The plan was simple: during my second week of spring break, Abby and I would load up the car with hiking gear, dogs, and 36 hours worth of clothes and canine paraphernalia, and we would drive south along the mighty ridgelines of Shenandoah and the George Washington National Forest.
After a night’s sleep in some random motel, we would arise for a day of highpointing. We’d start with Spruce Knob, our highest peak to date at a lofty 4,863 feet, and this would be our most ambitious hike of the day, 6-8 miles of trekking if all went according to plan. Following a stop at Blackwater Falls north of the peak, we’d then continue up to Silver Lake, WV where we would embark on a quick 2-3 mile trek up Maryland’s 3,360 foot Backbone Mountain. Finally, we’d work our way back home into Pennsylvania to tackle Mt. Davis, the shortest altitude of the day at 3,213 feet.
While we successfully summited our three peaks of the day, unexpected adventures, as seems to be the norm with this highpointing venture, made the peaks even more memorable than they would have been.
We woke on Wednesday morning expecting to see rain coming down in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the sleepy hometown of James Madison University. The weather forecast wasn’t good, and the day looked to be filled with rain and maybe even snow. While the sky was indeed grey and menacing, the ground was dry, and we set off for Monongahela National Forest, where we would spend most of our day.
After working our way out of Harrisonburg, we found ourselves in a majestic world of steep mountains, gullies and snow-dusted cliffs, boulder fields, and windswept conifers. We drove over several high passes on our way to Spruce Knob, and at some point, on our way up the mountain’s flanks, a steady snow began to fall. Occasional deer emerged from the barren woods, and we steadily climbed up the silent mountain, not a car to be seen.
As the snow began to drift down around us and as we realized how rugged the mountain actually is, we decided it would be safest to skip the longer hike (which might have included some very steep and rocky bushwhacking) and drive to the summit, our first official “drive up” (We don’t really count Britton Hill in Florida, since we didn’t really drive “up” anything, and there was no way to really “hike” even if wanted to try).
Disappointment aside, we jumped out onto yet another blustery, frigid summit. Even when we try to avoid winter high-pointing, snow seems to be our theme for the start of our 50-state expedition, and while we were upset to miss the hike, we were once again in awe of the beautiful snowy wonderland that greeted us upon a high point of America. The dogs ran off into the woods, frantic energy from too much time in the car finally bubbling over, and we trekked to the lookout tower before embarking on a short mile or so loop hike around the summit’s various trails, all the while playing hide-and seek with the dogs.
Eventually, we set off down the backside of the mountain, driving down into lower valleys, lined with rushing creeks, hidden footpaths, graceful bridges, secluded meadows and rustic mountain homes. After some guesswork, we successfully navigated through a series of rugged West Virginian villages, and we rolled up to Blackwater Falls, a roaring torrent of water, tinted a yellowish brown from local deposits of tannin. After some quick pictures and some bone-chilling rain, we drove north to our second highpoint of the trip.
Backbone Mountain, alias: Hoye’s Ridge:
All the reports online led us to believe that the trailhead would be hard to find, so we cautiously drove along the border of West Virginia and Maryland, eyes peeled for some mysterious blazes identifying the trail. That in mind, we were confused when we saw a clearly marked sign identifying the “Maryland Highpoint”. We parked the car on the shoulder, let the dogs out and hiked up a steep, rocky, and well-blazed logging road which turned into a steeper and rockier trail. At the top, we emerged onto a narrow, stony ridgeline, and after a quick pit-stop on a small monument sitting upon the WV/MD border (literally, we stopped on top of it) we found the giant cairn marking Maryland’s highpoint. Presumably, it’s only accessible from this WV trail, and upon the summit, a sign identifies the peak as “Hoye’s Ridge”, not Backbone Peak, so we’re going to refer to it by its “proper” name.
