Backpacking Shenandoah National Park & What is a Derecho?

Richard had set the date and had put the plan in motion to spend 8 days section hiking the 106 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park.

John a hiking friend of Richard's was also committed to the 8-day trek. Due to other events (Mother's Day), I could only commit for three days. Richard and John would start two days before me and start the trail in Front Royal Virginia for a southbound route. I would meet up with them at Thornton Gap.

Since I only had three days to give to this trip I figured I needed to plan my part of the trek as my own backpacking trip. I would either hike with them for 1 1/2 days and have to solo back for 1 1/2 days to get back to my car or backpack for three days and have to use a shuttle service to get back to the car. I ended up using a shuttle service.

Shenandoah National Park
Planning from PATC map #10

Basically, our route would follow the Appalachian Trail with a few side hikes to some of the amazing viewpoints in the park. Pictured above is the Central District section #10 map produced by the PATC. The PATC is the trail organization that maintains the Appalachian Trail, AT huts, and backcountry cabins in the park. For paper maps, their section maps are the go-to map for the park.

Along with the map, I also made myself route cards for each day. With a detailed route card, with route card, there is almost no need to get the map out. I built my route card from a template I made in Google Docs.  I can share this with others so they also have a copy of my plan. I just email my plan to them. Always leave a plan with someone and the time of your return.

It seems like two things happen when I get on the road to the park. I lost any good radio station and cell phone coverage. I didn't want to print off driving directions because it would be too hard to read and keep my eyes on the back roads of Virginia. So what I did was something we do in the military and that is written on the windshield. Yep, I wrote my driving directions in shorthand on the windshield with a Staedtler marker. Works like a champ!  I would like to use offline maps on my tablet next time for driving directions but writing on the windshield is so simple.

Our plan came together when I walked out the back of the parking lot and Richard was waiting for me on the trail. John was up to the trail away setting his pace. The first viewpoint we get to is Mary's Rocks. This viewpoint is on the western side of the mountains and gives you a fantastic view of the Thornton Gap.

From Mary's Rocks, we hike for a while until we get to Byrds Nest #3. This is an overnight AT hut. There are other Byrds Nest huts in the park but some are day use only.  The huts are very simple and are invaluable to hikers and backpackers who need to seek shelter from the weather.
Byrd's Nest #3 Shenandoah National Park
Byrd's Nest NO.3.

Byrd's Nest #3 Shenandoah National Park
Non-working spring feed water fountain left of the shelter.

It's just amazing how well these huts have stood the test of time. I guess at some time the water fountain to the rear left of the hut worked. Just up the hill was a spring box that would have been the source of the fountain. This would not be the first fountain that we did not see working. I don't know if it's part of the maintenance backlog or an issue with the water source but it would be cool to see it working again.

At another outlook, we ran into a couple who are from Chesapeake VA and they are section hiking. They go by the trail names of Ice cream and cake. Interesting and fun trail names for a couple.

Fast forward to the afternoon. Richard has a Garmin Inreach and he receives a late afternoon text from his wife. In her text, she informs us they are calling for a Derecho storm. What the hell is a Derecho storm? Never heard of a Derecho before. A little bit later down the trail, we start to see some clouds and we get some light rain before we get to Rock Springs Hut. When we get to Rock Spring Hut there are already 3 people at the hut. So we head up the hill a bit to the tent site area around the hut to find our tent sites. Well, Richard has to find a site that is good for his hammock set-up. John has been backpacking at his pace and has not reached the hut area at this point.

With a tent and hammock up. We head down to the spring for water. We must not have been there for 5 minutes. I might have filled one bottle at this point.  It was just like someone turned off the lights and it just went dark and the wind picked up and clouds rolled in on top of us.

We grab our stuff and start running up the mountain to return to our tent and hammock. Just as quick as it got dark a pouring rain hit and the wind picked up even more. I have been out in my fair share of storms in a tent but nothing like this. The wind must have been 50-60 mph and that made the rain drive into the tent. At this point, I was not sure if the tent was going to hold up!

About an hour later the Derecho passed. Richard had to fall back to the Rock Springs Hut. John happens to show up about 20 minutes later. He had lucked up and had been in the right spot on the trail and was able to seek shelter at a rock overhang. By the end of the night, the Rock Springs Hut area is full of thru-hikers.

Just a note about the weather. I had done a weather check before starting my part of the hike. It was calling for rain with some thunderstorms all week. The weather report was not calling for a Derecho.  The conditions just happened to form and the Derecho developed.  While I am all about cutting the digital cord while being in the backcountry, having Garmin Inreach receive the text of the impending Derecho storm was a great resource. Only if we had understood what a Derecho was and how bad that storm would be.

Navigate over to the next post in the field journal at Backpacking Shenandoah National Park Part 2


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