Thursday, April 26, 2012

Turk Branch Loop

Sawmill Run Overlook: Calf Mountain, Scott Mountain, and Big Levels
7.9 miles loop, 1650 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate

The Turk Branch Loop is an enjoyable and scenic loop hike that combines a good amount of exercise with a few views, two streams, and a lot of forest. I did this hike during mid-spring and found it to be delightful because of the blooming wildflowers, but this hike might be less interesting in mid-winter or summer. The best view of this hike comes not from the trail itself but from the point where the trail crosses Skyline Drive at Sawmill Run Overlook. The trail is one of the many loops possible in the South District of the park and traverses a very lightly traveled area. Hiking Upward recommends doing this loop together with the trail to the summit of Turk Mountain. This would probably be a good combination, as the views from the top of Turk Mountain are superb and certainly more expansive that at any point on the Turk Branch Loop alone.

I headed out early on a Saturday morning to do this hike. I had originally hoped to wake up, eat breakfast, get gas, and then head to the Moormans River Overlook to watch the sunrise before hiking, but I managed to oversleep my alarm by a full hour and woke up just 45 minutes before the sunrise. Still hoping to catch the sunrise, I managed to get out of bed and into my car in five minutes and made my way to Beagle Gap Overlook, the first east-facing overlook on Skyline Drive, just three minutes before the sunrise.

The slopes of Calf Mountain were refreshingly green and the wispy fog covered much of the Piedmont. The sky glowed pink in the seconds before the sun peeked out from behind the ridge of Calf Mountain, bringing warmth and rays of light to the mountains. In the far distance, I could see the gap between Wolfpit and Carter Mountains, and the bowl in which Charlottesville lies.

Sunrise at Beagle Gap Overlook
After watching the sunrise, I drove further along the drive to Jarman Gap, on the north side of Calf Mountain. I parked at the gap, around mile 97 of Skyline Drive. From the parking area, I followed the fire road at the entrance of the parking area downhill. The fire road immediately entered the forest and soon crossed the Appalachian Trail before crossing one of the small feeder streams of the South Fork Moormans River. I made my way quickly downhill, following alternate banks of the upper part of the South Fork Moormans River. The trail was grassy and lush and was lined with many wild geraniums. The fire road has no open views, but was enjoyable to hike along as it passed a clearing for a pipeline on its way down the South Fork Moormans Valley. The valley here was quite broad: even though the slopes of Bucks Elbow and Turk Mountain on either side were fairly steep, the area around the stream was wide and flat. I crossed the river three times; none of the crossings were difficult because the water levels were low, but the trail could be conceivably harder to hike during a rainstorm.

Dogwood blooming along the South Fork Moormans Fire Road
Wild geraniums
About 2 miles from the trailhead, I crossed the Turk Branch and reached the junction with the Turk Branch Trail. I ate a granola bar for breakfast there and admired the calm flow of the Turk Branch before heading up the Turk Branch Trail.

The Turk Branch Trail immediately began to climb, following its namesake stream uphill. In the first half mile after leaving the South Fork Moormans River, the trail passed by numerous small cascades on the Turk Branch, including one crossing at which there was a small waterfall flowing into a small pool. While trying to photograph this waterfall, I had a minor accident and slid into the Turk Branch- although I got soaked, I was thankful that my fall was into a small stream rather than off of a cliff!

The Turk Branch
Past the crossing, the trail followed a tributary stream at a distance before turning toward the ridge and beginning a steeper ascent. After a fairly steep but short ascent, the trail crossed Turk Branch again and climbed onto the top of a ridge. After reaching the ridge, the trail became much flatter and much drier. The vegetation changed from deciduous to coniferous. There were some obscured views of Bucks Elbow and Middle Mountain through the trees.  The geology here was also very interesting: while the rocks in the Moormans River valley and on the lower parts of the Turk Branch had been Catoctin greenstone, the rock on the higher slopes were clearly sedimentary. I later found that the trail passed through a band of the Weverton Formation. The Weverton Formation is the oldest of the three major formations of the Chilhowee Metasedimentary Group. Like the Hampton and Erwin formations found further west, the Weverton is a sedimentary layer set down during the Cambrian Era. Despite being sedimentary, the Weverton contains no fossils- the development of animal life occurred at roughly the time (or slightly after) the Weverton was set down, so in a way the Weverton is made of rock that is too old to have fossils!

