Sunday, March 9, 2014

Eight Hikes for Spring

Beagle Gap sunrise
Spring is coming- it's almost the start of one of the most beautiful times of year in the Appalahchians. Streams are full, fed by snowmelt, and by early April, wildflowers will be popping up over the forest floor. I've compiled a short list of hikes you should hike this spring- and when you should do them- to get the most of this year's Appalachian Spring.

1. Doyles River/Jones Runs Falls

After this winter's heavy snows, the three waterfalls along this 6.6-mile loop should be flowing much heavier than usual. Go anytime between March-June; water levels may start dwindling by June, though, dependent on weather.

2. Big Branch Falls

Anyone who visits this waterfall in August knows that these falls run pretty dry in the summer. While it's probably best to avoid this hike right after a rainstorm, as it involves a few tricky river crossings, spring is the best time to catch a reasonable flow at Big Branch Falls. Hike this 4.8-mile trail in late March and April to see the redbud, dogwood, and columbine in bloom along the trail.

3. Robertson Mountain

Robertson is a tough mountain to hike, but you'll get a double reward in the spring when you couple the peak's sweeping views of Berry Hollow and Fork Mountain with the forest of blooming white-and-pink mountain laurel. This 7-mile hike is one of the steepest in the park, but it's a good way to get a comparable view to Old Rag while skipping the crowds on Old Rag Mountian itself. Come in mid-May to early June to see the mountain laurel.

4. Humpback Mountain

If you've hiked on this mountain but never gone past Humpback Rocks, this spring is a good time to explore the views further along the trail and the wild azaleas and pink lady-slippers that bloom along the trail. It's an eight-mile hike best done in May when the flowers are blooming and the green line has reached the top of the mountain.

5. The Priest via Crabtree Falls

The Priest and Crabtree Falls are a top Virginia hiking destination in any season, but in the spring, they become even more beautiful as the water level in Crabtree Falls is bumped up a notch and the Catawba Rhododendron blooms. This is close to the northermost reach of the flower, which is arguably the grandest of flowers in the Southern Appalachians. Come in May for the rhododendron blooms; if the nearly ten mile hike to the top of the Priest is too much, you can do the 3.5-mile round trip to the top of Crabtree Falls.

6. Rapidan Camp Loop

This is a hike that has spring written all over it: the gorgeous trillium bloom atop Hazeltop in April and May, the tunnels of mountain laurel at Laurel Gap bloom a month later, and the rushing waters of the Laurel and Mill Prongs are always full in the spring, making Big Rock Falls much prettier as well. Come anytime between April and June; you're bound to find some flower, whether it's trillium, azaleas, or mountain laurel, in full bloom, making the 7.5-mile loop trip to President Hoover's former summer residence much more interesting.

7. St. Mary's Falls

While many people may prefer this as a summer hike, when the swimming holes near the falls are a good respite from the heat, this is a beautiful hike in the spring as well, when the waters of the St. Mary's River are full to brim. Avoid hiking after heavy rainstorms or on very cold days as the four-mile hike requires multiple tricky river crossings. Come anytime April-June.

8. South River Falls

When in full flow, South River Falls is almost certainly the prettiest waterfall in Shenandoah National Park. The best bet for sufficient flow is in winter to spring; do this 3.8-mile round trip or 4.5-mile loop anytime between March and May. In April and May, you'll find plenty of pretty wildflowers along the trail to keep you company.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Lewis Falls

Lewis Falls- a photo from my first hike in Shenandoah
2 miles round trip, 790 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

On a very muggy August day in 2003, I hiked from the Big Meadows Campground down to Lewis Falls and back via the 3.3-mile loop: it was the first trail I ever hiked in Shenandoah National Park. It was almost 10 years until I came back, this time on a shorter out-and-back route.

