Thursday, October 31, 2013

Trayfoot Mountain-Paine Run

View of Trayfoot Mountain from Blackrock
10.4 miles loop, 2350 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, due to elevation gain and length
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

This hike visits one of the most physically impressive mountains in the South District of Shenandoah: Trayfoot Mountain. Trayfoot Mountain is the third highest peak in the South District, after Hightop and Big Flat Mountain, but as it stands out from the main crest of the Blue Ridge, it is a much more noticeable. Trayfoot also has an excitingly sharp profile when viewed either from the north or south- the mountain is essentially a long fin of rock that, when viewed edgewise, looks like a sharp pyramidal peak. The peak stands out of the Blue Ridge when viewed from the south around Humpback or the Priest; it also stands out sharply when viewed from the north around Hightop or the Central District. This long loop follows the fin-like ridge of Trayfoot down to Paine Run and back up to Skyline Drive.

This is not a hike I'd recommend to most park visitors, though, as it is quite long and the biggest payoff the hike comes half a mile from Skyline Drive. However, this is a good hike for hikers who are already fairly familiar with the park and want to explore some of the park's most remote reaches. I did not see a single other person in the entire 10 mile hike.

I headed to Trayfoot in mid-December as a break from my semester-end exams. It was a partly cloudy and fairly cold day and, as it was fairly near solstice, the sunlight was brief. I left Charlottesville mid-morning, heading west on I-64 to Rockfish Gap and then following the signs to Skyline Drive; I then drove north to about milepost 87, where I parked at Blackrock Gap. I crossed the road from the lot and hopped on the Appalachian Trail heading north, which ran close by to the road atop a small ridge.

The Appalachian Trail parallel to Skyline Drive
After a fifth of a mile, the trail crossed Skyline Drive and began to follow a ridge slowly up the side of Blackrock. At times, I could see across the hollow to the west to Trayfoot Mountain's long ridge. About half mile after crossing Skyline Drive, I came to a spur for Blackrock Hut. I took the fifth of a mile detour downhill to the shelter, which was near a spring. I rested for a short while in the hut, reading a few entries in the Hut's logbook of passing hikers before I headed back up to the AT.

Blackrock Hut
Along the spur to the shelter, I noticed that much of the slopes of Blackrock showed signs of fire. I know that the park used prescribed burns on the Skyline Drive side of Blackrock in the mid-2000's, but I'm not sure whether or not these burns were part of the same program. Prescribed burns are a fire management tool to remove underbrush and cluttered vegetation through managed fires, emulating natural fire cycles that have been suppressed. After returning to the AT, I reached a junction, with two trails (a horse trail and the AT) both leading to Blackrock. I chose to stick on the AT. The AT began climbing fairly steeply through a burn area, with low vegetation around the trail and improving views into Paine Run Hollow when I looked back.

The burnt forest near Blackrock

Before I knew it, the AT had brought me to Blackrock. After passing a trail junction with a fire road, I followed the white blazes out onto the huge talus slope, the most spectacular viewpoint in the South District of Shenandoah (I often recommend the short Blackrock hike to visitors I meet at overlooks). I scrambled off the trail and into the massive boulder field of sedimentary rocks. Atop Blackrock, I had the normal commanding view down two valleys (Paine Run and Madison Run), of Rocks Mountain to the south and Humpback and the Priest to the way south, and Rockytop and Big Flat to the north and the Central District to the way north. Most prominent was the bulky mass of Trayfoot Mountain right across a low saddle. I enjoyed the view for a little while before returning to the AT and then taking the junction for the Trayfoot Mountain Trail in the middle of the boulder field. The Trayfoot Mountain trail cut through even more boulders, at one point passing between two large adjacent rocks and yielding more views of Massanutten Mountain and Rocks Mountain before re-entering the forest.

Blackrock

From here, the trail followed the top of the ridge between Blackrock and Trayfoot, dipping into the saddle between the peaks before beginning a climb up Trayfoot. Not long past the saddle, the trail began to cut to the right of the ridge and was soon far below Trayfoot's peak. After a little more ascent, the trail intersected the Furnace Mountain Trail a little over a half mile from Blackrock. Here, I turned left, continuing on the broad trail up to the summit of Trayfoot Mountain. Here, the trail became much more direct, making a push up the steep side of the mountain before gaining the top of the ridge and summit of Trayfoot Mountain.

Trayfoot's summit is not much to look at: a wooded, long ridge, with moderate drop-offs to either side, with no major outcrops and no views to speak of. Earlier in the park's history, there was a fire lookout at the peak. However, as fire lookouts fell out of use and the movement to restore the park's remaining wilderness surged, the lookout atop Trayfoot was removed. While I appreciate that Trayfoot is now in much of its natural state, I can't help but feel sad that I never got to climb atop the lookout here when it existed. Trayfoot's prominent position in the South District, on the edge of Shenandoah Valley, would probably have made the views from a lookout atop this mountain second to none.

