Friday, July 5, 2013

Riprap Trail

View from Chimney Rock
9.8 miles loop, 2230 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous, due to length, elevation gain, multiple stream crossings and rock scrambling
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The Riprap Trail is a classic. It's got something for everyone, and it's quite possibly one of the most thoroughly scenic trails of the South District of Shenandoah. I hiked this trail during a rainstorm- and even then, the charms of this trail were quite apparent. This is a trail for the spring, when the wildflowers are blooming and the water is flowing down in Riprap Hollow and the poison ivy hasn't made bushwhacking to Calvary Rocks an unhappy affair yet. Despite its 9.8 miles and 2230 feet of elevation gain, it's not a strenuous hike- hikers who have done 10 mile hikes will find the grades on this trail to be gentle and the distance flies by when you're hiking along rushing streams and wide-open views. However, it's still not a trail to be handled lightly: The trail requires five river crossings, which can be quite deep during and after storms and in spring, and it is nearly 10 miles. That said, the Riprap Trail is one that all UVA students should try during their time in Charlottesville.

I hiked this trail on a rainy May day with two friends. We left Charlottesville mid-morning. I took I-64 west to Rockfish Gap in poor weather; the fog on Scott Mountain was very heavy. We then hopped off at exit 99 and turned right onto US 250, then right again at a sign for Skyline Drive; at the end of this road we turned left to go north on Skyline Drive. At the entrance of the park, the ranger seemed to give us somewhere between a look of pity and a smirk as we drove into the very overcast and somewhat rainy Shenandoah day. We drove north to around milepost 90 and parked at the Riprap Trailhead. Since it was extremely cloudy, we decided to do the loop clockwise rather than the traditional counterclockwise and thus leave the views of the hike for the afternoon, when we hoped the weather would clear up.

We headed south on the Appalachian Trail. The AT wound through the high areas of the mountain here, just downhill of Skyline Drive. We could hear the cars on the drive from time to time; but we still felt alone in the forest, where signs of spring were everywhere. To the west, occasional views of cloud-shrouded ridges would pop up from time to time. Beneath us, the forest was bursting with fiddlehead ferns and red-spotted newts. About 2.8 miles from the trailhead, we reached a junction with the Wildcat Ridge Trail, which we turned right onto and followed.

The Wildcat Ridge Trail started a gentle descent into Riprap Hollow. For the next two and a half miles, we intermittently followed the top and sides of ridgelines, with occasional limited views of the nearby ridges. The clouds shifted in and out and the vegetation became greener as we dropped into the hollow.

Wildcat Ridge Trail
After following the ridge for a while, the trail made a sharp right turn and began descending a little more steeply into the bottom of the hollow. We came to the first stream crossing of the hike: the stream that drained the hollow beneath Wildcat Ridge. The creek was bursting out of its banks due to the recent rain: what usually would likely have been a rock-hop was now a knee-deep crossing. We made our way across the first crossing and continued downhill another quarter mile to a second crossing. This stream was particularly fast at this second crossing; I became slightly disoriented in this area, mistaking this stream for the main river in Riprap Hollow. After wandering around for a while, we finally figured out the direction of the trail and crossed the creek again.

A violent stream in Riprap Hollow
A little further downhill from this second river crossing, we came to the main stream of Riprap Hollow. This usually gentle stream had turned into a minor river with knee-deep water. We crossed here and went ahead a bit to reach the junction with the Riprap Trail. Around this junction, we found quite a few young hemlock trees and azaleas.

Azaleas blooming
We turned right onto the Riprap Trail and began following it up into the hollow. The trail started out a distance away from the river, but soon started approaching closer and closer to the hollow's main stream. At this point, the rain, which had held off in the morning and been just light when we were descending Wildcat Ridge, began to pour. The stream, which was already quite full, began pouring over its banks. In many areas, the trail itself became a second stream. It became difficult to distinguish trail and streambed in some spots. Eventually, we gave up on staying dry and just trudged straight through the next stream crossing, where the stream had completely over-run the trail. Past that stream crossing, we came to the main swimming hole in Riprap Hollow. In drier times, the swimming hole might have provided a welcome and calm respite from the heat, but that day, none of us were in the mood to be any more soaked than we already were. Plus, the waters in the swimming hole were frothing as torrents of water made their way downstream.

Swimming Hole
Past the swimming hole, we made another stream crossing and returned to the left bank of the stream. The trail swung away from the stream for a little while, providing some relief from walking through a river, but eventually swung back and returned to the side of the stream at a waterfall, one of the more impressive sights in Riprap Hollow. During dry times, the falls would probably be much tamer- however, during our hike, the 20-foot drop was wild and rushing.

Falls in Riprap Hollow
After passing the waterfall, the trail continued up into the hollow, gradually climbing towards the ridge. Thankfully, the rain started to abate during our climb. We pushed through this section of trail to reach the top of the ridge, where we emerged in what appeared to be a burn area. Here, the ridge was quite open to the north and west, so on a clear day I expect the views would be quite good. However, we were enveloped by clouds while going through the burn area and missed the views that I expect you could find there otherwise.

