Amid the Blue Ridge Mountains in the George Washington National Forest, Sherando Lake is the lower and larger of two lakes in a 24-acre recreational area built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s (history buffs can learn more about that here).
It is home to a popular campground with all the amenities for family fun, as well as any number of hiking trails nearby, including Torry Ridge. Today’s Throwback Thursday post remembers a fun, relaxed week of car-camping and hiking we did at Sherando Lake in summer 2014. Click on any of the images below to embiggen it or switch to slideshow mode. (For more fun, refresh your browser tab & the photos will rearrange).
Sometimes hikes don’t go 100% according to plan. This was one of those times. Still, we recommend this hike to most of our outdoorsy friends who have enjoyed trails like Old Rag and are looking for similar experiences without the crowds. Despite the unplanned bits, this stands out as one of our favorite Virginia hikes and we’d like to pair it with Strickler Knob as an overnighter someday soon.
*Soooo…when you read our Hiking Notes below, you’ll discover that this is one of those hikes where we sort of deviated from the original plan. What started out in our mind as an 8-9 mile hike became closer to 14. So it goes, sometimes.
It’s an easy 2 hour drive from our home in Fredericksburg, VA to Crisman Hollow Road between Luray and New Market, VA, which is the starting spot for several great Virginia Hikes in the George Washington Forest Park (a particularly easy drive for Henri, who almost always falls asleep on the way while Fergus drives).
PARKING NOTES: So, Crisman Hollow Road says it is “closed to vehicles from Feb. 1 to the Friday before Youth Spring Turkey Season in April.” Two things to note here: (1) We did not actually know these parameters before setting out to hike, we only vaguely knew that the road may or may not be fully open and simply hoped for the best as we started out, and (2) March 27 was actually earlier than “the Friday before Youth Spring Turkey Season” in Virginia — something neither of us even knew existed — which began April 9 in 2016 (meaning April 1 should have been the “Friday before.”) To be 100% honest, we had to figure out if “Youth Spring Turkey Season” referenced youth turkeys, youth hunters, or both. Turns out, it means youth hunters.
This is all to say that the road turned out to be closed when we got there, anyway. We had to park in the little parking area near Story Book Trail, then walk past the ‘no parking beyond this point’ cable and up the road a good three miles before reaching our trailhead at Scothorn Gap Trail. So, 8 miles became 14 right away with this added walking there and back.
Luray, VA on 27 March 2016
This was our Easter hike for 2016, the first time in many years that we decided to break our annual Old Rag tradition and opt to try new trails each year on this holiday. Easter hikes can vary when it comes to Virginia weather. We’ve had some where it was close to 70° F and some where it was south of 30° F. The temp on this day hovered around 55°, with some chilly wind at the top of the Knob.
This was planned as a day-hike coupled with 1 night of car-camping at a Luray campground called Outlanders. So the hike itself wasn’t much additional prep than we’d do for an Old Rag hike or any 8-10 mile day-hike — day pack with snacks, lunch, water, basic first-aid stuff, and layered clothing in case of weather changes along the way. We only took 1 pack (Fergus’ old North Face) and traded off with it throughout the day (typical for us on a day-hike, really).
The weekend prep, however, included planning for & packing our camping stuff (including what we call the Big Tent, camp stove, camp chairs, etc.) in the back of Fergus’ MINI Countryman and making sure we had all the fun food and drink for a luxurious one-nighter at a campground filled with amenities (read: picnic tables, tent pads, toilets and showers). The Big Tent is an inexpensive 4-person tent we bought years ago from Bass Pro Shops when the kids were still living at home. It’s great for car-camping even when it’s just the two of us because it’s easy to put up and yet has plenty of room if we need to pull in the gear (or the dogs) due to weather.
OUR HIKE NOTES
Here is where we tell you that this hike was super fun and offered a lot of beauty, but didn’t go exactly as planned. The first half was fine. We knew that we might have to hoof it from the parking area to the trailhead if Crisman Hollow Road wasn’t open, so we were mentally prepared for the added 6 miles that tacked on when we found it closed. When the hike immediately changed from 8 to 14 miles, we didn’t blink too much. The first three were just walking up a road to the trailhead, and the last three would just be walking back down it to the car.
The hike to Duncan Knob went without a hitch, also. The Hiking Upward route directions are perfect, and the trail is varied and interesting — with some good steep hiking, and several good campsites along the way that we noted for future reference. We really enjoyed the Class 3 rock scramble to get to the top, pretty akin in terms of difficulty with Old Rag’s rock scramble, but not the same type of experience/feel because Duncan Knob’s is more a big pile of rocks to surmount rather than boulders to get over and through.
