You know that song by Katy Perry, "Hot n Cold"? If you aren't familiar with Virginia's weather patterns, her lyrics offer an accurate depiction. Which makes any advanced planning for a backpacking trip around Virginia rather dysfunctional. Especially in the winter. One day it's 70, the next it's 23. We had planned this trip several weeks ahead of time, on a day that was sunny and 70. Literally. Two other people were planning to join us and a three day- two-nigh hike was on the books. Of course, none of that happened.
The weather turned south a few days before the trip (sound familiar?), our crew dropped off and plans started to change. A bummer, but understandable. That's the nature of backpacking; unpredictable, flexible living that requires a go-with-the-flow mentality. So, Friday rolled around and Joel and I jumped in the Tahoe - just the two of us. Not sure where we were going, but sure that we were going somewhere. Our backseat, missing a compadre, was empty and lonesome but, it made stealth camping an option. So, we took our time making our way to the mountains. One of my favorite spots for Thai was along our route and naturally, we decided to swing by for a little time in the city. Note : Thai hot is far beyond our average American standard of hot. Joel had to learn that the hard way. You know it's bad when the waitress sympathetically pats you on the back while refilling your water glass for the fifth time. Eeek.
Knowing, before we left, that we would be alone for the trip, we decided ahead of time (for like the first time ever) to spend a night Urban stealth camping out of our car. The past few trips we'd taken, over this Winter season, had gifted us with enough nights of unpredicted stealth car camping that we had finally learned, the hard way, how NOT to stealth camp. This trip, we left behind 3/4 of the random gear living in the Tahoe. No need for wetsuits and fins in the mountains (unless....No, No need). And, we cut out some prep time for a much-needed stealth camping art project - Reflectix as window blinds. Oh man, what a worthy project. Let me just say - GAME CHANGER. I'm talking set up ease, blocking out light efficiency, privacy, and even stealth level. Ten out of Ten would recommend.
Our night sleeping in the car was prime. We were up early the next morning for Shenandoah Joe's coffee and Bodo's Bagels. Two of our favorites and I highly recommend for pre/post trip stops around downtown Charlottesville.
Thanks to the bitterly cold weather, and the aftermath of spicy Thai, we dragged our feet a little getting to the trail. We opted for a new route (than what was planned) on a different mountain. It was somewhere around 3:30, in the afternoon, when we finally pulled up the dirt road where a trailhead and parking area would give us access to the Massanutten trail. Unfortunately, the road was closed a good ways out from the trailhead. We pulled off into a parking space where a sign on the tree read, "No overnight parking or visitation." Great. Looking around, the signs seemed to be designated for a trail leading in the opposite direction of where would be walking. So, we moved the car to the other end of the parking lot, packed up our gear and hoped for the best.
Hiking along the dirt road, beyond the closed gate, a few day hikers passed by making sure to remind us of the predicted overnight lows (we know people!), and reassured us about our choice of parking. Since we were unable to drive to the parking area where we had planned to pick up the trail, we turned onto the first trailhead we came across. Being late afternoon, and not having done much research for this particular loop, we promised to stop at the first campsite. Luckily, two steps in, the first campsite was immediately on our right. A good start and a perfect leeway that enabled us to hike on, knowing we could always return back if need be. If anything, we had nailed down a good spot for car camping in the area.
The Orange blazed Massanutten trail, which we had picked up, leads you along a ridgeline without much change in elevation for the first mile or so. Then, it steadily descends into the valley along a river bed. There, the trail opens up into a moderate sized group campsite. Complete with a water source, fire pit and a few decently level spots for 2-3 tents. Two guys sat, smoking cigs and snacking in the middle of the campsite. They ushered us in, promising they were leaving soon and mentioned there weren't many camp options after this one. We took their word on it and set up camp.
We had a good fire, but a cold night with lows around 23°F (I even slept with an S.O.L. Emergency Blanket) In the morning, we woke up to what Joel thought, at first, to be a bear - then, he figured was an early to rise trail runner. I stand by the belief that it was a huge raven flying through camp. We'll never truly know. It was far to cold to be worth slipping out of the tent to catch a peak. And so be it, whatever it was, the trail running bear raven made for a good wake up call. We made a morning fire to thaw our waters and offset the pain of waking up to a 20° morning. Also, our MSR stove had trouble lighting - which we are still slightly perplexed by. We haven't had an issue in similar temps - maybe it was bad fuel? I remember reading once where someone suggested sleeping with the canister before breakfast. Not so sure I approve of that idea - especially since ours smells of gas. (If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them)
After packing up camp, we continued along Massanutten trail for a moderate climb up to the Strickler Knob trail intersect. The Strickler Knob is pink blazed, marked mostly on rocks by trail maintenance. Following this trail feels kind of like an easter egg hunt. One part because of the blaze color and two parts because the trail seems to end several times before reaching the summit.
We found an awesome campsite along a cliff close to the summit. Enough room for maybe one tent on a bit of a slant. But, on a return trip with the right winds, I'd probably choose this spot. The Strickler Knob summit is a fun rock scramble/climb over a group of boulders. Gorgeous practically 360° views. Just make sure, for a cold, windy day that you are prepped for a frigid summit after climbing out of the protection of the last few bolders.
Meals for Overnight Backpacking trip
Since we would only be spending one night backpacking, we kept our meals pretty simple. We could've gone stoveless, but our undying love for coffee wouldn't allow it. Here's what we packed:
-Turkey & Cheese Sandwich (because we could)
-Idahoan Four Cheese Mashed Potatoes ( <3 )
- Trader Joes Dark Chocolate Truffle Bar (Da Bomb!)
-Field Trip Jerky
-Nut and Fruit mix
- Joel's solo Snickers