Crew 128, looking southeast from Big Schloss, with Massanutten Mountain in the distance.
November backpacking in the mountains of Western Virginia is now a tradition for Crew 128. Last year we went to Ramseys Draft; this year we visited Big Schloss. Do two trips make a tradition? We think so!
Big Schloss is a beautiful prominence in Shenandoah County, several mountain ridges to the west of Woodstock, Virginia. It is near the Wolf Gap Recreation Area, which is part of the Lee Ranger District of the George Washington National Forest. The German settlers who came to the Shenandoah Valley in the 1700s called it a “schloss” (which means “castle” in German) because of its imposing size and commanding presence that dominates the valley below. Our plan to conquer this castle involved a 12.5 mile loop over two days. We would camp overnight on Mill Mountain, and visit Big Schloss on Sunday.
Lunch on the Little Stoney Creek Trail.
Our nine Venturers and three advisors left McLean at about 7:15 AM on Saturday, and arrived at the trailhead of the Little Stoney Creek Trail at about 9:30 AM. The Little Stoney Creek Trail is a gentle trail, relatively speaking, that in the beginning gradually ascends the mountain in parallel to the creek. Towards the end, the trail departs from the creek, increases in grade, and adds a few switchbacks. Near the top, we took our lunch break and refilled our water bottles at Sugar Knob spring. Shortly after that, we turned westerly on to the Tuscarora Trail.
The Tuscarora Trail is a 252-mile trail built as an alternative route for the Appalachian Trail. We, however, only used about a half mile of it, as we turned to the south when we crossed the Mill Mountain trail. (We’re saving the other 251.5 miles for next year!) After a short rise (to 3,293 feet), we lost a little altitude to set up camp near the Sandstone Spring. Practicing leave-no-trace principles, we found several established campsites to use. Given the size of our group, we were fortunate to be the first on the scene, and we set up camp in a fairly large area with remarkably soft ground. Knowing that darkness falls early in November, the Venturers worked together to set up their bear bag rope and gather lots of good, dry firewood for the anticipated cold night. They also prepared their dinners early so that they would not face a clean-up job in the dark of night.
As darkness fell, so did the temperatures. By 8 PM, many crew members had already snuggled into their warm sleeping bags. Others shared the starry night, a quarter moon, and the warmth of the campfire until about 9:30 PM. Everyone, however, was sound asleep by 10 PM. The temperatures continued to fall over the evening and in the hours before dawn, at 2,900 ft., were close to 25 degrees (F). Despite fairly strong winds, none of our tents fell, and most of the teenagers slept-in until about 8:00 AM. In fact, one Venturer set a personal campout record--after adding the hour for Daylight Savings Time--by sleeping 13 hours from dusk to dawn. Quite literally, he was one happy camper!
Having ascended over 1,800 feet the previous day, Sunday was fairly easy, and the crew departed its campsite at about 10:00 AM. Hiking southward on the ridge, we reached the base of Big Schloss by noon. We gathered our lunches, warm jackets, and water for the final push to the top, and left our backpacks in a pack line at the bottom. Our short hike to the top was rewarded with spectacular views on a crisp, clear, autumn day that could not have been more perfect!
We justifiably lingered at the top. How could we not? The rocks were warm from the sun, and clean, fresh air blew in strongly from the west. Our lunches were well-earned, with views that no restaurant could match. To the east, we could see to the farthest ridges of Massanutten Mountain. The end of that mountain was clearly visible 35-miles to the south near Harrisonburg. To the north and west, we saw hundreds of acres of forests, ridges, and small farms.
Looking north, with West Virginia on left of Mill Mountain, and Virginia on the right.
After lunch and a bit more time at the summit, we did a headcount and prepared to depart. Before we left, however, we found a smoldering campfire. Several Venturers sacrificed their well-traveled water to ensure that the embers were dead and cold. We then made our way down, collected our packs, and hiked north for about a mile before reaching the Big Schloss Cutoff Trail.
We met the Cutoff trail about 2:00 PM. Short and steep, this 2.4-mile trail ended at route 92. Walking easterly, we arrived at the cars at about 3:15. On the way home, we detoured into Front Royal for a stop at Rural King and a pizza dinner.
Q? So what's with all the orange? A: We were hiking during the special deer season for muzzle loaders and archery.