Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Rapidan Camp Loop

Rhododendrum on the Cat Knob Trail
7.4 mile loop, 1420 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The Rapidan Camp Loop is a hike through a variety of terrain, scenery, and history. The literal high point of the hike is the forested summit of Hazeltop, the third highest peak in the park. The trail also visits a former hemlock forest, a presidential retreat used by Herbert Hoover, and a small waterfall, all in the headwaters of the Rapidan River, the biggest tributary of the Rappahannock, one of Virginia's most significant and historic rivers.

On an early May morning, I decided (unwisely) to take a brief, or perhaps not-so-brief, break from studying for finals and go hiking. At a predawn hour, I drove through the dark and misty forest and pastureland on US 29 and US 33 to reach Swift Run Gap about 10 minutes before sunrise. I had hoped to watch the sun rise from the stretch of Skyline Drive directly south of Swift Run Gap that has a good view down into the Swift Run valley, but that ended up being impractical when I realized that the sunrise would be blocked by Saddleback Mountain, to the north and east of the Swift Run valley.

I made my way north on Skyline toward Milam Gap but found that most of the overlooks were closed for renovations. I stopped at the Point to catch the low-angle rays of sunlight shining on Massanutten and Grindstone Mountains. I continued on to Big Meadows to see if any wildflowers were in bloom on the meadow but found it still rather barren.

Morning light at the Point
I returned to Milam Gap, at around milepost 57 of Skyline Drive, to start my hike. Rather than going to Rapidan Camp first and finishing the loop afterward, I chose to hike up Hazeltop first and finish with Rapidan Camp.

From the parking area, I crossed Skyline Drive and followed the white-blazed Appalachian Trail south. The trail climbed fairly gently through the forest, with various small greenstone outcroppings popping up on either side of the trail and many geraniums, lilies, and trillium blooming along the trail. The trillium became increasingly plentiful and colorful as I approached the summit of Hazeltop; at the summit of Hazeltop, there were many lilies and trillium spread across the forested ridgetop. The leaves at 3800 feet had not fully come out yet, so at the summit, I did have some views through the trees to the east of the antennas at the top of Fork Mountain and of Jones Mountain, Doubletop, and Old Rag. It was only apparent that I had passed the summit of Hazeltop when the trail began descending. The summit of Hazeltop was about 2 miles from Milam Gap.

Trillium on Hazeltop
The descent on the south side of Hazeltop was much steeper than the gentle ascent from the north. The trail dropped through the forest towards Bootens Gap, but reached an intersection with the Cat Knob Trail before reaching Bootens Gap. I followed the Cat Knob Trail east (to the left) at the intersection. This trail was fairly flat, with just a few gentle ascents and a couple more descents, as it followed the southern side of a ridge of Hazeltop. Although the trail here wound through the forest, occasional openings in the trees gave views of Bluff Mountain, the Conway River watershed, and Bearfence Mountain. Rhododendron was also fairly plentiful near the trail. The geology here was also quite fascinating: the more ragged greenstone outcrops near Hazeltop's summit gave way to more rounded granite/diorite type rocks. A couple of large granite/diorite chunks poked out to the side of the trail, but none protruded enough to give very wide views. Eventually, a mile from the AT, the trail swung downhill and north, descending to Laurel Gap, the low point between Hazeltop and Cat Knob.

View from the Cat Knob Trail
At Laurel Gap, I came to the intersection of the Cat Knob Trail with the Laurel Prong Trail. I headed left and downhill on the Laurel Prong Trail, which immediately began descending from the gap. A rather steep descent followed. A little into the descent from Laurel Gap, it became apparent why many of the natural features in the area had received their name: the trail cut into a huge, dense thicket of mountain laurel. Much of the mountain laurel was on the cusp of blooming, but had not bloomed yet.

Further down the Laurel Prong trail, hemlocks- or rather, dead hemlocks- began showing up around the trail. At first the hemlock skeletons were small, but farther down the Laurel Prong, the hemlocks were quite large. I saw a few young living hemlocks but all of the larger hemlocks were dead. The great hemlock forests of the Blue Ridge are one of the many sad stories of the park: eastern hemlocks, once of the greatest and proudest trees of the park, have been almost entirely wiped out of Shenandoah by the hemlock woolly adelgid. The woolly adelgid is a small insect that feeds on hemlocks and injects the trees with toxins as they feed. The presence of the woolly adelgid causes large hemlocks to first change color and later die. Hemlocks infested with the wooly adelgid have numerous white egg sacs of the adelgid scattered over their needles. In Shenandoah, the hemlock used to be one of the giants of the forest. While many of the original old growth hemlocks were logged by the turn of the twentieth century, a small grove of colossal ancient hemlocks, protected from the axes of men, survived on the slopes of Stony Man Mountain until the 1980s, when they succumbed to the woolly adelgid. In the valley of the Laurel Prong, the many huge hemlocks met a similar fate.

Hemlock skeletons in the hollow of the Laurel Prong
The trail began crossing numerous streams. I imagine that many of these streams would be dry in summer, but in spring, they were all quite full: in fact, the trail itself seemed to be a stream at times. At the junction of the trail with the Fork Mountain Trail, I followed the Fork Mountain Trail briefly to its crossing of Laurel Prong to admire the growing stream, before returning to the Laurel Prong Trail and continuing on my way toward Rapidan Camp. The trail turned into a wide fire road and finally reached a junction with the Rapidan Fire Road two miles from Laurel Gap.

Rapidan Camp, or Camp Hoover, is a former presidential retreat located near the headwaters of the Rapidan River. President Herbert Hoover established the camp as a summer getaway from the White House. The Hoovers visited the camp to fish, escape the heat, and make weighty decisions with foreign dignitaries. Hoover offered the camp as a permanent retreat for future presidents, but Franklin D. Roosevelt found the camp rather inaccessible and instead opted to build his own retreat, Shangri-La (now Camp David) at Catoctin Mountain. The valley of the Rapidan River once offered a significant respite from the summer heat in Virginia and DC due to the shade of the giant hemlocks in the valley; however, the death of those hemlocks have opened up the forest canopy significantly, so the camp probably has a much different feel now than it did when Hoover visited. After being abandoned as a presidential retreat, this spot was at times a Boy Scouts camp, at times a getaway for Jimmy Carter and later Al Gore, and now a preserved historic site.

While many of the original structures at Rapidan Camp have been removed, a few remain: The Prime Minister, which housed distinguished guests, and the Brown House, the Hoovers' residence that was the mountain counterpart to the White House. The Brown House sits just above the confluence of the babbling Mill and Laurel Prongs of the Rapidan River.

The Brown House, Rapidan Camp
Tours are offered at Rapidan Camp during the summer, but I arrived too early in the day to catch any, so after wandering around the area for a bit I headed up the Mill Prong Trail. The Mill Prong Trail immediately began an ascent from the camp, following its namesake branch of the Rapidan. After a little climbing and a crossing, I came upon Big Rock Falls, a 15 to 20 foot waterfall on the Mill Prong that appropriately tumbled down a big rock into a wide pool.

Big Rock Falls on the Mill Prong of the Rapidan
Past Big Rock Falls, the trail climbed steadily back to Milam Gap, making another stream crossing and passing through more rich Shenandoah forest.

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