Lewis Falls is one of the park's tallest waterfalls, but in my opinion is one of its least pretty. This is partly because there are few good viewpoints of the falls; more precisely, there's one viewpoint of the falls and it's getting a bit overgrown. This also partly because there's rarely a good flow here; the falls are a little too high up on the mountain and drainage basins tend to be smaller on the western side of the Blue Ridge, anyway. However, it's still worth the hike, especially if you've been to many of the park's other waterfalls. The trail is all downhill on the way in, so if you're not accustomed to hiking, you might want to make sure you can return before you go down. I remember finding the hike up quite tiring when I was in middle school.

Manjima and I did this hike together on our way to Charlottesville in May. We entered the park from US 211 at Thornton Gap and took Skyline Drive south to Big Meadows. We parked in a small parking lot with four spots to the right of Skyline Drive just pass the turnoff for the gas station at Big Meadows. We backtracked slightly by foot along Skyline Drive to the fire road and trailhead for our hike.

The beginning of the hike was a descent down the fire road for a quarter of a mile to a junction with the Appalachian Trail. We went straight at the junction. Soon, the wide fire road narrowed into a trail, which kept descending through the very pretty and bright green spring Shenandoah forest.

Spring on the trail
Along the way, we saw plenty of spring wildflowers, including clusters of moss phlox and a few beautiful pink trillium once we were closer to the falls.


There's not much to comment on about the trail itself, which makes a straightforward forested descent to just above the falls. The last section involved a few switchbacks, which might make coming back up a little more difficult. Just before reaching the falls, the trail came to a rock outcrop with a very pretty view into the rumpled collection of hills to the west, with Massanutten Mountain in the background. In a way, this view of Devil's Tanyard and Tanner's Ridge covers one of the most remote parts of the park. Although these mountains are right next to populated areas in Shenandoah Valley, the mountains themselves are rarely visited since they're far from Skyline Drive. I've had a difficult time even finding information on boundary access points in those mountains.

View towards Massanutten Mountain and Devil's Tanyard
From here, we connected onto a spur trail that led to the falls themselves. The trail made a small stream crossing before following fairly close to the side of the top of the rocky walls to the falls viewpoint. From here, we could see the top half of the waterfall, which plunges 80 feet. Henry Heatwole's earliest guide to the park mentioned a way of getting to the foot of the falls, but I found no viable routes near the viewpoint; if anyone is aware of a path that leads down, I'd be grateful if you pass it on.

Lewis Falls
We returned the way we came, uphill.

Hughlett Point

The Chesapeake Bay at Hughlett Point
1.6 miles round trip, 20 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Free

The Northern Neck is bounded by the lazy flows of the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, weary from their descent out of the Blue Ridge and Piedmont. Here, they become tidewater as they merge into the Chesapeake Bay, the greatest of American estuaries. Hughlett Point is just one of the many small protrusions of land into the bay, but preservation in the state-owned Hughlett Point Natural Area has saved it from the development that has overtaken the rest of the shoreline. The preserve is small but contains a beautiful stretch of tidal wetlands and a narrow sandy beach.

I have an embarassing confession to make. Although I grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the Rappahannock River, I never made it down the length of the Northern Neck Peninsula until the week before I moved out of Virginia. This post will detail not only the walk down to Hughlett Point itself, but will also briefly describe my driving trip through the Northern Neck.

I spent most of my time in Virginia exploring the mountains. In the week before I left, I felt it would be appropriate to see the other side of Virginia- the Bay. Having spent so much time near the headwaters of Virginia's great rivers, I reasoned, I should at least once visit their mouths near the Bay. So on a warm, sunny August day, I drove south on US 17 from Fredericksburg down the Middle Peninsula. I passed through the riverside town of Tappahannock, then later turned onto VA Route 33 near Saluda. Passing through Saluda, I connected onto VA Route 3 going north and crossed the wide, tidal Rappahannock River to come to the Northern Neck proper. My first stop was just north of Irvington: Christ Church, an Anglican Church built through the funding of the wealthy landowner Robert "King" Carter during colonial times and restored in the middle of the last century. The church was simple and beautiful; I was the first visitor on an early weekday morning so I had the docent-led tour all to myself.

