Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Overall Run Falls

Twin Falls on Overall Run
6.8 miles loop, 1800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, due to elevation gain and stream crossing
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The hike to Overall Run Falls is one of my favorites in Shenandoah. While much of the hike itself is nondescript and follows the undulating woodlands along the crest, the last segment of the trail is spectacular, featuring a steep descent into the rocky gorge of the Overall Run with two waterfalls, the pretty Twin Falls and Big Falls, the tallest waterfall in Shenandoah.

My trip to Overall Run Falls was my first trip to the North District of the park. I've always had trouble motivating myself to visit this part of the park, since it's about a two hour drive from Charlottesville, but as I was home home for winter break and Thornton Gap is the nearest entrance to home home, I figured I might finally make the journey to the North District. I hiked with my family on a fairly warm Christmas Eve.

We entered the park through the Thornton Gap entrance and stopped at Thornton Hollow and Rattlesnake Point Overlooks before reaching the trailhead, which was north a small, unmarked parking lot just south of the Hogback Overlook, at around mile 20 of the Drive.

The trail started from the Blue Ridge crest and follows the AT south to a junction with the Tuscarora-Overall Trail. We followed that trail to the right (west) and began descending from the crest. We stayed on this trail and followed it down to Twin Falls, passing through gentle wooded mountain slopes until passing the junction for the trail toward Mathews Arm.

Abruptly, the landscape changed: the gentle upper regions of the Blue Ridge ended and we began a descent down the steep side of the mountain. Not long into the descent, we came upon Twin Falls, a very pretty 29-foot tall waterfall on Overall Run and a good lunch spot.

Twin Falls
Past Twin Falls, the trail continued to drop, with Overall Run making numerous small falls to the left. As the trail switchbacked downhill, the views suddenly opened up: before us was a view of the entire hollow. A final descent put us at a rocky viewpoint high above Overall Run's gorge, with a good view of 93-foot tall Big Falls, the tallest falls in the park.

Big Falls on Overall Run
Like Twin Falls further down, Big Falls is carved into Catocin greenstone. The rocky cliffs of the Overall Run Gorge here are some of the most prominent exposed greenstone areas in the park; the uneven erosion of the greenstone makes the craggy scenery here some of the best in the park.

From the viewpoint, we also had a view out toward Shenandoah Valley and Massanutten Mountain.

View down Overall Run canyon to Massanutten Mountain
While it's possible to return on the Tuscarora-Overall trail, we chose to make a loop by incorporating part of the Traces Trail into our hike. Hiking a loop instead of a round trip did not really add much, except a little mileage and a crossing of Overall Run. The woods on the fire road and near the Traces Trail were particularly pleasant, with views through the trees (in winter) of Massanutten and the Blue Ridge in the distance, but the highlight of this hike was clearly its destination, rather than the journey to get there.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Furnace Mountain

Trayfoot Mountain from Furnace Mountain
4.6 miles round trip, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Good paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Furnace Mountain is a small summit with nice views rising directly above Shenandoah Valley in Shenandoah National Park's South District. While accessible from Skyline Drive via a hike that also visits Blackrock, the shortest route to the top of Furnace Mountain starts from a trailhead in Shenandoah Valley outside the park's boundary. This hike provides access into the park when Skyline Drive is occasionally closed due to snow in winter.

Skyline Drive was closed on the first weekend of school during spring semester due to snow, so I chose to finally hike Furnace Mountain. I headed out to Furnace with three friends early on a snowy morning in Charlottesville. The weather that day was fascinating- the trees in the Piedmont was coated with ice, but as soon as we crossed Rockfish Gap and entered the Valley, there was no ice. It seemed to be snowing or sleeting everywhere in the Piedmont, but only above about 2000 feet in the Valley.

The trailhead is at the end of SR 663, just east of Grottoes. The road to the foot of Furnace has views of both Furnace and Austin Mountains. Follow 663 until it turns into gravel at the base of the mountains- there is a pretty clearly identifiable parking area 0.1 miles before the road ends; there is no parking at the gate at the end of the road.

