Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Old Rag Mountain

The rocky east face of Old Rag above the Piedmont
8.8 miles loop, 2300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous, due to elevation gain and extensive rock scrambling
Access: Paved road to trailhead; $8 per person Shenandoah National Park entrance fee, or purchase an annual pass beforehand for groups of up to 4

An obstacle course-like rock scramble and sweeping views up and down the Blue Ridge and out to the Piedmont make Old Rag an extremely popular destination and a monarch among Shenandoah hikes. The 360-degree view from the summit is unrivaled and the rock scramble is a scenic, tactile, and calisthenic experience like no other; thus, crowds flock here as they might to Disney World (my PNW readers can think of this as a Virginian Mount Si). It is easily the most popular hike of its length and difficulty in the park, but the beauty and unique nature of this hike warrants putting up with the crowds; I've done so three times.

It is not an easy hike for non-hikers. Accidents are fairly commonplace but can also easily be avoided. Many inexperienced hikers run out of water on their way to the top, or overestimate their ability to do the rock scramble. Honestly, nothing about this mountain is difficult if you prepare for it; however, many visitors come without knowing what hiking the peak entails. Injuries and mishaps are common enough that there is an entire organization (Old Rag Mountain Stewards) dedicated to helping visitors resolve issues. Please understand the risks associated with Old Rag before attempting this hike.

I would advise any potential hikers to go on weekdays. Weekends are ridiculously crowded: on a nice fall weekend, you can expect over 500 hikers on the mountain in a day.

I will include detailed directions to the trailhead from Charlottesville for any UVA hikers planning on doing this hike: take US 29 (Emmet St./Seminole Trail) north past Ruckersville to Madison. Turn on business 29, a turn off to the left with no traffic light, just beyond the Food Lion in Madison. Take business 29 through central Madison, then turn left onto 231 north, which will have signs for "Shenandoah National Park." Follow 231 north for about 20 minutes to SR 602; turn left and follow the road, which eventually turns into SR 601 and then SR 600, passing Nethers, getting narrower, and eventually reaching a large parking lot with a sign for "Old Rag Mountain." Park here.

I first did this hike with my parents in high school, then returned the weekend after high school graduation with friends, and most recently came during peak fall foliage. I'll describe my most recent hike in this post.

I had trouble choosing a hike to do for peak fall foliage weekend, but finally decided on redoing this very popular hike after realizing that two of my good friends had not hiked it yet. On an early, clear Saturday morning just a little after 6 AM, three friends and I headed north from Charlottesville, driving through the pastureland of Madison County as the sun rose and making it to the trailhead slightly before 8. From the parking area, we followed SR 600 further into Weakley Hollow, climbing gently for 0.8 miles before we reached the true trailhead of the hike. This used to be a small parking area, but now it is closed to the public and used for emergency purposes. From here, we hit the soft dirt trail, which wound through a forest of tulip poplars and huge boulders slowly up the side of Old Rag.

Trail on Old Rag Mountain
The ascent was never terribly steep and was continuously scenic, passing by the rocky valley of a stream flowing from the mountain. After over a mile of climbing from the trailhead, we reached a small forested saddle on the north side of the mountain, where some campers had set up the previous night. At this elevation, the leaves were much more vibrant than they had been at the trailhead: some of trees were glowing bright yellow and red. The first views started emerging at this point in small gaps through the trees

About 1.5 miles from the second trailhead (almost 2.5 miles from the parking area), we emerged onto the rocks. The rock scramble started as a slanted granite slab with a view to the north. This section of trail gave the first taste of what was to come: Weakley Hollow was visible at our feet and there were many huge and fun boulders to play on. Here, we discovered that it was a remarkably windy day- perhaps one of the windiest days I've experienced in Shenandoah! In fact, the winds were so strong that they were lifting golden leaves out of the hollow and up into the air. The leaves sparkled as they caught the sun's rays coming over Old Rag's ridgetop, an absolutely magical phenomenon.

From the first viewpoint, we continued along the rocky ridge and its increasingly wide views and came upon the second viewpoint. This spot is, in my humble opinion, one of the most incredible in all Shenandoah.

Old Rag
Here, we rested on granite slabs facing the south and east. This spot afforded us a brief respite from the wind as we admired the incredible view and the equally incredible fall colors. The fields and forests of the Piedmont lay at our feet and directly to our south rose the massive granite face of Old Rag.

Fall colors in Weakley Hollow
When we finally willed ourselves away from the view (and back into the wind), we arrived at the beginning of the exciting part of the rock scramble. The first challenge was a descent into a dike. At this point, many other hikers had caught up to us, so this part of the scramble and many others later on involved lengthy traffic jams.

From then on, sections of scrambling alternated with sections of uphill or easy walking. Progress was slow due to the traffic at many of the scramble sections, but the scrambling remained great fun. There were consistently views throughout the scramble, so even during waits we could observe the surrounding scenery. More notable parts of the scramble included a natural rock staircase with a granite boulder wedged in, a short "cave" section, and a rather difficult scramble along a narrow jumble of rocks. There was also a large boulder seemingly hanging in space, just barely held in place on one end, that made for good Atlas-bearing-the-earth photo ops.

Natural rock staircase
At the end of the more involved scramble, we arrived at the false summit, where we sat on a massive rock cliff and marveled at the view. From here, we made our way through a last short rocky scramble section and along a wooded ridge to the true summit of Old Rag, marked by a trail sign. At the very top, we found a spot away from the wind and ate lunch. One of my friends surprised us with a bottle of sparkling cider to celebrate reaching the top.

A bit more scrambling can put us on top of the two or three big boulders at the very top of the mountain, where there were uninhibited 360-degree views. The view here encompassed the Piedmont to the east, and Hot-Short Mountain, Mt. Marshall, and the Peak to the north. The crest of the Blue Ridge lay to the west: Mary's Rock, The Pinnacle, Stony Man, and Hawksbill were visible in a row. The pyramidal summit of Robertson Mountain lay right across Weakley Hollow and in front of Stony Man. To the south were the granite summits of Doubletop, Fork, and Jones Mountains. To the south, we could see as far as Carters Mountain, which rises near Charlottesville.

