Big Run & Doyles River (2008)

Hiking & Camping in Shenandoah National Park


At almost 80,000 acres in size, approximately 40 percent of Shenandoah National Park is designated as wilderness. Authorized in 1926, the Park stretches for 105 miles along the exceptionally scenic Skyline Drive in Virginia.

Our Richmond home is less than two hours from the Park. We realize that Shenandoah would make a superb weekend adventure.

My spouse refers me to something called “Doyles River Trail.” I Google it, and learn that the route is loaded with waterfalls. At 7.8 miles, though, the loop is too short for a weekend two-day hike split up by an overnight camp. But across Skyline Drive, Big Run Loop Trail measures 5.8 miles.

Why not hike both?

So we agree to an adventure plan: We start with a day hike on Big Run. Our idea is to return to the trailhead and set out on Doyles River, with the presumption that we can find a backcountry camp site near the cluster of waterfalls found on that River – before nightfall. And before rain.

We load the Honda CRV with our now little-used camping gear, with the hope that we still know how to set up the tent and light the camp stove (and that such gear is actually functional, even if we DO know how to use them…).

Our puppies jump in the car. They know something is up. That they are about to have a BIG TIME.

Our drive to the south entrance of Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park is about 90 minutes. Easy striking distance. Ominously, the weather forecast has been calling for “scattered thunderstorms” (as many campers know all too drearily, “scattered” means “saturate the camping areas”). Another bad sign for us, as the CRV climbs into the Appalachian Mountains, are the low clouds and cool mist that is blanketing the topography all around us.

We vow to turn around if heavy rain greets us at the trailhead. Or at least to sleep in the CRV for the night.

At the entrance, the ranger issues us a backcountry permit. I suggest to my spouse that we “think positively” about the weather. She doesn’t seem optimistic.

Twenty miles north of the ranger hut, we arrive at the Doyles River Trailhead. We strap on our day hike gear, and lead our happy pups to the trail.

We soon find that we are swatting swarms of gnats buzzing around our heads. But as seasoned, former Floridians, we are barely even noticing these non-biting insects. In comparison to the vicious assault platoons of relentless subtropical mosquitoes, gnats are an almost welcomed experience. Indeed, just moderate walking speed seems to discourage the gnat.

Big Run soon leads us into a very attractive, pleasantly quiet setting. The native flame azaleas are still prolific as we hike in the month of May, and they add a lovely, colorful display to our trail corridor which they occasionally flank. Along the way, we spot a large owl -- and wonder if owls are ever known to fly off with unsuspecting dogs.

The trail is rocky, but well-maintained and litter-free. Hikers on Big Run are also treated to attractive, bouldered streams and stream crossings. Nearly all of the terrain along the trail is extremely steep, which is not conducive to tent camping – and that helps explain why we didn’t really see any established backcountry camp sites on this trail.

We learn a lesson on Big Run: While I had been clever enough to carry a water filter (so that we could hike without carrying weighty water canteens), I didn’t count on what steep slopes would mean in terms of water availability. As a result, as we trudged up to the Skyline Drive ridgeline on Big Run, stream sightings soon trickled down to zero. And hiking uphill on a warm, sunny day with a backpack can induce a fair amount of thirst.

Fortunately, we arrived at our trailhead with barely enough hydration.

Once at the trailhead, we load our packs with our overnight camping gear, as well as our dinner food (fresh pasta and pesto).

The first mile or so of Doyles River Trail is a steep downhill. So steep that I imagine a number of hikers decide to hike the entire 7.8-mile loop, rather than face the grueling prospect of hiking back up the steep, rocky pitch.

Early on, the hiker comes upon a fork in the trail. Going left brings one to the Doyles River Cabin, which is a rustic log cabin set off in the woods. The cabin has no electricity or water, but has a good view and sleeps 12 in its bunk beds. We decide we will give the cabin a try in the future – particularly if our party contains souls not hardy enough to put up with the potential misery (read: heavy night-time rain) of camping on a rocky surface in a small, leaky tent.

At 1.5 miles from the trailhead, we come upon a long, wonderful, picturesque series of roaring waterfalls. The two largest in this cluster – Upper and Lower Doyle Falls – are spectacular. We stop to gape in awe, and carefully negotiate our way to a close, unobstructed view of the falls. Doing so is particularly treacherous, as the rocks are often large, sharp, and rather slippery.

