Friday, December 21, 2012

Maryland Heights

Harpers Ferry from the Maryland Heights viewpoint
6.7 miles loop, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park parking fee required

Maryland Heights offers the classic view of the churches and Civil War-era buildings of Harpers Ferry nestled at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. With views like these coupled with a chance to learn about the area's critical and explosive role in the Civil War, it's no wonder that Maryland Heights is one of the most popular hikes in the DC area. 

I hiked this trail with a group of fellow interns in late July. We left Rockville mid-morning and took I-270 northwest to Frederick, then US 340 west to Harpers Ferry. I tried parking at the lot at the base of the trail on the Maryland side of the river but the lot was already full, so I doubled back and drove over to the West Virginia side of the river. To reach the Maryland trailhead (and trim 1.2 miles round trip from the hike), turn left onto Keep Tryst Road from US 340 during the long downhill before crossing the Potomac River. Then turn right onto Sandy Hook Road and drive past the foot of the Maryland Heights cliff until you reach pass the trailhead to the right. There is a small parking area on the right. We parked at the train station in Harpers Ferry, where we purchased a week's pass for the park for $10. 

We walked down to the Point, where we passed by an old fire engine house now known as John Brown's Fort. In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a militia raid on the federal armory located at Harpers Ferry; Brown's plan was to seize armaments and spur an uprising among enslaved peoples in Virginia, arming them for a rebellion to end slavery in the South. However, after seizing the armory, the planned uprising stalled when no one answered the call to arms; when the Army arrived, Brown and his men retreated to the fire engine house here at the point and made a last stand before being captured. Brown's subsequent execution led Northern abolitionists to regard him as a martyr and Southern plantation owners to view his as a terrorist, intesifying the polarization between the free and slaveholding states and catalyzing the bloody Civil War that broke out just 18 months later.

From the Point, we crossed the Potomac River on the Appalachian Trail bridge, which paralleled an old railroad bridge. Supports for old bridges littered the river. To the right (east), there was a beautiful view of Loudoun Heights rising above the Potomac Water Gap. Beneath us, we saw many people tubing on the river.

The Potomac River at Harpers Ferry
Once across the river, we took the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath west, following it for a little less than half a mile. Here, the canal is essentially dried up; however, there were still nice views of the Potomac, with a few paths leading steeply downhill to the side of the river. At times, there were views between the trees to the church steeple and antebellum buildings of Harpers Ferry across the Potomac. About 10 minutes along the towpath from the bridge, we came to a path to the right that spanned the dry canalbed and crossed Sandy Hook Road to the trailhead.

The trail, a broad former road, immediately began to climb at a moderate grade. In the next three-quarter miles or so, the trail ascended continuously, with a few historical signs along the trail to tell of the area's Civil War history. The first major historical stop along the trail was the Naval Battery, a former Union defensive position where two major guns were mounted high above the river and town below. A trail looped around the footprint of the former battery- while no views were available, the size of the battery's footprint gave an impressive idea of the size of the artillery used in the war.

A little further from the Naval Battery, we reached a trail junction: the trail to the right led directly to the viewpoint at Maryland Heights, while the trail to the left led to more Civil War fortifications. We took the trail to the left, which followed a former road built by the Union Army to haul equipment and weapons to a fort atop the ridge. This trail was remarkably steep- steeper, certainly, than your average Mid-Atlantic trail. This made for a very tiring stretch of trail on a hot, humid day. It was hard to imagine how cannons could possibly be lugged up such a road.

The trail finally leveled out as it approached the top of the ridge. We walked among the remnants of a Union stone fort, where only a handful of scattered stone walls remaining.

Stoneworks from the former Union fort on Maryland Heights
From the stone fort, we followed the ridge of Maryland Heights south. The ridgeline provided pleasant, flat walking, a welcome respite from the climb up. We saw a few deer and many more people as we followed the heavily vegetated ridge. Eventually we came to the site of a former 100-pound battery. From this spot, there were impressive views east to the Potomac River's water gaps through South Mountain and Catoctin Mountain at Point of the Rocks further downstream. Sugarloaf Mountain was also visible in the distance, rising out of the otherwise flat-looking Piedmont.

