The spring sun streamed through the kitchen window, pouring light on our maps: maps of the Shenandoah Mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains and Massanutten, the big mountain west of the Skyline Drive. We were looking for a challenging, different hike -- an excuse to go tramping through the mountains and forests now that spring was here.
A month ago, I went on a short hike on the Stony Man trail in Shenandoah National Park. Winter was firmly entrenched then. Waterfalls were still frozen, their ice-caked splash making trails difficult to cross. Now was the time -- before the big rush in May -- to go deep into the woods, on a long hike to see trees in bud and hints of wildflowers. Goodbye cherry blossoms and hordes of visitors; hello trillium and the long, lonely trail.
We chose Signal Knob on Massanutten Mountain as the place to see the dawning of spring. The hike, to a peak where Confederate lookouts sat high above the Shenandoah Valley and watched which way Union troops were heading, mapped out as a 10-mile circuit trip. We'd never done more than eight and even that one -- up Old Rag and back -- had left us panting. This time our hiking party was five adults and three children, some of whom and never hiked on a mountain. Rather than do the circuit suggested in a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club booklet (Circuit Hikes in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania), we planned to go directly up to Signal Knob and come back the same way. That way was almost a mile shorter and, if some hikers tired, they could rest at one of the two overlooks en route and be picked up on the way down.
A perfect plan to go along with five knapsacks full of sandwiches, apples, oranges, individual cans of juice, trail mix, cookies and two canteens of water. Plus bandaids, moleskin, cameras, Swiss Army knife, tissues, maps. All this? We had to be kidding, but according to a Trail Club formula, it would be a full day hike: 30 minutes per mile and 30 minutes more per 1,000 feet of elevation meant that the way up Signal Knobb (4.4 miles and 1,600 feet of elevation) would take 2 1/2 hours -- without rest stops. Then we had to come down.
Signal Knob Trail begins off Virginia Route 678 which is off Route 55 outside Front Royal. At 10 on a Sunday morning, we were the last two cars to make it into the rocky turnout that passes as a parking lot. Just ahead of us, a van full of Boy Scouts had pulled in.
The footing was very rocky and trail maintenance poor -- fallen trees blocked the trail at several points: some of them could be climbed over or scooted under, but others had to be detoured around. But the trail was well graded and ran along a ridge. The gentle grading meant we never felt the full impact of the 1,600-foot elevation. The ridge setting always gave us an excuse to stop and admire the views of endless slopes of trees, pretty valleys tucked beneath forested mountains and occasional signs of spring.
Spring in the mountains is usually two to three weeks behind the city. It was not in full force yet. There were only occasional scarlet flushes of redbud. Close examination of a tree limb showed dogwood buds forming. But the rain-short winter had taken its toll. The ground was dry and dusty rather than loamy and soft. Last fall's dead leaves crackled under foot. Giant trees were uprooted, their massive rootball baking in the sun.
We reached Signal Knob in time for lunch. What a spot it was. Below us lay the Shenandoah Valley, with pale green, tan and gold rectangles of farm lands and tiny towns with clustered white buildings shimmering in the April sun.
The Knob itself was protected from the wind and made of human-sized boulders.It was every man, woman and child to his own boulder for lunch, sunning, napping and, most of all, drinking. We had more than two cans of juice per person and the two canteens of water, but the warm day and the uphill hike had made us incredibly thirsty. The 75 degree temperatures had also made the juice and water unpleasantly warm. But we were so pleased with ourselves for making it up so easily, we took out the maps and debated how to go down. The Boy Scouts, who joined us on the Knob for awhile, were stunned: They were going down the way they'd come up. It was shorter, even if it was steeper.
We chose the long way, to vary the route; and there would be compensations for the extra mile we had to cover: softer footing because the trail was inland and away from the rocky ridge, more gradual descent, different scenery. What a mistake. There were gradual descents all right, but there were also steep ascents -- a cruel blow when you've already covered seven miles and are dragging. The only compensation turned out to be an ice cold mountain stream where we refilled canteens and washed sweaty faces.
On the long, long way down, one of our hearty band volunteered that she had made this climb some five years ago. What she remembered most was how good the parking lot looked when she finally reached it.
We knew the felling. Ten miles was about two miles too far. When we finally reached the end of the trail -- the Boy Scouts and their van were long gone -- we all had the same problems: the bottoms of our feet burned, our knees were in revolt, and we had run out of stream.
But when we nosed the car out Route 678 and turned the corner onto 55 where stands the little Waterlick Grocery, we practically ran over each other in our rush for the ice cold drinks inside.