The Other Shenandoah
Once back on the AT, the walking was easy among the large oak trees, until we had to climb over 3,812-foot Hazeltop, the highest point of the AT in Shenandoah National Park. From here, the trail gently works its way around the backside of Big Meadows, through a young forest with a grassy understory on a nearly imperceptible grade. After passing a groomed cemetery, a reminder of the past, we came to the northerly Blackrock (there are two Blackrocks at Shenandoah), which offered a panoramic view of Massanutten Mountain to the west and the Alleghenies beyond. Our 11 or so mile day ended at Rock Spring Hut, another AT shelter. All these place names with the word "rock" in them gives you an idea of how many exposed stones, boulders, and talus are in this neck of the Blue Ridge.
After two straight days on the AT, John and I were ready to spur onto some side trails. Ahead, was"Hazel Country," an attractive, formerly settled area that has returned to a wild state. However, before leaving the AT, we took the side trail to the top of Hawksbill, a "sky island" of spruce, Fraser fir and other elements of a Canadian-type forest. A platform stands atop Hawksbill, which at 4,050 feet is the highest point in the park. The platform offers nearly 360-degree views.
Finally, we reached the Nicholson Hollow Trail. The valley, cut by the upper reaches of the Hughes River, still has pioneer relics, including the Corbin Cabin, fields, and old chimneys. There are also rock piles and rock walls, where settlers attempted to make their fields easier to till. We made camp in hemlock woods near the confluence with Hannah Run, and did a little more trout fishing on the boulder-laden Hughes River.
It was nothing but solitude while traveling through Hazel Country on the Hannah Mountain and Catlett Spur trails to Hazel Mountain Trail and west to the AT. The spine of the Blue Ridge ascended to reach Marys Rock and my favorite view in the park. The panorama from the huge outcrop ranges far and wide. Easy vistas of numerous Blue Ridge peaks opened to the north, and in nearly every direction for that matter. It was surprising how few of the trees had budded out up here. John and I continued on the AT to Thornton Gap, which divides the Central District from the Northern District of the park. An off and on rain nagged us until we reached Pass Mountain Hut and shelter, where we overnighted.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication