Thursday, January 28, 2016

Mather Gorge

Mather Gorge from near Cow Hoof Rock
2.6 miles loop, 150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, $10 entrance fee for Great Falls Park

The manicured parklands and wide biking paths along the calm Potomac near the Kennedy Center and the Tidal Basin in Washington DC give little hint of the violent, churning waters the river experiences just a handful of miles upstream. Between the Piedmont and the Tidewater, along the fall line of the Atlantic seaboard, the Potomac River drops 76 feet in a mile, forming one of the most impressive sets of river rapids on the continent. Just downstream of the Great Falls, the Potomac carves out a scene of nearly equal drama to the falls: vertical rock walls confine the river to a narrow, charging course through Mather Gorge. Equivalently astonishing is the ease in which most visitors can access these sights: a short hike with minimal elevation gain allows hikers to see the Virginia side of the falls and walk the length of the rocky canyon. This hike follows sections of the River Trail and Matildaville Trail to make a brief but enjoyable loop that is a perfect afternoon outing from DC.

The Maryland side of Great Falls is probably better known and more often visited: it's hard to beat the direct view of the river's main channel from Olmsted Island or to one up the the Billy Goat Trail's rock scramble along Mather Gorge. The Virginia side offers an equally enjoyable hike along the Mather Gorge, albeit without the rock scramble that contributes to the excitement of the Billy Goat Trail.

I hiked this trail on a warm New Year's Eve with two of my very good friends from the University of Virginia. We met up in Northern Virginia near Merrifield and followed the Beltway to the exit for Georgetown Pike and Great Falls, which is just south of where I-495 crosses the Potomac on the American Legion Bridge. If you are coming to Great Falls Park from DC itself, you can get to Georgetown Pike by following the George Washington Parkway west to its terminus and follow signs for Georgetown Pike. Once off the Beltway, we followed Georgetown Pike west for four hilly and windy miles to Old Dominion Drive. We turned right onto Old Dominion Drive and followed the road to its terminus at Great Falls Park. The park is operated by the National Park Service, although it is not technically a national park; it falls under the administration of the agency's National Capital Parks.

We headed south from the large parking area past the visitor center to the wide trail that paralleled the river. Soon after passing the visitor center, we came to the first overlook of three overlooks of the Great Falls. We checked out all three, spending time at each to admire the roaring rapids of the Potomac at high water. During low water, two distinct levels of falls are visible in the center of the river; however, during our visit, after a week of heavy rains, the waters of the Potomac were full enough that the drops were barely noticeable as the river churned its way downstream. In many spots, the high water led to spectacular spray on the roaring Potomac.

The Great Falls of the Potomac
While at the third overlook of the falls, we watched two rescue boats work their way upstream towards the falls in what must have been a training exercise. One raft, belonging to the Cabin John River Rescue, advanced too close to the falls. The current overpowered the craft's engines, causing the raft to rotate and then capsize. One of the two men aboard was carried swiftly downstream by the river; luckily, he made his way out of the main current and into some calmer waters near the Virginia shore, where the crew of the other raft came and picked him up.

Boat capsizing at Great Falls
The man's rescue was a suspenseful moment. We wondered briefly whether the whole event was merely part of a training session but found that idea implausible: the raft capsizing did not seem at all as if it had been planned.

We left the Third Overlook and began to follow the River Trail, which split off to the left from the wide, gravel Patowmack Canal Trail that we had followed earlier. The River Trail offered few views of the river early on as it wound through the rocky terrain and forest a few yards back from the rim of Mather Gorge. At a few spots, the uneven terrain on the trail might require a brief bit of rock scrambling for some, but it is something that most hikers would be able to handle with no problem.

A few hundred yards along the River Trail, we came to the first good view of the river and the gorge. Here, a plaque proclaimed the name of the canyon and noted that it was named after the first director of the National Park Service. Mather and his deputy director, Horace Albright, were key in forming the current familiar definition of national parks as places meant for conservation, recreation, historic preservation, and science.

