How long have I wanted to do a loop of TWOT? Years. In my first attempt, my friend Brian and I wanted to run it, and left DC at 3:30 a.m. When he started seeing double, we pulled off the highway and into a parking lot for a 10 minute nap, and then woke up three hours later. Whoops.
I had planned to hike it year after year around the summer solstice (knowing I’d need the daylight), but it just never happened! Finally, this year was it. The weekend of solstice I was ready to go with weeks of solid PT and running behind me, a rental car and hotel room in Harrisonburg booked… and then I got sick. But, the BF and I refused to put it off for another year and we were able to fit it in the weekend after solstice.
At 6:00 a.m., we picked up bagels from Mr. J‘s for lunch and then each had two McDonald’s sausage biscuits for breakfast. We used the Trails Illustrated map for Staunton/Shenandoah Mountain and went counterclockwise.
I approached this hike as I would approach an ultra: Screw time and mileage, just accept that I’ll be out there all day. I broke the hike up mentally by climbs: (1) Climb up Little Bald Knob and reach Camp Todd, (2) Climb up to Big Bald Knob and down the Dividing Ridge trail; (3) Climb up and over Hankey mountain; (4) Saddle over to Lookout Mountain and back down to the parking lot. (Is saddle a verb? I’ve decided it is.)
There is not one great view on this hike. No exciting summits await you to make it worth the climb. But, the country is gorgeous and the trails are grueling.
Last time I climbed up to Little Bald Knob, it was midnight and I had just spent 6 hours running. It was really awful and I hated it. But this time around, fresh, it was quite wonderful. It’s a seven-mile climb (took about 3 hours), but it’s pretty undulating and at points, downright gentle. At the top of the climb, we ate a bagel and took our packs off. It was a perfect day and not yet hot. The three mile descent to Camp Todd/the North River was pleasant and easy. Here, I filled my extra bottle with water, though I never needed it.
The climb up and into Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness (one of my favorite places in VA to hike) was really steep and not easy — 1,775 ft. in roughly 2.5 miles. It was getting hotter outside, which didn’t help. But, it was so green and beautiful, we stopped for a bar and nuts and enjoyed the wilderness portion of the hike.
So, I’ve done the Dividing Ridge Trail by accident in the past while trying to do a loop in the wilderness area. I know that one needs to look out for a left turn to get there, but I still can’t figure it out! I’ve even done the Ramsey’s loop in reverse and couldn’t figure it out. But, after Big Bald Knob you’ll come to a pond, and the trail will go around the pond to the left, and then turn left to Dividing Ridge. I don’t know where the Ramsey’s trail goes from there.
Dividing Ridge is a really steep descent. I had two liters of water in my pack, and right about here is where I got low. We planned on filling up at Mitchell Branch, which follows the left on the trail. You will find a side trail to the stream between two mounds, or tank traps, on the trail, and it goes down to a waterfall of sorts. It’s said to be pretty dependable and it’s a great place to fill up your pack. A little over a mile later, you will cross FR 96 and start up Hankey.
The difficulty of Hankey mountain took me by surprise — it goes straight up, no switchbacks. It was also sandy (so, slippery) and longer than I expected. While the climb was hot, steep and grueling, we made up time on the fire road to Lookout. It was getting quite late in the afternoon, so we stayed quiet, hoping to see some wildlife. An adolescent black bear corkscrewed down a tree and took off within our sight!
The trail has been re-routed around Lookout Mountain — this added miles and subtracted from the hike’s elevation gain. The signage to FR 95 was off with the re-route but until that point, the signage on the trail was correct. The new trail was a little too manicured for TWOT, and still rocky. We weren’t sure how many miles were added and I kept waiting for the steep descent to happen. Soon, the heavens opened and it poured and thundered for exactly one mile. I took off my hat, and held my head back — it felt incredible to have cool rainwater wash the day’s sweat and grime off my face. The rain slowed us down on this rocky section.
They’ve also added a bridge over the North River, which was unexpected, and after the rain, a nice surprise. The rain started up again as we made our way back to the side trail from the parking lot. We finished in 12:18 (my worst marathon time ever) and I felt really good. It was a fantastic day in the woods!
After, we went to Jack Brown’s and sat outside on the patio, downing burgers and beer. I had their Elvis burger with mayo, peanut butter and bacon — oh yes. It was SO tasty, almost as good as my Breck 471. If you pass through Harrisonburg without visiting this bar, you are really missing out.