Thursday, December 19, 2013

Mount Marshall from Little Hogback

North Marshall
7.8 miles round trip, 1400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

This hike follows an easy stretch of the Appalachian Trail from one scenic Shenandoah summit to another. It's not a particularly wild hike- along the way, the AT crosses Skyline Drive numerous times- but it is highly scenic, packing in some of the best views of the North District into a very short stretch of park.

I hiked this with a friend in August. Usually, August in Virginia is unpleasant: in the Piedmont, the sky is gray with smog on the edges and the air is so heavy with humidity I'm surprised it doesn't sink into the Bay. In the Blue Ridge, the temperatures are a few degrees cooler, but it's still humid and visibility is usually measured in yards. In other words, as much as I love the Blue Ridge, August often leaves me longing for AC, somewhere indoors. But on the first weekend of August, my friend and I left Northern Virginia to auspiciously blue skies and found temperatures of just 60 F when we entered the park.

To get to the trailhead, we took I-66 west from Northern Virginia, hopped onto Rte. 55 west at exit 13, and then drove into the town of Front Royal. We turned left at US 340 and took 340 south briefly to reach the northern terminus of Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park. From the entrance, we followed Skyline Drive nearly 20 miles to Little Hogback Overlook and parked there. The trail started at the northern end of the parking lot, where a short trail led to a junction with the AT.

We enjoyed the view from overlook of the ridiculously blue and clear skies over the rolling green ridges of Massanutten Mountain. Then we headed off, following the Appalachian Trail north from the parking area. We very quickly came to a spur to the left that led to the Little Hogback viewpoint. Only a few hundred yards from the overlook, this set of greenstone outcrops offered an even wider view; from here, we could see the broad forested hump beside us that was the summit of Hogback proper. We stayed here only briefly before continuing along the AT.

View toward Signal Knob from Little Hogback
Describing this hike mile-by-mile would not be particularly useful, as it simply follows the AT while crossing Skyline Drive multiple times, so I will skip the level of detail that I usually give. The hike consists of an intial downhill segment to Gravel Springs Gap and then a climb up to South Marshall, then another short descent and ascent to North Marshall. None of the hiking is hard and all of the ascents are gentle, though most are fairly lengthy. South Marshall is marked by a clear spur trail to the left of the AT a little less than 3 miles from the trailhead, and the viewpoint on North Marshall is a short scramble to the right of the trail when the trail makes a sharp turn to the left about half a mile out of the parking lot between the two summits of the Marshalls. Otherwise, there are no turns off the AT; just follow the white blazes of the AT.

We saw an astounding amount of life along the trail. Flora was plentiful: there were many wildflowers blooming along the trail and plenty of interesting fungi as well. We saw the exquisite form and bright orange color of the Turk's Cap lily, as well as unfamiliar fungi that was perhaps just as orange. Animals were plentiful too: butterflies fluttered near wildflower patches all day. We even glimpsed a mother black bear and her cubs from a distance, dashing off into the woods as we went along the trail. Even without the incredible views that were to come, the hike was already a feast of small delights.

Indian pipes
Turk's Cap Lily
More fungi!

Trailside butterfly
A little over an hour's hiking from the trailhead, we reached the main viewpoint on South Marshall, a set of greenstone outcrops just to the left of the trail. It was quite windy and chilly here, making the August day feel much more like October. The view was wide and serene: Page Valley was spread out before us, with Massanutten Mountain and the many ranges of the Valley and Ridge beyond. To the left was the impressive hulk of Hogback and to the left of that the multitude of peaks in the Cental District. To the right (north), we could see Dickey Ridge. My friend commented on the oddness of the fact that this pastoral scene was just over an hour out of the endless surburbs of Northern Virginia.

Hogback from South Marshall
View north from South Marshall
South Marshall
A little while later, we continued on another mile and came to the viewpoint on North Marshall. Scrambling onto the rocky viewpoint, we had a much clearer view to the south: this time, we could see Mary's Rock, Stony Man, Old Rag, and many more of the park's best-known peaks. From this angle, Mary's Rock was particularly interesting, taking on an almost pyramidal shape.