The entrance of Mather Gorge
While admiring the gorge and its gray cliffs of metamorphic rock, we saw a kayaker battling against the current on the Potomac. The kayaker took turns with a man on a stand-up paddleboard in heading to the middle of the river channel and paddling furiously and quixotically against the swift-moving waters.

Kayaker battling the Potomac
We continued on the River Trail, soon passing a four-way intersection with trails leading down to the river itself and back towards the visitor center. We stayed straight to cross a wooden bridge across a small stream gully. The next stretch of the trail was quite scenic, with frequent viewpoints of the gorge. A few hundred yards later, the trail turned sharply to the right and crossed the channel of the Patowmack Canal to join the canal path. We turned left and followed the canal south. It was soon clear why the trail had turned inland: the gorge rim was sliced by the canal cut where the canal descended to reach the Potomac. The canal is now long out of use: in many places, the channel of the canal is barely recognizable. It was once a project of great importance to George Washington, who hoped the canal would allow for trade by river to the upper reaches of the Potomac.

The canal path turned back into the River Trail, bringing us back to cliffs alongside the Mather Gorge after passing the canal cut. This was the most thrilling stretch of the hike: for the next quarter mile, the trail followed the rim of the gorge, offering continuous views of the river and of the rocky cliffs. The gorge walls were at their steepest here, with a nearly vertical drop from the edge of the trail to the now-more-placid Potomac.

Mather Gorge
At the end of the canyon rim segment of trail, the River Trail intersected with a paved road. The road headed downhill to the left towards Sandy Landing, a boat launch point on the Potomac; we skipped the river access and instead continued forward on the River Trail. The remaining portion of the River Trail stayed fairly far back from the river itself until we neared Cow Hoof Rock, which was perhaps another quarter of a mile beyond the road intersection. A spur trail led off to the left from the main trail towards a rocky outcrop, passing by what appeared to be an old fireplace. The view at the rock itself was quite impressive: here, the Potomac made a wide bend, exiting the straight, narrow channel that it had cut in Mather Gorge into the wider, less confined, but equally rocky downstream terrain. We sat on the rock and enjoyed the sunlight dancing across the metamorphed sandstone of the grey canyon walls as the clouds moved in and out. We ate food we had picked up earlier from H-mart and reminisced about the beautiful years we had spent in Charlottesville.

Mouth of Mather Gorge at Cow Hoof Rock
The real Cow Hoof Rock was a little further down the trail, a little bit farther uphill. We turned around at this point though, heading back along the River Trail to its junction with the road to Sandy Landing. At that intersection, we took the road heading to the left, away from the river. This soon became the Matildaville Trail, which we followed through a round, grassy field in what used to be a quarry. After passing the quarry, we took a right to stay on the Matildaville Trail near that trail's intersection with the Old Carriage Road. The Matildaville Trail followed a ridge parallel to the river, offering obscured views through the trees of Mather Gorge in the distance. Later on, the trail paralleled the Patowmack Canal, which we could also see through the trees to our right. After passing a connector trail leading to the Patowmack Canal Trail, the Matildaville Trail came upon its namesake set of ruins.

Today, Matildaville is just a set of stone foundations; in the early eighteenth century, it was a town next to the canal that relied on trade and operation of the Patowmack Canal. Just as George Washington championed the Patowmack Canal, another towering figure in Virginia history, Lighthorse Harry Lee, was instrumental in the establishment of the town, which was named after Lee's wife, Matilda. The town eventually lost relevance after the Patowmack Canal's usefulness wore out and was burnt to the ground by the mid-19th century.