We enjoyed the views and lunch at the top of Duncan Knob, despite some pretty chilly wind, then headed back down. The “fun” began when we reached the junction with Scothorn Gap Trail once again. Henri felt that it might be best to just hike back out the way we came in (walk back down Crisman Hollow Road to the parking area); however, Fergus noted the sign to “Massanutten Trail Connector” and figured it wouldn’t add any extra miles to go that way instead. Henri deferred to Fergus, who turned out to be right…BUT.
The return hike along the Massanutten Trail was beautiful and the terrain was varied and interesting, and well worth the time and effort. It included lovely views as it wound pretty steeply down to the creek. It was when we had to hike back up to Crisman Hollow Road that Henri realized the folly of listening to Fergus. What goes down, it turns out, must come up.
The climb up the Massanutten Connector Trail to Rte 211 is steep. Had it been the end of an 8-9 mile hike, Henri may have been a bit less whiney about it, but facing that Unrelenting Up at the tail-end of 14 miles was just plain hard work. She says it felt like doing 30 minutes of lunges after running a half-marathon. Let’s just say that it’s very good that the trail offered so much solitude because some of the words coming out of Henri’s mouth weren’t meant for family-friendly hiking.
By the time we got to the Outlanders campground for our overnight car-camping, Henri was thrilled with our spot (literally right next to the Shenandoah River), but somewhat less than excited to find that we were required to park on a hill above the river and hand-carry our gear down (and then back up the next day) rather than being able to pull right up, unload, and start relaxing.
These are the moments when you know your relationship is solid. No matter how tired and grimy we were (and we were), no matter that the sun had set already…we sucked it up and helped each other take the Big Tent and all our comfy-camping accoutrements down that hill and cooperated to set up camp without a single fight. That’s love, people.
As it turned out, being “off season,” the tent camping sites by the river were ALL vacant except for ours. Henri noted that she probably wouldn’t love camping here during busy season because the pads are very close to one another. Unless we decided to group camp, we might not enjoy having neighbors just a few feet away. As it turned out, though, we had the riverside to ourselves. We woke up early and enjoyed coffee in our make-shift wine-box coffee cups (even when car camping, we sometimes forget stuff) and enjoyed the views, breakfast, and each other’s company for a few hours before tearing down the Big Tent, hauling all our stuff back up the hill, and heading homeward.
It should be noted that we have learned a lot about hiking and about this area, in particular, in the months following this hike. There are half a dozen things we would do differently if we were to hike Duncan Knob again. Having said that, we both had a really good time and remember this as a terrific Easter hike.
OUR FAVORITE BITS
Rock scramble: always a favorite on a hike
SOLITUDE: we saw only 2 other people on the trail all day long (a couple of mountain bikers who were even less pleased than Henri when they discovered the steep climb back to Rte. 211)
Camping by the riverside and making plans to backpack & camp along the trail soon
This quickly became our new favorite hike in Virginia, to date. Although not a loop hike, this one had all of the features we both love: water, cool camping areas, rock scrambling/climbing, varied terrain, solitude, and enough distance & difficulty to feel like a physical challenge. If you enjoy hiking Old Rag, we think you’d enjoy this one.
It took about 2 hours to drive to the parking area/trailhead from Fredericksburg, VA.
IMPORTANT PARKING NOTE: We were glad that the Crisman Hollow Road was open for us to get to the parking area at the trailhead. That’s not true year-round; it was closed when we went to hike Duncan Knob last Easter, adding a 3 mile walk up the road to our trailhead [“Crisman Hollow Road is closed to vehicles from Feb. 1 to the Friday before Youth Spring Turkey Season in April” …now we know!]
New Market, VA on 27 December 2016
Absolutely GORGEOUS, unseasonably warm day (the reason we decided to venture out on this hike, really). Our iPhone weather apps were telling us it was about 62-65° F during most of our hike. Nearby Luray, VA weather reports suggest that temps topped out there at 70° F for the day, so it’s possible that once the sun was beating down on us, we may have moved higher than 65°. Both of us ended up stripping off layers and hiked in short sleeves most of the day (until the windy summit). Unbelievable that it was 2 days after Christmas.
Had to add the wind speed information here because once we got to the summit, we’re pretty sure we were feeling some of those 32 mph gusts. Henri was legitimately afraid to climb to the unprotected summit because the wind seemed strong enough to blow her right off!
The usual day-hike prep, although each time we head out we get a little smarter about adding safety and “what if” items. Because the description of this hike included mention of possible bushwhacking towards the summit, Fergus sharpened his machete and we carried it in with us…didn’t end up needing it, but were glad to have it just in case. Henri also packed her headlamp this time. Didn’t use it, but if we’d been even 30 minutes slower or lingered 30 minutes longer at the vistas, we would have.