Hawksbill Mountain and Old Rag's granite
View north to Mt. Marshall and the Peak in June
View south
View towards Doubletop Mountain
View north
After a well-earned lunch, we began the descent. To complete the loop, we took the Saddle Trail down the south side of the peak. This trail descended quickly, first passing Byrd's Nest No. 1, then passing a rocky outcrop with a good view of Hawksbill and Robertson, then finally dropping down to Old Rag Shelter. Both Byrd's Nest No. 1 and Old Rag Shelter are good rest spots on the way down. Past Old Rag Shelter, the trail widened out to a fire road, and not long after we arrived at a junction with the Berry Hollow Fire Road.

We headed to the right and quickly joined the Weakley Hollow Road, which we followed the rest of the way back. Before the park was established, this area of the park was heavily settled. What are fire roads today were once the roads that led to the numerous mountain settlements in Weakley and Berry Hollows. After the park was established, the residents here were relocated- many unwillingly so- to Syria, Ida, and other spots outside the park in surrounding counties.

The Weakley Hollow Road is often described as the boring part of this hike. I disagree. The fire road is a gentle downhill through beautiful woods of tulip poplars and mountain laurel, which bloom beautifully in spring. There were also views through the trees to the rocky crags of Old Rag. After a fairly long stretch on the fire road, we heard Brokenback Run coming into the hollow from our left.

Brokenback Run in May
The fire road crossed Brokenback Run on a bridge. For the remainder of the way, the hike was pleasant, with beautiful skies, no wind, and falling leaves. After crossing two streams at the end of the trail by bridge, we found ourselves back at the start of the trail; from there, we followed the road back to the parking area and stopped at Dunkin Donuts on the way back to Charlottesville to reclaim some of our lost calories.

Old Rag has some of Virginia's more interesting geology. Old Rag itself is formed of Old Rag Granite, one of the oldest rocks in the park. Old Rag Granite was formed in the Grenville Orogeny around 1.2 billion years ago as a pluton, a molten mass of igneous rock that cools below the surface of the earth. Many of the fun parts of the rock scramble involve going up or down dikes in the granite. These dikes, which include the natural staircase and the drop down at the beginning of the scramble, formed when magma intruded into the Old Rag granite vertically. They've been exposed because the diabase (the volcanic rock making up the dike) is less resistant to erosion than the Old Rag Granite. The rounded, spherical shape of the granite here is very much different from the more uneven, jagged greenstone found at Stony Man or the block-like Hampton-formation talus blocks found at Blackrock in the South District.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Rose River Falls and Hogcamp Branch

Cascade on Hogcamp Branch
4.2 miles loop, 1150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

The Rose River Falls and Hogcamp Branch loop is one of the most delightful stream and waterfall hikes in Shenandoah. The hike features two major waterfalls: the smaller Rose River Falls and the tall, multi-tiered Dark Hollow Falls, but in my opinion, the true highlight of the hike is the portion of trail that runs between the two falls along Hogcamp Branch. This hike is normally very popular, but I've managed to avoid crazy crowds during both of my trips down to Rose River Falls. I'd encourage you to visit early or late in the day during spring, summer, or fall weekends, or come on a weekday or winter.

I first did the Rose River Falls hike as a 2.7 mile round trip from Fishers Gap over winter break of 2011, visiting the falls with high school friends. I returned to complete the loop in March. Two friends and I left Charlottesville in the early afternoon on an overcast day after a rainy morning. Clouds hovered around the 3000-foot level as we drove up US 33 toward Swift Run Gap, hiding the rounded tops of the Blue Ridge. At the entrance, we found none of the crowds from the previous week: just as sun and warmth brought crowds, rain and cold had driven them away. Driving north on Skyline Drive, we wove in and out of clouds, with occasional views into the Valley. At the Green Tunnel near Lewis Mountain, there was dense fog, which lent a dreamy feel to the woodlands, with the interconnected branches of the road-spanning canopy only just visible through the white mist.

Although few humans were keen to be out on a wet day, the deer at Big Meadows didn't mind. Spring was here: grass, flowers, shrubs were sprouting and an incredible number of deer had gathered on the grassland to graze.

Deer browse at Big Meadows
A little further on, we arrived at the trailhead, which is at Fishers Gap Overlook, around mile 49 of Skyline Drive. From the parking area, we had a view down a hollow into Shenandoah Valley. Although the mountaintops remained a last stronghold of the brown of winter, it was clear that they too would succumb to spring: green was creeping up the ridges of Hawksbill from the bottom of the newly verdant valley floor.

Spring creeps up the ridges of Hawksbill from the Valley
We walked over to the start of the trail on the opposite side of Skyline Drive at the north end of the Fishers Gap overlook. We started down the Rose River Fire foot trail, which head to the left of the wider fire road. The trail descended, gently at first, through the mountaintop forests, passing a junction with a horse trail. It then began a much steeper descent to the Rose River. Upon reaching the river, the trail headed to the right and began following the river past a series of pretty cascades into a gorge with greenstone rock walls rising to both sides. 1.3 miles from the trailhead, we arrived at the upper drop of Rose River Falls, an approximately 20-foot drop.

Rose River Falls
During my winter visit, the falls were quite full, but during my spring visit, the falls were surprisingly underpowered: only the rightmost cascade had significant flow. Nevertheless, the falls were still very pretty, with a deep pool at their base. The water was still fairly cold, but warm enough to comfortably wade in. My friends and I explored the area around the upper drop, then followed the creek downstream a few yards to the top of the lower drop. We then headed back to the trail and followed a short spur to the left that descended to the base of the lower drop of Rose River Falls, which is about 25 feet high.

The lower drop of Rose River Falls
There are few good vantage points of this drop, in which the Rose River is funneled down a narrow rocky chute. There is a very large pool at the base of this drop, as well, which would probably make for a decent swimming hole in the summer. Note: Be careful if you decide to see the top of either waterfall (or for that matter, any waterfall), since rocks can be slippery and falling can be very bad. Another note: Kevin Adams' Waterfalls of Virginia and West Virginia describes getting to the base of the lower drop as a somewhat dangerous scramble that is not worth it. I did not find it to be dangerous or a scramble and I found the view of the falls from the base to be very rewarding, but I suppose you should also keep his advice in mind for safety's sake.