Turk Branch Trail
After 2.5 miles and 1200 feet of climbing from the Moormans River, I reached Turk Gap. I crossed Skyline Drive and began following the Appalachian Trail south. The remainder of the hike followed the AT, with views through the trees of Bucks Elbow, Pasture Fence, and Turk Mountains. After passing the turnoff for Turk Mountain, the trail began a descent through thickets of mountain laurel and forest floors of undergrowth. The mountain laurel on the trail here had already started budding, so it was perhaps less than two weeks until time for the mountain laurel to bloom. An early May bloom date is quite early for mountain laurel in Shenandoah!

After following the trail downhill for 1.7 miles from Turk Gap, I reached Sawmill Run Overlook. The overlook was about a hundred feet south of the point where the AT crossed the Drive, but I chose to make my way over to the overlook anyway for the spectacular view down Sawmill Run. From the overlook, Calf Mountain, a corner of Bear Den Mountain, Scott Mountain, Afton Mountain, and Big Levels near Waynesboro were visible. A beautiful dogwood tree bloomed right below the overlook itself. Green had finally reached the mountaintops here.

Past Sawmill Run Overlook, the trail began a small ascent onto a small knob on the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge crest. Over the remaining two miles back to Jarman Gap, there were numerous views through the trees and one decent view where the trees parted enough for a good view of Calf Mountain with Humpback Mountain poking out behind it.

View on the Appalachian Trail
After descending from this ridge, the AT descended all the way down to the west bank of the South Fork Moormans River. I followed the phlox and spiderwort-lined trail back to its junction with the South Fork Moormans Fire Road and returned to my car at Jarman Gap. I unfortunately had to rush through many parts of the hike due to prior obligations in Charlottesville later that morning. Although this hike was very enjoyable and very beautiful, I had only three hours to do the entire eight-mile loop and so I was not able to stop and appreciate many of the finer points of the hike. However, this trail is certainly recommended, especially to hikers who have down the more popular trails in the park and hope to know the park well.

Phlox along the trail

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ragged Mountain Main Loop

Stream in Ragged Mountain

I've left this page here for historical purposes; however, this hike can no longer be done as the Ragged Mountain Reservoir has expanded and drowned out a decent part of this route.

4 miles loop, 750 feet elevation gain

Ragged Mountain is a fun hike that is just five minutes away from the grounds of UVA. Although there are no spectacular views or cascading waterfalls on this hike, there are two big hills and views of the Charlottesville Reservoir. These are also the hills that Edgar Allan Poe used to roam while a student at UVA.

Ragged Mountain Natural Area may be shutting down soon due to work to expand the reservoir. If you are planning on doing this hike, check online first at ivycreekfoundation.org to make sure that the park will be open. After the new dam is complete, this hike description may no longer be accurate, so be aware of that as well.

I did this hike with my mother on one of her weekend visits to Charlottesville. We drove down Jefferson Park Avenue past where it turned into Fontaine Avenue and continued past the Route 29 junction to Reservoir Road. We turned right at Reservoir Road and followed that road until it reached a sign reading "Ragged Mountain Natural Area" and parked in the small lot there.

From the parking lot, the main loop trail immediately began climbing off into the forest. The trail passed a few small rock outcrops on its way up to the ridgeline. Once on the ridgeline, the trail stayed high on the west slope of Roundtop. At the junction with the Roundtop trail, we took a right and followed the extension of the loop to the 919-foot wooded summit of Roundtop. During the winter, there are views through the trees of the Blue Ridge, but in other seasons, there are no views. On the trail, I explored a couple of small rock outcrops and a few of the human artifacts left around. There were many wildflowers blooming in the forest here.

