Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Shenandoah Mountain Bikepacking

With the weather finally getting warmer, I got the urge to do another bikepacking adventure. I texted Will early in the week about there being a good stretch of weather coming up, and it ended up working out that we could do a trip from Saturday through Tuesday. The weather was looking especially nice in Virginia, so I went to work planning a 300-350 mile route of gravel, doubletrack, and some pavement to do near the Harrisonburg area.

On Friday evening, after finishing all my homework and putting the final touches on my route, I picked up Will and we drove down to Virginia. We parked my car at a trailhead in Massanutten and spent the night in a luxurious five-star hotel suite known as the back of my Subaru Outback. After a not-so-great night of sleep, it was time to rip.

Will had the advantage of having wiings (thanks Red Bull) to start the ride

We started the route by riding out of Massanutten and into a nearby town where we bought food supplies for the day ahead. Then, we headed west across the valley on pavement before making our way into the George Washington National Forest. The first major climb was a brute... plenty steep and long, but the scenic views and switchbacks made it all worth it. The summit of the climb was the Virginia-West Virginia border, so as we descended down the other side, we were in West Virginia.

After the first big climb, there was some flat valley riding before making our way to the next big climb. At the start of the climb, there was a small sign saying "This is not a national forest road, no trespassing". The sign was pretty old, and it was very clear that we were in the national forest, so we continued. There were no other signs the rest of the way, so I think it was an overzealous landowner who put the sign up years ago without actually owning the land.

That climb was really amazing. It started out gradual and we spent miles just riding scenic doubletrack along a creek. There were a couple small creek crossings, and then the climb kicked up a little steeper. Just as we were climbing the steep part, we found a large, unopened water bottle right on the side of the trail. Since it was unopened and we could use some extra water, we poured the water into our packs. To help balance out karma, I carried the empty bottle out with me. We removed some trash from the forest, and in return the forest gave us some water.

Near the top of the climb, the trail turned back into a gravel road and we once again crossed back into West Virginia. After the summit, the road once again turned back into unmaintained doubletrack and followed the Virginia-West Virginia border for miles. It was much slower going than I anticipated, and not having ever ridden any of these trails before, I was becoming concerned that the next "road" I routed us on might actually be a gnarly singletrack trail climb.

We decided to alter the route a little and try to take an unknown singletrack trail along the ridge. Quickly, the trail turned super rocky, steep, and rough, and we decided it was best to turn around. We headed back a mile or two into the doubletrack following the state line and found a sweet campsite overlooking the valley.

The trail (left) was pretty cool, but also aggressive

The whole day, we never really noticed the wind at all. But as soon as we set up the tents, the wind was howling like crazy and nearly ripped our tents out of the ground. After cooking dinner and getting set up, we walked back up to the doubletrack and noticed there was no wind there at all.

We decided to move the tents and our campsite up to the trail to get out of the wind. It was a great decision, there was no wind and we were able to get a good fire going.

Just some of the scenic pavement roads on the route

The next morning started with a huge pavement downhill back into civilization, followed by miles of amazingly scenic farmland and valley roads. Eventually, we reached the Thomas Jefferson National Forest on the east edge of the valley.

I knew the climb I routed us on was a jeep trail, and I hoped it would be cool, but it absolutely blew away all my expectations. It was a roughly 1200 foot climb up some of the rockiest terrain I've ridden on the bikepacking bike. The whole way up, the trail was lined with pine trees and there were endless scenic vistas overlooking the mountains.

The climb had parts that required some hike-a-bike, but that only made it more epic. The jagged pine trees and overall terrain reminded me of something you'd see in California.

Near the top of the climb, there was a lookout that we stopped at to take pictures. The mountains were unlike anything I've seen on the east coast. I never knew that the Virginia mountains were so scenic and rocky. I made fun of Will for holding his bike over head for a picture, but then I did the same, which he equally ridiculed me for. So, I think it's best to leave out both of those pictures.

Yeah, I know it's the wrong jersey, but I left all my other jerseys at my apartment by accident. 

