Monday, March 12, 2012

Loft Mountain Loop

View west from Loft Mountain
2.7 miles loop, 570 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

I have a very fond memory of this hike- when I hiked it on an October Friday afternoon, the easy hiking, the superlative views, and the good company made this hike thoroughly enjoyable. This hike is also unique in that it was only my third visit to the South District of the Park, and my first visit in which I began familiarizing myself with an area that I've now come to know well and love.

I stole the hike idea from Henry Heatwole's guide. This loop combines a portion of the Frazier Discovery Trail (formerly the Deadening Trail) with a mile or so on the AT and a final stretch on a fire road. The hike tops out atop Loft Mountain, a double-peaked mountain that is the namesake of a campground which is actually situated on nearby Big Flat Mountain. Loft Mountain forms the eastern boundary of the Big Run watershed, the largest watershed in the park and one of the park's most wild, scenic areas.

The Friday before fall break, I found three friends to go an afternoon hike. We left Charlottesville in the early afternoon, battling bad traffic to work our way up US 29 and into the park. Immediately upon entering the park, I pulled over at the Swift Run Overlook. The day was beautiful: the sky was a beautiful blue and a lone tree at the overlook had turned a blazing orange. We made our way slowly south along the drive, stopping at Bacon Hollow, Brown Mountain, and Ivy Creek Overlooks, reveling in the cool temperatures and the early autumn beauty at each stop. We eventually made our way to the trailhead at the Loft Mountain Development/Wayside at Mile 79 of Skyline Drive.

Before we had even started a hike, we found a fascinating white caterpillar on the sidewalk at the wayside. Any help with identifying it would be greatly appreciated!


We crossed the road and made our way up the right fork of the Frazier Discovery Trail. The trail climbs fairly gently through beautiful, fairly young forest to the ridgeline of Loft Mountain. Upon reaching the ridgeline, the trail intersected the Appalachian Trail and heads north, and then immediately came to a viewpoint. To the left off of the trail, a spur led to one of Loft Mountain's rocky summits. Here, a large greenstone outcrop poked above the trees. The views west were sweeping: we could see the entire Big Run Valley, including Rockytop, Brown Mountain, and Rocky Mountain.

I explored the rocks, which weren't terribly extensive; the lower regions of the greenstone outcrops lacked views and didn't seem to make for particularly safe scrambling. We stayed atop the summit for quite a while enjoying the view. When we finally dragged ourselves off the summit, we followed the AT north and immediately came upon Loft Mountain's second greenstone viewpoint. We didn't stop here for long as the view was much the same. Here, we took the AT heading north, separating from the Frazier Discovery Trail.

The AT over the next mile was very enjoyable to follow. The trail was narrow and grassy and followed the ridgeline, giving us occasional obscured views to the side and lots of interesting and accessible vegetation to check out. We eventually came to the trail's eastern viewpoint, a small widening area of the trail with a view into the Piedmont.


View east from Loft Mountain
Past this viewpoint, the trail left the ridgeline and began to make its way downhill. The woods here in early fall were particularly beautiful. The late afternoon sunlight bounced off the green and golden leaves of the forest, creating incredible lighting in the forest around us.


AT on Loft Mountain
We eventually made our way down to a junction with the Ivy Creek Fire Road. We followed the fire road, which quickly arrived at the Ivy Creek Shelter. Although the shelter itself was closed, we did explore a nearby spring and a picnic table. We then continued down the fire road, a flat portion of hiking that brought us back to Skyline Drive. We then followed the Drive south a hundred yards back to the Loft Mountain wayside.

None of us had brought food, so we dropped into the wayside briefly and bought some pumpkin fudge. We then drove south to Dundo Overlook, where we stretched out on the grassy area next to the parking for the overlook and watched the sun's last rays paint Austin Mountain. We also split the fudge, which was incredibly delicious.


Sunset at Dundo Overlook
After sunset, we made our way further south, stopping at the Riprap Overlook to catch a view of the Valley and the lights of the small towns under the dying light of dusk. I finished driving Skyline Drive in the dark. By the time I reached Rockfish Gap, my friends were asleep, so Beethoven's Third kept me awake as I drove back to Charlottesville from a fun trip.

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