We were on the upper NC section of the Blue Ridge Parkway this year, which has more open, rolling pastureland than you see in the “High Country” lower down. The park’s boundaries are narrower in this section — sometimes only a half-mile wide — so in addition to enjoying some grassland “hobbit hikes” along with our mountain-climbing and waterfalls, we also brushed up against more farms, homes, and… well, cows… this year. (We called them wild cows, or cow-bears, in order to feel more daring and adventurous.)
The photo above is the view just before you turn around and climb Bluff Mountain at mile marker 243.4. It’s very pastoral (and includes cows) until you get to the top, then the trail divebombs maniacally down the switchbacks of Alligator Back (which took us 15 minutes to get down, and an hour to climb back up on the return trip) and travels along a tiny, treacherous deer path cut into the sheer side of the next mountain for a couple of miles. Awesome hike.
We camped at the Doughton Recreation Area, located at mile markers 238-244, and we highly recommend it. There are very few people, it’s quiet and pretty, and there are over 30 miles of excellent hiking trails (from easy to strenuous), as well as old cabins and other marks of early settlers, within the park area.
Be aware that the tiny lodge and restaurant at Doughton have been closed for years. The closest “town” (and I use that term loosely) is about a 30 minute drive away. The only gas we could find was 20 minutes away in Laurel Springs at an ancient place called Mabe’s, and the only other signs of life there were a few homes, a post office, a fire station, and a Christmas tree farm. Mabe’s had the best frosty Coke Zero and fun size Hershey Bar I ever enjoyed in the middle of a hot, muggy day, and the guy filled my tank for me after directing me to the cool, dim corner of his maze-like general store where I could find a box of garbage bags to keep things dry… But I digress.
Here’s a list of our collective wisdom from this trip and others we’ve made on the Blue Ridge.
1. Warm and dry are important.
It rains just about every day on the Blue Ridge Parkway (see the rain coming in on the photo at the top? Cool, huh?). Everything is lush and green and wet. Sometimes it’s wet and slippery. Sometimes it’s freezing cold and wet (even in high summer).
Foggy, misty, drizzling, stormy, drenched, sodden… Add to that lots of waterfalls, creeks, and other water features that you’ll be in and around.
No matter what, you will probably get wet on the BRP.
To be as happy as possible while camping for a week or two in all this wet lushness, you’ll need to figure out how to get warm and dry at the end of the day. Read on.
2. If you want it to stay dry, put it in a plastic bag.
During one of our BRP vacations after being rained on one day too many, we made a trip into a town so we could use the coin-op laundry to dry all our stuff. A couple hours (and lots of quarters) later, we packed it all back into the car, and didn’t realize the still-soaking wet tent would RE-SOAK everything by the time we got back up on the Blue Ridge. Argh. Now we put EVERYTHING in a plastic bag.
After you wake up, put your bedding in a plastic trash bag. Put all your clothes in a plastic trash bag inside your duffel. Put all the stuff in your pack inside a plastic trash bag. You can never have too many plastic trash bags.
3. You can never have too many bandanas.
A bandana under your cap makes a great “gnat hat” to flap insects away, and if you soak it in a stream and hang it around your neck it will cool you off as it dries. Bandanas dry faster than any other item.
Don’t take full-size bath towels; use hand towels, dish towels, or bandanas instead. Because it’s sucky to try to dry off with a cold, wet, smelly slab o’ nasty. Use bandanas for towels, washcloths, napkins, padding, and everything else you can. Bandanas rule.
4. The scary noises you hear in the night are MOST likely to be…
And I’ve listed these in order of actual probability:
Of course, your middle-of-the-night, this-tent-is-flimsy, I’m-far-from-home brain believes differently…
Last year I was absolutely, 100% certain that our site was being stealthily scoped out by a mountain lion in the middle of the night. Possibly a pack of them. I know they don’t hunt in packs. It didn’t matter. What use is logic when you are about to be mauled? I kept myself awake for hours, frozen in fear and visualizing scenarios that rival anything I’ve ever seen in Game of Thrones. The next morning I told the rangers, and they were polite to me. Like you’re polite to a weird uncle, or a special needs child.
5. Use the bear bins or keep “attractants” in your car.
Do this at night and any time you are away from your campsite. This includes your cans of beer. Bears love beers as much as they love those marshmallows and Hershey Bars you brought for s’mores.
