Thursday, June 14, 2012

Blackrock and Furnace Mountain

7.2 miles round trip,1500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

This is one of the best hikes in the South District of Shenandoah National Park. This hike combines two major viewpoints in the South District of Shenandoah and follows the high northern ridgeline of Trayfoot Mountain, one of the most distinctive peaks of the South District. The open talus slope at Blackrock provides the most sweeping view of the entire South District, while the sandstone summit of Furnace provides a more intimate view of Dundo Hollow and Shenandoah Valley as well as a chance to spot some trace fossils. The high, ridgeline trail that connects the two is especially beautiful in the spring when white and pink mountain laurel bloom.

I did this hike on the very last day of my spring semester, scheduling to leave Charlottesville an hour before the end of my last final exam. After turning in my half-hearted attempt at a rather ridiculous final, I headed off to Shenandoah with two friends. The weather that day was beautiful: blue skies and temperatures in the 70s.

We drove up I-64 to Rockfish Gap and were a good ways up on Skyline Drive before we finally decided on what hike to do. The day was so beautiful that I couldn't bear not going back to Blackrock, one of my favorite spots in the South District, so we decided on a hike to Furnace Mountain via Blackrock.

The parking lot at Blackrock Summit was completely empty when we arrived- astounding considering how beautiful the day was. We made our way up the fire road to the Appalachian Trail and followed it a half mile to the huge boulders at the Blackrock talus slope, which one of my friends realized he had actually visited as a kid. We climbed to the summit to the incredible 270-degree view of Rocks, Turk, Bucks Elbow, Calf, Scott, Humpback, Devil's Knob, and Big Levels to the south; Trayfoot to the west; Furnace, Austin, Massanutten, Rockytop, Hightop, Loft, and Big Flat to the north. Dundo and Paine Hollows were both ridiculously rich and green.

From the summit, we returned to the Appalachian Trail and then took the Trayfoot Mountain trail west from the middle of the talus slope. The trail descended further through the rock pile, at one cutting between two small walls of rock. Views down Paine Run Hollow were superb. We soon found ourselves back in the verdant Appalachian forest, descending to a saddle between Blackrock and Trayfoot before we began ascending gently on a straight, grassy trail up the north face of Trayfoot, with mountain laurel just preparing to bloom and wild geraniums and rhododendron scattered throughout the woods.

Geraniums on the Trayfoot Mountain Trail
After passing the top of the enjoyable ascent, the trail descended slightly before reaching the junction of the Trayfoot Trail with the trail to Furnace Mountain on the ridge. We followed the right junction, which began a descent on the northwest ridge of Trayfoot Mountain. Almost immediately past the junction, I noticed the thinness of vegetation to the right. I bushwhacked downhill a couple yards and found myself at the top of an immense talus slope. The views were comparable to Blackrock, with Dundo Hollow spread out below us and Blackrock itself and Cedar Mountain off to the east. As the Trayfoot to Furnace trail isn't heavily traveled, I suspect this talus slope isn't often visited- but it is undoubtedly spectacular and a highlight of the Trayfoot Mountain area.

View from Trayfoot's northern talus slope
This talus slope is one of many in the southern section in the park. It is visible from much of the Big Run area: I had seen it previously on hikes on Rockytop Ridge, on the AT near and north of Loft Mountain, and at the Rockytop Overlook. Like Blackrock, this talus slope is made of Hampton sandstone. While most of the major peaks directly bordering the Valley (Rocky Mount, Rocky Mountain, Rockytop, Rocks Mountain, Turk Mountain) have summits of white Erwin sandstone, Trayfoot is unique in that it consists mainly of grayish black Hampton sandstone. The Hampton formation, like the Erwin formation, was laid down during the Cambrian Era, but it predates the Erwin; due to both metamorphism of the rock and due to the extreme simplicity of lifeforms during the formation of the Hampton sandstone, there are no easily recognizable fossils in that rock.

Past the talus slope, we descended on the ridgeline, with occasional views to Abbott Ridge and Hall Mountain, two subridges of Trayfoot Mountain, and a growing amount of mountain laurel. At one point, I even saw a young hemlock tree- one of the few live hemlocks I've seen in the park. Unfortunately, white egg sacs dotted the branches of the eastern hemlock- the woolly adelgid had already begun its deadly work on this young specimen of what was once a dominant tree in the eastern forests. We also found an interesting fruit of some sort that none of us recognized; we attributed it to being an alien egg, which is obviously the most logical conclusion that we could draw.

Mountain laurel
Further along the trail, we descended to a low enough elevation that the mountain laurel around the trail were blooming. The mountain laurel is perhaps the signature flower of the park- it blooms in beautiful bundles of white and pink. It is also rather poisonous to consume, so I'd advise against eating mountain laurel even in emergency situations in the park. What it lacks in edibility it makes up for in beauty- it is certainly one of my favorite flowers in the park.

Finally, 2.3 miles away from Blackrock, we came to the intersection with the Furnace Mountain Trail. We headed right toward the mountain, passing through huge patches of mountain laurel and views of the Big Levels and the Valley of Virginia. The rock here was very clearly Erwin sandstone: I even found some examples of Skolithos, a fossilized Cambrian worm trace that is characteristic of the Erwin formation in Shenandoah. We passed the fire pit at the summit of Furnace and descended to the large rock viewpoint, where we had dinner while watching patches of sunlight dance among the clouds and among the various peaks of Rockytop Ridge. I remembered the hidden rock viewpoint to the east of the proper viewpoint and made my way back over to it for the view of Big Flat, Dundo Hollow, and Trayfoot Mountain. The green of spring, which had started two months ago in the most sheltered spots in the Piedmont, had finally completed its journey: two of the highest peaks of the South District were now crowned with a new, lush canopy.

Austin and Massanutten Mountain from Furnace Mountain
As sunset neared, we started back on the trail. We paused at a tiny west-facing talus slope a few hundred yards south of the Furnace Mountain summit to watch the sunset. The sun, which had spent much of the late afternoon hiding behind clouds, peeked out behind its shroud on the horizon as it set. As it disappeared beyond the layers of the ridges to the west, the sun emitted a particularly fiery red color along the rim of the horizon, making it almost seem as if the horizon were burning. Light vanished from the nearby peaks and the soft pink of dusk set over the Shenandoah Valley.

Furnace Mountain sunset
From Furnace, we returned by the way we came. The woods got progressively darker until there was no more light and we had to turn on our headlamps. We booked our way back, stopping only occasionally to experience the utter darkness and silence. Eventually we found our way back to Blackrock. We returned to the talus slope's rocky summit to gaze at the light of the many stars in the sky and the light of the many towns in the Valley. It became quite windy and slightly chilly- a rare feeling in May. We found a large boulder to block the wind and we sat in a spot where we could gaze toward Waynesboro and the Big Dipper. I'm sure I took a short nap here- I easily could've fallen asleep. We eventually were able to drag ourselves from the summit and head back to the parking area, where we were able to see even more stars. I drove down Skyline Drive in the dark, passing no cars on my way down to Rockfish Gap. By midnight, I was back in Charlottesville, with a whole apartment's worth of stuff to pack, on my last night of my second to last year at UVA.

I was always convinced that I didn't like Virginia when I was in high school. I thought that the state was backwards and boring; a place that I couldn't wait to leave. It's interesting that in just three years, I've had a rather major change of heart; I'm now not sure how I'll ever be willing to give up living here. This hike epitomized everything that I love about the Blue Ridge and served as a fitting ending of a rather eventful two semesters in which I learned much about Virginia and even more about how I love it.

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