Past Rose River Falls, the trail continues a steep descent, veering away from the Rose River for the most part. At the end of the descent, the trail returned to the side of the cascading Rose River before reaching a flat plain at the very bottom of the hike. Here, the trail headed off to the right along Hogcamp Branch, beginning the ascent. The very beginning of the Hogcamp Branch section is not terribly remarkable, but that changed once we reached an old copper mine.

Remnants of an old copper mine
A copper mine once operated here around the turn of the last century, well before the establishment of the park. The most obvious remnants are a concrete slab with rusting plates left atop it and a pile of tailings left at the foot of a small cliff. According to Henry Heatwole, the copper here was found in basalt but was difficult to extract, leading to the abandonment of the mine.

After passing the copper mine, we made a small stream crossing and then crossed Hogcamp Branch by a bridge. The bridge marked the beginning of one of the most special segments of stream in the park. Past the bridge, the trail hugged the creek, which tumbled continuously in numerous tiny cascades and formed multiple deep, beautiful pools.

Cascade on Hogcamp Branch
At times, we found the stream so enticing that we decided to leave the trail and just rock-hop along the stream. The trail was never too far away, so hopping back onto the trail didn't involve any bushwhacking.

We took our time ascending along the stream and enjoyed each miniature waterfall. Eventually, we arrived at another bridge across Hogcamp Branch and the intersection with the Rose River Fire Road. At the bridge, a small, narrow waterfall perhaps 15-20 feet high was visible further up the gorge. I checked out that waterfall before heading up the Dark Hollow Falls Trail, which started at the bridge, and headed steeply uphill for a fifth of a mile past multiple high drops to the tallest waterfall on Hogcamp Branch, 70-foot Dark Hollow Falls.

Dark Hollow Falls
I've described Dark Hollow Falls in more detail in another post. This visit (my third) was the least crowded: although a few other visitors passed by while we were at the falls, we didn't have to deal with large throngs of tourists. We did some scrambling around the falls and I found a few viewpoints of the falls that I hadn't known about previously. After a short while at the falls, we descended back to the Rose River Fire Road, which we took uphill. The road was surprisingly well maintained for a fire road. Halfway through the ascent, we passed by Cave Cemetery, a resting spot for members of the Cave family, one of the many families relocated from the Blue Ridge when Shenandoah National Park was established. The road eventually brought us back to Fishers Gap and the end of the hike, 1.1 miles past the junction with the Dark Hollow Falls Trail. Options

There is some interesting geology on Hogcamp Branch. Both Dark Hollow Falls and Rose River Falls are formed in greenstone, which is normal and expected in Shenandoah. However, during the rock-hop, I found that the lower section of Hogcamp Branch cuts through granite. I am not sure why there is a section of granite exposed in an otherwise greenstone/Catoctin formation dominated area, but I would certainly like to know!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Pinnacle and Mary's Rock

Mary's Rock from the Pinnacle
6.6 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

I've already written a trail report about hiking to Mary's Rock from Panorama. This post focuses on a different route to Mary's Rock that also swings by the summit of the Pinnacle, the fifth highest peak in the park. It travels through a large portion of the area where Pedlar Formation granite forms the Blue Ridge Crest. This is not a very difficult hike- although there is elevation gain involved in reaching the summit of both the Pinnacle and Mary's Rock, neither ascents are very long and both summits involve incredibly scenic payoffs for the uphill. Almost the entirety of this hike follows the Appalachian Trail.

I headed to Shenandoah on the first warm spring weekend of the year with two friends. I had trouble choosing a hike, so my friends helped me choose what was probably one of the more scenic options in the park. I made my way through surprisingly heavy Saturday morning traffic- I guess that the day was too nice?- up US 29 and onto 231 at Madison. As we drove down 231, signs of spring were everywhere: trees blossoming and budding, a thin layer of delicate green warm-weather frost on the tips of oaks, maples, and tulip poplars.

After stopping to buy honey at Sperryville and taking a short detour onto the scenic Woodward Rd, we drove up to Thornton Gap and into the park. Clearly, I was not the only person to notice the warm weather: for the first time since late October, I had to wait in line to get through the park entrance. When the leaves leave and the bears hide for the winter, the visitors, like the birds, head to warmer places: farther south, or heated houses. Now winter was over: woodpeckers drilled at trees, ants built colonies, and the fair-weather lovers of the DC area were back in the park. Trailheads were overflowing with cars in the same way that a stream overflows after a rainstorm. I stopped at Pinnacles Overlook to gaze down Corbin Hollow to the grand face of Old Rag before continuing on and parking at the trailhead.

The trailhead for this hike is at Jewell Hollow Overlook, around mile 36 of Skyline Drive. A large parking area is connected to the smaller overlook area that is closest to the road. A short connector at the far end of the trail reaches the Appalachian Trail in ten yards.

We hopped onto the Appalachian Trail heading north, which quickly dropped us below the overlook. Hiking just a couple yards below Skyline Drive, the trail immediately had views: Shenandoah Valley, Neighbor Mountain, and Mary's Rock were all visible. The trail cut through the grassy area cleared for Jewell Hollow Overlook and passed the Leading Ridge Trail before beginning a steady but gentle climb.

View of Mary's Rock and Pass Mountain from the start of the trail
After a mile and about 450 feet of ascent, the trail arrived at the summit ridge of The Pinnacle. I've never understood the naming of this peak: view from just about any perspective, the Pinnacle is a fairly flat peak with a broad summit ridge. Mary's Rock, on the other hand, has a much more pyramidal shape and its peak is a rock spine that pokes above the ridge. I've always felt that the names would make much more sense the other way around. The only explanation would be the fairly extensive boulders on the west face of the Pinnacle, but these are not quite as prominent as the boulders on Mary's Rock. Upon reaching some of the rocky viewpoints near the summit, we stopped to admire the view. From these rocks, Mary's Rock is the most eyecatching feature, rising steeply from Shenandoah Valley.

