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

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