Friday, February 28, 2014

Stony Man and Little Stony Man Cliffs

Rime ice on the trees atop Stony Man
3.8 miles round trip, 900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Stony Man remains the quintessential Shenandoah experience. The views from its summit are not bettered anywhere else in the park and the park idea itself was born on the southern shoulder of the mountain in the mind of George Freeman Pollock. Congressmen who toured the spot with Pollock agreed to return to Washington and push for the creation of the park; President Herbert Hoover also fell in love with what he proclaimed to be the grandest views in the world from this lofty outcrop. Today, tens of thousands of visitors each year follow in their footsteps to one of the easiest peaks to summit in Shenandoah, with one of its grandest views.

This hike description, however, doesn't address the mile-and-a-half round trip from Skyland that most visitors choose to visit Stony Man; instead, it follows the Appalachian Trail from the north, passing Little Stony Man to the summit of Stony Man. Visitors looking for the easiest path should follow the park signs for the trail from Skyland; but hikers who prefer a more interesting and scenic hike should consider this alternative, or the Stony Man/Passamaquoddy Loop Trail, which is similar in difficulty to this hike.

I hiked this trail on a cold December day with a few visiting professors at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. We headed out from Fredericksburg in the morning and entered the park from the Thornton Gap entrance on US 211. We then drove south and parked at the south end of the Stony Man Overlook, Mile 38.7.

We followed the short access trail at the far south end of the overlook about 30 yards to reach the Appalachian Trail. We turned left and headed south on the Appalachian Trail, which stayed just below Skyline Drive for the next third of a mile, with little tree cover and occasional views to the west of Shenandoah Valley. A little less than half a mile from the trailhead, we passed the turnoff for the Little Stony Man Parking Area. It's possible to start the hike there, as well, and shave 0.8 miles off the round trip; but the extra mileage to the Stony Man Overlook is a very pleasant addition to lengthen the hike slightly.

Once we passed the turnoff for the Little Stony Man Trailhead, the trail began to climb up the east side of the mountain. This was a relief for us, as the west side had been quite windy. As we began to switchback uphill, we noticed that the trail and the ground around it was populated with broad areas of needle ice, which had formed from the recent cold weather.

Needle ice on the trail
We continued climbing until we reached a trail junction about 0.4 miles past the Little Stony Man parking area. We took the left fork, which kept us on the AT. After a slight bit more uphill, we came to the Little Stony Man Cliffs, a stretch of greenstone outcrops at least 100 yards long, with a beautiful, wide view of Page Valley, Stony Man, and the Blue Ridge peaks to the north. We could even see back to where our car was parked at the Stony Man Overlook. The cliffs are made of Catoctin greenstone, which is a metamorphized form of basalt common throughout the park, especially along the high peaks of the Central District.

Little Stony Man Cliffs
View of Stony Man from Little Stony Man
After passing through the Little Stony Man cliffs, we continued a steady uphill ascent of just less than a mile. This section of trail passed through pleasant Appalachian forest, but was otherwise fairly nondescript. When we arrived at the trail junction with the Stony Man Mountain trail, we turned right, taking the blue-blazed trail uphill towards the summit. The final ascent was quite gentle. The trail forked into a loop just below the summit plateau; we took the left fork, but it doesn't matter which one you take, as both lead to the summit. Finally atop the mountain, we followed a spur for the last twenty yards from the summit down to the massive outcrops on Stony Man's west face.

The most impressive part of the Stony Man Cliffs is the great gap of air beneath your feet. From the edge of the cliffs, the mountain immediately plunges a thousand feet before it begins to level out, giving this 4010-foot high vantage point a much higher feel. The peak is the second-highest in the park and the view, in my opinion, is undoubtedly more spectacular. On that particular cold December day, the view was made even more brilliant by the rime ice that covered the trees on the summit.

