The Highest Peak in Shenandoah National Park: Virginia’s Hawksbill Mountain Hike and Camp

Let’s pick up shortly where we left off last: Triple Crown.  When Andy and I were literally lost in the wilderness, no trail, about to die due to climbing up jagged, rough cliffs with a forty-five pound pack each, there was a point when he called my name and said, “Oi, L.  I don’t want to hike with you ever again.”  “Fine, no problem,” I told him.  “And if I ever — and I mean evvver — mention hiking to you again, please remind me of this moment.  I neeever want to hike another day in my entire life.  Appalachian Trail, off.  I’m done.  F*** hiking.”  And I meant it.  Because at the time, the last thing I wanted to do — in the entire world — was pack my pack, strap it onto my shoulders, and set off on another godforsaken mountain again.  That thought was absurd.


What was more absurd was that I forgot that feeling, those emotions, the struggle of that barely-alive day.  I forgot it.  And not only did I forget it, but I forgot it a mere four days later when I asked Andy, all sweet and batting my eyelashes to coax him in, “Hey, you.  Wanna go on another hike and camp with me?  Pleeease.”  He, too, had apparently forgotten our near-death experience and instantly said yes.  I wonder now if it is better to have two insane people together?  Insanity could at least be viewed as sanity then.  If only in our eyes at least.

Alright so that’s where we will begin, our next hike.  This one brought us to Shenandoah National Park to Hawksbill Mountain, also known as Franklin Cliffs.  The lowdown:

  •  9.2 miles circuit (or loop)
  • There’s a 1,980 foot elevation (look at us continuing to push ourselves!)
  • Rated a Level Three of Five

Because I wanted another weekend of camping and this trail was a little longer than what we were used to, we took chose to stay the night.  Once we were packed, we headed out!

This is us saying, “We are going to N-A-I-L this hike!”

When we arrived, we started our trail with a few different blaze colors, the first being yellow . . .
IMG_0008.JPGand we were instantly rewarded with a huge surprise.  Let me set the scene: Andy and I were about two miles in, walking side-by-side, chatting about our hike and how beautiful the weather was when suddenly he threw his hand in front of me, holding me back.  I was alert.  He was alert.  “BEAR!” he screams.  “WHAT?!”  I was beyond excited.  I scanned around us and didn’t see a thing.  As my mama would say, “If it was a snake, it would a bitten you.”  “BEAR!” he shouts again and then lets off a spiel of “BEAR!BEAR!BEAR!BEAR!”s so quickly and loudly that (no joke) it sounded like a verbal machine gun going off next to me. “WHHH-EEEEE-RRREEE?!”  I was getting impatient.  I couldn’t find a daggon bear and he was so tense with such full-circle eyes that I knew it was close.  I tried to find the direction he was looking but every moment I took my sight away from our surroundings to look at him, he looked at me and kept shouting in my face.  “BEARBEARBEARBEAR!!!”  “Andy!  WHERE?!?!”  It was as if the question suddenly dawned on him.  “THERE!”  He was still screaming at me.  “THERE!THERE!THERE!THERE!”  I’m telling you the ground was shaking from his urgency of his machine-gun words.  Finally, he pointed as I heard branches breaking and a clomping away.  “WHERE?!  I DON’T SEE IT!!!”  I followed his finger as he trailed the path of the runaway bear.  “Shhh.”  Now I was apparently supposed to whisper.  “Look theeere.  He’s stopped,” and he points behind trees and other plants that made it practically impossible to see anything.  I got out my camera, ready to take his mug the moment I saw him . . . but the furry animal appeared more a furry mass as it rushed out of the area.  The best shot I could get . . .

My best attempt at taking a picture of a bear

which is actually a pretty amazing first-bear shot.  The bear is smack-dab in the middle of the screen.  I can see his nose, face looking at us, the side of his front leg, and the side of his back leg as it goes up to his rump.  True, it is hard to see but he’s there.

