Friday, March 16, 2012

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.

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