View south from North Marshall
Mount Marshall is named after the Marshall family that lived in what is today Fauqier and Rappahannock Counties- the family of John Marshall, the Supreme Court justice who used his position to define the relevance of that body. The Virginia Piedmont soil must have had some extra kick back in the mid-18th century: it's still astonishing to me that this stretch of land produced, in a few generations, four of the first five presidents and Marshall.

After spending a little while at the main viewpoint, we followed a faint path over to a secondary viewpoint with an interestingly shaped boulder. The view here was much the same as at the earlier viewpoint. We then made our way back along the AT on one of the nicer summer days I've experienced.

Odd rocks on North Marshall

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bear Church Rock via Graves Mill

View towards Fork Mountain
8.8 miles round trip, 2100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: No fee collection at parking area; purchase a Shenandoah National Park annual pass beforehand for small groups

This is my second post about Bear Church Rock, a remote granite outcropping on Jones Mountain in the Central District. I've previously described the approach from Skyline Drive; here, I'll describe a more interesting route up to the rock from Graves Mill, a trailhead at the park boundary off of the Wolftown-Hood Road. Bear Church Rock was once one of Shenandoah's more secret spots, but in past two years or so it's become a little more visited because of coverage on blogs such as this one. It's still off the beaten path, at least an eight-mile round trip from any car-accessible point. And the views from the top of the lush Staunton River Valley with barely a hint of human touch rarely fail to disappoint. In my opinion, this route is the more interesting of the two to the rock, as it visits the Jones Mountain Cabin and also spends a good deal of time following the Rapidan and Staunton Rivers.

I did this hike on a rainy July day with my parents. We drove to the trailhead from Fredericksburg early in the morning. The trailhead at Graves Mill is a little difficult to get to; from US 29, we turned onto the Wolftown-Hood Road (Route 230) heading west towards the Blue Ridge. About four miles down Route 230, we turned right onto Rte. 662 (Graves Mill Road) and began following it along the Rapidan River. 662 is an odd road: about three miles into the valley, we had to turn right and cross a bridge to stay on 662, as going straight led to 615. The road ended shortly afterward at the small Graves Mill parking area at the park boundary.

We started on the hike by following the wide trail along the Rapidan River. This trail never strayed too far away from the wide Rapidan River, so we got quite a few good views of the river. This river, which forms on the slopes of Hazeltop and Fork Mountain, eventually flows into the Piedmont as one of the major rivers of central Virginia and the largest tributary of the Rappahannock. After half a mile along the Rapidan, we reached a trail junction and turned left to take the Staunton River Trail.

At first, this trail stayed a little away from its namesake river, but after a few tenths of a mile, we noticed a few spurs leading off the trail towards the river. I followed one of these spurs and came to pretty cascade on the river. The river- a large stream, really- is the main tributary to the Rapidan before it leaves the mountains. President Herbert Hoover enjoyed fishing in these streams during the summer during his presidency, and made nearby Rapidan Camp his summer retreat. Hoover once entered the valley on the same narrow road that we had driven earlier to reach Graves Mill.

Staunton River
Returning to the trail, we began a gentle ascent on the former mountain road. After a few initial encounters, the trail stayed well above the river, so there were no later river views. This part of the Blue Ridge was heavily settled before the park establishment. The trail, which has the appearance of a decaying old road, hints at the area's former habitation. We followed the Staunton River Trail for about 2.2 miles from the junction with the Rapidan River Trail to reach the Jones Mountain Trail. Along the way, we passed some of the interesting summer flora of Shenandoah, including many sets of Indian pipes.

Indian pipes
At the junction with the Jones Mountain Trail, we turned left and began the hike's main ascent. Having hiked the Jones Mountain Trail above Bear Church Rock and experienced some of the steeper segments there, I expected this trail to be quite steep too; however, I was pleasantly surprised, as the ascent was moderate for the most part, with a few more level spots.