After passing all of the stone foundations that remained at Matildaville, we came to the Old Carriage Trail, which we merged onto and followed to the right back to the visitor center and the trailhead, ending an easy and thoroughly enjoyable half-day hike.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Big Devils Stairs

Big Devils Stairs
7 miles loop, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, requires some off-trail navigation, bushwhacking, and rock scrambling
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

In the north district of Shenandoah National Park, on the south slopes of Mount Marshall, a stream has cut a deep, rugged canyon into the Catoctin metabasalts of the Blue Ridge crest. The Big Devils Stairs- also rendered as Big Devil Stairs in earlier park literature- is one of the most impressive canyons in the park and was once of the most visited spots in the park. Today, a fairly easy hike leads to an overlook of this deep gorge. In the early days of the park, however, visitors followed a trail up through the high-cliffed canyon. The rock scramble through the canyon and past its tumbling waterfalls and great hemlocks was an experience some considered on par with scrambling up Old Rag. Now, the hemlocks are gone, victim of the wooly adelgid. The trail, now unmaintained for many decades, has disappeared into the brush. Intrepid hikers willing to bushwhack through some thick brush and find a route through a rough, rocky, and wild canyon can still catch a taste of what those early visitors must have experienced.

In The Undying Past of Shenandoah National Park, Darwin Lambert writes:
"One day in 1935 I asked Winfield Sisk, age 13, to guide me to the Devil Stairs- the bigger of the two. He told me the gorges of Little Devil Stairs and Big Devil Stairs "ain't different in size. It's the devil that's different!" ... I laughed with Winfield and imagined a giant moonshiner with a long rifle running his still in one gorge and a dwarfed but oh-so-crafty moonshiner in the other. Winfield said he didn't know if the devils had been stillers long ago, but he reckoned they'd been some kind of humans."
Big Devils Stairs is one of those special places in Shenandoah where treading off the beaten path into a routeless canyon gives a feeling of rediscovery rather than of finding something new. Although the gorge is rugged and wild, the landscape whispers reminders of its past and the cliffs seem almost to hold ha'nts from a lifestyle and a time that has disappeared. It's not difficult to stare down into the canyon from its high walls and understand why some of the former residents of these mountains might have thought these stairs housed a large devil. Or perhaps Big Devil Stairs is nothing more than another beautiful Shenandoah canyon; maybe my long absence from the mountains of my childhood has led me to over-romanticize the few spots I get to explore on my brief returns.

I hiked this trail with a good friend from high school around the new year. We set out from Fredericksburg fairly early in the morning and followed Route 3 west to Culpeper; in downtown Culpeper, we followed the signs to take US 522 north and west to Sperryville, where we again followed signs to take US 211 west to the Thornton Gap Entrance of Shenandoah. From the entrance, we followed Skyline Drive north up to Gravel Springs Gap near mile 18 and parked there.

There are many trails that head out from the trailhead Gravel Springs Gap. It is important to start off on the right one; fortunately, the widest trail leaving from the lot is the correct trail for going to Big Devils Stairs. We followed the fire road leaving from the end of the parking lot in the direction of the Gravel Springs Hut. This trail was once a mountain road that connected Harris Hollow with Browntown in Shenandoah Valley. The road headed downhill and came to an intersection with a connector trail that led to the Bluff Trail just a few hundred yards out of the parking lot. We took the left turn onto this small connector trail, which very quickly brought us down to the Bluff Trail. At the junction with the Bluff Trail, we took a left again to head northeast. We stayed left on the Bluff Trail a little further on at a junction with the Harris Hollow Trail.

The Bluff Trail derives its name from an old nickname for Mount Marshall. The Marshalls mark a significant point in the Blue Ridge: they are the northernmost 3000-foot peaks in the range. Their current name comes from the area's association with the family of none other than that champion of federalism in the budding American judicial system, the fourth Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. Although John grew up closer to Warrenton, he owned the Leeds Manor within eyesight of what is today his namesake peak.

The yellow-blazed Bluff Trail was surprisingly rock. The trail ascended and descended at times as it roughly followed the contours of Mount Marshall towards the stream that fed Big Devil Stairs. Along the way, my friend and I spotted some reasonably well-preserved columnar basalts that had seen minimal metamorphism. We also had spotty views of the Peak through the leafless winter forest.

