Wednesday, February 22, 2012

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.

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