The Potomac River flowing east of Harpers Ferry, with Sugarloaf in the distance
We continued along the ridgeline, which soon began a very steep descent. We dropped downhill quickly, passing the site of another former battery before coming to a junction with the trail that led to the viewpoint. Taking the left hand fork, we descended a little further via a few switchbacks to reach the open top of the cliffs. These cliffs rose precipitously out of the river and offered a huge view of Harpers Ferry, Loudoun Heights, the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, and Shenandoah Valley.

The Potomac River west of Harpers Ferry
We enjoyed the view before returning to the original trail to finish the loop. Back on the C&O Canal, we were able to look up and see the cliffs where we had just been.

View of Maryland Heights from below
Back in Harpers Ferry, we had a very late lunch, made even later after we were ignored by the staff of Secret Six Tavern for ten minutes after we were seated; so instead we ate at a restaurant a little closer to the train station and had a good end to an excellent hike.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hog Rock Nature Trail

Greenery around the trail
1 mile loop, 80 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy. Flat, no unexpected hazards.

The short loop hike to Hog Rock is a pleasant leg-stretcher in Catoctin Mountain Park though very pretty forest to a nice view of the Piedmont.

Catoctin Mountain Park is home to Camp David, the presidential retreat. Franklin Roosevelt built Camp David after realizing it would be difficult for him to access the former presidential retreat, Rapidan Camp in Shenandoah National Park. There are occasional closures in the park when the president comes to Camp David, so check at before visiting.

I did this hike on my way back from my unsuccessful attempt to hike the AT across Maryland in 2 days. For hikers coming from DC, the easiest way to get to the trailhead would be to take I-270 northwest to Frederick, then to head north on US 15 to Thurmont, take Maryland Route 77 west into Catoctin Mountain Park, then to take the Park Central Road north (right) at the visitor center and drive uphill to reach the well-marked trailhead.

When I drove into the park during late July, the greenery in the park was nothing short of astonishing. I climbed up toward the crest of Catoctin Mountain on Park Central Road and soon treached the trailhead. Catoctin Mountain is one of the two main ridges that form the Crystalline Appalachians through Maryland. The Blue Ridge Mountains, which form a towering backbone from Roanoke to Manassas Gap, is reduced to the single undulating ridgeline of South Mountain in Maryland. The Southwest Mountains and Bull Run Mountains of Virginia, a chain of low mountains east of the Blue Ridge, begin rising far out of the Piedmont after crossing the Potomac and become Catoctin Mountain. Together, Catoctin and South Mountains form the heart of the Appalachians in Maryland.

Park Central Road
The trail started across the road from the parking area. While self-guiding brochures are sometimes available for hikers on the Hog Rock Nature Trail, there were not any brochures available on my visit, so I did not get to learn about quite as much of the area's ecology as I would have liked. The trail started by heading slightly downhill, then flattening out. The trail was wide and easy to follow and the greenery of the park made it an enjoyable jaunt.

About five minutes from the trailhead, I came to a trail junction, at which I followed the trail to the left, which headed directly toward Hog Rock. Not long afterward, I arrived at Hog Rock itself, a very small rock outcrop with a nice but limited view of a ridge of Catoctin Mountain and the Piedmont in the distance.
View east from Hog Rock
Appropriately, Hog Rock was an outcrop of Catoctin basalt. The Catoctin formation, which runs along many points of the Blue Ridge crest and on Catoctin Mountain, was named after this mountain and region, even though it is found much further south as well. This formation is an ancient lava flow: it is the remnant of volcanic activity that occurred when a rift formed as the supercontinent Rodinia split up around 600 million years ago and created the Iapetus Ocean.

Continuing on the trail, I walked through more gentle forest landscape until I came to a junction that for the loop back, which I followed back to the parking area. While this hike was generally uneventful, I still found it enjoyable and worth a short 20-30 minute jaunt.

Crabtree Falls

Crabtree Falls
3.4 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

Crabtree Falls is one of the most heralded destinations in the Virginia mountains. Tourist brochures claim the waterfall to be the tallest east of the Mississippi River, at over 1000 feet tall. That's a bit of a stretch- Crabtree Falls is not really one waterfall so much as a string of cascades on the north side of the Priest- but there's no denying that it is one of the most beautiful natural areas in Virginia and certainly one of the most impressive sets of waterfalls in the states.