To the north, we could see Skyline Drive snaking north towards the Pinnacle and Mary's Rock; beyond those peaks, we could see the broad profiles of Hogback and Mt. Marshall, the two great mountains of the North District, with the summit of the Peak just jutting out in the gap between the Pinnacle and Mary's Rock. To the west, three thousand feet down, we could see the floor of Shenandoah Valley, the glimmer of sunlight that reflected off Lake Arrowhead, the pastoral countryside surrounding Luray, the straight and flat ridges of Massanutten Mountain, and the fading ridges of the Ridge and Valley beyond that. To the south rose Hawksbill, which is the park's highest peak, and Skyland, the resort that led to the park.

Rime ice and Hawksbill, with Skyland to the right
Spring view from Stony Man
The park might never have come about had George Freeman Pollock not one day discovered the glorious sweeping views atop the cliffs. Pollock was the son of a wealthy Washingtonian who owned land in the Blue Ridge and hoped to gain some mineral value out of his holdings. The elder Pollock sent his son George to the mountains to investigate; when the younger Pollock returned, he was enamored with the mountains and convinced his father that a resort would make better use of their land. And so George Freeman Pollock built Skyland Resort high on the shoulder of Stony Man Mountain, just a short walk from both the views of Stony Man and the waterfalls of Whiteoak Canyon. Pollock managed to make Skyland a popular escape for Washingtonians, who would come to the resort for a respite from industrialism and the summer heat. When the national park movement shifted its focus from the grand wildernesses of the West to the quieter landscapes of the East, Pollock was convinced that his part of the Blue Ridge Mountains should become a park. Stephen Mather, the director of the National Park Service, focused much of his attention on the wilder lands further south in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina- but Pollock's ferious lobbying, which included inviting Congressmen to Skyland and taking them to the views of Stony Man- eventually resulted in Congressional action authorizing both Great Smoky and Shenandoah National Parks, along with Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. This, however, was just the beginning and not the end of the battle for the park; but even this much might not have occurred without Pollock's serendipitous visit to Stony Man.

We stayed at the cliffs very briefly due to the extreme cold. We returned to the small clearing at the summit to eat lunch- I taught my friends the "warm dance" (also known as the "hypothermia dance") to warm up in the sub-freezing temperatures, before we packed up and headed back the way we came.

As I mentioned earlier, the easiest way to the summit is not the route I have described, but instead is the approach from Skyland. If you're looking for the shortest way to get to Stony Man, take that route.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Hawksbill and Franklin Cliffs

Robertson and Old Rag Mountains from Hawkbill's summit
8 miles loop, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

This is a long and fairly rewarding hike to the summit of Hawksbill Mountain, the highest peak in the park, though I would recommend most visitors to do Hawksbill as a 2.5-mile loop hike starting at Hawksbill Gap. This trail is a bit on the long side; the section along the Big Meadows Horse Trail is honestly not terribly interesting, though the extra views along the Appalachian Trail are quite beautiful. Hiking Upward rates this hike as one of the best for views in the Mid-Atlantic; I can tell you flatly that although it's a beautiful hike, this loop as a whole does not have the highest reward to effort ratio. So hikers who are familiar with the park may want to do this hike to explore some less-trod ground; hikers who really want a long hike involving Hawksbill would be better served on the more scenic Cedar Run-Hawksbill route.

My family and I did this hike on an extremely cold Christmas Day, when temperatures started around 15 degrees and stayed below 20 degrees the entire day in the mountains. We drove to the park from the Fredericskburg, entering the park from the Thornton Gap entrance at US 211 and driving south on Skyline Drive to Fisher's Gap Overlook at mile 49. As we pulled into the parking area, we saw a bobcat disappear into the woods- the first and so far only time that I've seen a bobcat in Shenandoah. We parked at the overlook, walked back towards Skyline Drive and then descend the fire road just north of the overlook to a junction with the Appalachian Trail to start our hike.

We headed north on the AT (right at the AT junction) from Fishers Gap. We quickly found that the extremely cold weather brought extremeley interesting ice features to the park: hoarforst covered many plants, while the ground was thick with needle ice. In fact, there were many areas with two-tiered needle ice (needle ice that formed beneath needle ice from the night before), resulting in ice columns of up to nine inches long. The ice made the trail crunch under our feet the entire day.