After hiking along the ridge area for a while, we came to Chimney Rock, a sandstone outcrop that jutted out to the left of the trail. While we were at Chimney Rock, the clouds gradually began to disperse, opening up some views of Paine Run Hollow, Buzzard Rock, and Trayfoot Mountain. Chimney Rock itself was a tall, isolated sandstone outcrop, separated from the sandstone cliffs next to the trail; bolts in the cliffs suggested that there once was a bridge over to Chimney Rock, but there's currently no way of getting onto Chimney Rock itself short of climbing down a rock crevice and then scaling the chimney, none of which we found appealing since it was so wet.

View from Chimney Rock
From Chimney Rock, we continued a third of a mile onward to Calvary Rocks, a summit on Rocks Mountain only accessible by a short bushwhack. After passing a large talus slope to the right of the trail, we looked for and took a small path that branched off to the right of the trail and followed the ridge to the summit of the rocks. Atop the rocks, there was a spectacular view of clouds shifting among the peaks of the South District and of Shenandoah Valley to the west.

View from Calvary Rocks
We stayed briefly at Calvary Rocks before returning to the Riprap Trail and following it uphill to its junction with the Appalachian Trail. Here, we turned right and followed the AT downhill back to the parking area and the warmth of being inside a car, 1.5 miles from Calvary Rocks.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Raven Rocks

View from Raven Rocks
5.5 miles round trip, 1550 feet elevation gain

The hike to Ravens Rock offers a rather limited view for the amount of effort required, but is a popular hike due to its proximity to the DC metro area. Still, it’s probably one of the more scenic spots along the Appalachian Trail between Shenandoah National Park and Harper’s Ferry. The rocks sit at the border of Virginia and West Virginia, perched on the crest of the Blue Ridge above Shenandoah Valley.

I did this hike on an early July day. It was a bit too hot of a day for hiking, in a summer that already had many days that were much too hot, but since it was a national holiday I felt an obligation to go out and enjoy the very beautiful Virginia landscape. I headed out of Rockville with three fellow interns; on the way, we picked up one of my friends from UVA.  We took I-495 south across the river into Virginia to Route 7 at Tysons Corner and followed Route 7 west. We stayed on Route 7 the entire way; past Leesburg, the route approached the low crest of the Blue Ridge and finally reached the top of the Blue Ridge at Snickers Gap. Just past the gap, we turned right onto Pine Grove Road and parked at a parking area for the Appalachian Trail, on the right side of Pine Grove Road immediately past the first junction.

From the trailhead, we followed the Appalachian Trail north. The trail began by climbing up from the gap to the main ridge of the Blue Ridge. Here, the Blue Ridge was a flat, narrow, single ridgeline punctuated by occasional wind gaps. The trail stayed to the west of the ridge, occasionally passing large boulders and partial views to the west of the trail. At one point, there were boulders along the trail large enough for us to stop and take a rest and for me to scramble around to look for a view in the opening in the trees. We passed and were passed by many thru-hikers as we made our way towards Raven Rocks.

View along the hike
The trail was fairly rocky. It got a little rockier during the first descent, which was around a mile past the trailhead. Here, the Appalachian Trail dropped off the ridge and descended to the bottom of a hollow, then ascended up the other side of the hollow. The descents and ascents, which were already fairly steep, were made worse by the heat of that day.

Along the Appalachian Trail
After another fairly flat section of trail higher up on the ridge, the trail descended a second time; this descent was similar to the first. At the bottom, there was a very rocky stream crossing; past this crossing, we began yet another climb on the trail. The hollows on the trails were verdant and filled with ferns, but the streams were running quite dry. This final climb (on the way in) brought us up to the border of Virginia and West Virginia, which was marked by a trail sign and a cryptic AT thru-hikers’ note about a spaghetti supper.

At the VA/WV border

A couple of tenths of mile past the trail sign, the trail, which had flattened out again, finally emerged from the forest and arrived at the outcrops of Raven Rocks. The main section of an outcrop, perched atop a high cliff, was occupied by a large group of Boy Scouts, so my friends and I settled for a lower outcrop; unfortunately, shade and views were mutually exclusive on the rocks, so we spent most of our lunch time away from the view and instead hiding from the oppressive heat of the mid-day sun. The view itself was nice but not spectacular: we could see a hollow on the side of the main Blue Ridge and to the west there was a view into Shenandoah Valley, with a water tower and a small town. The Blue Ridge here is a single fairly low ridge, so the views were of low mountains and a fairly developed valley. The day was quite hazy, so visibility was limited to a few miles; perhaps if we had come on a nicer day, I might have been more enamored with the view. 