The summit ridge of Trayfoot

However, that didn't mean there were no views on Trayfoot. As I followed the trail along the top of the ridge, I passed quite a few spots where there would be a large enough gap in the trees to see a good portion of the South District. Visiting during spring or summer, these views would likely have been blocked by the foliage; however, the bare trees in winter meant that I was able to see through these gaps to Bucks Elbow Mountain, Turk Mountain, Humpback and the Priest, and even Carters Mountain and Charlottesville.

View from Trayfoot Mountain
After I passed the summit, I enjoyed a mile of fairly flat and scenic walking along Trayfoot's summit ridge. After this flat section ended, the trail veered off to the right as it began descending. Looking through the trees on either side of the trail, I saw many ridges and partial views that I had never seen before in the park- hiking in such a remote and unique area gave a new perspective on many things.

As I continued descending, I began stumbling upon some blocks of Erwin Quartzite, the formation that makes up the westernmost edge of the Blue Ridge in the South District, including Trayfoot's ridges. Some of these rocks exhibited Skolithos, fossilized traces of Cambrian Era worms.

Skolithos in the sandstone on Trayfoot
Soon, the trail was atop a ridge that was adjacent to Shenandoah Valley. The valley was occasionally visible through the forest, though sometimes the view was blocked by large sandstone outcrops that lined the trail. The descent was fairly steady, but was not too bad- the trail was not terribly rocky. However, the many fallen leaves on the ground did make the going occasionally slippery.

Sandstone outcrops along the trail
I was unexpectedly rewarded with some views before the final portion of the descent. A set of quartzite outcrops to the left of the trail provided a decent view into Paine Run Hollow. To the left of the view, part of Trayfoot's ridge was visible, although the summit was not. Across the hollow, I could see Skyline Drive as it snaked past Horsehead Overlook. On the right was Rocks Mountain and Calvary Rocks, now much closer than it had looked earlier in the day. As I enjoyed the view, I wondered how many visitors had ever made it out to this corner of the park to see Paine Run Hollow from this perspective- probably not many.

Trayfoot Mountain from a lower viewpoint

After this viewpoint, I came to another viewpoint a half mile later, at the very end of the ridge that I had spent the past three miles or so following. Here, a couple of outcrops stuck out like a prow of a ship from the southern terminus of the ridge. I scrambled across the narrow line of rocks to a spectacular point above Paine Run. I could see Buzzard Rock directly across the hollow. To the right of Buzzard Rock was the great expanse of Shenandoah Valley, with Elliott Knob rising high behind it to the southwest. Although I could see farms and houses nearby in the Shenandoah Valley, the remoteness of this spot from Skyline Drive and the sharp wind that was blowing past the rocks made this spot feel incredibly wild.

Buzzard Rock

At this point, I realized it was getting a little late in the day, and that I had just finished over half of the hike. So I picked up the pace and quickly made my way down into Paine Run Hollow, switchbacking once down the side of the hollow to reach a junction with the Paine Run Fire Road at the foot of Buzzard Rock. At the beginning of the year, I had climbed Buzzard Rock by accessing this area from Shenandoah Valley; now, at the year's end, I had reached the same remote spot by hiking in from Skyline Drive. I turned left on the fire road, continuing on the counterclockwise loop. After passing the trail junction, the Paine Run Fire Road roughly followed the hollow's principal waterway, approaching Paine Run and crossing it easily. However, after about half a mile, the trail began venturing away from the run and never returned to it.

Paine Run
The Paine Run trail was fairly uneventful. It passed mainly through forest, sometimes entering clusters of pines or mountain laurel. I made quick progress up the trail to make sure that I would get back to my car before the sun set and Skyline Drive closed. The trail generally ascended mildly, as it was now climbing back towards Skyline Drive.

The trail up Paine Run

I made good enough progress that before I knew it, I had traveled 2.7 miles from the junction with the Trayfoot Mountain Trail. Since I still had some time, I decided to take a last detour. As the trail began to steepen and climb, it made a huge switchback toward the right. At the switchback, I followed a path that led forward instead of following the switchback backward; after about an eighth of a mile, this muddy path dead-ended near a very muddy patch of dirt.