Catoctin Formation columnar basalts along the Bluff Trail
We followed the Bluff Trail for an up-and-down but fairly gentle mile and a half to a stream crossing. We rock-hopped across the stream that flowed through Big Devil Stairs and immediately afterward came to the junction with the Big Devil Stairs Trail. We took the right fork here and began to head downhill through the mountain laurel towards the canyon. The trail generally followed the ridge just to the east of the canyon. We passed by a nicely cleared campsite on the right of the trail and could tell that the canyon was starting at our right; however, at this point there were not yet any true views.

The trail continued descending for a while. Finally, with the canyon in view through the trees, we reached a sharp right turn in the trail that brought us off the ridge and down to a large outcrop on the rim of the canyon. From the top of the eastern wall, we stared down into the Big Devils Stairs, a narrow and dramatic cut into the Catoctin metabasalts of Mount Marshall. Three levels of sheer cliffs defined the western wall of the canyon; the Stairs themselves were filled with small cliffs, huge boulders, dense brush, and a number of tumbling waterfalls visible from above. The terrain was so extremely rugged that it seemed reasonable that it would've been the perfect hideout for a moonshiner or even an atypically large devil.

View of the falls at the head of the canyon from the overlook
The view beyond the canyon was equally impressive: in the distance, we could see the tall peaks of the park's Central District, including Mary's Rock, Stony Man, and Old Rag. Closer in, we noticed a green, grassy clearing just outside the park boundary that seemed oddly out of place amidst the grey winter ridges.

How did the Big Devils Stairs form? How did this stream manage to cut a canyon that is more topographically astonishing than just about any other canyon in the park? My friend and I wondered these things as we gazed at the canyon. As my friend was an aspiring geologist, we began tossing around ideas: could this canyon have occurred due to faulting? Or perhaps due to some intrusion- an igneous dike- into the surrounding Catoctin formation? My friend looked briefly for evidence of either hypothesis; he noticed more heavily metamorphosed Catoctin basalts that would have been consistent with the idea of faulting but was ultimately unable to conclude much from looking at exposed outcrops. A cursory search after our hike yielded few answers; if you happen to know more about the canyon's geology I'd love to hear from you!

The next two to three hundred yards of trail were thrilling. The path hugged the canyon rim, allowing for many views of the commanding cliffs of the western canyon and of the stream below. After reaching a final viewpoint at the top of an outcrop with a sheer drop down to the stream below, the trail turned slightly left back into the forest. I would advise hikers without routefinding and scrambling experience to turn back here; this turn in the trail marked the end of the hike to the Big Devil Stairs overlook.

Big Devil Stairs, Central District peaks in the distance
After leaving the canyon rim, the trail became much more difficult to follow: the lack of hikers visiting the lower reaches of this trail left the path poorly tread through the layer of dessicated autumn foliage. The blue blazes that had earlier been visible at regular intervals were now sparse, but we still managed to find our way down. We did find the trail to be a tad too gentle at time, taking its time to switchback down slopes that it could very reasonably have descended directly. After a good period of switchbacking downhill, the trail cut to the right and brought us to the stream at the mouth of the canyon, which was just inside the park boundary.

In the past, visitors used to access this canyon from outside the park; however, the current owners of the adjacent property aren't as friendly to hikers, so be sure to stay within the park boundary. Yellow no trespassing signs marked the edge of federal land; if you stay on the trail you'll stay in the park. The trail reached the side of the stream before disappearing. If you don't know what you're doing, this is the point to turn around: you can still follow the trail 3.5 miles back up to the trailhead.

My friend and I followed the stream upriver into the canyon. There was no discernable path through the canyon, even though an established path had existed there four or five decades ago. It's useless to describe the canyon scramble in detail: anyone who can't navigate their way through the canyon doesn't belong there in the first place.  We had to cross the stream at least a half-dozen times, climbed over or ducked under dozens of fallen trees, whacked our way through thick brush while avoiding getting poked by thistles and thorns, and scrambled up many steep talus slopes and through some rocky chutes. Along the way, we passed towering cliffs, found a small cave, and saw dozens of small cascades on the bubbling stream. An hour and a half of pulling ourselves up rocks and rockhopping on precarious footholds across the stream brought us to the base of the tallest waterfall in the canyon, a pretty single-stream drop. We lunched here before scrambling over the last set of rocks to exit the most spectacular part of the canyon.

