Sunday, June 30, 2013

Compton Peak

Columnar jointing on Compton Peak
2.4 miles round trip, 830 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Compton Peak is an easy and noteworthy hike in the North District of Shenandoah National Park. I enjoyed this hike very much: not only does it lead to a good view, but it also leads to one of the most spectacular geological features of the park, a set of columnar basalt in the Catoctin Formation. The hike’s outstanding features, its relative easiness, and its proximity to the Front Royal entrance of the park make it a hike that all Washington DC area residents should do.

I did this hike on a November afternoon, on my way driving from Charlottesville to Baltimore. From Charlottesville, I took US 29 north to Madison, then took 29 business through Madison itself; at the far end of town, I turned left onto Route 231 north. I took Route 231 north all the way to its terminus at US 522; here I turned left and took US 522 into Sperryville and a junction with US 211. At the junction with US 211, I turned left and took that road up to the Thornton Gap Entrance of Shenandoah, where I took Skyline Drive north to Compton Gap at mile 10. Hikers coming from DC can take I-66 west to Front Royal, follow signs for Skyline Drive and then follow Skyline Drive to mile 10.

During my drive in, I stopped at Indian Run Overlook, which was at mile 11, just before Compton Gap. Although the view here was good, the more exciting feature was the huge icicles that hung off the cliff behind the overlook.

Starting from the Compton Gap parking area, I crossed Skyline Drive and started taking the Appalachian Trail south. The trail began a fairly gentle climb up Compton Peak. Along the way, the trail passed multiple large boulders. It was immediately obvious that columnar basalt was quite common all over this mountain: many of the boulders here already exhibited the distinctive hexagonal shapes.

Boulder exhibiting columnar jointing on the trail
After climbing for about seven-tenths of a mile, the trail leveled out on the top of the summit plateau. About 0.8 miles from the trailhead, I came to an intersection at the top of Compton Peak. Two trails led left and right, and the AT continued southward. Here, I turned right and followed the west spur trail. This trail stayed fairly flat, following a rocky trail along the summit for a fifth of a mile. I reached a large rock outcrop at the end of the trail. The outcrop looked to the north, with a good view of the gradually shrinking crest of the Blue Ridge outside the park and of Dickey Ridge. To the northwest, I could also see Shenandoah Valley and Signal Knob. The view to the east was similar to that at Indian Run Overlook.

View northwest from Compton Peak
I took some photos and ate my lunch quickly here before leaving- it was quite windy. I returned to the summit junction and this time took the eastward trail. This trail was also about a fifth of a mile long. I followed the spur downhill, dropping quite a bit down the east side of Compton Peak, including a section with icy rock steps, before reaching a large rock outcrop. A blue blaze led straight onto the outcrop, so I followed the blaze and scrambled up the rock; unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a view from the rock. Mt. Marshall and the Peak were visible but were largely blocked by trees. Only a small window of the Piedmont was visible. However, once I came off the rock, I followed the last section of trail downhill to the left of the rock. The trail ended after circling to the eastern base of the outcrop.

View east from top of boulder
What had been a rock with a disappointing view from above was a geological wonder from below. The rock outcrop was a massive chunk of columnar basalt. The rock was arranged into vertical hexagonal columns. The columnar basalt was quite extensive here: the neighboring few outcrops featured a similar structure. This columnar basalt is part of the Catoctin Formation, which in most parts of the park is composed of a metamorphosed basalt. Here, the basalt seemed a little more intact in its original shape. The basalts of the Catoctin Formation were once huge flood basalts around 700 million years ago. Rifting or other sorts of extensional tectonics caused huge lava flows that flooded the existing landscape. When the exposed lava cooled quickly, it shrank, causing hexagonal joints to form in the nascent basalt. Thus, once the rock cooled and formed, it formed in columns rather in a single block.

This is awesome.
Although the Catoctin Formation is present throughout the park, this is the only place that I know of in Shenandoah National Park that has such an impressive formation of columnar basalt. Columnar basalt can also be found in Upper Whiteoak Canyon.

From here, I retraced my steps to the trailhead.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Strickler Knob

Strickler Knob
 9 miles round trip or 10 miles loop, 2100 or 1700 feet elevation gain

This hike post must start with an apology to my two friends who hiked it with me: after adding on some extra mileage, this hike was much longer than advertised.

