I’ve been itching to go backpacking since my July trip to Panthertown Valley. Four months later, and just two months after shoulder surgery, I got to scratch my itch in the Three Ridges Wilderness, located in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. My buddy, Coop, mapped out a sweet 20-mile hike with elevations ranging from 1,000′ to 3,790′ at the summit of Three Ridges Mountain.
Given my recent surgery and even more recent return to running I was a little concerned with my ability to complete the fairly difficult hike. But really, what’s the worst that could happen? Besides the 20 miles of hiking and nearly 10,000′ of elevation gain, I put considerable thought into choosing between a tent or a hammock. The forecast called for rain on Saturday with 20MPH winds and nighttime temps in the mid-20s. And Sunday, nighttime temps were forecasted to be in the mid-20s with 15MPH winds. A bit of research on cold weather hammock camping (and an ENO Blaze Hammock Underquilt) later I decided that I would hike by day and swing between two trees at night.
Day 1 (3.2 miles @ ~2,000′ of elevation gain)
Starting at the parking lot off VA Route 56 just past Tyro, VA (37.838259, -79.022341) we hiked uphill along the Appalachian Trail (AT) for a couple of miles, hung a left at the Mau-Har Trail, and walked about a mile down a gradual, technical downhill until we reached the first night’s campsite.
There were a good many spots to camp and about four fire pits to choose from. So, we took our time, looked around, picked out a fire pit that wouldn’t pepper our accommodations with embers, and gathered firewood before setting up shop. It took less than 10 minutes to set up the hammock, underquilt, underbelly, and rainfly. I threw in my sleeping bag and I was all set for sleepytime.
We got the fire going and began cooking the steaks and brats. Let me pause for a second and allow you to judge us for carrying 3 1/2 pounds of meat on our backs. OK, now stop judging. Real food on the first night is the way to go. Not only is the food delicious, but meat provides plenty of calories for the next day’s hike (our second day is almost always our longest).
Unfortunately, as I prepared our bountiful feast I managed to hurt myself not once, but twice. Perhaps I was a little overexcited about the prospect of eating real meat, or perhaps I’m just getting clumsier as I move further along the human continuum. Whatever the case, I burned my finger on the grate which I mistook for cold. Not smart (and not cold). The second mishap occurred as I stepped over a fallen tree, slipped, lost my balance, and fell straight back. Unable to catch myself, I fell onto a large rock that smashed the small of my back. My back ached for four days and I’m fairly certain I fractured a rib. Whatever, the steaks and brats were awesome!
To cap off the evening we ate s’mores, set our watches back to account for Daylight Savings Time (DST), and set our alarms for 6AM. A bit of chit-chat, a sprinkle of rain, and we turned in for the night. I slept like a baby (a happy, non-colicky one) inside my 0º bag whilst wrapped in a hammock surrounded by a crazy comfortable and warm underquilt. Seriously, the underquilt worked wonders to prevent Cold Butt Syndrome.
Day 2 (11.2 miles @ ~5,300′ of elevation gain)
After a ridiculously delightful night’s rest my brain woke me up at 5AM. Thanks DST. Since it was still dark, and because my hammock was so gosh darned comfortable, I decided to hang out until the sun came up. Once it did I rolled out of my swinging taco, saw a man about a horse, packed up, and made coffee and oatmeal.
By 7:30AM we were back on Mau-Har Trail. About a mile and a quarter later we passed through Maupin Field (on the AT) where we crossed paths with a half dozen hikers who were breaking camp (four of which passed us on their way up and over Three Ridges). I sent my wife a quick text to let her know we were alive, and then Coop and I moseyed on down the AT towards Three Ridges Mountain. Only 3.5 miles and ~1,200′ of elevation gain to the top.
Hiking to the summit was a mix of bitter cold temps and high winds, and slightly less cold temps and milder winds (at the overlook pictured below Coop noted that the temperature was 26ºF. With the wind factored in, the temperature felt more like 11ºF). The fluctuating conditions resulted in us donning and shedding hats, coats, and gloves. We’d walk a half mile and put a bunch of stuff on. Then, after a half mile we’d be sweating buckets and have to shed everything we just put on. Rinse. Repeat. Over and again.
