All 2014 Reports

Massanutten Madness (71 miles)

17-19 October 2014

- Dave MacLuskie


The Massanutten trail is a 71 mile loop in the George Washington National Forest about an hour west of Washington D.C. It has a reputation for being steep and rugged with lots of rocky trail. Two mountain ranges form a closed valley of sorts. This area was the Continental Army's (as in Revolutionary War days) planned avenue of retreat if the battle at Yorktown, VA didn't go so well. This is particularly interesting to me as one of my standard evening run routes is on the Yorktown Battlefields and runs right through Surrender Field.

The Massanutten 100 mile run is along most of these trails as well.

Trip Report

I drove up the long way and approached via I-81 so I could stash 3 gallons of water at Edinburg Gap. Thanks to some construction traffic I lost my time buffer but found the trail, stashed the water, and headed up to the Signal Knob parking lot. I arrived a few minutes before 3pm on Friday and was just putting on my shoes when Hua and her crowd drove in. We were on the trail at 3:15 and up the reasonable climb to Signal Knob. Mimi directed us to the campsite and we set about doing camp things: firewood, dinner, and the pie. I had been informed that it was Hua's birthday. Rather than baking something on the trail and having to carry my gear I made an apple pie at home, constructed a box out of 1/4" plywood scraps and duct tape and carried it in. We burned the box after eating the pie.

Hua and the apple pie.

Mimi and Trevor at the Friday night fire.

Michael rolled in just after dark and threw his cheese around (not a euphemism - he kept dropping a bit of cheese from his sandwich). Joffrey and Matt rolled in after I went to bed though I was awake enough to alert them to the remains of the pie.

Saturday started out so well. I had topped off my water (3 liters) the night before so avoided the dry creek snafu. Michael was sure there was good water before the climb. It turns out that there wasn't. He and some others had to backtrack half a mile to get water. Sophie took point and Steve and I trailed behind her. We moved at a pretty good clip through to Edinburg Gap and the water cache. I limited my break there to about 10-15 minutes, tanked up on water (back up to 3 liters) and headed up Short Mountain.

I knew the Massanutten was known for being rocky but so far we'd had a very pleasant trail and I somehow expected it to continue. I was so very wrong. The switch back on the climb up the ridge threw my internal compass off somehow. As I began hiking along the ridge I was convinced I was headed back to the north and knew I needed to be going south. The wind was still hitting my right side (and hence, out of the west like all morning) so I knew I was going the right way but mentally it felt backward. It was a very odd feeling and I struggled with it for an hour or so. (I had a compass but didn't want to stop and pull it out. A possibly stupid mistake but I knew I wasn't back tracking over trail I'd been on and was going the right way.)

My feet took a real beating on Short Mountain. The rocks are all angled and it was hard to find a solid foot plant. Iíd get a small rhythm going and be thrown out of whack. It got frustrating and painful. I formed a blister on the outside of my right foot due to the lateral sliding. My little toe began feeling tweaked and crushed as it kept taking my full body weight slide into every other step.

It turns out that ďShortĒ mountain was once called ďSeven-Mile MountainĒ. That little bit of info would have been more helpful because it just went on forever. I finally got to the decent and was happy to be off the ridge. Hua caught me just as I crossed the road and we immediately missed the right hand turn onto the forest road (but only by 50 feet). Hua nearly missed the left off the service road (by 10 feet) but caught herself and we managed to stay on track through the next couple trail divisions.

The next ridge, Jawbone, was a bit of a blur for me. It felt a bit like Short Mountain, but not as bad. I was getting tired and hungry. In retrospect I should have been eating more. I know my mood turns south when Iím hungry but by then Iím cranky, stubborn, and extremely good at ignoring the problem and thus making it worse.

When I descended off Jawbone I knew (thought I knew) I was almost there. The trail got flat and easy. I was happy. I knew Waterfall (a notoriously steep section that we would be descending) was ahead and was pleasantly surprised that itís just really steep but not ridiculously rocky. I was imagining something like the rocky descent to Pen-Mar from the 4-state challenge.

When I smelled the camp fire I knew I was nearly there. Bad news: that wasnít the DC UL group camped at the base of Waterfall. I filled my 2-liter Platypus bag at the creek to filter later and began the endless climb up to Scothorn Gap. Usually we had been descending to Gaps, not climbing to them so this last surprise climb pitched my mood back to cranky.

Joffrey passed me just as darkness set in and we both lit our headlamps. He disappeared in about 5 seconds and I trudged up the broken trail in the dark. I finally came to the intersection that Michael had drilled into us to ďturn left!Ē Jenís poles and stuff sack were a welcome confirmation. The hike to camp was longer than I thought it should be but I finally saw the fire and heard the cheers from camp. What a welcoming we had from the other DC UL group. Just over the top fantastic. Thanks so much.

I had a delicious beverage while I cooked my meal (red beans and rice) then had another while I cooked my backup meal (mashed potatoes). I was still hungry but was out of meals and didnít want to dig into my limited snack supply for Sunday. I hit the sack before 9pm and slept very well despite my poor tent placement over some rocks. Thank you big, fat, X-therm pad!

Steve, Sophie, and I hit the trail together at 6:30am but soon split with our disparate water stops. I enjoyed clicking off the familiar sights in this section, the only part of Massanutten that I'd hiked before. I hit the road and headed up the steep climb to Edith Gap. Iíve driven down the road there and itís dicey enough in a car. I did not relish hiking the trail next to it. The ridgeline started out so easy I cruised along hoping to catch Hua, Trevor, and Mimi who had all left before me. I wrote Michael off as long gone as heís faster than I am and left a bit earlier as well.

Definitely Autumn.

Sun beams.


When I hadnít caught up with anyone by noon I was starting to feel a bit down. I made the Little Crease Shelter at about 2:30 pm and was filling up on water when Joffrey strolled by. He gave me the run down on where folks where which explained why I hadnít see anyone. Several had missed the turn and climb up to Edith Gap and I had slipped by them unknowingly. Others had taken a false trail at one of the peaks and I'd slipped by there too. Joffrey stopped to wait for the others and I blazed onward. I found this section a bit desolate. The sun was out and I got warm. The treeís thinned and blackened and the area seemed covered in black crickets. They were all over the place. Weird.

I started the two mile descent to Elizabeth Furnace at 5pm and was happy. This was an evil descent. The trail kept switching back for no reason what so ever, meandering around like the trail designers didnít know where they wanted to go. I missed a switch back by climbing over the retaining wall of rocks and then stood there blankly, wondering where the trail went until I turned around and had to climb back over the rocks. It wasnít my best moment.

Elizabeth Furnace finally came into view. I was happy but a bit underwhelmed by the furnace. In my head it was much larger and more elaborate. I missed the left turn to cross the main road but caught my mistake after a minute of head scratching. The final slap-in-the-face was the climb up away from the road, hairpin U-turn to a rapid descent back to the parking lot. Really? You couldnít just parallel the road?

I rolled into the lot at about 6:10 to find Michael relaxing in his car. We chatted while I changed into clean, dry clothes before heading out to pick up the empty water bottles at Edinburg Gap then start the 3.5 hour drive back home.

The overall splits were 6 miles on Friday, 34 miles on Saturday, and 31 miles on Sunday. Thanks to Joffrey for setting this up. It was memorable and great challenge. Congrats to everyone for tackling this!

dave.macluskie AT