Climbing out of the Staunton River valley
In half a mile, we passed the junction for the McDaniel Hollow Trail. Continuing on the Jones Mountain Trail, we soon passed through a tunnel of mountain laurel. The laurel had likely finished blooming two or more weeks ago, but I am sure that the spot would have absolutely spectacular in late May or early June.

Mountain laurel tunnel along the Jones Mountain Trail
From here, it was a roughly one mile push to the top of Bear Church Rock. The trail was never very steep, but it maintained a constant uphill. We passed the junction to the Jones Mountain Cabin (which we would visit on the way back) and fifteen minutes later reached the unmarked spur trail to the right that led to the rock itself.

It was a fairly cloudy day, so the views were not entirely clear, but we could still see up the valley of the Staunton River Valley and at times we caught the summit of Fork Mountain drifting in and out of the clouds. During my first visit, the view from the rock was of a valley full of bare trees; now, we saw a fully forested valley, with no suggestion that we were only a little over four miles away from our car and civilization. Other writers have suggested that you can see the Blue Ridge crest from Bear Church Rock, but that's incorrect: the ridge between Cat Knob and Fork Mountain, which bookends Staunton River's valley, blocks any views of Hazeltop, the nearest peak on the Blue Ridge crest near Skyline Drive.

The view towards Doubletop Mountain
After spending a while at the rock and eating lunch, we began to head back down the way we came up. Halfway between the rock and the junction with the McDaniel Hollow Trail, we took a short quarter mile detour with a slight downhill to see the Jones Mountain Cabin. The cabin was once home to some of the many inhabitants of the Blue Ridge before the park was established. Most mountaineer homes were torn down during the 1930s, but this cabin somehow escaped destruction. Later on, park policy changed and began recognizing Shenandoah's human past as an integral part of the park. The cabin was later restored by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and can now be rented to hikers. The cabin was locked, but it was more than interesting enough to study from the outside. Although constructed almost entirely from wood and stone and other materials found in the mountains, the cabin is remarkably sturdy.

Jones Mountain Cabin
After leaving the cabin, we returned the way we came up. Halfway down, it began to rain heavily, so we picked up our pace to return. Predictably, the rain stopped as soon as we got back to our car at Graves Mill.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rocky Mountain/Big Run

Big Run Valley
10.1 miles loop, 2250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, due to elevation gain and multiple river crossings that can be hazardous in high water
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

At Big Run Portal, where the rough, pine-topped sandstone bluffs of Rockytop towered over the swift, freezing water of Big Run and there was no sign of civilization in sight, I almost forgot that I was in Shenandoah National PArk. In reality, I was just a couple hundred meters from the point where Big Run entered the farmland of Shenandoah Valley. But the closest publicly accessible road from there was Skyline Drive, nearly five miles away. I had not seen a single other human being since leaving the parking area. Many hikers consider Shenandoah to be a civilized wilderness, or barely a wilderness at all. A visit to this most remote, most wild part of the park would convince nearly anyone otherwise.

This is a difficult hike. During winter and spring, it requires four difficult and deep stream (river, really) crossings. Anyone who knows the park well enough to want to hike this trail (anyone who's already done Riprap, Robertson, etc.) should find the hike manageable, but I don't recommend it to anyone who hasn't already hiked fairly extensively in the park or in the Blue Ridge.

I hiked this on a January day at the beginning of my final semester at UVA. I was less than a week removed from my time volunteering in the Big Bend of Texas; just a week before, I had hiked Emory Peak, the park's highest peak, in about six inches of snow. I had returned from rain and snow in the desert to rain in Charlottesville and snow in the Blue Ridge. Friday, Skyline Drive was closed; but Saturday, as the snow melted, the drive opened. I got a late start and didn't get from Charlottesville to Mile 77 of Skyline Drive until about 11 AM. Along the way, I passed by beautiful views of the snow-covered Blue Ridge at Turk Mountain Overlook. I also found occasional patches of snow still on the drive itself, making driving slower and a little tricky.

