Have you heard that it’s National S’mores Day?
What better day to tell you all about a recent camping trip I took in Shenandoah National Park? A few weeks ago, I planned a trip for six friends to go camping up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I had visited and hiked in the Blue Ridge dozens of times, but I had never camped before. Planning a two-day camping and hiking trip for six was a daunting task, and I was a little nervous that, as the only one out of the group who had never been camping, I was doomed to miss a critical detail and therefore ruin the trip for everyone. So I did a lot of research and planning. If you know me well, you won’t be surprised at all that there were multiple checklists and maps involved, all important information lived in a “camping binder,” with plastic sheet protectors and all, and we packed the car to the roof with essentials and not-so-essentials, “just in case.”
Kyle and I bought a Marmot tent at REI earlier this summer and we were excited to finally put it to good use. The night before we left for our camping trip, we unpacked the tent and set it up in the living room, just to be sure that we had everything we needed and that we wouldn’t look too foolish to the other seasoned campers when we arrived at our campsite.
I believe the above diagram shows that no one can stand in this tent unless they’re under 5’1”. At first I took the other pictures to mean that the tent would fit two yogis or four mummies, but now I realize that they indicate that the tent will fit four people sleeping and two sitting up. I am new to this camping thing, but I think I’m starting to get it down.
We arrived at Big Meadows Campground about two hours before sundown on a Friday night. Kyle and I focused on setting up our tent first, and then we started to get dinner ready. Among our team of six, we had a few vegetarians, some vegans, a gluten-free restriction, a nut allergy, and a carb counter. You would think that would present a big challenge, but it really wasn’t that hard to accommodate at all. I made a burrito bar for our first dinner, which worked out really well because each person could make his or her own meal from the options provided. We had low-carb and whole wheat tortillas, black beans, sauteed zucchini, squash, and onions, salsa, sour cream, and cheese.
For dessert, we made s’mores (of course), and created the most amazing campfire snack I have ever seen. Behold. . . the S’moreo.
Simply twist two halves of an Oreo cookie apart and press a toasted marshmallow between them. For the record, Oreos are vegan. Marshmallows are not, due to the gelatin, unless you buy special vegan marshmallows.
We sat around the campfire the first night, laughing, telling stories, and scaring ourselves about the possibility of black bears crashing our party. We couldn’t believe how cold it was up in the mountains – around 60 degrees at the campsite at 3600 feet of elevation – while it was 75-80 degrees in the valley. Just as the fire started to die down and we began packing up to head to the tents, it started raining.
It poured all night long, hard driving rain, that never let up. We stayed completely dry in our tent, although there was one section on the corner above my head that was not completely taut, so it gathered a pool of water and then dumped a loud, sudden shower off the side of the tent about every twenty minutes all night long. Between the sudden “swoosh” of water right next to my head, jitters about sleeping outside for the first time ever, and weird sounds in the woods that my exhausted brain was convinced were from bears, axe murderers, or axe murderous bears, I hardly slept that first night.
The next morning, the rain let up a bit and then cleared up completely for our tubing trip on the Shenandoah River. After the cool, rainy night, we second guessed ourselves all morning on whether a tubing trip was the right plan, but when we got to the river, the sun was shining and it was a nice warm 80 degrees outside. The river was cool and refreshing, as were the beverages we packed into our cooler tube. I have gone tubing with Shenandoah River Adventures twice now, and I highly recommend them. We had a great experience!
When we headed back to camp that afternoon, it started raining again, so half of the group worked on setting up a tarp shelter for us to hang out under. The camp store at the Big Meadows Campground stocks a lot of supplies at very reasonable prices. We had brought an extra tarp with us, but we decided to buy a second one at the camp store to make an even larger shelter in case it rained for the next several hours. The other half of the group started washing and chopping vegetables for a giant tray of “hobo meal,” as Al called it.
Those are vegan hot dogs on the fire, next to a huge foil roasting pan full of potatoes, onion, carrots, zucchini, peppers, squash, salt, pepper, and oil. After about an hour directly over the fire, the “hobo meal” was done, and it was fantastic. Who says you need to have meat to make a hearty meal?
The rain slowed down before bed time that second night. We made more s’mores, left a huge dent in the beer supply, and played games until we were falling asleep in our camp chairs. I slept like a rock that night, no longer worried about homicidal maniacs or bears, and finally comfortable sleeping in a tent. Progress!
For breakfast both days, we had bagels (toasted over a campfire) with hummus or cream cheese, and fresh fruit. I made a batch of cold brew iced coffee concentrate at home and brought it with us for morning coffees. I don’t drink mine black, so I brought shelf stable milk in Tetra Paks, and on Sunday morning I discovered the joy of Silk chocolate soy milk in iced coffee. A little leftover “hobo meal” stew helped bulk up breakfast on the second day and gave us extra fuel for hiking later that day.
We headed to the Hawksbill Summit Loop Trail, about five miles north of Big Meadows Campground. Hawksbill Summit is the highest peak of Shenandoah National Park, at 4,049 feet. We accidentally hiked the loop backwards, making a very steep climb straight up to the summit, then meandering back along the Appalachian Trail at a slight downhill grade, with a lot of switchbacks and beautiful scenery. There was a lot of cloud cover all morning so we were not sure how much we would be able to see at the summit.
When we arrived at the top, it looked like we had reached the end of the world. We were standing in a cloud. It is pretty hard to describe the feeling of looking down off a cliff at nothing but thick white clouds. This picture that Kyle posted to Instagram demonstrates that a picture is worth a thousand words: Al at the Summit.
Within ten minutes of our arrival at the summit, the clouds began to break, and we could see the vast valley below.
There were these amazing little succulents growing out of the rocks at the top.
Adrienne took a yoga break while we took in the panoramic views.
Having the clouds break right as we reached the summit was a great end to a trip that was perfectly timed. . . no thanks to all of my meticulous planning. It was overcast and rainy for most of the time we were there, except for three distinct and brief times that the clouds cleared up and the sun shone down on us: when we first arrived and set up our tents, when we ventured out on our tubing trip, and when we reached Hawksbill Summit. These were the only three times we really needed the sun, and somehow it all worked out. There is no way I could have planned that.
At a time that I am reminded how much I am not in control, these brief moments of sunshine and intermittent rain made me even more grateful for the opportunity to explore all of the natural beauty we have in Virginia, just a two-hour drive from home.
You know it was a good trip when you haven’t even made it off the mountain yet before everyone starts asking, “when can we do it again?”