Friday, December 21, 2012

Maryland Heights


Harpers Ferry from the Maryland Heights viewpoint
6.7 miles loop, 1600 feet elevation gain

Maryland Heights is one of the most popular hikes in the DC area. It has a wide variety of appeal, offering both a look into Harpers Ferry's Civil War past and a spectacular views of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.

I hiked this trail with five fellow interns in late July. We left Rockville mid-morning and took I-270 northwest to Frederick, then US 340 west to Harpers Ferry. I tried parking at the lot at the base of the trail on the Maryland side of the river but the lot was already full, so I doubled back and drove over to the West Virginia side of the river. To reach the Maryland trailhead (and trim 1.2 miles round trip from the hike), turn left onto Keep Tryst Road from US 340 during the long downhill before crossing the Potomac River. Then turn right onto Sandy Hook Road and drive past the foot of the Maryland Heights cliff until you reach pass the trailhead to the right. There is a small parking area on the right.

I parked at the train station in Harpers Ferry, where we purchased a week's pass for the park for $10. We walked down to the Point and crossed the Potomac River on the Appalachian Trail bridge, which paralleled an old railroad bridge. Supports for old bridges littered the river. To the right (east), there was a beautiful view of Loudoun Heights rising above the Potomac Water Gap. Beneath us, we saw many people tubing on the river.

The Potomac River at Harpers Ferry
Once across the river, we took the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath west, following it for a little less than half a mile. Here, the canal is essentially dried up; however, there were still nice views of the Potomac, with a few paths leading steeply downhill to the side of the river. At times, there were views between the trees to the church steeple and antebellum buildings of Harpers Ferry across the Potomac. About 10 minutes along the towpath from the bridge, we came to a path to the right that spanned the dry canalbed and crossed Sandy Hook Road to the trailhead.

The trail, a broad former road, immediately began to climb at a moderate grade. In the next three-quarter miles or so, the trail ascended continuously, with a few historical signs along the trail to tell of the area's Civil War history. The first major historical stop along the trail was the Naval Battery, a former Union defensive position where two major guns were mounted high above the river and town below. A trail looped around the footprint of the former battery- while no views were available, the size of the battery's footprint gave an impressive idea of the size of the artillery used in the war.

A little further from the Naval Battery, we reached a trail junction: the trail to the right led directly to the viewpoint at Maryland Heights, while the trail to the left led to more Civil War fortifications. We took the trail to the left, which followed a former road built by the Union Army to haul equipment and weapons to a fort atop the ridge. This trail was remarkably steep- steeper, certainly, than your average Mid-Atlantic trail. This made for a very tiring stretch of trail on a hot, humid day. It was hard to imagine how cannons could possibly be lugged up such a road.

The trail finally leveled out as it approached the top of the ridge. We walked among the remnants of a Union stone fort; it was hard to imagine what the original structure looked like as there were now only a handful of scattered stone walls remaining.

Stoneworks from the former Union fort on Maryland Heights
From the stone fort, we followed the ridge of Maryland Heights south. The ridgeline provided pleasant, flat walking, a welcome respite from the climb up. We saw a few deer and many more people as we followed the heavily vegetated ridge. Eventually we came to the site of a former 100-pound battery. From this spot, there were impressive views east to the Potomac River's water gaps through South Mountain and Catoctin Mountain at Point of the Rocks further downstream. Sugarloaf Mountain was also visible in the distance, rising out of the otherwise flat-looking Piedmont.

The Potomac River flowing east of Harpers Ferry, with Sugarloaf in the distance
We continued along the ridgeline, which soon began a very steep descent. We dropped downhill quickly, passing the site of another former battery before coming to a junction with the trail that led to the viewpoint. Taking the left hand fork, we descended a little further via a few switchbacks to reach the open top of the cliffs. These cliffs rose precipitously out of the river and offered a huge view of Harpers Ferry, Loudoun Heights, the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, and Shenandoah Valley.

The Potomac River west of Harpers Ferry
We enjoyed the view before returning to the original trail to finish the loop. Back on the C&O Canal, we were able to look up and see the cliffs where we had just been.

View of Maryland Heights from below
Back in Harpers Ferry, we had a very late lunch, made even later after we were ignored by the staff of Secret Six Tavern for ten minutes after we were seated; so instead we ate at a restaurant a little closer to the train station and had a good end to an excellent hike.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hog Rock Nature Trail

Greenery around the trail
1 mile loop, 80 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy. Flat, no unexpected hazards.

The short loop hike to Hog Rock is a pleasant leg-stretcher in Catoctin Mountain Park though very pretty forest to a nice view of the Piedmont.

Catoctin Mountain Park is home to Camp David, the presidential retreat. Franklin Roosevelt built Camp David after realizing it would be difficult for him to access the former presidential retreat, Rapidan Camp in Shenandoah National Park. There are occasional closures in the park when the president comes to Camp David, so check at www.nps.gov/cato before visiting.

I did this hike on my way back from my unsuccessful attempt to hike the AT across Maryland in 2 days. For hikers coming from DC, the easiest way to get to the trailhead would be to take I-270 northwest to Frederick, then to head north on US 15 to Thurmont, take Maryland Route 77 west into Catoctin Mountain Park, then to take the Park Central Road north (right) at the visitor center and drive uphill to reach the well-marked trailhead.

