AT 2017: Day 74, Gravel Springs Hut to U.S. 522

When the snakes come marching in

Rattlesnake in Shenandoah National Park

The siren call of food and beer was playing loudly in my head this morning when I awoke. We were leaving Shenandoah National Park and heading to Front Royal, Va. today, and I didn’t want anything to deter or delay us.

Rain had fallen earlier this morning, around 2 a.m., then began again around 5 a.m. as I was waking up. Fortunately, the second rain shower didn’t last long and was finished by the time I exited my tent.

DateSaturday, June 24, 2017
WeatherRain in early morning hours, then cloudy to partly cloudy skies with temperatures rising to mid 80s
Trail ConditionsMostly smooth and downhill, with a few rocky sections, especially where the trail exited the national park
Today's Miles13.4
Trip Miles969.7

We haven’t had great weather, but overall, our week in the park has been good.

What’s been especially helpful is we haven’t needed to carry a full week’s worth of food. We were able to stop at three waysides along the way to fuel up and supplement our food supply.

Now we’re trying to get to town as soon as possible. This is a normal desire for any thru-hiker, and it isn’t only because of food and beer.

With each town visit we take time to clean up, do laundry, shop for groceries, repackage and organize our food purchases, and if possible, rest.

This is how a thru-hike is made manageable. It isn't really a 2,190-mile, six-month hike. It's a series of several 3- to 5-day short hikes

Crossing Skyline Drive

Almost immediately after leaving Gravel Springs Hut, we crossed Skyline Drive at Gravel Springs Gap.

Trail going up South Marshall Mountain

From the gap, we made a one-mile climb of South Marshall Mountain.

Cloudy view from South Marshall Mountain

Cliffs near the top of the mountain provided a view of the valley. From here it looked like more rain was on the way.

View from North Marshall Mountain

About 30 minutes later we were on North Marshall Mountain, where another broad view was available from a rocky ledge.

Gravity in Shenandoah National Park

The ledge was a good spot to take a photo to commemorate my time in Shenandoah.

Wet pavement on Skyline Drive

When I crossed Skyline Drive a second time I noticed the pavement was still wet. It was slow to dry because clouds and humidity were not giving way to the sun.


The last noteworthy climb of the day took us up Compton Peak. About halfway up, the trail made a slight jog to the right. As I was about to make this turn, I heard an unmistakable warning sound. I couldn’t see the source, but I knew it was the distinct rattle from a rattlesnake.

Moving slowly closer, I saw a three-foot-long snake comfortably sitting on a rock, trying to absorb a little bit of warmth. It was obvious to me the rattler didn’t want any interruption in its nap.

I tried to give it as much room as the narrow trail allowed, then continued up the trail.

A small stream was a short distance farther up the trail. Stick and Mike were already there when I stopped to fill my water bottle. They introduced me to another thru-hiker, Mechanic.

We continued on, going over the top of Compton Peak and then a long descent to Compton Gap.

Stick and Mike at Compton Gap

At the gap we crossed Skyline Drive for the last time, as we were now reaching the north end of the park.

We stopped here and Mike called to arrange for a shuttle to pick us up. He talked to Sharon and asked her if she could pick us up at 2 p.m. She said she was busy then, but could pick us up at 1:00.

From where we stood, it was 5.6 miles to reach the pickup point at U.S. 522. That’s normally about 2.5 hours of walking, but we had just barely more than two hours left.

Getting there on time would require some hustle and luck. We could do our best with the hustle part, or at least as well as three old guys could do.

For the luck part, we hoped the trail ahead would not be too difficult, but we didn’t know for sure.

Mike told Sharon we would be there, and as soon as he hung up we took off.

Leaving Shenandoah National Park

Within the first 30 minutes we reached the border of the national park. The pathway remained easy through this part of the trail.

Rocky trail outside of the park

From there, though, we had to go down a rocky section. The large boulders were slightly slippery after this morning’s rain. I had no choice but to make my way slowly and carefully down this descent. I decided I’d rather miss the pickup time than put a sudden end to my hike.

Smooth trail outside the park

By the time I reached the bottom of that descent Mike and Stick had gone on ahead. The trail became smooth again and remained that way to our pickup spot at U.S. Highway 522.

Before long, small signs of civilization began to appear in view. First, it was a large, chain link fence. Then a row of houses appeared with their back yards abutting the trail.

Later, a large field, and beyond it several large buildings with red roofs, caught my eye.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the buildings I saw were part of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. I might have paid more attention to them, but at this point I was trying to keep my head down as I powered my way to the highway.

The only time I turned my attention away from the five or six feet of trail in front of me was when I checked my watch every few minutes to see how much time I had left.

The path for the last eight tenths of a mile to the highway was a straight shot, all slightly downhill. I put on the afterburners and flew down the trail.

I arrived with three minutes to spare.

“Safe!” Stick shouted, waving his arms as a baseball umpire would for a runner at home plate.

Sharon arrived a few minutes later. She drove us to her house, which is where Mike had left his car before getting a ride down to Rockfish Gap to meet us a week ago today.

Mike then drove us to a Holiday Inn in Front Royal. He kindly paid for our room.

As with any town stop, the first order of business was a shower. We then did laundry and went to a nearby Walmart to resupply for the next leg of our hike.

Backroom Brewery

For dinner Mike drove us to Backroom Brewery, an unusual place in the middle of farm country. It was part brewery, part restaurant, and part greenhouse and farm.

After dinner, the bartender gave us a tour of the small brewhouse.

When we returned to the hotel, Stick and I repackaged our food, while Mike prepared for his return trip home to Missouri.

If all goes well, we have just four more days to go to reach Harpers Ferry, sometimes called the psychological half-way point of the trail.

You must really consider the circus
'Cause it just might be your kind of zoo
I can't think of a place that's more perfect
For a person as perfect as you

And it's not like I'm leaving you lonely
'Cause I wouldn't know where to begin
But I know that you'll think of me only
When the snakes come marching in
When the snakes come marching in


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.