To the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, on the Trail of the Lonesome Pine

This is the first line of an old song my dad used to croon, and I found the tune in my head repeatedly as we headed across Virginia to the Shenandoah National Park. We stopped off in (Little) Washington, a village in the eastern foothills of the park, to see good friends and then set up camp in a private park in Luray (the NP doesn’t allow reservations past Labor Day and we wanted confirmed space).

Shenandoah is both similar to and completely different from the Smokies. All of these gently rolling mountains are very eroded – wouldn’t you be after 500 to 800 million years of geologic and weather events? – but Shenandoah is only 2/3 as high in altitude as the Smokies, and a thin sliver of space running down the ridgeback of western Virginia. With many more rock outcroppings, there’s more for a geo-nerd such as myself to observe in Shenandoah. But the vistas from the peaks are magnificent in both ranges, and at this time of year the many hues of the oaks, beeches, sweet gum, sycamores, Virginia creeper, sumac and sassafras are blazing oranges, yellows and bronze. No Michigan sugar maples here, so red, purple and burgundy are missing from the palette, but regardless, we can’t get enough of the breathtaking views and blue horizons.

Seems like you can see all the way to Michigan!
Seems like you can see all the way to Michigan!
Constant companion: the AT!
Constant companion: the AT!
Above the clouds
Above the clouds
Colonel Mustard-Pants on the overlook!
Colonel Mustard-Pants on the overlook!
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Sunbeams streaming from above

We hiked the park’s Compton Trail to see the columnar basalt formations at the trail end, which formed by the basalt in lava form being rapidly cooled in Shenandoah’s youth. This forced the giant hexagonal columns to crystallize – over the course of 100 years, which for geology is really fast — from the lava. Such a phenomenon is found in relatively few places on earth, like the high Sierras, eastern Washington, Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower and Ireland’s coast. Crazy cool.

Is this wild or what? Just enormous hexagons!
Is this wild or what? Just enormous hexagons!
On the a Shenandoah trail in the cool morning stillness
On the a Shenandoah trail in the cool morning stillness

Also spent a morning hiking the Dark Hollow Falls trail near the park’s mid-point, and watched as the small trickle of spring water became a greater and greater flow over the miles of trail bed. The reward was a 70-foot cascade over the river canyon by trail’s end.

Always amazing to see how the water cuts through the rock
Always amazing to see how the water cuts through the rock
In the fall one doesn't see high volumes of water, but the tumbling stream is still majestic
In the fall one doesn’t see high volumes of water, but the tumbling stream is still majestic

On the drive to the next trail head, we saw a bobcat kit on the side of the road, looking a bit forlorn. His momma couldn’t have been far off, and she was probably teaching him a lesson about wandering away from her. We trusted that nature would reunite them soon.

Two moderate-to-strenuous hikes made us feel so virtuous, we became a bit cavalier about getting on the next path. Instead of turning right at the head to get on the Chimney Rock Trail, we headed left (my fault) and ended up doing three miles on the “plain old” Appalachian Trail. Actually, there is nothing “plain” about the AT. It’s inspirational and legendary. We figure we’ve hiked 10 miles of it over the course of the past four weeks, as it overlaps with many of the trails we did. The goal for the next few years is to get good enough (stamina, strength and pacing) to hike 12 – 15-mile trails on a regular basis. At this point we can handle eight-milers in a day. We have a long way to go, but having goals is good.

We need to return to Shenandoah as well, in the springtime. Her coat of rhododendron, azalea, mountain laurel and dogwood blooms must be spectacular. And there are nearly as many hikes yet to come in these mountains as there are in the Smokies for us. Plus, we have yet to see a bear….

Final note: we drove to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm and Gail Hodges’ Caromont Farm Creamery (artisan goat cheese, naturally!). Both side trips were memorable and delicious for the pastured meats and hand-crafted goat cheese delights, and to witness Joel’s legendary nature-preserving healthy farming techniques.

One of Joel's mobile chicken pens, which are hauled around the field following the cows' grazing patterns -- keeps the worms down and is really good for the land and chickens
One of Joel’s mobile chicken pens, which are hauled around the field following the cows’ grazing patterns — keeps the worms down and is really good for the land and chickens
Polyface Farm is legendary  all over the world for its innovative animal husbandry and care of the land
Polyface Farm is legendary all over the world for its innovative animal husbandry and care of the land
Bet you want a piece, eh?
Bet you want a piece, eh?
We had to get our goat cuddles in!
We had to get our goat cuddles in!
Gail is a former restaurant chef who makes outstanding bloomy rinded cheeses in rural VA
Gail is a former restaurant chef who makes outstanding bloomy rinded cheeses in rural VA
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