Fire Pinks in Ragged Mountain
From the top of Roundtop, we descended back to the main trail and then took the Peninsula Loop Trail. This trail put us directly by the lakeshore and took us past the remains of an old homesite, where we saw a standing chimney. During our visit, the water level was very low, probably due to the upcoming work on the dam.

Chimney on the Peninsula Loop
After finding our way back to the Main Loop, we continued our way around the lake. The trail followed the undulating landscape, weaving its way around hills and around the lake. Occasional outcrops of what was either granite or granodiorite were all along the trail. A few stream crossings made the hike a bit more exciting and wildflowers and other fresh green vegetation carpeted the forest floor.

After following the lakeshore at a distance for a while, the trail reached a junction with the Upper Lake Trail. We continued on the Main Loop Trail, which followed the top of an earthen dam between the Upper and Lower Lakes. From the dam, we had good views of the reservoir and we also saw a pair of Canada geese.

The Upper Lake
Across the lake, the trail began its second major ascent, coming close to the top of another of the park's hills. I particularly enjoyed a section of trail at the top of the ascent that followed the contours on the steep east side of the hill. The traffic on I-64 was audible during this part of the hike.

Soon afterward, the trail beganto approach the main dam. Just before reaching the dam, the trail veered off and made a sharp right and began a descent. This turn is not well marked, so be on the lookout for it. This final descent took the trail down into the bottom of the valley. Signs pointed the way back to the parking lot along a gravel road.

This is a remarkable park for being so close to UVA. It lacks many of the scenic wonders of Shenandoah but is a worthy hike for fall foliage or spring wildflowers.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Third Lookout on Mine Mountain

Whetstone Ridge from Third Lookout
1.2 miles round trip, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous, due to steepness

This is a fairly unknown and unused hike on the western side of the Blue Ridge in George Washington National Forest that ends at an amazing viewpoint. I used to attend a summer camp near the location of this hike and ended up redoing this hike when I went on a camping trip in Shenandoah Valley. This is a difficult trail that is not heavily traveled and not terribly well marked or maintained. I am not sure whether the names "Third Lookout" or "Mine Mountain" are official names- these were the names used to refer to those spots at my camp. Mine Mountain, after all, is not even very apparent as a mountain when viewed from Shenandoah Valley- from there, it seems to just be a small ridge leading up to the higher peaks near Tye River Gap. I am also not absolutely sure of the length of this trail- I would guess that it is somewhere between 1.2 and 1.5 miles round trip.

After a night camping with a student group I'm involved in at UVA, I decided to check out a number of places in Shenandoah Valley before heading back to Charlottesville. I found myself just a couple of miles away from an outdoors summer camp I used to attend in middle school, so I decided to drive by the area and do one of my favorite hikes from that time. I drove down SR 608 and followed the South River past Vesuvius, crossing the railroad tracks and then ascending into Big Mary's Creek Valley. I had a hard time finding the start of the trail but eventually was able to identify it.

The easiest way to get to this trailhead is from I-81, exit 205. SR 606 runs from the I-81 junction east to US 11; at US 11, turn left and then immediately turn right onto SR 56. SR 56 runs past Steeles Tavern, past Glenn Falls, to Vesuvius. In the middle of Vesuvius, SR 56 crosses the railroad tracks: at that point, go straight on SR 608 and don't cross the tracks. SR 608 continues southward and eventually crosses the railroad tracks itself and goes uphill a little distance. At a big turn in the road, there will a gravel road on the left called "Nature Camp Trail." Follow that road past a meadow to a junction. Park on the side of the road here. Then walk 150 yards along the left fork and look for a faint trail marked by a cairn. The trail is unblazed.

After finally finding the start of the trail, I began to follow it uphill, passing by a small amount of phlox. The trail was significantly steeper than I had remembered it being- I was surprised I was able to hike it in middle school! The trail ascended first through the heavily wooded lower slopes of Mine Mountain, switchbacking occasionally.