Though roughly 1,500 feet shorter than Spruce Knob, Hoye’s Ridge offered winds that ripped across the summit with far more power, bringing with them even colder air. While the snow on Spruce Knob was quietly beautiful, the sound and later cold from a steady freezing rain were not nearly so comforting or enchanting. That said, the hike was easily our favorite of the day, and we both agreed that it currently stands as our second favorite highpoint experience after Massachusetts’ Greylock. Back at the car (after being surprised to pass a family of Michigan highpointers) we prepared ourselves for the smallest church in the continental 48.
The church, a tiny structure in Silver Lake, WV, sits a mile north of Hoye’s Ridge. Not to be outdone, the smallest “mailing office” in the lower-48 sits among landscaped bushes behind the tiny chapel. Indeed, the sites are impressive for their diminutive size, and while we didn’t need much time to stroll around them, we enjoyed a quick walk, surprised to find the doors to both open and welcoming. Pictures taken, clothes soaked from the steady rain, we embarked on the final leg, north to Mt. Davis.
Our home-state highpoint, was also supposed to offer us a nice hike. Since the highpoint is situated atop rolling hills at higher elevations, one cannot hike it and gain any significant amount of elevation. With that in mind, our plan was to park the car in a gravel lot and embark on a three or four mile loop hike that would bring as us to the summit. Unfortunately, the day’s deteriorating weather conditions meant that our itinerary for Mt. Davis, like Spruce Knob, would be dramatically modified.
As we neared the summit, the snow and slush was coming down in steady sheets, and our decision to take Abby’s car began to haunt us. While it saved us money, thanks to far superior gas-mileage over my Subaru, the steep backcountry roads were becoming treacherous, and within a mile of the access road to Mt. Davis’ summit, our nerves began to fray as the car began to show signs of failure. The tires slid, the engine whirred, we nearly ended up in a ditch, and there was really no relief or options in sight other than to summit the mountain road or sleep in the car for the night.
Thankfully, the Yaris finally did manage to crest the rise, and after deciding that taking the time to do our planned route might mean our not being able to maneuver off the mountain, we elected to drive down the summit road to the parking area near the summit.
Again, we were disappointed, our spirits nearly broken this time, but we figured we have 43 more times to actually hike, and sometimes you take what you can get. We’ll be back out near Davis at the end of the month, so maybe we’ll try for a more legitimate hike then. Such thoughts aside, we jumped out of the car into the abandoned and snowy parking lot and jogged through some short trails to the old fire-tower atop the mountain.
We started up, but a panicked Lupine tried to follow. Usually, our dogs are very reluctant to climb stairs or cross bridges if one can physically see through the steps in any manner; they had proved this earlier in the day. So, imagine our surprise on the very steep, narrow and nearly transparent fire-tower stairs (not to mention slippery from the winter mix) when Lupine kept trying to come up. Maybe it was the wind? Maybe the cold precipitation? Who knows, but ultimately, Abby decided to stay at the bottom with the dogs as I set off up the tower’s lofty stairs to its misty platform.
Indeed, the climb was surprisingly treacherous as wind raked the exposed climb, and by the time I reached the top, my hands were numbed and nearly inoperable as I clutched at the iron rails.
The view was, for the most part, snowed out, but there was a nice vista of the small but impressive rocky glacial field at the tower’s base; Abby and the dogs roamed among the boulders and slabs of rock, and after a quick pic, I set off to join them.
Upon departure, we found the roads on the backside of the mountain to be in far better condition, enough so that we probably could have actually hiked. That said, we were exhausted from 24 hours of road-tripping and weather, and we still had five hours to go before reaching Philadelphia.
The drive home was, unfortunately, no less eventful as our hikes since near white-out conditions nearly forced us off the highway on several occasions. Thankfully we avoided another night in a hotel, and we made it home with highpeaks five, six, and seven in the bag. The dogs slept for two days, and we immediately started talking about what might be next.
A similar trip through the Upper South? Some mountains in New England?
Maybe a trip to the Midwest? We know that we’ll have our shot at 13,000 feet of Hawaiian highpointing in August; it’s just a question of whether we’ll get to do any in the meantime. For now, we’re just glad to be done with wintry summits and storms.