We followed the fire road to the beginning of the Furnace Mountain Trail, 100 yards past the gate. The trail immediately crossed Madison Run, which had some nicely situated rocks to make crossing easier. Across the run, we began a moderate ascent up the slopes of Furnace. Along the way, we passed through burn areas with mountain laurel (obviously not blooming yet) and by a small talus slope with views of Shenandoah Valley and of Hall Mountain and Abbott Ridge, both small summits that, like Furnace Mountain, are attached to Trayfoot Mountain. There was plentiful Erwin Quartzite along the trail, some with good examples of Skolithos (fossilized worm-holes).

At the end of the ascent, we reached the Furnace-Trayfoot ridge. From there, we followed a spur trail that climbed gently to the wooded summit of Furnace Mountain, where there was a fire pit and the remains of a campsite. The viewpoint was about 100 yards further down on a big rock.

The summit of Furnace just happened to be at the snow-line. The trees at the summit were coated in ice and the trees on the main Blue Ridge were iced over as well, making the scene particularly magical. Austin Mountain was visible right across Madison Run and Lewis Mountain, Rockytop Ridge, and Blackrock were also visible.

Austin Mountain from Furnace Mountain
If you want a wider view, there are more rocks close by to which you can bushwhack and find views of the entirety of Dundo Hollow and Trayfoot Mountain.

If you look at the above photo of Austin Mountain and compare it to a later photo of Rockytop from Lewis Peak, the similarities are striking. This is easily explainable: both Rockytop and Austin are formed from a layer of Erwin sandstone tilted ~20 degrees and form the westernmost layer of the Blue Ridge.

Furnace Mountain

Doyles River/Jones Run Loop

Jones Run Falls
6.6 miles loop, 1430 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Trailhead on Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The Doyles River and Jones Run are two wild and beautiful streams that plunges down the side of Big Flat Mountain in the South District of Shenandoah National Park. This loop hike, which visits both watersheds, stopping at three lovely waterfalls along the way, is easily one of the most spectacular waterfall hikes of the park. This is one of the more popular hikes in the South District of the park, but hikers can still expect far less foot traffic here than at Whiteoak Canyon or Overall Run Falls in the far more popular Central and North Districts.

I headed into the South District from Rockfish Gap on a warm late January Saturday with three friends. The drive on I-64 west was particularly notable that day due to the early morning sunlight on Bucks Elbow, Calf, and Bear Den Mountains. Views of the Valley from along the Drive were equally spectacular, so we stopped at numerous overlooks on our way to the trailhead.

View south from Turk Mountain Overlook to Humpback Mountain, Devil's Knob, and the Priest.
The trailhead for this loop is at Browns Gap, a low point on the ridge between Blackrock and Rockytop ridge at mile 83 of Skyline Drive. It's about equidistant to Rockfish and Swift Run Gaps. The trailhead is well signed and parking is fairly plentiful.

From Browns Gap, we followed the fire road to the east of the drive downhill for 1.9 miles. The middle of the fire road was littered with needle ice, which had probably grown the previous night. We eventually reached an intersection with the Doyles River Trail, which we followed further downhill. The trail followed the stream, which makes many small falls as it heads downhill. We soon reached Upper Doyles Falls, a very pretty waterfall with two drops. The two drops of the falls are probably each about 10-15 feet high, so there was a very personal feel to this waterfall.

Upper Doyles River Falls
Continuing on, the trail reached the Lower Doyles Falls, a larger drop surrounded by a spectacular rocky gorge. The base of this waterfall was a little less accessible than the base of the higher falls. We clambered over some rocky parts to reach its wet and mossy base. I am sure this would be an amazing spot to visit in the spring, when water levels are high- the Lower Doyles Falls cascaded over only a small portion of a large rock face and I am sure that the entire rock would be covered with water during the spring.

Lower Doyles River Falls
The trail descended fairly steeply as the river made numerous small plunges and passed through a few pools, until both the trail and stream flattened out near the confluence of the Doyles River and Jones Run. The confluence of the two streams was not visible from the trail. We followed the trail for Jones Run uphill from the trail intersection, made a stream crossing, and began ascending, sometimes steeply, along the cascading stream. Jones Run below the Jones Run Falls is one of the liveliest streams I've seen in Shenandoah- at one point, the run cascades down a rocky incline, similar to a slide; I observed numerous other small but pretty falls as the the trail followed the rocky stream. There were also a number of large boulders and plenty of moss and ferns down in the Jones Run gorge, even in winter. The main Jones Run Falls is 0.7 miles above the Doyles River confluence and lies at the top of the Jones Run gorge. We took a snack break at a nice rocky resting spot right below the falls, which drops perhaps 30 to 40 feet down a small rock face.