Phlox at the beginning of the trail
Around a quarter mile from the trailhead, the trail reached First Lookout, a large outcrop. By scrambling around the outcrop, I found a good view of Big Mary's Creek Valley, from about 300 feet up. McClung Mountain dominated the view across the valley and down in the valley I could see the camp.


McClung Mountain from First Lookout
After taking in the view at First Lookout, I continued up the trail. From here, the already steep trail became incredibly steep and was fairly slippery due to the loose rocks on the trail. The tall trees and high canopy below Lookout Rock faded here to shorter vegetation on the rocky, dry slope. The trail eschewed switchbacks and instead made its way straight up Mine Mountain. The tiring ascent finally flattened out as the trail cut across the side of Mine Mountain to Third Lookout.

Third Lookout is a large outcrop of Antietam Sandstone. This formation is analogous to the Erwin Formation sandstone found in the South District of SNP. From the rock, there was an excellent view of McClung Mountain across the valley and Whetstone Ridge, a long, straight ridge, to the east. To the west was Shenandoah Valley; unfortunately, visibility to the west was low due to the smoke from the Rich Hole fire near Lexington.


McClung Mountain from Third Lookout
I sat, enjoyed the view, and reminisced about the time I had spent in these mountains. I then descended the slippery trail and headed off to Lexington to check out the Rich Hole Fire by I-64 before returning to Charlottesville by the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Rich Hole Fire

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hightop backward

Hightop view of Rocky Mount and Massanutten
4 miles round trip, 950 feet elevation gain

This hike is "Hightop Backward" if we consider "Hightop Forward" to be the regular approach from the north starting at the Hightop Parking Area. The hikes are fairly similar, but this hike offers a bit more to check out at Hightop Hut.

Two friends and I left Charlottesville on a weekend morning and made our way into the park by Route 33. Signs of spring were everywhere as we drove through the hollow of Swift Run, but faded as we reached Skyline Drive. After a brief stop at the Swift Run Overlook, we continued to Smith Roach Gap, the trailhead, about four miles south of the park entrance.

We began on the fire road heading east from Smith Roach Gap but then immediately turned onto the Appalachian Trail, which headed north and began a steady uphill. Spring had not yet reached the canopy here, but on the ground there was plenty of new green grass and wildflowers.

A little over a mile from the trailhead, we came to a fire road intersection and shortly afterward the spur trail to Hightop Hut. Hightop Hut is one of the many backcountry huts in the park for AT thru-hikers or other long distance backpackers. We checked out the environs of the hut before returning to the AT and continuing north and uphill.

Hightop Hut
At the end of this uphill, we arrived on the flat summit area. We checked out the forested true summit and the fire tower remnants and found a good nearby campsite before returning to the trail and hiking to the best (and only) view of the hike, a large greenstone outcrop with a wide, sweeping view of the South District and  Shenandoah Valley.

Hightop view of Flattop to Bucks Elbow and Trayfoot
During my previous visit to the summit of Hightop, the view had been good but the farthest peaks were hidden by smog. This visit was much different. Visibility was amazing: we could see at least 70 miles to Big and Little House Mountains by Lexington. To the south, we could see past Flattop, Loft, Trayfoot, and Bucks Elbow to Humpback and Devil's Knob, outside the park on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

View south
It was a very windy day and fairly cold as well. We had a great view of the dry slopes of Massanutten Mountain, on which the ongoing (at the time of writing this post) Shipwreck Fire started the next day. The winds, which we felt that day, didn't die down all week, resulting in at least 3000 burnt acres.

On our return trip, we descended to the fire road intersection, then took a left and followed the fire road back down to Smith Roach Gap. This gave for a slight change of scenery: the fire road was broad and grassy and many dandelions and other wildflowers grew in the middle of it. Parts of this descent were quite steep. The fire road eventually came to an intersection with another fire road, which we turned right at and followed back for a final flat half mile to Smith Roach Gap.

