The Rate of Return

Last weekend we had a day hike planned, for which we typically rise early in order to make it to the trailhead shortly after dawn. I am a morning person and getting up early is usually easy for me, but for some reason last weekend it was hard. In the dark bedroom, under cozy fleece sheets, getting out of bed suddenly seemed a physical impossibility. But the day was forecast to be beautiful, and having a full day free for hiking is rare, so I powered through and dragged myself out of bed.

We headed for Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, where we don’t often hike for 3 reasons: there is an entrance fee; certain sections/trails can get very crowded; and hikes from Skyline Drive involve going down the mountain first, then climbing back up later (there’s nothing wrong with this in theory–I just prefer climbing first and descending later). On this day, however, several factors were in our favor: first, it was a fee-free day; second, it was cold and Skyline Drive had just reopened after being iced over, which limits the crowds; and–well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.

We took full advantage of a low-traffic day by choosing a hike that is heavily trod in warmer weather: the Jones Run/Doyles River loop. The Doyles River falls are particularly popular and people often visit them in a shorter out-and-back hike, so they can be crowded in spring and summer. I tend to prefer the wilder, less sedate Jones Run falls, which cut with abandon through a small canyon in winter and spring, but typically dry up in summer.

Starting at Browns Gap, we used the Appalachian Trail to access the Jones Run trail, where we began our steep descent. The first set of falls are reached after about 2 miles of downhill hiking, and in winter they are stunning:


After the first set of falls the trail parallels the run as it roars downhill for anther mile or so, showcasing incredible ice formations all the way:


As the trail begins to level out it is time to cross the run, and this is not an inconsequential task in winter. The water was high and cold, and we spent quite a bit of time analyzing the terrain for a route that would keep us dry, going way off trail until we found one. On the other side of the run the ascent begins, gently at first, but soon we were steeply cutting back up the mountainside. It is not far to the Jones River Falls after crossing the run, and after passing a few smaller falls the main falls suddenly loom into view:


This area is more angled toward the midday sun so there was significantly less ice to be seen. This is also where the hike’s solitude quotient dropped as we ran into several sets of hikers, but it was still the quietest, most meditative visit I’ve ever had with the Doyles River falls.

From here we turned away from the river and began the last leg of ascent. The wind was still, the air was cold, and the sun was offering its winter-best. Eventually we pushed out of the woods and trudged back to our car, where we encountered some hikers contemplating an afternoon hike with just a few hours of daylight left. We gave them some tips, and then we were on our way. While the 2-hour car ride back to Richmond often affords  gradual return to civilization, during that particular ride I received a phone call with some challenging news that immediately jolted us back into “real life.”  As I reoriented my attention away from the woods and my consciousness rapidly returned to a different world, I was so grateful that I had forced myself out of bed on that cold January morning and spent the day communing with frozen waterfalls, hopping on rocks, and balancing on fallen logs over a raging run. It was a deposit in my nature bank that I ended up needing to withdraw right away, but fortunately Mother Nature offers a very generous interest rate.



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