Small cave on the east side of the canyon
Waterfall in canyon
Big Devils Stairs
Waterfalls in the canyon
Waterfalls in the upper portion of the canyon
Waterfall at the head of Big Devils Stairs
Past the waterfall, the brush grew ever-denser. After following the stream for a little while longer, we realized that the walls of the canyon had more or less ended: we were now in more of a stream gully and were no longer hemmed in by cliffs into a narrow canyon. Reasoning that the brush ahead of us along the stream would remain bad, we chose to leave the stream and bushwhack uphill and a point at which we could tell that there were no true obstacle cliffs between our location and ridgeline to the east, which we had followed on the Big Devils Stairs trail. We cut through mountain laurel and other underbrush up to the ridge and met back up with the trail, which we followed back uphill to the junction with the Bluff Trail.

The cliffs and dense brush in the Big Devils Stairs
Back on the Bluff Trail, we turned left and followed the Bluff Trail for a mile and a half back to the junctions with the Harris Hollow Trail and the connector trail we had come from in the morning. Instead of returning the way we came, we followed the yellow-blazed Bluff Trail to its end at its junction with the Gravels Spring Hut access fire road. From this junction, we could spot the Gravel Springs Hut, so we walked the final few yards over to the overnight shelter for Appalachian Trail hikers. The hut is one of many along the AT in Shenandoah and offers shelters to AT thru-hikers and other backpackers in the area during the warmer months. On our visit, the hut was understandably empty. We flipped through the hut's visitor log, reading the ramblings of hikers nearly a thousand miles into a journey of over two thousand miles.

Gravel Springs Hut
From the hut, we followed the fire road back uphill to the trailhead. I stopped briefly at Hogback Overlook to see the late day sun paint the bends of the Shenandoah River and Massanutten Mountain before leaving my Blue Ridge for Fredericksburg and a return to the sunless days of Seattle.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Tongva Peak via Beaudry Motorway

View of the Verdugo and San Gabriel Mountains from Tongva Peak
6.1 miles loop, 1400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Parking is along a residential street in a subdivision

Tongva Peak is the eastmost major peak in the Verdugo Mountains, a short urban mountain range just northeast of Glendale and Burbank, at the center of the Los Angeles metropolis. The Verdugos are not particularly tall and only slightly separated from the much larger and much more dramatic San Gabriel Range: thus, the Verdugos offer relatively easy hiking country to enjoy city views and views of the San Gabriels. Tongva Peak, which can be reached by hiking along the Beaudry Motorway, a former dirt road, is perhaps the easiest access to the good views of the Verdugos. As the hike follows a fairly wide road the entire way and elevation gain is substantial but spread out, this hike is doable by most reasonably fit people. However, do be prepared for the heat and the sun: we found ourselves sweating quite profusely and using plenty of sunscreen, even in February.

The trailhead is in an unconventional location: the hike starts in the middle of a subdivision in Glendale, near La Canada Flintridge. A friend and I hiked this trail in mid-February: we drove over from West Los Angeles, taking Highway 2 north from the downtown area towards Glendale and La Canada Flintridge. We left Highway 2 at the exit for Verdugo Blvd (21C), which is immediately before Highway 2 merges with the 210. There is an earlier exit for Verdugo Rd much further south near downtown Glendale; be sure that you don't exit there. After coming off the ramp, we turn lefted onto Verdugo Blvd and follow it for a couple of blocks to Verdugo Rd; we then turned left onto Verdugo Rd and followed it south a few blocks past the Oakmont Country Club to Canada Blvd. We followed Canada Blvd to the right, then immediately made a right onto Country Club Drive. We followed Country Club Drive for a half mile and then turned left onto Beaudry Blvd, which led into a residential neighborhood. About a third of a mile down Beaudry Blvd, the road makes wide right turn and begins to head uphill. A narrow paved road heads off to the left at the turn: this is the trailhead. We parked on the side of the street nearby.

