Sugarloaf Loop, Shenandoah National Park (4.8 miles, 880′ elevation gain)

Heading downhill on the Sugarloaf Trail

Heading downhill on the Sugarloaf Trail

I’ve read in two different books that the Sugarloaf Loop is prime bear territory.  That, however, is in August and September when a nearby group of cherry trees “bears” fruit.  By late November, the cherries have already come and gone, but Candee and I still decided to give the hike a try.  Instead of cherries, we found numerous acorns littering the ground, so the area near milepost 21 on Skyline Drive seems to remain an ideal habitat well into autumn, at least in a good mast year.

Building this looks like a lot of work, but what a great way to get water across a trail!

Building this looks like a lot of work, but what a great way to get water across a trail!

Near the crossing point on the upper Piney River.  It was about 30 degrees, so wet feet would have been a problem!

Near the crossing point on the upper Piney River. It was about 30 degrees, so wet feet would have been a problem!

Starting from the parking area, we crossed Skyline Drive and climbed just above the road on the Appalachian Trail.  After a spectacular overlook, we followed the AT for another tenth of a mile before continuing downhill on the Sugarloaf Trail.  The path winds through laurel before opening up, and at that point we began to find the acorns along the path.  As we turned right onto the Pole Bridge Link Trail at the 1.7 mile mark, we remained optimistic about seeing a bear.

Bear scat on the Piney Branch Trail.

Bear scat on the Piney Branch Trail.

This AT marker started the home stretch of the hike.

This AT marker started the home stretch of the hike.

At 2.1 miles, we took another right onto the Piney Branch Trail and entered familiar territory.  Earlier in the year, we followed this trail to Piney River Falls, and today we crossed the upper Piney River once more at the halfway point of the hike.  From here, the Piney Branch Trail heads uphill to its junction with the Appalachian Trail.  As we ascended toward the AT, we found several piles of bear scat, and one in particular was very fresh.  Nevertheless, we came to the AT without a sighting, and over the last 1.2 miles of the hike, the acorns and scat disappeared, as did all hope of seeing a bear.

This gnarled tree was a unique sight along the Appalachian Trail.

This gnarled tree was a unique sight along the Appalachian Trail.

Crossing Skyline Drive on the Appalachian Trail

Crossing Skyline Drive on the Appalachian Trail

After a short lunch, we drove south toward the Elkwallow Wayside (closed for the season) on a whim.  Elkwallow has been one of our prime spots for seeing bears, but after striking out again, it was time to head home.  As I drove back toward Front Royal, we were surprised to see a car stopped in the middle of the road, but it soon became apparent that these people were looking at a bear. Actually, make that three bears–a mother and two large cubs.

This is an overlook a few feet off of the Appalachian Trail.

This is an overlook a few feet off of the Appalachian Trail.

The bear sighting lasted the biggest part of ten minutes, and the mother appeared to be as curious about the now half-dozen gawkers as we were about her.  Eventually, she slowly walked up the slope with the cubs in tow, and that was that.  It was a very satisfying end to the day, even though it’s a lot more exciting to see a bear on the trail than alongside a road.  Whether or not these were the final three bears of 2015 remains to be seen, but I’m pretty sure we will try to extend our good luck in what has become the year of the bear.

Mother bear in SNP near mile 23.  Her cubs were milling around elsewhere at the time

Mother bear in SNP near mile 23. Her cubs were milling around elsewhere at the time

By this time, one of the cubs got into the picture.

By this time, one of the cubs got into the picture.

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