At some point last summer, probably on one of our early morning pre-chemo rides, I asked Whitney if she would have any interest in taking a bike trip with me in the spring. It was a hopeful thought, optimism that I’d be in remission and have regained enough fitness by then to be able to do some big rides. I’d had the mountains of Virginia on my mind for a while — I had visited briefly in years past and knew that there was fantastic riding of all varieties — but hadn’t seemed to find the time to make it back. Fast forward 10 months, and nearly on the day of my one year anniversary of being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, we found ourselves headed south for 5 days of mountain biking in George Washington National Forest and Douthat State Park.
Via MTB Project, Trailforks, and recommendations from friends, we’d chosen a smattering of rides that seemed to have a good amount of variety and looked interesting. First up was the Bird Knob and Catherine Furnace Loop, a 20-mile ride with nearly 4,000 feet of climbing. It promised a technical ridgetop trail and great vistas — two of my favorite things!
We found the park-and-ride lot off Rt. 211 and changed into our bike clothes. Temperatures had warmed from near freezing when we left central PA to the 60s — and it was supposed to get into the 80s. Looking out the back of the lot, we saw some unsigned singletrack disappearing into the woods and assumed that was the trail, but discovered after bombing down to a little creek that it disappeared pretty quickly. I checked the map app and realized we were totally off base — the trail we wanted left from the other side of the lot — so we climbed back up and got back on track, this time finding the much more worn-in and signed Massanutten Trail.
After a quick drop-in, the trail began a chunky climb — and then continued to mostly climb for the first 5 miles, following Browns Hollow up to a saddle before dropping down to Catherine Furnace. The climb was rolling, with steep pitches interrupted by flatter sections, yet continuous. The steep parts were scattered with baseball-sized loose rocks, and the dry, dusty soil made keeping traction difficult. I spun out and had to hike-a-bike up a few of the pitches, and later in the climb, I gave up on trying to ride the steepest sections. It was so hot, and I didn’t want to kill my legs for the rest of the trip. The sun beat down out of a cloudless sky, but luckily the trees were more leafed-out than back in PA, offering the tiniest bit of shade.
We crested the saddle in an alpine-like forest of scrubby pine trees. The dry, brown needles and an occasional pine cone coated the trail as we began our descent on Roaring Run Trail. The ecosystem transformed back into a deciduous forest and the trail became loose and rocky again, punctuated by the occasional pile of wet leaves as we neared the bottom along the stream. I hit one of those piles and suddenly found myself flying, plopping into a puddle of mud. It was a soft landing, and I was dirty but unscathed. I wiped the mud from my grip and brake lever and continued on, a little more cautiously, past more rocks and then into a smooth, lush valley before popping out onto a gravel road.
To our right was the well-preserved Catherine Furnace. Built in 1840, it was in operation during the Civil War and made cannon shot and tubes. The ironmaster was a Union sympathizer (I had forgotten that we were indeed in the south until I read the interpretive sign) and was arrested for helping Union soldiers escape, but ended up being released to continue work at the furnace.
After the history lesson and a quick snack, we began the long gravel climb towards the top of the ridge. I expected it to be hot and arduous, and equally as steep as our first climb but longer. It turned out to be pretty mellow in most spots, paralleling a mossy stream and rocky hillside that were reminiscent of many of the gravel climbs in Rothrock and Bald Eagle State Forests. As we gained in elevation, the landscape changed back into scrubby pines again. It was hot and dusty, but we kept the spinning easy and I was surprised how quickly we reached our turnoff for Bird Knob Trail.
It began with a short section of doubletrack to reach the very top of the ridge, where the trail turned to singletrack and the rocks became large slabs. It was just the right amount of technical — hard enough to keep us on our toes but mostly all rideable. We ran into one guy walking his dog, the only other human we’d seen all day.
Towards the northern end of the ridge, the left side of the trail opened up into a sweeping view of the valley to the west from a large rock outcropping. From this high point, the trail began to descend — steeply at first, through a maze of large rocks that formed janky steps and drop-offs that both of us mostly walked. I wanted to come away from the trip with myself and my bike intact. After a couple steep drops and switchbacks, the terrain mellowed a bit to moves that were tricky but doable, and the rocks became smaller the farther we descended. It was a fun and flowy but technical ride back to the trail we started on, where we backtracked a couple miles to the parking lot with big grins.
After changing and a snack from the cooler, we drove the half hour south into Harrisonburg for a real meal and beds at a friend’s for the night. The next day we’d continue our journey southward for a couple days, towards Douthat State Park.
The next day was predicted to be in the high 80s, so after some quick coffee and conversation in the kitchen, we rolled out of town and headed south on I-81 to get to our second ride destination fairly early before the heat of the day set in. Next on the list was the Longdale Furnace North Mountain Loop, chosen because we thought it sounded really interesting, technical, and full of vistas.
The ride began at a quiet parking lot just outside of Longdale Furnace, where a once-booming iron ore community now is a sleepy village off Exit 35 of I-64. The first 3 miles climbed the winding gravel road to the top of the mountain, a welcome spin for legs feeling yesterday’s ride and way to ease into the day. The ride description promised a tough climb, but though it was long, it was fairly mellow. Just beyond the crest, a trail to the right traversed the spine of the ridge — that must be it.
I stopped countless times in the first mile of singletrack to take photo after photo of vistas stretching out to the east. There were similar rock outcroppings as at Bird Knob — but dozens of them. The next few miles of the North Mountain Trail trended upwards still, but short climby sections were punctuated by rolling descents on trail that was a lot smoother than I expected. I wasn’t complaining — it wasn’t a bad thing to roll along more easily and be able to enjoy the views to either side rather than needing to be intently focused on the rock garden ahead.
A set of stone steps marked the beginning of the feature known as “Pete’s Cave,” a massive stone outcropping that took up the entire width of the ridge, which the trail ran through. There were indeed several cave entrances within the rock structure, and we poked around for a few minutes to take in the geologic feature.
To get through the stone castle, we needed to push our bikes up a steep, narrow chute between two rock faces. It required precarious balance — push the bike up ahead as far as possible while lifting it over rocks, clamp the brakes to keep it in place, step up to meet it, repeat. Luckily, neither of us tumbled backwards.
Shortly after the Cave, the trail made a right turn and began heading downhill. The top of the descent was switchbacked and scattered with loose rocks. As we lost elevation, the landscape changed from predominantly evergreens to a lush creek valley, and the trail smoothed out into a fast, flowy ribbon cut into the hillside. It was reminiscent of the Allegrippis Trails, but all downhill. Flowers popped up on either side, the whites and purples contrast against the bright green of early spring. Towards the bottom of the descent, the trail crossed over a small creek several times, the water splashing our legs a welcome cool amidst the rapidly-warming, humid air.
North Mountain Trail continued westward, but we turned back north to cross one final stream and join a rolling doubletrack road for the last couple miles back to the car. We spread out a picnic in the quiet parking lot and hung out for a while before heading over to Douthat, just a quick 20 minutes away. It was so nice to not have to think about much of anything except what we were doing in the moment. The only thing we had to do that day was go set up camp, and maybe go for a second ride.
To be continued….