Following my grueling Marine Corps Marathon outing, I was physically exhausted and took a two week hiatus from almost all physical activity. For someone who can burn 3,000 calories in 3 hours, this was a problem, so I gradually began to re-engage my exercise regimen. I avoided running due to lingering pain in my right foot and ankle, but managed to get in a few bike rides commuting to work, and with Veteran’s Day approaching and the promise of excellent fall weather, I set my sights on cycling Mt. Weather in northwestern Virginia. This is a pretty tough climb – 3448’ total elevation gain over 28 miles. But this route also took me back through some interesting personal and national history. An interesting ride.
For those unfamiliar with Mt. Weather, some background.
The Appalachian Trail skirts the ridge along the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains of northwestern Virginia. Mt. Weather sits astride Loudoun and Clarke Counties in the area between Rtes 50 and 7. The northwest edge of the mountain descends toward Bluemont, VA at Snickers Gap.
I parked in the Post Office lot on Snickersville Turnpike. Turning left out of the lot, you will begin climbing- gradually at first - but persistently. A road sign indicating Rt 7 will take you there to the right, but you can also head straight toward the hairpin along old Snickersville Tpk.
Rt 7 is a major east-west corridor. Eastbound traffic comes barreling down from Snickers Gap, so exercise caution as you cross the median to the westbound lane. You will keep climbing up Rt 7 heading West (left). The shoulder is adequate on this stretch which help take the edge off the relentless climb and the traffic. Taking it one crank at a time, I kept it in a low gear on my small 39-tooth chainring.
When you reach Mt. Weather Rd, take a good look ahead: if you can survive the first 15~20 minutes of this route, you will be okay. In other words, it can't get any worse than that. Here, I felt no shame going with my granniest gear.
Despite its hellish vertical challenge, the road surface on Mt. Weather is outstanding. This may have something to do with the high security Emergency Operations Center at the summit. The Center is a standby Disaster Recovery Site for the US Government - in other words - it's a doomsday bunker.
In fact, my father tells of one of his early job duties as a junior civil servant. In case the unthinkable ever were to happen, his job was to drop everything - including yours truly - head for the hills, and stack sandbags around Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The Cuban Missile Crisis kept the sandbags full and my dad on edge, though he shrugged when I pressed him on whether he would actually take leave of his family and complete his mission.
Some people believe a tunnel connects it to Washington, DC via Langley. It’s probably full of haz-mat suited figures out of an Austin Powers/Godzilla movie set. If Metro has anything to do with it, I'm sure most of the escalators are out of service. But the road itself is in pristine condition just in case.
During 9/11, it was reported that members of the U.S. Government were helicoptered to the site.
In 1974, a TWA flight from Columbus, OH crashed into the mountain, likely triggering a DEFCON-4 response from the bunker's keepers, while bringing unwanted attention to the facility. I remember the crash because my grandfather's home was in the flight path on that tragic night. The crash site is not far from where his house once stood near Horseshoe Curve in Pine Grove on old Rt 7.
The initial push toward the summit takes you past the Bear's Den Youth Hostel. This is a very well-appointed hostel by Appalachian Trail standards, and from the rock outcropping on the west-facing ridge you can enjoy a majestic view of the Shenandoah Valley below.
The descent from the summit comes in fits and starts, but building speed on the downhill generally sustains your climb over the subsequent rise. But the final mile is a steep downhill that will grab and hold your attention.
Making a careful right onto Rt 50, you continue to descend - very fast - and there is no shoulder on 50. Thankfully, the right lane is generously wide, but you will rocket downhill with cars on your left at a high rate of speed. Be sure not to miss the right turn onto Mt. Carmel Rd - it is well marked.
The road to Frogtown and Rt 7 is rougher than Mt Weather, but still in decent shape. The entire road is paved, save for one 50' section with hard packed gravel outside of a quarry. Ebenezer Road intersects Frogtown Rd. It goes by my grandfather’s gravesite at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Sections of the road are prone to dip and curve, but then open up to gentle vistas of farms with the mountains rising in the distance beyond the autumn spangled treeline.
The road will eventually rejoin Rt 606 and take you down to the Shenandoah River. The River is not very wide, but it is picturesque. There is a rough hobo / river rat campsite you can stop at - maybe drink a couple Busch Lights with the locals and trade gossip. The road will hug the River all the way back to the bridge carrying Rt 7 west toward Berryville.
You will have to climb up Rt 7- the shoulder is wide, but rough for road tires. Sharing the narrow strip of smooth road surface is dicey with trucks roaring inches past you doing 75mph, but gather yourself at the turn off for Pine Grove (left turn - Be Careful!). You are only on the road for a mile, at most. This is an alternate to staying on Rt 7, and you will thank me later.
Pine Grove is on Old Route 7. Before the 4-lane highway was built in the late 1970s, it used to climb up from Round Hill past Bluemont, then up over Snickers Gap and down idyllic Pine Grove. This community is nestled between the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah River, and it has always felt like a place apart from both Loudoun and Clarke Counties. There is a general store and a couple restaurants back there, including the Horseshoe Curve Restaurant.
You will re-join Rt 7 near the Mt. Weather intersection. Again, not a great shoulder (for road tires, that is), and a butt-cheek clenching downhill to the Snickersville Turnpike and into Bluemont. The ride is only a little over 28 miles, but it has a bit of everything including Cold War lore, a challenging climb, and a nice cruising stretch to loosen you up for the final push back up the mountain.