When I drove into the park during late July, the greenery in the park was nothing short of astonishing. I climbed up toward the crest of Catoctin Mountain on Park Central Road and soon treached the trailhead. Catoctin Mountain is one of the two main ridges that form the Crystalline Appalachians through Maryland. The Blue Ridge Mountains, which form a towering backbone from Roanoke to Manassas Gap, is reduced to the single undulating ridgeline of South Mountain in Maryland. The Southwest Mountains and Bull Run Mountains of Virginia, a chain of low mountains east of the Blue Ridge, begin rising far out of the Piedmont after crossing the Potomac and become Catoctin Mountain. Together, Catoctin and South Mountains form the heart of the Appalachians in Maryland.

Park Central Road
The trail started across the road from the parking area. While self-guiding brochures are sometimes available for hikers on the Hog Rock Nature Trail, there were not any brochures available on my visit, so I did not get to learn about quite as much of the area's ecology as I would have liked. The trail started by heading slightly downhill, then flattening out. The trail was wide and easy to follow and the greenery of the park made it an enjoyable jaunt.

About five minutes from the trailhead, I came to a trail junction, at which I followed the trail to the left, which headed directly toward Hog Rock. Not long afterward, I arrived at Hog Rock itself, a very small rock outcrop with a nice but limited view of a ridge of Catoctin Mountain and the Piedmont in the distance.
View east from Hog Rock
Appropriately, Hog Rock was an outcrop of Catoctin basalt. The Catoctin formation, which runs along many points of the Blue Ridge crest and on Catoctin Mountain, was named after this mountain and region, even though it is found much further south as well. This formation is an ancient lava flow: it is the remnant of volcanic activity that occurred when a rift formed as the supercontinent Rodinia split up around 600 million years ago and created the Iapetus Ocean.

Continuing on the trail, I walked through more gentle forest landscape until I came to a junction that for the loop back, which I followed back to the parking area. While this hike was generally uneventful, I still found it enjoyable and worth a short 20-30 minute jaunt.

Crabtree Falls

Crabtree Falls
3.4 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

Crabtree Falls is one of the most heralded destinations in the Virginia mountains. Tourist brochures claim the waterfall to be the tallest east of the Mississippi River, at over 1000 feet tall. That's a bit of a stretch- Crabtree Falls is not really one waterfall so much as a string of cascades on the north side of the Priest- but there's no denying that it is one of the most beautiful natural areas in Virginia and certainly one of the most impressive sets of waterfalls in the states.

After living in Virginia for a little over 21 years, I still had yet to visit the falls, so on an overcast Sunday that threatened showers in August, I decided to finally do this hike. I drove south alone on US 29 from Charlottesville: clouds coated most of the peaks of the Blue Ridge; a few patches of blue sky appeared to the east near Lovingston, but for the most part, the day was mostly moody and humid. A little past Lovingston, I turned right onto State Route 56 heading west into the mountains. 56 is rather convoluted and required a few turns to stay on the road and not wander off onto 151 or any of the other roads in the area. After passing the junction with 151, Route 56 started to head straight into the mountains. The Priest lay straight ahead, its head enshrouded in mist. After passing Massie's Mill, the road made a few crossings of the Tye River as it wound its way through fields at the foot of the Priest and Three Ridges, although neither summit was visible with the clouds. The many ridges of the Priest and rocky prominences on its slopes still made it an impressive sight.

In August 1969, the valley of the Tye River witnessed one of the most significant natural disasters in European-settled Virginia history. Hurricane Camille swept ashore on the Gulf Coast, ravaging Mississippi and Louisiana before moving north and east and stalling over the Appalachian Mountains. Rainfall became overwhelming in Nelson County and especially in the Tye River Valley, where almost 27 inches of rain fell during the storm. Over a 100 people died in flooding in Nelson County, accounting most of the deaths associated with Hurricane Camille. Nearby Albemarle County didn't get hit quite as hard, but suffered some effects too. Landslides occurred throughout the Virginia mountains.

Luckily, the weather on the day of my hike was just showers and not torrential rain. After entering the mountains, Route 56 narrowed and became extremely windy as it climbed alongside the Tye River up the Blue Ridge. After very many turns, I finally came to the turnoff for Crabtree Falls, a US Forest Service Recreation Site. The turnoff led across a bridge to a large parking area for the falls. It was easy to see that this was one of the most popular sites in Virginia- the parking lot could hold at least 40 cars. However, on the morning of my rainy visit, there was only one other car in the parking area. I paid the $3 parking fee and then started up the trail.

The first stretch of trail was wide and smooth and handicap accessible and led for a very short distance from the parking area to one of the lowest falls. This waterfall was already remarkably beautiful, with the water of Crabtree Creek fanning out as it came down a small greenstone rock face. A viewing platform allowed me to see the falls from two very pretty angles.

The lowest falls at Crabtree Falls
Throughout the trail, many signs warned against going off-trail and approaching the waterfall. Many of the warnings stated that over 20 people had died on the slippery rocks around the waterfall. The trail's deadliness is not too surprising to me: when a natural area becomes a tourist attraction, many of visitors who come to the falls don't realize the dangers associated with waterfalls and accidents invariably happen. Crabtree Falls doesn't seem any more dangerous than any other set of waterfalls I've hiked around in Virginia, so perhaps for more regular hikers the advice might be a commonsense "use your judgment."