After living in Virginia for a little over 21 years, I still had yet to visit the falls, so on an overcast Sunday that threatened showers in August, I decided to finally do this hike. I drove south alone on US 29 from Charlottesville: clouds coated most of the peaks of the Blue Ridge; a few patches of blue sky appeared to the east near Lovingston, but for the most part, the day was mostly moody and humid. A little past Lovingston, I turned right onto State Route 56 heading west into the mountains. 56 is rather convoluted and required a few turns to stay on the road and not wander off onto 151 or any of the other roads in the area. After passing the junction with 151, Route 56 started to head straight into the mountains. The Priest lay straight ahead, its head enshrouded in mist. After passing Massie's Mill, the road made a few crossings of the Tye River as it wound its way through fields at the foot of the Priest and Three Ridges, although neither summit was visible with the clouds. The many ridges of the Priest and rocky prominences on its slopes still made it an impressive sight.

In August 1969, the valley of the Tye River witnessed one of the most significant natural disasters in European-settled Virginia history. Hurricane Camille swept ashore on the Gulf Coast, ravaging Mississippi and Louisiana before moving north and east and stalling over the Appalachian Mountains. Rainfall became overwhelming in Nelson County and especially in the Tye River Valley, where almost 27 inches of rain fell during the storm. Over a 100 people died in flooding in Nelson County, accounting most of the deaths associated with Hurricane Camille. Nearby Albemarle County didn't get hit quite as hard, but suffered some effects too. Landslides occurred throughout the Virginia mountains.

Luckily, the weather on the day of my hike was just showers and not torrential rain. After entering the mountains, Route 56 narrowed and became extremely windy as it climbed alongside the Tye River up the Blue Ridge. After very many turns, I finally came to the turnoff for Crabtree Falls, a US Forest Service Recreation Site. The turnoff led across a bridge to a large parking area for the falls. It was easy to see that this was one of the most popular sites in Virginia- the parking lot could hold at least 40 cars. However, on the morning of my rainy visit, there was only one other car in the parking area. I paid the $3 parking fee and then started up the trail.

The first stretch of trail was wide and smooth and handicap accessible and led for a very short distance from the parking area to one of the lowest falls. This waterfall was already remarkably beautiful, with the water of Crabtree Creek fanning out as it came down a small greenstone rock face. A viewing platform allowed me to see the falls from two very pretty angles.

The lowest falls at Crabtree Falls
Throughout the trail, many signs warned against going off-trail and approaching the waterfall. Many of the warnings stated that over 20 people had died on the slippery rocks around the waterfall. The trail's deadliness is not too surprising to me: when a natural area becomes a tourist attraction, many of visitors who come to the falls don't realize the dangers associated with waterfalls and accidents invariably happen. Crabtree Falls doesn't seem any more dangerous than any other set of waterfalls I've hiked around in Virginia, so perhaps for more regular hikers the advice might be a commonsense "use your judgment."

I returned to the trail, which was now lost its smooth, paved portion but was still very well maintained. The trail began an ascent with switchbacks and quickly hit more falls on the creek. Just a little above the first falls, the trail swung back to the creek, with multitudes of small cascades. A little farther up, the trail went up staircases (slippery when wet!) while following the creek. Soon, a very noisy and impressive cascade was visible far above; a little farther on, I came to the foot of one of the prettiest of all the cascades at Crabtree Falls. Here, the creek tumbled down an open cliff at least 80 or so feet.

Crabtree Falls
The first half three quarter miles of this trail was a sheer joy to hike, with waterfall after waterfall on the creek, many tiny but some up to 80 feet tall. Just as notable was the thick hardwood forest which the trail ascended through when it swung away from the creek. The overcast skies and light showers made the forest seem even more verdant and lush than usual. Mushrooms took advantage of the dampness to spread out all over the forest floor. Other wonders: a rock overhang to the right of the trail (during ascent) created a small cave.

Mushrooms in the forest
Toward the top of the string of waterfalls, there were views through the trees of ridges across the valley; it was also possible to look down the waterfalls and see drop after drop as the creek cascaded its way down to the Tye River.