At the overlook, we could see our next destinations in the distance. Three Ridges Mountain on the left and Chimney Rock (the little mountain pimple) just to the right. When we reached the summit of Three Ridges the winds were howling and frost was falling from the trees. In other words, we found the ideal spot to stop for lunch and coffee. As we ate we discussed our post-lunch plan. Walk six miles and descend a few thousand feet in elevation to the parking lot by 2PM, and then hike 3 miles up a couple thousand feet in elevation to The Priest before sunset. Easy peasy.
An hour and several rocky switchbacks later and we were a little (with an emphasis on “little”) closer to our goal. That’s about the time I took the photo below and told Coop, “We have five and a half hours to get there. We can do this.” <– my glass was half crazy
We arrived at Harper’s Creek Shelter about an hour later. I glanced at my watch and did a little math only to realize that our downhill pace was not the 2.5 MPH I was hoping for. I was no longer as confident or optimistic about reaching The Priest before dark.
A short time later we crossed the Mau-Har Trail/AT intersection which meant we had but 2 miles and 1000′ of elevation loss to go. I kept telling myself to pick it up. And thanks to gravity I was able to go a little faster. As an added bonus, with a half mile to go we passed the family of four that passed us at Maupin Field. Suck it losers! Eventually, after 7 hours and 10+ miles of hiking we crossed the foot bridge on our way to the parking lot.
That’s when things went from bad to worse. As Coop took a breather, I sat on the ground and proceeded to give my legs and feet a pep talk. They wanted nothing to do with me. I’m pretty sure my right leg tried to get in the car. I broke the news to Coop (who appeared to have plenty of fuel in his tank) and out came the map. The new plan was to hike a little more than a mile into The Priest Wilderness to a creek and make camp. So, we dumped any excess weight at the car, and hit the trails.
After an eternity we reached the creek. Which was dry. As in no agua. Looking around, there was also no place to camp. No clearing. No rocks. Just the beginning of a switchback that would take us higher up the mountain and a downhill that would take us back the way we came. We looked around. Then at each other. And eventually discussed our options, again.
Option A) Hike up the mountain and camp at the summit. Yeah, no. Seriously, how did this make the list of options?
Option B) Hike down and car camp along Route 56. Maybe, but getting in the car would probably feel too good and we’d most likely end up going home a day early.
Option C) Hike down and look for a spot along the trail.
We agreed on C.
Slumbering back down the mountain we saw nary a campsite. Nothing. Nada. Then Eureka! About 200 yards from the parking lot Coop’s eagle eyes spotted an old fire pit.
At the campsite I slid off my pack and began to gather wood. My legs and brain were at odds. Eventually they agreed it was in everyone’s best interest if they worked together. With enough wood in the pile I used whatever energy I had left to set up my hammock and boil water for some freeze dried goodness.
An hour later, night fell and we yucked it up until I could no longer stand. I was toast. Done. Finito. The mountain won.
Day 3 (.1 miles @ ~75′ of elevation loss)
There’s not much to this one. We woke up, broke camp, and hiked a couple hundred yards to the car. This would’ve been way better if I had just manned up and summited The Priest. There’s always next time.
The ENO Blaze Hammock Underquilt worked really well, and I’m anxious to use it again. With that said, I’m going to invest in a top quilt to avoid the bloat of packing a sleeping bag. For serious, my pack was way too full. Not heavy, just full from having so much duck downy goodness inside. I also concluded that in addition to keeping my legs dry, rain pants are great for cold, windy weather. Besides warmth, the trip lacked wildlife. In total, we saw a bird and a squirrel. If bugs count, then add a Daddy Long Legs to the list. At least we didn’t see any hungry bears. Overall, I totally dug Three Ridges. And, had I been in better shape, I’m sure The Priest would’ve been awesome as well.