I returned to the trail, which was now lost its smooth, paved portion but was still very well maintained. The trail began an ascent with switchbacks and quickly hit more falls on the creek. Just a little above the first falls, the trail swung back to the creek, with multitudes of small cascades. A little farther up, the trail went up staircases (slippery when wet!) while following the creek. Soon, a very noisy and impressive cascade was visible far above; a little farther on, I came to the foot of one of the prettiest of all the cascades at Crabtree Falls. Here, the creek tumbled down an open cliff at least 80 or so feet.

Crabtree Falls
The first half three quarter miles of this trail was a sheer joy to hike, with waterfall after waterfall on the creek, many tiny but some up to 80 feet tall. Just as notable was the thick hardwood forest which the trail ascended through when it swung away from the creek. The overcast skies and light showers made the forest seem even more verdant and lush than usual. Mushrooms took advantage of the dampness to spread out all over the forest floor. Other wonders: a rock overhang to the right of the trail (during ascent) created a small cave.

Mushrooms in the forest
Toward the top of the string of waterfalls, there were views through the trees of ridges across the valley; it was also possible to look down the waterfalls and see drop after drop as the creek cascaded its way down to the Tye River.

Crabtree Creek's fall into the Tye River Valley
After climbing up a few hundred vertical feet along the tumbling creek, the trail began to flatten out. The next stretch of trail led along typical Virginia mountain stream scenery along a less inclined portion of the mountain. The hiking here was much easier and flatter, but the scenery was still just as enjoyable. One of my very favorite spots on the entire hike was a small, 5-foot drop on the creek into a shallow pool. While not as spectacular as the taller cascades early in the hike, I found this waterfall delightful and enjoyed sitting by the trail and watching the creek make a small splash on its way toward the bigger falls.

Cascade on Crabtree Creek
Past this small falls, the trail continued a gentle ascent for nearly a half mile until it began getting steeper, arriving at the foot of upper Crabtree Falls about 1.3 miles from the trailhead. From the viewpoint, there was a view of a huge rock dome and Crabtree Creek flowing down the rock face. This cascade was probably around 200 feet tall, making it extremely impressive, though I didn't find it as pretty as some of the lower falls. I could certainly see this spot being even more impressive during a heavy rain storm, when the entire rock face might be covered with rushing water.

Upper Crabtree Falls
From the viewpoint, the trail made a final, long switchback to reach the top of the upper cascade. I crossed Crabtree Creek on a footbridge to reach a well-maintained viewpoint with a low stone wall at the top of the large rock face. On a clear, non-rainy day, I would expect there to be a very wide mountainous view here, but on the rainy, cloudy day of my hike, I could see only mist. The view of the falls from here was not terribly good; it was hard to see the creek itself, though I could see the viewpoint on the trail at the bottom of the falls. I ate lunch at the viewpoint and then explored the rocks behind the viewpoint, where I found a few young hemlocks, a rather rare sight in Virginia. After waiting for a good half hour for the clouds to clear up, I headed back down the trail, which became much more crowded in the afternoon.

Misty view from the top of the falls

Monday, December 3, 2012

Upper Whiteoak Canyon

Whiteoak Canyon Falls #1
4.8 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevaiton gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The beauty of the plunging waterfalls in Whiteoak Canyon make it one of the most famous and popular hikes in all Shenandoah. A visitor favorite since George Pollock started bringing guests from Skyland down to its waterfalls, Whiteoak Canyon is an incredibly scenic gorge on the Robinson River as it tumbles down Stony Man Mountain, with six waterfalls along its way. This post describes the hike down to the base of the first falls in Whiteoak Canyon from Skyline Drive and thus does not go down to the lower five falls in the canyon.

I decided to swing into the park on my way back to school from fall break; I initially thought that I would have to spend the day working out bureaucratic issues for a research project I was doing but after sorting out the situation early in the morning, I decided that I would have time for a hike on my way back to Charlottesville. When I entered the park at Swift Run Gap, I was driving in fog: clouds enveloped the very top of the mountains. I settled on doing Whiteoak Canyon after speaking with a ranger, who convinced me that despite the relatively dry fall, there would be water in the canyon.

Driving north, I weaved in and out of the fog; Lewis Mountain was coated with mist, but Hawksbill was not. I made many stops at overlooks to soak in the foliage, which was beginning to reach peak at the highest elevations. Most notable was a stop at Crescent Rock, where Hawksbill and Nakedtop were coated with glorious colors of maples and hickories.

Hawksbill and Nakedtop from Crescent Rock
I finally made my way to the trailhead, which was at mile 42 of Skyline Drive, on the east side of the road. The trail started at the north end of the fairly large parking area and immediately wound into the forest and began a gradual descent. Not far from the trailhead, I came to a rare spectacle: a large, mature eastern hemlock, not yet taken down by the hemlock wooly adelgid. The hemlock was, as many of the park hemlocks are, stately and magnificent. The area around Skyland once had old-growth forests of immense hemlocks, but most of these hemlocks were devastated by the wooly adelgid that hit the park in the 1990s.

