Friday, October 12, 2012

Pass Mountain

Neighbor Mountain and New Market Gap
2.2 miles round trip, 570 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Pass Mountain is a low, unassuming summit in the North District of Shenandoah National Park just north of Thornton Gap and US 211. Although Pass Mountain is a much less exciting and visually stunning peak than its southern neighbor, Mary's Rock, the stretch of the Appalachian Trail from Beahms Gap to the broad summit of Pass Mountain is an enjoyable short hike with two nice viewpoints and little elevation gain.  This hike can be done as a 2.2 mile round trip hike to the summit of Pass Mountain, or a 1.6 mile round trip hike to the overlooks on Pass Mountain. There is no view at the true summit.

I did this hike on an early October morning, driving in through Swift Run Gap just slightly too late to catch the sunrise at South River Overlook. I drove through the entire central section of the park, which was gleaming in the early morning sun, to Thornton Gap and then slightly north to Beahms Gap at mile 28. Beahms Gap Overlook is a wide pullout with a limited view and is the trailhead for this hike. Along the way, I passed by some spectacular scenery- Big Meadows was golden and red, the trees were bare at Milam Gap, and the early sunlight made Nicholson Hollow particularly dramatic from Hemlock Springs Overlook.

Hemlock Springs Overlook in the Central District
From Beahms Gap, there is a clear view to the four humps of Hogback Mountain. Hogback is the tallest peak in the North District of the Park is only the third 3000-foot peak in the entire Blue Ridge when going south along the Blue Ridge from South Mountain (Mt. Marshall and the Peak are the first two). A large grassy area has been cleared out at the gap to maintain the view- this is one spot where the park's policy of vista clearing is very obvious.

Hogback from Beahms Gap
The hike begins on the Appalachian Trail heading south from Beahms Gap. The AT starts on the east side of the road (left if you're walking south), just 20 yards south of the parking area. The trail immediately plunges into the forest, passing a fire foot trail and maintaining a fairly flat section before beginning a fairly steady climb up the north slope of Pass Mountain.

The ascent stuck toward the Piedmont side of the slope at first; no clear views were available, but every now then shapes of foothills in the Piedmont were visible. After a while, the trail made some short steep ascents (none too steep- it was the AT through Shenandoah, after all, the flattest trail in the park). About 0.7 miles from the trailhead, the trail swung to the west side of the ridge, and at 0.8 miles swung to the right along a set of greenstone outcrops. As the trail was about two swing left, there was a fairly extensive outcrop with a view to the right.

The view is rather limited, but still worthwhile as it yields a unique view of Neighbor Mountain. Farms at the foot of Neighbor Mountain as well as the pointed peak of Neighbor Mountain itself are quite prominent. Massanutten was clearly visible to the west, with New Market Gap and Strickler and Duncan Knobs easily recognizable. The town of Luray was also visible down in Shenandoah Valley. The foliage here had not had the dramatic changes seen in the Central District- with the exception of what seemed to be a particularly red maple near the summit of Neighbor Mountain, most of the view was still quite green. I'll reiterate that this view was a little limited- the rock outcrop is not very high up, so one day the surrounding vegetation may block it entirely. It certainly did not seem to be as extensive as the view described in Henry Heatwole's 1979 first edition guide.

Returning to the trail, I walked to the last large greenstone rock to the left of the trail, then turned right and bushwhacked southwest for about 50 feet to another viewpoint. This viewpoint was not on an outctop, but instead on a slope with many broken chunk of rock- not quite a talus slope, but rocky enough to prevent vegetation growth. While this viewpoint was fairly shallow (the Valley was not visible), it did have a much wider view to the north. Much more of Massanutten Mountain was visible and most of Knob Mountain could be seen as well. This second viewpoint is worth visiting if you are already at the first viewpoint.

Neighbor and Knob Mountains from Pass Mountain
I continued onward for 0.3 miles of varying flat and gentle uphill trail to the actual summit of Pass Mountain, which is wooded with no views. I turned back when the AT began to head downhill with no indications of another summit further down. While this part of the hike was not terribly exciting, it allowed me to explore the summit of another Shenandoah peak in pleasant early autumn woods.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Doubletop Mountain "Lunch Rock"

Fork and Jones Mountains and the Rapidan Valley
4.4 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Rocky unpaved road to trailhead, high clearance advised; no entrance fee required

Doubletop Mountain "Lunch Rock" is not a place you'll find on a map- it's a large outcrop east of the two summits of Doubletop Mountain with a wide view of the Rapidan River valley. I will refer to it in this post as the "Lunch Rock" as I first read about it in the PATC's blog, which described this rock as the "most enormous lunch rock" the author had seen in the Virginia mountains. Due to time constraints, I didn't have time to make it to the two peaks of Doubletop, where I've read there are more viewpoints, but as I found the scenery and solitude in this area to be excellent, I'll certainly plan a trip back to Doubletop sometime to finish exploring.