Needle ice
Not too far from Fishers Gap, we passed the Franklin Cliffs, which were to the right of the trail. Soon after, we came to a series of overlook outcrops to the left of the trail. Some of these required ducking through through the trees for two meters; some were directly next to the trail. All had broad views of Blackrock, which is the fourth highest peak in the park, New Market Gap, and Page Valley.

View from Franklin Cliffs towards New Market Gap
The next stretch of trail was rather long, with less to see. The AT was fairly flat as it passed beneath Spitler Knoll Overlook and then passed the turnoff to Rock Spring Hut and Rock Spring Cabin. After a little less than 3 miles and just a slight elevation gain, the AT intersected the Salamander Trail, on the slopes of Hawksbill. We turned right onto the Salamander Trail, which started a steady uphill climb up Hawksbill. The trail was windy but made no true switchbacks as it headed uphill, and after half a mile it reached the summit plateau. The trail passed three wide, sweeping viewpoints of Nakedtop and Page Valley: these outcrops had views to the south that weren't visible from the top. The most notable parts of the view were the peak of Massanutten Mountain and its ski slopes and, just beyond that, the grand massif of Elliott Knob, the tallest peak in this part of the Appalachians.

Views on the Salamander Trail
Equally as notable were the scattered spruce and fir near the summit. These trees are usually only found in the Southern Appalachians, where the peaks are much higher (5700 feet at Mt. Rogers and 6600 feet at Mt. Mitchell); Hawksbill is just high enough to support a small population of these trees. Hawksbill is a sky-island of sorts: it is a small, isolated region with an ecology different from that of its surrounding areas.

Spruce tree atop Hawksbill
After passing these viewpoints, the Salamander Trail swung back away from the Hawksbill cliffs and met up with the Hawksbill Fire Road. We turned left here and followed the Fire Road a hundred meters or so to the Byrd's Nest Shelter #2. The shelter was one of a handful in the park built with funding from Harry Byrd Sr., a giant in Virginia politics. Byrd played a role in the park's creation as governor; however, his most notable (unnotable?) moments involved his resistance to integration of schools in Virginia.

We lunched at the shelter before walking the final 50 yards to the observation platorm at 4050 foot summit, the highpoint of Shenandoah National Park. The 270-degree view was tremendous: all of Page Valley, Stony Man, Robertson Mountain, Old Rag, and the Piedmont, stretching to the horizon.

Stony Man and Timber Hollow from Hawksbill
Our summit stay was short due to the cold. We took the Hawksbill Fire Road downhill to the trail that led to the upper Hawksbill parking area, a mile downhill from the summit. We crossed Skyline Drive and took a short while to find the concrete post to the west (right) of the parking area that led to the Big Meadows Horse Trail.

The Big Meadows Horse Trail was long and honestly rather boring. There wasn't much to see; the trail descended the side of Spitler Hill into the upper Rose River watershed, then, followed the side of the mountain for two miles or so until reaching two stream crossings of the upper reaches of the Rose River. Mile markers marked the trail every half mile, which hikers might find useful for keeping track of how much longer they have until they get back to their car.

Feeder streams of the Rose River
Finally, after nearly three miles, the Big Meadows Horse Trail intersected the Rose River Loop. From this point, we stayed on the horse trail, which headed fairly steeply uphill. After a half mile, it intersected the Rose River Fire Road; we turned right onto the fire road and followed it back to Fishers Gap and the parking area. We caught the late evening sun painting the ridges golden at Fishers Gap before we drove north out of the park and home.