Christ Church
Afterwards, I stopped in Kilmarnock, VA, a small town near the end of the Peninsula, picking up food before heading to Hughlett Point. I took VA Route 200 north from Kilmarnock and a few minutes later took the turnoff to the right for Route 606, Shiloh School Road. The road was not well marked, so you'll have to keep your eyes open. I drove the road to its end, where it intersected Balls Neck Road next to Shiloh School itself; I turned right at this intersection and took Balls Neck Road south, driving a short while as the road narrowed until I saw a sign for Hughlett Point and a gravel parking area to the left of the road.

Kilmarnock, VA
I parked in this small lot and headed down the only trail in the natural area. There was only one other car in the lot; I'm not sure whether visitation is usually this low, or whether it was just lower because I came on a weekday. The first part of the trail was a mix of boardwalk and dirt trail through the forest. This section quickly ended as the trail connected with a much wider trail that ran parallel to the shore, separated only by a thin line of trees. A trail sign here pointed the way to North Beach, or South Beach; although North Beach was much closer, I chose to skip it and go straight to South Beach, which connects to the actual point.

Trail through the Tidewater forest
While the hiking itself (walking, perhaps) was extremely easy because the trail was entirely flat, I soon realized this preserve had a very big annoyance: swarms of jelly-bean-sized flies. As I walked along the wide trail, the flies surrounded me, buzzing and flying at me; my efforts at fending them away were quite useless. I was thus quite thankful when I arrived at the spur trail to the first overlook about 0.3 miles past the first junction. Following the spur, I soon walked out onto a boardwalk at the edge of a marsh separated from the Bay by a stretch of beach. Happily, the bugs decided not to follow me, and I was able to enjoy the view across the wetlands to the bay. Looking out across the water, I could see a large container cargo ship, as well as a smattering of trees on the horizon- perhaps Tangier Island? But the other side of the bay was out of sight. The bay could've been the ocean, for all I could tell. I saw a heron in the wetlands, fishing for its food, and occasionally small flocks of birds would fly above the marsh, calling into the breeze.

First lookout platform
After returning to the trail and continuing towards South Beach, I found myself overwhelmed by the flies again. To keep them from flying into my ears and my eyes, I took the rest of the trail at a slow jog. After narrowing significantly and making a turn to the left, the trail brought me out onto the beach, where luckily there were no flies. The beach access point was at the southern end of the marsh that I had gazed out onto at the previous overlook and more wetlands lay south of the trail isthumus. The beach itself was a pretty shade of white and very sandy and the bay itself was bluer than I would've imagined. Driftwood was pushed up all along the beach.

The beach at Hughlett Point
I continued walking south along the beach for a quarter mile to the point itself. Looking north, I could see the development around Reedville; to the south, another tiny peninsula on the Northern Neck; to the east, the vast expanse of open water of the Bay. The point itself was a rounded stretch of beach surrounding a pretty wetland. Arriving at the point was a fairly emotional moment for me: in a way, it was my goodbye to Virginia, my home state up to that point in my life. Here, the restless waters that tumbled over the cascades of the Blue Ridge finally came to rest; the fresh water that supported the forests and fauna of the mountains now mixed into the saltwater that housed the crabs, oysters, fish, and herons of the Bay.

The beach at Hughlett Point
Wetlands at the point itself
I eventually found the motivation to backtrack, returning along the beach and then through the swarms of flies to my car. I returned along US Route 360, driving through the small towns of the Northern Neck before reaching Tappahannock and then continuing back home. That weekend, I boarded a flight and moved out of my home state for the first time.

This is a good place to visit. It's quiet and out of the way; and it is a good place to still see coastline and marshes in their natural state. It's not much of a hike- no elevation gain and quite short- but the vast blueness of the Bay is certainly a moving sight and making a day out of Christ Church and a visit to Hughlett Point would be quite worthwhile. Just remember to bring something to fend off the flies.