It's early morning and I'm dancing through buttery sweet singletrack that is peppered with rocks, a perfect combination of trail surface yin and yang. This bliss won't last forever, or much longer really, as the temperature and humidity are already creeping up and it's only 9:00am in the morning. On top of that the terrain will get progressively more difficult and the elevation gain will continue to accumulate.
Todd and I are on the western portion of the Massanutten Trail, a.k.a. The Ring, heading south along Powell Mountain from Woodstock Tower. This section of trail is some of the finest out here, if only the rest of it was this good and manageable. We are attempting to cover half the trail today and should be hitting our hardest stretch of trail right around the time of the day when the heat and humidity will be peaking. Tackling this beast in August is not the wisest idea, but when opportunity knocks sometimes you just answer the door. For me, this is my third time jumping into this pool, for Todd it is his first. He got the ball rolling a week or so earlier when he came into a hall pass worth several days of mountain bike and camping freedom. I'm currently unemployed which certainly has its downsides, but free time isn't one of them.
We woke before dawn, had a quick breakfast and coffee, finished gathering the day's gear and left our campsite as the sun was rising like a fireball in the sky. Our upward grind started immediately as we made our way to the ridge of Three Top Mountain, then proceeded to devour rocky GW goodness for several miles. A quick time check at Woodstock Tower shows we are on pace and on to more beautiful singletrack. The run from Woodstock to Edinburgh Gap is classic Appalachian ridge riding, churning across a rocky spine of trail, alternating between the East and West sides of the ridge depending on which portion was deemed the most passable by the early CCC pioneers.
We started with the same basic plan and route as my spring attempt with Jay, who unfortunately couldn't make this outing, setting up base camp at Camp Roosevelt to the south and beginning day one of our quest near Mudhole Gap in the north. The prior night we had dropped two water caches, one for day one and the second for day two, knowing we would likely need an H2O resupply with the predicted heat. Two days, 71 miles total. On paper it sounds easy, certainly not worthy of the title "epic". Who needs a base camp for that kind of ride? Or a water cache for a 35 mile day? Dear folks, let me just say, The Ring is a nasty little bugger who will lure you in just to break you down. Do not underestimate this evil siren.
Powell Mountain is deceiving as it climbs and climbs without really letting you realize how long the ascent is strung out. It seduces and fools you by dipping and diving along the way, teasing you with faint bench cut singletrack that lets you feel like you are the first one to lay tires here in years. It is also one of the finest sections of trail in the area. Towards the end you encounter the final, difficult push that tops you out in a mine field of white and gray rock, then point it down in the chunky trail surface, for several miles of descending. The top portion takes skill, precision and a little bit of luck as you muscle your way through rock piles that don't appear to have logical lines. Gravity helps at this point as well. Trees in the area stand like burned match sticks from a not too long ago fire, leaving the scene somewhat apocalyptic, then the area quickly turns back to green and soon after the rocks yield and a (relatively) smooth trail appears letting you open up, hit the gas and finish the descent into Edinburgh Gap with the wind providing nature's much need A/C.
All that elevation that was dropped needs to be made up again and it is the looming Short Mountain that I warn Todd about with a sense of dread. In the back of my mind, knowing what is up ahead, I convince myself that this time, my second time, has to be easier than the last. It can't be nearly as bad or as long as I remember it. I'm prepared for the worst, but hoping for something slightly better. We'll climb 1000 ft. in 1.8 miles but gaining the elevation is the least of my concerns.
By now the sun has been beating down on us, we are drenched from sweat and the day hasn't even peaked yet. Clothes and gloves appear as if I have jumped in a river but the only water to be found is coming out of our pores. We are fueling the bodies, but mine feels slightly off and this is not where you want to feel anything but at the top of your "A" game. Still, you soldier on. The climb appears benign enough to begin with then turns steeper and we alternate between pedaling and hiking. Midway up the trail tightens and turns to beautifully constructed benchcut with views off into the valley, luring you to take them in as you enjoy a quick respite from the climbing with a series of burning fast grade reversals. Round the corner and BAM, view are gone, trail points back up and the suffering is back. A quick snack at the "top" and we continue the slow grind that appears to be flat but really continues to slowly climb and slowly use your energy. The true work begins as we get into the 4 - 5 mile rock garden that spans this ridge. Dirt does not exist up here, the trees appear to magically grow out of granite. Riding is a pleasure, mainly because when you are riding you are not hiking this mess in hard soled bike shoes. I love technical rock riding, but this has miles of on again, off again terrain that is just an act of perseverance. It is however, just a part of The Ring that must be done, a means to an end. The bugs are biting, thorny brush scratches the skin. Midway through a pair of equestrians stumble and bumble their way by us, the horses sliding dangerously on steep rock pitches, legs bloodied from earlier faltering on the rocks. Traversing this terrain with bikes is questionable, on horseback just seems foolish.
Water consumption is steady and regular, but I don't think it's enough. Not that I can drink any more. Despite keeping the pace we need, the body feels like it's slowly getting drained. I've peed once today, early in the ride and that was about a tablespoon in volume. We are both getting low on water but know our cache is at the end of Short Mountain. Still, the trail feels like it goes on forever as we maintain a hiking pace, even when we are riding.
Finally, the terrain breaks slowly, long stretches of pedaling resume and we start to gradually drop elevation. Then, similar to the descent to Edinburgh, we descend on large, sharp, irregular rocks. Stay on your toes. Happy to descend but fatigue dulls the reflexes so you need to stay focused. We gobble up the rocks and the terrain breaks once again allowing you to release the brakes and speed towards the bottom where water is stashed in the bushes.
When we hit the water cache we are both nearly dry, 1 gallon of water consumed by each of us over 20 miles. The 8 mile trek of Short Mountain took us 2:45, our 20 mile total took about 5:45. We've got the daylight to finish our 35 for the day, but we aren't sure the bodies do. The heat is taking it's toll for sure. The slow pace of the terrain adds to it. Jawbone Gap is up next, a 6 mile stretch that is apparently like the last 8 miles we just completed. After that we are in territory I've done before. Definitely some more climbing, definitely some more rocks. Bowling balls as I recall. With disappointment we decide to pull the plug, being 4.5 miles from camp. Moving ahead just puts us further away.
Back at camp we wolf some food and put down some beers and decide on a course of action. There's a chance of rain tomorrow, deja vu from the spring attempt. We decide to go retrieve the car now rather than later. Back in the saddle, 20 miles of pavement and gravel and we are back to the mornings start point. Forty Five miles for the day, but that second half was a lot easier than the first.
In the morning I go to get out of my tent and a dead bird is at the door, eyes removed. A warning sign? Strange, no explanation, no apparent cause of death. We break camp and head north. It rained overnight, just enough to slick up the rocks and make some difficult trails even harder. We climb the Signal Knob trail in a cloud (literally), we suffer some more, we get some more knowledge for the data banks and the wheels are turning on how to make the next attempt. Our pay off is a rip roaring 5 mile run down Bear Wallow, a.k.a. 31 Flavors, a trail that makes every drop of blood left on the earlier trails worth it. The quest for The Ring is not over.
The Massanutten Trail is a 71 mile loop traversing two ridges on Massanutten Mountain North in the George Washington National Forest. It is located in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia near Fort Valley and offers unbelievable mountain bike trails. National Geographic's map #792 covers trails in the area including "The Ring". For more photos of the trail, click here.