Sunset at Fishers Gap

Monday, February 24, 2014

Wilburn Ridge to Mt. Rogers

Ponies grazing on the Grayson Highlands
8.6 miles round trip, 1340 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: $5 Virginia state park day use fee

There is no hike in Virginia like the hike to the summit of Mt. Rogers, the state's highest peak. Few hikes can match this hike's varied nature- yet the hike itself is doable for just about everyone. The terrain crossed en route is some of the Virginia's most unique. There are the rolling meadows of the Grayson Highlands and the wild ponies that graze there in the mist, the rocky outcrops with views of endless wilderness, and the wet and mossy rain forest at the highest point in our state. Every Virginian should see Mt. Rogers. While the summit of the peak is in Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, which is part of Jefferson National Forest, the easiest access point to the mountain and the site of some of Virginia's most beautiful meadows is Grayson Highlands State Park, surely the crown jewel of the Virginia State Park system.

The mountain is in the most remote corner of the state: it's nearly a seven-hour trip from Northern Virginia via I-81. I recommend accessing this hike by taking I-81 to Exit 45 at Marion, VA and driving VA Route 16 south to the junction with US 58. We turned right at US 58, heading west into some of the windiest Virginia roads I've encountered. Along the way, there's very little sign that you're anywhere out of the ordinary; the roads are mostly hemmed in by trees. However, after we turned into Grayson Highlands State Park and paid the admission fee and drove up two miles or so, we came to a gorgeous eastern view.

View from Grayson Highlands Park Road
We camped for the night and drove to the trailhead the next morning by taking the Park Road to Massie Gap and parking there. It was extremeley foggy when we began our hike on the Rhododendron Trail. Objects on the trail seemed to appear before us out of thin air. First we saw blueberry bushes and wineberries precipitate out of the mist; then, all of a sudden, grazing cattle began popping out on the trail before us to. We made our way gently around the long-horned bulls as we went uphill through the many bushes of rhododendron.

Bull on Wilburn Ridge
The trail soon merged with the Virginia Highlands Trail, which we followed a little further in the grassy meadows until we reached a junction with the Appalachian Trail. The AT was much narrower than the Highlands trail and was surrounded by tall grass; we turned left onto this trail and hiked for half a mile, passing a gate and leaving the boundaries of Grayson Highlands State Park and entering Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. The grassy meadows continued, but were sometimes sparsely populated with hemlock and fir skeletons.

Foggy forest on Wilburn Ridge
Under normal conditions, there would have been many wide, sweeping views; but on our way in, the hike was entirely fogged in, and visibility was only a hundred feet or less. When the AT intersected the Wilburn Ridge Trail, we decided to continue on the AT and leave the Wilburn Ridge trail and its ridgetop views for the return trip, in hopes that it would clear up. The AT hung on the lower east side of the ridge, passing through slightly more forested environs and at one point passing through a set of narrow rock crevices.

Narrow rock crevice on the AT
After passing through the rocky patch, the AT soon rejoined the Wilburn Ridge Trail and a little while afterwards, it came to the Pine Mountain Trail at Rhododendron Gap. Here, we made a left to stay on the AT, entering the Lewis Fork Wilderness. The next mile or so was a rehashing of the scenery on Wilburn Ridge, albeit with more trees. About 3.5 miles from the trailhead, we passed Thomas Knob Shelter, an AT shelter near the summit of Mt. Rogers.

Foggy grassland on the AT
Entering the Lewis Fork Wilderness, Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area
Finally, a little less than 4 miles into the foggy hike, we came to the spur trail that led to the summit of Mt. Rogers. We turned onto this trail, which led uphill through a little more meadowlands before entering a forest.

The forest was at first quite normal, except for the firs found only in the Southern Appalachians. However, as we walked further in, the forest seemed to get progressively greener. The forest floor was populated with more ferns; the trees themselves coated with more moss. We had stumbled into a temperate rain forest at the top of Virginia's highest peak.

Rain forest atop Mt. Rogers
For some people, the summit is anticlimactic. For us, it was wonderous: who could've imagined that the top of Virginia looked something like the Pacfic Northwest? The summit was deep in this forest, surrounded on all sides by spectacular greenery. Two rocks of similar height had USGS markers on them, marking the mountain's 5729-foot summit. The peak is named for William Barton Rogers, a remarkable Virginian who was the State Geologist, a professor at the University of Virginia, and the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The highest point in the state of Virginia
After lunch at the top, we began backtracking, passing Thomas Knob Shelter in the fog. Luckily, once we returned to Rhododendron Gap, the fog had began to lift. Climbing atop an outcrop near the gap, we had an amazing view of the highlands on Pine Mountain and the valley below. We could even see herds of ponies off in the distance.

