Five of us from the DC UL Backpacking community got together for a moderate 19 miler through the Massanuttens in Virginia this past weekend. The primary loop has been dubbed the Wil Kohlbrenner Memorial Circuit by the folks at www.midatlantichikes.com, in honor of a prolific trail builder from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC). Wil authored trail guides to the Massanuttens and the Great North Mountain, was active in maintaining and blazing area trails, and also built the four miles of trail along Kerns Mountain, making up a significant portion of this loop. I’ve done this hike a few times, and it remains one of my favorites in the area with a super steep climb, miles of ridge walking, and some of the most spectacular vistas in the Mid-Atlantic.
Chris, Sharon, Abby, Payam, and I started out from the metro DC area on Saturday at 8am for the two hour drive out to the trailhead near Luray, Virginia. We opted to start the loop from the south at New Market Gap on Highway 211 where we could access the Massanutten Connector Trail, joining the southern and northern half of the range. The hike begins gradually along an old logging road before veering off into the woods. It’s a benign and unassuming approach to the base of Waterfall Mountain, one of the steepest trails I’ve yet encountered. It’s an 800 foot climb in barely over half a mile, making for a great calf burning, heart pounding warm up. Thankfully it is relatively short and the views of the valley really begin to open up as you reach the top. We regrouped at the top and gave ourselves a few moments before continuing along the trail. The trail leads across Crisman Hollow Road and up to the ridgeline along Kerns Mountain.
Abruptly we came across a wide swath of scorched earth from a recent forest fire. The burnt land occurred right around a well known vista and strangely there was a brand new sign placed high upon a tree that simply said “Q’s View”. Upon returning I did some research and I was able to find out that three acres had burned but wasn’t able to find any other information. A few weeks back, along another portion of the Massanuttens, I had encountered a separate, still smoldering fire. Both fires apparently occurred around the same time. The three to four miles along the length of Kerns Mountain are a particularly rocky and strenuous portion of the loop—it follows the ridgeline, though frequently switching sides of the ridge and providing for many little ups and downs. The foliage is quite dense at this point of the year, but there are a few clearings and views off to the valley and West Virginia on one side and a view of Scothorn Gap and Duncan Knob along the other.
I had been hiking along at the front of the group when I saw something squirm along the trail and then before I even looked up, a very distinctive rattle… Woah! A rattlesnake was plopped down in the middle of the trail just a few feet in front of me. I took a few steps back and waited for the others to catch up. I’d heard about the Timber Rattlesnake, and know some people that have run into them, but I had never personally encountered one on the trail in my handful of years hiking out here. It still seems remarkable to me that there are rattlesnakes in Virginia! We took some time to take photos and videos before dropping down below the trail—giving him a wide berth—in order to continue along.
A few miles later we reached the trail junction at the end of Kerns Mountain where we were to drop back down into Crisman Hollow, but first we quickly ran up to the Jawbone Gap Overlook which provided a great view of Duncan Knob. We headed down the switchbacks along Jawbone Gap Trail, which then turned into some old logging roads. It was here where we encountered the first people we’d seen since leaving that morning, volunteers with the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100, an annual ultra marathon race that spans the length of the Massanutten Range. Just over 100 miles of rocky, hilly, treacherous terrain that nearly 200 people undertake. The course features over 17,000 feet of elevation change and is completed somewhere between 18 hours and 36 hours (the maximum time) in a single push. I’ve been out backpacking and camping alongside this ultra marathon for the last three years, and it still absolutely blows my mind what these folks are putting themselves through. And while I have no ambitions to undertake such a race, I still find it incredibly inspiring and motivational to witness what the human body is capable of.
We soon reached Crisman Hollow Road again and encountered a large aid station set up in the small camping area adjacent to the river. The large presence and all the activity caused me some difficulty in finding the foot bridge and our trail—turns out it was directly through the middle of the aid station. We stopped at the river to top off all our water containers and to wash the sticky, salty feeling from our arms and faces; we were entering our final couple miles before the intended campsite up on the ridge. It was about halfway up this climb that we saw the leader of the pack jogging downhill—shirtless and long haired, and looking remarkably at ease, not apparently suffering or even really breaking a sweat for that matter. He looked like he was out on a jog around the neighborhood. Mind you, this is around mile 65 or so and a little over 12 hours after they started the race. Our group stepped off the trail and hooted and hollered and gave him well wishes. In another 20 minutes or so we encountered the second place runner and then a few more shortly thereafter.
