Monday, May 13, 2013

Wintergreen: Blackrock/The Plunge

View of Three Ridges from the Plunge
2.6 miles round trip, 800 feet elevation gain

This hike is an abridged version of what some people do as a much longer hike- the Wintergreen Perimeter trail. However, it hits some of the highlights on that trail- namely, the Plunge and the Three Ridges Overlook- without requiring a full day of intense elevation gain and loss. Some hikers may be turned off by the fact that this hike starts and ends in Wintergreen Resort, a heavily developed mountaintop with vacation homes, ski slopes, and a golf course- but rest assured that much of this hike is out of ear and eye shot of the resort. Hikers expecting gentle, well-trodden trails will also be surprised by the wild and rugged nature of the trails. Even though it's this hike goes around the south side of part of Wintergreen, it's still a rather difficult and exciting trail!

Wintergreen is one of the main ski/golf resorts around Charlottesville; it sits on the flat summits of Devil's Knob and the lower Blackrock. The hike described here visits two viewpoints on Blackrock. There are two types of trails near the resort: perimeter trails, which encircle the resort area, and access trails, which lead from roaded areas of the resort down to the perimeter trail.

Three friends and I decided on doing this hike on an April morning after realizing we had rather limited time on our Saturday morning. We left Charlottesville mid-morning and headed west to Wintergreen by first taking I-64 west to Rockfish Gap, then taking the Blue Ridge Parkway south from Rockfish Gap to Reeds Gap, then turning left and taking Route 664 downhill, steeply, to the entrance for Wintergreen. Upon entering Wintergreen, we drove up the main access road until we came to the turnoff for Blackrock Dr; we followed Blackrock Dr until we came to Blackrock Circle, where we turned right and drove halfway around the circle until we came to a small parking area on the right. We parked here: this was the trailhead.

The first 0.3 miles followed Blackrock Circle. From the parking area, we walked further down Blackrock Circle, passing one cul-de-sac road that branched off to the right. Just before reaching the second turnoff to the right, there is a small, hard-to-spot sign at the edge of the woods to the right for the access trail to the Pedlar's Edge Trail. We hopped onto the Pedlar's Edge trail and got off the pavement.

The trail almost immediately began descending. The first half mile of trail was downhill, passing some houses before beginning a rocky and at point steep descent. Pedlar granite was present all around the trail, and after descending for a while we entered a stand of mountain laurel that surrounded the trail on both sides.

About a half mile from Blackrock Circle, we came to the junction with the red-blazed perimeter trail. We turned right onto the Blackrock Trail. The trail almost immediately began climbing, reversing much of the elevation gain we had just done. While there weren't open views, since it was early spring, there were still views through the trees into the Piedmont.

Soon the trail swung uphill and to the right to reach a ridge of Blackrock. While ascending this ridge, we passed a small communications station. Hiking further, the trail began getting rough: mild rock scrambling was necessary to negotiate some of the ups and downs of the trail. 

Along the trail, one rock outcrop jutted out to the south. Although it had no clear view (the rock was mostly blocked by a pine), it was possible to look out from this spot and see part of Three Ridges and some of the lower ridges near Lovingston.

After a very bumpy 0.7 miles from the junction of the access and perimeter trails, we came to a junction with another access trail, this one leading back to the parking area. Although we planned on continuing further, we took the right turn and ascended on the yellow access trail 0.1 miles to the most exciting viewpoint of the hike. The yellow-blazed trail ascended very steeply, at times precariously following the edge of granite ledges as it climbed up the slopes of Blackrock. Soon, we came to a spur trail that led to the left and down to a granite outcrop, the Plunge. The top viewpoint had a low granite wall built to protect visitors. From the first viewpoint on the ledge, it was possible to descend further until reaching an outcrop with no railing.

The view from the Plunge was huge to the east, south, and west. The Blue Ridge foothills- the mountains of Fortune's Cove and Lovingston- rose to the east, past that, the faintest of what appeared to Big Rocky Row was visible; directly south was the hulking massif of Three Ridges, one of the grandest summits in the Blue Ridge, and to its right were the Priest and Maintop, two other massive mountains of this part of the Blue Ridge. To the west was Reeds Gap and the lower ridges of the mountains near St. Mary's Wilderness.

View southeast towards Lovingston
After enjoying the view at the Plunge, we made our way back down to the perimeter trail. We continued downhill from the junction of the perimeter and access trails, now taking the Brimstone Trail. The Brimstone Trail started with at least 250 feet of steep descent down the slopes of Blackrock. The trail involved good amounts of downhill scrambling as it dropped precipitously; the descent was meant primarily to go around the huge granite outcropping which formed the Plunge, which created a granite protrusion of at least 300 vertical feet on the face of Blackrock. After a knee-busting descent, the trail turned to the right and began to ascend again, gently at first, then quite steeply later. Much scrambling was required to get across granite boulders or up steep slopes. Views of Three Ridges occasionally opened up to the south to make up for the difficult nature of the trail.

Brimstone Trail

Finally, about 0.6 miles from the last trail junction with the access trail, we came to a broad clearing on the mountain slope- the Three Ridges Overlook. From here, there was a quite stunning view to the south of Three Ridges, very similar to the view at the Plunge. In addition, it was possible to see many of the resort homes of Wintergreen from here. My friends and I enjoyed lunch at the viewpoint. This is the last high point of the hike: from here, you can take the Brimstone Trail back to the Plunge Trail and return directly to the parking area, or continue on the Brimstone Trail until the next access trail and then take the next access trail to Blackrock Drive and follow the road back to the parking area.

View of Three Ridges, the Priest, and Maintop from Three Ridges Overlook

A note on the rocks encountered in this hike: this hike features a lot of granite. This region is dominated by a formation of granite known as the Pedlar formation. The Pedlar formation is composed of incredibly ancient granite- some of it is as old as 1.1 billion years. The Pedlar granites and granodiorites formed during the Grenville Orogeny, a massive mountain-building event that occurred about 1.1 billion years ago during the formation of the supercontinent Rodinia. Magma intruded from the mantle into the country rock of the time, miles underground, and cooled in massive magma chambers, forming massive intrusions of granite. Over hundreds of millions of years, these granite intrusions were brought to the surface due to the rebound of the earth's crust. The earth's crust floats atop the mantle- so in mountainous areas, the thickness of the crust underneath the mountains much exceeds the height of the mountains themselves, similar to an iceberg. As the mountains erode and the crust thins from the top, rocks embedded deep in the crust are brought towards the surface and eventually even granites formed miles underground are exposed.

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