Autumn in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley

“We headed west into the Virginia countryside with no set plan but to enjoy the fall weather and all that the Old Dominion had to offer!”


Hiking Roosevelt Island and the Key-Chain Trail

Looking up this stretch of the Potomac from Roosevelt Island you can see the National Cathedral and Georgetown University in the background with the Whitehurst Freeway stretching out below.

In late June I will be hiking my 2nd Annual Appalachian Trail Section Hike.  I have 6 weeks to get in shape and break in a new pair of boots.  Saturday was a gorgeous spring day so I hiked a local trail in right near my house.  I was once again reminded how easy it is to access nature right in the heart of  the NOVA-DC urban environment.  The route is called the Key-Chain because it crosses the Potomac at Key Bridge and then again at Chain Bridge.  One can still hear air traffic approaching National Airport, and car traffic on the George Washington Parkway, but even those fade as signs of nature take over.

The route as shown on the website comes in at 10 miles (and 1450 calories!)

The route as shown on the website comes in at 10 miles (and 1450 calories!)

I began my hike at Roosevelt Island.  This impressive park, dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt, is in the Potomac River and partly under the Roosevelt Bridge.

I spend plenty of time navigating traffic on top of the bridge and it never occurred to me there could be a guy peacefully fishing beneath it!

There is a plaza and monument in the center of the island but there is also a nearly 2 mile trail around the perimeter that is a tribute to TR’s love of nature and the outdoors.  The trail proceeds on a wooden walkway through marshy swamps and undeveloped woods.  At times you get a glimpse of the river and across.  Georgetown University, the Watergate Hotel, the Kennedy Center are all right across the river but this quiet little enclave is a world away.

Raised Walkway through marsh at Roosevelt Island

Raised Walkway through marsh at Roosevelt Island

The vast watery marsh at Roosevelt Island

From Roosevelt Island my next steps were onto the Potomac Heritage Trail which runs up the Potomac River on the Virginia Side.  It gets hilly, often reaching points 50 feet above the river and then back to the water’s edge.  It’s a great trail to break in new boots because there is some minor rock scrambling, and often requires careful footing.  Most importantly, it offers quick easy access to relatively untouched nature right in the heart of DC.

This gorgeous green hillside sits right between the GW Parkway and the Potomac River!

A rocky waterfall that looks like it could be in a rain forest!

There was a lot of activity on the water. Across the river is Fletcher’s Boat House.

England? New Hampshire? Nope…Arlington, VA!

If you look at this picture closely you can see that the camera was trying to filter out the sunlight but this little water chute in the rocks was dappled by rays of sunlight as if an angel might come down any minute with a message! This did not happen but if it ever did I think it would look like this!

Honeysuckle perfumed the trail from start to finish!

Though the trail was not crowded, I did see a lot of people fishing along the banks of the river, as well as kayaks, paddle surfers, and crew teams.

The sky looked like a child’s drawing with a sky blue crayon and wispy white clouds. Across the river Georgetown University sat sprawled on the hilltop.

At the 5 mile mark I reached Chain Bridge and crossed into the northern tip of DC.  To return, I followed the historic C&O Canal all the way back to Key Bridge, back across that and back to Roosevelt Island.  The C&O is not quite as interesting visually but it is flat.  The hike took 4 hours.and though my new boots left my feet blister-free, it was a little ambitious and my whole body appreciated the easier walking.

The walk back is along the towpath of the historic C&O Canal.

In the coming weeks I will have to move to more mountainous training hikes, and begin carrying weight on my back; but, this was a great way to kick off the training and enjoy some great DC weather.


Kayaks Surfing the Potomac River at Great Falls

Video Tip:  The video is 2 min 23 seconds and is best watched on full screen, and select HD.

YesterdayI went for a hike in Great Falls, VA. The trail I hiked went along the Potomac River along the Virginia side of the Mather Gorge (The other side is Maryland.)

As I walked upstream, the Potomac went from wide and placid to narrow and swirling, then rough, until just below Great Falls it was roiling and boiling like a cauldron!

I was about 60 feet above the water at the top of the Mather Gorge and I watched these kayaks do something I’ve never seen before.

Each would take a turn pulling out into the current and heading upstream. They positioned themselves carefully in specific spot where a large churning wave created a down-slope  From there, they could surf, just like a California surfboard on the crest of a wave.

It didn’t look easy and required a lot of adjusting and correction but this video shows a guy who hung in there for a couple minutes–a feat that looked physically grueling.

Just getting in that water impressed me, but what this video shows is, in my opinion, an extreme sport!


Skyline Drive by Bike – Day 1 of 3

Our bike trip began with a lot of logistics.  We drove two cars out to the mountains, leaving one a the southern end of Skyline drive, and driving the second car and bikes to the northern end.  The plan was to ride 50 miles–the halfway mark–to Big Meadows Lodge on day 1, and then 55 miles on day 2 to Rockfish Gap where the first car would be waiting.  We would then drive back up to the northern end, retrieve car number two and drive home.