An mature eastern hemlock near the trailhead- extremely rare!
Further down the trail, I passed through an area of dying ferns underneath the golden colors of the forest. In summer, this scene would undoubtedly have been one of a lush green fern forest floor underneath a rich canopy- in the fall, it was a spectacle moving toward the yellow and red end of the color spectrum. The ferns were browning and golding but had not yet withered, and so instead stood as a miniature forest of waving bronze fronds.

Dying ferns in Whiteoak Canyon
The trail here descended gently (the return was an equally gentle ascent) across the forested mountaintop underlay with Catoctin formation basalt. About a half mile in, the trail crossed the Limberlost Trail and the Old Rage Fire Road in quick succession and then entered a hemlock graveyard of sorts. Here were many spots where the canopy was clear: all around stood the withered, white, spiny skeletons of hemlocks, many with nontrivial trunk diameters. This was once a stand of great, old-growth hemlocks and was one of the greatest attractions of the park. In the past three decades, the arrival of the hemlock wooly adelgid killed each of the great hemlocks, one-by-one, until none of the old hemlocks remained. During my hike, a few young hemlocks could be spotted in the forest, but for the most part, this area was a sad reminder of the forest's past. A legend of Limberlost claims that the trees here were only untouched because of Addie Pollock, the wife of George Freeman Pollock, the owner of Skyland Resort. Pollock paid loggers who were about to remove the great trees $10 per hemlock to save the grove. What the loggers spared, however, the pests ravaged most of a century later.

Clearing where the hemlocks of Limberlost once stood
A little bit past the intersection with the Old Rag Fire Road and downhill, the trail came to another intersection with the Limbertlost Loop Trail. This junction had a remarkably interesting feature: two boulders of columnar basalt.

Columnar basalt can be found in a few spots in Shenandoah, but the two most accessible are perhaps at Compton Peak and in Whiteoak Canyon. The formations are only found in areas where the underlying rock is from the Catoctin Formation. The basalt of the Catoctin formation is around some 600 million years old and formed when the supercontinent Rodinia began rifting to form the Iapetus (or proto-Atlantic) Ocean. Rifting caused volcanic activity, creating lava flows in rift valleys that cooled to form basalt. Columnar basalt formed in rapidly cooling lava: during rapid cooling: basalt shrinks as it cools, so in the horizontal direction it begins to fracture and hexagonal columns begin to form. These columns were then exposed in Whiteoak Canyon. It was easy for me to see both the vertical column shapes and the hexagons in the horizontal direction on the boulders by the trail.

Incredible columnar basalt
Past the columnar basalt, the trail passed through more clearings and crossed a creek before beginning a more serious descent along the Robinson River. The next mile and a half consisted of a very beautiful descent along the west side of the river (here, more a stream) as it dropped through pools and small cascades down the slopes of Stony Man Mountain. At many spots, the trail would swing close to the river and I would see pools on the river filled with red maples leaves, in a forest of golden foliage.

Whiteoak Canyon was beyond spectacular
About two miles from the trailhead, the trail crossed the Robinson River by bridge and then began following the east bank of the river. Not long afterward, it passed a junction with the Whiteoak Canyon Fire Road. Here, I could already hear the falling water of the first of the Whiteoak Canyon Falls. Just a little bit futher down the trail, I came to a large rock viewpoint with a view of a rocky gorge with an 80-some-foot tall cascade on the Robinson River. Although the water level was a little low, the scene was still incredibly gorgeous. The falls are the second tallest in the park, after the Big Falls on Overall Run. It was 2.2 miles from the parking lot to this viewpoint.

While at the viewpoint, I met a newlywed couple on their honeymoon in Shenandoah Valley and chatted with them briefly. Otherwise, I didn't have to share the viewpoint with anyone else (although I did run into about 12-15 other people going up or down the trail)- quite surprising, considering this hike is one of Shenandoah's most popular and I was hiking during peak foliage season.

I decided to continue a little further down the trail to the base of the falls. The next stretch of trail was a very steep, staircase descent down into the canyon. At the base of the cliffs that formed the viewpoint, a concrete column marked the spur to the base of the falls. During my hike, a fallen tree blocked part of the path, which was not clearly marked and died out before actually reaching the pool at the base of the falls. However, it was pretty clear how to get to the base of the falls, so I made my way over carefully and sat on a rock near the pool at the base, admiring the Robinson River's drop down the greenstone ledges.
 
The base of Whiteoak Canyon Falls #1
Most hikers would probably turn back here and return to the parking area. I ended up going slightly further down the trail to another pretty cascade on the river a little ways off of the trail before returning (adding an additional 0.2 miles round trip and 80 feet elevation gain). Some hikers continue further down Whiteoak Canyon, entering the lower canyon with its 5 waterfalls, which are probably more easily accessed from the park boundary in Berry Hollow than from Skyline Drive.

A waterfall on the Robinson River just below the first falls

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Hogback/Sugarloaf Loop

View of Gimlet and Dickey Ridges and Browntown Valley from Little Hogback
5 miles loop, 800 feet elevation gain (or 5.5 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevation gain)
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The Hogback/Sugarloaf loop is a hike on the highest peak in the North District of the park that uses the AT, a fire road, and a fairly gentle forest trail to loop around some fun terrain. On my visit, my friends and I added a half-mile round trip side trip down Little Devil Stairs to see the waterfall at the very top of the gorge; the distances and elevation gain indicated in parentheses refer to that hike.

