Friday, March 2, 2012

Mary's Rock

View south to Stony Man and Shenandoah Valley from Mary's Rock
3.8 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate; reaching true summit requires short rock scramble
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive at Thornton Gap, Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required, trailhead usually accessible even when Skyline Drive closed due to snow

With sweeping views and access directly from one of the park's entrances, Mary's Rock is one of the most popular hikes in Shenandoah National Park. The view from the summit of Mary's Rock is one of the great views of the park: along with Old Rag and Bearfence Mountain, its summit is one of the few spots in the park with true 360-degree views. Mary's Rock was also one of the first hikes that I did in Shenandoah, back in high school. There are multiple approaches to this summit; I'll describe the approach from Panorama, which is a steep ascent along the Appalachian Trail that is usually accessible even when Skyline Drive is closed due to snow at times during the winter.

A heavy rainstorm in early December in Charlottesville meant a sizable snowstorm in the Blue Ridge. Two days after the storm, Skyline Drive was still closed, but I was curious to see the mountains in their snowy form and was eager to avoid studying for my finals, so I found a friend and drove up to Thornton Gap.

There was a good two inches of snow left at the gap when we arrived in the park. From the trailhead at the far end of the Panorama parking area, a short trail led to the Appalachian Trail, which we took south towards Mary's Rock. As soon as we got onto the the trail, we entered a winter wonderland of sorts- with wind-blown snow coating the trail, the trees the undergrowth. After passing a set of all-natural power lines, the trail began to climb gradually up the northwestern side of the mountain. This part of the trail was spectacular, probably since it was hidden from the sun: snow was everywhere and icicles hung from fallen trees and large rocks.
Snowy forest on the Appalachian Trail
The trail itself was crunchy with needle ice, with some of the needle ice up to four inches long. These needle ice formations were the largest I had ever seen. They form when there is shallow flowing water underground and the temperatures outside are freezing: after the top layer of the water freezes, water is drawn up the frozen needle by capillary action and then freezes, prolonging the needle.

Huge needle ice on the AT
 We soon followed the trail across the rocky spine of Mary's Rock and found ourselves on the sunnier eastern face. The trail switchbacked fairly gently up the mountain; as we did the hike in winter, we had good views through the trees of Mt. Marshall and Oventop on the way up. About 1.7 miles past the trailhead, we reached the turnoff for the summit, which headed west a tenth of a mile to the viewpoint.

The viewpoint has a very good 180-degree view to the north encompassing, in order of proximity, Pass Mountain, Neighbor Mountain to the northwest, Knob Mountain, Hogback, Mt. Marshall, and the Peak. To the west is a view of Shenandoah Valley and Massanutten Mountain, with Great North Mountain and the ridges of West Virginia in the far distance.

View to the north
Most visitors turn back here, where the trail ends, but we decided to make our hike more fun by making it to the actual summit. During my first trip to Mary's Rock after freshman year of high school, I decided for some reason that the short off-trail reaching the summit was somehow dangerous or perhaps at least not easy; I was quite mistaken. An easy three-minute scramble up the rocks on the back side of the viewpoint took us to the true summit, where the views to the south of Old Rag, Hazel Mountain, the Pinnacle, and Stony Man opened up. There are few grander views in this park.

The rocks continued past the summit, so we continued our scramble by following the peak's rocky spine. This section was lots of fun but required a bit more caution: we had to squeeze through a couple of tight spots between rocks and bushes and drop down off some rocks on our way. We eventually found ourselves back on the Appalachian Trail on the south side of the summit by descending down a fun granite wall, and made our way back to the viewpoint for a snack before heading down and back to Charlottesville.

The granite spine of Mary's Rock
This is a popular hike for a good reason. If you enjoy rock scrambles, the scrambling segment at the top is decently long and very fun; if you enjoy views, there's one of the most spectacular in all Shenandoah. If you're looking for a winter hike when Skyline Drive is closed, this may also fit the bill, as it allows you to enter the park without getting on the Drive.

The topography and geology around Mary's Rock is fascinating. Most of the park is dominated by Catoctin greenstone, the jagged rock found on Stony Man and Hawksbill. Along with the Pinnacle, Mary's Rock is one of the only Blue Ridge crest peaks in Shenandoah made of granite/granodiorite. The granite here is from the Pedlar Formation and is some of the oldest rock in the park: it even predates the Old Rag granite found to the east on the summits of Oventop and Old Rag.

Mary's Rock rises steeply to the south of Thornton Gap
Driving toward Thornton Gap from the east or west, Mary's Rock is an especially prominent mountain: north of the peak, the mountains are flat and low, but at Thornton Gap, Mary's Rock rises up like the prow of a ship above Pass Mountain. South of Mary's Rock, that height is preserved: in fact, seven of the park's ten highest peaks occur within an 18 mile stretch to the south of Thornton Gap.

Mary's Rock view in spring

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