Dandelions on the fire road

Friday, April 13, 2012

Ivy Creek and "Ivy Creek Knob"

Rockytop sunset
5.3 miles round trip, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

This is a very memorable but very rarely done hike. The hike follows a fire road from Loft Mountain Wayside to the AT and then follows the AT along a stream canyon and a ridgetop. Ivy Creek carves a pretty stream canyon with small cascades. The unnamed knob on this hike is a great viewpoint of the Big Run Valley; as it has no name to the extent of my knowledge and is unlabelled on USGS maps, I'll refer to it here as "Ivy Creek Knob." That is certainly not the official name of the small peak. "Ivy Creek Knob" lies on the Blue Ridge crest between Loft Mountain and Weaver Mountain.

I did this hike on a Friday afternoon with a good friend. After making our way through Friday afternoon traffic up Route 29, we entered the park from Swift Run Gap. The drive between Stanardsville and Swift Run Gap was incredible: dogwood and redbud bloomed alongside the road and Swift Run tumbled happily down its newly green hollow.

We decided to head into the South District of the park and began the drive up the bare slopes of Hightop past the Sandy Bottom Overlook. Below us, the Shenandoah Valley was awash in light green, with yellows creeping up Massanutten across the valley. We stopped at most of the overlooks to admire the new spring scenery and so that we could enjoy them one last time before construction starts at many of them.


Loft Mountain Overlook
In the late afternoon, we finally arrived at the Loft Mountain wayside, the trailhead for this hike. The wayside is at mile 79 of Skyline Drive, about 14 miles south from the Swift Run Entrance. We followed Skyline Drive north for about 100 meters to a fire road that branched out to the east side of the road and followed the fire road gradually uphill for a half mile to the Ivy Creek Shelter. A little past the shelter, we came to an intersection with the Appalachian Trail and began to follow it north.

From the intersection, the AT immediately begins descending on the north slope of Loft Mountain. As we descended, spring became more and more apparent: the forest floor was alive with new plant life and insects and some trees in the canopy above us showed the first hints of renewal. Wildflowers were plentiful and included many that I couldn't identify.


Moss Phlox? Flowers on the AT
As the trail continued descending, it passed through thickets of mountain laurel, which would undoubtedly be beautiful in May. At the end of the descent, we came upon Ivy Creek, a mountain stream flowing in a small canyon. We stopped at multiple points along this pretty stream. The trail cut through a grove of young evergreens near the stream before crossing Ivy Creek above a small cascade. While not an impressive cascade by height or volume, the solitude of the spot made it quite appealing. The rocks here are greenstone.


Ivy Creek Canyon
After crossing Ivy Creek, the trail began a gradual ascent, circling around a ridge. We hiked past a few spots with obscured views before ascending further. The trail soon paralleled Skyline Drive after regaining the ridgetop. A little further down, the trail began another ascent, this time up "Ivy Creek Knob." Close to the top of the ascent, we reached a fantastic viewpoint. Here, a small greenstone outcrop gave an incredible view of the Big Run Valley, with Rockytop, Patterson Ridge, Blackrock, and Trayfoot visible with Elliot Knob visible in the far distance. Continuing past the viewpoint, we reached the flat top of the knob, which was forested but had views through the trees of Rockytop and Brown Mountain. We then began a descent along an incredibly beautiful portion of the Appalachian Trail. From the top of "Ivy Creek Knob" down to its almost-intersection with Skyline Drive, the trail followed the grassy top of a fairly narrow ridgeline, with views through the trees of Hightop and Flattop. The grass, the mountains, and the still-bare trees cast long shadows in the magical late afternoon glow.


The grassy AT on Ivy Creek Knob
Ivy Creek Overlook was closed for construction during our visit, so we ended our hike on the AT a little short of the overlook area. We headed back to the top of "Ivy Creek Knob" to watch the sunset. As the earth turned, we gradually fell into the increasingly long shadow of the ridges to the west. After the sun had disappeared, Venus, the queen of the western sky, appeared high above Elliot Knob. We waited until dusk to leave, departing as a radiant full moon rose out of the Piedmont.


