Thursday, December 19, 2013

Mount Marshall from Little Hogback

North Marshall
7.8 miles round trip, 1400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

This hike follows an easy stretch of the Appalachian Trail from one scenic Shenandoah summit to another. It's not a particularly wild hike- along the way, the AT crosses Skyline Drive numerous times- but it is highly scenic, packing in some of the best views of the North District into a very short stretch of park.

I hiked this with a friend in August. Usually, August in Virginia is unpleasant: in the Piedmont, the sky is gray with smog on the edges and the air is so heavy with humidity I'm surprised it doesn't sink into the Bay. In the Blue Ridge, the temperatures are a few degrees cooler, but it's still humid and visibility is usually measured in yards. In other words, as much as I love the Blue Ridge, August often leaves me longing for AC, somewhere indoors. But on the first weekend of August, my friend and I left Northern Virginia to auspiciously blue skies and found temperatures of just 60 F when we entered the park.

To get to the trailhead, we took I-66 west from Northern Virginia, hopped onto Rte. 55 west at exit 13, and then drove into the town of Front Royal. We turned left at US 340 and took 340 south briefly to reach the northern terminus of Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park. From the entrance, we followed Skyline Drive nearly 20 miles to Little Hogback Overlook and parked there. The trail started at the northern end of the parking lot, where a short trail led to a junction with the AT.

We enjoyed the view from overlook of the ridiculously blue and clear skies over the rolling green ridges of Massanutten Mountain. Then we headed off, following the Appalachian Trail north from the parking area. We very quickly came to a spur to the left that led to the Little Hogback viewpoint. Only a few hundred yards from the overlook, this set of greenstone outcrops offered an even wider view; from here, we could see the broad forested hump beside us that was the summit of Hogback proper. We stayed here only briefly before continuing along the AT.

View toward Signal Knob from Little Hogback
Describing this hike mile-by-mile would not be particularly useful, as it simply follows the AT while crossing Skyline Drive multiple times, so I will skip the level of detail that I usually give. The hike consists of an intial downhill segment to Gravel Springs Gap and then a climb up to South Marshall, then another short descent and ascent to North Marshall. None of the hiking is hard and all of the ascents are gentle, though most are fairly lengthy. South Marshall is marked by a clear spur trail to the left of the AT a little less than 3 miles from the trailhead, and the viewpoint on North Marshall is a short scramble to the right of the trail when the trail makes a sharp turn to the left about half a mile out of the parking lot between the two summits of the Marshalls. Otherwise, there are no turns off the AT; just follow the white blazes of the AT.

We saw an astounding amount of life along the trail. Flora was plentiful: there were many wildflowers blooming along the trail and plenty of interesting fungi as well. We saw the exquisite form and bright orange color of the Turk's Cap lily, as well as unfamiliar fungi that was perhaps just as orange. Animals were plentiful too: butterflies fluttered near wildflower patches all day. We even glimpsed a mother black bear and her cubs from a distance, dashing off into the woods as we went along the trail. Even without the incredible views that were to come, the hike was already a feast of small delights.

Indian pipes
Turk's Cap Lily
More fungi!

Trailside butterfly
A little over an hour's hiking from the trailhead, we reached the main viewpoint on South Marshall, a set of greenstone outcrops just to the left of the trail. It was quite windy and chilly here, making the August day feel much more like October. The view was wide and serene: Page Valley was spread out before us, with Massanutten Mountain and the many ranges of the Valley and Ridge beyond. To the left was the impressive hulk of Hogback and to the left of that the multitude of peaks in the Cental District. To the right (north), we could see Dickey Ridge. My friend commented on the oddness of the fact that this pastoral scene was just over an hour out of the endless surburbs of Northern Virginia.

Hogback from South Marshall
View north from South Marshall
South Marshall
A little while later, we continued on another mile and came to the viewpoint on North Marshall. Scrambling onto the rocky viewpoint, we had a much clearer view to the south: this time, we could see Mary's Rock, Stony Man, Old Rag, and many more of the park's best-known peaks. From this angle, Mary's Rock was particularly interesting, taking on an almost pyramidal shape.

View south from North Marshall
Mount Marshall is named after the Marshall family that lived in what is today Fauqier and Rappahannock Counties- the family of John Marshall, the Supreme Court justice who used his position to define the relevance of that body. The Virginia Piedmont soil must have had some extra kick back in the mid-18th century: it's still astonishing to me that this stretch of land produced, in a few generations, four of the first five presidents and Marshall.

After spending a little while at the main viewpoint, we followed a faint path over to a secondary viewpoint with an interestingly shaped boulder. The view here was much the same as at the earlier viewpoint. We then made our way back along the AT on one of the nicer summer days I've experienced.

