My previous July plans of backpacking in the Grand Canyon were regrettably cancelled, but that opened up the possibility of taking LishVAN out for her first real adventure. I quit messing around with carpentry and details, and focused on getting the van completely functional over the several weeks leading up to our trip. The electrical system was more or less together, but I hadn't even begun the propane or water systems. I worked relentlessly, but pulled it off and we managed to hit the road Saturday morning before the 4th for our week long shake-down run. Sure, there was hardly any paint on the walls and I hadn't even installed a counter-top, but the bed was in, the bathroom was complete, and the kitchen was 100% functional; good enough!!!
After quite a bit of waffling, we decided to head east to Shenandoah National Park and follow the mountains south for a few days before landing in South Carolina to meet with some family. We've been to this entire area before, but never for hiking. We wanted to stay in the mountains, in hopes of finding cooler weather so we didn't have to deal with powering our AC. We also bought an annual National Park Pass again this year, and I'm committed to getting my moneys worth out of it.
We bought a membership to Harvest Hosts for this trip as well, and I feel we've already got our moneys worth out of that. I'll do an entire separate blog post about HH, but in short, I feel it's the best kept secret in RV-ing. We paid something like $60 for the yearly membership, and in turn, get to stay at thousands of locations around the country for free. The catches; there are no hookups or bathrooms (these are not campgrounds, just places to park overnight), most require a a little planning (24 hour call-ahead), and all request that you purchase something from your host. The enormous upside: many of these places are wineries, breweries, distilleries, farmers markets, and/or restaurants, and we're aloud to spend the night, for free! Our first four nights of this trip were at Harvest Host locations, and each night worked out wonderfully.
Full of water and gas, we left on Saturday morning for our long drive day east. Our host for the evening was just outside the National Park in the rolling hills near the Virginia-West Virginia boarder. They did not have a restaurant on site, so we stopped at a local place on our way to pickup dinner for later. We arrived an hour or two before they closed, and parked in the back corner of the lot against rolling hills of apple trees with larger mountains in the distance. Showalter's Orchard, home of Old Hill Hard Cider is an apple orchard, cidery, greenhouse, event venue, and of course, Harvest Host. The place was beautiful, and the hard ciders were great! I do not enjoy sweet ciders, but they had several that were very tasty, including an excellent one that was aged in bourbon barrels and quite high proof. We tried a few, and ended up buying a bottle to drink with dinner later. We hung out and enjoyed the location until they closed, and slowly headed back towards the van. Eventually everyone left, and we had the place about to ourselves. If it was cooler, they had a fire pit and I'm sure we could have enjoyed a campfire. One other camper was staying here this evening, but they were parked in the other corner of the parking lot. We hung out and chatted with the them for some time, and eventually headed back to our corner. The propane oven reheated our dinners remarkably well, and we devoured a couple great burgers while enjoying the to-go cider. We had a big hike planned for the next day, so we turned in relatively early.
That became a trend for this trip. Harvest Host locations would like you to arrive before closing; often between 5 and 7pm. This can be a bit of a challenge if, like us, you're planning hiking 10+ miles a day, and drive a couple hours. For us, that equated to early bed times, and some EARLY departures. It worked out well, but is a bit of a departure from what is considered normal vacation behavior!
Worth mentioning, we packed the fridge with plenty of food to make sandwiches for breakfasts and lunches, as well as a couple gallons of drinking water. The water in our tank was fine to drink, but it was nice to always have a stash of cold water (the water in the tank is not near as cold as water from a tap at home).
An hour drive away from the trail head brought us to Sunflower Cottage Herb Farm and Backroom Brewery. Our second Harvest Host stay was a brewery, herb farm, and restaurant near Front Royal, Virginia. We arrived and got parked back behind the greenhouses; the view wasn't quite as perfect as the previous nights rolling hills, but the location and parking spot was just fine. We each showered (first time in the van!!!) and headed in for beer tastings and some great BBQ. We had a relaxing evening and an early bedtime; the next day would be another big hike.