It didn’t quite work out that way!

On Saturday we began at a bike shop picking up a few last minute supplies.

The fun began when Brett tried on a serious racing helmet!

From the bike shop we drove southwest from Arlington across the Shenandoah Valley.  It was peak fall foliage and gorgeous weather and the drive was exceedingly pleasant! We decided we would make a stop at a winery and the best choice on our route was the Prince Michel Vineyards & Winery.  It was clearly a good day for a romantic date at a Virginia winery so Brett and I felt a bit out of place!

I can tell you, however, on an empty stomach that wine makes one silly pretty fast!  When we finished our tasting we decided to take a self-guided tour to sober up a bit before getting back on the road. The winery had a lot of beautiful memorabilia, and the tour of the tanks and barrels was interesting.  When we left they were setting up outdoors for what was going to be a really perfect wedding!

Next it was time for lunch and we selected a quintessential Virginia BBQ joint that could easily have been featured on the Food Network.  It was called the Pig N’ Steak in Madison, VA.

It was about 5 miles down the road from Prince Michel and when we walked in it felt like we’d entered the past!  There was an Uncle Remus Flour poster on the wall and country music playing.  Everything on the menu looked epic so we asked our waitress if we only had one shot, what should we have?  She directed us to the Pulled Pork Sandwich with some of the best baked beans I have ever had.  The bbq was spectacular and had the distinct flavor of something that had been slow-cooking all day long.

Now well fed and watered, we headed to Rockfish Gap, the southern end of Skyline Drive.  This tiny hamlet is located between Charlottesville and Waynesboro and is the point at which Skyline Drive becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway.  At this point what had been a beautiful drive became almost overwhelming in its beauty!

To the right in this picture is the southern-most tip of Shenandoah National Park. To the left in the background is the town of Waynesboro, VA, and in the foreground is the junction of I-64, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Skyline Drive.

We arrived at Rockfish Gap just a little before sunset.  The Afton Inn has a large parking lot and allows people to leave their car overnight.  From this elevated piece of ground the view was inspiring!

These two guys would not be smiling quite so much the next morning!

Saturday night.  In hindsight this may not have been the blessing it seemed!

We found a couple fun spots in Winchester including the Picadilly Public House and Brewbakers.  This is where my teenage daughter and her friends would simply say, “YOLO!!!” (you only live once) but not only am I not convinced that this is true, it does a person no good when they have an olympic level bike ride ahead of them.

One would think that in my 50+ years I would have learned this lesson before and while I have indeed taken this class many times, I clearly have not learned the lesson!

We got back to our hotel in Winchester at around midnight and settled in for the big bike ride the next day.

In my next post I will detail the ride, the views, and the challenges.  There was a lot of each!


Potomac River, Quantico, VA

As viewed from Amtrak northbound train, the Carolinian!

View From the Amtrak Carolinian – Potomac River, Quantico, VA

As viewed from Amtrak northbound train, the Carolinian!

Appalachian Trail: Virginia – Part 4 of 5

This is the fourth in a series of 5 posts about a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Each morning we took a picture just before heading out for the day and in my opinion the pictures grew progressively more tired.

On Sunday we awoke to discover the nearby spring was dry.  I had walked about a quarter mile down the mountain and was very disappointed that there would not be coffee before departing!  We packed up, ate a quick bite and headed out.  Once again it was a beautiful crisp day and once again my body had made a miraculous recovery.  When I think of how rough I feel sometimes after sleeping in a comfortable bed I couldn’t get over how much rest I was getting sleeping on the ground!  Of course it is possible that I was beginning to respond to this level of exercise, and to be sure the absence of alcohol didn’t hurt!

I mentioned in my last post that three hikers had arrived at the shelter at 1:00 in the morning.  They had hiked 30 miles the day before!  They were just sitting up in their sleeping bags as we rolled out of camp and I half jokingly said, “We’ll see you guys again when you overtake us.”

About a half mile away from the shelter we heard a noise and there were these three hikers gliding past us!  These were some badass warriors.

90 minutes into our hike for the day we came across this pristine stream. It would serve as a great location for breakfast!

We hiked about an hour and a half, keenly aware that we had no water.  There was no reason to panic because there were streams and springs along the next 3 miles; but, nothing makes you more thirsty than knowing you have no water!  We came to a wide clear stream that looked like a spot you might film a commercial for bottled water.  There was a nice sandy bank and the spot was so pleasant we decided we would stop here for breakfast.  Lisa got water going for coffee and I got water going for oatmeal.  We sat and basked in the sun and enjoyed a hearty breakfast and large mugs of strong coffee.  We got more water and washed the dishes from the night before, and restocked all of our water bottles.  Again, all of this water was treated through a filter pump as there is no guarantee that even a fast flowing mountain spring is free of bacteria.