Winter view south to the Priest and Maintop from Turk Mountain Overlook
I parked at the Brown Mountain Overlook, where I looked across a saddle to the cliffs and outcrops of Rocky Mountain. To the left of Rocky Mountain was a wide, deep valley, bound on the other end by Rockytop. The peaks here had escaped most of the snow, so they remained clad in the typical brown attire of a Blue Ridge winter day. I started on the hike on the trail leading downhill from the overlook. This trail quickly cut to the north as it passed through the clearing underneath the overlook. For a short while, I could see views north towards Rocky Mount. I also realized that although this part of the park had escaped most of the snow, it hadn't escaped the cold: the ground was crunchy from the thick needle ice formations in the soil.

The beginning of the hike, at Brown Mountain Overlook
Needle ice!
The trail descended for about 0.7 miles from the overlook down to a saddle between the Blue Ridge crest and Rocky Mountain. Here, the trail split off, with the left fork leading downhill towards Rocky Mountain Run and the right fork heading up Rocky Mountain itself. I took the right, leaving the other trail as my return path. This trail made a gentle uphill along the north side of Rocky Mountain, occasionally cutting through areas of mountain laurel.

Brown Mountain Trail
The trail broke into its first major viewpoint about a mile and a half in. As the trail headed south along Rocky Mountain, it very suddenly emerged into a series of white Erwin sandstone outcrops. The principal summit of Rocky Mountain was directly ahead; to its left were the endless folded ridges of the Big Run Valley, with the summit of Trayfoot, Blackrock, Cedar, and Big Flat poking out. The line of outcrops continued even when the trail turned right, forming almost a prow-like protrusion over the Big Run Valley that invited scrambling.

View from Rocky Mountain
Over the next quarter mile, there were occasional views to the west as the trail passed through fairly low-lying vegetation. I was able to see the summit of Rockytop poking above my surroundings; I could also see the southern tip of Massanutten towering over Shenandoah Valley.

View from Rocky Mountain
The trail reentered the forest as it approached the summit of Rocky Mountain. Most of the hike was fairly flat as the trail stayed just below the main ridge of the peak. The trail continued this way over towards Brown Mountain; there were no views from the trail. However, at multiple points, when I could see white rocks and blue sky just beyond the forest at the top of the ridge, I would go off-trail and make my way over to the rocks. Sometimes, there was just more forest on the other side; but three times, these bushwhacking excursions led to huge outcrops or talus slopes with phenomenal views up the Big Run Valley. Henry Heatwole, author of the Guide to Skyline Drive, called this "one of the greatest views in the park." It's certainly up there. At one of these viewpoints, I stood just short of a tower of sandstone, perched over a broken talus of quartzite, looking up the watershed to Trayfoot Mountain and out west into Shenandoah Valley.

View of Rockytop from Rocky Mountain
Big Run Valley from Rocky Mountain
Shenandoah Valley
After passing through the incredible viewpoints on Rocky Mountain, I continued on the fairly flat terrain and arrived at more views on Brown Mountain. Brown Mountain is barely a separate mountain from Rocky Mountain; in fact, I consider it more of a northwest extension of the Rocky Mountain ridge rather than a truly independent peak. While hiking on Brown Mountain, I stopped at a northward view towards Brown Mountain, and made a short off-trail excursion to yet another Big Run Valley and Rockytop view. From Brown Mountain, Rockytop was an impressive spectacle of pines and cliffs. And the most impressive feature was undoubtedly at the foot of Rockytop, where sandstone bluffs closed in on Big Run as the stream made its way out of the hollow into Shenandoah Valley. At times, the trees also broke to the west, bringing limited views of Massanutten Mountain and the Valley.

