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.

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