This nearly 8-mile loop takes hikers deep into a beautiful, remote section of Shenandoah National Park. The trail passes bubbling streams, stands of hemlocks that haven’t yet fallen and crumbling stone walls left behind by families that used to live in the park. This post could also be called part four of the Backpacking 101 series, because we did this trail as a backpacking trip with the great folks from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.
This was our first overnight backpacking trip together and served as our graduation trip from the Backpacking 101 course we took through PATC. We were unable to go on our previously-scheduled trip due to Christine’s sprained ankle she suffered on our Buzzard Rock hike. We were thrilled that our instructors gave us the opportunity for a make-up trip. You can read our other sections of the review of this class in Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.
The outing leaders, John and Jeanne, chose the Hazel Mountain – Catlett Mountain loop for the trip. The hike winds around the mountains and through pretty forest, but doesn’t lead to any summit views. The trail starts off from the Meadow Spring parking lot around mile 33.7 on Skyline Drive. Like many trails in Shenandoah National Park, the Hazel Mountain trail descends from the road. You will stay on this trail until you reach the Catlett Mountain Trail. The Hazel Mountain Trail is also marked on maps as a horse trail, so you may encounter horses on many of the trails around this area.
Day One Hiking: Shortly after leaving the parking lot, you will see a junction with the Buck Hollow Trail (a tough loop hike). At .3 miles, you reach a trail junction with the Buck Ridge Trail (that is the loop back from the Buck Hollow Trail). At 1.6 miles, you come to the first junction with the White Rocks Trail (another loop trail). At 2.2 miles, you will see a post marking the junction with the Catlett Spur Trail, marking where you will rejoin the trail after you complete the loop. While you just descended about 1000 feet, the trail begins to ascend from this point, gaining about 400 feet over the next .6 miles. Around 2.8 miles, you will see the other junction with the White Rocks Trail. Around 3.1 miles, you will reach the top of the climb and take a right to continue on the Hazel Mountain trail. At mile 3.7, you will take a right on to the Catlett Mountain Trail. We picked a campsite near the top of this trail, as it does provide a close proximity below to a spur of Runyon Run, a reliable water source on the trail.
Day Two Hiking: Upon leaving camp, you descend down to the stream we used as the water source. Once you rockhop across Runyon Run, the trail ascends fairly steeply up 300 feet. At mile 4.7, you will take a right onto Catlett Spur Trail. The trail descends crossing over Runyon Run in a few spots. You will eventually pass an old stone perimeter wall, marking land that may have marked a boundary for a settler’s house or farm. At mile 5.6, you will come back to the junction with the Hazel Mountain Trail. Take a left on the trail and ascend for the final 2.2 miles back to the parking lot.
Christine and I had a great time on the trip. We met up with our group at 9:30AM, reintroduced ourselves to each other, and got our packs ready for the trail. We divided up some group gear that we needed to share for the trip and weighed our packs for curiosity. I ended up with a little over 34 pounds in my pack and Christine had about 28 pounds. I would say that our average for the group was a little under 30 pounds, so it was manageable for an overnight trip. We hiked fairly fast, but we did take a few breaks to get a breather and eat some lunch. We hiked onto the Catlett Mountain trail and found our campsite around 12:30. We set up our tents and our kitchen area. We put up a tarp and brought all of our dishes, utensils and food to the kitchen site. Most of the group then decided to go down to Runyon Run, to load up some collapsible buckets for water for camp. This was a chance for us to try out our new Katadyn Hiker Pro water filter to refill some water bottles. When we hiked back up to the campsite, we happened to see an adult bear running from the direction of our campsite. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?), we never saw him again.
Shortly after getting back to camp, we experienced a scary moment. We thought two people had stayed back at camp when we went on the water run, but came back to see only John. We started to hear shouts from the woods, but we couldn’t distinguish if the voice was shouting “Help” or “Hello”. Our instructor grabbed his first aid kit and we continued to call back to the person. We shouted “Are you hurt?” and “What’s your name?”, but we couldn’t distinguish the response. We kept calling out and eventually we saw one of our group members emerge from the dense underbrush. He had spotted a timber rattler that rose up against him. He ran out of the way, but in his haste to get away from the snake, he got turned around and lost. He had lost his whistle along the way, so he resorted to shouting to try and find his way back to the group. It really shows that you can quickly get turned around and lost without your bearing in the woods.
We then learned how to hang a bear bag, tying a rock to a roop and throwing it over a branch (after dinner we substituted the rock with the actual bags to hang and tied the other end of the rope to a tree). Since we had some time to kill in camp, Christine and I decided to take a quick siesta in our tent before dinner. A storm quickly rolled in with loud thunder, high winds, and heavy rain. It rained for close to an hour. After it slowed to a light sprinkle, we made it back to the kitchen site, to find the rest of our group huddled under the tarp. Later, we ate an amazing dinner (which Christine will talk about) and cleaned up. After watching a nice sunset through the trees and hanging out with the group, Christine and I retired for the night.
