Monday, September 1, 2014

Backpacking Matthew's Arm - Overview

Last October, I was all set to go for a one night backpacking trip in the Matthew's Arm area of Shenandoah National Park.  Two days before I was to leave, I missed a step at work and nearly fell on a short flight of stairs, and twisted my back.  Trip delayed!

So when I decided to go backpacking this past Friday through Sunday, I dusted off my plans from last fall and headed up to the Blue Ridge.  Instead of the one night trip outlined in a Backpacker Magazine, I started my hike following that itinerary, and adopted the second day from a trip in a Johnny Molloy's book "Day and Overnight Hikes in the SNP."  Essentially, day one of my trip was from Backpacker, day two was a combo of the Backpacker route and Mr. Molloy's, and day 3 was of my own crafting from studying my topo map of the Park.

It was a lot of fun, and great weather for the summer time, plus, doing this hike allowed me to reach two more hiking goals for 2014: a third backpacking trip and over 110 trail miles for the year.  I went solo, which is not my preference.  I nearly talked a friend into coming along, but he had other plans.  He and I are going for a 108 mile hike this fall, and not only did I want to go backpacking for a couple of nights for the fun of it, I wanted to judge my general level of fitness and preparedness for the longer trip.

Future posts will outline each day's experience, but I want to start off with an overview of my hike here.  Where is Matthew's Arm?  It is in the northern part of the park, and part of the hike is, according to Johnny Molloy, "in the most remote area of the Park's North District."  Here is a map with the location (red circle).  Note the red star due east - that is Washington, Virginia, also known as "Little Washington."  That first night, as I camped along the Thornton River in the park, I could not help think of the incredible meals being served just miles away at the Inn at Little Washington.  I took my wife there for her birthday this year and it was the best meal and service we had ever had!  But this past Friday night, my "meal in a bag" was good enough.

Here is my three day, 25 mile track.  I started and ended at the blue star near Skyline Drive milepost 21.  Day one was on the pink route, day two is marked in blue, and the last day marked in orange.

Here is the elevation profile for the three day hike.  Ignore the blue markings at the end of the profile.  I could not find a way to eliminate them in my mapping software.  You can see that there is a lot of up and down in this trip.  During three days, I climbed and lost 6,800 vertical feet.  Day 1 was mostly downhill, day 2 was a mix of up and down hill all day, but with more downhill, and day 3 was almost all hiking uphill back to the car.
By the way, this profile is not quite right.  I started and ended at 3,400 feet.  So the left most part of the profile is actually the end of the hike, not the beginning as shown.  Not sure how I messed that up...

Did I encounter scenic views on the hike?  No, absolutely not!  Most of it was hiking in the "green tunnel" of the Appalachians.  So before I started, I took a photo from the Skyline Drive of the Thornton Hollow area, where I would be camping later that night.

A lot of visitors to the park never really make it to the back country.  On my first day, a Friday, I only saw a couple people near where I crossed a road at the bottom of the Little Devil Stairs trail, and then three guys hiked down the 1.5 - 2 miles from the Skyline Drive the opposite way to look for a place to fish as I set up my camp.  I saw a dozen or more hikers Saturday, and lots Sunday as I hiked out and got near a park campground.

In comparison to the vistas from the road, this is more or less how it looked while hiking for 25 miles.  The forest is almost 100% deciduous, and in fact the Backpacker article specifically suggested this hike at fall foliage time.  I bet that the woods would be spectacular that time of year!

One advantage to hiking here as opposed to the two other areas that I backpacked in this fall is that the trails are well marked, and there are directional posts at every trail intersection.  With a good topo map, it would be hard to get lost if you are paying attention.  In the interest of full disclosure, I was not doing so on the second day and went right by a key junction.  But I realized my error in less than a quarter mile, turned around, and got back on track.

How about wildlife?  Well, I saw this bear scat in less than a half mile, and saw plenty more of it along the way, but I saw no bruins themselves.  I saw two deer, two gray squirrels (one which dropped out of a tree and landed about five feet from me, causing me to jump), a lizard, two toads, and a pileated woodpecker.  I heard plenty of the latter calling as I hiked along.  I was also entertained both nights by owls - barred owls both nights, and a screech owl adding in early Sunday morning.  I love hearing the owls!

The dominant wildlife encounters were spiders!  I must have "eaten" 100 spider webs that first day as I hiked on trails that clearly had not been hiked on for a while.  And at night, the sounds of katydids and cicadas calling was almost deafening!

As I said, this trip was a test for how I will do this fall on a longer trip.  I still have some working out and prep to do, but overall, I did okay carrying a 32-35 pound pack up and down mountains for three days by myself.


  1. 108 miles. That will be some hike!!
    Glad you enjoyed your hike and that you had some nice weather.

    Was wondering how your friend is doing. I've been praying for him daily.

  2. I had a lot of fun. The weather, for summer, was OK. Yes, looking forward to my longer hike later on.

    My friend has a tough battle ahead but is hanging in there. thanks for the prayers. Art