As we walked off the trail, 70 miles of The Ring behind us, it was a full 48 hours before I realized the extent that the world had crumbled while we were out there following orange blazes. And I say crumbled, because language is escaping me. I’m not entirely sure how to describe this time of unrest, but I can only hope that we will look back on this as the turning point to when things began to change, and be better. Things are still spinning, and I am still processing, learning and acting. I don’t want to take away from any of that. But I also recognize the power of the outdoors for myself, not only in terms of resetting but also in terms of giving me space to think and process much of the things going on in the world today. So with that in mind, I didn’t want to skip over writing a trip report on the Ring. When Matt and I were planning this, there was a surprisingly limited amount of information out on the internet, and what was there was a bit dated and left us wondering about the accuracy of it. So I wanted to make sure to give you the details of what we did, and hopefully encourage others to head out to these trails for a place to reflect and grow, and of course have an adventure.
That’s another way of saying “This is going to be a long one folks.” The short version can be summed up in this video:
We chose to start the ring at the Kennedy Peak trailhead, and hiked clockwise. We set off around 2pm on Wednesday, planning to get up Waterfall mountain and then begin to look for a place to camp. This would be about 12 miles. No part of the trail in this section is particularly challenging, but you still quickly get a feel for the fact that this trail is slow going even when it’s not technical! We dropped our packs and did the out and back to Strickler Knob without them — I’d definitely recommend this detour. That was the only time we saw people out on this day, another couple heading back from Strickler. Coming down from there, we made sure to fill up our water (we were both carrying a 2L bladder, a 16oz flask/bottle and a .6L Katahdyn soft flask with filter). We figured that the next stretch could be a little iffy with water access and we were right!
The hike up Waterfall is steep, especially with a full pack, and I was happy to have that behind us on the first day of the trip. At the top we explored some of the herd paths curious if they lead to campsites, but no luck there. As you continue on towards the road a few campsites do emerge right at the road crossing. We decided to cross the road, and about 1/4 mile across just before the trail climbs again there is a nice campsite we picked on the right.
The rain was rolling in overnight, so when we set off in the morning we weren’t sure if it was raining, really humid, or just windy and that was causing water to come off the trees. Regardless, it was a pretty wet start to the day. Our goal was to get to Edinburg Gap and find some water in that area, making the decision of whether or not to go off trail to the spring at that point (.5 mile detour each way).
This day proved to show off the heart and soul of the Ring trail. It reminded us not to judge a trail by the map – -what shows as possibly being “a nice hike along the ridgeline” is so much more than that on this trail. The rugged terrain rewards you just enough with the occasional view to keep you going, and we were happy that at this point in the season (just after Memorial Day), the stream crossings on the map did in fact have water flowing — so our bet to skip the spring and hike north on the trail about half a mile was a good bet!
The next section up to Woodstock Gap, I will always refer to as The Matrix. When you leave Endinburg gap, you see a sign saying 7 miles to Woodstock. After hiking strong uphill for 25 minutes, another sign…..still says 7 miles! More time passes thinking surely we are almost there, and another sign indicating that we are, at best, halfway. I don’t know what is going on in that section, but just be aware! Woodstock Gap was hot, but had some signs of civilization and we knew we were on our last stretch. But, it was turning into a 28 mile day as we slowly realized our hopes of finding a campsite up along the ridge in the next section were probably not going to come true — we’d have to hike the extra 2 miles down off the ridge. I think the annoyance factor was compounded by the fact we had wet feet since the start of the day – or at least it was for me. For some reason, I decided not to pack an extra pair of socks on this trip. I’ll never backpack again without making sure I do!!!!
Eventually we got to Mudhole Gap, and while we had low expectations based on the name, it turned out to be a great campsite. We were there on Thursday and no one else was around, so we had a ton of room to get ourselves set up, dry things out, and soak our legs in the cold water of Little Passage Creek. It was lovely!!
A nice night, and we packed up and started the second of the big days. You hike along the fire road for the most part for a few miles, which parallels Little Passage Creek, so we didn’t have to top off the pack weight with all the water right away either which was nice. Just make sure you fill up eventually — we did right at the intersection with the Tuscarora Trail – as you won’t have much more water until descending down to Elizabeth’s Furnace.