After the vista, we continued on the jeep trail for another 8 miles or so. It was rolling terrain with several climbs mixed in and seemingly endless mud pits. Somewhere along the way my derailleur got smoked, and I thought I was going to have to singlespeed it for the rest of the trip. Luckily, I was able to fix it at camp that night.

Eventually, we got near the end of the jeep trail (which popped out on the Blue Ridge Parkway) and climbed up to the actual summit of the mountain - Bald Mountain. As we made our way to the top, the best campsite we'd ever seen came into view. There was a huge wide open area, a fire pit, a stack of firewood someone had left, and even a little folding chair. It was almost too good to be true. Plus, there were insane views of the mountains all around.

You can see how happy the hot dinner made Will

After getting camp set up, we made a fire and cooked some dinner. We each had some Ramen noodles and instant mashed potatoes, which was a very filling and satisfying dinner.

As a testament to the campsite, normally I go into my tent to sleep an hour or so after sunset on bikepacking trips, but this night, with such a great place to hang out, we ended up sitting around the fire talking and enjoying the views until almost 11 o'clock.

The next morning, we descended off the mountain top about a mile or two to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We cruised along the extremely scenic parkway for 25 or so miles before descending into a town for supplies. After getting a bite to eat, we cruised along the valley for a while before getting to a fire road that leads into the Shenandoah National Park.

We each bought an online national park pass and climbed up the fire road, which led to Skyline Drive. I gotta say, Skyline Drive, especially the more southern part of it, is really amazing. It was literally endless views and a perfectly manicured road.

After 30-40 miles on Skyline Drive, we reached a national park store and got some supplies. It was pretty cold up there, and I remember shivering quite a bit sitting on a park bench eating a sandwich and drinking a Dr. Wham (an obvious rip off of Dr. Pepper).

After checking the map, we found another fire road that led out of the national park a couple miles ahead on Skyline Drive, so we started descending down that road in search of a campsite. About halfway down we found a flat spot off in the woods. It was a nice place to camp, so we set up our tents there and cooked dinner. Unfortunately, national park rules prohibited open fires, so we couldn't get a fire going. Although, cooking some more ramen at night gave us something to do, and it was a pretty warm (relatively) evening to hang out.

The next morning we woke up to expected rain. We packed up our gear in the rain and descended out of the national park to a small diner in the nearby town.

When we got into the diner, it was obvious to everyone in there that we were pretty cold and wet. As soon as we sat down, the waitress came over and asked if she could bring us each a hot cup of coffee. Will quickly said yes, but I don't like coffee, so, like a toddler, I asked for some hot chocolate.

"With marshmallows?", the waitress asked, probably trying not to laugh.

"Sure", I replied, trying my best not to seem like a child.

But alas, like Neil Young says, "I am a child".

Regardless, the hot chocolate was good. So was the chicken fried steak and blueberry pancakes.

After breakfast we rode along the valley for a while before reaching the big climb into Massanutten. It started off mellow, but the road quickly turned into a wall and Will turned the screws on me. We always joke with each other that we don't bikepack like normal people and go easy, we go really hard on all the climbs all day and treat it almost like a normal ride. That's the long winded way to say I was totally gassed at the top of the climb, but it was a terrific view of clouds in the valley.

After the climb, we descended down into the Massanutten valley and rode along the scenic farmland roads back to the parking lot.

And that's where the story should've ended. 

But instead, I got my keys out and went to unlock the car and... nothing. The car battery was dead. We must've forgot to turn off one of the lights in the back of the car that we turned on when we woke up. 

After a minute or two of "dang, that's a bummer", we decided to try flagging someone down to jump the car. After a few minutes of waiting, a friendly man in a van drove by and helped us out. Within a couple minutes my car was started and we profusely thanked the man.

It was another awesome trip, and it makes me realize how thankful I am for a lot of things. Having the opportunity to do a bikepacking trip and explore new mountains is something I'll always be grateful for, ad I'm particularly grateful to my parents for letting me do it. Plus, I'm always thankful that Will likes these kind of trips too, it's a lot of fun to do a bikepacking trip with him. 

I can't wait to ride the Great Divide route this summer with Will, starting in Banff, Canada, and going all the way to the Mexican border. It's going to be bueno.

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