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

No comments:

Post a Comment