As usual, Henri carried in her Go Girl, but this is the first hike where she actually used it in the wild. She says, “Ladies, let me just tell you that stand-up peeing is a REVELATION on the trail. Aside from the views, it was the most magnificent part of the hike. Took a little finessing to make sure there wouldn’t be any mess, but once I got it figured out…I was sold. I will never squat again.”
This was Henri’s first hike in brand new Merrell Moab hiking shoes (Christmas present from Fergus) and she was very happy not to have accidentally peed on them. She’s been hiking in Merrell’s Azura Carex mid boots for the past few years and has loved them, but wanted a low hiking shoe instead of a boot. Really pleased with the Moab’s performance on the trail, and comfort.
OUR HIKE NOTES
This is not a loop. It’s an out-and-back. Usually, that would deter us (boring), but the terrain on this hike is so varied and interesting that we actually wanted to hike back the way we came just to see/experience it again. There is a way to exit to Crisman Hollow Road along Scothorn Gap Trail which would have made for an easy trek back down the road to the parking area, and we thought about it, but opted for the tougher Massanutten Trail hike out instead. This is our 2nd time on this stretch of the Massanutten Trail. Last time was at Easter 2016, when we took an un-planned detour along this stretch after hiking up to Duncan Knob. You could do a loop that includes both Knobs, but we don’t think we’d want to do that unless we were planning an overnighter.
As usual, the Hiking Upward description of the hike was pretty spot on and super useful….except…distance. Our GPS showed that we reached the summit in about 5 miles, making the entire out-and-back hike a good 10 miler (as opposed to the 8.6 miles listed in the description). We did not deviate from the trail outlined in the description, follow any tangents, or get lost. It was legit 10 miles out and back.
The blazes on the Massanutten and Strickler Knob trails appeared really fresh/recent. Although the Hiking Upward description stated that the pink blaze at the Knob trail might be gone or hard to see, we found the opposite. Trail markings were bright, frequent, and easy-to-spot. We did not need to bushwhack to get to the summit at all.
There is a shorter version of the hike coming in from Scothorn Gap trail, but we wanted a challenging hike on this day…and we got it! Having read descriptions of the hike a couple of places online and having hiked the Massanutten Trail in the past, we knew this one was going to be grueling in places (most notably, climbing steeply back out the last mile to the trailhead).
Saw (very nearly stepped in) LOTS of scat on the trail. Fergus was convinced much of it was bear. Henri was equally convinced it was not. Some of it was definitely big cat or coyote. Horse hoof prints and horse scat definitely present on the orange-blazed Massanutten, before we turned off for Strickler Knob itself. Impressive because the trail along the ridge was super narrow. The only wildlife we ran across was a toad trying desperately to pretend to be some dry leaves, and a couple of buzzards in a dead tree at the very summit (our welcoming committee, as it were).
The first mile heads dowwwwwn, very steeply so. As you enter the trail, you just know that hiking back up that ridge is going to absolutely suck, but it’s beautiful and so you tell yourself it will all be worth it.
The Massanutten Trail to Strickler Knob turn off is a nice mix of up and down (mostly up) and levels off in enough places that you get a respite from the climb. Beautiful stream and light rock scrambling along the way. The trail is nicely varied in terms of terrain. Once you reach the turn off to the pink-blazed Strickler Knob trail, there’s a lovely view, and from there to the summit it’s pretty much view-after-view-after-view.
The rock/boulder climb to the summit is no joke. If you enjoy Old Rag, you should also enjoy this, although this seemed even more challenging (maybe just because we’ve done Old Rag so many times now). It may have also seemed more difficult simply due to the wind. As we neared the summit, the gusts were really, really formidable on the New Market Gap side. It was pretty protected from the wind on the Luray Valley side, where someone had built a fire pit perfect for hanging out and having a snack before heading back down.
Some ass-clowns had decided it would be a good idea to spray-paint the rocks at the very summit. We couldn’t really read what it said, and we hope the elements take care of erasing it soon.
The camping sites along the path beckon. Someone had stacked firewood near the one about a mile from the trailhead. So inviting! We really want to pack in our hammocks and/or ultralight tent and spend a night down by that stream.
The hike back up the ridge to the trailhead/parking area from the stream…whew. Steep. We knew it would be, but Henri underestimated how tired her legs would be at mile 9. Not for the faint of heart nor the out-of-shape. We stopped quite a few times to catch our breath. The good news is that it was, by this time, sunset. Each time we paused, we looked back out at the pink-orange light illuminating the ridge and the valley and felt glad to stop and see it. We could see the Knob we had just climbed, illuminated in pink, purple, orange sky…just gorgeous…and it was all good.