Strickler Knob is one of the many rock promontories on Massanutten Mountain, that set of parallel ridges that bisects Shenandoah Valley south of Front Royal. However, even though its setting is common, its view is certainly not: the view from Strickler Knob is arguably one of the greatest in the region. The nearly 360-degree panorama from the end of the trail has a sweeping view of Page Valley and the peaks of Shenandoah National Park, as well as New Market Gap and the Valley and Ridge to the west. The hike to get to the knob involves a fun rock scramble and, depending on future Forest Service policy towards this trail, possibly a bit of route-finding and bushwhacking.

There are a few more notes about this hike: it can be done either as a 9-mile round trip hike with about 2100 feet of elevation gain, or a 10-mile loop with about 1700 feet of elevation gain. It could also be done as a roughly 5-mile round trip hike from Scothorn Gap with about 1000 feet or so of elevation gain, but I find that to be the least interesting of the available options (and during the winter, the most impractical). Another note that you may find useful is that Crismon Hollow Road, which leads to the trailhead, is closed past the end of the pavement November through April; check with the Forest Service before going on the status of the road. If you’re planning on starting at the Massanutten trailhead, this is not a huge deal, as it only adds an extra half mile on a gravel road each way, but if you were planning on coming in through Scothorn Gap, you’ll be adding an extra three miles of gravel road walking each way to your hike.

I did this hike on a late March weekend, after a particularly snowy Virginia March. The previous weekend, it had snowed a good half foot in the Blue Ridge and a similar amount on Massanutten. Thus, late March, which is usually when the first hints of green start showing up in the Valley, was quite cold and barren and winter-like this year. Two friends and I left Charlottesville in mid-morning, heading north on US 29 to Ruckersville; and from Ruckersville, we turned right to take US 33 west over Swift Run Gap to Elkton; at Elkton we exited and headed north on US 340. US 340 through Page Valley is one of my favorite roads in Virginia: the route passes over the scenic Shenandoah River and the tops of the rolling hills in the valley itself. We stayed on US 340, bypassing the spur that led to the right, until we came to a junction with US 211; here we took US 211 west towards New Market. US 211 climbed up some windy switchbacks to reach New Market Gap; at the gap and the highest point of the road, I turned right onto Crismon Hollow Road. Crismon Hollow Road makes two switchbacks as it climbs up Massanutten Mountain. About 2 miles in, we reached the Massanutten Story Book Trailhead and the end of the paved road. Since we came in March, the road was closed past this point, so we parked here. When the road isn’t closed, you can continue half a mile along the gravel road to the Massanutten Trailhead, which is at a broad saddle. Parking is on the left side of the road.

We parked at the Story Book Trailhead and followed the gravel road north for about half a mile until reaching the Massanutten Trailhead, the actual trailhead for this hike. We turned right here onto the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail, which started out fairly flat. A good amount of snow was left on the trail from the previous week’s storms. We followed the flat, snowy, and often muddy trail for just a few minutes before the trail veered to the left. To the right, we could see that the ridge made a rather precipitous drop; from points on the ridge, there were views into Page Valley and of Strickler Knob across a small hollow. Half a mile from the trailhead, the trail turned to the right again and then began a ridiculously steep descent. In many places, the trail seemed more akin to a free-fall than an actual downhill hike; in half a mile, the trail descends about 800 feet, making the trail one of the steepest that I can think of in this area of Virginia.

At the end of the descent, we passed a junction with the Massanutten Connector Trail. From here, we stayed straight (to the left) on the trail and we soon came to Big Run. From here, the trail followed the stream along the bottom of the hollow, making two fairly easy crossings.

Big Run
After the second crossing, the trail began to climb higher above the stream valley. Most of this ascent was fairly gentle. As the valley began to narrow, the trail returned closer to the stream. Eventually, the trail and the stream appeared to become one and the same- I would guess, however, that this is less of a problem during summer months and was probably more of a problem for us due to the melting snow. As we ventured higher, the snow became more thicker and thicker. Eventually, about two miles from the junction with the Massanutten Connector, the trail reached and passed the head of the stream and crossed over a broad saddle. Past the saddle, the trail began a gradual descent. Just barely into the descent, we came into the junction with the Scothorn Gap Trail.

