Bikepacking The Petite Trans VA Route

As I mentioned in my retirement post, I had planned on a solo ride from Maryland to Vermont this May but as often happens, life gets in the way and we have to replan. So Charles and I casted around for a shorter trip we could do over a long weekend that fit into both of our schedules. We did find some interesting routes on the Trans Virginia website. So we customized one from Harrisonburg VA to Annapolis MD that fit the bill. I have no video of this trip, so no concise “view the short version of the trip” only this writeup and still pictures. I probably should subtitle the post, “The Look at My Bike leaning Against Random Stuff Edition”!

Our goal was to do a ride that incrementally built on the prior credit card camping adventures and our first camping ride in PA last August. The Trans Virginia set of routes was perfect:

Ride from DC to Damascus, VA in 550 miles of mostly (60%) unpaved country and forest roads, double track and rail trails (18%). Traverse Virginia’s best backcountry riding on this new gravelpacking (gravel, bikepacking, and touring) route focused on rideable, non-technical, unpaved terrain intended for multi-day trips carrying overnight gear.

From transvirginia.org

It certainly would have been nice to do the whole thing, but logistics and time were an issue. Fortunately, Lisa had a work appointment near Harrisonburg so she could drive us out and drop us off without our having to worry about retrieving a car later (an 11 hour ordeal for our Monongahela National Forest trip!). I worked out a four day, three night, 40-60 miles a day route that was predominantly off road and got us back to Annapolis. This route included the northern half of the Shenandoah Valley a nice remote few days and then transitioned to steadily more suburban and urban terrain.

Petite TransVA Route on Ride With GPS: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/39320374
Love the downhill trend. Definitely felt that way.

The TransVA website offers many resupply and camping suggestions which really makes the preparation research easy. All you have to do is figure out the ball park daily mileage and work from there. I ended up calling my route the Petite Trans VA. While there was a bit of up and down, it really did feel like there was more down than up as the elevation profile indicates. Also Ride With GPS greatly underestimated the amount of unpaved surface, a really nice surprise. I think there was about 70 gravel between Harrisonburg and Leesburg. Then, the WO&D and trails to the east side of Washington, and my old commuting route back to Annapolis.

I now have all the camping gear I need for such a ride (outlined here) and with the addition of a Jetboil Pocket Rocket 2 stove for heating water, really all one needs for rudimentary camping food (dehydrated coffee, oatmeal and backpacking meals). We planned to stop places for lunch, cook two nights at remote campgrounds and eat out for dinner on the last night as we would be in an urban area with lots of options. I made a few tweaks to my packing strategy given expected rain, however am still struggling with what to bring for clothing, both on and off bike. As with most space/weight constrained activities, everything is a tradeoff. I brought: 2 bibs, 1 base layer, 1 jersey, 1 thermal jersey, 1 pr socks, knee warmers and a light rain jacket (on bike) and 1 marino wool t-shirt, 1 pr tech long johns, 1 pr shorts, 1 pr camp socks, a nanopuff down jacket and a pair of flipflops. I wore all the bike clothes except the thermal jersey and rarely used the flipflops as I now have more comfortable bike shoes that are not bad for short walking around. For swimming in a creek weather, I’m looking at getting some crocks instead of the flipflops because they don’t absorb any water.

Day 1: Harrisonburg to Shenandoah Meadows Campground

Happy and anxious to get rolling.

This was the shortest day at about 44 miles but had a fair bit of climbing. We stayed overnight in Front Royal (no hotels in Harrisonburg under $600 as it was JMU graduation) and it rained really hard in the morning so we decided not to get on the road until about noon when Lisa dropped us just north of Harrisonburg. It was still a bit wet with a few sprinkles but for the most part it was cool and a really nice ride. The Shenandoah Valley is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. It was good to get rolling – the day or two before always makes me anxious – and we both finally relaxed as we got off the road and onto the gravel. Since we left after noon, we didn’t need any lunch stop. That’s fortunate, because there was no place to be found! We arrived at Shenandoah Meadows, a “Hipcamp” site (like the Air BnB for campsites). It’s a beautiful location with some rudamentary services (basic showers, toilets and potable, but severely sulfur smelling well water). There were a few hikers there overnight with us, but that’s it. I guess it’s a bit early in the season. And only $30 for the night. Highly recommended.