This very muddy patch of dirt was once the site of the Blackrock Springs Hotel. Before the park was established, well-to-do Washingtonians and Virginians used to travel by horse up the trail I had just hiked to Blackrock Springs, a resort and spa. The waters of Blackrock Springs reportedly had strong healing powers; more likely, frail nineteenth-century city folk benefited from the exercise and cleaner air they would've found here. The hike from the former hotel to Blackrock itself was quite popular, by accounts obtained by Darwin Lambert and Henry Heatwole in their exhaustive documentation of the park and its history. Blackrock Springs preceded Skyland as a tourist draw and thus may be the earliest tourist operation in the current park's boundaries. There's not much to see at the site today; with the exception of some flat areas and a bit of crumbling wall along the old road, there are few remnants of the former resort.

Site of the former Blackrock Springs Hotel

After returning to the trail, I started heading uphill on the switchback. This long switchback was quite steep (or at least seemed like it after a long hike). The trail then made another and final switchback as it continued to ascend; finally, after around a mile's hiking from the Blackrock Springs detour, I saw my car in the distance and a minute later arrived back at the parking lot. On my way out of the park, I stopped at some overlooks to appreciate the late afternoon sunlight on my favorite peaks and the Shenandoah Valley below.

Late day lighting at Riprap Overlook

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Dobie Mountain

Glass Hollow Overlook
4.5 miles loop, 1100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Trailhead off Blue Ridge Parkway, no fee required

Dobie Mountain is the summit that lies just to the north of the ultra-popular Humpback Rocks. The hike to Dobie Mountain starts from the same trailhead- but unlike Humpback, this trail sees much less traffic. That's a pity, because it is a very enjoyable short hike, with one very good viewpoint, plenty of pretty woods studded with greenstone outcrops, and the remnants of a small plane that crashed on the mountains from the 1960s. The trailhead is easy to find and there are few hikes closer to Charlottesville, so there's little reason why any student at UVA should leave the school without having hiked this trail in addition to Humpback.

This hike has also been described by Hiking Upward and Virginia Trail Guide, both of which recommend taking a spur trail down to an AT shelter. I skipped that detour to shorten the hike and cut back on the elevation gain; however, I have included in this post a description of a half-mile detour down the AT to a view of Bear Den and Scott Mountain. If this detour is skipped (the detour is not highly recommended, so if you skip it you won't miss out on the hike's highlights), you will be able to complete this hike in 3.6 miles with 800 feet elevation gain.

I hiked this loop clockwise on a late September day. I headed out from Charlottesville early on the morning on I-64, heading west to exit 99 and following the signs onto US 250 and then onto the Blue Ridge Parkway south. Five miles south of the parkway, I parked in the Humpback Gap trailhead on the left side of the road. Then, I walked over to the north end of the parking lot (the end opposite from the Humpback Rocks sign) and found signs for the Albright Loop Trail. I followed the blue-blazed Albright Trail into the forest, soon reaching a junction for the two sides of the loop; I followed the left side. This trail took me on a very gentle ascent through the September forest. Mushrooms were quite common along the way.

Mushrooms on the forest floor
A mere two-thirds mile into the hike, the trail passed over the fairly flat summit of Dobie Mountain. There was no view; the mountain was, however, very prettily wooded, with a line of small greenstone outcrops sticking out in the woods. Just past the summit, I saw one interesting tree growing directly out of the rock itself.

Around the summit
After passing the summit, the trail began a gradual downhill that steepened as it went on. Eventually, the trail broke into switchbacks. Once the switchbacks started, I began looking for a side trail to the plane crash site. If you are going dowhill, the side trail will head uphill and be to your right (so you don't need to look for it when uphill is to your left). If the trail has flattened out and the switchbacks have ended, you've gone too far. If you see a side trail heading to the right, then, when you look up, you should also be able to catch a glimpse of the wreckage.

A short uphill brought me next to the final bits of fuselage left from the Beechcraft Bonanza. There's not much left of it- please respect the site and don't remove anything if you visit. This aircraft is one of the many downed aircraft in the Blue Ridge. When navigation aids in aviation were primitive in the 1950s and 60s, many crashes occurred in the Blue Ridge. During times of heavy fog, pilots often had to rely on dead reckoning while flying through the mountains or while landing in Charlottesville or other nearby airports. As a result, the mountains around Rockfish Gap are littered with planes. The Bonanza on Dobie Mountain is, by my understanding, the most easily accessible plane wreckage near Charlottesville. Two other major crash sites nearby include a military plane on Humpback Mountain and the most notorious, a Piedmont Airlines Douglas DC-3 that crashed in 1959 on Bucks Elbow Mountain during its descent into Charlottesville.

The Dobie Mountain plane wreckage
Again, if you visit this site, respect it. Don't tamper with or remove anything. Scavenging at sites like these is a major problem and is illegal.