Near the summit, we found what were either hawk or owl pellets. We poked at them with sticks and found the fur and mandibles of small rodents inside. There were also some feathers- were these birds eating other birds, or did their own feathers end up in their pellets? Pellets are fascinating, as they yield insights into the diets of local birds; owls and hawks cough them up because they're unable to digest some portions of their prey. We saw many more pellets on the remainder of the hike. Spring means new plant life, which means food for the rodents, which in turn means food for predatory birds.

Owl or hawk pellet?
We hiked for a little while along the broad top of the Pinnacle before beginning a descent down its north slope. At the end of the steepest descent of the hike, we arrived at Byrd's Nest Shelter #3, a shelter for backpackers. After a short stop to check out the shelter, the nearby campsites, and the bear poles, we continued northward on the AT.

Byrd's Nest Shelter #3
We began a gradual ascent up Mary's Rock. The trail passed by rocky viewpoints to the west every now and then and passed by the intersections with a fire road and the Meadow Spring Trail. Past the Meadow Spring Trail, many more viewpoints began opening to the west. We ate lunch lazily under the warm spring sun with a view of the Pinnacle and Shenandoah Valley before continuing on the last short stretch to the summit.

View of the Pinnacle from Mary's Rock
When the AT double backed to turn downhill, we took the short spur trail a tenth of a mile to the summit of Mary's Rock. We repeated the rock scramble that I did back during my December trip to Mary's Rock. The rock scramble was every bit as fun as last time- in my opinion, easily equal to Old Rag in the fun factor. After traversing the summit, we returned to the viewpoint and enjoyed the expansive view as afternoon clouds rolled in.

Neighbor Mountain from Mary's Rock

One feature that I realized was visible at Mary's Rock that I hadn't noticed in the past was Little Devil Stairs, a rocky gorge in the North District of the park that is situated on the south side of Hogback. From Mary's Rock, I could see a deep furrow in Hogback that must be Little Devil Stairs. The visibility was also reduced compared to other times; this was likely due to the pollen in the air and the interactions of warmth and pollution and tree transpiration to create smog. Although Edinburg Gap was visible in Massanutten Mountain, Great North Mountain and the ridges of West Virginia were hidden on the hazy horizon.

On our return trip, we ran into many hikers and backpackers. The total number of hikers that we saw on this hike- probably around 25- was more people than I had seen on all of my Virginia hikes combined since late October.

This hike can be shortened by making a round trip out of the hike up to the Pinnacle- that hike would be 2 miles round trip with 450 feet elevation gain.

This hike goes through a section of particularly interesting geology. Both the Pinnacle and Mary's Rock are topped with granite, a rarity in Shenandoah. The granite is part of the Pedlar Formation, the basement rock in the Blue Ridge. Another common rock on these peaks is gneiss, a metamorphic rock with slightly different chemical properties than granite that is foliated (it has stripes/directions). The Pedlar Formation contains some of the oldest rock in Shenandoah: the rock atop the Pinnacle and Mary's Rock was formed as early as 1.1 billion years ago in the Grenville Orogeny. To give a sense of perspective- that is roughly a quarter of the age of earth, 600 million years older than the development of major forms of animal life during the Cambrian Explosion, and roughly a twelfth of the age of the universe. The Grenville Orogeny was an ancient mountain-building period that resulted in a mountain range running from modern-day Quebec to Texas, roughly in the location of the modern Appalachians; however, the Grenville Orogeny did not form the Appalachians. The Grenville Mountains eventually wore down, but the rock layers left from that mountain-building period were again uplifted in the Alleghenian Orogeny about 280 million years ago to form the modern Blue Ridge.

The Pinnacle and Stony Man from granite and gneiss outcrops on Mary's Rock

Friday, March 16, 2012


View of Hanse Mountain and US 33 from Hightop
3 miles round trip, 900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy

Hightop is the highest peak in the South District of Shenandoah. The relatively short and moderate trail to the summit makes it one of the more appealing hikes in this area of the park. The hike's proximity to the Swift Run Gap entrance makes it even more popular.

I did this hike last July with my family. My parents came down to Charlottesville on a Saturday afternoon and we headed up I-64 to Rockfish Gap and onto Skyline Drive. This was my very first visit to the South District of Shenandoah: since then, I've returned over 14 times. We didn't stop at any overlooks on our way along the drive, as we were set on getting to Loft Mountain campground before the campground filled up. In retrospect, this was a bit disappointing: it took me until November to finally stop at all of the overlooks in the district and learn what I missed out by skipping all the viewpoints along the way.

We nabbed one of the last spots at the Loft Mountain Campground that night, right next to the water storage tanks atop the mountain. While the proximity of the water tanks made the location suboptimal, there was a decent view from our campsite due to our proximity to the summit of the mountain. One of the most amusing facts about Loft Mountain campground is that it is not actually on Loft Mountain, but instead on nearby Big Flat Mountain. The campground was apparently not named after Big Flat Mountain because the park deemed that "Big Flat" didn't have quite the same ring to it as "Loft."

We hiked some of the trails around the campground after dinner, following a short segement of the AT between the campstore and the south end of the campground. However, I only later learned that had we hiked a little farther, we would reach greenstone outcrops with views to the south. But that leaves me something to check out in the future!

After a fairly warm night, we awoke the next morning to beautiful sunrise colors painted on the sky and the mountains to the north. We ate breakfast, packed up, and made our way north along Skyline Drive to the trailhead.

Sunrise at Loft Mountain Campground
The trailhead was at about mile 68 of Skyline Drive, barely a mile south of the Swift Run Gap Entrance. There was parking on the west side of the road and the trail followed the Appalachian Trail on the east side of the drive.

We followed the trail up the side of the mountain. The elevation gain wasn't gentle, but it also wasn't terribly steep. For the most part it wound through traditional Shenandoah woodland. We did the hike at a fairly relaxed pace, resting during some of the ascents. There were few extended flat sections of the trail: for the most part, the trail climbed at a steady but never too steep incline.

An hour out from the trailhead, we reached the rock outcrop viewpoints near the summit of Hightop. A few yards past the second, wider rocky viewpoint, I followed a faint, unmarked trail leads to the left to the true summit of Hightop, where there were the concrete remains of the base of a former fire tower. The summit was wooded, however, and had no views, so I backtracked to the main Hightop viewpoint.

