My 2017 started with me working… boring. However, working on New Years Day earned me a floating day off which I took last Thursday (my weekends are Friday & Saturday) giving me a 3 day weekend. I wanted my first weekend of 2017 to be a trip instead of just a hike. I figured, since it was January… heading south would be the best course of action. Turned out I was wrong.
Having less than 24 hours to come up with a plan I decided to drive the roughly 4 1/2 hours south to Shenandoah National Park. At first I thought I would grab my hammock and winter quilts and do a 2 night backpacking trip. In what would turn out to be a fortunate turn of events… the Shenandoah website had sections under maintenance, including their maps page. Left with no way of accurately planning a couple nights in the back country, I instead opted to rent a hotel outside the park for the 2 nights. Good thing.
I checked the weather regularly Wednesday and all Thursday morning even as I was making the drive down. The weather, although cold, looked at worst – cloudy. As I arrived at the park though, things changed. While at the North Entrance purchasing my pass, I was informed by the ranger that snow was expected that day. After a short conversation, I felt confident that I could make it the 67 miles along Skyline Drive to Swift Run Gap where I would exit and head into Harrisonburg VA to check in to the hotel.
Since it was during hunting season in the area. the National Park Service shuts down Skyline Drive at night between 5pm and 8am each day. So, I knew I had until 5pm (9 hours) to make it. That gave me plenty of time to check out some overlooks, and even hike a few trails not to mention scout locations to check out for the following 2 days. I made it about 45 miles to Hawksbill Mountain before it started to snow. I was mid hike along the Appalachian Trail on my way to the summit of Hawksbill when it really started coming down. Since the hike is set up as a loop it was quicker for me to finish the hike then turn back. I returned to the Jeep at about 1:30pm with snow starting to stick to the road, I decided I needed to head for the gate at Swift Run Gap and exit the park… tomorrow is another day.
Day 2 I headed back to the park. With no snow on the ground at the hotel I didn’t expect any issues. Turns out the snow must have continued up in the mountains closing the north and central sections of Skyline Drive. This is when I realized it was a good thing the backpacking plans didn’t materialize. I would have been in the central section, now stranded. Of course I could have hiked out, but my time was limited and who knows when I would have been able to get my car out of the park! I hadn’t planned on spending any time in the southern section of the park so I had no idea what I would find there. I decided instead to access the Appalachian Trail near the park entrance and hike north in to the park for about 4 miles and back. I also drove a short distance into the southern section, which remained open, before heading out of the park at around 2pm when it was obvious more snow was on the way.
Day 3 started at the hotel being woken up by the sound of a snow plow in the parking lot. The area had just caught the edge of winter storm Helena, which made a mess of everything south. I made a call to the Shenandoah hotline to check the road conditions and, as I figured, the entire 105 miles of Skyline Drive was closed… so, no 3rd day in the park. I slowly headed home, making a stop at the oldest State Park in Pennsylvania – Mont Alto. As I drove I thought to myself – really glad I didn’t backpack.