Grindstone Campground to Thomas Knob
Hikers: Julie, Becky, Lyndy and Michelle
May 20, 2016
This hike was planned out by Lyndy so any problems with it we will blame on her! Obviously, I am joking, she did a great job with planning and we appreciate her efforts. We started our adventure at Grindstone Campground where we could safely leave our vehicle for the duration of our hike. Lyndy planned a loop hike so we did not have to work out a shuttle. Grindstone offered a chance to camp the night before the hike and shower in the morning before we set off.
The weather was looking pretty gloomy when we arrived at our campsite. After 8 hours of riding, we were looking forward to stretching our legs a bit but the threat of rain meant our attention was immediately focused on getting the tent up. We opted to share one big tent rather than set up all of our individual backpacking tents. This turned out to be a good idea. No sooner was the tent up, the rain started in and continued for most of the night. It was very nice to not have to put wet tents in our backpacks for the start of the journey. At least the first morning…
May 21, 2016
We awoke to a very overcast sky and drizzle but not the steady rain of the previous night. Becky prepareded biscuits and gravy (and coffee!) so we could have a hearty morning meal. Eating for me was an issue for the entire hike as I had the poor planning to have 3 wisdom teeth removed a week earlier, thinking I would be healed for trip. Let’s just say, I was wrong!
After breakfast, we packed up our car camping gear and drove to the backpacker’s parking lot. We covered our cooler in the hopes that we would have cold beverages awaiting us upon our return and headed to the spur trail that would take us to our loop. We ran across a camper who was kind enough to take our picture before our hike. We weren’t sure what to think, though, when asked if we were starting or finishing. Did we already look that bad?! The morning continued to be cool and drizzly with lot of fog shrouding the trees and views.
The spur trail was mostly dense woods and mostly uphill. The fog wasn’t a complete disappointment as we were not yet to the wide open views of the highlands. I actually like hiking in fog. I think it gives the trail an otherworldly feel. Sounds are enhanced and other senses sharpened from the decreased visual input. The rain from the night before brought out the deep greens of the leaves and filled our noses with the earthy smells of the forest.
The rain we were experiencing had been the prevailing pattern in the area for over a month so the trail was muddy and had standing water in many, many places. Occasionally, the drizzle turned to outright rain so 3 of our crew kept their pack covers on. I was trying something different, instead of a pack cover, I had packed everything in dry bags inside my pack so I didn’t have to mess with putting on and taking off a pack cover. For the most part, this plan worked well, with one notable exception. More on that later. Our spur trail was only 0.4 miles and we soon found ourselves at the trail junction for the Mt. Rogers Trail, the next leg of our adventure. At the Mount Rogers Trail, we headed east to meet up with the Appalachian Trail.
Our trail continued mostly up with occasional light rain. Spirits were still high and we passed a good lunch stop at the Lewis Fork Trail Junction to press on to Deep Gap, where we would officially meet the AT. It seemed like we were making quick progress and seemed like a good plan. Once past Lewis Fork Trail, the trail become more like a creek walk than a trail walk. Not just damp, but mostly standing water. Trust me, in places, it was deeper than it looked!
While the rain and standing water wasn’t great for hiking, it was great for fungus, snails and slugs. My gosh do they grow the slugs big in Virginia!
Our wet, uphill slog continued and it became clear that we should have taken advantage of the lunch stop at Lewis Fork Trail. This has been a trend with us. We keep telling ourselves to take more breaks and refuel but we hike so slow we feel the need to not stop. We need to make it a point to take at least short breaks. Lyndy in particular was getting quite hangry. Yes, it’s a real thing! Finally, after 3.9 wet miles on the Mt. Rogers Trail, we made it! The Appalachian Trail! And conveniently enough, it had a nice place to take a lunch break!
As we were enjoying our lunch, we met our first AT thru-hikers. Long distance hiking has been a pipe dream of mine and it was fun just to visit and enjoy vicariously a bit of the thru-hiker experience. The hikers were traveling with an 11 week old puppy named Murphy. The pup was fun to visit with but we had great concern with her being so young. They were alternating between having her walk and carrying her and they seemed to be truly concerned with caring for her. But wow, what an experience for a puppy! Growing up on an AT thru-hike. I’ve thought about Murphy often since meeting her.
