Virginia’s Saint Mary’s Wilderness Trail Hike and Camp

We felt adventurous on this hike (which happened a bit ago but I fell behind blogging because I just wanted to enjoy the remaining time with Andy) and oh how we get an adventure that lasted . . . and lasted . . . and lasted.  It was not an adventure in the sense of bear attacks or ghost hauntings — been there, done that.  This was a different type of adventure.  First, these two words: Unblazed trail.  Yep, that’s right.  We, the couple that gets lost on practically every hike.  We, the ones that have something near catastrophic happen every time a trail is traveled.  We, apparently ready for an unblazed, unmarked, no-paint trail. The sheer logic behind our decision astounds me now as I summarize our trip.

And it gets better.  This trail also had a higher elevation than we had done before and over half of it was rated the tip-top highest difficulty.  Let me say again: The sheer logic behind our decision astounds me.  Regardless, we did it and while Andy’s existence could be yet to be determined, I am clearly still alive and blogging so let me tell ya about our trip in George Washington National Forest on the Saint Mary’s Wilderness Trail:

  • An almost twenty-six mile circuit
  • 5,300 foot elevation (wooo, major skill level increase!)
  • The first part is rated a Level Four of Five difficulty, but the second (and over half of the trail) is rated a Level Five of Five
Starting Hike.jpg
This is us saying, “What hell did we get ourselves into with an unmarked trail!?”

At this point in time, I had convinced Andy to set aside practically every weekend so that we could go camping.  It was autumn, but I was most excited about this hike because the leaves were at their color peak.  Before this, we had gone out multiple weekends straight to see autumn creep in and witness the leaves’ gradual color change so this hike meant autumn was boasting of her color, smiling down on us as we snuck below her branches.
FullSizeRender-19.jpgFullSizeRender-21.jpgleaves1leaves2img_0102Leaves4.jpgWhile the area around us was vibrant and alive, it would suddenly change and showed a time of the past.  Autumn’s remains lay scattered on the ground, creating an eerie atmosphere.  It was here that nature seemed skeletal with fallen trees and large clusters of dead containing limbs of once-alive plants. IMG_0052.JPGIn these areas, patches of ferns were now faint and delicate, thin as tracing paper, as they gasped for final breaths before creeping into the shadows, going dormant under the canopy of trees.
IMG_0062.JPGStill, the area was magical.  I know I have said this before about other hikes, but that’s the best description of how it feels to be the only ones within view, for the sole sounds to be your breath, footsteps, nature, to feel so tiny and hidden, protected by a monstrous mountain.  And when you wonder upon areas that look like this, you have to wonder if nature is testing you, seeing if you are perceptive enough to notice its playful personality.  Andy and I often joke that the forest is setting out enchanted doorways to other realms and we wonder how many other hikers have walked by and missed those entrances.

A foot-shaped fern


Perfect look at nature thriving despite what could be in its way


When we started the hike, our trail cut through a massive stretch of rhododendron bushes, which if you are interested in going on this hike, I would highly suggest coming in the spring when the rhododendron are blooming; I can only imagine how gorgeous and breathtaking that would be.
IMG_0020.jpgIMG_0002.JPGOnce we got through the rhododendron area, the trail turned rocky . . .
img_0093img_0096and then broke left and right.  Left was to visit a waterfall and right was to continue the trail towards the vista.
IMG_0101.JPGKnowing we wanted to take in every moment, every “trail gift,” we chose the left which was supposedly almost six miles extra.  This lead us to these mini-falls over an amazing ridged rock formation.
IMG_0078.JPGPast that, our directions told us to cross a stream . . .
img_0084and soon another stream . . .img_0085and still another . . .
Me Crossing Stream.jpgso that by the time we crossed Saint Mary’s River (which we had to more than twice), my internal compass became confused, leading me to feel lost and backtracking through the same area despite the fact that the trail was visible and we were in the correct location.  I was learning the tough aspect about fall hikes is that when the leaves cover the trail, it makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to determine where the trail is.  This was made even more confusing when we had to cross the water.  Because the trail splintered off when it got closer, it made it unclear where to pick it back up once we crossed.  Not only this, but the water was getting deeper at each crossing so that we could no longer cross by stepping onto rocks.  This meant we had to take off our socks and shoes.  I’m quickly learning there are two things that will make me grumpy on hikes: One, is needing to pee and being unable to.  The other is being cold and wet so there is no way I was going to risk water in my shoes or wet socks.  However, we needed to cross so this seemed the only option.  To add insult to injury, someone finds it highly amusing when I get grumpy and here is proof of that person mocking me . . .

