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.

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