the bottom, the falls were spectacular, and would’ve been refreshing if it’d been a hot day, but it wasn’t particularly chilly either. Nearing the bottom we came across the same woman who’d talked to the ranger with us earlier, with her husband, who seemed to be a trail veteran and wasn’t about to be put off by some park service guy and was doing just fine on their way back up. Beth commended them for using their own judgment.

The kids did fine at the falls, something we hadn’t seen in a hike back home, although there are some around, mostly in western Mass. Once back at the top it was well past lunch time and no lunch in sight, so we drove south out of the park and headed towards I-81, hoping for civilization, although there wasn’t much to be found on that stretch of road. We ended up purely by chance in a McGaheysville, a wide space in the road that inexplicably had a shiny new Hank’s Smokehouse, with the parking lot suspiciously full of cars at 2 in the afternoon. But there was nothing to be concerned about, other than the twangy Christian country music in the background, and we got some great barbecue and managed to avoid eating fast food.

Rather than going back to Skyline Drive, which is kind of slow going even with no traffic, or heading further to the interstate, which runs parallel to the drive but well to the west, we drove the scenic route in between up to Luray, stopping for more water bottles before heading back into the park at the rt 211 entrance and continuing north to around mile 11 to the Compton Peak trail, another short trail, uphill instead of downhill this time, promising some good scenery at the top and prime examples of some geologic feature called “columnar jointing”. Although it was around 4:30 or so, it was getting kind of dim and the wind was still howling quite a bit, but it wasn’t freezing cold. We hiked a mile or so up the trail to the peak, looked out over the edge, not really sure if we were seeing columnar jointing or not. the fact that the wind kept trying to blow you back from the ridge didn’t help, either. With no leaves on the trees yet up this high, the wind made the trees rub up against each other with squeaking noises, but otherwise we encountered no other people and no wildlife either. It was an easy climb, relatively short, Chloe complained much of the way up, but Justin was in the zone and led the charge most of the time and probably would’ve gone further if we’d asked him to. At the actual peak you can’t see anything, so you have the option of going left or right to get to a view. The sign at the bottom recommends going to the right, what it doesn’t say is that there really isn’t any good columnar jointing there, which must mean it’s to the left. We didn’t know this at the time, and with the windy conditions and everything didn’t want to take the extra time to explore the other path, particularly since we weren’t sure what we were looking for.

Windblown but otherwise unscathed, it was now dinner time and back to Skyland. The meal last night was ok, but more money than it was worth, but rumor had it there was food to be had at the bar also. Beth had seen this morning that the Shenandoah Cloggers were going to be performing tonight in the bar and thought that would be something worth checking out. We got back before the show was to begin, but there were a couple of tour buses full of people filling up the dining room and the show was being relocated to the “Conference Hall”, one of the many buildings on the Skyland grounds, and apparently one without much heat. There was still room in the bar area to eat, we had a much better (and cheaper) meal there, the waitstaff were all locals and very friendly, they explained the whole setup without having to play 20 questions, including that all the old folks from the tour buses were supposed to be at Big Meadows tonight but there was still no power there so Skyland had taken them all, prompting them to move the cloggers to the larger facility, which they cautioned would be very crowded. The kids were happy to just watch American Idol on the bar tv, so we figured that was just as well. After dinner we raced back to the room during a commercial and watched the rest, I haven’t been following it much but the Sanjaya factor made it at least marginally interesting.

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