Continuing past the wreckage, the trail made a final switchback in descent before flattening out, following the side of the mountain until it intersected with the Appalachian Trail about a half mile later. Here, there were two choices: head north, down the side of the mountain, or south, alongside the mountain. If you plan to hike this as the shorter 3.6-mile version, turn right and head south; otherwise, turn north and descend on the AT. After a half mile of descent down some switchbacks, I came to a very small clearing with a view north to Bear Den and Scott Mountains in Shenandoah. By continuing farther, you can reach an AT shelter; I turned around here, my main interest being in this view from a rare angle. Ten minutes of uphill later, I was back at the trail junction and this time took the AT south.

View north from the AT
After heading south on the AT for about a half mile from the junction and staying on the AT after reaching its junction with the return loop of the Albright Trail, I came to a sign on the left of the trail that stated "Overlook." I turned onto this narrower trail and followed it downhill about a tenth of a mile to a large exposed rock- Glass Hollow Overlook. From this dome-like rock, there was a fairly expansive 180-degree view into Rockfish Valley. To the right, I could see top of Humpback Mountain and right next to it, Humpback Rocks. I enjoyed the view here for about 20 minutes before I returned to the AT.

Humpback Mountain from Glass Hollow Overlook

Glass Hollow Overlook
The remainder of the hike was quite easy: I followed the AT south for a little over a half mile over fairly level terrain before intersecting with the old Howardsville Turnpike. I left the AT here by turning right onto this rocky but wide path and following it uphill for a quarter mile back up to the Humpback Gap parking area. It was an extremely pleasant hike, with plenty of things to see for minimal effort.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Mount Pleasant

Looking south to Big Rocky Row and Apple Orchard Mountain
5.5 miles loop, 1350 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate; short section of rock scrambling necessary to reach the west summit
Access: Good unpaved road to trailhead

Mt. Pleasant is one of the tallest, most commanding, and most scenic mountains of the Blue Ridge north of Roanoke. At 4060 feet, Mt. Pleasant is the third highest peak in the Blue Ridge north of the James River; its double summits tower over Amherst County and the upper reaches of the Buffalo River. Rocky cliffs line its pyramidal peak, and from the two summits, there is a combined 360-degree view of the great Blue Ridge peaks and the Piedmont. The 5.5-mile Henry Lanum Loop Trail, which visits Mt. Pleasant and neighboring Pompey Mountain, gives fairly easy access to Pleasant's summit, providing an astounding view for a minor exertion. It's a must-do for hikers base in Charlottesville, Lynchburg, or Lexington.

I did this hike with a friend during peak fall foliage season, during the third weekend of October when the view from Mt. Pleasant was so fiery red that the entire state seemed like it might have been on fire. We headed south out of Charlottesville on US 29 past Lovingston to Amherst, following essentially the same route I detailed earlier in my Cold Mountain post. We exited onto US 29 Business at Amherst and drove into the town; we then turned right at the traffic circle where 29 Business intersected US 60 to take US 60 west. From here, US 60 wound through the Amherst countryside at the foot of Mt. Pleasant until climbing slowly into the Blue Ridge. We eventually turned off the very windy road at Coffeytown Road (Route 634) and drove up that up to an intersection with Wiggins Spring Road, where we took the right fork onto Wiggins Spring, following the signs for the Mt. Pleasant Scenic Area. Wiggins Springs Road eventually turned into a gravel road, getting progressively bumpier as it climbed uphill towards Hog Camp Gap. Just past Hog Camp Gap, we turned off into a parking area for Mt. Pleasant Scenic Area to the right of the road.

Parking in the small lot, we followed the right branch of the Henry Lanum Loop Trail, a flat, broad trail through the autumn woods. At first, the trail stayed either flat, or slightly downhill and was simply a pleasant woods walk. The pyramidal peak of Mt. Pleasant loomed in front of us as sunlight set the trees ablaze in color. After about a mile in, the trail veered uphill and began a steady, but not terribly taxing ascent. At times, looking through the woods to the right, we could see some of the nearby peaks, a little blocked out by trees.

On the Lanum Trail
Before we knew it, the trail had brought us all the way up to the ridgeline of Mt. Pleasant, about 2 miles into the hike. We turned right at the trail junction, leaving the loop trail to ascend Mt. Pleasant. This spur trail was possibly one of the steepest parts of the hike, climbing fairly quickly as it switchbacked up to a saddle between the two summits of Mt. Pleasant. Here, two trails branched off in either direction, visiting both summits of the mountain. We visited the west summit first: from the saddle, this trail climbed onto a narrow ridge with occasional views, following the ridgetop until it dead-ended at a massive set of granite boulders. With a bit of help from our arms, we scrambled onto the granite and into a jaw-dropping view. Beyond the edge of the granite outcrops, the ground dropped away. A deep hollow separated the mountain from nearby Cold Mountain and its summit meadows. Past Cold Mountain and its neighbor Bald Knob, there was an unforgettable vista of the Blue Ridge stretching into the distance and out of sight, with Big Rocky Row sticking out and behind it Apple Orchard Mountain, the most prominent peak in Virginia, towering above the gap that the ancient James River has cut through the Blue Ridge. Tobacco Row Mountain rose out of the Piedmont when we looked towards Lynchburg.