The spot is located in Fort Valley, an elevated valley between two ridges in the greater Shenandoah Valley. It’s almost entirely enclosed and was considered by George Washington to take the Continental Army to hide from the British if the Revolutionary War started to go badly.

We set up camp, cleaned up and enjoyed our backpacking dinners, made a fire, and just hung out and enjoyed the quiet and beauty of the evening. We turned in just after dark around 9:30 pm. I was worried all week it would be really cold at night but it turned out to be in the high 40s/low 50s which was fine with the gear I had. There were forecast thunderstorms that never materialized, but it did rain all night. Fortunately Big Agnes came through and we were dry all night in our Copper Spurs. The morning was foggy and damp, but at least not raining. We made breakfast of oatmeal (and special sauce: Bran Buds!) and coffee and got packed up. We’re definitely getting more efficient with the packing up routine and it was good the weather was not perfectly dry because it makes you think about how to deal with wet gear. Basically how do you pack it wet and minimize the collateral damage? The trick for me was to keep the sleeping pad/pillow dry by putting it in a plastic bag inside the drybag with the wet footprint/fly and damp tent. The only damage was I forgot to take the plastic cup off my water pot before putting it on the stove to make coffee and completely melted it. Soooopid.

Ride Stats: 42.49 miles, 3:46 moving time, 4:15 elapse time, 3629′ vertical

Ride With GPS Daily Route: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/39363626

Strava Track: https://www.strava.com/activities/7137390729

Day 2: Shenandoah Meadows to Sky Meadows State Park

Packed and read to roll on Day 2.

We rolled out about 9am after the same breakfast and our new morning routine. While it was foggy and damp, the forecast for the day had greatly improved with only a chance of rain during the day. The route continued north through Fort Valley and the George Washington National Forest, mostly on gravel roads, but we did run along the main Fort Valley road for a while through the National Forest, but there was almost no traffic as it was an early Friday morning. Once out of the forest, we descended down into Front Royal making a quick stop to get some snacks at attend to a bubble in Charles’ tubeless rear tire. We put in a tube along with a park boot for some rigidity and that did the trick and the tire lasted the rest of the ride.

Just as we got into Front Royal proper it started to rain. Hard. Fortunately, we found The Daily Grind right in the older downtown on E. Main Street with covered tables outside, so we had a nice lunch while it rained. An hour later, rested and fed, the rain let up and we continued on. The trip out of town is kind of crappy with a lot of traffic going towards the I-66 interchange just off US-55 (the exit you take of I-66 when you go to ride Skyline Drive) and but once you got past that gas station (where we stopped for more snacks) it chilled and eventually we turned off and headed north back on gravel until we arrived at Sky Meadows State Park. But between this location and Sky Meadows was the infamous climb up and over Naked Mountain. If you have ever done the Blue Ridge Challenge Route, you know this climb as the surprise on the way home. It’s uphill for about 5 miles, and the steep part is not too long at about a mile, but it kicks at the end and with a 50 lb rig at the end of the day, it was hard. The reward was a nice screaming downhill to the entrance to Sky Meadows.

Fortunately, the rain caused some cancelations and we were able to get a dedicated camp site. I had talked to the ranger and they have a “no turn away” policy for Appellation Trail hikers (the trail goes right past the campsites) and the ranger said we could use one of their spots if needed. But fortunately the nicer spots were available. That said, I really appreciate this no turn away policy for hikers and bikers. However, I really wish they would educate the summer staff on that fact because they really did not understand that. I found this scenario to be the same in Florida which also has a no turn away policy for people walking or biking. The campsite was about a mile uphill from the Visitor’s Center checkin spot (and the closest parking lot which was a mile uphill from the entrance). Not a problem for us as we could ride in, but other campers (it was very crowded with large hiking groups of kids) had to hike in all their junk.

