Guest Post by Alex Bea.

Taking a breather at one of Skyline’s many overlooks

It’s easy to live in Washington, DC for years and start to think that we are impossibly far away from anything resembling nature. If the Metro doesn’t go there, it can’t be within a reasonable distance. It seems that is incorrect.

Besides the wonderful Rock Creek Park, which Doug Hay himself reintroduced me to, we really aren’t that far from the far more incredible Shenandoah mountains. I should have known better being a DC area native and one time Shenandoah camper, but it is not that far to get out of town and experience not only nature, but great opportunities for trail running and biking just two hours outside the city.

The Location:

Doug, two other friends, and I decided it was time for some (relatively) serious biking. I’d been trail running with Doug some, but it was time for a change of pace. After a few rounds of email decision-making, we decided to start our ride from the Matthew’s Arm campground, camping there that night.

With a stop for coffee and bagels on a Saturday morning, our trip from Capitol Hill was just a bit over two hours. Matthew’s Arm is on the northern end of the Shenandoah, just south of Front Royal. Our ride took us out of the campground and south a a bit over 15 miles to the Skyland Resort in Luray, the highest point in the Shenandoah mountains.

The Experience:

The Shenandoahs are really an incredible resource. I mean “resource” not in the “what can we pull out and burn/cut/make stuff from” way, but in the way that poetry is a great resource to expand your mind. Treat it with respect and we all come out better. I’ve experienced more impressive parks in my days, but these are beautiful mountains with nearly endless views. I can say having camped there as a child that the roads, campgrounds, minimal outposts, and all look essentially the same as 20 years ago. There aren’t many things you can say that about.

Having devoted the weekend to this trip, and being normally crammed into short bus or Metro trips where I have to stay vigilant for my stop, a two hour drive was a fine distance to stretch my legs travel-wise and catch up on Doug’s life since the 50 miler.

Working off one of our comrades’ experience, we started the bike ride going south from the campground. Two things to note here: 1) This is a nice, challenging route. 2) The beginning sucks. In an ideal world, mountain road rides would start easier, maybe on a flat stretch or slight incline. The road going out from Matthew’s Arm is neither. It is a Big. Freakin’. Hill. At the very least, make sure your legs are warm, because otherwise it could be a recipe for a pulled muscle right out the gate and a really crappy day. You’ll be rewarded with a nice downhill once you hit Skyline Drive.

As you can see here, our ride was a nice mix of windy and straighter stretches. I wish I could read the topographical map better, but I can tell you that the first ten miles or so south of Matthew’s Arm are also a mix up going up and down. The last few finishing at Skyland Resort just keep going up, however.

Along the way there are great overlooks providing safe, scenic places to rest and refuel. I was refueling with mostly a fruit and nut trail mix and Clif Shot Blocks. That, and plenty of water. With a full Camelbak I never ran out, refilling at the turnaround, but I also never stopped drinking. Even so, I did feel dehydrated when we got back to the campsite.

With power out due to a storm throughout the national park, one of the guys did try to score some doomed popcicles for extra energy at Skyland. Unfortunately they were having none of that–that’s what we get for trying to help.

The good side of all that going up? Coming down. Now, I like going fast, but I also have the memory of a bike crash fairly fresh in my mind. Still, on a hot summer afternoon after a whole lot of going up and a pair of tired legs, going down sure was fun. There were some solid hills going back, in particular the last mile or two before getting back to the campground.

The Verdict

Great escape and solid riding. One thing I hadn’t counted on biking in the mountains is that 30-40 miles of mountain road are like an additional 20 or 30 on flatter terrain. That, or I’m more out of shape than I thought. Regardless, if you’re mostly a city rider like I am, be ready to go fewer miles than you intended or be ready to be humbled.

Planning your turnaround by time rather than distance might be a good idea if you’re not used to this kind of riding. That said, the route we took ended up being a great challenge for three of us without wiping us out too bad. The fourth of us was weeks away from an Ironman race, and if that’s you, keep on pedaling til your legs start talking back.

If you live in the DC area, the Shenandoah mountains are great for all kinds of escapes. Whether it’s biking, trail running, or simply camping, you should get on out there. Unfortunately not being too far from DC also means that it won’t be a total escape from the DC heat. Certainly cooler, but not incredibly so. I’d love to do this ride again in late September when I can be sure the exhaustion is from hard work and not the heat.

With that, I’ll leave you with the stop motion video I took with my handlebar-mounted camera. The batteries ran out before getting to Skyland, but rest-assured that I’ll be back out there to give it another shot sometime real soon.

[youtube_sc url=DCSB_GdNTns width=500]

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