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. 

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