Odd rocks on North Marshall

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bear Church Rock via Graves Mill

View towards Fork Mountain
8.8 miles round trip, 2100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: No fee collection at parking area; purchase a Shenandoah National Park annual pass beforehand for small groups

This is my second post about Bear Church Rock, a remote granite outcropping on Jones Mountain in the Central District. I've previously described the approach from Skyline Drive; here, I'll describe a more interesting route up to the rock from Graves Mill, a trailhead at the park boundary off of the Wolftown-Hood Road. Bear Church Rock was once one of Shenandoah's more secret spots, but in past two years or so it's become a little more visited because of coverage on blogs such as this one. It's still off the beaten path, at least an eight-mile round trip from any car-accessible point. And the views from the top of the lush Staunton River Valley with barely a hint of human touch rarely fail to disappoint. In my opinion, this route is the more interesting of the two to the rock, as it visits the Jones Mountain Cabin and also spends a good deal of time following the Rapidan and Staunton Rivers.

I did this hike on a rainy July day with my parents. We drove to the trailhead from Fredericksburg early in the morning. The trailhead at Graves Mill is a little difficult to get to; from US 29, we turned onto the Wolftown-Hood Road (Route 230) heading west towards the Blue Ridge. About four miles down Route 230, we turned right onto Rte. 662 (Graves Mill Road) and began following it along the Rapidan River. 662 is an odd road: about three miles into the valley, we had to turn right and cross a bridge to stay on 662, as going straight led to 615. The road ended shortly afterward at the small Graves Mill parking area at the park boundary.

We started on the hike by following the wide trail along the Rapidan River. This trail never strayed too far away from the wide Rapidan River, so we got quite a few good views of the river. This river, which forms on the slopes of Hazeltop and Fork Mountain, eventually flows into the Piedmont as one of the major rivers of central Virginia and the largest tributary of the Rappahannock. After half a mile along the Rapidan, we reached a trail junction and turned left to take the Staunton River Trail.

At first, this trail stayed a little away from its namesake river, but after a few tenths of a mile, we noticed a few spurs leading off the trail towards the river. I followed one of these spurs and came to pretty cascade on the river. The river- a large stream, really- is the main tributary to the Rapidan before it leaves the mountains. President Herbert Hoover enjoyed fishing in these streams during the summer during his presidency, and made nearby Rapidan Camp his summer retreat. Hoover once entered the valley on the same narrow road that we had driven earlier to reach Graves Mill.

Staunton River
Returning to the trail, we began a gentle ascent on the former mountain road. After a few initial encounters, the trail stayed well above the river, so there were no later river views. This part of the Blue Ridge was heavily settled before the park establishment. The trail, which has the appearance of a decaying old road, hints at the area's former habitation. We followed the Staunton River Trail for about 2.2 miles from the junction with the Rapidan River Trail to reach the Jones Mountain Trail. Along the way, we passed some of the interesting summer flora of Shenandoah, including many sets of Indian pipes.

Indian pipes
At the junction with the Jones Mountain Trail, we turned left and began the hike's main ascent. Having hiked the Jones Mountain Trail above Bear Church Rock and experienced some of the steeper segments there, I expected this trail to be quite steep too; however, I was pleasantly surprised, as the ascent was moderate for the most part, with a few more level spots.

Climbing out of the Staunton River valley
In half a mile, we passed the junction for the McDaniel Hollow Trail. Continuing on the Jones Mountain Trail, we soon passed through a tunnel of mountain laurel. The laurel had likely finished blooming two or more weeks ago, but I am sure that the spot would have absolutely spectacular in late May or early June.

Mountain laurel tunnel along the Jones Mountain Trail
From here, it was a roughly one mile push to the top of Bear Church Rock. The trail was never very steep, but it maintained a constant uphill. We passed the junction to the Jones Mountain Cabin (which we would visit on the way back) and fifteen minutes later reached the unmarked spur trail to the right that led to the rock itself.

It was a fairly cloudy day, so the views were not entirely clear, but we could still see up the valley of the Staunton River Valley and at times we caught the summit of Fork Mountain drifting in and out of the clouds. During my first visit, the view from the rock was of a valley full of bare trees; now, we saw a fully forested valley, with no suggestion that we were only a little over four miles away from our car and civilization. Other writers have suggested that you can see the Blue Ridge crest from Bear Church Rock, but that's incorrect: the ridge between Cat Knob and Fork Mountain, which bookends Staunton River's valley, blocks any views of Hazeltop, the nearest peak on the Blue Ridge crest near Skyline Drive.

The view towards Doubletop Mountain
After spending a while at the rock and eating lunch, we began to head back down the way we came up. Halfway between the rock and the junction with the McDaniel Hollow Trail, we took a short quarter mile detour with a slight downhill to see the Jones Mountain Cabin. The cabin was once home to some of the many inhabitants of the Blue Ridge before the park was established. Most mountaineer homes were torn down during the 1930s, but this cabin somehow escaped destruction. Later on, park policy changed and began recognizing Shenandoah's human past as an integral part of the park. The cabin was later restored by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and can now be rented to hikers. The cabin was locked, but it was more than interesting enough to study from the outside. Although constructed almost entirely from wood and stone and other materials found in the mountains, the cabin is remarkably sturdy.

Jones Mountain Cabin
After leaving the cabin, we returned the way we came up. Halfway down, it began to rain heavily, so we picked up our pace to return. Predictably, the rain stopped as soon as we got back to our car at Graves Mill.