My friend Chris and I left work at 10AM Friday November 18, right as planned. And right as planned, we started our hike just after 1PM from Brown's Gap on the Skyline Drive. Plans were to reach our first day destination, Madison Run, about three hours later, which would give us plenty of time to find a great camping site along the stream. My guide book hinted that great camping sites would probably be leaping out at us. So we headed out, starting on the Appalachian Trail for a short distance, then heading west on the Big Run Loop Trail. I had hiked on this trail on my last mountain hike around Big Run. From there, we would stay west on the Rockytop Trail for a little ways, then finish the day with a few miles on the Austin Mountain Trail. We would cross near the summit of Austin Mountain, and then descend steeply into the valley. It would be our shortest and easiest hike of our three day trip. Topo maps and a three day representation of the hike are shown here in magenta (we started on the southeast point of this map at Brown's Gap):
We would start at an elevation of about 2,530 feet, climb to a high of 2,829 feet, and then descend to our camping spot at 1,382 feet. Along the way, we would gain 1,269 feet and descend 2,441 feet. My DeLorme PN-60w GPS captured the track, and DeLorme Topo USA later showed the elevation profile of the day's hike:
At the start of the hike, I tried to adjust my 40 pound pack, and ended up making more adjustments along with way with Chris's help. He has much more recent backpacking experience than do I, and offered many helpful suggestions along the way.
Here is Chris, climbing along the Appalachian Trail near the start of the hike. We had very nice afternoon weather, and soon removed our outer layers.
The first several miles had minimal views, as we hiked through mostly second growth hardwood forests. Even with the lack of leaves, it was hard to get open views. But as we moved on to the Austin Mountain Trail, the views opened up and we had tremendous views for several miles, such as this:
We also got a good look at Furnace Mountain, which we would climb the next day, looming across the Madison Run Valley:
Along the steep slopes of Austin Mountain, we encountered four or five rock slides, like this one. It made for slow and cautious going:
It is hard to tell from this photo how steep the rock slides were, but they were extensive and very steep.We looked for wildlife, especially snakes, but saw none, although I caught a quick glimpse of legs and a tail disappearing under a rock. I think it was a large lizard.
Chris took this great photo of lichens on a rock. Maybe it is the Mickey Mouse formation?
We also got a final glimpse of fall as the trail descended, and I also saw this beautiful orange bracket fungus on a log at around the same point.
Not too much past 4PM, more or less on schedule, we arrived at the gravel fire road along Madison Run. It would be light for about an hour, but the temperature was dropping rapidly and I added a layer. My guide said that there were great campsites along the stream, so we started looking. And looking. And looking. Chris saw a potential campsite in the woods across the stream, but there was no clear way to cross without wading, so we kept looking. We finally crossed the stream and headed back through the woods. Every spot was covered with small or large trees, or rocks, or brush, or was too wet. It started to get semi-dark. Then Chris, who's trail name is "Hawkeye," spotted the site we had seen earlier from the road. It was far from great but adequate, and just a stone's throw from the stream. We set up our tents just before the darkness enfolded us. I took this picture of our campsite in the morning. My tent is the one on the left:
Chris, after some searching, located a "bear bag" tree in near darkness - one with a branch close enough to the ground to throw a rope over to haul bags of food up there, but not so close to the ground for a bear to reach up. We heated water for dinner in the dark: prepackaged commercial freeze-dried meals - just add boiling water, filtered from Madison Run - to the pouch and let it sit for 10 minutes.
By now, it was below freezing and the temperature continued to drop. Snow flurries came and went. We sat out by the stream for a while, giving us a great view of the starry night sky. Chris saw several meteorites, but I was always looking the wrong way. At 7:00, completely cold from the air and from sitting on cold rocks, we went to bed. I didn't sleep that well, since my thin sleeping pad kept getting cold from the ground. But I was fairly warm, despite the 18 degree F temperature in the morning. I slept in long underwear, my heavy hiking socks, two shirts, and my winter hat. I also kept my water bottle, camera, GPS, and Spot in my sleeping back, and kept banging into them. When I wasn't sleeping, I enjoyed listening to the stream as it babbled along. I also got to listen to Chris snoring about 8 feet away. The steam sounded better than his snores. Trust me! And there were plenty of times when I was sleeping and heard neither one. I came outside for a few bathroom breaks - although of course, there are no bathrooms in the woods, as a female co-worker was amazed to learn this week when we told her about our hike - and about froze for 30 seconds each time. But then I would quickly warm up in my warm sleeping bag. All in all, it was a great start to our adventure!
With my Spot and my GPS, I sent a message with the exact location of our campsite here.
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