View to the northwest
The view across to Cold Mountain
It was extremely windy and chilly, but the view was beautiful enough that we stayed at the overlook for quite a while despite the wind. After enjoying the view for a while, we decided to head to the east summit for lunch before finishing the loop.

While some hiking guides have described the west summit as being the more scenic of the two, I beg to differ. The top of the east summit was crowned with bushy vegetation and outcrops. Here, there was a 180-degree view to the east, directly into the Piedmont. We hiked a little downhill from the summit among the many paths into the bushes and found a nice rock to rest on and eat while enjoying the view. To the east, the mountain dropped away into the Piedmont, which stretched to and past the horizon. To the north we could see the very massive and lordly summit of the Priest and one of its smaller neighbors, the Friar. A bonus: it wasn't windy on the east-facing part of the mountain!

View of the Priest and the Friar towering over the Piedmont
This was certainly one of the most content moments I've spent in Virginia: sitting on a rock atop Mt. Pleasant in the sun, gazing out over the farmlands and woodlands in the state I've come to love very much.

When we backtracked to the top of the east summit, we walked over to some granite outcrops with a view to the south. The view from these rocks was thrilling. A ridge swept down from the nearby west summit straight downhill into the bottom of the hollow as if it were the backbone of the mountain. Enormous granite outcrops stuck out from the woods on the ridge like vertebrae. Once again, the view of Apple Orchard Mountain in the distance dominated.

View south from the East Summit
The rest of the loop was extremely pleasant for this appropriately named hike. After returning from the summit to the loop, we followed the Lanum Trail slowly uphill past the broad summit of Pompey Mountain. A faint, unmarked trail near the summit of Pompey delved into the forest for a hundred meters or so, leading to an outcrop in the middle of the forest; we scrambled onto this outcrop to see the rather limited views of House Mountain to the west.

View from the tiny outcrop atop Pompey Mountain towards House Mountain
From Pompey, we continued downhill along the trail, which dipped down, came up, and dipped down a final time to the parking area in the final 2 miles or so as it followed a ridge. We passed more spectacular trees on the descent and saw many ghostly-looking dying ferns.

Dying ferns on the Lanum Trail during the descent from Pompey Mountain
Mt. Pleasant is unquestionably one of the jewels in Virginia's Blue Ridge crown. Coupled with nearby Cold Mountain, the views and hiking in this part of the mountains are second to none even though they receive fewer visitors than the popular trails in Shenandoah National Park to the north. The drive to the trailhead is a little long and bumpy, but I recommend this hike to everyone. Do it.

Cold Mountain

View north from Cold Mountain: Rocky, Maintop Mountains and the Priest
5.8 miles loop, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Free. Gravel road to trailhead is bumpy.

The grassy meadows atop Cold Mountain make the peak one of the most unique in the Blue Ridge around Charlottesville. The mountain exhibits a bald-like characteristic similar to the balds found in North Carolina and further south, although the meadows at Cold Mountain require slightly more maintenance. This hike loops around the south slope of the mountain before climbing up to the grassy summit with its sweeping views of 4000-foot Blue Ridge peaks. Confusingly, the peak is marked as both Cole Mountain and Cold Mountain on maps; the USGS refers to the mountain as Cole Mountain, but since most hikers in Virginia know this bald peak as Cold Mountain, I'll use that name here as well. Along with nearby hike to Mount Pleasant, this hike provides some of the best views in this part of the Blue Ridge.

I did this hike with a good friend on a summery May day, when the air was humid and felt like August. After picking up some Bodo's for lunch, we headed south out of Charlottesville on US 29 past Lovingston to Amherst, where we exited onto US 29 Business and drove into the town; we then turned right at the traffic circle where 29 Business intersected US 60 to take US 60 west. From here, US 60 wound through the Amherst countryside at the foot of Mt. Pleasant until climbing slowly into the Blue Ridge. We eventually turned off the very windy road at Coffeytown Road (Route 634) and drove up that up to an intersection with Wiggins Spring Road, where we took the right fork onto Wiggins Spring, following the signs for the Mt. Pleasant Scenic Area. Wiggins Springs Road eventually turned into a gravel road, getting progressively bumpier as it climbed uphill towards Hog Camp Gap. We parked in the parking area to the left of the road at Hog Camp Gap, where Wiggins Spring Road intersects the Appalachian Trail.

