We drove all morning to reach Shenandoah by early afternoon. As soon as we entered the park we took a quick hike to a Shenandoah family cemetery and to look at some old mountain roads.
Shenandoah was established after thousands of people were already living in the Virginia mountains. The U.S. government had to purchase/seize the land to build the park after it was already inhabited, so remnants of the previous owners still exist in the forms of farm field rock piles, rock fences, cemeteries, roads, orchards, and a few cabins. Before going on our trip, I read Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal and this allowed me to appreciate the hardships of the people, many who had spent their whole lives growing up in the park, who were forced out of their homes when the park was created.
We eventually made our way to Big Meadow campground and set up for the first night. We cooked ourselves dinner and then went out on some short trails to scout locations for watching the sun set and stargazing.
We woke up at 6am on Tuesday, planning to drive one and half hours to the Old Rag Mountain trailhead. It was extremely windy outside all night though and the wind had not let up by the time we awoke. We decided it’s probably not a good idea to hike on top of an exposed mountain top when there are 50+mph gusts of wind, so we opted to sleep in a little longer.
After eventually waking up, the wind continued and we decided we’d be better off doing all of our shorter hikes that day. The highlight of the day was definitely the hike to the top of Bearfence Mountain where lots of rock scrambling was involved to get to the panoramic views at the top.
We took a few more short hikes that day before ending in Shenandoah’s Big Meadow.
Walking through the meadow we got to see plenty of deer and birds. We ended the day with another sunset and some stargazing.
After a quiet night of sleep, we woke up again at 6am and headed for Old Rag.
Although Old Rag Mountain is inside of Shenandoah National Park’s boundaries, the trailhead to hike the interesting part of the mountain starts from outside of the park. We drove the hour and half to the parking lot, cooked and ate some breakfast, and started our hike at 8am. The reason for getting to the trailhead so early was two-fold 1) hiking in the morning is nice because the trails are open and not many other people are out 2) more importantly, there are not a lot of parking spots at Old Rag and the lot gets filled up by early morning every day — we didn’t want to drive so far for a hike only to discover there’s no place to park.
The hike up is basically switchbacks to climb the 2400 feet of elevation to reach the top. There are some interesting giant granite boulders to look at, but it’s mostly an endurance hike. We did however catch sight of a pileated woodpecker and heard the howls of a coyote that howled back in response to Renee’s howl.
The last three-quarter miles to the peak is where the real fun with the Old Rag trail begins. The dirt trail ends and the remaining climb is all over boulders. Some of these seemed impossible at first (“How are we supposed to climb down 9 feet on this sheer rock face?”) but eventually with some thinking and maneuvering we made it. This experience of climbing over all of the rocks was definitely the best part of our time in Shenandoah. After having finished it, I was especially glad we started as early as we did because I could see how during peak hiking times lines can form to get over certain rock formations.
We ate lunch at the top and prepared for the long hike back down. Although the hike up to the peak is only three and a half miles from the parking lot, the hike back down is easily over seven miles. We eventually finished though and drove back to the park for a night of stargazing.
I did not feel rested after waking up — the wind had come back and was so loud that it was difficult to sleep. Upon touring the campground in the morning, we found lots of people sleeping in their cars with the tents ravaged by the wind. As this was our last day in the park, we packed up pretty quick and drove out of the park as quick as we could!
The first item on our itinerary this morning was the Luray Caverns. We made it in time for the second tour of the day, which we (and the tour guide) were grateful for because it was a really small tour group of about 20 people. I guess the tours get to be around 80–90 people by midday. The caverns are amazing and we really enjoyed seeing all of the different formations.
After the caverns we made our way to Annapolis. We stopped at Chesapeake Light Craft and got an excellent tour of how to build stitch and glue and strip kayaks. Afterwards we spent a little bit of time looking at osprey at Quiet Waters state park.
In the evening, we visited some friends Jess and Sid (Sid owns Mobtown Fermentation and he makes delicious Wild Kombucha) and they showed us some of Annapolis’s best food. We had such a good time that I forgot to take any pictures.
Friday morning we drove to Milton, Delaware to visit Dogfish Head brewery. I’ve been a fan of Dogfish Head for years, so it was really exciting to finally be able to visit their facilities. We got a tour of the brewery, sampled lots of beer, and even tried out some of their homemade gin. It was the best brewery tour I’ve ever been on.
After Dogfish head we headed over to Washington D.C. and spent some time walking around Georgetown. Later that evening we met up with and had dinner with my brother-in-law Matt.
The next day Renee, Matt, and I were D.C. tourists. We visited the Smithsonian American History Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art, and the botanical gardens, all while taking in the views of all of the historical D.C. monuments. The cherry blossoms had bloomed the week before, but unfortunately storms and wind had knocked off most of the flowers by the time we arrived. After a full day of sightseeing we went out to dinner and then called it a night.
Sunday morning we visited Great Falls National Park, which I had never heard of until Renee found it the night before. In addition to finding a park so close to where we were, we were especially lucky because the power had gone out in the park and so our visitor’s fee was waived.
The park focuses around a large volume waterfall in the Potomac river as well as the canal and locks that used to exist in order to allow ships to get around it. The falls are pretty impressive but the park is overall very small. It was still fun to see though.
After hiking around for a little bit, we drove Matt to the bus station so he could make his way back to Philadelphia and we concluded our trip by driving back to Ohio.