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Jen Lotz, Farooq Sadiq, Amy Rosenberg and I set out from Baltimore in two cars on a lovely fall afternoon and headed for the border of VA and WVa. The leaves were just reaching their peak, the air had that crispy feel to it, and both Amy and I were getting over nasty head colds; definitely time to head for the woods! A car was dropped at Wolf Gap Recreation Area on VA675/WV23/10 and we proceeded north through Wardensville to the crest of Great North Mountain where US55 crosses. The other car was secluded and we hit the trail headed south at 4 o'clock.
The weather was still good, but the sun sets early this time of year and we had four miles of trail between us and camp so we hurried on. Fortunately, those four miles were pleasant and grassy along the sharp ridge that defines the border between the two states. This is part of the Tuscarora/Big Blue Trail which splits off from the AT in mid-Shenandoah, swings west through the less-visitted sections of the mountains, and then rejoins with the AT up near Harrisburg, PA. Views to the east showed occasional rocky outcroppings on the neighboring, parallel ridges; the miles flowed under our feet. With time, the sun sank lower and the trail became distinctly rocky and a rough. I began to get antsy for camp.
Just when I was becoming particularly perturbed, the Paul Gerhard Memorial Shelter hove into view in a broad hardwood saddle between two lumps on the ridge. Our arrival was greeted with approval by all and we set up camp in the cozy, possum-pelt-equipped shelter. Amy and I set about building a fire while Jen and Farooq busied themselves with dinner. By the time the pasta with garlic sauce was consumed followed by delectable chocolate pudding pies, dark had fallen and we had a nice fire laid out. It was a windy night with good stars. Amy and Farooq did the dishes and I lay around feeling feverish and conciderably under the weather. But various follies with the bear bag (slinging the rope over a dead branch is not recommended when you have heavy food bags) and the resulting mishap with the tabouli got me out of my funk. After some good conversation that a campfire tends to breed, we retired and slept soundly.
Saturday -- Day Two was marked by much colder temperatures than when we'd gone to sleep. The sky was cloudy and threatening and the wind continued to howl across the ridge. A spring was advertised 0.3 miles to the east down the side of the mountain so three of us set out to find it. Very steep, loose trail lead precipitously down to a muddy quagmire of a spring which we found after much bushwhacking and consternation. Three liters and two filter cleanings later, we gave up and wheezed back up the hill with the intent of conserving water. By the time we actually got started, the time was after eleven.
Moods were dramatically improved by clearing skies and the spectacular ridge-top hiking of the next couple miles. The trail ran through open trees, thistles and tall mullens with good views both east and west before sliding off to the west and sloping down through some lovely, ever-changing forest dressed in red, yellow and green. Spirits were high and we swung along with a spring in our step. I was feeling about 400% better than the day before and Amy's cold seemed to be in remission as well. After a couple of broad switch-backs, we reached the Waites Run and paused for quite a while pumping water and having a second lunch.
From here, the trail turned upward again and ascended for three miles beside the lovely Pond Run crossing it numerous times on rocks and logs. Tall evergreens and numerous rock formations made the section a nice change from the earlier windy ridge. Given the late start and the long lunch, we didn't get started until almost three and energy was flagging. The ascent wasn't steep, but the continuous climb took its toll. After 2.4 miles, we reached the intersection of the Half Moon Trail. There were many votes for stopping so, after enjoying the windy view from the nearby outcrop, we set up camp at the lovely trail-side campsite on the side of Mill Mountain.
Again various bear-bag mishaps occurred and a much-needed dinner of beans and rice was whipped up. Amy cleaned the conciderable trash out of the fire ring and built a small, lovely blaze. Temperatures dropped rapidly and we eventually retired to our tents and dreams about bears and secret special cave commando squads.
Sunday -- We dragged out of our tents at dawn to see that the day was again cold, clear and quite windy. I was now feeling pretty healthy, but Jen was coughing which was not a good sign. We stomped around warming hands and legs while breakfast was consumed and quickly took apart camp. The 0.6 miles to the top of Mill Mountain turned out to be quite inaccurate and I was a bit baffled and concerned when expected trail junctions didn't appear and unexpected ones did. For future reference, there is a trail signed 'Closed for Reseeding' (whatever that means) which does not appear on the map.
But at length we found the broad crossroads at the summit where the Mill Mountain Trail heads south and the Tuscarora Trail makes a sharp bend to the east and passes a large campsite set amidst interesting rock outcroppings. Very Tolkienian. A snack and rest were had and then we set out along the steadily descending ridge trail which was wide and even. There were occasional views and we made good time. 1.5 miles from the summit we came upon the lovely, trailside Sandstone Spring which was orders of magnitude better than the previous gully which dared use the name 'spring'. Bottles were topped off and we continued, footsore, but still marching along at a terrific rate.
Three miles from the crossroads, the Big Schloss cutoff trail joined from the east and soon thereafter Big Schloss (from the German meaning 'Castle') hove into view. From the north it's very impressive looking like some great iceberg perched on top of the narrow ridge. Small figures could be seen scampering around on top of the stacked chimneys of white sandstone (probably of the Tuscarora strata, the same as Seneca). But the trail up was from the other end so we skirted the Schloss to the west and, dumping all but my pack, ascended a quarter mile of rough trail from the south. Being Columbus Day weekend, the rock was crowded with day hikers. The wind howled out of the west and visibility was fantastic. We found a secluded spot on the east face and basked in the sun consuming the remains of our larder. Farooq and I spent a while ricochetting around the impressively creviced summit planning where we'd put climbing gear and generally having a grand time. Very exciting place and well-worth the trip. Approaching it from the north is all the better.
Finally, we shouldered our packs and headed out for the car now only two miles away. One mile of weary ridge-walking with great views gave way to another mile of steep, painful but otherwise gorgeous descent through crimson and yellow hardwoods to Wolf Gap and the waiting car. The time was about 4:30 and we'd done seven miles since breakfast.
An excellant hike through some really scenic countryside. Good company and good (though cold) weather. Total milage ~18 miles. For trail details, see PATC Map F.
The Wilderness Journal