Trayfoot Mountain from Ivy Creek Knob
We hiked back in the dark. The moonlight illuminated the trail, so we were able to quickly make it back past Ivy Creek and the shelter to the Loft Mountain Wayside. We then completed a drive through the South District, seeing the landscapes of Shenandoah in a different light. At Moorman's River Overlook, moonlight reflected off the calm, mirror-like waters of the Charlottesville Reservoir. At Turk Mountain Overlook, Venus hung over Staunton and the moonlight highlighted the ridges of Turk Mountain. I was amazed by how beautiful the park looked at night.


Venus above Staunton and Elliot Knob, from Turk Mountain Overlook

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Powell Gap

Hightop from the rock viewpoint
1 mile round trip, 300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy

This is a short hike along the Appalachian Trail with a decent view in the southern section of the park. The hike name is a bit misleading- this hike does not go to Powell Gap, it simply starts at Powell Gap and leads to a small rock viewpoint. The greenstone outcrop destination of this trail is visible from Bacon Hollow Overlook: in fact, at that overlook, there is a view to the south of a line of outcrops popping out along the east side of the mountain.

I did this hike on an overcast early October weekday. As I drove into the park on US 33, I admired the fall colors, which were beginning to hit full swing. I stopped first at the Sandy Bottom Overlook before continuing south to grassy Powell Gap at mile 69. I parked in the grassy area on the side of the road.

Grindstone Mountain from Sandy Hollow Overlook
The hike started on the east side of the road at the south end of the overlook. It follows the Appalachian Trail the entire way. From the gap, the trail immediately began a gentle ascent through beautiful fall forest. The forest floor was damp from recent rain and was covered with a layer of freshly fallen leaves. I made my way quickly through the forest and up a slightly steeper ascent before the trail leveled out on top of the ridge. Mountain laurel surrounded many areas of the trail: this hike would be fun in the spring. I found it enjoyable to hike through the autumn forest.


On the Appalachian Trail
A half mile from the trailhead, I reached a small greenstone outcrop on the left side of the trail. I hung around and enjoyed the view briefly. The view here was fairly limited and was fairly similar to the view from nearby Bacon Hollow Overlook. I could see down into Bacon Hollow and the long ridge of Hightop dominated on to the north. Bacon Hollow Overlook and Skyline Drive were also visible. The Appalachian Trail continued south from the viewpoint toward Flattop Mountain, but I turned around here and returned to my car.


Bacon Hollow from the rock viewpoint

Little Calf Mountain

View southeast from Little Calf Mountain
1 mile round trip, 380 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy

Little Calf Mountain is a very short hike at the southern end of the park to a decent view. It is the companion hike to Bear Den Mountain. While I believe that all of the hikes in Shenandoah are worthwhile, this is not a trail that I would recommend strongly to first time visitors, as it does not have some of immediate visual appeal of some other hikes. This hike is listed as being 2 miles round trip with over 500 feet elevation gain in the online version of the Guide to Shenandoah National Park. That is incorrect. In the first edition of his guide, Henry Heatwole described a hike from Beagle Gap to the summit of Calf Mountain itself that was 2 miles round trip. However, there are no longer views from the summit of Calf Mountain, so in the online edition, the hike is only described to the summit of Little Calf Mountain, which still has views.

I did this hike on a muggy weekday afternoon in August, towards the end of my summer in Charlottesville. I found a friend who I had just started hiking with the prior week and headed to the park on I-64. We headed north five miles on Skyline Drive to the parking area at Beagle Gap, at mile 99, which was empty.