Despite having a clearly sympathetic hiking partner, I loved this hike because it offered a bit of everything — gorgeous plants, water you had to cross, jagged mountain rocks, massive boulders . . .
IMG_0166.JPGimg_0089img_0090Apparently other people like this hike too as it is known to be one of the most popular trails in the northern Blue Ridge Mountains.  While it was not a built-up or developed trail, it was one that had evidence of those past hikers.  As we walked, we found items long forgotten and strewn on the forest floor: trekking poles, a scarf . . .IMG_0092.jpgeven a vest . . . which um, happened to be size small and uh, one I kinda sorta picked up . . . you know, to reduce littering the earth.  In my defense though, every hiker we passed, I asked if an item was dropped, but they all looked at me as if I was crazy.  So, new slash not new vest — score.  Meanwhile, Andy joked that since I had earlier talked nonstop about wanting to purchase a vest identical to the one we found, the forest seemed in a giving mood so we should ask it for other gifts.  He promptly announced — loudly enough so that the birds flew away from their perching tree spots — that he desired Ray-Ban glasses.  The forest promptly thought him absurd and that was the end of its giving.  For us both.  I was apparently punished by default of being near him.

Still, we did find other gifts: Relics from old iron ore mines.
IMG_0123.JPGOnward we continued . . .
IMG_0027.JPGuntil we approached two swimming holes.img_0129
The second one was amazing, too.  It was the color of the lightest jade and seeing this swimming hole alone made the hike worth it.  Again, I would recommend coming when the weather warms because a dip in this would be heavenly.

Look more closely at the water: You can see all the way to the bottom.  It was gorgeous.

Past the swimming holes is where the trail got frustrating, and frustrating for two different reasons.  First, I had this danged gnat stalking me and attacking my eye.  It died a painful death in none other than my eye, which lead me to clawing at my eyeball, shrieking of how there was a gnat carcass in it, and asking Andy if he could see it to assist me in getting it out.  Just as a sweet boyfriend would, he rushed to my rescue, ready to analyze my eye . . . until I turned around and he saw how blood red and oozy it was which caused him to instantly let out a loud, fierce, guttural, “AHHHHH” before jerking his head away, retching at the sight of me, and telling me to stop looking at him.  Helpful, mainly because I couldn’t see where I was looking due to the gnat body.

The second frustration came from following the trail.  Further and further into the unknown, we were pushed forward by the goal of seeing this waterfall.  But mile after mile brought us no such gift, which lead us to stopping passing hikers.  “How far to the waterfall?” we asked.  “Oh, it’s about fifteen minutes from here, pretty quick hike,” a couple told us.  “Fifteen minutes?  That’s not bad,” we smiled to each other.  Thirty minutes later, still no waterfall.  “How far to the waterfall?” we asked another hiker, slightly more dejected.  “Ah, about fifteen minutes from here,” he responded and this conversation continued the same way with about two more people.

Finally — a whopping two hours later — our trail got more dangerous, meaning more rocky and steep with little room for error because we were walking at the edge above rocky water.  And it was during this time we experienced a creepy part: Suddenly, an old man appeared in front of us.  Suddenly as in exactly how it sounds: When we looked ahead on the trail, it was clear for several yards — no man, no human, nothing.  But suddenly, he was in front of us, a few feet away.  Frail and grey-haired, he had on a nice button-up shirt, khaki dress pants, and those cute but equally pitiful old-people-shoes that have Velcro instead of laces.  Not only this guys, but he was hunched over a cane — a cane!  And he was walking towards us.  “The waterfall is just ahead.  It’s very pretty too,” he whispered, without being triggered by a question and not pausing to hear our remarks.  Andy and I stopped and, gaping, looked at each other to confirm what had just happened.  Then, when we turned around to thank him, he was gone.  I joke not.  *Poof* gone. How did the man know we were going to ask about the waterfall?  Where had he come from?  How could he have hiked this trail (steep, rocky portions over the river) with a cane and without breaking a sweat?  And how had he just floated by — literally floated — by within seconds so that we didn’t hear a single pebble move under his feet?