Once the bear disappeared into the woods, Andy and I had a talk.  Or maybe I should reword that: I barraged Andy with questions: “HEY!  Where was the bear?!What was it doing?!How long do you think it was before it saw us?!How long was it before you saw it?!Did it run away right when it saw us?!How old do you think it was?!Was it a fully grown bear?!Was it a teenager?!I think it was a teenager because if it was a cub, his mom would have been around!Can you imagiiine seeing a mother bear and a cub?!Everyone I’ve talked to said it’s mother bears with cubs that you have to watch out for; they are the most serious.How was it acting when we approached?!WOOOW!!!Icannotbelievewesawabearinpersoninthewoods!!!”  I think at first Andy tried to answer the questions but the more he answered, the more I threw at him until he finally put his hands in front of him, a surrender of sorts. “Listen.  When we came to him, the bear was sat on his bum there [and he pointed to a tree], looking at us until someone [I wonder who . . . ] started making a lot of noise and then he got up on all four legs.  Once he’d noticed we’d seen him, he looked at us before looking ’round for a way out.  He then moved into the trees away from us.  And yes, I do think he was a teenager; he wasn’t fully grown and he wasn’t a cub.”  “I wish I had seen him!”  I was beyond myself with grief.  A bear, my bear — finally! — and I didn’t even see him properly.  “Hey.  We need to come up with a plan on announcing bears or wildlife next time because, I’m not gonna lie, you terrorized that one and me.”  This is around when I was quickly reminded that “It was a bloody b-e-a-r” and “Sorry if I wasn’t thinking logically at the moment.”  As we discussed more humane ways to alert each other of bears, we kept walking, feeling bear-eyes all over us.  “I’ve seen twenty-five bears now,” Andy reported and he was right . . . in a sense.  The truth is once you’ve seen one, you’re convinced everything is a bear.  Trees, overgrown plants — they’re all bears.

Regardless, onward we went!
I mentioned we switched blaze colors often which means we started on yellow for the Big Meadows Horse Trail . . .

For the most part, the trail was nice but sometimes it got pretty darn rocky.

then moved to white for my coveted AT . . .
IMG_0049.JPGand lastly to blue, the Hawksbill Mountain Trail.

20160917_153909.jpgImage-15.jpgUnfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it) this hike is without crazy stories.  Here’s why: It was an absolutely perfect hike, one of the best honestly.  It was calm, rewarding and meaningful, so meaningful to me.  However, because of this, this means you can expect something drastically different than the rest of my previous hiking posts: Less storytelling because heck, we didn’t get lost (I knooow!  Can you imagine?!  A hiking first!!!), there were no other crazy animals, and there are incredible pictures that do more justice than my words.  Therefore, if you decide to stick around and keep reading, you will be barraged by couple-y shots and romantic views of where we camped and, well, that’s just how it’s gonna to be.

So.  Prepare yourself because this post is different . . . starting . . . right . . . now!

On the way up to our main Hawksbill vista, we found many tucked away incredible views.
Image-16.jpgIMG_0055.JPGIMG_0069.JPGOne of the reasons I was excited about going hiking again was because I wanted to witness the  leaves slowly changing.  In fact, I secretly aimed to get out every weekend in October (peak foliage month) and tried hard to dodge any plans that would keep me grounded instead of in the mountains.  I don’t think it’s often people take in their surroundings, mainly when it comes to nature.  If you think about it, do you remember seeing the first flower bloom in the spring?  The first snowflake fall in the winter?  Most of the time, we look out the window and viola! everything is blooming or the snow is covering the ground.  I didn’t want that to happen to me now that I was an official hiker.  I wanted to take advantage of my gear, put my stronger legs to use, and really see autumn take hold of the mountains in this passionate fiery blaze.  Turns out, this hike was the first weekend of the month we could witness a change in leaf color.

Sycamores are one of the first trees to turn before dropping its leaves and the color is the this warm yellow.
There were also these beautiful bright red berries which, to me, is another sign autumn has arrived.

One reason this hike was incredible was that we were able to knock down six miles easy, so easy that we were wondering if we should backtrack and leave ourselves with more of a hike the next day.  In the end, we decided to pitch a tent at the most amazing location I have ever camped.  (Granted, I haven’t camped in many but I cannot imagine a spot rivaling this one.)  One reason I loved it: It was a little site which I liked because I didn’t want to talk to other hikers.  Two: While it was tucked away . . .
img_0087it was maybe three yards from the mountain cliffs which allowed us to use every waking moment sitting on the edge of the mountain.  In fact, we had dinner here . . .

Andy making us “tea,” his word for dinner.

Then, we watched the sunset.  My first sunset hike.
img_0097img_0112img_0113img_010720160917_190613.jpg I know that was several sunset mountain pictures, but I couldn’t get over how gorgeous it was and how special that moment felt.

After that, we leaned back onto the rocks . . .
20160917_194359.jpgand snuggled on a blanket . . .
img_0115 watching as the city lights below began to flick on.  People in homes, others driving down small streets — all, no idea we were looming above them on this mountain, watching as their lights illuminated the valley like thousands of fireflies.
IMG_0123.JPGSoon, night reclaimed what was hers and the stars crept out of their hiding spot, shining so brightly it made me question if I’d ever truly seen a star before.

We were amazed my camera picked up the stars and was able to show their various hues.