Signal Knob is a great view, and again, we lucked out by being the only ones around. After being able to make good time for the first couple hours, coming off of Signal Knob gets slower and much more technical. Down to Elizabeth’s Furnace, there was a sign saying that a hand pump for water was available in the campground, and some directions there were given. However, it wasn’t clear if it was a sign that had been there since pre-COVID days. As we went through the campground, trying any fountain along the way, it was clear they were off because of COVID precautions. The day was heating up, and I was clearly suffering from lack of calories and hydration. Matt was happily still looking for said hand pump, and I threw a (very small) tantrum insisting that this thing we just came across:
was clearly the hand pumped they referenced, and it was off, so let’s just get water from the river and get back on trail. Matt was adament that said device is just a faucet, not a hand pump. We may never know who was right!!! But Matt gave in to my rashness and we just hit the river.
After some cold water in my system, and eating 3 large snacks, I immedietly felt better (go figure!) and really enjoyed the next section of hiking. This area is one I had been in the vicinity of before for Old Dominion 100, and it felt familiar for sure. We also saw some others out hiking and the friendly faces were welcome. Still, we kept moving in an effort to get off our feet in less time than the day prior — my sock choice had proven to haunt me even further and I was getting pretty bad blisters on the bottoms of my toes.
Down to Little Crease Shelter for our last water fill of the day, and we hiked out for the ridge, our sights aimed on Milford Gap. This was perhaps the biggest wildcard for camping options, and I was a little nervous about targeting the ridgeline for camping after seeing yesterday’s ridgeline so limited for options. The eastern side of the ring though seemed to have many more options, and it would be a pretty reliable statement to say that at most trail intersections on the eastern side, there is a primitive campsite or two around.
Perhaps because of the weather rolling in (which we didn’t know about yet!) Milford gap was also empty, though it looks to be a well frequented spot. Probably my favorite site itself of the trip, though the major downside was it was a tick haven. I still get squirrely thinking about how many ticks we saw there and found on ourselves. Not ideal. But it actually had some benches of logs to sit down on, which was a pleasure!
As I alluded to before – weather was rolling in on this night. In an attempt to keep the tent cool, we had tried to not fully setup the fly for maximum airflow through the tent. As we started falling asleep and we heard thunder rumbling in the distance, we realized that might not have been wise! Slowly the storms rolled in, Matt went out and secured the fly, and for the next couple hours I layed awake worrying about the storms and the potential for a tree to fall on us (I realize this is a very small possibility and generally not something to lay awake worrying about) while Matt slept soundly.
That night, while I was exploring on my inReach Garmin map, I realized that it said a spring was just .4 miles down this trail from the campsite. We decided that seemed closer than the other options on the map, and it would be nice to just refill once in the morning and then not have to stop again for the last 10 miles of the hike. So in the morning we went down the trail to the West, and eventually did find the spring at the road down there. We didn’t see anything else for the rest of the day, so most likely you’d have to leave the trail to get water at some point, this isn’t a bad option.
The last day was pretty “easy” in comparison of terrain and climbing, and only half the distance we had been doing which was nice! In the first 68 miles of the trail, we had seen 9 others out on the trail. In those last 2 miles though on the Kennedy Peak trail, we saw another 15+! That was kind of crazy, and it was a little weird to end the hike in such a crowded place — but, by then it was Saturday morning so it was expected.
Overall, there is a lot we are still learning with backpacking. Like the need of more dry bags — we use one for a bear bag at night, but we probably should have had others to be able to keep other stuff (like sleeping bags) in our packs dry — even just from our sweat! We definitely didn’t need to take the puffy coats we had either, though I’m always hesitant to leave those behind because who knows what weather could really happen out there. I’m also still trying to figure out the perfect blend of hiking and camp clothes. I liked having the button down top and looser pants to wear at camp each night for sure, but I’d also like to try the option of maybe a campsite dress to stay covered but also air myself out once at the campsite.
For our first multi-day trip backpacking though, this was a pretty solid success! Since then, I’ve also felt a solid strength deposit in my legs for the running I’ve been doing. I guess 70 miles with a 20 pound pack will do that!