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.

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