On an early, foggy fall morning in September, I headed out of Charlottesville north on Route 29. I was afraid at first that there would be few or no views that day as the fog in Charlottesville was quite thick and the just-risen sun was not visible. However, when I arrived at Ruckersville, I popped into a break in the fog and saw Hightop, Saddleback, and points north clearly above the fog. I continued to Madison, driving through the town in the fog, took 231 north after passing through the town, reached Banco and turned onto 670. The sun cut through the fog occasionally, but many nearby peaks- Old Rag, Hawksbill- were still coated in mist. Doubletop, however, had emerged to the west. I took 670 to Criglersville, then took 649 west across the Robinson River. It took me about an hour to get to the end of the pavement on 649 from Charlottesville. From there, 649 became unpaved as it switchbacked up a ridge of Doubletop and descended into the Rapidan River's valley. The 6 mile or so stretch of unpaved road to the trailhead was not well suited to my two-wheel drive vehicle; the road has become quite potholed and took nearly 30 minutes for me to drive. The road entered Shenandoah National Park, then crossed the Rapidan River twice, entering the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area after the first crossing. The Rapidan River was very scenic here, with many small cascades. As the road got progressively rockier, I parked right after crossing the second bridge over the Rapidan and walked the remainder of the distance to the trailhead (if you cut this out, you can cut out 0.8 miles round trip on the hike).

The Rapidan River
Rapidan Road was used by President Hoover to get to Rapidan Camp when he conducted summer retreats to the area. In the decades since, it has probably deteriorated quite a bit: it now has many ruts, protruding rocks, and potholes. A high-clearance 4WD vehicle would be recommended to reach the actual trailhead.

From my parking spot just beyond the second Rapidan bridge, I followed the road uphill (west), climbing quickly above the Rapidan. After a steady climb of a fifth mile, the road leveled out a hundred or so feet above the Rapidan. The Wilhite Wagon Trail branched off from the road 0.4 miles from the bridge. The trail is not indicated by name- there is an orange blaze and a tiny rhombus with a hiker on it to indicate the start of the trail. There was no parking at the trailhead. The trail is marked on PATC maps.

The Wilhite Wagon Trail was becoming quite overgrown by the time I hiked it. The trail immediately began climbing and in a hundred yards passed through a power-line clearing. Past the clearing, the trail continued a northward climb. The PATC map of the area seems to show the Palanti Trail connecting with the Wilhite Wagon Trail at this point, but I never saw the sign of any trail intersection. Although overgrown, the trail remained quite clear due to good blazing.

On some portions of the trail, stonework left from the original wagon trail was visible. On other portions, the uniquely steep topography of the area was apparent: At one point, the trail clings to the slope with what seemed like 60 degree slopes dropping off to the right. Overall, the ascent was moderate- certainly not gentle, but not quite tough. Higher on the slope, the trail cut two switchbacks while partial views of the summit and ridge of Fork Mountain became visible across the valley.
Wilhite Wagon Trail
About 1.3 miles from Rapidan Road, the Wilhite Wagon Trail reached the top of Doubletop Mountain's ridgeline. Here, at an unsigned intersection, the trail met with the blue-blazed Doubletop Mountain Trail. Taking the trail left and uphill would have led to Doubletop's two peaks. Turning right led along the flat ridgeline instead toward the Lunch Rock.

A stone's throw from the intersection on the Doubletop Mountain trail, a faint path breaks to the left and leads to an overgrown viewpoint. From this point, I had a partly obscured view of Hawksbill, Stony Man, Big Tom, Robertson Mountain, and Old Rag. The view of Old Rag from this angle was particularly interesting and rare. While the foliage below was still mostly green, I could see hints of change coming.

View north from Doubletop Ridge to Big Tom
I continued on the ridge, heading east. The trail made a descent as the ridgeline dropped, but never left the ridgeline. The trail here was fairly easy to follow, though many sections of the trail were blocked by large fallen trees. It was clear that this trail is neither often hiked nor often maintained. About a half mile from the intersection from the Wilhite Wagon Trail, the Doubletop Mountian Trail reached an intersection with the eastern portion of the Wilhite Wagon Trail. This trail, confusingly similarly named, leads east to a junction with SR 649 but is marked as "not maintained" on PATC maps. However, at the intersection with the Doubletop Mountain Trail, the orange-blazed Wilhite Wagon Trail actually looked much more traveled. The Doubletop Mountain Trail continued following the ridge, heading off to the left, heavily overgrown with few blazes. The Wilhite Wagon Trail led downhill, was a bit wider, and was well marked. I turned onto this Wilhite Wagon Trail and followed it downhill a couple yards. From the trail, there were already good views of the Rapidan Valley. A few yards down the trail, I saw a large clearing with a huge rock slightly downhill and off of the trail. I made my way through the little bit of intervening vegetation onto the huge outcrop. The rock seemed to fit the description of the PATC lunch rock quite well, so I settled down on the Lunch Rock to take in the view.

Fork Mountain from Doubletop Lunch Rock
The view from Doubletop Lunch Rock was superb. Fork Mountain, the third highest peak in the Blue Ridge north of Rockfish Gap, dominated the view. The north face of Fork Mountain at the false summit of Fork was particularly impressive: from the Lunch Rock, it seemed to be a nearly vertical rise of some 2000 feet from the Rapidan below. The FAA radio towers atop Fork were also visibile. To the left of Fork Mountain, I could see Jones Mountain and Bear Church Rock. Some of the smaller peaks in the Piedmont were also visible. To the right of Fork, a corner of Hazeltop was visible, as was the false summit of Doubletop itself. While most of the scene remained green, the north slope of Fork Mountain above perhaps 3300 feet were turning red.

The Lunch Rock was a large chunk of monzogranite monzodiorite. This rock makes up all of Doubletop Mountain, as well as neighboring Fork Mountain and Jones Mountain to the south of that. The rock is a Proteozoic igneous rock, similar to the granite of Old Rag, and is some of the older rock in the park. It is quite erosion resistant and erodes in a much different manner than greenstone, giving rise to the high peaks and steep topography in the Fork-Jones-Doubletop area.

I enjoyed the sun, the views, and the solitude at the rock for half an hour before heading back to Charlottesville.