Three weeks into my internship in Maryland, I decided that I had to return to my favorite mountains. I talked five other interns into joining me on a hike in the park on a very warm but quite beautiful Saturday. We left Maryland around 8 and made our way across the broad Piedmont on I-66. The rolling Virginia countryside, the pastoral landscape of the Blue Ridge foothills, comforted me significantly- I had sorely missed them in my month and a half absence from the area. When we descended on VA 55 into Front Royal with Signal Knob rising above the town and then reached the north entrance of the park, I felt a sense of familiarity, even though I was only visiting this part of the park for the first time.

Just a few minutes into the park on Skyline Drive, we came to the Signal Knob Overlook, a spectacular viewpoint over the Shenandoah Valley that faced Hogback and Mt. Marshall. From Dickey Ridge, Massanutten Mountain looked much more jagged and dramatic than it did further south. Hogback, although far from being the highest peak in the park, seemed like a giant here, rising grandly from the lower Blue Ridge to the north.

Shenandoah Valley from Signal Knob Overlook
Continuing south, I continued my first-time tour of many of the North District's overlooks. I found another favorite in what is apparently everyone's favorite North District overlook: Range View. Here, Hogback rose significantly and the great peaks of the Central District- Mary's Rock, the Pinnacle, Stony Man, Old Rag- formed layers upon layers to the south.

Blue Ridge from Range View Overlook
After a slow meander along Skyline, we finally arrived at the trailhead, at mile 21 of the drive, a small parking area on the west side of the Drive just south of the Hogback Overlook. This is the same trailhead that I used for the Overall Run Falls hike- by driving to this trailhead, I finally fully completed the mileage of Skyline Drive, a rather embarrassing fact considering I had already hiked over 100 distinct miles of trails in the park at that point.

From the trailhead, we crossed Skyline Drive and picked up the Appalachian Trail on the east side of the road. The trail immediately began a gentle climb, circling behind Hogback Overlook right above the Drive with occasional views through the trees into Shenandoah Valley. We soon passed by the turnoff for the Sugarloaf trail to the right; we continued north on the Appalachian Trail. We soon passed through a forest floor full of ferns, a very pretty sight.

Ferns on the forest floor
The trail then crossed Skyline Drive and began a fairly gentle climb up the humps of Hogback Mountain. The trail skirted to the south side of the summit of Hogback and passed a hang-gliding site. While the hang-gliding launch site seemed like it would have good views west into Shenandoah Valley, it was closed at the time that we hiked by it. Continuing on, we began to descend down the east side of Hogback. The trail dropped quickly, switchbacking a couple of times as it went down. Along the way, we saw some of the last of Shenandoah's beautiful mountain laurel. My previous Shenandoah hike (Blackrock and Furnace Mountain) had been at the very start of mountain laurel season and this one had come at the very end; it was unfortunate that I had missed most of the mountain laurel in full bloom.

The last remnants of mountain laurel
The descent ended at a grassy saddle between Hogback and Little Hogback, which was cleared mainly for the nearby overlook on Skyline Drive, which was just uphill. The grassy saddle was still pleasant, with a view north and west to Gimlet Ridge.

Past the saddle, a spur trail on the right led to Skyline Drive. We stayed on the Appalachian Trail and very soon came to a greenstone outcrop that jutted out on Little Hogback mountain. The rock had a view slightly wider than that at the overlook- here, we could see Dickey Ridge, Signal Knob, and Hogback right beside us. We ate lunch and enjoyed the cooler mountain weather for a while.

View of Gimlet Ridge and Signal Knob from Little Hogback
A little further down from Little Hogback, we came to a junction with the Jinney Gray/Keyser Run Fire Road. We took the trail to the right, following it to a parking area and crossing Skyline Drive. We then followed the Keyser Run Fire Road, a flat and fairly nondescript segment of the hike. After most of a mile or so, we came to an intersection with the Little Devil Stairs Trail. While we hadn't originally planned to head down Little Devil Stairs, we decided to check out the top of the canyon. Going downhill on the Little Devil Stairs trail, we quickly descended about 300 feet in the course of a few tenths of a mile. We paused once we reached Keyser Run at the top of the canyon and found a small waterfall just off the trail.

Waterfall at the head of Little Devil Stairs
We decided to avoid heading further down the canyon and instead returned to the four-way intersection with the Keyser Run Fire Road. The climb back up was rather tiring that day- it was quite warm outside. Once at the four-way, we took the Pole Bridge Link Trail, which headed uphill slowly until it intersected the Sugarloaf Trail. The Sugarloaf Trail ascended gently up the south slope of Hogback, with pleasant forest scenery along the way. Before we knew it, we had returned to the top of the ridge and the Appalachian Trail. We followed the AT south, passing behind the Hogback Overlook and crossing Skyline Drive to return to the parking area, ending a good hike in the North District.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Pass Mountain

Neighbor Mountain and New Market Gap
2.2 miles round trip, 570 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Pass Mountain is a low, unassuming summit in the North District of Shenandoah National Park just north of Thornton Gap and US 211. Although Pass Mountain is a much less exciting and visually stunning peak than its southern neighbor, Mary's Rock, the stretch of the Appalachian Trail from Beahms Gap to the broad summit of Pass Mountain is an enjoyable short hike with two nice viewpoints and little elevation gain.  This hike can be done as a 2.2 mile round trip hike to the summit of Pass Mountain, or a 1.6 mile round trip hike to the overlooks on Pass Mountain. There is no view at the true summit.