The park is incredibly narrow here: in fact, it's barely wider than Skyline Drive! So as soon as we got onto the Appalachian Trail heading north from Beagle Gap, we left the park, passing through a gate and into a wide, grassy field. After cutting through the field, the trail entered a young forest and began to climb gently. After a little over a quarter mile from the trailhead, we came to an unsigned spur trail heading to the left. Although it was not well marked, it was fairly noticeable and there was a blaze on a rock at the intersection. This fairly level trail cut through brush and forest and in 0.2 miles reached the summit of Little Calf Mountain.

The summit was rounded and grassy. We enjoyed the breeze on the rather humid day and the hazy views. Unfortunately, I can't give you a very detailed description of the view because the haze that day was quite heavy. We could see Bear Den and Scott Mountain to the south and part of Rockfish Valley as well, and I would imagine that Waynesboro, Cellar Mountain, and perhaps Humpback are visible on a clear day, but we couldn't see that far.

On the return, we took a wider fire road back. The grass-covered road wound north for a little while before rejoining the Appalachian Trail, which we followed back to Beagle Gap. Stormy clouds rolled in as we got ready to head out and a brief rain spell occurred on our way back to Rockfish Gap.


Beagle Gap

Bear Den Mountain

View of Humpback Mountain and Devil's Knob from Bear Den Mountain
1.2 miles round trip, 350 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Trailhead on Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

This is not one of the most exciting hikes in Shenandoah. It is certainly pleasant and there are some interesting views, but I would not recommend this as an introduction to the park; it is probably better for hikers more familiar with the park who want to check out some different perspectives on the Blue Ridge. Bear Den is on a low section of the range and the summit is actually outside the park, despite the hike starting on Skyline Drive.

I did this hike on my busiest weekend of the year in December. Because of its proximity to Charlottesville, I figured I could do this hike and get back to homework within two hours, which ended up being a fair assessment. I left Charlottesville early in the morning, headed up I-64 to Rockfish Gap, and drove five miles into the empty park to the trailhead. The trailhead is at mile 99 of Skyline Drive, at Beagle Gap.

From the Beagle Gap parking area, I crossed the drive and walked through a gate in the fence onto the Appalachian Trail. At this point, Shenandoah National Park is literally just Skyline Drive and the few yards of land immediately bordering it. Thus, as soon as the trail left the drive, it headed on non-federal land. I hiked up the slight incline through the grassy field at Beagle Gap, which is maintained by mowing. Early morning sunlight lit the scene around me.


The fields at Beagle Gap
The Appalachian Trail then entered a short, fairly young forest. The trail was crunchy with needle ice, which had formed in the cold of the previous night. About 0.3 miles out from Beagle Gap, a spur trail broke off to the left. I followed that trail into a wide, open mountaintop brush area. The brush here was waist to chest-high but sparse, so there were views into the Piedmont and of Rockfish Valley and Castle Rock. Looking further south, I could also see the radio antennas atop Bear Den Mountain.


The radio towers atop Bear Den
After another ascent on the Appalachian Trail through a young forest, I reached the mountaintop, which was dominated by a number of large radio installations by the Virginia State Police. Most of the vegetation at the very top had been cleared for the radio towers, so there were views in various directions. To the west, a section of Shenandoah Valley was visible through a power line cut. To the east, parts of the Piedmont could be seen. The two most remarkable views were to the north and south: the flat, grassy summit of Little Calf Mountain was visible directly to the north and to the south lay massive Humpback Mountain. This view of Humpback Mountain was a rarity: I have not found many other viewpoints of the mountain from the Blue Ridge on the north side that are so close to the mountain.

One of the odder things at the top of Bear Den was a ring of tractor seats buried into the ground. Why are there tractor seats atop Bear Den? I'm not sure. The seats made a good rest spot before I headed back to Beagle Gap to finish this short hike.