I admit, the old man was creepy but instead of focusing on how he was a forest-spirit, we took it as a challenge and were reinvigorated — If he could do it, we sure as hell could make it to the waterfall!  Off we went on our non-blaze trail so that moments later, we were scrambling and scaling rocks.  It became so much so that at one point, I had to take my pack off to get around a narrow rock bend.  “Are we sure it’s this way?” I asked Andy.  “Who said anything about being sure?” Andy questioned back while I clung onto a rock for dear life.  “How the hell did the old man get through here?!” I mumbled then yelled back, “And what do the directions say?!” He quickly pulled them out and looked, “You’ll have a ‘blockage back to the trail.’  Wait, what does that even mean?!”  Frustrations from hugging the rock soon got to me as I screamed back, “I don’t know!!!  YOU ARE THE ONE WITH THE DIRECTIONS!!!”  But it was too late to turn back!  I keep baby-stepping forward . . . and forward still . . . out-of-sight of Andy until suddenly, the rock ended at a tiny cliff about fifteen feet above the river.  I hollered to Andy what I saw.  “Good!” a distance voice smoothed, “That’s where we need to go!  We need to climb down and re-ford the river!”  I groaned.  At this point, if I heard “re-ford and river” one more time, I was going to take my shoe off and chuck it at someone.

Moments later, we were safely below the cliff, standing in front of the water, and looking at it.  “I don’t want to go in the water again,” I told Andy.  “I’m cold just thinking about it.” “There has to be another way . . . the water, too deep for shoes . . . but another way . . . ” he responded, walking around me, his engineer-mind at work.  After a few minutes, he returned, dejected.  “We need to get up there [pointing] and climb up the steep embankment.  And [pause] I think the only way to go is into the river.”

This is the embankment we needed to climb up from the river.