The beginning of the hike was not terribly promising. The fire road began near a small concrete dam, then paralleled a small, dried-up reservoir and became a dirt road after passing a gate. The wideness of the trail (fire road) here makes the trail easy to follow and comfortable to hike on, but makes the experience distinctly non-wild, though there isn't much wild about an urban mountain range in the middle of the second largest metropolitan area in the country anyway.

Past the end of the reservoir, the fire road made a few turns into a wooded area and offered its first view of the communication towers atop Tongva Peak itself. Soon after, we came to the junction of the North and South Beaudry fire roads. We followed North Beaudry, which was the main branch of the trail, off to the right, starting an ascent up a wooded canyon.

View from the fire road at the bottom of the canyon towards Tongva Peak
The tree cover didn't last for too long: the fire road was soon out on the open north slope of the Verdugos. On the bright side, we now had good views looking back towards the San Gabriel Range, including Strawberry Peak, one of the more prominent mountains visible. On the brighter side, the sun was bearing down on us with its full afternoon heat. Although the trail was a little too warm for us, even in February, it seemed to be roughly the right temperature for a number of lizards that we spotted alongside the trail.

The first three miles along the North Beaudry Fire Road were all uphill. The trail wound in and out of gullies in the side of Tongva Peak, alternating between short stretches of shade and long exposed stretches with views first of the canyon itself and later of the San Rafael Hills across Highway 2 and of the San Gabriels and La Canada Flintridge. The trail passed directly downhill of the summit communications towers and began to wrap around the mountain, meeting the crest of the Verdugos at a saddle on the far side of Tongva Peak. The 1400 feet or so ascent to reach the saddle was fairly significant but was spread out over 3 miles; the fire road itself climbed uphill at a steady but not too steep grade.

San Rafael Hills
San Gabriels from Beaudry Motorway
At the saddle, the North Beaudry Fire Road connected with the Verdugo Motorway, which followed the crest of the Verdugos towards the northwest. We turned left here and instead followed the South Beaudry Fire Road a short distance to the summit of Tongva Peak. The summit was topped with a wide array of communications towers. We walked past the first section of the towers to the point where the road began heading downhill again. Here, an unmarked dirt trail branched off to the right, following the edge of the fence surrounding the towers before coming to a bench and a magnificent viewpoint. Here, the Verdugos seemed like an island in a sea of sprawl: Los Angeles and its attendant cities stretched out in all directions. Directly below, we could see Glendale, Burbank, and the San Fernando Valley. The Santa Monica Mountains and the peaks of Griffith Park appeared as a reef in an ocean of neatly arranged grid. Yet the full extent of the metropolis was outside of our view: the smog, that exhalation of 22 million people living in the twenty-first century, engulfed the distant views.

Smog above the San Fernando Valley
Closer in, we saw some of the taller peaks of the Verdugos to the northwest. Just to the north was Verdugo Peak: we could see the Verdugo Motorway winding its way along the crest of the range towards that peak. Roads and power lines dotted the lower slopes of the range, reminding us that we were still deep in an urban setting.

Verdugo Mountains
Tongva Peak derives its name from the Tongva people, who lived in the Los Angeles Basin at the time of European colonization of the region.

After spending a while on the summit, we headed back to the South Beaudry Fire Road and continued to follow it to the southeast (right turn from the summit). The hike was more or less all downhill from that point: the fire road generally followed the ridge crest and climbed a slight bit when it approached Mount Thom. At a saddle just before reaching Mount Thom, the South Beaudry Road met up with the Las Flores Motorway. We stayed left to stay on the Beaudry Motorway. The road skipped by the summit of Mount Thom but continued to offer views once it returned to following the Verdugo crest.