View of Twomile Ridge and Rocky Mount
Massanutten from Brown Mountain
Rockytop from Brown Mountain
I also found multiple superb examples of Skolithos, or fossilized worm holes, in the sandstone on Brown Mountain. These rocks, over 500 million years old, hold just these faint reminders of life from the white sandy beaches of the Iapetus Ocean during the Cambrian Era.

After passing the summit of Brown Mountain, the trail began a steady descent. In the next mile and a half, the trail dropped a good part of 1500 feet. Along the way, I saw the King and Queen Rocks, two large outcrops on the northern ridge of Brown Mountain that tower over the edge of Shenandoah Valley.

King and Queen Rocks
The end of the descent was fairly steep and brought more views of Shenandoah Valley and Big Run Portal. As the trail approached the Portal, the scenery became progressively wilder. The cliffs on Rockytop, which had seemed so small when first viewed from Rocky Mountain, now appeared much larger and much more impresssive. At times, I felt like I had been transplanted somewhere much farther west, so different was the scenery. After passing through a final clearing near the bottom of the valley, the trail finally finished the descent and came to the Big Run Portal Trail.

Shenandoah Valley from halfway down (or halfway up) Brown Mountain
Big Run Portal
I took a short detour by turning right on the trail and visiting the Big Run Portal Trail's bridge over the stream, before returning to the junction and continuing the clockwise loop by heading upstream along Big Run. About a quarter of a mile past the junction, the trail came to the first stream crossing.

Big Run
Big Run at one of the crossings
I realized then the shortsightedness of my planning for this hike. After a week of rains, Big Run was flowing at a decently high level. This was not a major problem in itself- the water was not so high that it was dangerous to cross- but as soon as I began crossing, I was immediately reminded that much of the water in the run came from snowmelt upstream. It took me a very unpleasant minute to cross the river. After this crossing, I picked up my pace to get back faster: I wanted to get back to someplace warm, and the sun was only an hour and a half from setting (the result of my late departure that morning).

Unfortunately, that cold crossing was only the first of four cold crossings of Big Run. A little over a mile later, after finishing the fourth and final crossing and feeling more than a little cold, I reached the junction with the Rocky Mountain Run Trail. I made quick progress up the trail, which followed the left side of the run before making two easier stream crossings as it climbed higher up.

Rocky Mountain Run
After hurrying up the trail for two miles from the Big Run Portal trail, including a final steep stretch with two switchbacks, I arrived back at Rocky Mountain Saddle and the Brown Mountain Trail. I turned left and finished the hike by returning to my car and turning on the heat. I exited the park by the Swift Run Gap entrance; on my way out, I stopped at Bacon Hollow Overlook to marvel at the colors of dusk over the Blue Ridge.

Dusk at Bacon Hollow Overlook

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Big Run Loop

Mountain Laurel
5.8 miles loop, 1400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The Big Run watershed is the largest in Shenandoah National Park. By the time Big Run leaves the wide bowl bound by Brown Mountain, Rockytop, and Loft Mountain through Big Run Portal, it is minor river; as a sign on Skyline Drive states, an inch of rain in the Big Run watershed is roughly equal to 200 million gallons. The watershed also forms the most remote and wild country in the entire park. While most hikes into the Big Run watershed take a full day or more, the Big Run loop ventures into the edge of this country, following ridges on the watershed's southeastern edge before visiting the upper reaches of the stream. This hike is certainly best in spring, when wildflowers bloom everywhere along the trail. This is a hike for forests, flowers, and a stream; while there are two views on this hike, both of those views are from spots where the hike intersects a Skyline Drive overlook.

This was the last hike that I did in Shenandoah before moving out of Charlottesville. A week and a half after graduation, on a warm late May day, I drove out to the park to visit the overlooks a last time and explore some new stretches of trail I hadn't before. I stopped at every overlook along Skyline Drive between I-64 at Rockfish Gap and the Doyles River Trailhead, fondly remembering the experiences at those overlooks and on each of the ridges and hollows of the South District from the past two years. It took me nearly an hour and a half to travel the 24 or so miles from the entrance up to the trailhead at milepost 81.