The greenstone outcrop here was not as prominent as the ones at Stony Man or Humpback: the rocks just barely reach above the trees to allow the view. The view encompasses much of the South District of the park: directly to the south, Flattop is the nearby summit with buildings atop it,  Bucks Elbow is faintly visible to the southeast in the far distance, Trayfoot is the sharp peak directly south and fairly far away, Loft Mountain is the peak right behind Flattop, and Brown Mountain and Rockytop are stubbier mountains to the southwest. Closer in the field of view are Rocky Mount and Hanse Mountain, a solitary hill that rises to the south of US 33, which cuts through the forest on its way into Shenandoah Valley. The southern end of Massanutten is also visible.

View south to Rocky Mount and Massanutten Mountain
Hightop is one of the many creatively named peaks in this part of the park. Nearby peaks are named Roundtop and Flattop, and a different mountain closer to the originally named Big Flat Mountain is confusingly named High Top Mountain.

As I noted earlier, the rock that makes up the peak of Hightop is greenstone. From Hightop, it is easy to see the two layers of the Blue Ridge here: directly to the south is the Flattop-Loft-Cedar-Bucks Elbow Catoctin formation layer, while to the south west is the Hanse-Rocky Mount-Brown Mountain-Rockytop-Trayfoot Chilohwee sedimentary layer. The Catoctin layer makes up most of the highest peaks in this part of the park (Hightop, Big Flat, Loft, Cedar), but the slightly lower western layer forms the actual divide between the Rivanna and Shenandoah River watersheds.

Swift Run, which lies just north of Hightop and flows down from Swift Run Gap, is the northernmost stream that drains into the Rivanna River. South River, the stream to the north of Swift Run, and all the streams up through Manassas Gap drain into the Rappahannock-Rapidan watershed.

View south

Bearfence Mountain

View to the west
1.2 miles loop, 300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate; though you could make a case for moderate due to the rock scramble
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The hike up Bearfence Mountain is fairly short, but the rewards are ample: one of the park's few 360-degree views and a fun rock scramble. I've hiked this trail twice: once as a round trip to the true summit last September, once as a loop in December. There are two possible ways of reaching Bearfence: from the main Bearfence parking lot with minimal elevation gain, or with a bit more elevation gain coming from the south side of the mountain.

I'll describe my earlier hike on this peak. I found two friends to hike this trail with me on a Friday afternoon in September. We left Charlottesville and made our way through traffic up 29 and over on 33. We stopped at Baldface Mountain overlook on our way to the trailhead, which was fairly empty. The trailhead was at mile 55 of Skyline Drive, with parking on the west side of the road and the trail starting on the east side of the road. We quickly hopped onto the trail, which ascended gently through the forest past a junction with the Appalachian Trail. Just before starting the rock scramble, we saw deer, the only large wildlife spotted on this trip. Sadly, most of the deer in the park are no longer afraid of humans- it's likely the deer around Bearfence are regularly fed by ill-informed visitors, campers, and picnickers at nearby Lewis Mountain.

The rock scramble started a quarter mile from the trailhead. Most of the scrambling here was easy- certainly easy compared to Old Rag. Blazes clearly marked the path on the rocks and the scramble rarely, if ever, took the hike close to any cliffs or drop-offs. Shortly into the scramble, views began popping out to the west: the Grindstone Mountain part of the park was visible. The trail went off and on the rocky spine of Bearfence until reaching a more extended scramble that took the trial onto a large, exposed mass of greenstone on the ridge. This rocky area was the viewpoint of the hike, about 0.4 miles from the trailhead; we stopped here briefly to admire the 360-view but were not sure whether or not it was the destination of the hike, so we continued onward. The scramble continued past the viewpoint, gradually gaining elevation until the scramble ended shortly before the true summit of Bearfence. The true summit of Bearfence was wooded and unremarkable, but there was a good 180-degree rocky viewpoint to the west just to the west of the actual summit. We checked out the view there, figured that we had already passed the main viewpoint, and returned there to relax in the very cool, almost cold September weather before returning the way we came to the car. The weather was remarkably chilly that day, and two days later, it snowed an inch at Big Meadows, a rare September snow.

Hazeltop and Blackrock from Bearfence
There are a lot of peaks visible from Bearfence. The mountain is situated at a unique point where the Blue Ridge widens out to both the east and west, with Grindstone Mountain stretching into Shenandoah Valley in the west and Jones Mountain/Bluff Mountain stretching into the Piedmont in the east. Also visible from the main viewpoint on the hike are Hazeltop and Blackrock, the third and fourth highest peaks in the park, respectively. This Blackrock is a different Blackrock from the Blackrock of the South District: that peak is a talus slope on a ridge connected to Trayfoot Mountain, while this Blackrock is right next to Big Meadows. Massanutten Mountain's southern end is also visible to the south.

In my December hike, I did this trail as a loop: starting from a small, unmarked parking area just south of Bearfence, we ascended the mountain from the other side and did the loop in a counterclockwise direction. The return segment of the loop followed the Appalachian Trail along the foot of the greenstone spine of Bearfence.

View towards Bluff Mountain, winter
Bearfence likely got its named from the wall-like greenstone formation along its ridgeline. This rock, part of the igneous Catoctin formation, erodes slowly and thus makes up the rock on most of the high peaks in the park.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Loft Mountain Loop

View west from Loft Mountain
2.7 miles loop, 570 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Loft Mountain Loop is an easy hike in the South District of Shenandoah National Park that delivers fantastic views. I have a very fond memory of this hike- when I hiked it on an October Friday afternoon, the easy hiking, the superlative views, and the good company made this hike thoroughly enjoyable. This hike is also unique in that it was only my third visit to the South District of the Park, and my first visit in which I began familiarizing myself with an area that I've now come to know well and love.

I stole the hike idea from Henry Heatwole's guide. This loop combines a portion of the Frazier Discovery Trail (formerly the Deadening Trail) with a mile or so on the AT and a final stretch on a fire road. The hike tops out atop Loft Mountain, a double-peaked mountain that is the namesake of a campground which is actually situated on nearby Big Flat Mountain. Loft Mountain forms the eastern boundary of the Big Run watershed, the largest watershed in the park and one of the park's most wild, scenic areas.