The Old Rag Mountain Loop is one of the most popular and most challenging hikes in the National Park. Around 10 miles long, the hike goes up about 2300 feet, and traverses a very rocky ridge line with plenty of rock scrambling. Having hiked Grandfather mountain and Angels Landing, I knew I absolutely love the challenge and experience of rock scrambles, especially when rewarded with views. The Old Rag Mountain Loop did not disappoint! This was, without a doubt, the most technically difficult hike Alicia has ever done. But she did it!!! The trail goes up and over several rock edges easily 5' high, and down into one particularly memorable crevasse that was easily 7' straight down a rock shelf. At one point you have to jump over a crack in the rock that was about 2 foot wide. Not a physically difficult task, but it was a mental challenge, as the gap was easily 20 foot deep. The views along the ridge were nothing short of spectacular. The second half of the hike is more or less a gravel path back to the parking area through the woods. It's quite relaxing, and welcome after having ascended 2300 feet, and climbed over boulders for the past several miles.
We both loved this hike, and would highly recommend it to anyone adventurous enough to be tempted to give it a go.
After cleaning ourselves up a bit, we headed south towards Roanoke. We stayed just outside of town at our third Harvest Host: Franklin County Distilleries. The distillery was right off a main state highway, so our campsite was the least scenic of the trip, but it was convenient, and we were in the back of the parking lot against a small stream. Apparently Franklin County Virginia has an extremely 'rich' history of moonshine, and this distillery paid homage to that. Again, we grabbed a couple quick showers before heading in to check the place out. Unfortunately, most of their drinks are flavored vodkas, and having just spent the day sweating under the sun, they weren't hitting the spot for us. Honestly, I'm not sure if anything other than water would have hit the spot this particular afternoon. We did have some great BBQ, and had a good time enjoying the moonshine memorabilia and conversation with the employees. This evening was quite humid and the heat just wasn't letting up, so it was not our best night. Our roof fan works phenomenally well at pushing the heat out of the van once the sun goes down, but only if the temperature begins to drop outside. This was the only time we wished we could run the AC, but we chose not to drag along a generator on this trip. Eventually it cooled enough that we could get to sleep.
After our morning hike we headed to Gander RV and Outdoors. I had read online they provided free dumping and water refills. We had also accumulated a small list of items we wanted to pick-up, after having spent a few days trying out the van. We quickly learned a couple lessons here; this was definitely not the store to grab a few necessities. Example: Alicia needed another pair of socks for hiking. We found some in their closeout bin: $17, for one pair of socks, nice socks, but, $17 on closeout. They also pushed back when I asked about water. Now I know, call ahead, even if it says free water fill online. Eventually I was able to fill up the fresh water and empty our fancy little cartridge toilet.
For reference, we had taken three showers each and washed our dishes every day, and probably had enough water for one more day of showers and dishes. Also, the toilet was not reading near full yet. I think, once we become more efficient, we could live for about 5 days on our own water supply showering every day. Not bad at all, you know, for a van.
Eventually we were on our way once more, heading south towards North Carolina. Thistle Meadow Winery was just over the boarder in Laurel Springs, NC. We grabbed a couple wood fired pizzas on the way as the winery didn't have a restaurant on site, but we made it in plenty of time for a full tasting. The setting was lovely, and we parked out near a small stream. It rained nearly our entire drive here, but cleared up as soon as we arrived. After our tasting, we bought a bottle, and enjoyed the front porch till they closed up. We headed back to our van and heated up our pizzas while working on the bottle of wine. This evening was noticeably cooler, and it managed to stay dry for us the entire night.
The hike took us through a large area with wild ponies. Yes, wild ponies, which were introduced to the area in the 70's to maintain the grassy balds. The hike also goes over a couple enjoyable rock scrambles up to some wonderful views. Eventually we were hiking on the Appalachian Trail towards Mount Rogers. We passed many many AT campsites, and even one camping shelter-house. We split from the AT to hike to the summit, which is a landscape far more reminiscent of something from the Pacific Northwest than anything that should be in Virginia. The summit is very cool, but the hike to and from is the highlight of this route, with endless views for most of the hike.
After the hike back to the van (with many more ponies and views), we had several thousand feet to descend on switchback roads, and then a few hour drive south to my families home in South Carolina where we would stay for the remainder of our trip.
We found a couple items that needed tweaking in the van build, but absolutely nothing significant or worrisome. One engine annoyance that had been an issue in the past didn't magically resolve itself like I had hoped, so we need some diagnosing. After that I will be adding a vent to the shower drain system to speed up the draining, and keeping moving forward with the build.
Hooray! First big adventure is in the bag!