After our late lunch, we only had a couple more miles to reach Thomas Knob Shelter. Our plan was to catch the Mt. Rogers Spur trail and hike to the highest point in Virginia before settling in for the night. Following lunch we all (including Lyndy) were refreshed and ready to press on. Onward and upward! Mother Nature had a bit of a surprise waiting for us though. Not long after lunch, the skies opened up and showed us a new definition of being soaking wet. Not a drizzle, not a steady rain, a complete deluge! The trail that had a couple of inches of standing water quickly became a trail of ankle and at times, mid-calf deep water. Hiking became a matter of keeping your head down and watching one foot step in front of the other. We came to the Mt. Rogers spur and decided to press on and try to find a place for camp. It was disappointing but there was no point in heading up as the rain and lightning continued to pour down. I did manage to snap a few pictures in the brief periods of normal rain.
As we passed by the sign for the Mt.Rogers Summit, the rain let up for a moment to snap a picture. The first picture had everyone looking pretty rough. I explained to them that we were having fun and they should smile! Have to give her credit, Michelle tried! 🙂
As we came up to Thomas Knob Shelter, it was raining very, very hard. It was here that I had my one big disappointment on this hike, aside from the weather. There was a group of 3 or 4 people in the shelter cooking dinner. Yes, I know cooking is a no-no in the shelter but that was not my major issue. At that point, I would have liked nothing more than to have a dry place for us to cook our dinner. Or even just a place to step out of the rain for a bit. The people in the shelter moved across the opening to block any access. Not that we tried to access but it was obvious that they were not moving. We asked how far the campsites were from the shelter and we told rather rudely to “check our maps”. We had no intention of attempting to sleep in the shelter and understand that they fill up. But I do believe that they are for all hikers, not just the ones who happen to arrive first, as long as there is room. Since they were already cooking in there, it would have been very awesome to have been able to have cooked dinner and chatted with other hikers braving the elements that night. As it was, it was not a battle worth having and we moved on down the flooded trail.
After leaving Thomas Knob Shelter, we began looking for a place to camp. At this point, the wind had picked up to nearly gale force. One campsite after another was either flooded or really exposed to the wind. We talked to someone who appeared to be setting up camp to ask about sites. She said she was tearing down because her tent had flooded. She was moving down the trail looking for a better spot. We continued our trek, looking for a place to hunker down for the night. Eventually we found a promising spot. Room for all of us but we did have to set up a short distance apart. Two tents on one side of a few trees, two tents on the other. But somewhat sheltered and best of all, not completely flooded! The rain let up a bit so we quickly began setting up tents. The wind was an issue but we all managed to get them up and get our stuff stashed inside. Becky had her tent set up when she called me over for a chat. Just a few feet from her tent she discovered bear scat. Fresh bear scat. We conferred quietly about what to do. The options were certainly limited and who know if we’d find another suitable site. We had taken bear precautions and were cold and tired. Good choice or not, we decided to stay put. Becky moved her tent closer to mine and made sure our bear spray was within reach inside the tents.
Becky started to set up for dinner when the rain started down again. We hurried to get everything under shelter when it slowed down and gave us hope. Dinner started again, and again, rain started pouring down. We opted for cold snacks instead of a hot meal due to the weather. Becky and I placed our bear canisters well away from from all tents and Michelle hung her bag. The rain started again in earnest and we decided to call it a night.
As we settled into our tents, I discovered my one flaw in my “no pack cover” thinking. My sleeping bag was in the bottom of my pack and was in a stuff sack, but not a dry bag. I knew this but figured it was well sheltered by the other dry bags. I think in most circumstances, it would have been fine. But in a monsoon, my thinking failed. It wasn’t completely soaked, but the bottom half was very wet. And cold. I changed into dry clothes but my hair was still soaked from hiking in the rain. The wind continued to howl and the rain came in waves. Pounding rain. I shivered uncontrollably for the first few hours in my tent. The paramedic in me knew I was in the early stages of hypothermia. I also knew that I had enough shelter and enough warmth that I would survive the night, as long as my tent held up against the storm. My thoughts wandered from how to warm up to how my fellow hikers were faring. It was too loud to talk to the two on the other side of the trees. I hoped their tents were holding firm. And I hoped they were staying warm. And I hoped against hope that our weather would improve tomorrow.