Last year we saw a huge bear on the mountain where we were hiking. We got off that mountain pretty quickly, but I’ve since learned that most of the time, if you leave them alone and steer well clear, they don’t want to bother with you anyway.
Bears and snakes are not naturally aggressive. But you WILL see them and you are in THEIR house, so make noise as you hike, walk slowly, and be respectful.
Just above you’ll see a picture of the bear trap we had at our campground this year. Baited with Honey Buns, no joke. (No bear — or hungry camper — was captured while we were there.)
6. Maps, signs, and trail markers are FREQUENTLY incorrect.
So work that into your plans. Try to be positive about it, because being pissed off the whole trip would defeat the purpose, now wouldn’t it?
In addition to maps, signs, and trail markers (or the absence thereof), some trail write-ups don’t tell you how much time to expect a trail to take. This can be crucial if you’re trying to plan a major hike in the back country and need to get out before nightfall.
Our three maps of the challenging Caudill Cabin (Grassy Gap and Basin Creek) hike this year were ALL WRONG. Distances, road names, everything was incorrect. And no suggested times for the hike were given. We spent two hours the day before our hike just trying to find the access road, which was unmarked, as was the road we took to GET to the access road.
So once we finally found the trailhead, we marked our findings on our own map, hiked a short 3-4 miles of that trip on the day we were doing our research, then came back the next day when we were fresh in order to do the whole thing.
Even so, we were a bit nervous about our pace, since the trip in was all uphill and included more than 20 stream crossings (some quite arduous). It rained on us for 3 of the 7 hours of that hike, and in addition to navigating an overgrown backcountry trail that was sometimes a tiny path on the edge of a steep, rocky incline, everything was slippery and muddy. It took us much longer than we expected. Thankfully, getting out was much quicker, and we made it back well before dark.
In a classic act of nerdery and in order to make the world a better place, Lance updated the Wikipedia entry on those hikes when we returned to civilization.
7. Shoes are a major (unsolved) issue.
Our hiking boots get soaking wet pretty much every year. We hike, bushwhack, cross a lot of streams, and of course, it rains a lot on the BRP. I may have mentioned this.
We bring sneakers and sandals, but we still only have one pair of hiking boots each, and they don’t dry out quickly. We have made trips to a town to dry our boots in a laundry dryer, but that’s a big pain. Since our weeks are built around hiking as much as 6-8 hours a day, we may need to invest in a second pair of boots soon.
How have you solved this issue?
8. Take a “Family Size” Tecnu.
We need this Every. Single. Year. A little bit of poison ivy is a small price to pay for some great hiking, but no one wants to be miserable.
I wash my arms and legs with that stuff some days after we get back to camp. I just carry a camp chair, my Tecnu, and a bandana out to a pump, and nobody else can get water until I’m all shivery-cold and urushiol-free.
9. Water is a critical issue.
Know how to keep yourself supplied with it.
Water is heavy to carry – my 2 liter Camelback adds almost 5 lbs of weight to my day pack, and that may only supply me for a half day of hiking. We’ve had some hikes where we could not summit/finish because we didn’t have enough water, and that bites. So now I also carry an MSR SweetWater purifying system, and make note of potential water sources both before and during a hike.
Also, when lugging your heavy-as-fuck 5-gallon water holder or 4-gallon solar shower to and from your campsite, carry it on your hip like a toddler rather than by the handle. Much easier.
10. A hot shower is not as important as you think.
The majority of places we camp do NOT have showers. In the ‘burbs you get kind of used to the “shower every single day” thing, but when camping, “monkey baths” with a bandana, some soap, and a pot of hot water are really fine.
Solar showers are NOT hot on the BRP, I don’t care if it IS mid-August. In fact, by the time we get back from hiking every evening, they’ve gone from lukewarm to icy. You can suck it up and shiver your way to semi-clean, or you can heat water and add that to your solar shower bag for a moderately not-freezing dealie-o. No marine can shower faster than me using cold water while the wind blows, Jack.
And I’m not likely to do it every day, either.
And yes, I’m doing this in public – or at least within possible view of other campers and maybe a mouse or groundhog, while wearing shorts and a sports bra, in case you were wondering. I can’t see myself buying one of those prissy shower/potty tents they sell… (I can also pee on a trail like nobody’s business.)
But with my Tecnu-wash, and/or a quick solar, then maybe an in-the-tent once-over with a bandanna and a pot of steaming hot agua, I’m pretty damn good to go.
So get a little grimy. Don’t shave. Tie your hair back. You’ll be okay, promise.