Want to beat the heat? Climb every mountain.


A view from Whitetop Mountain Sunday morning, July 17,2011. (Norm Shafer/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
July 22, 2011

Whoever thought that stew would hit the spot in the middle of July? Especially blistering hot deer stew that burned my tongue at the first bite.

But it did. I savored every spoonful of the thick, flavorful concoction that Roy Stanley and his wife, known to all as Momma, served at Campsite 44 in southwest Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park.

Believe it or not, I needed something to warm me up. I’d spent the night before at Campsite 21, not far from the Stanleys. The overnight temperature had dipped below 60 degrees, and I’d inadvertently left my sleeping bag in a friend’s trunk back in Washington. All I had to shield me from the howling winds was a tent and a ski jacket. I shivered all night.

But why was I complaining? I had, after all, left behind a heat wave that had put to the test every bottle of waterproof mascara I own. Tired of showing up sweaty at work every day, I’d decided to escape to the mountains.

My original plan was to climb to the top of Virginia’s Mount Rogers. At 5,729 feet, it’s the highest peak in the state and a good 5 to 10 degrees cooler than just about everywhere else. Then a park ranger told me that the only way to get to the summit was to hike 4 1/2 miles up, then 4 1/2 miles down. I worried that I’d overheat, just like my Volkswagen Beetle on the six-hour drive in nearly 100-degree heat.

I scrapped that plan when I learned that Whitetop Mountain, the second-highest peak, is only 200 feet lower and just as chilly. Better yet, it’s the site of the highest auto road in the state, which meant that I could sit in the comfort of my air-conditioned car all the way to the top.

Turns out that I didn’t even need the air conditioning. In fact, I found myself donning a sweater as I neared the summit. Unlike the highest peaks of the nearby Southern Appalachians in North Carolina, Whitetop is cloaked in a spruce fir forest. On a good day, I would have been able to see North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain, the highest peak in the Blue Ridge mountain range, about 40 miles away. Alas, fog obscured the view, though it didn’t damp my joy at being so far from the D.C. swampland. The wind was so strong that I didn’t even want to get out of the car.

I headed back to my camp and its tamer breeze, where I mingled with other campers and volunteer park hosts, who live among the campers. The discovery of this cool oasis created a natural camaraderie among us. (“Don’t tell anyone about this,” pleaded my neighbor, Den Jason, who has camped at Grayson for 23 years. Sorry, Den.)

Two park hosts, Terry and Alice Owens, were spending a month at Grayson to escape the heat back home in Arizona. “In Arizona, it’s 110 or up,” Alice said when she stopped by my tent to check on me. “What’s not to like about this? It’s beautiful. It’s quiet. It’s one of my favorite places.” (Quiet except for the doe near my tent grunting loudly at her straying fawns.)

For Park ManagerHarvey Thompson, it wasn’t cool enough. As he worked on fixing the credit card machine in the Country Store, he complained that it was 82 degrees in the visitors center office. Apparently that constituted a heat wave; the temperature here hardly ever surpasses 80 degrees in the summer.

Later, at Alice’s urging, I stopped by Site 44 to visit Roy, another park host. I wanted to find the coolest hiking trail, and Alice said that Roy would know where to send me.

Roy has hiked every trail in the park more than once. For cooling down, he suggested the 1.78-mile Wilson Creek Trail. Some parts of the creek are about five feet deep. The 1.8-mile Cabin Creek Trail is arguably prettier, he said, because it has a waterfall, but the deepest that creek gets is only about two feet. If I really wanted to cool off in the water, Wilson Creek would be my best bet.

Fortified with stew and corn bread, I started down the Wilson Creek Trail. The first part was a steep 0.7-mile downhill walk through a beech and sugar maple forest. The constant breeze and shade from the trees made it an easy hike, and I reached the creek within 30 minutes. According to a sign I’d seen at the start of the trail, the water was brown due to tannins from decomposing plant materials in a bog in the creek’s headwaters. But when the sun managed to peek through the trees, the water turned a brilliant copper. I climbed over some rocks into the shallow end and dipped my feet in. The water was cold and refreshing. Only some epsom salts to soothe my feet would have made the experience better.

As I emerged from the trail, the sky turned an ominous gray. The subsequent downpour was short, but it left the air even chillier than before. I grabbed my sweater for the Cabin Creek hike. I needed it, because this was an easier hike that didn’t require as much exertion. I didn’t even break a sweat.

Less than a mile into the walk, I reached the waterfall. I took off my hiking shoes and stripped down to my bathing suit. My goal was to beat the heat, and what better way than to stand beneath this natural shower?

But in no time at all, I was shivering again. Heat seemed, if anything, completely elusive. I wished I’d brought a blanket.

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