Wanting to get in another out-of-state adventure in 2016, Emma and I took off last Friday from work and planned a 3-day, 2-night camping adventure in the Shenandoah Valley based off this route. The planned route is a 2 day, single overnight loop, but we were going to take the extra leg off the loop to visit the fire tower on day 2. But of course, leave it to late-September/early-October weather to throw a wrench into the works.
The plan was to leave Pittsburgh Thursday evening after work and drive halfway there and spend the night in Berkeley Springs, WV. It rained most of the way there and the weather was just calling for more rain on Friday, but clearing up by Saturday. We went to bed hoping for the best but mostly having already made the decision to cut out one day of camping and planning for a 2nd night in a hotel.
In the morning it wasn’t raining when we packed up to head south, but it ended up raining on and off throughout the morning. We fully committed instead to a city day in Harrisonburg. We rolled into town and traffic was crazy around James Madison University and we would later find out it was Parents’ Weekend and perhaps Homecoming? Due to this, all hotels within Harrisonburg were booked up, so I tried working AirBnB, Warmshowers and other angles to find another close and affordable place to stay the night. No luck, so we ended up having to stay another half hour south of the city.
Regardless, we had a good day hanging out in the city, spending some time at a nice cafe, checking out the Quilt Museum, seeing a matinee of ‘The Magnificent Seven’, and eating some Chipotle while it continued to rain on and off throughout the day.
In the morning we drove to our start point at the Stokesville Lodge, a lodge/campsite, where we could park and leave the car. We got to meet some VA folks who were camping there, met a couple DC dudes who were doing the same loop as us and met the lodge’s owner’s dog who was named SRAM. The DC dudes said it was their first bikepacking trip and seemed a bit hesitant, but they headed out before us and we never saw them again (tho’ we would see their tire tracks in the mud ahead of us the rest of the day), so we assume things went ok for them.
Getting started…about a mile in and entering the national forest
By the time we headed out at 11:30am, the rain had quit but the air was still quite heavy with moisture and the skies were cloudy. The first 20 miles were rolling country roads and some well packed gravel forest roads. Nothing too challenging. But then we hit the hill. A mixture of mud, rocks, aggressive elevation gain, moist heavy air and warming temperatures caused us to slow down. Emma was having trouble breathing and was struggling so we started what would become mostly a hike-a-bike section.
Not quite smooth sailing
The road got to such a shape that we thought to ourselves, “There’s just no way that any normal vehicle could use this road, right?” About 3 miles up the hill we suddenly hear what sounds like a vehicle and sure enough, a minute later a pickup pulling a trailer with a pile of 2×4’s and a generator came up. We pulled off to the side and let him pass. The guy stopped and said “You guys sure are roughing it”, chuckled and was on his way. About another mile up we heard another vehicle and this big SUV, maybe a Toyota 4Runner, comes up and its these 2 dudes who said they rode the route earlier on their motorcycles and wanted to see if they could take their truck on it too. We watched as they climbed over some impossible rocks and vanished ahead of us. Crazy.
As we approached what we thought was the top of the ride, we saw a bunch of young dudes in Jeeps hanging out and asked “Is this Meadow Knob?” (our destination) and they said “Nope. You got another couple miles. You’ll know it when you get there.” We groaned knowing we had that much more mileage to do but were appreciative for the clear information on our destination. It was beginning to feel like we would never get there.
After 6+ hours of riding and pushing we arrived at our destination and it was totally worth it. The sun had burned through the clouds and Meadow Knob was sunny and bright and you could see the many ridges in the distance. We found a perfect, somewhat secluded spot to set up our camp, ditched our bikes for a bit and went to introduce ourselves to the other folks camping up there. There were 3 dudes and their various children who all were car camping, having climbed up the other side of the mountain in their big SUV’s.
Emma emerges up onto Meadow Know into the glorious sun!