This is around when we both just stood next to one another and stared at it.  It rushed by, its little rapids unphased.  “FINE!” I screamed, throwing my hands into the air, as if he and the river had provoked me.  “I’LL TEST IT AND GET IN THE DAMNED RIVER!!!” Off my shoes went, off my socks went, and off I went into the water.  Fueled by rage to have come this far — when the waterfall was almost within sight — I stomped several large steps into the river . . . only to determine, too late, that it was more frigid than any before and the rocks were super slippery and sharp.  By this time though, I was stuck in the middle of the danged thing, rapidly losing feeling in my feet which was good because I was convinced the rocks were slicing open my feet and if I looked down, I’d see blood gushing out.  “Andy, it’s too much!” I shouted to him, trying oh so hard to make it back to him but failing.  I was slipping with each step  and falling in directions that didn’t benefit anyone.  “I cannot make it!” I screamed, hysterical almost.  “Save yourself!  Go on with out me!”  and truth be told, I wasn’t joking.  At least not about the first part.  What I wanted him to do though was haul ass into the freezing water to rescue me and carry me to shore.  Instead he just looked at me . . . and took my picture.  Again.
me-in-water“ANDY!!!  I’m SERIOUS!!!”  The situations was becoming dire.  “IIIII CANNOOOOOT FEEEEEL MYYYYY FEEEEET!!!”  “Get out of the water, L,” Andy demanded.  “Get out of the water right N-O-W!  This is WAY too dangerous.”  But I was dipping in and out of consciousness while my feet were being amputated under me.  “Annndyyy . . . ” I was whispering, barely loud enough to hear over the tiny rapids, “I can — cannot dooo ittt . . . my feet . . . I cannot feeeeel my . . . I cannot feel them . . . ”  If I remember correctly (again, I was losing consciousness) he cussed before throwing his pack off of his back and getting ready to save me — all the while still demanding me to “COME THIS WAY N-O-W!!!”  That’s when I had a surge of final-efforts-to-live energy and bounded towards him before collapsing on the rocks.  Maybe my subconscious just wanted to see if he would save me.  “I CANNOT FEEL MY FEET!!!” I cry-screamed to him, to other hikers, to the world.  “I CANNOT FEEEEEEEL MY FEEEEEEETTTTT!!!”  My cry-scream soon turned to cry-complaining which brought hikers towards us, fortunately not because they heard me.  They were coming from the other side of the river, the side with the waterfall, and headed towards us to finish their trail.  “Let’s watch them,” Andy whispered, apparently still thinking I was going to hop joyfully into the water again to see the stupid waterfall.  I put on my socks and massaged my toes instead of informing him how little I cared.
My Feet (two pics).jpgMeanwhile, hiker after hiker appeared, lead by this super-hiker who was telling the about thirteen people after him how to meticulously step to get across the river.  “Step heeere,” he cooed to a woman that was so unbalanced and uncoordinated I thought for sure she would be biting the rocks soon.  “Oh — okay,” she said and grabbed his hand as he gave her this sweet, reassuring smile and helped her magically across the rocks.  I leered at Andy; he just smiled and squeezed my shoulder, unaware that my look was blaming him.  In the end, we watched (well, I leer-watched) all thirteen hikers cross the stupid river, untouched by a single drop of water.  Then, they disappeared behind us.  “What are your thoughts?” he asked me.  I was still leering.  “Right.  I think the same thing.  The water will be higher once we return and it’s going to be getting dark soon.  I say we head back to find a place to camp.  Thoughts?”  Meanwhile, I had already put back on my shoes and tied the laces, picked up my pack, and was walking towards the trail, away from the stupid river.

So.  That’s essentially how Day One ended.  Me, complaining the entire way to our camp site about how the waterfall was dumb while also fussing that I must not be beaten by the river and will see the falls in the future.  Poor Andy was forced to listen for awhile because it was quite a trek to find a small bit of flat ground.  Finally though, we pitched our tent under burning yellow leaves that glowed in the late afternoon sun.
With the sun setting, Andy gathered as many limbs as he could for a fire and as the sticks piled up, I started the blaze which was soon burning strong.  I’m just gonna throw it out there, I started this fire in a matter of minutes — no fire starter, just a lighter and everything was soaking wet, too.  I’m kinda awesome.  Or a pyro.  Or a kinda awesome pyro.
IMG_0144.jpgWith the fire going strong, Andy make us a cup of tea before we ate dinner.  By this time, the temperature was starting to drop too and the warm fire made me feel cozy and tired.  I was nodding in and out of sleep before finally deciding I needed to go into the tent to lie down . . . and when I turned around, a rush of adrenaline overcame me.  “ANDY!!!”  I shouted even though he was right next to me.  “ANNNNDDDDY!!!”  I think he thought a bear had crept up to our tent but it was much worse.  An ember had somehow jumped out of our fire pit, over my shoulder, and was burning a leaf on a sapling.  And, to make matters more scary, there were red hot embers under the sapling, glowing bright and ready to eat all of nature. “HOLYSHITHOLYSHITHOLYSHIT!” I screamed, absolutely overcome with fear as I imaged all of George Washington National Forest engulfed in flames due to our stupidity.  “WHAT DO WE DO?!?!”  We rushed to the little sapling and kicked at the base until the fire-leave fell then we stomped on it and all surrounding embers so severely I think I bruised the bottoms of my feet.  “Holy shit,” I gasped to Andy, “we almost burnt down the entire forest!”  “Calm down,” he told me, also out of breath.  “It was just an few embers.  We just need to be more careful.”  Careful how though?! I wanted to question.  It wasn’t as if I had tried to make the largest fire.  It wasn’t as if we chose to build one outside of a pre-existing fire pit.  It wasn’t as it we were sitting directly in front of the blaze the whole time.  That experience wiped all my energy away and I felt as faint as those ferns we saw when we entered the forest.  “Right, I’ll put out the fire,” Andy told me as I turned and crawled into our tent.

