April 27, 2020
I left home about noon Friday for the Massanutten Mountains. It was time. “Stay-at home” isn’t that bad, it forces me to do yardwork. But I wanted something besides fresh air. I wanted to climb Kennedy Peak.
The Peak rises about 2,500 feet above and just northwest of Luray, Va. I had passed the Kennedy access trail a half-dozen times on ultrarunning events along the famous 70-mile-long Massanutten Trail, but had never attempted it. I loaded the van expecting rain. In addition to the tent and air mattress I brought the camping cot for sleeping in the van and wet-weather gear because you can hike in rain and I didn’t want to put this off. Sandy, enduring the effects of her allergies, turned down my invitation. She’s not a fan of mountain trails anyway. Not Massanutten trails.
Although national and state parks are closed, trails in the George Washington National Forest, which parallels the Virginia-West Virginia border for hundreds of miles, are open, probably because the trailheads are so remote it would be impossible to enforce closing them. Not that they’re all that popular. Casual dayhikers don’t frequent the Massanuttens, which offer razor-sharp rocks, near-vertical climbs, and twisting, narrow ledges, deep in dense forest.
For me, the most direct route is I-66 to Front Royal, then U.S. 340 south to Luray, then across the north fork of the Shenandoah River and a steep climb up VA 675—about 95 miles. I headed for the “horse lot” near the Camp Roosevelt campground, which is closed. The lot is used as a jump-off point for hikers and trail runners. Three years ago in February I car-camped there on a Friday night for an early Saturday event. As I neared Luray the snow started and the freeze set in. I lived through it by starting the engine a half-dozen times through the night.
The lot was open and empty, I was alone. I parked at the far end near the Stevens Trail trailhead. It was overcast but comfortable, in the 50s. Kennedy Peak by the most direct route is only three or four miles up the Massanutten Trail from my parking spot. An alternative is the Stevens Trail: three miles of easy, rolling trail then two miles of hell, then one more mile to the Kennedy Peak trail. I chose the shorter, easier way.
I strapped on my hydration pack and started up the trail. The first mile winds up, up, around 35 minutes to the Massanutten eastern ridge, where it opens to a spectacular panorama of the valley. I paused and looked at the sky and pushed on, here the trail is an old fire road. Another mile-and-a-half brought me to the final climb. I could see the dark silhouette of Kennedy through the treetops. The wind moaned, I felt raindrops. I had forgotten my rain shell. This can wait, I decided, and turned and hoofed it back to the van, about two hours total hiking. The rain held off.
I guzzled water per doctor’s orders, then lit off my camping grill and cooked the dinner Sandy had made. Since it was still light, peaceful, and pleasant, I pulled out my chair and read for a while before calling it a night. I nixed the tent and went with the cot-in-van, and crawled into my sleeping bag as darkness fell. Wearing my headlamp I read a bit longer, then closed my eyes. Hours passed, I was restless. As the night lengthened the temperature plunged, I guessed to low 30s, upper 20s. I got into sweats and a thermal shirt, grabbed a blanket and wrapped the sleeping bag tighter. My fingers grew stiff. I pulled on gloves.
Sometime during the night I could feel the chill penetrating. This is no fun at all, I told myself. I ditched the Kennedy Peak dream and decided to head home early.
Eventually I fell asleep. When I awoke, the night was glowing with stars, the dark cloud cover was gone. I stared up the brilliant wilderness sky and faced the obvious question: Am I supposed to do this? I said a short prayer and watched dawn break to a delicate blue, the sun pink on the horizon through the woods. No breeze disturbed the treetops, the silence was absolute. I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and wondered: how about the longer route?
In my trail-running days I descended the Stevens Trail maybe a dozen times. Coming down is fun, tapdancing through the rocks. Down is easy. I could recall climbing it twice, the last time maybe three years ago. Try it now, with next to no training? Sure, why not—I didn’t have anything else planned. Going up Stevens meant descending on the Massanutten Trail, the same route I had taken Friday, for a total of about nine miles.
I made a pot of coffee and ate my oatmeal. The sun poked above the trees, filling the lot with warm daylight. I dressed and pulled on the hydration pack. The Stevens Trail, marked by yellow tree blazes, rolls nicely due north for two miles, actually directly away from Kennedy. I made good time, maybe 20 minutes for the first mile, then the second, falling into a nice rhythm with my hiking poles. I stopped for water. The third mile got tough as it wound gradually east. I stopped again, sat on a stump and checked my pack. Running out of water would mean turning back. I was okay.
Now it was time for “granny gear,” one foot barely in front of the other, sticking and leaning on the poles. The trail was a linear mass of rocks stretching up, turning, then up again. I stopped and drank. I kept going. Another 35-minute mile, I guessed. My thighs felt like rubber. I watched the next turn, then the next, then the next as the trail snaked up the ridge. The turns came to me, foot by foot, rock by rock. I looked at my watch: 4:45 miles. I could see the intersection with the “M” trail. At the top I stood still, my lungs burning, and drank. From there it was a level mile to the Kennedy Peak trail. I strode easily, thin clouds hanging below me over the valley between the Massanutten ridge and the Shenandoahs, which loomed ten or fifteen miles east.
The Kennedy trail, maybe a quarter-mile long, was another granny-gear slog. I inched between the long shards of granite that shape the trail, leaning on the poles, at times edging the cliff. Slipping there would end things quickly. But soon I could see the top. I could make out the outline of the observation tower. Then I was there. I climbed the stairs to the platform and settled onto a bench and caught my breath. I looked north and south, east and west. The deep green of mountain forest paints the graceful peaks that stretch for a hundred miles in every direction. I closed my eyes. Then I crossed Kennedy Peak off my list.