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

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