Day Two.
On our past hikes, we took it slow in the morning, lying in, building up a morning fire and nestling next to each other in front of it.  However this time, we wanted to get an earlier start.  After the river defeated us, we ended Day One with about eight miles (when we had estimated at least ten).  This meant we had a lot of ground to cover in the new day inorder to make it back to our vehicle at a decent hour.  With that in mind, we started by refilling our bladders . . .
IMG_0180.jpgand packed up our supplies.  Before we left though, we did carve our mark on a toppled tree . . .

Afterwards, we hoped on the trail, ready to finish the circuit.  We started off pretty joyfully; we both got plenty of rest, felt good, and the weather was cool and perfect.  We also saw more remains of the old iron ore mines, which excited me because I love having out-of-the-ordinary trail traits, aspects that set each trail apart and make it unique.
img_0207img_0213Not only this, but we found animal tacks in the trail.

This one was as big as our hand with our fingers spread out fully.
This one was slightly smaller than our hand.

These were the first tracks we had found hiking and we spend a bit examining them.  First, there were two different ones, which seemed odd because the tracks belonged to one animal based on the direction and distance between steps.  Second, they didn’t have hoof indentations like something a deer would leave and they appeared too large for a “soft-footed” animal like a fox or large cat.  That lead us to believe the tracks could only be from a bear and since they seemed fresh (they weren’t covered by leaves or other prints) that bear could still be close.  In the end, we did not see a bear, which quite frankly was fine with both of us after our almost bear mauling at Three Falls.  So wherever hefty fellow left those marks, his tracks are the only enjoyably sedate way to semi-view him.

Side note: When we returned, I asked a hiking expert friend about the track pictures and he confirmed with 100% certainty they were bear tracks.  He sent me this image, which shows that bears apparently leave two different tracks based on their front feet and back feet, which explains why we had two different ones as well.

Okay, continuing our hike: By this time, we supposedly had about nine miles left, which was a haul but do-able.  For the most part, the ground was flat . . . until we reached this sucker, which was described as a “small mound.”
IMG_0230.jpgSmall mound?  Hardly.  Let me tell you, there was nothing “small” or “mound” about this.  He may appear be an innocent little hill here, but he was terribly steep.  Like really steep.  Sure, we tackled him but our calves were burning after.  The good news is once we were on top of it, we got sneaking peaks of other mountains and of course, more amazing fall foliage.
IMG_0232.JPGThe trail then continued through another rhododendron area, this one significantly overgrown so much so that we could hardly see the trail.  Without a blaze color to guide us, we developed a plan of pushing slash battling the rhododendron to view the one-foot-at-a-time trail below.

While hard to see, the path is in the middle of this shot and is best described as “the dark patches between the leaves.”

I used this as an occasion to push Andy for a machete.  I’ve been coveting one and even though I know it isn’t a hiking essential, I really really, really really want one.  As he pushed past the bushes, I invisible-machete-axed my way through, explaining that it would take us at least half the time if he supported my efforts to have a machete come to fruwishen. He though kept walking, occasionally deeply inhaling breath when my invisible machete moves came too close to his face.  “THIS is why you cannot ever have a machete,” he reminded me.  Shoulders slouched, I followed at his heels, invisible-machete being drug in the dirt behind me.

And let me add here, that despite his attempt at seeming uninterested, I’m pretty certain that he would have asked me to get my machete out again if I truly did have it because our directions made it seem we would battle the rhododendrons for a short time.  Instead, we fought those plants and the disappearing trail for several miles . . . several looong miles . . . until they suddenly cleared and ahead lay the steepest portion of our journey thus far — an absolute uphill climb on a very rocky trail.  It was barren on this part of the hike too.  The plants more resembled ones you’d find in a desert — thirsty, hot, and shriveling under the hot sun.  And that sun by the way was definitely hot without the canopy overhead.  Around this time, we were sweating and gasping for air and cussing and stopping and then passing one another in small bursts of energy.  It was a save yourself, do-or-die situation and well, there was no time even for pictures.  We were stuck, in the middle of a forest, on a mountain, after being (what felt like) being rapidly gobbled up by rhododendron, barely alive to escape.  The sad part was that our directions told we were only supposed to have a two mile uphill climb . . . when in fact, it turned out to be many more miles according to our GPS tracker until finally — finally — we reached a clearing and found our first sign of human existence in the form of a well, sign.

