Bears are active in this area. 

When I first saw a sign with this message in Shenandoah National Park, my mind immediately took me to the bear attack scene from the Revenant – for those who’ve seen the movie. I looked around, with a little bit of perspiration on my forehead, and continued hiking up stoically, secretly hoping I’d still be able to see a bear in its natural habitat, but, of course, without its noticing me and my friends or trying to make us its dinner.

This is how my Appalachian Trail vacation adventure started this year. I am back in town, which means I’ve survived, and am here to share with you my impressions and stories from the trip – in case you decide to take some time off from the busyness of the city life, too.

Me and my adventure seeking friends, also Atlas Corps Fellows, hiked part of the Appalachian Trail in mid-August. We walked about 60 kilometers in 3 days – all of it in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. The Appalachian Trail itself, though, stretches across six national parks and 14 states in the Eastern United States. It runs along crests and valleys of the Appalachian Mountain Range, from Georgia all the way to Maine. In Shenandoah we hiked about 1.5 per cent of the entire trail, which is 2,200 miles long. I am ambitious that one day, I will hike the trail in its entirety in a single season!

As a beginner this year, I enjoyed doing the Virginian portion of the trail. It was so good to be disconnected from the world for these three days and soak up the beauty of shadowy wooden hollows, breezy mountain tops, and fresh mountain streams – all just 75 miles from Washington, D.C. Just beware of the weather there – the National Park Reservations website states that “the region’s temperate climate makes Shenandoah weather fairly predictable and vacation planning easy”. Well, we’d certainly planned for a cooler hike through the mountain forests – the park’s elevation encourages as much as a 10-degree difference from valley temperatures. But, half into our hike the first day, we found ourselves deep in the thickest fog I’d ever seen, cold as I’d ever been in August, and wet as if I was swimming in the showers that were pouring onto us and as if we were not wearing those ponchos we had actually acquired so circumspectly. We had to cut our hike short by about 10 km that day and just take a shuttle to the lodge where we planned to spend our first night (thankfully, we were not doing camping and, thankfully, we found a shuttle). 

Lord had mercy on us, and the following days we were blessed with nice, cool, cloudy days – mostly no sun, but no rain either. Unwaveringly, we continued. One of the highlights of the entire hike — and certainly the biggest reward for our determination not to stop even at steepest and rockiest ascents — was the spectacular view from the Little Stony Man overlook. We were dazzled as we stood on the ancient greenstone, marveling at the beauty of nature. The woods, the lakes, the rivers, the valleys all seemed to be like an entire universe set on the palm of your hand. The tress, the shrubs, the flowers, and the grasses enveloped you in a special aura.

Shenandoah is home to a wonderful variety of plant life. It boasts over 1400 of different types of plants. Chestnuts and red oaks, wilkweed and ox eye daisy wildflowers, Goldies woodfern and huckleberries. But my favorite – mushrooms and fungi! I had never seen a purple jelly-like mushroom in my life before. Or mushrooms that looked like someone had just thrown away orange peels. Shenandoah supports over 400 species of mushrooms. And one of my friends and I were literally stopping every 10 minutes to take a picture of yet another enchanting fungi.

Of course, that would make us lag behind our group and fear we’d be the ones taken aback and eaten by a bear.  Alas, and thank God, we didn’t run into any bears – only into cute white-tailed deer. The black bears, the only bears in Shenandoah, are most active at dawn and at dusk, and we hiked only during daylight hours. Besides, these bears will only eat grubs and other insects, roots, fruit, acorns and small mammals. Attacks on humans are extremely rare, especially, if people take all precautionary measures needed, like not leaving food in the open, hiking in groups, and in general staying alert to your surroundings, which we all did. 

We came back home to DC tired but happy, replenished with new energy and exciting stories to tell our friends. I can’t wait to continue exploring! As John Muir once said, “Between every two pines there is a doorway to a new world.”