500 MILES OF FUN
Hikers rest along the Limberlost, which is an accessible Trail.
Hiker takes in the vista from atop Old Rag
AWESOME ACHIEVEMENT – COMPLETING THE 500
Tony Lavato is a member of the Shenandoah 500, the elite gang of hikers who have walked all the trails in Shenandoah National Park’s 196,000 acres. Tony moved to Rappahannock County in 2013 and It was boots on the ground when he settled in the village of Sperryville and hooked up with veteran hikers in this charming and bustling gateway to Shenandoah.
IN HIS SHOES
Tony’s first venture wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Buck Hollow is one of Shenandoah’s steepest trails. He claims it almost killed him but once he caught his breath, the solitude and the beauty of the woods brought him back for a second hike on the Nicholson Hollow Trail. Its traces of life gone by caught Tony’s attention—a foundation here, a chimney there, a clump of yellow daffodils, a graveyard, an old log cabin crumbling into the fallen leaves. Fascinated by the land’s history, he began reading about the families who called the Blue Ridge home until Virginia’s mass condemnation cleared the way for a national park. And he was hooked.
He climbed Old Rag Mountain, at 3,284 feet, the pinnacle of park hikes, and soon he was taking to the trails regularly, working up to 10-12 miles per hike. One day, perusing a map of all the trails in Shenandoah, he thought, “Why not?” And hobby turned into passion.
FOR NEW HIKERS
Tony’s favorite paths through the forest change, depending on the season and his mood. But for first timers, his recommendation is definite: Mary’s Rock. Roundtrip from the Meadow Springs parking area (mile 33.6 on Skyline Drive) to the spectacular views from the park’s eighth tallest peak is 3.6 miles, rated moderate. “On a clear day, you can see the Washington Monument,” Tony promised. And always, there’s the iconic vision of Blue Ridge foothills rolling into the distance.
Easiest trail? Limberlost. The 1.3 mile flat and graveled loop starts and ends at mile 43 and boasts beautiful wildflowers, tall oaks and spruce, mountain laurel, wispy ferns and abundant wildlife. It once passed through a natural cathedral of towering hemlocks, But in the last decade, the 500 year-old forest giants were toppled by an invasive insect, changing the feel of the place from cathedral to hallowed graveyard.
Another favorite is Little Devils Stairs – “accessible, challenging and stunning. The 5.3 mile loop is rated difficult, thanks to the steep grade of the first two miles. But the huff and puff brings rewards in a string of waterfalls along Keyser Run and splendid views as the trail nears the top of the gorge. The loop back down is an easy walk on the Keyser Run fire road that passes a relic of the pre-park past, the Bolen cemetery, where all the “9”s on the headstones are backwards. To the trailhead, take Rt. 622/Gid Brown Hollow Road to a left on Keyser Run Road to the parking lot.
While covering over 800 miles in his mission to hike every trail in the Park, Tony admits to a few missteps along the way. He’s walked in circles, fallen hard enough to worry that he’d broken a bone and taken the wrong fork, which turned a 10-miler into a 22-mile endurance trek. But because Tony was prepared, everything worked out: He limped home with a sore leg wrapped in a support bandage, circled back to the trail with the compass tucked in his backpack and earned the admiration of his son who tagged him “a damn mountain goat” after their forced march of 22 miles. (See Tony’s Trekking Tips below.)
What’s the reward for all his happy wandering? “I’m healthier, more grounded, more confident, more aware of my surroundings—not just hiking but all the time,” he said. “Now I go where I couldn’t before.”
TONY’S TREKKING TIPS
Heed Tony’s voice of experience and stay safe in the woods while you happily wander.
- Hike with a compass and a map. Maps and guidebooks are available at Shenandoah National Park entrances and the visitor centers at Dickey Ridge, Big Meadows and Skyland. They can also be ordered from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s web page. Cell phones are unreliable in much of the park, but a GPS device will work in many areas.
- Bring water – more than you think you‘ll need — and a back-up filter, just in case. Do not drink from water courses. The streams in the park may look pristine but they are not. Critters poop in the woods, run-off carries feces into waterways and ingestion of bacteria in those feces can cause giardia, a serious diarrheal illness.
- Pack a basic first aid kit, matches, a flashlight, a snack and either a waterproof poncho or a solar blanket. And pack it all out, too. Leave no trace behind.
- Be bear aware. Yes, they are around. Park estimates put their number as high as 1,000 with a density from one to four bears per square mile. But these are Virginia black bears, normally timid creatures. “Last year, bears were everywhere,” Tony recalled. “They pretty much ignore you. You just talk – or sing! — to keep them away. They hear you and they run off.”
- Let someone know your plans – where you’re parking, where you’re hiking and when you’ll return.
WHEN YOU GO
Start your day with breakfast at Before & After, a popular espresso and wine bar on Sperryville’s Main Street that serves great baked goods and breakfast items. Three doors down, the very hip Happy Camper Equipment Co. is your source for the latest in hiking apparel and accessories.
Do an about face and walk a block to pick up a snack or sandwich for your hike at the Sperryville Corner Store, a 150 year old country store with a wide selection of deli and other items.
After your day of hiking, join the locals at Headmaster’s Pub, housed in the former elementary school and offering great food. You’ll also find live music some Friday and Saturday nights. Check in to one of the five guest rooms at Hopkins Ordinary and check out the view from your porch. Before retiring, enjoy a sudsy brew from their Ale Works, which you can enjoy indoors or in the garden.
Follow your sleep-over with breakfast or lunch at Off the Grid. This restaurant, powered by solar, has its own garden and words like organic and free-range dot the menu. You’ll find breakfast and lunch items to suit any taste —vegan, vegetarian or meat-eater.