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Rip & Go: Mathews Arm Loop – Shenandoah National Park

Ramble through brilliant red and yellow fall foliage.
october 2010 rip n go mathews arm 445x260The Ash Canopy near Thornton River Trail (Tim Seaver)

Key Skill
Heat-aware Hiking

Within Shenandoah’s nearly 200,000 forested acres lurk blistering poison ivy and disease-carrying ticks. Follow these tips to enjoy the Shennies rash-free.

Wear long sleeves and tuck pant legs into socks to avoid poison ivy (three-leaved plants that turn red in fall); apply deet to fend off ticks (we like 3M Ultrathon; If you touch a suspicious plant, wipe skin with rubbing alcohol, then rinse with water—removing poison ivy’s irritating urushiol oil within about an hour improves your chance of preventing or minimizing a reaction.

About eight to 48 hours after ivy exposure, an itchy, red, streaky, blistered (but non-contagious) rash will appear. Check daily for ticks; initially they look like inconspicuous black dots at the hairline, waistband, and sockline. You may not feel them even once they’ve begun burrowing.

Soothe ivy rashes with wet compresses and calamine lotion (or make a salve of cold water and oatmeal). Pluck embedded ticks with tweezers; pull straight out, slow and steady, then wash area with soap and water. Fever or new rash within a month? See a doctor.

See This
Shenandoah Salamander

This endangered, finger-length amphibian lives exclusively in moist soil under rocks and forest debris on the talus slopes of Shenandoah’s Pinnacles, Stony Man, and Hawksbill Mountains. Scientists don’t know how many individuals inhabit this tiny range, which includes a similar-looking, more common—and competing—relative, the red-backed salamander. Both sport a yellowish-red stripe on their backs, but the Shenandoah’s is much narrower—just one-third of its body.

Locals Know
About 98 percent of Shenandoah’s leaves change color each fall, usually peaking the second or third week of October. “We’ve got quite a diversity [about 150 to 200 species] of trees here,” park ranger Mara Meisel says. “So the color range is really tremendous.” Though rust-colored oak is the predominant hue, the park’s varied elevation, moisture, and forest age result in a patchwork of golden hickory and poplar, scarlet black gum and maple, and even purple dogwood. For classic dayhiker vistas, walk to Hogback Overlook just east of the Mathews Arm Loop trailhead. To gain views without the throngs of leaf-peepers, climb the 3,212-foot summit of South Marshall, a generally quiet 1.5-mile out-and-back on the AT (starting from Skyline Drive at mile 15.9). Also look for unexpected fall flair in the trailside understory, where spidery yellow flowers adorn the bare, twiggy branches of witch hazel.

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