by Jerry Tarbell
Continuing the series on “The Park”, in this edition I will discuss the North Section after a brief discussion about navigating the Park.
Coming from Frederick, MD you will most likely enter The Park at the North entrance in Front Royal, VA. That’s if you intend to hike down to a stream from the Skyline Drive Scenic Highway. Otherwise, you will drive down along either the West edge on Rt. 340 or the East edge on Rt. 522 to Rt. 211. The Park is divided in half by the Skyline Drive, which rides the ridge of The Park at the top. Looking East off of the Skyline Drive you see the Rappahannock Valley, westward, the Shenandoah Valley with both branches of the Shenandoah River. The Park is divided into thirds North to South by Rt. 211 and Rt. 33. These are the only roads that cross The Park from East to West. At Rt. 211, you go down to Sperryville, VA on the East and Luray, VA on the West. At Rt. 33, Stanardsville, VA is East and Harrisonburg, VA is West.
As you drive along the Skyline Drive, you will notice small concrete pillars with numbers on them. You should quickly catch on that these are Mile Markers. These will tell you when you need to start looking for access points to find the streams.
That would mean parking lots for trail heads in most cases. Some trails are accessed by parking at overlooks. One trailhead I will discuss shortly is accessed from a Picnic Area, another from a Ranger Station. Just know the markers are there and they do help. And since they are concrete and stuck deep into the ground I don’t think any of them are missing.
There are not a whole lot of worthwhile streams in the North Section. That’s why I can cover them in one article. Hopefully, you took my advice and bought the 3-section Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) Maps of The Park. Looking at the North Section map, you will see a lot of small streams that originate in The Park but quickly leave for private lands. Consequently you only have a short headwater section to play with. I’ve tried a couple of them – a section of Gooney Run on the West and the Jordan River on the East down behind Little Washington, VA – but have found them to be somewhat lacking. After you enter The Park at Front Royal, VA you will notice a small run down to your right. On the map it is unnamed and I have never fished it, but it’s there if anybody would like to explore it.
The first stream of any note is The Piney River. It is a good stream, however the hike from the top is no easy chore and you will see a Black Bear on this trail. I have had some of my scariest encounters here, including one where I had cubs going up trees around me. I once chatted with a trail crew working there and they told me that this trail is in “Bear Central”. Whenever they survey The Park’s Black Bear population this area always wins!
When you get to Matthew’s Arm Campground at Mile Marker #22, a right turn takes you to the campground. Take the left instead and park right across from an old green shingle building that used to be a Ranger Station. The new one is out of sight in front of you. Your trail is to your left back toward the Skyline Drive, it’s well marked and crosses the Appalachian Trail (heretofore referred to as the ‘AT’), only a short distance down. You will hike down to where you cross the very headwaters of the stream, too small and brushy to bother with here, and proceed to a concrete trail marker that will tell you to turn right to parallel the stream down the mountain. It is a rather steep trail and coming back up it will test your mettle. Take plenty of water for that trip back up. Eventually you will come to a back country campsite right along the stream. You can put in here or go on down further to the next crossing. I usually do that. You can even go further but the stream gets a bit nasty for a while with plenty of big pools below waterfalls. This stream has a good population of Brookies and a couple of years ago I spotted a nice fat 10-incher actively feeding and got him on my 2nd cast. I’m sure it wasn’t my first Brookie of that size here.
At Mile Marker #25, you will find the Elkwallow Wayside Store and right after that, Elkwallow Picnic Area. Drive to the back of it and park next to a comfort station. Here you will spot the Jeremy Run Trail. Since there is no longer any access from the bottom of the mountain, this is your only access to Jeremy Run, one of the more popular streams in The Park. Here’s your problem: this stream is 8 miles long in The Park. Don’t believe me? Drive a mile further down past the picnic ground to the Jeremy Run Overlook and take a gander. That’s the stream spread out below you in that valley down there! The trail isn’t too bad but if you are into backpacking-type camping this might be a good place to try it. That’s about the only way you can get to the lower part of the stream and still have time to fish much of it. I have been content with the upstream section for about the 1st mile or two. I am not into Backpacking.
The ‘AT’ is now on the West side of the mountain (it crosses the Skyline Drive a lot), and you will cross it shortly down the mountain. The hike to the headwaters isn’t all that bad but when I fished that section this past Fall, I was getting frustrated about the size of my fish – mostly 6-inchers. Until my last cast when I tossed my fly over a logjam and nailed a 9” beauty. That made the trip worth it. This is a decent stream but you will encounter other fishermen frequently. I found one standing in my favorite starting point last year. He told me it was his favorite starting point, too. I went on down a few more stream crossings and had a good day of fishing.
The North Fork of the Thornton River is a stream I’ve only fished twice. Harry Murray (owner of Murray’s Fly Shop in Edinburg, VA), says it is the only one with a Green Drake hatch in The Park. Catching that is a long shot at best.
Like the Piney River located next door to it, you’re dealing with a long ugly hike and if you do it at the wrong time of year you might have trouble finding much water to fish. Sections of it can dry up. There is access at the bottom but it’s in a housing development and there is very limited parking. When I did it, a nice lady actually let me park in her yard. When I got back I stuck a five dollar bill in her mail box. This stream can yield good numbers in good years, but I did not find a lot of the big’uns. The parking for the Trail head at the top is near Mile Marker #28. This Marker will be on your left as you head South.
In the next article I will start the Central Section of The Park with a warning about fishing streams near roads. It will take several articles to cover this Section as this is where there are lots of good streams. That “Mr. Rapidan” in your Flybox is named after a real stream, as you will see next time.