Saturday, March 3, 2012

Calvary Rocks

Turk Mountain, Humpback Mountain, Devil's Knob, and the Priest from Calvary Rocks
3 miles round trip, 770 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate

At the time of writing of this post, I have not yet hiked the full Riprap-Wildcat Ridge Loop.

Calvary Rocks is a short and fairly easy trail to a rocky summit with a good, almost 360-degree view not far from the Rockfish Gap Entrance. I did this hike during a February weekend in which I was bogged down with work- I figured that I might as well treat myself to hiking to a place that I'd wanted to see for a while and at the same time stay close to Charlottesville. Although this trail overlaps entirely with the Riprap Trail, I would certainly recommend the hike to Calvary Rocks as a standalone hike due to the great views from the Rocks.

I left Charlottesville with three friends on a fairly clear and windy morning and made my way quickly to Rockfish Gap and up to the Drive. We stopped at McCormick Gap and Riprap Overlooks and we could see that there was snow on Great North Mountain on the far side of the Valley. We also saw a coyote on the Drive near McCormick Gap- the first coyote I've seen in the park. Eventually we arrived at the Riprap Trailhead, which is around milepost 90 of Skyline Drive.


Coyote near McCormick Gap

We hiked north along the AT briefly and reached an intersection with the Riprap Trail, which we then followed along a ridge downhill. A little over a mile from the trailhead, we reached a gap between the main Blue Ridge and Rocks Mountain. The peak on the main ridge in this area is not labeled on USGS or NPS maps, so I've taken to calling it "Riprap Mountain" due to its proximity to Riprap Hollow. The trail then begins to climb Rocks Mountain, passing a talus slope on its way to the beginning of the Calvary Rocks.

A note on naming: whoever named the peaks in the western reaches of the South District had a severe lack of creativity, or was perhaps just overly practical. From north to south, five peaks with major exposed areas of either Erwin or Hampton Sandstone are named Rocky Mount, Rocky Mountain, Rockytop, Blackrock, and Rocks Mountain. Rocks Mountain is probably the least known, since most people just know of it as Calvary Rocks or Chimney Rock.

Most people know "Calvary Rocks" as just the jumble of white Erwin sandstones to the right of the trail that jut out above the Paine Run Valley and give a view of Shenandoah Valley and Buzzard Rock. The Rocks are actually significantly more extensive than that: they consist of an exposed band of Erwin sandstone running a few hundred yards through Rocks Mountain and form the eastern crest of the mountain.


Calvary Rocks

We continued past the initial viewpoint, following the rocky ridge until the trail started heading downhill. Here, an unmarked footpath broke to the left and follows the rocky ridge. We followed that path and did a bit of scrambling and soon found ourselves atop the Calvary Rocks. The view is nearly 360 degrees, but a few trees block small portions of the view and prevent it from being complete. It was very windy.

I explored the rocks a bit, doing some scrambling along the exciting west face of the rocks, and found good views south to Turk Mountain, Humpback, Devil's Knob, and the Priest, and north and west to Buzzard Rock, Trayfoot Mountain, Blackrock, Big Flat, and Cedar Mountain.


Trayfoot Mountain and Blackrock from Calvary Rocks
The trail starts in Hampton Sandstone and makes its way to Erwin Sandstone at the Rocks. This is easily noticeable: the rocks along the first section of trail are grayish and darker, while the Erwin, probably the most easily recognizable rock of the park, is white and has vertical striations. Although Erwin Sandstone is dominant on Calvary Rocks, I found only a few examples of Skolithos here, none as good as the ones on Lewis Peak.

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