We kicked off our New Year by heading for the hills to hike on Massanutten Mountain. It is a massive grouping of ridges (50 miles long and 1 mile wide) that sits between the Shenandoah Valley and Shenandoah National Park, affording lovely views of both. Our goal was a visit to Kennedy Peak, most commonly reached via a 6.6-mile out-and-back on a moderately graded section of the Massanutten Trail. Since we prefer loop hikes, and wanted more mileage and elevation gain, we opted for a 10-mile loop that paired the Massanutten Trail with the Stephens Trail.
This is a great winter day hike. There are paved roads all the way to the trailhead (which my little Honda Fit, though a good sport when necessary, always appreciates), and gorgeous views of distant peaks through the leafless forest.
The Stephens Trail rises and falls for a few miles through the woods, before beginning to climb in earnest for about a mile and a half. It then tops out at the ridge, where we turned onto the Massanutten Trail and headed north toward Kennedy Peak. The woods were quiet and still, and we trudged along in happy introversion, stopping every mile or so to exchange a few words.
We spotted no other hikers till we reached the Kennedy Peak Trail, which is just a short jaunt up to the overlook. We stopped to eat our lunch before the climb, and once there we were treated to 360-degree views of the surrounding valley, mountains, and serpentine Shenandoah River.
At Kennedy Peak is a camping shelter topped by an observation deck, recently rebuilt and quite beautiful (my camera battery died, so alas no photo). This would be an incredibly lovely spot to camp, with views of both sunrise and sunset, though it is so popular a place that it would be difficult to count on the shelter being available, and there is very little tent space at the Peak.
We headed back down to the Massanutten Trail, and onto the section most people use to reach the Peak on a shorter hike. Here we passed many other hikers, festive with New Year energy, and although we generally prefer hikes with a high solitude quotient it is always wonderful to see people so joyfully enjoying the mountains. After we passed the Kennedy Peak parking area we turned back into the silent woods, and hiked another mile back down to our own car.
On winter day hikes I always carry a little “survival kit”, with everything we’d need in the event an emergency stranded us overnight. The unexpected snow squall (not likely in Virginia); somehow getting lost (also not likely, though possible); or breaking an ankle (you really never know)–any of these could leave us needing to stay warm, dry, and well-hydrated till we could get out. Fortunately, I’ve never needed to open my little blue bag out on the trail. However (and I’m not sure what it says about me), after every successful day hike I feel slightly disappointed that there was no need to deploy my survival skills. On second thought, I probably know exactly what that says about me, but I shan’t subject you to such silly solipsism, dear reader.
Welcome 2015, and may it bring just enough sunshiny days, precipitous ledges, glorious downpours, and mysterious noises in the underbrush to never let us forget how spectacularly alive we are. Happy trails!