Snowy junction of Massanutten Trail with Scothorn Gap Trail
At the junction with the Scothorn Gap Trail, we turned right and stayed on the Massanutten Trail. The trail climbed a bit at first, then leveled out a bit as it headed to the south. We followed this rather rocky trail for just slightly more than half a mile before this trail came to the top of a ridge.

Past the ridge, the trail continued on and headed downhill. On the ridge itself, there were no trail signs, but we saw pink markers tied onto some trees. During our visit, the pink markers marked the path to Strickler Knob. However, it appears that this is not always the case. As the trail to Strickler Knob is not an official trail, the Forest Service occasionally removes all of the markers on the trail to the knob. I urge any administrators overseeing this section of George Washington National Forest to keep the Strickler Knob Trail marked or to officially blaze the trail. Since foot traffic here is already fairly high and won’t go away just because the trail markers are being removed, the trail should be blazed to concentrate foot traffic into a single trail and thus decrease the area of human impact along the ridge of Strickler Knob.

Atop the ridge to Strickler Knob
We followed the pink markers along the extremely rocky ridgeline of Strickler Knob. The path here was covered in most places by a few inches of snow, so it was difficult to follow, but we managed to stay on it by following the pink markers. The ridge hiking was tiring due to the rocks but was not actually difficult, as the ridge itself was very flat. At one point, a view opened to the right of the trail: we could see across some of the nearby ridges of Massanutten deep into West Virginia. The peaks in West Virginia glistened from the heavy snowpack on their summits.

View west from Strickler Knob ridge
A little over half a mile down the pink-markered path, we came to the rock scramble. The trail became progressively rockier until it started going straight into the jumble of large sandstone stacks along the ridge. The scramble was fun, but probably would have been more fun on a day when there wasn’t snow and ice in the rock crevices. At one point, a vulture burst out of a hole in the rocks, surprising us. Despite this collection of minor mishaps, we made it to the end of the path; from here, we scrambled up onto the very last protruding sandstone stack.

From atop this rocky viewpoint, we had a commanding view. To the north, we could see the sharp, pointed peaks of Massanutten Mountain and the South Fork Shenandoah making its sinuous way through Page Valley at the foot of Hogback Mountain. To the east, the entirety of the Blue Ridge from Hogback, in the North District of Shenandoah, to Loft Mountain, deep in the South District, were visible. To the south, we could see the southern part of Massanutten Mountain and New Market Gap. To the west, there were the many ridges of West Virginia. The scene was made even more special by the snow that capped many of the mountains in our view.

South Fork Shenandoah River and the Blue Ridge from Strickler Knob

View south from Strickler Knob
We spent most of an hour at the rocks before heading back on the Massanutten Trail to the junction with the Scothorn Gap Trail. At the junction, we went straight to take the yellow-blazed Scothorn Gap Trail; the trail started out flat, wandering through a clearing, before beginning a steady downhill into Fort Valley. At the bottom of the valley, the trail crossed a stream before joining Crismon Hollow Road. It was about two and a half miles from the summit of Strickler Knob to Crismon Hollow Road. From here, we went left on Crismon Hollow Road and followed it for three miles gradually uphill back to the Massanutten Trailhead, and from there back to the Massanutten Story Book Trailhead where we parked. Alternatively, we could've retraced our steps along the Massanutten Trail for a 9 mile round trip hike.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

UVA Hike: an app for Android

UVA Hike!

I'm going to break from the monotony of hike posts to announce the launch of a new Android App for UVA students (or Charlottesville residents) who enjoy hiking: UVA Hike! My friend, Bo Qin, and I have developed this app that you can use to find hikes in the Charlottesville area. The app allows you to look at hike descriptions and photos, gives some general warnings that may be relevant for students who are looking to get into hiking, spills a few secrets, and gives a detailed breakdown of important points along the trail. If you have Android 3.0 or above, you'll also be able to use the map feature, which will help you orient where you are relative to the trailhead for the hike you've picked.

We've launched the app with 47 hikes within 90 minutes driving of Charlottesville. The app has coverage of the most popular hikes in the area, including Humpback Rocks, Old Rag, Blue Hole, and Crabtree Falls; it also has a list of what we consider the top 10 hikes in the area, as well as a list of off-the-beaten-path hikes that most UVA students have never even heard of.

Best of all, the app is completely free! We'd like to make it as user-friendly and helpful for students as possible, so we'd love any feedback you have after using our app. Thanks!