Tractor seats atop Bear Den Mountain

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Big Branch Falls

Big Branch Falls
4.8 miles round trip, 500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, due to multiple river crossings that can be treacherous in high water
Access: No park pass required

Big Branch Falls is a pleasant and easy hike close to Charlottesville that leads along a playful stream to a small waterfall in the South District of Shenandoah. Hiking Upward refers to this hike as "Moorman's River," but I have chosen to refer to it as the Big Branch Falls hike instead as Big Branch Falls is the destination of this hike. The hike follows the North Fork Moormans River for most of the way. Although Big Run may have the biggest watershed entirely within in the park, I am almost sure that the combined watershed of the North and South Fork Moormans River, which is not entirely in the park, is larger.

I headed out to do this hike on an overcast April morning with a friend. Spring was in full swing in the Piedmont: every tree was a firework of pale green or vivid pink. The mountains themselves- Bucks Elbow and Pasture Fence, the two peaks usually visible along Garth Road- were enshrouded in clouds. Past White Hall, the road narrowed and crossed Moormans River four times while following the river gap between Pasture Fence and Bucks Elbow. We stopped briefly at the Sugar Hollow Dam to admire the calm waters of the Charlottesville Reservoir. The clouds at the Blue Ridge crest were a little higher, so we could see the gradual ascent of the green toward the summits of the Appalachians.


Charlottesville Reservoir

We arrived at the trailhead soon afterward. The trailhead is a little past the end of the Charlottesville Reservoir on Route 614, which is named Sugar Hollow Rd. west of White Hall and Garth Road east of White Hall. Garth Road is a continuation of Barracks Rd. from Charlottesville. There is plenty of parking at the trailhead. The trailhead is not, however, at the end of the road: the gravel road continues on another 0.4 miles to a second parking lot, which can shave 0.8 miles round trip off the hike, but the last stretch of road is quite rough.

We followed the road along the North Fork Moormans River past the second parking area onto a former fire road. The road followed the east bank of the river along the foot of Pasture Fence Mountain. In early spring, the trail was beautiful: blooming redbud popped up often along the trail and the fresh green brush sprouted from the renascent forest floor. The North Fork Moormans River was very attractive too: it made many small plunges and jumps as it descended happily toward the Piedmont.


Virginia spring

We followed the river north between Pasture Fence Mountain and the Blue Ridge crest. A little less than a mile into the hike, the trail made its first river crossing. This crossing is quite wide. In the summer, it may be possible to cross easily, but during my hike in spring, the water was knee-deep. We waded across the river and admired the setting before heading onward. The crossing occurred where a set of greenstone cliffs rose from the east bank of the river. The river paused beneath the cliffs to form a placid pool.


North Fork Moormans River
Very soon afterward, we came upon another crossing, equally deep and equally scenic. A wide, deep pool and a small cascade lay directly upstream of where we waded through the frigid river. A cloud-enveloped ridge and blooming rosebud made the scene even more remarkable.

The trail made one more crossing, this time shallower and less difficult. Afterward, the trail stuck to the west bank of the river. We ascended and descended hilly parts of the trail, which sometimes followed the river and other times swung away to head through pine forests. At one point, we saw a small waterfall through the trees on the slope of Pasture Fence Mountain. I plan to return one day to bushwhack to that waterfall- let me know if you are interested!

We finally arrived at the intersection with the Big Branch spur. That trail led a short tenth of a mile past numerous small cascades to Big Branch Falls. The waterfall was a roughly 25-foot high drop down a greenstone face into a pretty pool. I scrambled onto the rocks right next to the waterfall and found the erosion of the rock by the Big Branch to be very remarkable. The water plunges down the face of the rock at the same angle that the rock itself is set. This causes the rock to erode in a manner that might be comparable to peeling an onion: layers of the greenstone are peeled off by the erosive force of water, rather than cut through by the falling water.

On our return trip, we decided to avoid two of the river crossings by following a small path that cut along the top of the cliffs on the east bank of the river. This ended being a very good idea: not only did we not have to cross the river, but the scenery on this trail was much more remarkable. Atop the cliffs, we could see the river with the Blue Ridge crest rising above it.


North Fork Moormans River
The clifftops were also dotted with red columbine. Species after species of wildflowers were blooming in the new Appalachian spring.

Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadenesis)