Posted by: davepidgeon | May 18, 2009

Slip into the Southern Shennies

Standing at a vista along the Appalachian Trail in southern Shenandoah National Park, Va.

Standing at a vista along the Appalachian Trail in southern Shenandoah National Park, Va.

Believe it or not, you can find solitude in Shenandoah National Park, the sliver of Blue Ridge parkland that’s a magnet for tourists since its entrances are so close to Washington, D.C.

The heart of Shenandoah is its Central District – the high peaks, shadowy valleys and Skyline Drive teeming with panoramic photo ops. But a backpacker’s paradise lies due south in Shenandoah’s South District, which doesn’t attract the same crowds flocking to the north and central districts. You have a better chance of spotting bear and hearing your own heartbeat as you work your way through the network of trails through the wild landscape.

Mountain view in Shenandoah National Park's South District.

Mountain view in Shenandoah National Park's South District.

 There’s an outstanding backpacking opportunity by linking the Appalachian Trail with trails around Brown Mountain, Big Portal Run and Rockytop. Prime black bear country, lonely vistas, wild azaleas – let the crowds struggle up Old Rag while you explore the solitude of southern Shenandoah.

Start on the A.T. at Browns Gap heading north toward the Loft Mountain Campground. At the crown of Loft, you find a 180-degree panorama of Brown Mountain and Rockytop, an unforgettable preview of the ridges and valleys you will explore on Day 2. Follow the white blazes to Pinefield Hut to camp for the night. Total mileage is 10.2 miles.

You have two options to start Day 2. Either backtrack on the A.T. and carefully bushwack the short distance to the Brown Mountain Trail, or walk along Skyline Drive to arrive at the trailhead. The Brown Mountain Trail dips, then rises, then dips again for a total of 7 miles. Keep a watch for vistas of the Blue Ridge to the east from whitewashed rocks (stay alert for rattlesnakes in that area) and the exposed cliffs of Rockytop to the south.

At the end of the Brown Mountain Trail, you can either opt to follow a path along the bubbly and stony Big Run, a great trout stream. The Big Run Portal Trail goes for more than 4 miles and climbs about 1,000 feet, returning you to the Blue Ridge. From there, link up with the Big Run Trail, turning right until reaching a fire road. Turn left to return to Browns Gap.

To add a few more miles and vista, skip Big Portal Run Trail and head up Rockytop. The trail takes you through an area of forest devastated by a fire to views of Massanutten Mountain to the northwest. The Rockytop Trail goes for 5.7 miles and ends at the Big Run Loop Trail. Turn right, then turn left onto a fire road that returns you to Browns Gap and your car.

Day 2 mileage can go above 11 strenuous miles.

 

Looking westward from a viewpoint on Rockytop in Shenandoah National Park, Va.

Looking westward from a viewpoint on Rockytop in Shenandoah National Park, Va.

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