Jones Run Falls
Above Jones Run Falls, the trail flattened out, passed another small waterfall, and then ascended one last time to reach the Blue Ridge crest and the Jones Run parking. We completed the loop by following the AT north, a fairly nondescript section that follows the Drive but nonetheless had good views through the trees of Big Flat and Cedar Mountains.

This is one of the more geographically/geologically interesting areas of the park, where the Catoctin formation no longer forms the crest of the Blue Ridge. Between Front Royal and Big Flat Mountain, every peak or ridgeline that separates the Shenandoah River watershed from the Rappahannock/Rivanna watersheds are made of either metaigneous Catoctin formation (greenstone) or Pedlar Formation granite. However, in the South District of the park, the Catoctin formation crest is broken, with valleys carved through the greenstone by the Doyles River at this trail and by the Moormans River between Pasture Fence and Bucks Elbow Mountains further south. Here the peaks on the crest (Blackrock and the un-named crest peaks next to Rocks and Turk Mountains) are made mostly of Weverton and Hampton Formation sandstone. This may explain the relative scarcity of waterfalls in the South District of the park- as waterfalls form mainly on the tough-eroding greenstone (which is what underlies both the Doyles River Falls and the Jones Run Falls), the lack of greenstone near the heads of some of the watersheds in this part of the park result in fewer waterfalls.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cedar Run-Hawksbill

The view atop Hawksbill during a snowy February Sunday.
8.8 miles round trip, 3000 feet elevation gain.
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous, due to elevation gain
Access: $8 per person Shenandoah National Park entrance fee, or purchase a $30 annual pass beforehand for small groups

My plans for a weekend hike in the Trayfoot Mountain area in early February were dashed when it started snowing. A few friends and I opted for a hike up Cedar Run canyon to Hawksbill Gap and continuing to the summit of Hawksbill.

The trailhead for Cedar Run/Hawksbill is north of Syria near the end of SR 600; it can be accessed by taking SR 670 from SR 231, which runs from Sperryville to Madison and is one of the most scenic drives in the area after Skyline Drive.

We followed the trail up from the Whiteoak Canyon parking area into the park and up the Cedar Run branch. It had begun snowing on us by the time we began ascending the trail up the canyon, which was very muddy due to the rain. Cedar Run canyon is very pretty- although it doesn't have waterfalls that are as prominent and eye-catching as its sister hike, Whiteoak Canyon, it does have numerous small waterfalls, including a tiny waterfall tucked into a tiny rock gorge halfway up the trail. Further up is a smooth water slide. Most of the waterfalls are not directly on the trail, so getting to them may take a little extra time.

An exceptionally beautiful waterfall in a small gorge on Cedar Run.
Three miles, 2200 vertical feet and a couple of stream crossings from the trailhead, we arrived at Hawksbill Gap on Skyline Drive, which was covered in about an inch of snow. From here, we followed the 2.8 mile Hawksbill Loop Trail. The ascent was steep and slippery in the snow, making its way quickly to the Hawksbill summit. During this stretch of trail, the clouds scattered and we had our only views of the hike through the trees, of the granite west face of Old Rag covered in snow. By the time we had reached the Byrd's Nest Shelter near the summit of Hawksbill, the fog had rolled back in.

The trail up to Hawksbill.
After lunch at the shelter, we made it to the summit, which was completely fogged in. On our descent, we completed the loop by doing a more gradual descent on the Salamander Trail and the AT. It seems that the Salamander trail would have had good views on a nicer day; for us, it remained cloudy until we began our descent. We crossed two talus slopes and saw a flock of wild turkeys flying while following the AT back to Hawksbill Gap.

It'd be possible to add an additional loop and go down Whiteoak Canyon to get back to the trailhead, but we opted for the shorter Cedar Run descent.

During the ascent up Cedar Run, the trail passes primarily through greenstone of the Catocin Formation, which is responsible for not only the waterfalls on this trail but for just about every other major waterfall in the park. The Catocin Formation is an old igneous formation that runs along the Blue Ridge crest. Greenstone is a basalt-based rock that has undergone heat and pressure; those metamorphic processes add chlorite and epidote to the rock, giving the rock its somewhat greenish color.