Fortunately, our stumbles are minimal and inconsequential.

Soon after these large falls, we come upon a set of three backcountry camp sites – which I had expected, since it seemed likely that campers in prior years would want to set up camp near the most exciting features of the trail.

Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for those seeking a fair amount of privacy and security, these sites require hikers to cross the strong, rushing, rocky currents of the Doyle River.

And soon, another barrier confronts us. Before the hike, my spouse has informed me that she is extremely concerned about the possibility of snake bites on this hike, as our beloved puppy, Kona Bona Bologna, has been bitten twice. Eventually, the probabilities say that such strikes will be fatal – particularly when help is several miles and possibly several hours away.

I am therefore exceptionally unnerved to come upon a healthy black snake slithering a few feet from me as I negotiate along the river banks looking for a safe crossing to the camp sites. I quickly inform my spouse, so that the puppies can be kept away from trouble.

Then, a few minutes later and about 30 feet away, I spot ANOTHER snake. This time, a smallish, light brown snake.

No matter.

My spouse is now DEMANDING that we move to a safer area. I am heart-broken, as I fear that the two snakes will terminate both our planned camping and the enjoyable hiking we are in the midst of.

She seeks reassurance that if we are to proceed, I must convince her that we’ll be okay.

My skills in reassurance are poor. I admit to her that I cannot guarantee that we’ll avoid snakes if we camp in this location. But I somehow convince her that I will thoroughly scope out the area for snakes before she and the puppies move forward.

Finally, after much reconnaissance and changing back and forth between camp sites (“This one looks better, but is more difficult to get to…That one looks like it would be drier.”…), we agree upon the one that seems best. I confirm that it appears snake-free.

Somehow, each of us manages to cross at a location that is more challenging than I had hoped. One of my feet slips into the stream when I slip on a rock. And both of our puppies look very worried and move very tentatively to cross.

At the location we choose, there are two camp sites. And they both have obvious evidence of recent water sheet flow on the ground. I inform my spouse of this. I let her know that if we get rain at night, we will find ourselves trying to sleep in a growing pond of cold rainwater. And I will then have reached my limit, and set out to hike back up the steep slope at 2 am in a driving thunderstorm.

But we press our luck and decide to make camp. After all, it has been rain-free all day. Perhaps the weather forecast has been wrong. Perhaps we’ll be lucky.

We quickly put up the tent. And we eat our pasta. I carefully hang our food from a tree as a precaution against the healthy black bear population in this National Forest.

Suddenly, the wind picks up and the air gets cool. The rain starts, and we all dive into the tent.

For a while, the tent keeps us dry. But the rain keeps its strength up, and becomes a menacing, angry thunderstorm. In a few hours, Kona has migrated. First he is laying next to my spouse instead of being at our feet. Then he settles in next to our heads.

We soon learn why.

At our feet, puddles of water are forming. Our other canine, Emmie the Husky, tolerates it, but by morning she is soaked. And sleep-deprived.

So as it turns out, our weather is good news and bad on this trip. For both days of hiking, we are rain-free. But for our camp night, we huddle together for a soggy, evening of mostly unsuccessful sleep.

After hot cocoa and oatmeal the next morning, we break camp. This time, I decide we should cross in an area of the stream that is rock-free. We take off our shoes and carefully cross with our backpacks.

We decide, like so many before us undoubtedly had, to finish the loop (another 5 miles) instead of facing the steep pitch behind us (2 miles).

Once again, the trail treats us to a highly scenic, lovely experience. The streams are gorgeous, and the many waterfalls are an unforgettable treat. Soon, we come upon the third major falls – Jones Falls.

Our second day of hiking takes us about three hours. The time flies, as we are regularly presented with delightful experiences.

Overall, the Big Run and Doyles River hikes make for an excellent, worthy two-day hiking experience. So good that we decide we will certainly return. One downside, at least on our trip, is that we have a rather large number of ticks hitch a ride on us and our puppies. Be ready for them.

Hiking over 13 miles in two days with backpacks and steep slopes leaves us with sore muscles. But it is a good sore. We have had a very pleasant, rewarding time.




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