The Friday before fall break, I found three friends to go an afternoon hike. We left Charlottesville in the early afternoon, battling bad traffic to work our way up US 29 and into the park. Immediately upon entering the park, I pulled over at the Swift Run Overlook. The day was beautiful: the sky was a beautiful blue and a lone tree at the overlook had turned a blazing orange. We made our way slowly south along the drive, stopping at Bacon Hollow, Brown Mountain, and Ivy Creek Overlooks, reveling in the cool temperatures and the early autumn beauty at each stop. We eventually made our way to the trailhead at the Loft Mountain Development/Wayside at Mile 79 of Skyline Drive.

Before we had even started a hike, we found a fascinating white caterpillar on the sidewalk at the wayside. Any help with identifying it would be greatly appreciated!


We crossed the road and made our way up the right fork of the Frazier Discovery Trail. The trail climbs fairly gently through beautiful, fairly young forest to the ridgeline of Loft Mountain. Upon reaching the ridgeline, the trail intersected the Appalachian Trail and heads north, and then immediately came to a viewpoint. To the left off of the trail, a spur led to one of Loft Mountain's rocky summits. Here, a large greenstone outcrop poked above the trees. The views west were sweeping: we could see the entire Big Run Valley, including Rockytop, Brown Mountain, and Rocky Mountain.

I explored the rocks, which weren't terribly extensive; the lower regions of the greenstone outcrops lacked views and didn't seem to make for particularly safe scrambling. We stayed atop the summit for quite a while enjoying the view. When we finally dragged ourselves off the summit, we followed the AT north and immediately came upon Loft Mountain's second greenstone viewpoint. We didn't stop here for long as the view was much the same. Here, we took the AT heading north, separating from the Frazier Discovery Trail.

The AT over the next mile was very enjoyable to follow. The trail was narrow and grassy and followed the ridgeline, giving us occasional obscured views to the side and lots of interesting and accessible vegetation to check out. We eventually came to the trail's eastern viewpoint, a small widening area of the trail with a view into the Piedmont.

View east from Loft Mountain
Past this viewpoint, the trail left the ridgeline and began to make its way downhill. The woods here in early fall were particularly beautiful. The late afternoon sunlight bounced off the green and golden leaves of the forest, creating incredible lighting in the forest around us.

AT on Loft Mountain
We eventually made our way down to a junction with the Ivy Creek Fire Road. We followed the fire road, which quickly arrived at the Ivy Creek Shelter. Although the shelter itself was closed, we did explore a nearby spring and a picnic table. We then continued down the fire road, a flat portion of hiking that brought us back to Skyline Drive. We then followed the Drive south a hundred yards back to the Loft Mountain wayside.

None of us had brought food, so we dropped into the wayside briefly and bought some pumpkin fudge. We then drove south to Dundo Overlook, where we stretched out on the grassy area next to the parking for the overlook and watched the sun's last rays paint Austin Mountain. We also split the fudge, which was incredibly delicious.

Sunset at Dundo Overlook
After sunset, we made our way further south, stopping at the Riprap Overlook to catch a view of the Valley and the lights of the small towns under the dying light of dusk. I finished driving Skyline Drive in the dark. By the time I reached Rockfish Gap, my friends were asleep, so Beethoven's Third kept me awake as I drove back to Charlottesville from a fun trip.

Humpback Rocks

Fall colors on Dobie Mountain, from Humpback Rocks
2 miles round trip, 720 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, free parking

Humpback Rocks is easily the most popular hike on the northern Blue Ridge parkway and it's not hard to understand why: this massive rock outcrop delivers an airy and magnificent view of Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge, and the Piedmont. The trailhead is close to I-64 and US 250 and the hike quickly pops hikers atop a big rock with a tremendous view. The hike is particularly popular with students from the University of Virginia, who frequently make the short drive out here from Charlottesville to see the sunrise from this peak. I have done this trail more times than I've done any other trail- at the time of writing, I've done the Humpback hike seven times, five times for sunrises (and at a later edit time, ten times, seven sunrises).

Yet there are some serious drawbacks to this hike. The number one issue is the crowds: on a weekend, there are likely to be tens of hikers on this trail at once. On specific mornings, you might find a hundred people on the rocks to watch the sunrise. The only times I've not had to share these rocks have been a weekday morning (non-sunrise) in July and a sunrise on July 4th weekend two years ago. Another drawback are the state of the rocks themselves: visitors have not been kind to this natural feature. Graffiti is scrawled all over the upper portion of the rocks. However, hikers can also escape the crowds by continuing on from the rocks to hike all of Humpback Mountain, with more great views, or hike nearby Dobie Mountain.

I would imagine that this page might be useful for the multitude of UVA student groups that always plan group hikes to the rocks, so I'll post a detailed set of directions for getting to the trailhead from the east:

Take I-64 west to exit 99 onto US 250. Turn right onto US 250 at the end of the ramp. As soon as you pass under the I-64 bridge, there'll be a sign for Skyline Drive/Blue Ridge Parkway on the right; turn here. This drive goes a hundred yards to an intersection with Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Turn right onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and follow it for 5 miles south. The trailhead is at Humpback Gap Overlook, which will be a turnoff on the left side of the road. The total driving time from Charlottesville is around 30 minutes. If you are leaving from Charlottesville and hoping to see a sunrise, plan on being on the road 75 minutes before sunrise.

I'll detail a sunrise hike I did to the rocks in July. Three good friends and I decided to do this hike on July 4th weekend. We left Charlottesville an hour before sunrise and quickly made it up to Rockfish Gap and over to the trailhead. As we began the ascent, we got a few glimpses of the city lights of Waynesboro. Half an hour before sunrise, the sky was already beginning to brighten.

We went uphill immediately. The trail was wide and covered with gravel for the first part of the ascent. A half mile of climbing from the trailhead, the ascent was half over and trail leveled out briefly. Here, the trail had a flat/downhill portion and followed the west side of the mountain before continuing the ascent. There was also an old trail here that is a more direct route to the summit. That trail had become badly eroded and so it was now blocked off. Don't take it- let the mountain recover.