After passing Mount Thom, the road made a slight turn towards the east. This turn put the San Gabriels front and center in our vision as we descended. The late day lighting accentuated the shadows cast by each fractal ridge in the range, casting a beautiful pattern of light and dark on the mountains. Strawberry Peak and San Gabriel Peak dominated the view. Far below, the houses and shopping outlets of La Canada Flintridge escaped the rays of the late day sun.

Sunset glow on the San Gabriels
Views of downtown LA also improved. Earlier in the day, the downtown skyline had more or less been engulfed by the smog, but smog conditions were changing enough in the late day that the US Bank Tower and its attendant skyscrapers reemerged. On the horizon, the hills of Palos Verdes rose above the low-lying haze.

Downtown LA in the evening light
The hike back from the top on the South Beaudry Motorway was about 3 miles. The road followed the ridgeline for most of the way until the last half-mile, when the trail turned around the ridge and began to drop along the north side of the ridge. Soon, we were back at the junction of the North and South Beaudry roads; here, we turned right and hurried back to our car before dusk settled.

This was an enjoyable hike with stellar views of the San Gabriel Mountains. This certainly isn't for anyone who is looking for wilderness: it's hard to imagine a mountain range more engulfed in an urban setting. However, if you live in LA, there's little reason that you shouldn't check out this fun peak on a fairly easy hike.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sunol Regional Wilderness

Sunol Regional Wilderness
8 miles loop, 2150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: $5 per car entrance fee for Sunol Regional Wilderness

Sunol Regional Wilderness is a brilliant tract of East Bay countryside less than an hour from San Francisco or San Jose. In the park's rolling, oak-studded hills and verdant canyons, it's easy to forget that Silicon Valley and the bustle of SoMa aren't far off; with few exceptions, the views along this hike are confined to the green countryside of Sunol, with little hint of the metropolis just miles away. There are almost continuous views on this hike, which visits the summit of cliff-lined Flag Hill before following the open ridgeline of Vista Grande and visiting the open slopes of Cerro Este. The hike ends by visiting the pretty gorge at Little Yosemite before returning to the visitor center at the base of Flag Hill. While this certainly isn't a must-hike, visiting the many ridges of the Sunol Wilderness can make for a fun day with lots of views away from the crowds of Mount Tam or Mission Peak. The park provides a good map that makes finding your way on this loop quite easy.

I hiked this trail on a warm, beautiful January day with totally clear blue skies. I left San Francisco with my good friend from high school and college in the morning, with far-reaching, smog-less views as we crossed the Bay Bridge. Across the bay, we took I-580 east past Castro Valley and across the mountains to the junction with I-680, which we followed south to exit 21A for Sunol and Calaveras Road. We followed Calaveras Road south for a few miles until we reached Geary Road, which we turned left onto and followed to the park. We paid the $5 entrance fee and met up at the park with a former roommate who now attended Stanford, who had come with one of his friends.

The four of us set out on the hike by crossing the bone-dry Alameda Creek on a bridge next to the Visitor Center. We then headed left, following the Flag Hill Trail a quarter mile past the junction for the Shady Glen Trail. The trail then began a fairly steep and aggressive ascent up Flag Hill. Early on, we hiked past beautiful, gnarled old oaks growing amidst the verdant meadows. Flag Hill itself soon came into sight, its cliff-hemmed summit resembling ramparts of some old castle.

Sunol Regional Wilderness
Flag Hill
As we headed uphill, we passed occasional fences that ran across the hillside. We assumed that these were for the many cows in the park, some of which we could already see in the distance.

Further uphill, the trees faded away and the landscape was dominated by grass and shrubs that had assumed their winter green on hills that would turn to yellow and brown by summer. The views improved dramatically as well: behind us, we could see the parking lot and a growing portion of the rolling hills, while to the east we could see the rounded summits of Cerro Este.

Ascending Flag Hill
After a strong push and a thousand feet of ascent in a mile from the bottom of the valley, we reached the top of Flag Hill. The trail looped to the east around the hill's dramatic ramparts before reaching the small mountain's flat top. At the summit, views to the north opened up: in the far distance, we could see the two peaks of Mount Diablo and the twin summits of the Maguire Peaks. To the west, we could see communications towers rising from the summit of Mission Peak.

