Last week we got a sNOw storm. It was a NO storm here at my house, although we scored a snow day and a 2 hour delay out of it! Out in Shenandoah National Park they got about 2 feet of snow!
Even though there was a serious amount of snow in the high elevations, the warm temperatures (in the 50s on Sat and 60s on Sun!) were likely going to melt it away quickly so I wanted to get out and take advantage of it! My snowshoes and I were out the door by 7 am yesterday morning – enjoying the last morning that the sun was up before 7 am too!
Driving out to the park I kept expecting to see snow, but there wasn’t any. In Warrenton there were HUGE “parking lot mountains” (prob 20+ feet high!) where they had plowed, but other than that there was no evidence of snow. I figured I’d see more as I got closer. As I drove out 211 I could see that the mountains were covered in snow, but there was very little snow along the road.
Even at the park boundary there was no snow…
That’s the park sign in the distance – and you can see, it’s not exactly a snowshoers dream come true. There is a trail head just inside the park along 211, there was no snow there either:
I’d seen pictures that the park posted on Facebook that showed some serious snow on Skyline Drive so I kept going up the mountain. It’s about 4 miles and 1500 ft of elevation gain between the park boundary and Skyline Drive and the difference in snow cover was amazing!
At Thornton Gap/Panorama the snow was at least 2 feet deep!
That’s the plowed part of Skyline Drive by Panorama (or what used to be Panorama – now it’s just a parking lot and an all season restroom). I talked to a ranger later in the day and he said that there are drifts 4-5ft deep along Skyline Drive! They have plowed it to Big Meadows, but they’ve only got 1 lane cleared! What a big job!
I parked in the lower parking lot that is accessible from 211. I was surprised to find that it had been plowed! I was the only car in the lot when I arrived at 8:30 am! The steps from the lower parking lot to the upper one, where the restrooms were, were not shoveled so rather than traverse them twice, I changed into my boots gathered my stuff and slogged through the snow to the restroom building. It was quite deep in the part of the parking lot that wasn’t plowed and walking was tough, I was glad I had my snowshoes! I walked up the plowed part of Skyline Drive to where the AT crossed. My plan was to snowshoe up the AT to the Pass Mt Hut. My plans changed slightly when I saw this:
That’s Skyline Drive, closed to cars and totally unplowed! No evidence of plowing either! Just wide open, mostly fresh snow! There were a few sets of snowshoe tracks, but plenty of untouched snow. I was a bit nervous about heading up the drive because I was worried I’d meet up with the plow, but decided to risk it and go up just a little. It’s a rare day that you can snowshoe Skyline Drive!
It was still early and the sun hadn’t warmed things up yet. The snow had a nice icy crust on it that allowed me to walk right on top of it! I was barely even leaving tracks!
In addition to the human snowshoer tracks I saw deer tracks and some very tiny little paw prints – I thought maybe fox, but the ranger suggested maybe bobcat! I wish I’d tried to get a picture!
Mile Marker 31, buried in snow!
Finally, I made it to the overlook:
At the top the snow had been blown around a lot and it looked like little sand dunes!
Also, there were spots with no snow at all!
From the overlook I could see Neighbor Mt and the valley below:
The sun was making cool shadows with the trees and making the snow glisten like it was covered with glitter, or diamonds! Unfortunately, the camera didn’t capture the glitter…but the shadows are cool!
On the way down I had great views of Mary’s Rock!
In November 2000, on one of my 1st trips to the park, I took pictures from a similar spot of a huge forest fire quietly burning the side of Mary’s Rock! That was the largest forest fire in the parks history!
When I got back to Thornton Gap I climbed up on the gate to sit and take a rest – snowshoeing is hard work! Much harder than just walking! While I was sitting there a guy came along with his cross country skis, excited to get a chance to ski Skyline Drive. I’d seen 2 other people skiing up as I was coming down.
After a rest and a snack I was ready to head down the AT, back on my planned route!
By this time the sun was strong and the temps were climbing (I was wishing I’d worn a t-shirt!) and the snow was getting soft. Not quite “slurpee”, but close. It would great for building a snowman! I was glad there had been a snowshoer before me who broke the trail. It was still slow going and lots of work.
The sky was so blue!
It was about a mile to the Pass Mt Trail, which lead to the Pass Mountain Hut – a 3 sided shelter for AT and other distance hikers to spend the night. I was planning to go to the hut and take a break. I momentarily reconsidered when I saw that going to the hut meant breaking trail.
I knew it was going to be slow and lots of work, but I decided that I had all day and it was beautiful so I should go for it! It was only .2 of a mile and it was downhill (of course it would be uphill on the way back, but I could walk in my tracks!) I was surprised when I got to the hut and saw that even the fire road that leads to it hadn’t been touched!
It was fun, and surprising, being the 1st person to go down there after the big snow! According the register book in the hut the last time a human was there was Mon!
Snow sliding off the roof of the privy:
After reading the register and having a snack I was ready to head back up to the trail. As soon as I was leaving the hut I encountered 2 snowshoers coming down! They were also amazed that I’d been the 1st one there and blazed the trail down! I was glad they came when they did because they further packed down the trail I’d started and made getting back to the AT easier!
Like coming down Skyline Drive, the downhill park of the AT was much easier than the uphill! Odd because when I’m hiking I usually hate the downhill! I realized that the snow covers all the obstacles and provides padding if you trip so you can kind of run right down!
(As a side note, this time I did not face plant into the snow at all! Last time when I snowshoeing in WV I did a few times!)
I got almost back to Skyline Drive and really didn’t want to be done snowshoeing, but aside from turning around, there wasn’t really anywhere else to go. I did remember that there was a fire road that was intertwined with the AT so at the next intersection I went down the fire road for something new. It was more breaking trail, but it seemed easier this time! I’m very surprised that even that close to Thornton Gap the fire road was fresh snow too…
All this breaking trail had caused the snow to get into my boots and my socks were soaked so I grudgingly made my way back to the car, but not before taking a break on the bridge on Skyline Drive to get some pictures of Mary’s Rock, have another snack, and chat with a ranger who was driving around.
Now I have pictures of the entrance station from the top of Mary’s Rock and a picture of Mary’s Rock from the entrance station.
When I returned to the Panorama parking area I discovered that it was jam packed with cars! There were cars parked at every possible spot and more cars circling looking for spots! There were lots of people throwing snowballs and frolicking in the snow! One woman asked me where I’d gotten my snowshoes, thinking I’d gotten them at the restroom building and she could get her own set. I probably could have made a few bucks and rented them to her! Lots of folks were heading up the AT to Mary’s Rock –you could hear folks on the trail from the parking lot! I was taking my time getting my shoes changed and reading Facebook, and enjoying the sunshine, when a car pulled up beside me and the lady says, in a very irritated tone “Are you coming or going?????”. I should have asked her to repeat her request in a nice tone, but didn’t, I simply informed her that I was leaving soon. She said she’d wait for me and back up a few feet and turned her car off. Right in the middle of the road – she was blocking all the traffic. ugh. I decided my pleasant time in the park was over and it was time to head down. I did realize as I drove off that I hadn’t changed out of my hiking clothes like I’d planned – the parking area was too busy to just do it and I hadn’t walked back up to the bathroom. Luckily there’s a pull off on 211 and I pulled over and changed my cloths, while seated in the driver’s seat!
Getting an early start was good – as much as I didn’t like leaving the park at 2:00, I was able to get to Wegmans and cook dinner and wash the sheets when I got home! I’m also glad I got my walk in before all the crazy people got there!
I think this was probably my last opportunity to snowshoe this winter, but I’m already looking forward to next winter!