I’m a big fan of our National Parks, and I’m lucky enough to have four in Colorado alone. I’ve got this not-so-secret plan to visit all 59 of them: from Dry Tortugas (70 miles west of the Florida Keys), to the brown bear haven of Katmai in Alaska, California’s Death Valley (the lowest point in the United States), and all the way up to Acadia in Maine—I’ll get to you someday, Maine. So I was pretty excited when I was within driving distance to Shenandoah National Park, and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
Just The Facts
Trail: Beaver Lake Trail (Pocahontas State Park)
Elevation Gain: 150 ft
Distance: 2.4 mi. (loop)
Trail Use: Hiking
Trail Condition: Maintained, and clearly marked
Bring Your Dog: Yes (but must be on a leash)
Access: All year long
Trail Map: http://www.dcr.virginia.gov
Entrance fee: $5 Daily (unless you have an REI receipt...then it's free)
The Power of Weather
I was in the middle of a two week work trip away from home, and bouncing around from Kentucky to Virginia. I was looking forward to my weekend downtime. Well, I ended up not having as much free time as I hoped for.
Cancelled flights, late pilots (my favorite), airplane maintenance, a nor’easter. Yup, that’s right, a winter storm hundreds of miles away, caused massive delays, cancellations, and general travel-havoc for all those headed to, or traveling from, the east coast...and robbing me of my precious wilderness fix.
It’s painfully depressing to be stuck in an airport (in this case Philadelphia) knowing I should be out on a hike. But I was trying to distract myself from the uncomfortable airport chairs. I was using my Saturday trying to figure out what trails might be near my hotel, instead of actually being on a hike. I had no idea when I would get to my hotel, so I planned for something close.
I found Pocahontas State Park, which is only about forty minutes from Fort Lee. So I knew I could get there fast enough. But I kept finding photographs of Shenandoah. I’m not sure when I’d be back in Virginia. So I better take advantage, and check a National Park off my list—even if it was two and half hours away.
You only live once, right?
I was going to get up early, and throw caution to the wind...yes that’s a weather joke.
I knew the trail I wanted to hike while in Shenandoah, but I wanted to explore most of it with little expectation. Well, I always have great expectations, but I was trying to keep them in check.
Weak In The Trees
Being my usual self, I’d planned everything before I went to bed: loaded up my backpack with snacks and water, planned my driving route, double-checked I had all my camera odds-and-ends, visited the Shenandoah National Park official website several times. All was in place...adventure time was a go.
This was going to be good.
Now, I know Shenandoah is more of a prime fall spot, and I knew winter might be the least optimal time to visit the park, but that’s never stopped me before. I had visions of being all alone in the park, trekking into the unknown, finding some undiscovered waterfall, or rarely seen rocky ledge. I always welcome solitude in the wilderness, and seek it out whenever possible.
My two and a half hour drive went by much faster than I thought it would, and I ended up at the Swift Run Gap entrance at 9AM, right on time. I pulled up behind another car (no doubt an outdoor lover too) and waited my turn. I dug into my pocket, retrieved my wallet, and pulled out my annual National Parks pass—displaying it like a badge of honor.
And I waited. Why wasn’t the car in front of me moving? Why was the park ranger at their passenger side window, and not in the guard shack? What’s happening?!?
It was my turn to talk to the ranger...she looked uneasy...she had bad news. I rolled down the window.
“The park is closed” she greeted with a depressed tone.
“Oh, really? Why?”
“The recent storm, the nor’easter, knocked down a lot trees. The road through the park is closed.” If you’re wondering...there are no other roads into the park.
I paused, lower lip quivering. I was hopeful my puppy dog eyes would somehow change the situation. It didn’t.
“Sorry” she said. "You can turn around up ahead."
What have I ever done to you, trees? I talk about you all the time. I thought we were friends?
I then noticed all the other cars parked along the side of the road, all with out-of-state plates: California, Texas, Nevada, Rhode Island. Sad cars, and mini-vans, adorned with camping gear, bike racks, and filled with sad, bowed heads searching phone apps, and paper maps for some answer to the age old question: Now what?
