Back Out on the Trail

Crossing the Mill Prong on the Mill Prong Trail, Shenandoah National Park.

It had been too long. I missed hiking regularly.

I had several excuses as to why I hadn’t hiked: I was traveling; the weather was too hot and humid; it was too rainy; I had family obligations. I could list more, but you likely don’t want to hear them.

So, I gladly agreed to lead a group when an opportunity to hike came along. A friend and several of her female friends hike local trails weekly. The Mill Prong Trail in Shenandoah National Park was on their radar, but they were unfamiliar with it. My friend knew I had hiked it.

I chauvinistically asked if men were allowed in their hiking entourage, and I was quickly admonished. They wanted to hike and wanted me to lead the way.

The Mill Prong is a side trail that juts off the Appalachian Trail (AT) at mile marker 53 on Skyline Drive in the park. The trail leads to the Rapidan Camp, the summer home of President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.

My trail app on my iPhone listed it as a moderately strenuous 3.7-mile hike round trip. We wouldn’t be going that far. Since all in our group were in their 70s, our goal was to hike to the intersection with the Mill Prong Horse Trail. That is exactly one mile.

This day was much cooler than the previous weeks of hot, sticky, and sometimes wet days in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. When we arrived at the parking lot where the AT crosses Skyline Drive, my van’s thermometer read 60 degrees. It was perfect hiking weather.

To access Mill Prong Trail, you must walk across the roadway and then a short distance on the AT. Soon you’re at the Mill Prong Trailhead.

I had told the ladies that this wasn’t the most scenic hike. They were more concerned with the trail’s difficulty and elevation gains. Having hiked it previously, I knew that the Mill Prong was a comparatively gradual decline to the horse trail. We had no intention of going to Rapidan Camp. A two-mile roundtrip hike down and back would suffice.

The Mill Prong Trail has two stream crossings. Trail-keepers conveniently placed large rocks for hikers to successfully cross both without getting wet. That is, as long as you don’t slip and fall. I was the only one who did.

The trek down the Mill Prong trail was similar to my earlier experience. The walk was eerily quiet. I only heard a lone Downy Woodpecker along the mostly dirt path down and back. We saw no other hikers until a young woman passed us as we were nearly finished, and she was just starting.

We took our time, enjoying nature’s stillness, the verdant forest floor carpeted with ferns, grasses, and wildflowers. We respectfully observed the colorful fungus and the four-foot northern water snake soaking in the morning sun on a large moss-covered rock in the middle of the trickling stream.

We took a break just after passing the horse trail, precisely one mile from the trailhead. We ate our snacks, inspected the snake, kept our distance, and hydrated.

Then it was time to head back up the gradual incline. The trail effortlessly wound its way past outcroppings, back across the two forks of the Mill Prong, shaded all the way by a mixed hardwood forest. It was already shedding some of its leaves.

Just before we reached the intersection with the AT, birds and pollinators began to appear. Jewelweed bloomed everywhere, especially in a triangle between the AT and Skyline Drive. Hummingbirds zipped left and right, and a few Monarchs and Tiger Swallowtails flitted here and there.

Despite our tired old bones, smiles dominated. It was a perfect ending to just the kind of hike the ladies like to take. Me, too.

Stepping stones.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

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