From Hog Camp Gap, we continued to follow Wiggins Spring Road on foot for 0.2 miles past the gap to the trailhead for the Old Hotel Trail, which starts as an overgrown former road heading to the right from Wiggins Spring Road. The turnoff for the Old Hotel Trail comes just before the turnoff for car parking for the Mt. Pleasant hike. The wide, grassy trail begins by paralleling the gravel road to the Mt. Pleasant parking area, with cars parked at the Henry Lanum Trailhead in sight. We then followed the Old Hotel Trail to the right and began a gradual descent.

Old Hotel Trail
After a mile or so from the trailhead, we wandered through a widening mountain slope: first, the woods thinned and the brush thickened, then, views of the peak of Mt. Pleasant started emerging. As we continued along, the grassy trail began to climb, soon entering a broad clearing. The trail followed the bottom of the clearing; there were few views, as most of the cleared land lay uphill of the trail. However, the wide grassy clearing, dotted with trees with fresh foliage, was still a very pretty sight without any wide views. We hiked through the clearing and eventually began another short climb that ended at a flat ridgetop where the spacing between trees was quite wide and there was a large possible campsite with a fire ring. The trail out of this wide campsite area was not immediately obvious, but, looking for the blue blazes, we eventually found the trail and followed it onward.

Clearing along the Old Hotel Trail
Passing the campsite, the trail began to follow the south side of Cold Mountain. At first, the trail was fairly level, but after a while it began a fairly steady descent on the wooded mountainside. The trail passed alternately through drier areas with mountain laurel and wetter areas where ferns coated the forest floor, before descending even further into a small stream valley. The downhill ended as the trail neared the stream and we soon found ourselves on a gentle ascent near the stream, crossing it and then passing Cow Camp Shelter. Many May wildflowers were blooming either along or near the trail during this stretch; we passed lots of phlox and saw lots of mountain laurel that were on the cusp of blooming.

Cow Camp Shelter
Phlox along the trail
Up to this point, we had the hike entirely to ourselves; but as we began the steady ascent up from Cow Camp Shelter to the AT, we began running into a few thru-hikers headed to the hut. The trail made a switchback as it climbed up from the shelter towards Cow Camp Gap, passing through beautiful swaths of wildflowers along the trail.

Flowers along the trail to Cow Camp Gap

After a fairly steady ascent, we came to Cow Camp Gap and the intersection with the AT, about 3.4 miles from the trailhead at Hog Camp Gap. From here, a trail sign pointing north indicated that it was about 2.5 miles back to Hog Camp Gap along the AT. We took the AT north and immediately began climbing along the southwestern ridge of Cold Mountain. The trail made some switchbacks as it headed up; at the ends of two of these switchbacks, there were rock outcrops with views west into the Shenandoah Valley towards Buena Vista and Lexington.

View west from outcrop on AT

From the outcrops, the trail continued climbing, straightening out on the ridge as it reached the summit bald. After entering the first stretch of meadows, we finished the hike's uphill portion and came to a rock that marked the summit of Cole Mountain, with a USGS marker. We stopped here for lunch; unfortunately, we found the summit to be heavily fly-infested, which made enjoying the view and our lunch a little more difficult than we would've liked. The view was quite impressive into Shenandoah Valley. Even though the haze was a bit strong, obscuring our views of House Mountain and the mountains across the Valley, we could see many of the peaks west of us in the Blue Ridge.

View west from the summit of Cold Mountain
After eating lunch, we continued onward, following the trail through the mountaintop meadows. The meadows here are reminiscent of the Southern Appalachian Balds, though they are not quite the same. Both of these types of mountain grasslands form where it is too warm for an alpine zone. However, many balds in the higher Southern Appalachians can stay bald without extreme maintenance; they are bald because years of forestry, overuse, and erosion has stripped off all soil, leaving mountaintops that support very little tree life. Cold Mountain's meadows, on the other hand, are mowed to maintain their appearence (as is Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park).

After making a short drop from the summit, we came to the broad meadows on the saddle between the main summit and a lower northeastern summit. From the start of these meadows, there was a stunning view to the north encompassing some of the great peaks of the Blue Ridge: Rocky Mountain, Maintop Mountain, the Priest, Pompey Mountain, and Mt. Pleasant. Mt. Pleasant and its rocky slopes were particularly dominating. Together, this group of peaks forms one of the greatest aggregation of 4000-foot peaks in the Blue Ridge: all of the prior listed peaks, along with Cold Mountain itself and Elk Pond Mountain, exceed 4000 feet in height. Rocky Mountain is nominally the highest of the set, though disappointingly it is perhaps the least spectacular of the summits. However, its summit is barely 10 feet taller than the Priest and 13 feet taller than both Mt. Pleasant and Maintop Mountain.

