Monday Sept 27th, 2021, 0625-1800
1 mile south of Skyland to Hilltop Hut, SOBO AT mm 1286.7
5200 gain, 5500 loss
My little stealth site was so perfect overnight. Despite my proximity to the resort, there was no trace of its presence. Park regs allow camping up to a quarter mile near a facility, so I was well beyond the range needed. The only man-made sound I heard was a train horn in the distant valley. I left everything far behind in the early morning, popping onto the road to enjoy some smooth asphalt walking in the dark.
In this way, I finally got to see a sunrise. Walking the road can actually be a lot farther than the trail, as it meanders about to follow contours. So I’m not sure if it was a time-savings, since I traveled an extra 2 miles according to my watch. It sure was a nice break from the 1200 miles I already put into the green tunnel, though. I’ve always enjoyed road walking when there isn’t vehicle traffic to contend with. The views looking out over Old Rag mountain were worth it. Sheila and I climbed to the top of Old Rag back in 2011. It was a lot of boulder scrambling and we had a blast.
I came to the Big Meadows area, which is probably the largest attraction in the park. There’s a visitor center, wayside, giant campground, camp store, lodge and restaurant. It sits at mm 50 along the road, making it the geographic center of the park and centerpiece of tourist attention, it seems. Sheila, Gretchen and I car camped there one weekend in 2010, my first and only previous visit to the park. I couldn’t believe it had been over 10 years since that time.
I had planned to take a shower and hand wash my clothes, but as I arrived so early in the morning, it was too cold to entertain such an endeavor. Another campground was coming up later in the day, so I could put off these chores until then. I stopped at the wayside to scarf down junk food. I was too early to wait for the restaurant to open. I met a lady, Serpent, who had hiked the trail in 2020. The park was closed then, so the thru-hikers had to sneak through. She said it was nice to have the park all to herself but it sucked that all the bathrooms, lodges, and waysides were closed.
I went back to the trail shortly after this stop, since the traffic was really staring to pick up. The trail was actually really nice: straight without much up and down, traveling through the lovely forests. I met a lot of friendly day hikers and a few backpackers. Many commented about all the female thru-hikers they had seen just ahead of me. I hadn’t met another thru since I’d entered the park, so this was news to me.
I stopped at Lewis Mt campground mid afternoon. I couldn’t figure out where the camp store was so I went to the nearest bathroom to do some cleaning-up from the sink. This would tide me over for a few days until I reached the next town. I put my sink-washed clothes on wet, to air dry as I walked. It was still on the chilly side, so this prompted me to walk even faster to warm up. The campground was pretty quiet, as everyone was out hiking and enjoying the views on this beautiful fall day. There were also a lot of cool insects out and about. There’ve been so many butterflies, moths, caterpillars, millipedes, and whatnot. I found many trying to cross the road, smashed, or off to the side.
Towards the end of the day, my stomach started grumbling. Apparently my wayside diet wasn’t agreeing with me…shocking that all that junk food isn’t good for performance activities. Very suddenly I had to make an emergency exit off trail. At least being in the outdoors with no one around makes this easy. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t on my game the rest of the day. The trail went downhill mostly to Swift Run gap, but then up over 1000′ to Hightop Mt (another uninspired name). There’s always a big climb for the end of the day it seems. This was the first time in awhile that I felt pretty crummy on trail, so I just took it slow. Yet I still passed several day hikers. Views on top weren’t mind-blowing but there was a wonderful little spring to collect water for the night. I made it to a shelter, just in time to asses the snoring potential of the 2 occupants. I deemed the threat to be high so I set up my tent, then joined them for dinner. There was only one other tent, so the the shelter was surprisingly uncrowded. The 2 guys were section hiking and a pleasure to talk to. Like everyone else, they told me about the bubble of thru-hikers just south of me. I wondered if I’d ever catch up.