View from Rhododendron Gap of Pine Mountain
Continuing onward back onto Wilburn Ridge, we started running into wild ponies. These very beautiful animals grazed near the trail; by eating the vegetation, they help keep the balds on Mt. Rogers from growing over. We saw many more herds of ponies on the rest of the hike; in total, we counted over 20 ponies.

The ponies of Mt. Rogers
As we had previously planned, we took the Wilburn Ridge trail on the way back. Unfortunately, fog had retaken the mountains when we summited the top of the ridge. We missed what many others advertise as spectacular views from this rocky promontory in the middle of the highlands.

The summit of Wilburn Ridge
However, the thick fog that was present when we were atop the ridge quickly evaporated once we reach its base. In a matter of minutes, the clouds disappeared and the rocky meadows of Wilburn Ridge were visible under blue skies. The views were tremendous: not only could we see Wilburn Ridge itself, but we could also see Haw Orchard Mountain and Big Pinnacle, which we had hiked the previous night, and our first view of the forested peak of Mt. Rogers itself. For the rest of the hike, we enjoyed the newly sunny weather, the views over the green balds, the ponies, and the many wineberries that grew along the trail.

The fog clears: Wilburn Ridge
View down the Grayson  Highlands
Mt. Rogers
The trail eventually led us back into the Grayson Highlands State Park and Massie Gap, where we had parked that morning. As we made the final descent out of the balds, passing cows and ponies, we had a beautiful view of the endless collection of fading blue ridges from Massie Gap.

View from Massie Gap
That night, the clouds cleared and the night sky opened up. There are no cities or other sources of light pollution near Mt. Rogers, so the night was a spectacular show of stars. Less than a month after this trip, I moved out of Virginia for the first time in my life; I'm glad that she shared this part of her beauty with me before I left.

The night sky at Grayson Highlands

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Gorge Trail from Lower to Upper Falls

Middle Falls of the Genesee River in Letchworth Gorge
6 miles round trip, 950 feeet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, $8 New York State Parks day use fee

Letchworth Gorge is nicknamed the "Grand Canyon of the East," and I'm inclined to agree with that assessment. I drove to the park through mile after mile of rolling upstate New York countryside when all of a sudden, the ground dropped away, revealing a chasm between two 500-foot tall vertical walls of sandstone. The Gorge Trail visits the very best of the park, starting near the Lower Falls, passing through the most spectacular portion of the Gorge and ending at the Upper Falls. Along the way, the Genesee River makes three large drops, each of which are among the most impressive waterfalls in the East. The park and the falls would almost certainly be much more famous if Niagara Falls weren't two hours away.

I did this hike with my cousin on a warm, cloudy August day. We left Rochester in the early morning as the forecast called for rain; we hoped to do the hike and return to Rochester before the rain set in, which we did successfully. From Rochester, we followed I-390 south to exit 8, where we took US 20A west to Geneseo and Leicester before taking the fork for New York Route 39 about two miles out of Leicester; we continued to Castile, where we turned left on State Route 19, and a mile later from 19 on Denton Corner's Road, which led into the park. There was a small admission fee to enter the park. Once in the park, we right turned onto the park road, where we got our first stunning glimpse of the canyon, and soon took another right to follow the road leading to the Lower Falls parking area. We parked in the large Lower Falls parking lot to begin our hike.

The first part of the hike was a downhill visit to the Lower Falls. The parking area was most of the way down the canyon; but we had to descend a little further into the canyon by stairs until we came to a broad rock platform on the lower canyon rim. From here, we followed a narrow grassy trail to a grassy ledge not far from the falls themselves. The sandstone here formed almost perfectly flat layers; the falls occurred where the Genesee River reached the edge of the particular table of sandstone. The walls of the canyon soared above us.