Crabtree Creek's fall into the Tye River Valley
After climbing up a few hundred vertical feet along the tumbling creek, the trail began to flatten out. The next stretch of trail led along typical Virginia mountain stream scenery along a less inclined portion of the mountain. The hiking here was much easier and flatter, but the scenery was still just as enjoyable. One of my very favorite spots on the entire hike was a small, 5-foot drop on the creek into a shallow pool. While not as spectacular as the taller cascades early in the hike, I found this waterfall delightful and enjoyed sitting by the trail and watching the creek make a small splash on its way toward the bigger falls.

Cascade on Crabtree Creek
Past this small falls, the trail continued a gentle ascent for nearly a half mile until it began getting steeper, arriving at the foot of upper Crabtree Falls about 1.3 miles from the trailhead. From the viewpoint, there was a view of a huge rock dome and Crabtree Creek flowing down the rock face. This cascade was probably around 200 feet tall, making it extremely impressive, though I didn't find it as pretty as some of the lower falls. I could certainly see this spot being even more impressive during a heavy rain storm, when the entire rock face might be covered with rushing water.

Upper Crabtree Falls
From the viewpoint, the trail made a final, long switchback to reach the top of the upper cascade. I crossed Crabtree Creek on a footbridge to reach a well-maintained viewpoint with a low stone wall at the top of the large rock face. On a clear, non-rainy day, I would expect there to be a very wide mountainous view here, but on the rainy, cloudy day of my hike, I could see only mist. The view of the falls from here was not terribly good; it was hard to see the creek itself, though I could see the viewpoint on the trail at the bottom of the falls. I ate lunch at the viewpoint and then explored the rocks behind the viewpoint, where I found a few young hemlocks, a rather rare sight in Virginia. After waiting for a good half hour for the clouds to clear up, I headed back down the trail, which became much more crowded in the afternoon.

Misty view from the top of the falls

Monday, December 3, 2012

Upper Whiteoak Canyon

Whiteoak Canyon Falls #1
4.8 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevaiton gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The beauty of the plunging waterfalls in Whiteoak Canyon make it one of the most famous and popular hikes in all Shenandoah. A visitor favorite since George Pollock started bringing guests from Skyland down to its waterfalls, Whiteoak Canyon is an incredibly scenic gorge on the Robinson River as it tumbles down Stony Man Mountain, with six waterfalls along its way. This post describes the hike down to the base of the first falls in Whiteoak Canyon from Skyline Drive and thus does not go down to the lower five falls in the canyon.

I decided to swing into the park on my way back to school from fall break; I initially thought that I would have to spend the day working out bureaucratic issues for a research project I was doing but after sorting out the situation early in the morning, I decided that I would have time for a hike on my way back to Charlottesville. When I entered the park at Swift Run Gap, I was driving in fog: clouds enveloped the very top of the mountains. I settled on doing Whiteoak Canyon after speaking with a ranger, who convinced me that despite the relatively dry fall, there would be water in the canyon.

Driving north, I weaved in and out of the fog; Lewis Mountain was coated with mist, but Hawksbill was not. I made many stops at overlooks to soak in the foliage, which was beginning to reach peak at the highest elevations. Most notable was a stop at Crescent Rock, where Hawksbill and Nakedtop were coated with glorious colors of maples and hickories.

Hawksbill and Nakedtop from Crescent Rock
I finally made my way to the trailhead, which was at mile 42 of Skyline Drive, on the east side of the road. The trail started at the north end of the fairly large parking area and immediately wound into the forest and began a gradual descent. Not far from the trailhead, I came to a rare spectacle: a large, mature eastern hemlock, not yet taken down by the hemlock wooly adelgid. The hemlock was, as many of the park hemlocks are, stately and magnificent. The area around Skyland once had old-growth forests of immense hemlocks, but most of these hemlocks were devastated by the wooly adelgid that hit the park in the 1990s.

An mature eastern hemlock near the trailhead- extremely rare!
Further down the trail, I passed through an area of dying ferns underneath the golden colors of the forest. In summer, this scene would undoubtedly have been one of a lush green fern forest floor underneath a rich canopy- in the fall, it was a spectacle moving toward the yellow and red end of the color spectrum. The ferns were browning and golding but had not yet withered, and so instead stood as a miniature forest of waving bronze fronds.