This is me saying, “I cannot believe we survived the extended rhododendron trail portion.”

Past this sign, we strayed from the main trail onto a tinier one in search of the (enter angels singing) Green Pond.  It didn’t dawn on me that anything called Green or Emerald Pond was a bad omen, given our first hike with Usua and all the misfortune that held.  All we could think at the time was how we desired to see the glorious green pond, how the thought of that pond was what got us us through the rhododendrons, got us up over the steep rocky trail, how that green pond was the one thing pushing us on.  However, after all the battle, after all the fight, this is what we got:
IMG_0248.JPGDon’t see the pond?  Neither did we.  Apparently, it was covered by whatever plant took over the whole area.  The famous Green Pond was more a Dying Grass Pond which made us grumble loudly until we found our main trail again.

With heavy heads and hearts, we followed the trail to a Forestry Service Road . . . that lasted forever . . . and ever . . . and ever.  This bumpy, rocky road was supposed to total about three miles, but here again our directions got it wrong and it was much much more.  In fact, it became so much that I’m not gonna lie — I just wanted to give up and wave a white flag, call to someone that would hopefully pass by on the road.  And soon, I got my wish.  This guy in this four-wheeler-type of vehicle-thing zoomed near us . . . and then whizzed right by without so much as a pause to ask  if we were okay.  And we were not okay!  We cleary resembled more roadkill than hikers.  Once he passed, I full felt full-on defeat.  I was agitated and angry, and I began to complain about everything — the rocky ground, tripping after stumping my toe repeatedly, how hot I was, how there was no shade, the list went on and on.  I normally don’t complain on hikes either, but by this time I was ready to go home and it seemed each turn had uncalculated multi-miles to complete which put me in a foul mood.  I like being prepped, to be aware of what is coming, not have an additional several miles jump out at us.

Onward and onward we continued, more exhausted, more miserable, more ready to go home when we suddenly found the sole vista we came to see.  A little trail broke to the left of the main one and it was here, at the end of this little path that we saw what we had been waiting for, what made our entire hellious hike worth it.
leaves-filter3leaves-filter4The leaves were gorgeous, and I truly had not seen more astounding fall foliage until this day.  The view was of Kennedy Creek, which winds through the middle of these two mountains: Kennedy Ridge (left) and Kelly Mountain (right).
leaves-filter7leaves-filter2img_0251We stayed for what felt like hours on the rocks, looking out over the valley, letting the breeze cool and calm us.

In all, we had supposedly about two more miles to the car . . . which (no surprise) turned into more miles again.  I don’t know what happened to our directions, but huge sections were left out which meant massive recalculations of mileage.  With fear it would get dark soon and with concerns we wouldn’t get back at a decent hour, I admit it — We took a short-cut and walked about half a mile along the Blue Ridge Parkway which was nice because we got this: a bench, an all-glorious bench, and I cannot remember a time that sitting down felt so needed and incredible.  Andy though was trying to silence my excitement — I was loudly moaning and awing and owing over how wonderful it felt to sit on this bench as passing people (who drove up to look at drive-up views) walked by, eyes bulging out of their heads as if I was insane.  I was at my wits end and wanted to attack them, which is probably why Andy kept telling me to “Shhh and calm down!”

In total though, our trip was anything but calm.  It was supposed to be about twenty-six miles, but it turned out to be much much more.  And to give you an example of how much we hauled ass on Day Two, we walked over a whooping eighteen miles.  In one day.  Which is insane, mainly for the two people that estimate about five to ten miles at most a day.  To say we felt like we were barely holding onto life, to say that we felt drained in all mental and physical states, to say that we felt like f’ing champions by the end — all of that, an understatement.  Except for the champions bit.  We were, we are champions.

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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