I've included a photo of the view from Hawksbill from a fall trip to the peak a few years ago on the Upper Hawksbill Trail.

Robertson and Old Rag Mountains from Hawksbill.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Buzzard Rock

Rocks Mountain from Buzzard Rock
2 miles round trip, 700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, a fully off-trail hike that requires navigational skills
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

There are supposedly 500 miles of trails in all of Shenandoah National Park. I'm not sure how true that number is now- based on USGS maps, there were certainly many more trails in this park when those maps were made. Trails used to run down almost every ridgeline in the park- old maps show routes to the top of Oventop, to the end of Two-Mile Ridge, to the subpeaks of Hall Mountain and Abbott Ridge on Trayfoot Mountain.

One ridge that is trail-less on even the USGS maps is Buzzard Rock, a low rocky ridge connected to Rocks Mountain in the South District. In Shenandoah, "rock" often means "view," so the call of this ridge was irresistible.

On an early February weekend, Skyline was closed due to snow. I didn't want to drive far to a trailhead but I still wanted to see some snow, so I decided that I should finally try to hike to this ridge with a group of four. Heading out of Charlottesville, I wasn't sure that there were going to be any views at all: Bucks Elbow and Calf Mountain were entirely obscured by clouds and fog. Luckily, the fog was low, so views of Afton Valley popped out on the drive up to Rockfish Gap.

The trailhead is at the end of SR 661, which branches off of US 340 at Grottoes. It's a rather awkward entrance to the park: the maintained road ends between two houses and parking is just a little bit beyond that. It seems that this entrance to the park is rarely used; despite the awkwardness of the parking situation, I didn't get any trouble from the homeowners.

We followed the Paine Run Fire Road into the park. Buzzard Rock lies directly south of fire road at the entrance to the park. We crossed Paine Run a little upstream of a water level monitoring station and made our way to the top. This was a relatively easy route- there were no major obstacles and the forest floor was pretty clear.

Visibility was low when we started our hike, but we broke through the fog by the time we were halfway up the ridge. As we got to the top, clouds rolled in and obscured our views again.

The top of the ridge was flat. There was a fire ring, a small cave-like indentation, and a few protruding rocks that give views. We stuck around for a while at the top and eventually the clouds rolled out and there were some very pretty views of Trayfoot, Blackrock, and Rocks Mountain. There were also good views of Shenandoah Valley to the west, where we could even see our car parked at the end of SR 661. The view was particularly spectacular that day due to fresh snow atop the peaks on the Blue Ridge crest.

View from Buzzard Rock
Buzzard Rock is another Shenandoah peak with prominent protrusions of Erwin Sandstone. A few examples of Skolithos worm-hole fossils can be found on the ridgetop. I am also certain that Buzzard Rock was once connected to the main ridgeline of Trayfoot Mountain: both the Trayfoot ridge and Buzzard Rock line up and have extremely steep, v-shaped sides where they are separated by Paine Run.

As with many of my adventures, Summitpost was a convenient resource.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lewis Peak

A unique view of Massanutten Mountain, from Lewis Peak.
9.3 miles round trip, about 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, due to length
Access: Trailhead on Skyline Drive; Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The first time anyone in my family visited a national park was in 1979, when my parents came down to Front Royal from Philadelphia, drove the entirety of Skyline Drive, hiked up Stony Man and to a waterfall (they aren't sure which; I would guess the uppermost Whiteoak Canyon Fall), and arrived in Waynesboro- all in one day! Along the way, they stopped at a visitor center and bought a copy of the first edition of Henry Heatwole's Guide to Shenandoah.

In high school, the Heatwole guide became one of my favorite books- I read hike descriptions for fun and used the book to plan occasional family hiking trips to Mary's Rock, Hawksbill, Old Rag, and other well-known park attractions. What fascinated me the most was near the end of the book- a large, almost full-page map of the Big Run valley. Skyline Drive scraped the bottom right corner of the map, but the rest of the map was roadless: a complex of ridges, streams, and trails in one of the largest wild areas in Shenandoah National Park.

Since beginning to hike regularly in Shenandoah, I've passed by the Big Run area often, but I had yet to truly hike in it. An October hike took me to the summit of Loft Mountain and a view over the valley, a November drive had me stopping at the overlooks on an overcast and rainy day. The Big Run area is as wild as it looked on Heatwole's map. From the drive, the valley appears to be a huge bowl, bound on one side by the rumpled ridges of Rockytop with the high peak of Trayfoot behind it and on the other side by the exposed folds of sandstone on Rocky and Brown Mountains.