The next morning we got up early and worked on packing our gear. We ate a wonderful breakfast and then broke camp around 8:45AM. We finished our hike, arriving back at our cars shortly after noon. I think everyone was planning a victory meal after the trip, so we made a trip to McDonald’s in Luray.
We really enjoyed our first backpacking trip. It was great to have this experience with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Our instructors were absolutely wonderful and really shared a lot of their experience with us. It was also great to meet a lot of nice people through the Backpacking 101 class that share a common interest and experience level. This trip really affirmed to us that we could handle doing an overnight backpacking trip and we are excited to try it again sometime in the very near future.
On the eve of our backpacking trip, I was feeling exceedingly fretful. I wondered if I’d be able to bear the heat/humidity without passing out. I worried that I’d be such a sluggish hiker that I’d slow the whole group down. I had concerns about the storms forecast for the day. At one point when we were loading our backpacks. I looked and Adam and said “I don’t know if I’m cut out for this.”
But, wow… it turns out that I LOVE backpacking. It was simultaneously fun, challenging and relaxing. I was amazed at how comfortable my pack was – the 28 pounds felt balanced and easy on my back. I may have sweated like crazy in the heat, but I managed to stay hydrated and felt really strong the entire hike. I had such a sense of tranquility falling asleep in our tent after dinner, listening to the sounds of evening birds and the wind rustling in the trees.
I can’t say enough great things about our PATC (Potomac Appalachian Trail Club) trip leaders – John and Jeanne. Their expertise made me feel really safe and confident on my “maiden voyage” overnight in the woods. Actually, I have nothing but great things to say about our entire backpacking group. Our fellow adventurers, Anthony, Suzanne and Ed were all friendly and fun people.
Adam already did a thorough job describing the terrain and features along the route, so that leaves me to talk about FOOD (and maybe a few other things, too). When I think of backpacking, I think of tuna pouches, power bars, beef jerky and freeze-dried, pre-packaged meals. But, Jeanne is a true backcountry gourmand (she brought a lobster roll for her packed lunch!). For dinner, we feasted on Chicken with Thai Peanut Sauce and Rice and Curried Couscous with Peas and Cashews. We even had banana pudding, replete with fresh banana slices and Nilla Wafers for dessert. Cleaning up was super-easy, since we did most of the cooking using Ziploc freezer bags. You can pour boiling water right into the bags, and avoid dirtying a pot. Individual utensils and bowls were cleaned by thorough eating (not a crumb left behind) and then sanitized with more boiling water. People either drank the water or broadcast it into the woods – away from camp. Either method is acceptable for Leave No Trace practices. The main goal is not to send any food particles into the woods.
Breakfast the next morning exceeded all my expectations! Of course… there was instant oatmeal and hot chocolate, but there was also real BACON and cheesy hashbrowns! Jeanne brought Boar’s Head shelf-stable bacon, cheddar cheese, butter and dehydrated potatoes. I decreed to Adam that we shall always have bacon when we go backpacking. I’m totally spoiled for backcountry breakfast now!
Over breakfast, Adam and I spent some time talking to our trip leader, John, about everything from gear to favorite backpacking spots. He’s like a walking encyclopedia of backpacking expertise.
I have so many fantastic memories from our first real backpacking trip… the outgoing buck that hung out with us all weekend, Adam sitting straight up in his sleeping bag (twice) to accuse me of being a bear, the feeling of being away from complications and civilization, but most of all, making new friends who might become future outing companions.
It was a rewarding experience, and I can’t wait to get out there again!
- Distance – 7.8 miles loop
- Elevation Change – About 1000 feet, but there are also some ups and downs of about 400 feet on the Catlett Mountain-Catlett Spur Trail loop.
- Difficulty – 3
- Trail Conditions –3. The trail isn’t too rocky, but is overgrown, especially the Catlett Mountain-Catlett Spur Trails.
- Views – 0. There were really no views of anything from this trail, since it is through a thick wooded area.
- Waterfalls/streams – 2. Good water sources, but nothing too scenic.
- Wildlife –4. With people in our group seeing deer, a bear, and a timber rattler, there should be a decent chance to see wildlife here. We also saw an American Redstart and a few red-spotted newts on the trail.
- Ease to Navigate –3. There are lots of spurs off of the trails, but everything loops back at some point. Pay attention to the cement posts and you shouldn’t have any difficulty.
- Solitude – 2.5. The first section down to the White Rocks Trail seemed to include all the traffic that we saw. This is popular with many day-trippers, since it is one of the first parking lots in the northern portion of the Central District of Shenandoah National Park.
Directions to trailhead:
On Skyline Drive, park at the Meadow Spring parking lot between mile markers 33 and 34. The trail starts at the southern end of the parking lot.