We then setup camp and Emma prepared us some miso soup with noodles, mushrooms and seaweed for dinner. As we cleaned up from dinner and made our evening tea, the fog began to overtake the hills again. The sun was getting blocked out again. You could still see it but it was so pale it looked like the moon. We took our tea up to the roaring fire the other campers made and hung out with them all until well after the sun went down. When Emma and I decided to head back to the tent, we could hardly see more than 4 feet in front of us due to the fog being so thick. We successfully avoided falling into the mud bog pit or tumbling down the hill to get back to our tent.
At one point in the night I was awoken by a sound and got a bit freaked out because it sounded like footsteps. Thhpt. Thhpt. Thhpt. But then I realized it was just a light breeze blowing the rainfly on our tent against our tent. No bears. A few hours later I would wake up and get out to piss and in my blurry vision I could see stars above us. The fog had cleared out again. I grabbed my glasses so I could get a better look and Emma also got out of the tent and we had a shivery moment standing outside in the dark staring at the sky. Beautiful.
In the morning the sun shone bright, like a sharp blazing orange pinpoint through the trees and the horizon. We did our best to pack up and get out quickly, but cool mornings and wet tents make for a slower start.
Lazer beam sun waking us up
Emma using the entire firepit as a windscreen for the stove
We said our goodbyes to our fellow campers and rolled out a little before 9am. After a short descent from Meadow Knob we almost immediately encountered another washed out rocky and muddy climb up towards the Flagpole Knob. About a mile and half out we heard the telltale rumblings of some dirtbikes — many of them and soon saw them ahead of us, turning onto the next service road leading off the side of the road we would be taking. We let that group of motorcycles go by and continued on our way only to be greeted by more a minute later. Soon enough, there was an almost constant stream of bikes coming up the hill, so we took to a safe spot next to the road and waited out as probably 100+ bikes passed us by. After about a half-hour we finally had an opening and began making our way down the road again and got out to a more wide open section of the road.
It’s too early for this shit.
At this point one rider stopped to talk to us. An older guy, he told us it wasn’t a race but just an organized ride (later we would find out it was the Shenandoah 500, a ride that always happens the first weekend in October). He told us he was really stoked to see us up on top of the hill and congratulated us on being hardasses. He talked about having been a mountain biker back in the day. A nice quick conversation as other bikers passed him by and then he was on his way.
Back on our bikes we had a great dirt road descent. The road was a little tore up from all of the motorcycles running over it but it felt good to be moving at a nice speed again. We got to the bottom of the hill and ran into a guy named Wolfgang who was doing marshaling for the Shenandoah 500. When he learned we had climbed up over the other side of the hill he said “Haven’t been on that section of road in years. I remember it being pretty boney.” We agreed.
From there we got on some pavement climbing up to Reddish Knob where there was a nice little scenic overlook lot. We made peanut butter and apple slice sandwiches and relaxed for a bit. After our rest, we rode down from the knob to where we would have camped on night two had our original plan happened. It was a lovely campsite overall though there was a ton of garbage laying around which was pretty sad. And there was a firepit that was built up out of rocks at least 18″ tall that just seemed a bit excessive.
The view from Reddish Knob. Look at that ocean of clouds in the distance!!
Back on some nice well-packed gravel forest roads we began making good time again only to jump back on another few miles of dirt roads for a bit. We rolled back to Stokesville Lodge right around 2:00pm as the VA folks we had met the previous day were all packing up their camp to leave.
Off with our muddy clothes, we packed everything up and got ready to head back home. Of course we couldn’t get a cell signal and weren’t 100% sure how to get back to the interstate, but did our best retracing of the previous days steps and made it back to the “scenic highway” and found our way back to the interstate. Not too long after getting onto the interstate, the rains would come back, some pretty heavy, though short, downpours that I was glad to be inside the car for. Unfortunately not long or hard enough to really wash all the filth off our bikes.
A trunkload full of filthy bike bags, bottles and whatnot.
Overall a pretty solid getaway. Not quite the adventure we had initially planned for but that’s really the thing — plans will get f’d up and you need to be adaptive. Do or do not. Ride in the rain and do it if you want. Or say screw that and watch a movie inside. Just enjoy yourself and keep the adventure alive.
For the full set of photos from the trip, go here.
For Emma’s write-up of this trip, go here.