We were now getting closer to civilization.  We were seeing more day hikers (you could tell by the size of their packs) and could hear a highway and lawn mowers now and then.  Sure enough, a half hour after leaving the stream we emerged into an open field with a panoramic view of some sort of campus.  It was very large and the buildings were all uniform.  I later learned that this was the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.  Previously part of the National Zoo, it now conducts research in the areas of biodiversity, animal care, conservation and sustainability.  There were fields planted and numerous buildings over what appeared to be hundreds of acres.  A little research shows they are doing a lot of research based on the Appalachian ecosystem.

Everything visible in this picture, the fields in the foreground and all of the distant hillside was part of the vast Smithsonian Front Royal campus!

As we walked along the perimeter of the campus, we came across a little bench with a huge ice water dispenser like you see on the sidelines of football games.  There was a note pointing to the back yard of a house that said, “Welcome hikers, come in for a drink and a snack and feel free to camp in our yard.”  It was signed, “She-Bear & Sweet Tea”  We looked over and the woman working in the yard beckoned us over.

“She-Bear” is basically a friend of the hiker.  She herself has hiked the entire trail and was very proud that her 18 year old daughter had just finished a “flip-flop” through hike in which she hiked VA to Maine, and then traveled to Georgia to complete the southern half.  The man and the woman there could not have been nicer.  They offered whatever they could do for hikers, rides, a spot to camp, use of a bathroom, whatever we needed!  Lisa and I enjoyed some sweet tea and chatted a bit and were on our way.

At around 2:00 we arrived at the Jim and Molly Denton Hut.  This was a nice spot!  There was a solar shower!  It was an outdoor shower stall like you might see at a house at the beach and there was a large barrel on top that was pumped full from a nearby spring.

In my next and final post on this trip I will go over things I would do differently and this would be one of them.  What we should have done was stop right there and call it a day.  We had one last day of hiking planned and we should have taken solar showers, cooked up a nice meal on the deck and enjoyed this naturally peaceful spot.  It would have been essentially an afternoon off.  (spoiler alert:  this is one of the things I would do differently!)

That would not be what we did however.  We had already taken a lot of time at the stream and at She-Bear’s house so we had to push on.  We had 5 more miles to get to our destination and it would take all of 3 hours.  Live and learn!  We did stop and eat at this shelter and rest a bit but then we hit the trail and hiked for another hour.

In this high mountain meadow I half expected to see the von Trappe family come out singing!

We came to VA Rt 632, a point She-Bear had told us would look like “Little House on the Prairie”.  It was indeed a spectacular wide-open meadow.  As far as you could see was green grass, mountains, and blue sky.  We hiked to the top of a very steep hill which sliced through the center of the tall meadow grass.

As we ascended, a thought came to me.  The Manassas Gap Shelter was now about 3 miles off, we would easily make it there and recover for one last day of hiking together.  But Lisa was going on to hike for three more weeks by herself.  I felt I had proven all I needed to prove to myself for one trip and further thought Lisa might benefit from a night off.

I said, “I’m just gonna’ throw this out there, but in 2 miles we will cross under I-66.  That’s about an hour from my house and I could call my son and he could be there when we emerge from the woods.  I’m fine with doing one more night at camp and one more day hiking but this would be your chance for a night’s sleep in a bed, a shower, fresh food and laundry.”

One last turning point, from this little bench in a warm sunny meadow we decided to cut the hike short by a day and get back to civilization.

Lisa agreed that this would be a good idea before she headed out on her own.  She was rightly a little apprehensive about going alone and a night off would help.  We got to the top of the meadow and there, as if positioned for this moment was a little bench under a shade tree.  It was a beautiful moment.

I called my family and Andrew agreed to come get us in the tiny hamlet of Linden, VA.  We sat at this bench and I half expected to see the von Trappe family come out of the woods singing.

We would hike another hour down a steep difficult mountain and our feet were once again killing us.  It was ok though, because we were a couple hours away from a fresh meal and a real shower.  We emerged from the woods on VA Rt 55 which parallels I-66.  I called Andrew and he said he was getting off the exit.  minutes later we were in an air-conditioned car (with Andrew complaining quite justly about how gamey we smelled!)

It was nice to kick off the boots and then Andrew told me to look in the bag on the floor.  My wife had sent along two cold beers!  As with all the meals we had eaten the previous 4 days, that was the best beer I had ever had!

We got home and ordered kabobs, took showers, told stories and that night everyone slept on a nice soft mattress.  As I lay there though, I realized the transition had been so fast that it hadn’t hit me yet.  I had just spent 4 days challenging myself physically and mentally.

I had met a moderate amount of difficulty and handled it and my comfort zone was now expanded.

In my final post I will go over lessons learned, what I feel I did right and what I would do differently.  It was a great trip and already I am sure I will return to hike more of the Appalachian Trail!


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