The Other Shenandoah
The Riprap Trail continued past boulder fields, broken by pines and chestnut oaks until we once again reached the Appalachian Trail, and turned north. The AT undulated along the Blue Ridge to Blackrock Hut, an overnight shelter, where we stopped for water. In a half-mile John and I turned west on Trayfoot Mountain to reach Furnace Mountain Trail, where the hiking was labored in the sun on rocky stretches of talus broken by pine woods. But the view from Furnace Mountain was worth it.
A side trail led one-half-mile to the superlative vista that was our own. Here an outcrop jutted out over the lower canyon of Madison Run. Across the way stood Austin Mountain. The Blue Ridge headed away to our right. From the vista it was two miles farther on the Furnace Mountain Trail down to Madison Run, where we made camp amid numerous wildflowers. Chilly air funneled down the stream that night but made our next morning's hike more tolerable as John and I ascended steeply up Austin Mountain Trail and its switchbacks.
After some ridge running we were descending into the valley of Big Run, the largest watershed in the park. The Big Run Portal Trail forded the stream several times. That was okay with us, as we were spying the stream for brook trout. The two of us made camp, then broke out our rods, tempting the brookies with lures, fishing the pools beneath the cliffs of lower Big Run. That night we sautied trout for supper, wondering if the fragrance was going to lure in a bear. Many a bruin resides here, especially in these wilder southern reaches of the park.
John and I headed north once again, via Rocky Mountain Run Trail, Brown Mountain and a short walk along Skyline Drive to an AT access trail near Twomile (correct spelling) Run Overlook. Once on the AT we passed through a broken woodland of black locust trees, which were reclaiming a field where cows grazed in pre-park days. In other areas, trailside grassy areas offered views across a hazy sky, as did a few rock ledges. The day ended at Hightop Hut, located on a side trail off the AT. The three-sided shelter was further appreciated that evening as an unexpected thunderstorm crashed all around us, illuminating the sky with frequent bolts of lightning.
The rains of the night before cleared the haze from the air as we made quick time down to Swift Run Gap, which divided the park's South District from the Central District. Our place slowed while ascending Saddleback Mountain. This was one section where the AT did not cross Skyline Drive for several miles, though it passed close a few times.
The main crest of the Blue Ridge made for a fine walk. Our 12-mile day ended at the Bearfence Mountain Hut. We drank from the spring that formed the headwaters of the Devils Ditch, wondering what prompted that name. Ahead, was another interesting nameplace, Bearfence Mountain. The rocks of the mountaintop jut skyward, which a settler imagined to block the path of any bruins passing this way. For hikers there is a passage, the Bearfence Mountain Loop Trail. It is a full-fledged rock scramble, do-able with a pack, where views open up in all directions on the higher boulders.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication