Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Austin Mountain/Madison Run

Trayfoot and Blackrock
10.5 miles loop, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Austin Mountain lies in a forgotten corner of the South District of Shenandoah National Park; this hike is an opportunity to catch some rarely-seen views while hiking along a remote ridgeline. I will suggest this hike as a 9.5 mile loop at most times, but with the option of extending it to 10.5 miles without much more elevation gain during days that Skyline Drive is closed due to snow and ice. Doing a loop on the Austin Mountain Trail and the Madison Run Fire Road is rewarding, but when Skyline Drive is closed, it may be interesting to continue up Madison Run Fire Road to Brown's Gap and then a little further to a view on Skyline Drive.

This is not a particularly popular hike; although it has some good views, it is fairly long and lacks the rewards of similar-difficulty trails such as Riprap or Rocky Mountain-Big Run, and the return down the Madison Run Fire Road is a little on the side of boring. However, it's still quite a good hike: the Austin Mountain Trail will usually give a bit of solitude and the fact that the trail starts at the Madison Run entrance means that this hike is accessible even when Skyline Drive is closed. I found this hike to be particularly rewarding when I came on a frosty February day, though some of that delight might be more attributable to the remarkable weather conditions that day rather than the trail itself.

I hiked Austin Mountain on a February day, right after a mild snow. In Charlottesville, it had just rained, but Skyline Drive was closed; so I decided to drive to the other side of the mountains and do this hike, which I had been saving for a snowy day. I took I-64 west out of Charlottesville and got off at exit 99, then took US 250 west to the bottom of the mountain and the intersection with US 340 in Waynesboro. I turned right onto US 340 north and followed it through Dooms and Crimora to Grottoes, where I turned right onto Route 663 at a poorly marked junction where there was a 7-11 on the left of the road. I followed 663 to near its end, a wide gravel parking area just a few hundred feet short of the park boundary. I parked along the road and then followed the gravel road into the park.

The first section of the hike followed the Madison Run Fire Road, running to the left side of the namesake stream. Madison Run is named for John Madison, an uncle of President James Madison, who owned a tract of land in the Shenandoah Valley. The former road passed by a junction with the trail to Furnace Mountain right after entering the park and reached the junction with the Austin Mountain Trail after following the stream about three-quarters of a mile from the park boundary.

Madison Run
I turned left onto the Austin Mountain Trail and immediately began ascending. The climb was fairly steep and the trail very quickly made its way up the south slopes of the mountain. After making a long switchback, the trail started entering rockier and rockier terrian, with occasional mini-talus slopes and less dense tree cover along the trail. Here I found the first views of the hike: I could Furnace Mountain right across the hollow, Trayfoot Mountain higher to the left of Furnace, and a bit of Shenandoah Valley stretching to the right. Both peaks were lightly dusted with snow, a particularly beautiful sight.

Trayfoot and Furnace from a talus slope on Austin

As I hiked further, the trail climbed more and the views improved, with many occasional views across the hollow to Furnace and Trayfoot. About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, I finally reached the snow line on Austin Mountain. While the snow on the mountains opposite the hollow mainly coated the ground, on this side of the hollow, on Austin Mountain, the snow had stayed on the branches. I'm not exactly sure why- perhaps it was due to wind- but this created the most incredible winter fairy-tale landscape I've ever hiked through. Every tree was coated in a fresh layer of snow, every bush had turned into an interlaced network of white fibrils.

Forest coated in snow
This incredible scene only got progressively more wonderous as I hiked onward. Soon, the trees were thinning out at more frequent intervals and I had many more views across the hollow. As the trail began to reach the eastern side of Austin Mountain, new views opened up of the entirety of Dundo Hollow and the peaks surrounding Madison Run's headwaters. The Blue Ridge crest was capped in snow, framed by sugar-coated trees near the trail. Even on a non-snowy day, these views would be quite impressive. The view was dominated by Trayfoot Mountain's pyramidal peak.

Rockytop Ridge from Austin Mountain
Trayfoot Mountain
Then, suddenly, as the trail emerged from the protective south face of Austin Mountain onto the top of the ridge connecting the mountain with Rockytop Ridge, the snow on the trees disappeared. The snow on the ground remained- but here, the branches were bare and brown. A faint wind blowing from the north suggested a culprit for the change in scenery here. The next mile and a half of the hike consisted of a ridge hike that alternated between following the top of the ridge and swinging to the ridge's south side- and thus between bare and snow-encrusted forest- while making a gradually steepening ascent up to Rockytop Ridge. At one point during this ascent, I looked back at Austin Mountain and could see perfectly the divide of the snowed-over trees and the bare trees.

Austin Mountain, coated in snow
At the end of the climb, I reached the Rockytop Trail, at the top of the ridge and about 4 miles from the trailhead. From here, I took the Rockytop Trail to the right and after a fairly flat third of a mile I arrived at a junction with the Big Run Trail. Here, I turned right to take the yellow-blazed Big Run Spur, which descended at a decent clip and soon brought me to the Madison Run Fire Road, about 4.7 miles from the trailhead. This section of trail was fairly nondescript; there were no views and very much forest.

From here, it's possible to turn right on Madison Run Fire Road and descend back to the parking area. I chose to extend my hike by following the fire road an additional three-quarters of a mile uphill to Browns Gap. The wide road made a few large bends while climbing steadily before it brought me to the parking area at Browns Gap, just off of Skyline Drive. Stonewall Jackson made a similar uphill trip on the same road in 1862 when he crossed Browns Gap on the road along Madison Run after his Valley Campaign.

Browns Gap in the snow
From the parking area, I turned right and walked along Skyline Drive for about a fifth of a mile to reach a section of the drive with an open view. I sat on the rock wall on the side of the drive and enjoyed the view of snowy Dundo Hollow as I ate lunch.

View from Skyline Drive just south of Browns Gap
After my lunch, I returned to Browns Gap and then headed back to the trailhead on the Madison Run Fire Road. It was roughly five miles from the gap back to the start point. This distance went fairly fast, though; the road made for a relatively gentle ascent and allowed me to go at a good pace. Along the way, I ran into a few runners making their way up to the gap, the only other humans I saw on the hike that day. I believe the fire road is frequented more on nicer days.

There were a few views of the surrounding mountains on the fire road, but for the most part the road was uneventful. At first the fire road was halfway up the side of Rockytop Ridge, but as it descended it got closer and closer to its namesake stream, until finally, not far from its junction with the Austin Mountain Trail, the fire road and the stream reunited. About an hour and a half after leaving Browns Gap, I arrived back at my car and returned to Charlottesville after an enjoyable winter trip.

View from the Fire Road

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