As we arrived, it started to rain again. There were a few minutes here and there where it let up and gave us a chance to quickly set up the tents and get pads and sleeping stuff inside without getting wet. After that we basically sat around in the rain attempting to start a fire to amuse ourselves. We had flame for a while (mostly because I used my camp stove as a “torch”), but even with dry wood we never reached critical mass because it was like 99% humidity and eventually gave up. #manfail Anyway it finally stopped and we were able to cook and eat. No showers were available so it was mostly just a wipe down night. I woke up in the middle of the night and realized the clouds had parted and a full moon had come out and was really bright.

Ride Stats: 51.11 miles, 4:17 moving time, 6:54 elapse time, 3383′ vertical

Ride With GPS Daily Route: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/39363695

Strava Track: https://www.strava.com/activities/7143034762

Day 3: Sky Meadows to Lake Fairfax Park

Packed and read to roll on Day 3.

The morning was pretty much a carbon copy of the previous day, cool, foggy and damp, but no rain. The routine also the same, coffee, breakfast and a damp packup. We hit the Visitor’s Center on the way out for their nice bathrooms and Elkay water bottle filler (the campsites have no potable water).

We departed Sky Meadows and once again the daily forecast improved with some chance of rain, but not what they were initially calling for. Just north of Sky Meadows we entered Loudoun County and many of the gravel roads were familiar from other rides I’ve done over the years. As I’ve noted many times, the amount of disappearing farmland in Loudoun County is amazing. “Real Farms” turning into “House Farms” in the middle of nowhere. In general, the character definitely changed from rural farmland to horse county. More Subarus than Trump flags… On that note, I keep this blog decidedly apolitical (even when discussing urbanism topics that can sometimes be polarizing – that’s the Strong Towns mentality!), but riding in the Shenandoah Valley seeing Tump related signs (2024 campaign, “FU46”, and “Let’s Go Brandon”) as well as many, many Confederate flags, I found myself really wishing I could find the opportunity to have a neutral dialog with some locals so I could really understand their perspective, mostly the issues that drive their politics. But short of knocking on someone’s door, the opportunity didn’t present itself. I hope sometime to find it.

We finally hit the outskirts of Leesburg and the end of the hills and gravel when we got onto the WO&D Trail. Our planned lunch stop was in Leesburg and we found a great pizza place (Fireworks Pizza) with lots of local beer. Since we just had about 20 miles to go down the WO&D, I hit the beer a little too hard; perhaps a double IPA was not the best choice for a second beer, but with the pizza and some warm sunshine it felt really good. We hung for about an hour and a half and when we were getting ready to roll, Charles ran into a couple who was asking some bikepacking questions. She came by our table and gave us their phone number saying they lived right off the trail in Reston and if we wanted to get together later, they’d love to pick our brains about our experiences.

We toddled down the trail to the back entrance of Lake Fairfax Park and went up the single tack MTB trails to get the the campsite. We’ve been here many times for the Capital ‘Cross Classic cyclocross race (the infamous elf suit race last year with fireball shots), but it did look a bit different out of context.

The infamous Baaaad Elf race.

I rode around to the main office to check in and back to the campsites. Even with some good muscle memory of the course, it was hard to spot! The campsites are right next to a long uphill slog on the backside of the course so I guess I was just oxygen deprived there and never noticed them. The weather was still nice so we had the chance to set up camp and let everything dry out well. The bathouse there is awesome with hot city water showers and nice toilets. After a hot afternoon, it felt great to get cleaned up. We texted our new friends Agnes and Josh and they invited us over to dinner, just several miles from the campground and we enjoyed a lovely evening chatting about everything from traveling in Europe (she’s from France) to bikepacking and a variety of other topics. A wonderful chance trail encounter and a wonderful evening. I know where the term “trail angels” comes from. If you guys are reading this, thanks! We headed back to the campsite around dusk and turned in for the night well fed and tired.

Ride Stats: 60.47 miles, 5:06 moving time, 7:43 elapse time, 2927′ vertical

Ride With GPS Daily Route: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/39363721

Strava Track: https://www.strava.com/activities/7149288736

Day 4: Lake Fairfax Park to Annapolis

Some 8am single track out of Lake Fairfax Park to start the day.