I did this hike on an early October morning, driving in through Swift Run Gap just slightly too late to catch the sunrise at South River Overlook. I drove through the entire central section of the park, which was gleaming in the early morning sun, to Thornton Gap and then slightly north to Beahms Gap at mile 28. Beahms Gap Overlook is a wide pullout with a limited view and is the trailhead for this hike. Along the way, I passed by some spectacular scenery- Big Meadows was golden and red, the trees were bare at Milam Gap, and the early sunlight made Nicholson Hollow particularly dramatic from Hemlock Springs Overlook.

Hemlock Springs Overlook in the Central District
From Beahms Gap, there is a clear view to the four humps of Hogback Mountain. Hogback is the tallest peak in the North District of the Park is only the third 3000-foot peak in the entire Blue Ridge when going south along the Blue Ridge from South Mountain (Mt. Marshall and the Peak are the first two). A large grassy area has been cleared out at the gap to maintain the view- this is one spot where the park's policy of vista clearing is very obvious.


Hogback from Beahms Gap
The hike begins on the Appalachian Trail heading south from Beahms Gap. The AT starts on the east side of the road (left if you're walking south), just 20 yards south of the parking area. The trail immediately plunges into the forest, passing a fire foot trail and maintaining a fairly flat section before beginning a fairly steady climb up the north slope of Pass Mountain.

The ascent stuck toward the Piedmont side of the slope at first; no clear views were available, but every now then shapes of foothills in the Piedmont were visible. After a while, the trail made some short steep ascents (none too steep- it was the AT through Shenandoah, after all, the flattest trail in the park). About 0.7 miles from the trailhead, the trail swung to the west side of the ridge, and at 0.8 miles swung to the right along a set of greenstone outcrops. As the trail was about two swing left, there was a fairly extensive outcrop with a view to the right.

The view is rather limited, but still worthwhile as it yields a unique view of Neighbor Mountain. Farms at the foot of Neighbor Mountain as well as the pointed peak of Neighbor Mountain itself are quite prominent. Massanutten was clearly visible to the west, with New Market Gap and Strickler and Duncan Knobs easily recognizable. The town of Luray was also visible down in Shenandoah Valley. The foliage here had not had the dramatic changes seen in the Central District- with the exception of what seemed to be a particularly red maple near the summit of Neighbor Mountain, most of the view was still quite green. I'll reiterate that this view was a little limited- the rock outcrop is not very high up, so one day the surrounding vegetation may block it entirely. It certainly did not seem to be as extensive as the view described in Henry Heatwole's 1979 first edition guide.

Returning to the trail, I walked to the last large greenstone rock to the left of the trail, then turned right and bushwhacked southwest for about 50 feet to another viewpoint. This viewpoint was not on an outctop, but instead on a slope with many broken chunk of rock- not quite a talus slope, but rocky enough to prevent vegetation growth. While this viewpoint was fairly shallow (the Valley was not visible), it did have a much wider view to the north. Much more of Massanutten Mountain was visible and most of Knob Mountain could be seen as well. This second viewpoint is worth visiting if you are already at the first viewpoint.

Neighbor and Knob Mountains from Pass Mountain
I continued onward for 0.3 miles of varying flat and gentle uphill trail to the actual summit of Pass Mountain, which is wooded with no views. I turned back when the AT began to head downhill with no indications of another summit further down. While this part of the hike was not terribly exciting, it allowed me to explore the summit of another Shenandoah peak in pleasant early autumn woods.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Doubletop Mountain "Lunch Rock"

Fork and Jones Mountains and the Rapidan Valley
4.4 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate

Doubletop Mountain "Lunch Rock" is not a place you'll find on a map- it's a large outcrop east of the two summits of Doubletop Mountain with a wide view of the Rapidan River valley. I will refer to it in this post as the "Lunch Rock" as I first read about it in the PATC's blog, which described this rock as the "most enormous lunch rock" the author had seen in the Virginia mountains. Due to time constraints, I didn't have time to make it to the two peaks of Doubletop, where I've read there are more viewpoints, but as I found the scenery and solitude in this area to be excellent, I'll certainly plan a trip back to Doubletop sometime to finish exploring.

On an early, foggy fall morning in September, I headed out of Charlottesville north on Route 29. I was afraid at first that there would be few or no views that day as the fog in Charlottesville was quite thick and the just-risen sun was not visible. However, when I arrived at Ruckersville, I popped into a break in the fog and saw Hightop, Saddleback, and points north clearly above the fog. I continued to Madison, driving through the town in the fog, took 231 north after passing through the town, reached Banco and turned onto 670. The sun cut through the fog occasionally, but many nearby peaks- Old Rag, Hawksbill- were still coated in mist. Doubletop, however, had emerged to the west. I took 670 to Criglersville, then took 649 west across the Robinson River. It took me about an hour to get to the end of the pavement on 649 from Charlottesville. From there, 649 became unpaved as it switchbacked up a ridge of Doubletop and descended into the Rapidan River's valley. The 6 mile or so stretch of unpaved road to the trailhead was not well suited to my two-wheel drive vehicle; the road has become quite potholed and took nearly 30 minutes for me to drive. The road entered Shenandoah National Park, then crossed the Rapidan River twice, entering the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area after the first crossing. The Rapidan River was very scenic here, with many small cascades. As the road got progressively rockier, I parked right after crossing the second bridge over the Rapidan and walked the remainder of the distance to the trailhead (if you cut this out, you can cut out 0.8 miles round trip on the hike).

