Friday, April 13, 2012

Ivy Creek and "Ivy Creek Knob"

Rockytop sunset
5.3 miles round trip, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

This is a very memorable but very rarely done hike. The hike follows a fire road from Loft Mountain Wayside to the AT and then follows the AT along a stream canyon and a ridgetop. Ivy Creek carves a pretty stream canyon with small cascades. The unnamed knob on this hike is a great viewpoint of the Big Run Valley; as it has no name to the extent of my knowledge and is unlabelled on USGS maps, I'll refer to it here as "Ivy Creek Knob." That is certainly not the official name of the small peak. "Ivy Creek Knob" lies on the Blue Ridge crest between Loft Mountain and Weaver Mountain.

I did this hike on a Friday afternoon with a good friend. After making our way through Friday afternoon traffic up Route 29, we entered the park from Swift Run Gap. The drive between Stanardsville and Swift Run Gap was incredible: dogwood and redbud bloomed alongside the road and Swift Run tumbled happily down its newly green hollow.

We decided to head into the South District of the park and began the drive up the bare slopes of Hightop past the Sandy Bottom Overlook. Below us, the Shenandoah Valley was awash in light green, with yellows creeping up Massanutten across the valley. We stopped at most of the overlooks to admire the new spring scenery and so that we could enjoy them one last time before construction starts at many of them.

Loft Mountain Overlook
In the late afternoon, we finally arrived at the Loft Mountain wayside, the trailhead for this hike. The wayside is at mile 79 of Skyline Drive, about 14 miles south from the Swift Run Entrance. We followed Skyline Drive north for about 100 meters to a fire road that branched out to the east side of the road and followed the fire road gradually uphill for a half mile to the Ivy Creek Shelter. A little past the shelter, we came to an intersection with the Appalachian Trail and began to follow it north.

From the intersection, the AT immediately begins descending on the north slope of Loft Mountain. As we descended, spring became more and more apparent: the forest floor was alive with new plant life and insects and some trees in the canopy above us showed the first hints of renewal. Wildflowers were plentiful and included many that I couldn't identify.

Moss Phlox? Flowers on the AT
As the trail continued descending, it passed through thickets of mountain laurel, which would undoubtedly be beautiful in May. At the end of the descent, we came upon Ivy Creek, a mountain stream flowing in a small canyon. We stopped at multiple points along this pretty stream. The trail cut through a grove of young evergreens near the stream before crossing Ivy Creek above a small cascade. While not an impressive cascade by height or volume, the solitude of the spot made it quite appealing. The rocks here are greenstone.

Ivy Creek Canyon
After crossing Ivy Creek, the trail began a gradual ascent, circling around a ridge. We hiked past a few spots with obscured views before ascending further. The trail soon paralleled Skyline Drive after regaining the ridgetop. A little further down, the trail began another ascent, this time up "Ivy Creek Knob." Close to the top of the ascent, we reached a fantastic viewpoint. Here, a small greenstone outcrop gave an incredible view of the Big Run Valley, with Rockytop, Patterson Ridge, Blackrock, and Trayfoot visible with Elliot Knob visible in the far distance. Continuing past the viewpoint, we reached the flat top of the knob, which was forested but had views through the trees of Rockytop and Brown Mountain. We then began a descent along an incredibly beautiful portion of the Appalachian Trail. From the top of "Ivy Creek Knob" down to its almost-intersection with Skyline Drive, the trail followed the grassy top of a fairly narrow ridgeline, with views through the trees of Hightop and Flattop. The grass, the mountains, and the still-bare trees cast long shadows in the magical late afternoon glow.

The grassy AT on Ivy Creek Knob
Ivy Creek Overlook was closed for construction during our visit, so we ended our hike on the AT a little short of the overlook area. We headed back to the top of "Ivy Creek Knob" to watch the sunset. As the earth turned, we gradually fell into the increasingly long shadow of the ridges to the west. After the sun had disappeared, Venus, the queen of the western sky, appeared high above Elliot Knob. We waited until dusk to leave, departing as a radiant full moon rose out of the Piedmont.

Trayfoot Mountain from Ivy Creek Knob
We hiked back in the dark. The moonlight illuminated the trail, so we were able to quickly make it back past Ivy Creek and the shelter to the Loft Mountain Wayside. We then completed a drive through the South District, seeing the landscapes of Shenandoah in a different light. At Moorman's River Overlook, moonlight reflected off the calm, mirror-like waters of the Charlottesville Reservoir. At Turk Mountain Overlook, Venus hung over Staunton and the moonlight highlighted the ridges of Turk Mountain. I was amazed by how beautiful the park looked at night.

Venus above Staunton and Elliot Knob, from Turk Mountain Overlook

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