State College to Shenandoah
After a good nights sleep I said goodbye to Stephanie, Ed, Ira and Aiden (as well as getting to say hello to a few Redgate folks when I had to interrupt Stephanie’s video call to find out how to open the garage door)!! The cycle track to the next town was a godsend keeping me off a very busy road. A few wrong turns led me to a different route than the one I had planned to take - and it turned out to be a great route. I climbed up past a ski area and came across a couple of guys sat at a desk in the middle of the woods. Chatting to them they were there to do timings for a mountain bike race that was going on in the local area. The tarmac soon degenerated into stone dust and I spent the next hour climbing up to the top of the mountain coming across little groups of fellow cyclists who were all happy to stop for a quick chat or cheer me on towards the top.
The climb turned out to be one of those rare climbs where the effort put in seemed less than the pay off on the descent. So often when you have spent what seems like an age climbing up the side of a hill or mountain you end up feeling short changed by the descent - it will often be over in a matter of minutes and you’re immediately thrown into the next climb with now slightly cold and stiff legs. This time it seemed different - I spent the next 40 minutes in a glorious and secluded descent through (yet another) beautiful forest arriving for lunch at Whipple Dam state park where I met a K1 group and their teachers and got chatting to them for a while.
The final 20 miles of the day led me down into Huntingdon and an early night set me up for a long day the next day. My next target was Shenandoah National Park and riding the Skyline drive. That was still a slightly hilly 130 miles away. I wanted to do it in 2 days to give myself the chance of going up Skyline drive on a Friday rather than the apparently much busier Saturday. Other than an incredibly hairy crossing of the Potomac where I wheeled my bike down a tiny or non-exisitant sidewalk across a long bridge with big trucks barreling past at 60 miles/hr followed by a short but brutal climb at the end of the day and then spending the following day trying taking long looping detours to keep myself off US-522 - a fast highway with no shoulder the ride to Front Royal was pretty uneventful. Arriving in Front Royal I wasn’t sure what to expect going up Skyline Drive. It felt like it would either be a fairly easy sixty mile ride or was going to be absolutely brutal. I decided to take a rest day in case it was the latter….
Shenandoah National Park was established in 1935 and is a long narrow national park running down the northern part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The park is 105 miles long and often just a mile or so wide (total area is just 125 sq miles). The Skyline Drive is a 106 mile long road running down the length of the park nestled in among the peaks giving spectacular views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and to the Virginia Piedmont hills to the east. Much of it is designated as wilderness, there are plenty of bears in the park and the Appalachian Trail wends its way through the park as well meaning you meet lots of through hikers with all sorts of odd names.
My plan was to ride the drive over 2 days - the first day was to be the hardest with a 6600ft climb over 60 miles up to Big Meadows campground followed by second 55 mile day with 3500ft of ascent (and 6000ft of descent :)) down to Waynesboro where I’d spend the night. I’d heard there was a good chance of seeing a bear so I strapped my gopro to the front of the bike and set it up to take a photo every 5 seconds which would also give me a good time lapse video of the cycle up.
The first day was an incredibly grueling 8 hours of cycling to get up to Big Meadows - there were a few points where I wondered if I’d have enough time to make it up to the campsite before it got dark or if I’d still be on the road as the sun set. The scenery was glorious as you can see from the video below and although the gradient isn’t that steep it was steep enough to make it hard work and there was plenty of it to go up!
The second day was an easier day cycling and the south end of the park proved to be much quieter than the north end so I had more time to take in the wonderful sites that being that high above the valley afforded me. There was a huge thunderstorm that crept up on me in the afternoon. One second it was bright sunshine and the next it was like I had stepped into a monsoon shower. It got so heavy I couldn’t cycle and I ended up sheltering under a tree trying to keep out of the rain (I needed of bothered as I was already soaked through) but there’s something incredibly special about being outside with a huge thunderstorm going on around you.
Another real pleasure of the day was watching the birds of prey soar at near eye level as they caught the thermals coming up the cliffs. During the final descent into Waynesboro I bumped into another cycle tourist - Tico Cycle Tourist who is riding from New York to Florida - we had a good chat about bikes and gear before I headed off to find my place to stay for the night and a hot shower!