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.

No comments:

Post a Comment