Awesome hike report from our Maryland Dames…..
Four of us set out on Wednesday, July 27th, for Shenandoah National Park to take on the 7 1/2 mile Rapidan-Laurel Prong -Hazel Top hike. We all went in my van and left Frederick at noon so that we could arrive at our lodge shortly after check-in time. We had reservations for two rooms, 2 queen beds in each room, at Big Meadows Lodge in the central district of SNP, mile marker 51. The drive went well and we had a wonderful time just chatting as we enjoyed the scenery along the way. We were at the lodge by 3:15 pm. We had hoped for, or actually assumed really, adjoined rooms but that was not to be. Barb K and I shared a room on the first floor of the Rapidan building and Barb M and Katrinka shared a room on the far end of the second floor. We did try to get the rooms changed but the lodge was already booked up and there was no way to manage it.
We settled our bags, checked out our rooms and the lovely views they had, and went to the lodge’s New Market Tap Room for drinks and appetizers. Not a bad way to start a hiking trip, aye? We enjoyed cocktails, spinach dip and quesadillas while carrying on a nice long discussion about the books that we enjoyed and the possibility of a Dames book group in the future. Then it was upstairs to the lodge dining room for dinner and wine. Lovely! Afterward Barb K went to our room to relax and read while I went up to the other room to join Barb M and Katrinka on their balcony and watched the sun set. We watched deer silently stroll out of the woods to begin their evening browsing and we think we may have caught a glimpse of a black bear cub, still quite small, as it waddled out of the woods and into the safety of some heavy ground cover. It was a gorgeous evening of peace, towering pink edged clouds, and companionship. Off to bed as we had an early morning start planned.
Always an early riser, I was up first around 5 am, showered and sitting on the patio of our room drinking coffee as the sky lightened up. Birds called and sang, deer wandered out, and soft breezes rose along with the sun. We met for breakfast at 7:30 am, again eating in the lodge dining room, and then drove the 2 miles south to the trail head at Milam Gap parking lot. There was a short-lived panic attack on my part when I thought I had left my wallet in the lodge’s restroom. I raced back, searched around, found no one had turned it in, went back out to the van and searched again….to find it in the glove compartment. HUGE relief, but sorry that I had delayed our hike start.
We set off across the road and into the woods, hitting the Mill Prong Trail first. This part of the hike descends gently deeper and deeper into the woods toward Mill Prong Creek. The creek eventually joins Laurel Prong Creek and these two cold, rushing streams form Rapidan River, which drew President Herbert Hoover to the area with the dream of building a fishing camp as Presidential retreat – the first of it’s kind. Two miles in from the start of the hike, Rapidan Camp is the predecessor to Roosevelt’s Shangri-La in Thurmont MD, eventually renamed Camp David by President Eisenhower. We crossed the creek and picked up the trail again as it paralleled the water until we reached Rapidan Camp. The original Brown House (designed by Mrs Hoover as the residence) is still there and is often open for tours. There is usually a caretaker there to answer questions and explain the camp’s history. One other building, the Prime Minister’s cabin, is also open to the public and contains self-guided displays from the era. We spent about half an hour exploring the camp and chatting with the caretaker before picking up our poles and packs and setting off once more. The day was warming up but still much cooler than the heat we knew would be building in the Frederick area by then.
We hiked along about another mile or so on easy terrain, crossing creeks, and eventually reaching the beginning of a 3 mile ascent that would take us up to Hazel Top, the 3rd highest point in SNP. The first mile of the ascent is a long, steep, switchback. It tops out on a ridge line, takes a hard right turn, and continues up and up and up the side of the ridge. Enormous, ancient rock formations form a wall on your right and the steep descending hillside and valleys are on your left. The trail grows quite rocky and narrow as it takes you the 2 miles to it’s junction with the AT. We identified wildflowers along the way – native red columbine, turk’s cap lily, joe-pye weed, trumpet vine. There were many others that we could not identify in spite of the book I was carrying – “Wildflowers of Shenandoah National Park.” For a few seconds we found ourselves frozen in place as the unmistakable whine-roar of low flying fighter jets approached. We caught a glimpse of them through the tree cover and they were gone in a flash.
I had done this hike with my husband in May 2010 and I truly did not recall the long steep slog from the junction of the AT to Hazel Top! From the start of the ascent on the switchback to Hazel Top we gained 1000 feet of elevation. That’s a lot of continuous gain. The day was definitely getting hotter and more humid. We found some rocks to sit on (before reaching Hazel Top) and sat down to rest and eat our lunches. Huge flies clung and bit, no doubt feasting on our salty sweaty selves. We swatted, ate, cursed, ate, swatted, cursed…….pretty much any typical lunch stop on any summer time hike in the northeast! We finished up, stood up on sore, tight leg muscles, and continued on to our goal of Hazel Top summit.
There is a short side trail leading to the left off of the AT to the rock formations that give the best panoramic views of the mountains and valleys. As each person climbed up onto the rocks “Oh my, look at that.” “Oh my God” “Wow, just wow.” could be heard. Ridge after ridge after ridge of mountains dipped, rose, and dipped and rose again in the distance in multi-colors of greens, blues, grays. We took it all in, deeply grateful for the opportunity to be out there. With deep sighs, it was time to move on. From this point the AT is described as taking an “incredibly delightful descent”, and delightful it is. The trail heads down and down in a very gentle slope, through trees, grasses, huge stands of turk’s cap lilies, ferns that were 3 – 4 feet tall. We encountered a pair of deer on the trail and stood still and silent. They did the same and gazed back at us. As we slowly moved forward they would also move away from us, but never very far nor very fast. They stepped into the woods and grass and let us get within about 30 feet. We took pictures, thanked them for their cooperation and patience with us, and continued on back to Milam Gap and the van.
We made a stop at Big Meadows Wayside to use the restrooms, buy some cold drinks and blackberry ice cream, piled back into the van and took off for home. It was agreed all around that our time in SNP was perfection and that we definitely want to do it again. It is well worth the time and expense to get there the day before a long hike and spend the night. We also realized that it would have been very well worth the cost to stay one more night after the hike, rather than make a 3 – 4 hour drive back. The lodges feature live music in the evenings and it would have been heaven to go back to our rooms, shower, change into non-hiking clothes, and enjoy another night of cocktails, dinner, and some good ol’ mountain music.
The photos of this hike can be found on the Meetup site. Enjoy!