Short (Earth) Day Hike Along the AT – Skyland to Elkwallow Wayside

“The mountains are calling me.  I must go.  My spiritual guide is my compass during my journey of life.  I must find my path and overcome obstacles so I may rise high and stand tall and proud.  My path leads me towards the mountains and the skies.” -Unknown

My spring break took me from the bitter cold of the windy city to the warm mountains of Shenandoah and reinforced the fact that I am ready for summer break!  The first part of my break took priority to plan and prep – I flew to Chicago with my boys (their first flight) to stay with my brother and his husband for Easter.  I knew I wanted to get some trail time in during the break, but I hadn’t had much time to sit down and plan out a hike.  I returned home from Chicago very late Monday night and spent Tuesday contemplating a hike on the AT or not.  My boys’ behavior had been pretty shitty in Chicago.  I was not sure if it was because Ken came with us and they were upset about the fact that our relationship is growing more serious, or if they were just sick of each other after a few days off of school.  Whatever the case was, I wanted some time to unwind after that trip, but I also wanted to take advantage of some kid free time while also off of school.  As a compromise to myself, I planned out a different kind of AT hike – a day hike.  We drove down to Luray Thursday, and stayed at an Airbnb in the woods, hiked all day Friday, and returned to the Airbnb that night to recover in the hot tub with a glass of champagne. 

Sunrise along Sky Line Drive

We arranged to meet Sawbriar, our trusty shuttle ride, to meet us at our ending point (Big Meadows Wayside) and drive us south to our starting destination.  This trip was put together at the very last minute, and luckily she was able to squeeze us in, and as is always the case, she also had some friendly feedback for us, which was to start at the trail for Stony Man Mountain.  This added two miles to our original plan, but this way we would be able to start our day with an amazing view.  We got to the Stony Man Mountain entrance after seeing Sky Land, and immediately I noticed that just walking with a daypack on felt light. We hiked 19 miles north to Big Meadows Wayside maintaining our typical 2 mile per hour pace, despite carrying much less weight.

The views from Stony Man Mountain(about 4,000 feet elevation) were some of the best of the Appalachian Trail so far.  Across the valley where Luray is nestled is another crop of mountains where we were staying for the weekend.  As we walked along the ridge that morning, the views continued on our left.  Waking up with the sun coming up over the mountains, and starting my day walking along the ridge calmed my mind, which had been mulling over anxiety about my kids and their mental well-being.  What is it about the mountains and forests? According to, “forests and natural environments are considered therapeutic landscapes and have demonstrated many positive psychological effects. In fact, a recent study published in Public Health found that exposure to forests and trees led to increased liveliness, and decreased levels of stress, hostility and depression.”  I knew that I needed to focus on getting my kids outside playing more to help them with their hostilities. We have a trampoline and often I am tired, or busy, or simply don’t want to jump on it with them, but taking a few minutes out of a busy evening to go outside and play with them greatly improves their moods.  Walking along a mostly isolated trail on a weekday felt like a privilege, especially with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Views from Stony Man Mountain

About four hours into our hike, we climbed a short ascent to Mary’s Rock with more impressive views from atop Shenandoah’s ridge line. We took a quick picture to send to my friend Mary before beginning a very long descent.  Watching people climbing up the other direction made me both cheerful and envious of them.  We passed several women who looked to be in their 50s and maybe 60s with full packs on, as well as various other day hikers making their way up.  My feet began to ache a bit, going downhill for so long, but part of me wished that I was out there with a full pack on, ready to spend the night in the woods.  When we finally go to the bottom of the mountain, I saw the entrance that we had gone through to get into Sky Linde Drive.  We sat down for about an hour to eat some food, and talk.  Oddly enough, we picked this spot next to the road with cars and motorcycles going by, but it was still a very nice break from my typical lunch – eating in my classroom with a student who is having a hard time in school right now.  

Mary’s Rock

After our first cross of Sky Line Drive of this hike, it was a short incline back up to the ridge.  By this point, we realized that our hike was going to take longer than we had anticipated.  When we were really going, we walked about 2.5 to 3 miles per hour, but with stops for views and food, we really weren’t going much faster than we do with full packs on.  My lower back was fired up from working out earlier in the week and I stopped a few times on the climb back up to the ridge to straighten out my back.  I thought a lot about my kids during this hike, and we talked about them a great deal, too.  My oldest is starting to become more aware of others, and how he is different.  It is age-appropriate, becoming more self aware right before heading into middle school.  He compares himself constantly to his younger brother, who is academically gifted, well liked and quick-witted.  Ken pointed out to me that I favor my younger son, something I never meant to do, but he gave me specific examples and it made me stop and re-assess some of my parenting.  I made a conscious decision to give my oldest more praise, individual attention and help boost his self-confidence, while reminding him that there is no actual competition between him and his brother.  I wish my ex were more communicative about the kids, and more of a co=parent, especially when it comes to their mental well-being.  Oftentimes I feel the loneliest when faced with what seem like monumental parenting tasks.  I remember people telling me “little people, little problems – just wait til they get older.”  Those people were right.  I find comfort in the actual wilderness, and nature.  It helps me mentally train for the “wildness” of real life.  “…the whole idea of wilderness being those times when we stand alone and those times when we go out on a limb, the times we walk away from what we know, our ideological bunkers and our beliefs, braving is the tool to help us manage the wilderness.” (Brene Brown) As with the last hike, the last mile or so I was ready to be done hiking for the day, ready to get back to the airbnb and climb into the hot tub.

  • LG

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