If I had advertised for a companion on this hike, it would have gone something like this: “Inveterate hiker looking for accompaniment on a cold, wet, icy, dismal trail. Expect no views, slippery walking conditions, dense fog. Eleven miles. Strenuous.” I wonder who would have responded.
And yet I did have a companion last weekend on a hike on the loop trail into Rock Castle Gorge at Rocky Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway on the border of Floyd and Patrick Counties. Jonathan, a new friend who lives not far from me in Blacksburg came along.
We drove to Floyd, then Tuggles Gap, then down the other side, parking at the trailhead at the bottom. I’ve done this hike before and it is always easier to get the hard stuff out of the way first. One other car arrived shortly after we did and a lone woman hit the trail first. We never saw her (or anyone else) after that.
The weather, as I mentioned, was thick in fog and just above freezing. The trail enters a thick Appalachian temperate hardwood forest and begins climbing almost immediately. The climbing becomes increasingly steep and I was glad Jonathan had talked me into carrying trekking poles. A sheen of sleet covered the fallen leaves masking the trail. Just keeping my balance and moving forward required considerable effort, and I wore only a single long-sleeved shirt because of the exertion.
Jonathan is 25 years my junior. Like me, he majored in Mechanical Engineering. But I struggled mightily to earn my bachelors degree. He earned a doctorate. We were introduced by a classmate of mine who also earned a doctorate.
The climbing became quite intense, with some hand-over-hand scrambling over wet, slippery rocks. Eventually, the incline moderated, a brief respite in a dense forest, before the ascending continued. We broke into the open, wind-swept field that Parkway drivers see on their way up the mountain from Tuggles. Rather than the typical expansive views, we were enveloped by fog. Plus, rime ice grew from every twig of every tree or bush. These “rime-sicles” grew 1-1/2” long, thin, like the fin of a fish, away from the direction of the wind. Being in the wind and at high elevation, it was dramatically colder, and Jonathan and I donned all our weather gear.
We walked past the parking lot at “The Saddle” seeing no cars whatsoever. Then we ascended to the little stone and log hut that normally offers an outstanding view to the south. We saw nothing but white. We took a lunch break inside the hut, but there was a layer of rime ice on everything and it was wicked freezing cold. He tried to heat some water for tea over a small backpacker’s stove, but it never heated enough to steep the tea. After fifteen minutes or so, I insisted we leave as my hands were uncomfortably cold and I was beginning to shiver. Walking again, my body heat worked to my extremities and I was fine again.
The trail stays near the top of the ridge for several miles before breaking sharply downhill. There is normally a good view of the FloydFest site, but we could still see no more than 50 feet in the fog. As we descended, we abruptly left the frozen zone, making it easy to see exactly where it was 32F.
I always learn a lot about my companions when hiking with them, because there is much time to chat. Jonathan is from Tennessee. While I was hiking and backpacking for as long as I can remember, Jonathan is a newcomer to the outdoor world. He was happy to be living in the New River Valley because of all the outdoor opportunities.
We talked about college and families and pastimes. In my advanced years, I had traveled to several places he expressed interest in going. What I had in experience he had in youthful enthusiasm. There would be more places to visit together.
The trail ends with a long walk beside Rock Castle Creek, gently downhill, where the Park Service has thoughtfully provided bridges where necessary.
We ended the trip with me still feeling good, with fewer of the aches and pains I expected. Driving home, we decided it was the type of hike only a hiker could enjoy. But we certainly did!