Section Hiking the A.T. in Shenandoah National Park: Big Meadows to South River Maintenance Hut

This post summarizes the fourth of eight days I spent backpacking through Shenandoah National Park on the Appalachian Trail.  Click here for my Trip Summary to find articles, maps, and details around trip prep, packing, and lessons learned.

Day 4: Big Meadows to South River Maintenance Hut

Start: Big Meadows Campground, 7:55am
End: South River Maintenance Hut, 5pm
Total hiking (including to/from campsite): ~15.3 miles to Hut; ~15.5 miles to tent site
Water: A few good options. We filled at Lewis Mountain and again at South River picnic area.
Food/resupply: Big Meadows Wayside (south of the campground; dining, groceries, camping/hiking supplies), Lewis Mountain Campground (campstore)
Campsites we passed by: Bearfence Mountain Hut, Lewis Mountain Campground
Shout-out to fellow hikers: Linc and Dreads (see below!), Doc Bear, Just Joe

I’m not feelin a straight narrative write-up, so this day will be riddled with bullets. That sounds terrible, but rest assured, no anecdotes were harmed during the writing of this article.

My body had been subtly rebelling since Day 1, so I finally made a couple gear changes:

  • Zipped off pant legs: I had a weird heat rash on the inside of both shins so went pant-less. Ha! New trail name: No Pants. To clarify, I went lower-leg-less. I had to apply DEET to ward off ticks and other buggers, but it was much cooler.
  • Ditched hiking socks: That bothersome toe needed more room so instead of wearing liners under hiking socks, I wore two pairs of liners. I worried about creating other issues (more room = more sliding = more hot spots) but at least the toe was happy.

Early morning at Big Meadows. Coffee and a friendly deer - what better way to start the day?

Within a mile of leaving Big Meadows Campground, we arrived at Big Meadows Wayside. Break time! Seem lazy? After yesterday’s rushed hiking, a leisurely pace was just what the doctor ordered. While at the Wayside, we:

  • Shopped: I bought Pringles (a staple at this point), a few other snacks, and was proud to use every single penny of my change on a pack of Lifesavers. Hey, I’d rather carry candy than coins! The store had a good selection but prices were all over the place. A dehydrated Backpacker’s Pantry meal for two cost $8.50 (about the going price) but Advil cost $1.75 for two tablets.
  • Used the restroom: We never pass up flush toilets.

Fast-forward to lunch. Julie's enjoying that last few bites of a meaty Italian wrap from Big Meadows Wayside.

  • Bought lunch: My grab-n-go Italian wrap seemed steep at $6 but was chock full of salami, cheese and other goodies. Highly recommend!
  • Texted: Had good cell signal so Lynn checked in with Steve about re-supply.

According to my trail journal, the morning hike was uneventful until exactly 11:20am: “2x in a row No Way has picked up her OWN butt pad and put it in her pack. Cause for much celebration - so proud!!” FYI: A butt pad is just a little something to sit on; Lynn’s is half of a garden kneeling pad.

Signboard at the Lewis Mountain campground. Signs like these were sprinkled throughout the park, telling about trails, wildlife, vegetation, and history.

After lunch we veered off the trail about 100 feet to get water at Lewis Mountain Campground. Or maybe it was 150 feet. According to the AT signposts, it was both! Yes, two posts almost within sight of each other noted different distances for the stretch of land between them. We finally had concrete, irrefutable proof that the signposts, while very helpful, were not always correct. As we suspected for days.

Matt Murray, trail maintenance volunteer extraordinaire.

Before and after Lewis Mountain, we ran into two different PATC trail maintenance volunteers:

  • I immediately noticed when the trail turned pillow-soft underfoot and commented “This has been worked on recently” and Lynn replied “Yes… VERY recently.” I leaned around, and there was Matt Murray, digging away. He shared that he’d rather be cutting up blow-downs (his favorite) but we appreciated his trail improvements. He encouraged us to use their website to report downed trees and other issues.
  • We found Brett Hart weed-whacking on the far side of Baldface Mountain, wearing long pants, long sleeves, and sweating bullets. He even had a bandana over his face which probably protected against the no-see-ums that suddenly appeared. Thanks for clearing our trail, Brett!

No sweeping panoramas today, but the trail still had some very picturesque sections.