We continued the ascent up the mountain's west slope, climbing by stairs and switchbacks for another half mile until reaching the ridgetop. This marked the end of our ascent: we followed the trail to an intersection and took the right fork, which led downhill to the rocks. Once at the rocks, a bit of easy scrambling brought us to the top of the rocks and a gorgeous view. Five minutes after we arrived, the sun began to pop out from the horizon, brightening up the pink and purple skies.

Humpback Rocks Sunrise
This trail is fairly steep and may be challenging for anyone who doesn't have much experience hiking. Anyone planning on doing a sunrise hike in the spring or fall should know that the temperatures atop the rock during those times are often 20 degrees below those recorded in Charlottesville mid-morning. In other words, bring a jacket or you'll be cold!

The view from Humpback is about 270 degrees and is incredibly grand, in part because Humpback Mountain is the first major 3000-foot peak south of Rockfish Gap. To the east, Afton Valley and Castle Rock are visible. To the north, the entire spine of the Blue Ridge can be seen: just below Humpback is Dobie Mountain and further north are Afton, Scott, Bear Den, Calf, and Bucks Elbow Mountains. Bucks Elbow is the peak that protrudes farthest to the east. Trayfoot, Blackrock, Cedar, and Rocks Mountain are also visible. A little further west, the southern half of Massanutten is visible. Above Shenandoah Valley, much of Great North Mountain is visible: Elliot Knob is directly to the west, while on a very clear day the Tibbet Knob/Big Schloss area might be visible on the West Virginia border! The peaks of St. Mary's Wilderness are closer and to the west, while right behind the rocks is Humpback Mountain itself.

Labelled northward view from Humpback Rocks
Dobie and Afton Mountains and Shenandoah National Park from Humpback
Humpback Rocks
Blue Ridge Parkway
A short note on geology: Humpback Rocks is a very typical rock outcrop of the Blue Ridge crest. Like Stony Man further north in Shenandoah, the rocks are a large exposed chunk of greenstone of the Catoctin formation. A note on the rocks themselves rather than the geology: if you scramble down to the lower rocks, you'll notice large amounts of lichen, which are entirely absent on the upper rocks. The difference between the upper and lower rocks that allow lichen to grow in one are but not the other? People! So many people visit that it's impossible for lichen to grow on the upper rocks. In fact, some of the areas on the upper rocks have been walked smooth by the many hikers who come here.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Trip report: Wolf Gap/Trout Run Valley

Sunset from a ridge above Wolf Gap

I'll break from the fairly monotonous hike descriptions to do a trip report on my recent two-night camping trip at Wolf Gap Recreation Area, in George Washington National Forest on the VA/WV boundary.

The Wolf Gap area was a place I had planned on visiting for a while. I had known about the Big Schloss hike and had planned on making my way there for a long time. When I began dreaming up spring break plans, I first thought of going south- Mt. Rogers, the southern Blue Ridge, or the Smokies would likely be a bit warmer. I ultimately decided on Wolf Gap, though, because it kept me in fairly familiar territory- the Blue Ridge would be just 30 miles away over Massanutten- and because the Wolf Gap campground was still open through the winter.

I managed to talk a friend who didn't have much experience camping into going with me. I originally envisioned a fairly lengthy trip, with enough time to do Big Schloss, Tibbet Knob, and Halfmoon Mountain before either spending more time exploring the other hikes of the Great North Mountain area (White Rocks, Laurel Run, Trout Pond, Little Schloss) or driving deeper into West Virginia (Blackwater Falls, Dolly Sods). Ultimately, I was talked into a shorter trip, which ended up being a good idea.

After a night of grocery and gear shopping and packing, my friend and I left Charlottesville on a weekday morning. Google Maps recommended taking I-64, I-81, and SR 675 to get to Wolf Gap in 2 hours, but I wanted a more laid back, scenic route. So instead of taking a major road out of Charlottesville, I drove out on Barracks/Garth Road from Charlottesville out to Free Union and then took small winding routes all the way until I reached SR 810 at the foot of Big Flat Mountain. I followed SR 810 along the foot of the Blue Ridge, gaining a new perspective on the mountains I saw so often on Skyline Drive, until I reached US 33. I took US 33 up to Skyline Drive, and then took Skyline Drive from Swift Run Gap north to Thornton Gap.

Despite my multiple visits to the park, I hadn't driven the length of the Central District before- the last time I had traveled that full distance was back in high school. In fact, I hadn't been on the section between Skyland and Thornton Gap for nearly four years! So the drive was good fun: I stopped at the Point Overlook and took the short trail down to the Point, which had an impressive view of Hazeltop. Looking south from the viewpoint, I was surprised that I could see as far as Trayfoot; Lewis Peak, Rockytop, Rocky Mount, and Hanse Mountain were also identifiable. Unfortunately, visibility that day was only so-so, and the ridges beyond Massanutten were hard to see.

View south from the Point
I also stopped at Spitler Knoll overlook, with its great view of New Market Gap, and later stopped at Crescent Rock overlook, which I hadn't been to in nearly six years. I eventually made it to Thornton Gap and took US 211 down into the valley, bypassing Luray and making my way through New Market Gap to New Market. I followed US 11 north through some small, charming Valley towns and finally took SR 675 at Edinburg up to Wolf Gap. The drive up to the gap was very scenic.

At the campground, my friend and I pitched our tent, had lunch, and did the Big Schloss hike. After returning from our hike, I made some vegetarian chili and we settled in for the night. What started out as a fairly warm 45ish night ended up in the 30s, so we both awoke the next morning quite cold.

The second day of our trip, we did the Halfmoon Mountain hike. After the hike, we decided to treat ourselves to ice cream, so I drove out to Wardensville, a small and cute town north of the Trout Run Valley.  We stopped at Star Mercantile to get strawberry cones. Our stop at Star Mercantile was quite fortunate: while there, I chatted with Howie, the manager, who gave me suggestions for other good hikes in the Trout Run Valley area, and also told me of thru-hiking the AT in 1995 and of his hikes in Big Bend National Park, another of my favorite places. His friendliness made quite an impression on me: if you're passing through Wardensville Thursday through Sunday, be sure to stop here for some food and some good hiking stories!