What was more incredible was seeing the International Space Station as it traveled through the sky.  In the end, we accidentally fell asleep somewhere between tracing the ISS’s path with our fingers and pointing out constellations to each other.  Unaware we had both fallen asleep, we later woke in the darkness on the edge of the cliff nestled between rocks.

Day Two.

This picture shows how close we were to the vista — You can see the mountain view beyond the trees from inside our tent!

We woke early and ventured back onto the cliffs to watch the town wake . . .

I love these shots because it looks like the mountains melt into the sky.

Then Andy made us breakfast, and we said goodbye to our most beautiful camping spot yet.


Side note: While I was setting up to take a picture of us looking into the valley, I had to play with the light and framing for a timer shot.  Andy was my subject and here is how he amuses himself while I quick-snap him as my model.

Off we went with only about three miles to go until our hike that weekend was done, and maybe it is here there is one story to report.  It’s about a problem, well, my problem.  I have a problem, and it is that I cannot pee in the wilderness.  I mean, it is really challenging for me.  Maybe this is something I shouldn’t share publicly, but let’s be honest: The definition of “public” is peeing in the open in the middle of the wilderness without the capability of closing a bathroom stall door.  And let me make note that it’s not that I truly cannot pee in the woods.  From a small age, I was told how to “pop-a-squat yonder” at my Papa’s farm.  I can do it; it obviously doesn’t take talent.  But there are a couple things going against me when I have to pee on a hike:

  • Number One: I don’t want my new sweet British boyfriend to hear me pee in the woods.  I know, I’m weird . . . but I just don’t.  It’s so bad that I begged Andy to not be within viewing sight of me.  “Can you just go, like walk down the trail a little?”  “Wot?!”  He looks at me confused.  “Please.  Andy.  Just go, go down the trail about a mile.”  “A MILE?!  L.  Pee.  What you on about!  Pee!” and he points at me as if that will command me to lose inhibition.  “Please.  Andy.  Please, just gooo,” and I point back, more forceful.  It becomes a pointing war.  Finally, he huffs and walks — literally — two steps forward.  “Are you KIDDING me?!  Go where I CANNOT easily see you!!!  I cannot believe you are going to go two steps STILL facing me!”  He huffs louder and walks about five steps.  And that’s all I get because if I yell and ask him to move further, he ignores me as if he truly is a mile away.  Shame on him.  I know the difference in a mile and seven steps, mister.
  • Number Two: Picking a spot in hard, really really hard.  I spend hours sometimes determining where to go.  And if I cannot find a place right away (which I never can), then I get upset.  Then cranky.  Then angry.  Then I go into complete bitch-mode.  It’s around that time that I essentially give up and determine, “I am going to pee anywhere!” and right when I’m happy with this decision, there’s another problem: other hikers.  There are suddenly numerous hikers.  It’s like going to a mall on Black Friday.  I can go to the most remote off-trail site behind the most unattractive, dull boulder when suddenly a group of backpackers want to venture away from their blaze color to investigate and discuss the rock.  And maybe they want to pee, too, but seriously?!  The chances of that happening?!  Every. single. time?!  Or I’ll think I scouted out a really great spot behind a massive tree and I’m about to drop my shorts when a hiker strolls by because, stupid me, the spot I picked is suddenly adjacent to an unseen unused trail . . . until then.  “I cannot do it,” I’d tell Andy who had been waiting for me (not a mile away).  “Wot!  You ARE kidding, L!  You are kidding, aren’t you!  You didn’t go yet?!  All that time I’ve been stood waiting!  And you didn’t even go!”  True, it had been fifteen minutes of me circling the vicinity of my area then more tightly pacing where I determined I would go and then just standing in the spot — pack off, shorts up, standing, hands on hips.  “No.  No no.  I couldn’t do it.  I just cannot do it.  It just didn’t feel right,” I’d tell him.  “Didn’t feel right?!  Bloody hell, L!  It’s a wee!  How can a wee not feel right?!  Just G-O!” and he’d grumble as I overtook him on the trail; me, still complaining about how I needed to go.
  • Then there’s Number Three: Back to Andy and a particular incident, we will call it.  Here, let me tell you about it: We were at our first camp (my last post at Dragon’s Tooth) and the sun had just set, it was dark except for the fire we had roaring when I announced I needed to pee and set off a couple yards from our site.  “Don’t look at me,” I told him.  I wasn’t hiking a full-fledged mile away (which is practically what I had done earlier so I was much closer which was a pretty big deal for me).  “Wot?!” Andy looked at me like I lost my mind . . . which made me feel like I had indeed lost my mind.  I mean, who watches someone while they pee, right?  I ignored him; he knew what I had said and off I went.  I found my spot, turned off my head torch, pull my britches down, popped a squat, and began.  I’m happy — It is completely dark, I can see him, he has his back to me while he is looking at the fire — when suddenly, he starts to look around him.  “Oh no,” I think, “please. p-l-e-a-s-e do not make me announce where I am peeing.”  It is worse.  Faaar worse.  “L?”  I ignore him.  I’m peeing.  He knows this.  I will be done soon; he can wait.  “L!!!” he’s much louder now, definitely searching for me.  His head torch goes on and he’s scanning — left to right, in front and behind him — until he turns and points his torch directly at me, who is still squatting, still peeing.  “Surely he will turn away because he’s found me now,” I think but noooo, oh nonono.  He just stares.  And stares.  “OI!!!” I yell back (I had just learned that word and from what I knew of it, this seemed the perfect moment to use it), “Do you mind?!  I’m PEEING!!!”  “I was WORRIED about you!” he yells, torch still on me, me still peeing (it sounds like this was the world’s longest pee but it really was only a few seconds.)  “I didn’t see your LIGHT anymore!” he keeps hollering while looking at me, wanting to have a conversation.  “OOOIII!!!  DO YOU MIND?!  AN-D-Y!!!  I SAID I’M PEE-ING!!!”  “Just wanted to know where you were!” he calls, happy, and finally — finally — looks away.  So.  There was that incident.  Where my boyfriend completely perved out and shined a flashlight on me to watch me pee.  Now you can see why I’m scarred.

