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.

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