Dying ferns in Whiteoak Canyon
The trail here descended gently (the return was an equally gentle ascent) across the forested mountaintop underlay with Catoctin formation basalt. About a half mile in, the trail crossed the Limberlost Trail and the Old Rage Fire Road in quick succession and then entered a hemlock graveyard of sorts. Here were many spots where the canopy was clear: all around stood the withered, white, spiny skeletons of hemlocks, many with nontrivial trunk diameters. This was once a stand of great, old-growth hemlocks and was one of the greatest attractions of the park. In the past three decades, the arrival of the hemlock wooly adelgid killed each of the great hemlocks, one-by-one, until none of the old hemlocks remained. During my hike, a few young hemlocks could be spotted in the forest, but for the most part, this area was a sad reminder of the forest's past. A legend of Limberlost claims that the trees here were only untouched because of Addie Pollock, the wife of George Freeman Pollock, the owner of Skyland Resort. Pollock paid loggers who were about to remove the great trees $10 per hemlock to save the grove. What the loggers spared, however, the pests ravaged most of a century later.

Clearing where the hemlocks of Limberlost once stood
A little bit past the intersection with the Old Rag Fire Road and downhill, the trail came to another intersection with the Limbertlost Loop Trail. This junction had a remarkably interesting feature: two boulders of columnar basalt.

Columnar basalt can be found in a few spots in Shenandoah, but the two most accessible are perhaps at Compton Peak and in Whiteoak Canyon. The formations are only found in areas where the underlying rock is from the Catoctin Formation. The basalt of the Catoctin formation is around some 600 million years old and formed when the supercontinent Rodinia began rifting to form the Iapetus (or proto-Atlantic) Ocean. Rifting caused volcanic activity, creating lava flows in rift valleys that cooled to form basalt. Columnar basalt formed in rapidly cooling lava: during rapid cooling: basalt shrinks as it cools, so in the horizontal direction it begins to fracture and hexagonal columns begin to form. These columns were then exposed in Whiteoak Canyon. It was easy for me to see both the vertical column shapes and the hexagons in the horizontal direction on the boulders by the trail.

Incredible columnar basalt
Past the columnar basalt, the trail passed through more clearings and crossed a creek before beginning a more serious descent along the Robinson River. The next mile and a half consisted of a very beautiful descent along the west side of the river (here, more a stream) as it dropped through pools and small cascades down the slopes of Stony Man Mountain. At many spots, the trail would swing close to the river and I would see pools on the river filled with red maples leaves, in a forest of golden foliage.

Whiteoak Canyon was beyond spectacular
About two miles from the trailhead, the trail crossed the Robinson River by bridge and then began following the east bank of the river. Not long afterward, it passed a junction with the Whiteoak Canyon Fire Road. Here, I could already hear the falling water of the first of the Whiteoak Canyon Falls. Just a little bit futher down the trail, I came to a large rock viewpoint with a view of a rocky gorge with an 80-some-foot tall cascade on the Robinson River. Although the water level was a little low, the scene was still incredibly gorgeous. The falls are the second tallest in the park, after the Big Falls on Overall Run. It was 2.2 miles from the parking lot to this viewpoint.

While at the viewpoint, I met a newlywed couple on their honeymoon in Shenandoah Valley and chatted with them briefly. Otherwise, I didn't have to share the viewpoint with anyone else (although I did run into about 12-15 other people going up or down the trail)- quite surprising, considering this hike is one of Shenandoah's most popular and I was hiking during peak foliage season.

I decided to continue a little further down the trail to the base of the falls. The next stretch of trail was a very steep, staircase descent down into the canyon. At the base of the cliffs that formed the viewpoint, a concrete column marked the spur to the base of the falls. During my hike, a fallen tree blocked part of the path, which was not clearly marked and died out before actually reaching the pool at the base of the falls. However, it was pretty clear how to get to the base of the falls, so I made my way over carefully and sat on a rock near the pool at the base, admiring the Robinson River's drop down the greenstone ledges.
The base of Whiteoak Canyon Falls #1
Most hikers would probably turn back here and return to the parking area. I ended up going slightly further down the trail to another pretty cascade on the river a little ways off of the trail before returning (adding an additional 0.2 miles round trip and 80 feet elevation gain). Some hikers continue further down Whiteoak Canyon, entering the lower canyon with its 5 waterfalls, which are probably more easily accessed from the park boundary in Berry Hollow than from Skyline Drive.

A waterfall on the Robinson River just below the first falls