Lower Falls
After leaving the Lower Falls, we descended even more stairs to reach the stone bridge over the Genesee River. A beautiful arch bridge spanned the Letchworth Gorge here; we followed it across and walked a bit along the stone steps and pathway on the other side of the Gorge. This path eventually led to another trail, but we decided to backtrack across the bridge and continue upstream along the Gorge. My cousin and I both agreed that the stone bridge held some resemblance to a certain underground bridge in a Peter Jackson movie.

Stone bridge downstream of Lower Falls
Downstream of the bridge, the river became a little calmer, though the canyon walls were still steep and grand. A few miles on, the Genesee River comes to a temporary rest behind Mt. Morris Dam, a massive concrete dam at the northern end of the gorge.

Letchworth Gorge
After we backtracked to the top of the steps and were nearly back to the parking area, we turned left onto the Gorge Trail. This trail followed the lower rim briefly, passing above an obscured view of Lower Falls, before it began climbing. The next mile or so of the trail brought it further and further uphill, until it reached the upper rim. Once on the upper rim, we had fabulous views of the gorge and its walls of Devonian sandstone. We approached the park road (which paralleled the Gorge Trail) at Inspiration Point, where the river made a huge bend and we came upon a stunning view of the tall Middle Falls with a peek of the Upper Falls further back and the high Portage Bridge behind it.

Middle Falls from Inspiration Point
The gorge is being formed fairly fast: each year, the Genesee River cuts into the surrounding sandstone at the order of magnitude of an inch. Geologically, the canyon is very young: it has formed since the last Ice Age. However, the rock layers exposed in its walls are much older and link it to the Blue Ridge Mountains that I write so much about. Letchworth is at the northern edge of the Allegheny Plateau, the westernmost physiographic part of the Appalachian Mountains. The plateau is composed of layer after layer of Paleozoic sedimentary rock: it was once the Appalachain Basin and only later became uplifted to become a plateau. As the Appalachian Mountains formed through a series of orogenies, the west side of the mountains (where the current plateau is) was a shallow sea. As the mountains formed, they also eroded, with sediments piling up in the Appalachian Basin. Letchworth's sedimentary layers are from the Late Devonian Period, but the best known layers are those laid down during the Carboniferous Period further south. The swampy nature of the Appalachian Basin at the time eventually resulted in the massive reams of coal throughout the Appalachian Plateau. Getting just as much attention these days is a Middle Devonian Period layer known as the Marcellus Shale, which spans southern upstate New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and much of the rest of the Appalachian Basin. The Marcellus Shale's ample natural gas reserves are leading to fracking throughout the current plateau. The plateau itself formed when uplift eventually brought these sedimentary layers out of the shallow sea and made it into a flat highland just west of the Appalachian Mountains.

The gorge
Past Inspiration Point, the trail followed the gorge rim for a while and then joined up with the park road. We followed the park road sidewalk downhill, passing some visitor facilities and parking lots, until we came to a stairway that descended towards the Middle Falls. The falls were impressive with both their mist and roar as we approached. We stopped for a snack break at a small visitor overlook, which we shared with many other visitors. The Middle Fals were extremely impressive, at over 100 feet high.

Middle Falls
After spending some time at Middle Falls, we continued along the rim of the gorge to the top of the waterfall; from there, we followed the path along the river, which paralleled a parking area and a road. This fairly flat trail continued until we came to a viewpoint of Upper Falls and the towering Portage Bridge behind it. An older version of Portage Bridge, which carries a railroad across the gorge, was once the tallest wooden bridge in the world.

Upper Falls and the Portage Bridge
We continued past this view onto a boardwalk-type trail, which led to the rim of Upper Falls. Unfortunately, the view wasn't great here; I would recommend ending your hike here and returning to your car at Lower Falls. We continued onward and climbed back to the upper rim of the canyon from Lower Falls, but neither of us found it to be worth the effort as the trail just leads to another trailhead.