Raven Rocks
After finishing our lunch on the rocks, we hiked back to Snickers Gap. The hike back was nearly as strenuous as the hike to the rocks: the two climbs out of the hollows were both fairly steep and rocky and the rising temperatures that day didn’t help. While this is certainly a worthwhile hike for DC residents, it might not be as worth the drive for hikers coming from further away who have easier access to George Washington National Forest or Shenandoah National Park.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Bear Church Rock via Jones Mountain

Doubletop Mountain from Bear Church Rock
9.4 miles round trip, 2100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, due to distance and elevation gain
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Bear Church Rock is a hike for those already familiar with Shenandoah. It is rather long, a bit tiring, and although the view is quite good, it certainly doesn’t equal the payback of many of Shenandoah’s shorter hikes. However, the hike is still quite beautiful and explores a fairly remote part of the park, so this may be enticing if you’re looking for a place off the beaten path. There are two approaches to Bear Church Rock: one from Skyline Drive and one from Route 663. You can find descriptions of the hike from the lower end at Virginia Trail Guide or Hiking Upward. I’ll cover the approach from Skyline Drive, which follows the ridgeline of Jones Mountain to the rocks. While this route lacks the riparian charms of the lower route, it has its own rewards, including rare views and mountain laurel.

I hiked to Bear Church Rock on a late February day. I headed out of Charlottesville on a cloudy, foggy, and overcast morning. I had originally planned on getting to the Blue Ridge in time to see a sunrise, but when I woke up and saw that it was foggy outside, I headed back to bed for another two hours. When I finally set out, it was still very overcast and I was worried that there wouldn’t be much to see from Skyline Drive. However, I decided that I’d stick with my plan and drive up to Skyline Drive. I headed out of Charlottesville north on US 29, then took US 33 west at Ruckersville to Swift Run Gap and then Skyline Drive north to Bootens Gap at mile 55. Once I arrive on the drive, my decision to stick with my plan was rewarded: there was a sea of fog filling Shenandoah Valley that pushed to the foot of the Blue Ridge.

Baldface Mountain fog sea
I parked at Bootens Gap and started the hike by following the Appalachian Trail north and beginning an ascent up the south side of Hazeltop. In a few tenths of a mile, I came to a junction with the Laurel Prong Trail; here, I turned right and took the Laurel Prong Trail east. The next mile was very enjoyable: the fairly rocky trail followed the south side of Hazeltop, high above the Conway River watershed. To the south, I could see through the trees to Bearfence Mountain towering above the valley below, as well as other small peaks scattered further out from the main Blue Ridge. Towards the end of the mile-long stretch of the Laurel Prong Trail, Cat Knob came into view, its pyramidal peak jutting out in front of the trail. The trail then descended into Laurel Gap and reached a junction with the Cat Knob Trail at a mile past the last junction.

Cat Knob from Laurel Prong Trail
From this junction, I took the right fork onto the Cat Knob Trail. This trail wasted no time in climbing up the steep west face of Cat Knob. At times, the trail required mild rock scrambling- although this might have been due mainly to the ice on the trail at the time I was hiking. I found parts of this trail to be quite steep. Towards the top of the knob, I turned around and looked west and I could see a hint of Big Meadows through the trees. About half a mile after Laurel Gap, the trail passed over the top of the knob and intersected with a trail to the Sag and Fork Mountain. Here, I turned right onto the Jones Mountain Trail.

The next two miles of the trail followed the ridgeline of Jones Mountain. This ridgeline was generally pretty flat, with few ups and downs, although the general trend was downhill; views were also limited, with only occasional spots where the trees were thin enough to see into the Conway River valley or over to Fork Mountain. One of the more remarkable spots on the Jones Mountain Trail was a tunnel of mountain laurel. A short section of a few tens of feet of trail was entirely surrounded my mountain laurel. Since I came in February, none of it was in bloom; but I expect that in early June, this section of trail would be spectacular. At one point, the trail left Shenandoah National Park and entered the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area.

Mountain Laurel tunnel
The trail began to climb when it approached the ridgeline of Bluff Mountain, about four miles into the hike. After a short uphill, the trail turned left and downhill while the ridgeline of Bluff Mountain turned right. Not long after passing Bluff Mountain, a short path led to the left of the trail to a tiny rock with a limited view of Fork Mountain. If Bear Church Rock is the main viewpoint here, perhaps this is Cub Chapel Outcrop.

View from outcrop near trail
Continuing onward, the trail still followed the ridge, which was now dropping downward, steeply in some places. Finally, about four and a half miles from the trailhead, the rock itself came into view, sharply downhill from where the trail was on the ridge. The final few tenths of a mile were a steep descent to the rock. An unmarked spur to the left of the trail led out to the rock, which is a massive granite outcrop. From the rock, there was a broad, good view of the Staunton River watershed, which was dominated by Cat Knob and Fork Mountain, and of Doubletop and Old Rag in the distance. The left part of the view encompassed much of the ridgeline that I hiked down to reach the rock itself.

Cat Knob and Fork Mountain from Bear Church Rock
I stayed briefly at the rock, eating lunch and napping before heading back. The hike back is a bit more strenuous than the hike to the rock: Bear Church Rock is at a lower elevation than Bootens Gap, so a majority of the elevation gain on this hike is on the hike back.