Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Bear Den Mountain

View of Humpback Mountain and Devil's Knob from Bear Den Mountain
1.2 miles round trip, 350 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Trailhead on Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Bear Den Mountain delivers some decent views of the South District of Shenandoah National Park, but ultimately, this is not one of the most exciting hikes in the park. It is certainly pleasant and there are some interesting views, but I would not recommend this as an introduction to the park; it is probably better for hikers more familiar with the park who want to check out some different perspectives on the Blue Ridge. Bear Den is on a low section of the range and the summit is actually outside the park, despite the hike starting on Skyline Drive.

I did this hike on my busiest weekend of the year in December. Because of its proximity to Charlottesville, I figured I could do this hike and get back to homework within two hours, which ended up being a fair assessment. I left Charlottesville early in the morning, headed up I-64 to Rockfish Gap, and drove five miles into the empty park to the trailhead. The trailhead is at mile 99 of Skyline Drive, at Beagle Gap.

From the Beagle Gap parking area, I crossed the drive and walked through a gate in the fence onto the Appalachian Trail. At this point, Shenandoah National Park is literally just Skyline Drive and the few yards of land immediately bordering it. Thus, as soon as the trail left the drive, it headed on non-federal land. I hiked up the slight incline through the grassy field at Beagle Gap, which is maintained by mowing. Early morning sunlight lit the scene around me.

The fields at Beagle Gap
The Appalachian Trail then entered a short, fairly young forest. The trail was crunchy with needle ice, which had formed in the cold of the previous night. About 0.3 miles out from Beagle Gap, a spur trail broke off to the left. I followed that trail into a wide, open mountaintop brush area. The brush here was waist to chest-high but sparse, so there were views into the Piedmont and of Rockfish Valley and Castle Rock. Looking further south, I could also see the radio antennas atop Bear Den Mountain.

The radio towers atop Bear Den
After another ascent on the Appalachian Trail through a young forest, I reached the mountaintop, which was dominated by a number of large radio installations by the Virginia State Police. Most of the vegetation at the very top had been cleared for the radio towers, so there were views in various directions. To the west, a section of Shenandoah Valley was visible through a power line cut. To the east, parts of the Piedmont could be seen. The two most remarkable views were to the north and south: the flat, grassy summit of Little Calf Mountain was visible directly to the north and to the south lay massive Humpback Mountain. This view of Humpback Mountain was a rarity: I have not found many other viewpoints of the mountain from the Blue Ridge on the north side that are so close to the mountain.

One of the odder things at the top of Bear Den was a ring of tractor seats buried into the ground. Why are there tractor seats atop Bear Den? I'm not sure. The seats made a good rest spot before I headed back to Beagle Gap to finish this short hike.

Tractor seats atop Bear Den Mountain

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