View north
Hiking further along, we were treated to more views of Mt. Pleasant. As we headed up the other side of the saddle, we looked to the south into the Piedmont and saw Tobacco Row Mountain rising over the farms of the foothills.

Mt. Pleasant from Cold Mountain
Finally, the trail passed out of the grassland and back into the forest. On the descent, we passed by a final clearing before finishing the roughly mile stretch through forest, switchbacking down through the early spring woods.



Friday, October 11, 2013

Little Flat Mountain (Byrom Park)

View into the Piedmont and Blackwell's Hollow
4.2 miles loop, 1400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate

Little Flat Mountain Loop is a hike in Albemarle County's Patricia Ann Byrom Forest Park, likely the most impressive preserve managed by the county. Despite being in Albemarle County, it is a good 45-minute drive from Charlottesville. Byrom Park, a fairly new addition to the public lands in the Charlottesville area, opened to the public in 2011 and has so far flown under the radar as a Charlottesville area hiking destination. While it certainly isn't as spectacular as many spots you'd run into in Shenandoah National Park or along the Blue Ridge Parkway, this park is certainly still worth a visit for its solitude and decent views. The park sits at the foot of the Blue Ridge, on the slopes of Little Flat Mountain, which is connected to Big Flat Mountain, one of the tallest peaks in the South District. Little Flat Mountain Loop is the principal loop trail running through the park. Volunteers are currently expanding the park's trail network, so by the time you hike this there may be more hiking opportunities (and more trail junctions).

I hiked in Byrom Park on a late November weekend with beautifully skies. I drove out to the park from Charlottesville along US 250, taking Ivy Road west from the University past Ivy until coming to Route 240 after crossing the Mechums River. Taking a right at 240, I soon entered the town of Crozet; at the far end of Crozet, I turned right to take Route 810 north. After passing through White Hall and Headquarters, a settlement along the Doyles River, Route 810 entered Blackwell's Hollow. A few minutes further down, about 20 or so minutes out of Crozet, I turned left onto the driveway for the preserve and parked in a fairly large parking area with a good view of the mountains across hollow.

The parking area at Byrom Park
From the parking area, I followed the broad former road, now called the Great Mountains Trail, uphill into the park. The trail was fairly nondescript, ascending gently through young stands of oaks, maples, and hickories. It was clear that this area had been logged much more recently than the national park land. Soon, the trail entered into a small stream valley and came to a small stream; a small spur descended to the side of the stream. The trail followed the stream for a little while before crossing it and heading back and up the other side of the small hollow.

Entering the park on the Great Mountains Trail
The principal stream of the park
Soon after the stream crossing, the Great Mountains Trail intersected with the Little Flat Mountain Loop. I began by taking the fork to the right that headed uphill. Here, the trail was still a broad former road as it made up the the mountain. While the trail occasionally passed large, older trees, for the most part the forest it passed through was quite young. The stream hollow dropped off to the right of the trail, with the stream sometimes visible far below. On occasion, there were benches near the trail for tired hikers. What fascinated me the most was a hand-painted sign I passed along the trail that read "My Jennifer," with mountains painted along the bottom; I passed by a similar sign on my way down the mountain on the other side of the Little Flat Mountain loop.

Uphill on the Little Flat Mountain Loop
The uphill continued for about 1.5 miles, fairly steeply, from the previous trail junction, ascending close to the ridge. The trail narrowed as it flattened out, following the side of the mountain just downhill from the top of the ridge. Soon, I came to a small artificial clearing on the side of the mountain. From here, a small clearing in the vegetation marked as Gibson Mountain Overlook on park maps offered a pretty view of Fox Mountain across Blackwell's Hollow and of the Southwest Mountains and the Piedmont in the distance. This was the prettiest view of the hike; it was also a rare perspective of the mountains of the region. I am curious whether Albemarle County will maintain this viewpoint by clearing the view- if the trees aren't regularly trimmed back here, this view will likely vanish in a decade. I stopped here for a snack before continuing on the trail, which then made a final push onto a ridge of Little Flat Mountain before beginning to descend.

Gibson Mountain Overlook
As I began the descent, I was able to see through the bare November trees to another rare view of the line of peaks along the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge. To the south, close by, was Cedar Mountain; beyond that was the elongated Pasture Fence Mountain and past that was the oddly-shaped Bucks Elbow Mountain. During my descent, I somehow managed to miss a turnoff for Catfish Rock, which I had hoped to see during my hike; however, before I knew it I descended to a trail junction with the Blackwell's Trail.

