Sunday, February 23, 2014

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.

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