Today was Sunday, so I got up early to go to church. Bear church, that is. An ursine sanctuary deep in the woods, high on a mountain, with a gleaming altar perched over an emerald valley….
Bear Church Rock is a magnificent granite outcropping near the summit of Jones Mountain in the Central District of Shenandoah National Park. A variety of trails will get you there, but we chose to begin our pilgrimage on the Staunton River Trail on the eastern edge of the park perimeter. The trail ascends very gradually along the Rapidan and Staunton Rivers, with multiple side trails down to small waterfalls and swimming holes along the way.
After a few miles of riverside trekking the trail had risen well above the water, and we turned left onto the Jones Mountain Trail. From this point on the hike cuts steeply up the mountain and the sweat quickly begins to pour. The woods are lovely here, dark and deep indeed, and about halfway to the church the trail goes through a long, twisty tunnel of mature mountain laurel.
Up, up, up–the steepness of the trail barely relents until the Rock is reached via a short, unmarked side trail. Here, the woods gloriously open up onto seemingly endless hills and mountains. There are very few vistas in Shenandoah National Park where the eye does not touch on roads, houses, or other evidence of civilization, but this is one of them. In every direction, only wilderness can be seen.
Here we settled in for worship. There was a bit of haze but the sun was bright, and the trees undulated away from us like a magic carpet. Hawks circled above, seemingly lazily yet ever-alert. The granite was cool and smooth and we had started early enough to enjoy absolute solitude all the way up to church, as well as during the entire service. Our sensory appreciation also extended to a couple of well-earned peanut butter sandwiches.
I had wondered how the rock earned its name, but a Google search yielded no clues. We conjectured on the way back that many years ago a hiker ventured up to the rock on a Sunday morning, just as we did, and encountered a group of bears engaged in morning worship. It’s the perfect spot for ursine prayers to be offered up: may the bear corn ripen early this year, may the berries be sweet and abundant, may the river stay high all summer long, and may the hunters stay far, far away from my woods. Or perhaps bears just send up a wordless thank you and head back down for Sunday dinner.
So that long-ago hiker probably returned to the valley and told everyone about the bears gathered on that huge flat slab, looking out across the mountains, silently meditating on the beauty of their world. It could have happened exactly like that that–you never know. I’ve heard tell of such things.