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.

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