There was one brief rain period during dinner, but in general the forecast strong thunderstorms never materialized and we had a quiet night although it did rain a bit. Like virtually every other morning, the weather was cool and foggy. Not sure why, but I woke up at 5am – the third time to use the Lu – and there was no going back to sleep for me. The only provision I had left was coffee, and at that barely enough gas to boil a liter of water. But it got the job done!. Agnes and Josh suggested we stop at the Caboose Cafe on the trail for breakfast, so we got backed up a bit early and hit the single rack on the way out at about 8am. The Caboose Cafe was right on the trail and did not disappoint. I was also able to fully charge my Garmin and phone too.

Fueled and further caffeinated, we hit the trail with ever urbanizing terrain. Lots of serious Gucci bike bling infrastructure along the WO&D, but I guess when you are all in on autocentric transportation, that’s what you have to do to provide some alternative and frankly it is a nice, well used park. As we got closer to Washington the rain started in earnest. We had hoped to stop at Bluejacket in SW DC near the ballpark for lunch and a beer, but at that point it was raining hard and I was just on the verge of being cold. Had I stopped, I might never have gotten going again. So we decided to have a cliff bar and press on. We took my typical commuting route up the Anacostia Trail, then striking east up Burroughs Ave into Prince Georges County. I had routed us a little differently to keep us more off the main streets and they were some good tweaks. Once past FedEx field, the same old, through Bowie, across the Governor’s Bridge, into ABRT territory in Davidsonville and into West Annapolis. By that time the sun was out and it was quite warm. We changed and chilled with a beer. Overall a great trip!

In addition to the galleries in this post, the Google Photos album has the entire set.

Ride Stats: 66.64 miles, 5:13 moving time, 5:59 elapse time, 2100′ vertical

Ride With GPS Daily Route: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/39363736

Strava Track(s): https://www.strava.com/activities/7151782123 and https://www.strava.com/activities/7153668097

Lessons Learned

Main lessons learned from this trip:

  • Bring reading material. A Kindle with backlight is probably the best in terms of size, weight, and readability (built in backlight and I could make the font large so no glasses). I had it with me but left it out at the last minute because I thought I didn’t have room. Big mistake, especially if you need to hole up in your tent alone. In general on remote trips, there is not much to do in the evening so reading is probably the best option.
  • Instant oatmeal is a lightweight, filling, and easy to cook breakfast and the addition of Bran Buds is tasty (and medicinally necessary if you know what I mean) without needing milk. Not sure why I never thought of that, but it will be de rigueur. Backpacking meals get the job done, not gormet, but reasonably filling and light.
  • I need a portable battery for recharging my phone and Garmin because you can never count on convenient places to charge. It was never critical on this trip but was just annoying enough.
  • Take the plastic cup off the stove pot before putting on the burner (doh!).
  • The 2 bibs and 1 of everything else worked well. Having clean and dry bibs is most important. The rest of the stuff is going to dry quickly once you are moving or will get sweaty fast if it is hot, so makes no sense to have more than one. It’s easy to wash and hang up overnight even if it doesn’t dry.
  • I still have to find a nice lightweight and comfortable tech t-shirt. I have a nice pair of Pactimo MTB shorts that works well, but still looking for a comfortable shirt. I really just want to wear a cotton t-shirt but that gets damp and grody too fast.
  • My new bikepacking shoes are very comfortable to walk around camp in so I didn’t really need any camp shoes. However, for longer rides or places where you might need something to wear in swimming, I think a pair of crocks would be great, but I just can’t bring myself to buy any. Anyone have a size 9 or 10 they want to pass my way? 😉
  • 50 miles is a good target distance fully loaded. The last day was close to 70 and I was pretty tired. Thinking about the MD to VT trip, that’s about the same daily distance but fewer hills. However, that’s 12 riding days and this was only 4. I think days 5-8 might have been more difficult, but easier after that. Might have to build in a few “take a 0” days. But time will tell.
  • The tent and pad worked great again. Definitely some adjustment, but all in all pretty comfortable. I need a different inflatable pillow though as mine kept losing air.
  • I definitely got the hang of the sleep system packing, but I need elastic straps to hold the front bag on and need to secure the drybag enclosure such that it does not interfere with the brake lever.
  • I have a good understanding of how far one small gas bottle for my stove goes (about 5 “cooking sessions”). So have to find a good supply on the road for longer trips (Home Depot maybe?).

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