A day on the AT wouldn’t be complete without amiable conversations with fellow hikers. Today we ran into:

  • Linc and Dreads: This pair was another mother/daughter duo hiking lodge to lodge. Linc’s trail name was a nod to Abraham Lincoln’s quote “I walk slowly, but I never walk backwards.” Dreads chose a lovely Native American word for her trail name, but it flew out of our brains immediately. Her hair, however, was very memorable.

Lynn with Doc Bear. Note the Appalachian Trail's iconic white blaze on his shirt.

  • Doc Bear!: I wish we’d had more time with this guy but he was northbound. Doc Bear is neurologist from Pennsylvania who hikes 200 miles of the AT each year. He invited us to his upcoming 70th birthday party at the halfway mark on the AT. Way to go Doc Bear! Happy trail birthday!!
  • Just Joe: Just Joe was also northbound and was clearly tired when we ran into him at about 4:40pm, and slumped further when we shared how far it was to the next established campsites. We invited him to stay with us, but he declined since we were the wrong direction. Aww. Joe was the first of many hikers we passed who carried no maps or mileage info. He wasn’t nearly as bad off as the group we passed on Day 7 (stay tuned for that story).

Julie at the South River picnic area. The path to the AT is down the hill to the right. This photo was taken moments before I hoovered the last crumbs out of my Pringles can.

Since we’d be primitive camping near the South River Maintenance Hut, we took a nice long break at the South River picnic area, just a mile shy of our destination. Before hitting the trail at 6:15, we cooked dinner (lasagna; Lynn would give her right arm for a shaker of Tony’s), filled water, used flush toilets (smiley face), and cleaned up a bit. This stop was just one of a thousand small ways that Lynn’s preparation and knowledge made us more comfortable. Thank you Lynn, you’re the best!

The South River Hut used to be for hikers but is now a PATC maintenance hut. There's no camping allowed, so we continued past the hut about a quarter mile. We were told that the hut had a bear pole but we sure couldn't find one.

From there, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the South River Maintenance Hut, which had been recently mowed. Thank you again PATC volunteers; without them, we’d have been slogging through thigh-high vegetation.

We had a couple more firsts that night:

  • Found a privy with a mailbox inside: And that mailbox was stocked with reading material. The South River maintenance folks like to have all the comforts of home. Nicely done.

We decided Julie-bear (and that horizontal branch) were too close, so we repositioned and tied off to a neighboring tree instead.

  • Hung our bear bag on a tree: As it turned out, finding a good tree was harder than hanging the bear bag. We searched and debated and finally selected one about 200 yards from our tent. Lynn got the rope over on the third try (woot!) and the bag was up in minutes…the first time. The bag seemed too low (even a Julie-sized bear could get it) so we repositioned and tied off to a neighboring tree instead of using this guy’s stick-method.

Bear-bag-hanging was our last scheduled activity for the day, and we were zipped into our tent at 7:40pm. Lynn wanted to zip our tent-fly closed (false sense of security?) but it was another hot and sultry night; we desperately needed every gentle breeze that wafted through. Critters tried to keep us awake with their intermittent and mysterious rustling in the dark, but Mr. Sandman eventually won out.

Our primitive campsite in the woods, past the South River Maintenance Hut.

My final first for the day: I realized that my new watch tells the day of the week. I was losing track of days and dates and lo and behold, the info was right there all along. Forehead slap. On that note, how about a technology update from the technically challenged?

  • Digital recorder: I love my new digital voice recorder; it’s easy to use and the only reason I can write these articles with confidence!
  • iPhone: After changing a host of settings, I only lost about 4–5% battery per day. Until last night. I did some troubleshooting and realized I’m a doof: I opened a few apps when I had good signal at Big Meadows and forgot to close them. Oy.
  • SPOT tracker: Lynn carried her SPOT tracker and routinely pressed the OK button each evening to let Steve know we’d made it to the next campsite. Tonight, she accidentally pressed the Custom (re-supply) button and quickly corrected it with three OK’s. We thought that would confuse Steve, but he later shared that our path had him perplexed, not the messages. The tracker is GPS-based and updates location about every 10 minutes. He could see our path going back and forth on itself a bunch and thought we were lost. Nope not lost. We walked to our tent site, then 200 yards back to hang the bear bag, then 200 yards back to our site, then 200 yards back to get our bear bag.

That’s a wrap. Tomorrow, we’ll meet Steve at our resupply rendezvous. Yeee-ha!!!