The Rapidan River
Rapidan Road was used by President Hoover to get to Rapidan Camp when he conducted summer retreats to the area. In the decades since, it has probably deteriorated quite a bit: it now has many ruts, protruding rocks, and potholes. A high-clearance 4WD vehicle would be recommended to reach the actual trailhead.

From my parking spot just beyond the second Rapidan bridge, I followed the road uphill (west), climbing quickly above the Rapidan. After a steady climb of a fifth mile, the road leveled out a hundred or so feet above the Rapidan. The Wilhite Wagon Trail branched off from the road 0.4 miles from the bridge. The trail is not indicated by name- there is an orange blaze and a tiny rhombus with a hiker on it to indicate the start of the trail. There was no parking at the trailhead. The trail is marked on PATC maps.

The Wilhite Wagon Trail was becoming quite overgrown by the time I hiked it. The trail immediately began climbing and in a hundred yards passed through a power-line clearing. Past the clearing, the trail continued a northward climb. The PATC map of the area seems to show the Palanti Trail connecting with the Wilhite Wagon Trail at this point, but I never saw the sign of any trail intersection. Although overgrown, the trail remained quite clear due to good blazing.

On some portions of the trail, stonework left from the original wagon trail was visible. On other portions, the uniquely steep topography of the area was apparent: At one point, the trail clings to the slope with what seemed like 60 degree slopes dropping off to the right. Overall, the ascent was moderate- certainly not gentle, but not quite tough. Higher on the slope, the trail cut two switchbacks while partial views of the summit and ridge of Fork Mountain became visible across the valley.
 
Wilhite Wagon Trail
About 1.3 miles from Rapidan Road, the Wilhite Wagon Trail reached the top of Doubletop Mountain's ridgeline. Here, at an unsigned intersection, the trail met with the blue-blazed Doubletop Mountain Trail. Taking the trail left and uphill would have led to Doubletop's two peaks. Turning right led along the flat ridgeline instead toward the Lunch Rock.

A stone's throw from the intersection on the Doubletop Mountain trail, a faint path breaks to the left and leads to an overgrown viewpoint. From this point, I had a partly obscured view of Hawksbill, Stony Man, Big Tom, Robertson Mountain, and Old Rag. The view of Old Rag from this angle was particularly interesting and rare. While the foliage below was still mostly green, I could see hints of change coming.

View north from Doubletop Ridge to Big Tom
I continued on the ridge, heading east. The trail made a descent as the ridgeline dropped, but never left the ridgeline. The trail here was fairly easy to follow, though many sections of the trail were blocked by large fallen trees. It was clear that this trail is neither often hiked nor often maintained. About a half mile from the intersection from the Wilhite Wagon Trail, the Doubletop Mountian Trail reached an intersection with the eastern portion of the Wilhite Wagon Trail. This trail, confusingly similarly named, leads east to a junction with SR 649 but is marked as "not maintained" on PATC maps. However, at the intersection with the Doubletop Mountain Trail, the orange-blazed Wilhite Wagon Trail actually looked much more traveled. The Doubletop Mountain Trail continued following the ridge, heading off to the left, heavily overgrown with few blazes. The Wilhite Wagon Trail led downhill, was a bit wider, and was well marked. I turned onto this Wilhite Wagon Trail and followed it downhill a couple yards. From the trail, there were already good views of the Rapidan Valley. A few yards down the trail, I saw a large clearing with a huge rock slightly downhill and off of the trail. I made my way through the little bit of intervening vegetation onto the huge outcrop. The rock seemed to fit the description of the PATC lunch rock quite well, so I settled down on the Lunch Rock to take in the view.

Fork Mountain from Doubletop Lunch Rock
The view from Doubletop Lunch Rock was superb. Fork Mountain, the third highest peak in the Blue Ridge north of Rockfish Gap, dominated the view. The north face of Fork Mountain at the false summit of Fork was particularly impressive: from the Lunch Rock, it seemed to be a nearly vertical rise of some 2000 feet from the Rapidan below. The FAA radio towers atop Fork were also visibile. To the left of Fork Mountain, I could see Jones Mountain and Bear Church Rock. Some of the smaller peaks in the Piedmont were also visible. To the right of Fork, a corner of Hazeltop was visible, as was the false summit of Doubletop itself. While most of the scene remained green, the north slope of Fork Mountain above perhaps 3300 feet were turning red.

The Lunch Rock was a large chunk of monzogranite monzodiorite. This rock makes up all of Doubletop Mountain, as well as neighboring Fork Mountain and Jones Mountain to the south of that. The rock is a Proteozoic igneous rock, similar to the granite of Old Rag, and is some of the older rock in the park. It is quite erosion resistant and erodes in a much different manner than greenstone, giving rise to the high peaks and steep topography in the Fork-Jones-Doubletop area.