The second night, the skies were crystal clear, so we spent the first half of the evening checking out the night sky. The night sky here was incredible- I hadn't seen anything like it since leaving Big Bend. I also got to play around a bit more with long exposures and star trails.

Night Sky at Wolf Gap. Can you see Orion's Belt?
That night ended up being even colder. When we woke up on the last morning, it was easily below 20 degrees outside. Our bowls and our clothing would freeze to the table or the ground if left alone for more than a minute. My hot chocolate, left alone for ten minutes, turned into chocolate ice cream.

After breakfast and cleaning up our campsite, we did the Tibbet Knob hike. After finishing that hike and having a final lunch, we left Wolf Gap and made our way back. I decided to drive back on a route that would have minimal overlap with the route we came on, so after we got back to Edinburg, I continued taking SR 675 and crossed Massanutten Mountain into Fort Valley. The route narrowed when it crossed the eastern ridge of Massanutten; I paused at the top of that ridge, where there was an opening in the trees with a beautiful view of the Blue Ridge and Thornton Gap.

View of Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge from SR 675 on Massanutten
From here, I made my way down to Luray and then I took US 340 down the length of Shenandoah Valley. This was an absolute pleasure to drive. South of Luray, US 340 is incredibly scenic, passing by farms at the foot of Stony Man, Hawksbill, and Blackrock. After looping around Grindstone Mountain and passing through Elkton, the route followed the base of the mountains in the South District. I had my first views of Rocky Mount and the King and Queen Rocks on Brown Mountain from the Valley. When we arrived in Waynesboro, I took US 250 back up to Rockfish Gap and followed 250 back to Charlottesville, school, and the end of a cold but fun trip.

Halfmoon Mountain

View south into Trout Run Valley
9.5 miles loop, 2100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, due to length and elevation gain

The Halfmoon Mountain hike is a good day loop in the Great North Mountain area that utilizes a number of trails in the area to circumnavigate Halfmoon Mountain. The rewards are a pretty stream and a great view of Trout Run Valley. I did this hike during my Wolf Gap camping trip and found it to be very enjoyable. I got the idea for this hike from Hiking Upward- it seemed like a more interesting hike than the round-trip hikes suggested on Summit Post.

My friend and I drove out from Wolf Gap to the trailhead after a cold night. The trailhead was on an unmarked gravel road in George Washington National Forest off of the Trout Run Road in West Virginia. Wolf Gap lies on the VA/WV boundary and is accessible by taking SR 675 from Edinburg in Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. We reached this trailhead by continuing down the Trout Run Road into West Virginia, passing Rockland and Perry. At the foot of Halfmoon Mountain, the road turned to the left. Soon afterward, the road reentered George Washington National Forest. After the road crossed Trout Run, we looked to the right for an unmarked gravel road. This gravel road was a couple hundred yards short of the intersection of the Trout Pond/Thorny Bottom Road. I drove up the gravel road and found the trailhead at the end of a loop in the road. The trail, actually a former fire road, was blocked by a gate and had a sign by it that read "Bucktail Trail."

We got onto the orange-blazed trail, which began by winding through some fairly young forest on the west slope of Halfmoon Mountain. After an initial gentle ascent, the Bucktail Trail began a gentle descent toward Halfmoon Run. There were views of the flat Rocky Ridge to our west and of Wildcat and Anderson Ridge to the north.

Bucktail Trail
The Bucktail Trail eventually arrived at Halfmoon Run. Instead of crossing the run on a bridge here, we instead continued following the orange blazed trail, which led us to the right and along the run. The trail then crossed the run five times. Rock outcroppings popped up from beside the stream at some spots. The stream itself was pretty and made this section of trail interesting.

Halfmoon Run
After the last stream crossing, the trail veered away from the run and began a gentle, gradual ascent. We hiked through dense thickets of mountain laurel, which grew everywhere along the trail. This would undoubtedly be a spectacular hike in May or June, when the laurel blooms.

Mountain laurel on the Bucktail Trail
The Bucktail Trail ended at an intersection with another fire road. My friend and I had lunch here as I tried to figure out the route- which ended up being a bit trickier than I had thought when I realized I had left my Hiking Upward map in the car. I decided that the fire road leading in Halfmoon Mountain's direction would likely be the right trail and luckily, I ended up being right. We took the fire road to the right at that junction and after a quarter mile came upon the intersection with the German Wilson Trail.

The pink-blazed German Wilson Trail was the most difficult part of this hike. The trail is fairly steep and there is a large amount of fallen trees on the trail. Thus, the trail was not only a bit hard to go up, it was occasionally a little hard to follow as well. We managed to stay on the trail and we eventually made our way up to the ridgeline and the intersection with the white-blazed Halfmoon Trail.

At this intersection, we took the spur trail to the right, which began an ascent that was gentle at first and steep at the very end that put us on the summit of Halfmoon Mountain. The remains of an old stone lookout remain at the summit, but there were no longer views there- to see the Halfmoon Mountain view, we made our way a couple yards further to a couple of rocks with an open view of the Trout Run Valley and the endless ridges of West Virginia. I found another viewpoint to the west at the very end of the trail that allowed me to see the western peak of Halfmoon Mountain and more of the endless valleys and ridges.

The western half of Halfmoon and the valleys and ridges of West Virginia
We left the windy summit after views and a snack and made our way down the mountain on the Halfmoon Trail. We followed this trail to the foot of the mountain, where we came upon another stream that is confusingly named Halfmoon Run. Here, we followed the pink-blazed Bucktail Cutoff Trail to the right. This trail had some ups and downs as it made its way across the base of Halfmoon Mountain. We had to cross a few streams on this stretch of trail. The trail was very pleasant, with occasional views through the bare trees to Trout Valley and the north end of Long Mountain. After following it for a while, the trail eventually dropped back to the Bucktail Trail, which we followed back to the parking area for the last quarter mile.

Although it's a bit of a long hike for just a single viewpoint, I found the hike to be an overall worthwhile one: the stream was nice, the view was excellent, and terrain that the trail passed through was fun and enjoyable to hike through.