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!

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