In the end, what I’m saying is peeing in the wild never works.  Peeing in public never ever works.  Life lesson.

Back to our Hawksbill hike: I had to pee.  And on this hike I had to go a lot, mainly the first day (like every single blessed hour) because this is when we started a ritual of going to Bojangles on the way to our hike where I get the most massive sweet tea . . . drink it all . . . then refill it before we go . . . and drink it all again before our hike.  This means my bladder was about to explode the whole time we are hiking.  So after walking about a mile, I could handle it no more.  I needed to find a spot.  I stumbled off path up to a large tree that would provide semi-visibility protection from coming hikers and the moment I’m taking off my pack, about to pull  my shorts down, I realize I’m not alone.  I realize I’m about to get a little too personal with this fella:

After researching, I believe this is a Northern Black Racer which is a type of constrictor but if I’m wrong, drop me a comment and let me know!

img_0192 I squealed and backed away from the area while Andy came towards me, alert.  By this time it had been about fifteen minutes.  “Com’on then, L!” he calls when he realizes it was a snake.  “What do you mean ‘Com’on!’?  I still have to pee!”  “YOU HAVEN’T WEE-ED YET?!” and he turns his back to head to the trail, ranting to himself about how I need to learn to “just gooo in the woods.”  In the end, the snake never moved.  Crisis averted.  Plus, I found a place to pee soon which means a more serious crisis was averted.

Once we moved on, we were about a mile from our focus: The Hawksbill Mountain vista, which is the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park, and it did not disappoint.IMG_0314.JPGimg_0196

When we got to the top, it was easy to see why the mountain got its name.  There were many hawks circling the area, flying high over the peaks.


Gorgeous flowers were spread out below us on the cliffs
A faraway view of Old Rag, a serious boulder-climb style mountain.


Guuuys, it’s my boyfriend!

On the way back, there were a couple  fenced off areas for plant restoration which was nice to see.  People need to be concerned about wildlife and the environment; more people need to protect it.

Lastly, we stopped by the Visitors Center where we were able to record our bear sighting and apparently a large number of people also had bear-viewing success too.
In the end, this hike was a breath of fresh air.  After our last one left me worried we’d have to light flares to alert a search party of our location, it was relaxing to go on a hike that offered only positives.  Hawksbill is gorgeous and one of the less talked about mountains in the area, which is confusing because it is probably my favorite thus far.  Having a remote campsite adjacent to the most spectacular tucked-away vista was worthy of the trip alone.  The added bonus: Andy and I got to stargaze while lying on the rocks, cuddled under his sleeping bag which we used as a massive blanket, and it was here we whispered about what was in store for us in the future until we fell asleep.

This is us saying we did, in fact, NAIL this hike!

Author: L

Hi there! I am the impulsive do-er, the jumper, the one tugging to move past comfort zones to embrace a life of sheer surprise. I am a writer -- a pursuer of stories -- because I believe in the destination over the journey. I am a chaser of sunrises and sunsets and cherisher of the moments between. I have an overwhelming curiosity, an insatiable desire travel, and an obsessive yearn to turn dreams into realities. For all of these reasons, the word that best summarizes who I am is "seeker" -- I am forever a seeker.

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