Once at the trailhead, I followed the Doyles River Falls trail downhill just a few meters to reach the Appalachian Trail. I turned right to take the AT south. The first mile of trail wound through the forest, paralleling Skyline Drive. There were no views, but the spring forest had many other delights: many different wildflowers added color to the green. The trail was fairly flat, with only occasional elevation gain and loss.

The AT near the Doyles River Trailhead

More wildflowers!
A mile into the hike, I reached the Doyles River Overlook. This paved overlook is slightly set off from the main traffic of Skyline Drive, so it's a bit more quiet than the typical Shenandoah overlook. The AT followed the pavement across the overlook before reentering the woods. I stopped briefly at the overlook to take in the view of Big and Little Flat Mountains and Cedar Mountain on either side of the Doyles River watershed. One corner of Bucks Elbow Mountain peeked out from behind Cedar Mountain, and far off in the distance I could see Charlottesville.

Doyles River Overlook
The AT near Doyles River Overlook
Soon after passing the overlook, the trail intersected Skyline Drive. I crossed the drive and continued hiking until I reached a trail junction with the Big Run Trail, about a half mile past the overlook. I turned right here, continuing the clockwise circuit. The trail began a slight descent on Rockytop Ridge. I encountered a small snake on the trail and saw many beautifully blooming rhododendron. In just over half a mile the trail intersected the Rockytop Trail; I turned right to stay on the Big Run Loop Trail and began a mile and a half descent.

The descent had one partial view through the trees; mostly, it was just forest, with occasional pockets of wildflowers. Once it finished descending, the trail reached the bottom of Big Run's valley. Here, I turned right onto the Big Run Fire Road, which quickly brought me to a crossing of Big Run. Near its headwaters, Big Run may not seem to merit its name: here it was just a trickle, a gentle mountain creek. However, during a rainstorm, water flows in from every cranny of the wide valley, creating a small river in the lower valley. The water was fairly cool, a welcome respite from the warm May weather.

Big Run
After crossing the creek, the trail began climbing out of the valley. All along the previous sections of the hike, I had been keeping an anxious watch for mountain laurel in bloom. The huge bushes of blooming white flowers is one of my favorite sights in the Blue Ridge. I was disappointed again and again though; most of the mountain laurel was on the cusp of blooming, but most had not opened their white petals. However, as I climbed up the Big Run Fire Road, the most amazing sight unfolded before me: as I climbed further, more and more mountain laurel began to appear to the right of the trail, each bush progressively further in bloom.

Mountain laurel in bloom
I took my time enjoying the mountain laurels. It was perhaps the last time in a long time that I'd see their white and pink flowers in the Virginia Blue Ridge. At the end of that week, I moved out of Charlottesville; a few months later, I moved out of my home state of 22 years for the first time.

When I finally tore myself from the mountain laurel, I continued the ascent from the valley. At one point, the trail flattened out on a small ridge. I turned a corner onto the ridge and found a bear with two cubs just fifty feet away from me down the trail. She looked at me curiously for nearly a half minute crashing loudly into the forest with her cubs.

Mamma and cubs on the trail
A final uphill push brought me back to Skyline Drive at Big Run Overlook, about 2.2 miles from Big Run. I looked down the valley to Rockytop, Brown Mountain, and Massanutten, recalling my fond memories from this landscape. I had a difficult time convincing myself to return to my car and return to Charlottesville.

Big Run Overlook
The beauty of this hike was in the little things: the wildflowers of spring, mushrooms, the coolness of a mountain stream, bears, cicada chirps, and the ever-continuing recovery of the Shenandoah forests. In many ways, this hike exemplifies the Shenandoah idea: a park where visitors find joy in the details, in the changes between seasons, in the sighting of rare or familiar wildlife, rather than a park of sublime features that induce jaws to drop. I'm glad that this was my last hike during my time at UVA.