Saturday morning, three good friends and I head out from Charlottesville at 8. I threw out a couple hike options, secretly hoping that they would choose one that would bring me to the Big Run Valley; and they did, choosing a little-traveled hike to Lewis Peak.

Lewis Peak is a small, sharp (by Shenandoah standards) peak connected to the main ridge of Rockytop. I had done a good deal of prior reading on it on Summitpost (http://www.summitpost.org/lewis-peak/327576), which has a useful hike description. The hike started from Brown Gap, south of the Loft Mountain Development and Big Run.

The first half mile or so followed the Appalachian Trail to a small summit on the Blue Ridge crest; from there, the Big Run Loop Trail leads left and descends half a mile to the Rockytop Trail; following that for 2.5 miles led to the Lewis Peak Trail, which led for the final 1 mile to the summit of Lewis Peak.

The Rockytop Trail followed a mainly wooded ridgeline. In summer, it's likely that there are no views, but as we were hiking in February, there were obscured views of Big Flat, Loft, Cedar, Trayfoot, Brown, and Rocky Mountains, as well as the whole Big Run valley. Lewis Peak was visible as a sharp, triangular peak to the west for much of the time; the confusingly named Lewis Mountain was also visible. Shenandoah naming is awful: besides having adjacent mountains named "Lewis Mountain" and "Lewis Peak," there is another "Lewis Mountain" in the park, just south of the Big Meadows/Bearfence area. At a clearing near the intersection with the Lewis Peak Trail, there was an interesting view of the huge rock fold on Rocky Mountain, across the valley. I'm interested in checking it out- I'm hoping to do Rocky/Brown Mountain sometime this spring and perhaps bushwhack to the big rock fold if it isn't on the actual trail.

The first good views on the hike are at the talus slopes on the Lewis Peak Trail about 0.2 miles from the junction with the Rockytop Trail. The northern view takes in Massanutten, Lewis Peak itself, Rockytop, and there is a good view of the multiple rocky protrusions on Brown and Rocky Mountains. The talus slope on the other side of the mountain has a good view of Trayfoot. The only major descent/ascent of the entire hike is a roughly 350 foot descent to a gap between Rockytop Ridge and Lewis Peak and then a similar ascent to the summit of Lewis Peak.

The last 0.2 miles of ascent to the summit of Lewis Peak is one of the most spectacular segments of trail I've hiked in all of Shenandoah- up there with the ridgeline hike on Old Rag and the continuous views of the Stony Man/Passamaquoddy Loop. The trail switchbacks through a burn area caused by the Lewis Peak fire of 2006. As vegetation here is still low, the final ascent is on an open slope with wide views to the south. The trail passes a few yards away from the true summit of the peak before looping around the summit past a nice campsite to the principal viewpoint, which comes with a spectacular view to the north.

In the burn area on the Lewis Peak Trail.
Of particular note are some of the most concentrated areas of Skolithos I've seen in Shenandoah. Skolithos is a trace fossil left by Cambrian Era worms in the Erwin Formation in the Blue Ridge. The summit of Lewis Peak was a beach some 500 million years ago, before the Alleghenian Orogeny. That past is preserved in the white quartzite and sandstone of the Erwin Formation (http://tin.er.usgs.gov/geology/state/sgmc-unit.php?unit=VACAeh;0), which you can find along the westernmost peaks in the South Section of the park, on Rocky Mount, here, Furnace Mountain, Turk Mountain, and some other peaks that border the valley. What was so cool about Lewis Peak is that the sandstone has been exposed so that the Skolithos are visible from above, appearing as dots in the rocks. It is some truly cool stuff.

Skolithos, fossilized worm-holes viewed from above. These Cambrian Era trace fossils can be found throughout the white sandstone of the Erwin Formation in the southern part of the park.
There is nearly a 360-view atop the peak; only a small part of the view of the Valley is obscured. A bonus to doing this hike is the solitude: the only other hikers we ran into were two backpackers on the Rockytop Trail.
View north from Lewis Peak: Stony Man and Hawksbill are visible in the distance. Rocky Mount, King and Queen Rocks on Brown Mountain, and Rockytop are closer.