My two plus hour drive was all for not, or was it? I had a backup plan.
Ok, Now What?
I wasn’t going to let my cancelled/delayed/closed weekend get any worse. Even though I was now far away from Pocahontas State Park, I would simply turn around and drive back.
I’m not saying I shouldn’t have gone to Shenandoah, but I’m pretty sure I should’ve checked the website one more time before I left. I didn’t think the storm would’ve done that much damage from so far away. I also thought I would've seen something on the main page.
Blast From The Past
I arrived at Pocahontas State Park a little before noon, and to say I was relieved to see the park was open is an understatement. I was a little worried it would be closed.
Since I’d already looked at the trails, while stuck in Philly, I knew Beaver Lake trail would be a quick, easy hike. Exactly what I needed to rescue what remained of my brief weekend.
Warm-ish temperatures, and clear skies brought out other hikers too. The parking lot was full, and groups, big and small, were heading off into various directions. I’d picked a good plan-b.
Before I even made it to the trailhead, my midwest roots came roaring back to life. I haven’t been in a forest like this in almost thirty years.
The smells, sounds, and sunlight all feel different in a wintery, deciduous forest. Crunchy, dried leaves cover the ground, and add a continuous, crisp whisper as you pass through. Constant rummaging by squirrels, bouncing from tree-to-tree, searching for who knows what. Little birds tossing twigs about, scratching at the surface, a quick burst of wind stirs up the fallen foliage, conducting a natural song, an orchestra of wooden creaks from hibernating branches, and cascading waves of rustling tones.
On the the trail, a gradual slope descends to the edge of Beaver Lake, and guided me to one of two floating docks. I stepped out onto the gently swaying dock and listened to an army of frogs (or was it a knot of toads) croaking back and forth. Spring is in the air, but the brown of winter still colors the cattails and grasses along the shore.
I was hyperaware of how many fallen trees crisscross the ground around me. I know it’s not uncommon, but there were more than I would have thought. Again, they were standing out to me due to how my morning started.
One of my favorite parts of this hike are the boardwalks. The boardwalks bend and twist through the forest and carried me over to higher ground. It’s dry now, but I’m sure spring and summer brings a lot of rain and swampy water.
Closer to the lake edge, dark pools of still water collect in the shallower spots. A fallen log, heavy with moss and decay, floats on the surface, while dropped leaves blanket the boggy earth, and sink below the brown-ish water.
The only significant hill climb comes at about the halfway point. Other than that, it’s an easy (almost flat) hike. The hard-packed dirt trail, curves around trees and up small hills, and remains free of rocks or debris. It’s perfect for families with little kids, eager to explore the waters edge, or small groups looking for a stress free wander. I spent a lot of time, exploring the creeks, and streams, walking about letting the filtered sun wash over me, and carry away the frustrations of delays and closures. I was finally relaxing.
This is a short trail, and without constant stops and starts, I could finish it in well under an hour. But I wanted to enjoy my time soaking it up. I found a large fallen tree to sit on, have a snack, and be still for a moment.
The Main Attraction
The trail did fall victim to the wind storm after all. Before I reached the east end of the lake, I heard the tell-tale sound of a cold-starting chainsaw. Two park rangers stood next to a fallen tree, which was now lying across the trail, blocking the path. If all they have to do is remove this one tree, they lucked out.
I don’t think it’s the only reason to hike Beaver Lake trail, but on my visit everyone was hanging out by the dam. The flow over the edge was minimal, but it’s always nice to stop and listen to the splash of water. The warm sunshine, soft breeze, and the subtle trace of spring, brought a smile to every face.
A few Canada geese waddled around the shore, while the air carried little kid laughter, and happy conversations of warmer weather, across the lake.
I always enjoy a good state park, and Pocahontas State Park gave me exactly what I needed. I salvaged what could have been a bad day, and I’m glad I ended up where I did. I had a chance to explore and relive some forgotten memories.
You’re still on my to-do list, Shenandoah. When I get my next chance to make my way to Virginia, I'll be sure to stop by...I’ll also be sure to check the weather.