Views through the trees towards Cedar, Pasture Fence, and Bucks Elbow Mountains
I stayed right on the Little Flat Mountain Loop. What followed was an incredibly steep section of downhill. The trail used no switchbacks as it rapidly descended the mountain along the western boundary of the park. At times, it was very clear how strict the boundaries of the park were: to the right of the trail, I could see hunters' tree stands just out of the park. In about half a mile, the steep trail dropped me about 600 feet to the bottom of the stream valley, where I found another fairly-dry creek. Crossing the creek, I followed the broad trail along the east side of the water briefly before the trail turned uphill briefly and crossed a ridge. The trail then descended the rest of the way back to its junction with the Great Mountains Trail, with just a small ascent at the end.

A stream in the western part of the park
This hike is not the most spectacular in the region, but it is one of the best offerings of Albemarle County's parks. I would certainly recommend it to hikers who are already familiar with the well-known trails of the park and GWNF. This trail also makes a good alternative hike to trails on federal lands during the government shutdown (at the time of writing) for Charlottesville residents.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Hiking Virginia during the shutdown


This year's government shutdown comes during one of the busiest times of year for many businesses in the Virginia mountains. Thus, Shenandoah National Park is closed at the exact time that the maples, poplars, and hickories are bursting into bright color. Many communities around the park will likely suffer this year when less tourists come for the October fall foliage.

However, even though Shenandoah National Park is closed for the moment, the Blue Ridge Mountains aren't stopping their fall show. If you've planned a trip to see the Blue Ridge in bright color, don't cancel it. You can see plenty of beautiful fall scenery without driving Skyline Drive or hiking Old Rag. And if you travel to the Blue Ridge area, you can help support the many small businesses and communities of the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley. Here are some alternative options to popular Shenandoah activities:

Instead of Skyline Drive, take SR 231 from Madison to Sperryville or US 340 between Waynesboro and Front Royal. Skyline Drive is undoubtedly beautiful, but the two major roads running parallel to the Blue Ridge to the east and west offer superb views of the mountains and also pass through cute, quaint towns and a rolling pastoral landscape along the way. US 340 takes you through a chain of towns, including Luray, Elkton, and Shenandoah. While these routes lack the overlooks and pullouts of Skyline Drive, you can expect to see Old Rag and Doubletop towering over farmland on SR 231 and the Shenandoah River winding through the Page Valley between Massanutten Mountain and the great peaks of the Central District on US 340.

Hike on Massanutten Mountain, in a state park, or in George Washington National Forest. So you can't hike Stony Man or Hawksbill- if anything, that's more incentive to discover other, less well-known but equally beautiful Virginia hikes! Although National Park Service units are closed, trailheads in US Forest Service units, such as George Washington National Forest, are still open. That means you can still hike to Strickler Knob on Massanutten Mountain, which has views equal to that of the Shenandoah Central District peaks, or to Spy Rock in George Washington National Forest near Montebello. Charlottesville residents can also try hiking in Albemarle County's Byrom Park or at the Nature Conservancy's Fortune's Cove site. D.C. and Northern Virginia residents can substitute trips to Great Falls with hikes at Raven Rocks, Sugarloaf Mountain, the Bull Run Mountains, or Sky Meadows State Park. Baltimore residents who can't go to Catoctin Mountain Park or Harpers Ferry can instead check out Rocks State Park in their backyard.

Most importantly, don't let the shutdown keep you from enjoying Virginia's most spectacular month!

Download the UVA Hike App for Android (if you're a Charlottesville resident) to find nearby, non-SNP hiking options. Also, a note for Charlottesville residents: although Big Branch Falls is technically off limits during the shutdown, the hike along the South Fork Moormans to Blue Hole from the Charlottesville Reservoir is still open.

To clarify: Shenandoah National Park is closed at all entrances. Skyline Drive is not accessible and parking areas at Old Rag, Berry Hollow, and Whiteoak Canyon are blocked. Your car might be towed if you attempt to park alongside the road near Old Rag or Berry Hollow. While some people have successfully entered the park through lesser-known entrances (Madison Run, Graves Mill, etc.), this is not recommended as park rangers may turn you away or even ticket you. Also, the park is thinly staffed, so help may be hard to find if you run into trouble. While I encourage you to visit the area this fall, please stay out of the park itself. Maintained recreation areas (Campgrounds, picnic areas, etc, such as Sherando Lake, Elizabeth Furnace) in George Washington National Forest are closed, too, but some trailheads in the national forest remain open. The Blue Ridge Parkway itself remains open although facilities along the road are closed.