Robertson Mountain and Corbin Hollow

View from atop Robertson Mountain
8.6 miles loop, 2500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous, due to elevation gain

Robertson Mountain is well-known as one of the steepest hikes in Shenandoah National Park; this hike pairs that ascent and its wide Blue Ridge views with the quiet, rarely-visited Corbin Hollow. This is an enjoyable and rewarding hike for anyone who is already fairly familiar with the park and is a good hike to do in the winter when Skyline Drive closes due to snow and ice. This is a slightly more difficult, but much preferred alternative to the Robertson Mountain hike that starts from Berry Hollow and loops down on the Old Rag Fire Road.

A friend from Charlottesville and I met up at the trailhead to do this hike on a somewhat cold December day when there was still 4 inches of snow atop the Blue Ridge. We started from the Weakley Hollow trailhead, off of VA Route 231; the directions to get to the trailhead are the same as those for Old Rag. If you don't have an annual pass, entrance is $8 per person.

The beginning of the hike is rather non-eventful; we followed the road from the large Old Rag parking area up to the old trailhead, and from there we continued to follow the Weakley Hollow Fire Road on a gentle uphill, crossing a stream by a set of bridges. We ran into snow as soon as we got off the road, and had snow on the trail for the rest of the day, making uphills a little more laborious than usual. We could occasionally see the summit of Old Rag to the left through the trees, but views were mainly non-existent. About 2.1 miles from the trailhead, we crossed a steel bridge over Brokenback Run and came to the junction with the Robertson Mountain Trail on the right side of the fire road.

We took the Robertson Mountain trail, which followed Brokenback Run briefly before sharply turning and beginning a long ascent up Robertson Mountain. This section of trail ascended 1700 feet in just 1.5 miles to reach the summit of Robertson Mountain, making it one of the steepest trails in Shenandoah. On this particular day, the loose traction of the snow on the trail made the ascent a bit more difficult than usual.

After we pushed uphill for most of an hour, the trail finally flattened out; we followed the summit ridge briefly before finding the spur to the left of the main trail that led to the summit lookout. We lunched on the outcrops on the peak and admired the view south into Berry Hollow. The view from the summit spans from the Southwest Mountains near Charlottesville to the dense cluster of granite ridges on Fork and Doubletop Mountains to the broad slopes of Hawksbill and Stony Man. 

Robertson View towards Fork Mountain and Hawksbill
Our summit stay was brief because the top was extremely windy. After leaving the summit, we continued on the Robertson Mountain Trail, which led downhill through a forest of mountain laurel to the Old Rag Fire Road. We did a final 200 meters of uphill on the Old Rag Fire Road as we followed that road uphill to the junction with the Corbin Hollow Trail. We turned right at that junction and began our descent.

Descending into Corbin Hollow
Up to that point in the hike, we had followed trails that other people had already trod over- but we were the first hikers after the snowstorm to hike down Corbin Hollow. The trail began as a gentle descent through the upper reaches of Brokenback Run's watershed. As we hiked further, the terrain steepened, and we could see cliffs rising to our left above us on Thorofare Mountain. The trail occasionally passed through dense areas of mountain laurel- so this would be a good hike for May or June, when their white and pink flowers bloom.

The snowy Corbin Hollow Trail
At one point, we heard the sound of falling water close to trail, and decided to go and investigate. After a short descent off the trail, we found a pretty drop on Brokenback Run.

Brokenback Run
Descending further, we came to remains of some sort of mountaineer structure. The stone foundation and what seemed like the base of a chimney was all that was left of this trailside structure. We also saw a small iron door of some sort and an old bowl nearby. The structure seemed too small to be a house- it was much smaller than the foundation of the Jones Mountain Cabin- so we're not sure what it was. But it almost certainly predates the park, to the era when Weakley, Corbin, and Nicholson Hollows were populated with tens of mountain families. These were the same families analyzed by Thomas Henry and Mandel Sherman in the 1930s in "Hollow Folk," a supposed sociological study of the mountain residents. The book's negative portrayal of mountain culture helped justify the eviction of Blue Ridge residents andd led to the creation of the park. Many of the observations and conclusions drawn in the study were unfounded; the work is today regarded much more as a work of pro-park propraganda rather than serious sociological work. Evidence of former human habitation was common throughout the rest of the trail, with occasional crumbling stone fences discernible.