I enjoyed the sun, the views, and the solitude at the rock for half an hour before heading back to Charlottesville.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Billy Goat Trail Section A

Mather Gorge
4 miles loop, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate

This stretch of trail (Section A) is the one that most Washingtonians refer to when they mention the Billy Goat Trail. It is a spectacular hike, one of my favorite hikes in the Mid-Atlantic, and it is conveniently just a half hour away from downtown Washington DC. This hike makes a loop out of the 1.7-mile Billy Goat Trail Section A itself, a section of the C&O Canal Towpath, and the spur trail to the Great Falls viewpoint. The Great Falls of the Potomac and the sheer cliffs of Mather Gorge form the impressive natural setting of this trail, which follows the Potomac and has some very enjoyable rock scrambling.

I hiked this trail with four friends on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June. After finishing the other two sections of the trail in the evenings during the workweek, we decided to hike the longest and most famous segment of the Billy Goat Trail on a weekend to allow more time to hike and experience the trail. It was a good thing we did- this hike took much longer than the other segments. The park was quite crowded on the warm weekend; there was a line of cars at the entrance station of the Great Falls area. To get to the area, we took Falls Road to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park and turned right at the T-intersection with MacArthur Boulevard. The road into the park descended through forest to a large parking area near Great Falls Tavern. We saw many Canada geese by the canal and dropped by the visitor center before we crossed the canal and started south on the towpath to start the hike.

We quickly arrived at the spur trail leading to Great Falls. The boardwalk immediately led across one of the many branches of the Potomac. The bridge provided a good vantage point over a set of small chutes as the river plunged down a narrow, rocky gorge. Continuing on, we hiked across part of Olmsted Island, a divider of the Potomac, to another bridge, where there was another tiny branch of the Potomac plunging over a small waterfall and sliding down a rock slab.

Falls on Olmsted Island
Beyond these small branch falls of the Potomac, we finally came out onto a wooden platform with a view of the full Great Falls. Here, the mighty Potomac River crashes down a rocky stretch of rapids, a powerful scene. This spot was quite crowded, with many visitors jostling for the view of the falls. The Great Falls are the most dramatic rapids of any of the major Mid-Atlantic rivers at the Fall Line.

The Great Falls of the Potomac River
Retracing our steps back to the towpath, we continued south. At one point, we followed an unmarked path downhill to a small beach next to the Potomac, with impressive craggy rocks rising above us.

A rocky beach downstream of Great Falls
We returned to the canal towpath for a short segment before coming to a bridge over a lock, where we found signs for the start of the Billy Goat Trail Section A. Numerous warning signs marked the start of this hike- and for good reason, as many park visitors who wander onto the trail without knowing what the hike is like end up getting more than they were looking for. The trail started out fairly flat, with a few rocks protruding here and there, and stuck back a little from the cliffs at the edge of the river.

The trail winded through small trees. This area of the hike was, sadly, badly eroded: so many hikers do this trail and so many disregard trail markers (and so many trail markers are unclear) that it was no longer possible to tell where the trail was in many cases. Vegetation in this region was very badly damaged. While some mild rock scrambling was required in this section, none of it was particularly difficult.

The trail then passed a sign warning of a difficult trail ahead. Past this point, the trail led onto the large rocks directly above Mather Gorge. Emerging from the trees, the trail now gave stunning views of the Potomac River and the huge cliffs on the Virginia side.

Mather Gorge, on the Potomac River
The rock scrambling in this section was very fun. It was surprising that such extensive rock scrambling was accessible just 30 minutes out of DC. From the trail, there were views up and down the gorge. One of the less fortunate things about this trail was the amount of litter. Its proximity to an urban center probably contributes to its problems with both erosion and garbage.

Coming down from the rocks, the trail swung back into the forest for a while, descending gradually to the level of the river. When the trail finally came out next to the river, the trail swung left away from the river up a large rock face- the Spitzbergen Cliff. The single most dramatic stretch on this hike, the Spitzbergen Cliff is a slanted rock face that the trail cuts up to continue. While not difficult to scramble up, the cliff certainly looked impressive and was a good deal of fun.

Spitzbergen Cliffs
Past Spitzbergen, the trail wound through a nice beach and more rock scrambles, allowing even more views of the Potomac. The trail eventually reached the end of Mather Gorge and then cut inward into Bear Island, crossing a stream that drains the island.

The Potomac River
At long last, the trail merged back with the C&O Canal Towpath. My group of fairly fit twenty-somethings had taken nearly 2 hours to do the 1.7 mile stretch of the Billy Goat Trail- one of my friends remarked that it was almost impossible that the trail had just been 1.7 miles. So if you do plan on doing this hike, schedule plenty of time for it.

Back on the Towpath, we walked north (turned left) and strolled along Widewater, a broad part of the canal. The Widewater section was quite notable for the large rocky prominences on the other side of the canal, which seemed very similar to the rocky cliffs seen on Mather Gorge. I wonder whether this was a former gorge of the Potomac River, or whether that was somehow created during the construction of the canal. We saw assorted birdlife on the canal and passed a number of locks before we returned to the junction with the northern end of the Billy Goat Trail to complete our loop.

Widewater, on the C&O Canal