At around 4:45 we reached the saddle below Duncan Knob and our campsite for the evening. We fanned out across the area and each set up our respective shelters. I was pleased to finally use my MLD Trailstar on a backpacking trip for the first time—I’d used it car camping on rock climbing trips to Seneca a few times now though. And with our low mileage and early arrival, I was able to use the time to finally seam seal my Trailstar as well—I’d also spent a few leaky, wet nights in the Trailstar while car camping. We then took the time to gather fire wood, put up a bear bag line, and then just hung out and cheered along the intermittent runners. I was mighty glad I brought my headnet though, as the gnats and bugs were out in full force. By about 7pm folks cooked up their dinners and we then headed for the top of Duncan Knob just above camp. The approach is a short hike from the saddle and then turns into a fun scramble up a jumbled boulder field to reach the top. The view from the top is a spectacular 180+ degree view to the south, stretching from Shenandoah National Park in the east to the border of West Virginia and the setting sun in the west. We stayed up top for nearly an hour to watch the setting sun—and while it was mostly obscured by the clouds along the horizon, it was still a beautiful view and sunset.
After scrambling back down to camp, we watched Chris attempt to use his new fire piston and some char cloth to start the camp fire. He was able to get the char cloth burning with the piston, however, he was unable to get the tinder bundle to light. After a few tries he opted to use a flint and steel and quickly got the fire going. We hung out around the fire and roasted marshmallows thanks to Abby and Payam, were entertained again by Chris as he made mini pizzas on English muffins in a stone oven, and continued to clap and cheer along the passing runners. By now it was dark, obviously, and they would crest over the ridge after a series of switchbacks and we’d see their bright lights shining through the trees. Some of them appeared as if aliens or some strange beings with lights strapped to their head and one to each knee. Some were completely unresponsive to our cheers, with barely a grunt acknowledging our presence (understandable for having run more than two marathons already), while remarkably, others were in amazingly chipper and chatty moods. This was hardly a campsite of solitude, but that was deliberate on our part. We also saw quite a bit of wildlife around our camp including a large rat snake earlier in the day, a small mouse, a rabbit, and a deer—including the rattlesnake from earlier, a number of toads, and another rat snake the next day, this was probably the most diverse wildlife I’ve seen on one trip in the Mid-Atlantic. We called it a wrap by about 11pm, but the runners would be going strong all night—and once again I’m glad that earplugs have become a permanent part of my toiletry kit.
Sunday morning was a leisurely start with folks waking up at different times and packing up at different paces. After coffee and breakfast we were on the trail shortly before 9am. Our path led us down the other side of Duncan Knob and back into the valley, where we would meet up with the Massanutten Trail. We topped off on water before heading south through the sandy, wet, and muddy trail. The trail is a nice, gradual ascent back up the ridgeline up to Strickler Knob. I sat on a rock at the top, and watched as tick after tick streamed towards me with arms outstretched like blood-craving zombies. There are tons of them out right now and throughout the trip we were all doing cursory checks at every stop and pulling off a few. Upon reaching the ridgeline we dropped our packs and did the 3/4ths of a mile rock hop that leads to the scramble up Strickler Knob. It is always worthwhile if the weather is good, as it offers an amazing 360 degree of the surrounding countryside. We brought snacks along and hung out on the rocks for probably half an hour.
After returning to our packs, we set off down the valley, reaching the four way intersection with Scothorn Gap, and we continued along the Massanutten Trail. We were now back on the ultra marathon course, heading against the flow as they walked up this last major climb at about mile 92 or so for them. At this point they’d been going for 32 hours, with less than 4 hours before their cut off, and less than 10 miles to go. We encountered dozens of folks throughout our descent and it was great to step off the trail and cheer them on as they made their way past us. I can’t help but wonder how on earth these people do this, pounding out mile after mile for hours on end… On one level it just seems so impossible and unfathomable to undertake such an extreme endeavor, but then on the other hand it almost seems like they’re brethren or at least part of the same continuum as the ultralight backpacking crowd. Perhaps traditional backpackers look upon ultralighters with a similar feeling—why anyone would want to do 20+ mile days, that such light pack weights are impossible, or that the gear must be inherently more dangerous or unreliable. I know that I thought that at one point. However, as is the case with running, climbing, backpacking, or almost any other outdoor activity, what once seemed impossible or unfathomable, soon becomes possible, unattainable, and even normal. That is the very nature of progression and what makes outdoor pursuits such a personal and fulfilling activity.
Beginning at New Market Gap the Wil Kohlbrenner Memorial Loop is 17.5 miles (12 miles day one, 5.5 miles day two). Out and back hikes to Duncan and Strickler brings the total to 19 miles. The Massanutten Range is located in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia.
Ryan is a Seattlite currently based in Washington DC. While stuck in the Beltway Monday through Friday, on the weekends he can be found pursuing ultralight backpacking or rock climbing, along with ice climbing when the season is right and the occasional alpine objective out west. Ryan leads backpacking trips in the Mid-Atlantic with DC UL Backpacking and recently started the blog Desk to Dirtbag, which chronicles his preparations for an extended outdoors sabbatical beginning January 2013.