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

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