Pre-park remnants in Corbin Hollow
The trail then began to follow the slopes of Robertson Mountain high above Brokenback Run. When the trail finally descended back to the run, my friend and I heard the sound of falling water again and ventured off-trail to investigate. Tucked into a small canyon, invisible from the trail, we found a small, 20-foot high waterfall on Brokenback Run.

Waterfall on Brokenback Run
The descent eventually ended as Brokenback Run flattened out. We crossed the run twice, with the second crossing coming just before the Corbin Hollow Trail joined back with the Weakley Hollow Fire Road. Once back on the fire road, we followed it back to the parking area.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Big Pinnacle

Looking south from Big Pinnacle
0.8 miles round trip, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy

I cannot think of another hike in Virginia that gives such a great reward for so little effort. A short 10-minute hike brings you to the top of this rocky peak, where there are vast, expansive views of meadows on mountaintops and layer after layer of forested blue ridges in three states. This hike is far removed from most of the other hikes covered on this blog- Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area were a six hour drive from Fredericksburg, a seven hour drive if you're coming from DC. However, anyone who misses this corner of the state misses some of the most stunning scenery that Virginia has to offer.

Mount Rogers is the highest peak in Virginia, at over a mile high; Haw Orchard Mountain, at 5089 feet, is the third highest, and Big Pinnacle is the lower summit of Haw Orchard Mountain. It is accessible by a short but fairly steep uphill hike from Massie's Gap.

I did this hike on the first evening of a three-day camping trip in Grayson Highlands State Park with a high-school friend from Fredericksburg. I will not bother to offer full directions to the park; however, once you are in the park, the trailhead is fairly easy to find. We followed the main park road along the slope of Haw Orchard Mountain until the road came to the open meadows of Massie Gap, with many parking spots on the right of the road. We parked here to begin our hike.

The trail started across the road, at the far end of the parking area. The Big Pinnacle Trail wound into the forest and immediately began a steady ascent. I was quickly struck by how different the vegetation here seemed from the vegetation further north in the Blue Ridge. In Shenandoah National Park, you find decidious forests not unlike the forests you might find in any forest park in Northern Virginia; but in the highest mountains of Virginia, the Southern Appalachian forests are the a mix of deciduous and coniferous, with hemlock and higher-elevation spruce and fir along the trail. The forest was also quite wet- giving it a lush, almost temperate-rain-forest-like feel.

Lush forest on the short uphill
It is a very short 0.4 miles from the trailhead to the junction with the Twin Pinnacles Trail near the top of the ridgeline. At this intersection, we turned right and took the trail leading to the summit of Big Pinnacle. The trail quickly emerged atop the craggy, northwest-facing summit.

The view was jaw-dropping. From this nearly mile-high vantage point, the Appalachians spread, ridge after ridge, to the south. To the west, we could see the grassy meadows of Wilburn Ridge, leading towards the forested summit of Mt. Rogers. Wild ponies dotted the meadows, munching in the late evening. Huge mountains loomed far to the south, in either Tennessee or North Carolina- mountains that I don't yet know the names to. The view to the east was blocked by the higher (but flatter) peak of Little Pinnacle, the actual summit of Haw Orchard Mountain.

Appalachian Mountains
Looking north from Big Pinnacle
View west onto Grayson Highlands
This is an extremely remote corner of Virginia. With the exception of a few farms, no towns or villages were visible. After we descended the peak, returned to our campground, and ate dinner, we found ourselves under an incredible blanket of a thousand stars. Temperatures at night were quite cold- unexpected, considering Fredericksburg temperatures had been hovering near 90 degrees. Grayson Highlands may not be an area on most Virginians' radar. But this is a special place; and every Virginian should camp here to see the endless array of mountains and stars at least once.