We enjoyed the view at the top for a while. Even though this hike visited many ridges, Flag Hill was the only actual summit on the route, making its 360-degree view especially worthwhile.

From the summit, we took the Flag Hill Road north and east down towards the saddle between the hill and Vista Grande. This wide trail made a curving switchback down the east side of Flag Hill. On our way down to the saddle, we passed a picturesque pond set in a small basin, backed by the Maguire Peaks.

Maguire Peaks and a pond on the slopes of Flag Hill
We reached the saddle about three-quarters of a mile from the summit of Flag Hill and 2 miles from the start of the hike. The saddle marked a four-way junction between the High Valley Road, the Flag Hill Road, and the Vista Grande Road. We headed directly across the intersection from the Flag Hill Road onto the Vista Grande Road. At the junction, there were a number of cows grazing next to the trail. We paused at a distance of a least fifty yards to photograph them, but this was apparently already too close for comfort for one of the cows, which glanced up at us and then began a steady trot towards us. We backed off; the cow went back to eating.

The Vista Grande Road quickly made its way up from the saddle to the ridgeline. The vista was indeed grande: this was perhaps the most scenic portion of trail on the hike. Early on the ascent along the ridgeline, there were great views to the north of Mount Diablo and the Maguire Peaks; further along the ascent, we looked behind our shoulder to pretty views of the ridgeline we had hiked up stretching towards Mission Peak. Cerro Este appeared as a hill of green velvet before us and below the ridge to the south we saw High Valley Camp and the Calaveras Reservoir.

On Vista Grande
High Valley Camp from Vista Grande
Vista Grande Trail
About three miles into the hike, we paused at a bench along the Vista Grande Trail to lunch and enjoy the sweeping the view of most of the Sunol Wilderness. "Wilderness" is a bit of a misnomer for this park: although Sunol is certainly less developed than Silicon Valley or the suburbia of East Bay, there are still structures built throughout the park and benches along road-width trails.

Past the bench, came to a junction with the Eagle View Trail. We took the right fork, which brought us onto the narrower, single-track Eagle View Trail heading south and east. This portion of trail was quite spectacular: the trail was set into a steep grassy slope with a drop-off to the right of the trail. As we hiked forward, we had continuously good views of Cerro Este. "Eagle View" was certainly appropriately named.

The Eagle View Trail dropped into a canyon as it approached the flanks of Cerro Este. Briefly leaving the grassy meadows, the trail entered a small gully lined with oaks and crossed the stream flowing through the canyon before climbing back out onto the grassy meadows along the west side of Cerro Este. At the junction with the Eagle View Road, we stayed on the left fork for the Eagle View Trail, which passed a number of pretty rock outcrops and continued along open slopes until reaching the Cave Rocks Road at about 4 miles from the trailhead.

On the Eagle View Trail
We took the right fork when the Eagle View Trail merged onto the Cave Rocks Road. The Cave Rocks Road followed the contours of Cerro Este, taking us away from the more exposed slopes with wider views. Along the way, we passed by another pond, some cows, and many solitary oak trees. After passing the pond, the trail started ascending more steadily once more. We noticed some odd terraced structures on the slopes of Cerro Este uphill of the trail and were unfortunately unable to learn where they originated.

Pond on Cave Rocks Road
Three-fifths of a mile after merging onto the Cave Rocks Road, the trail gained the ridgeline and joined the Cerro Este Trail. At about 1700 feet above sea level, this junction, although not a summit, was the highest point of the hike. We could see green hills stretching out in all directions, including some more heavily forested mountains to the east that we had not seen previously that day. Far off to the west, we could see the mountains running along the peninsula as well as San Francisco Bay itself; farther to the north and very far in the distance, we could make out the skyline of San Francisco itself, with the Transamerica Pyramid, the Coit Tower, and the Bay Bridge all identifiable.

San Francisco from Cerro Este Road
The ridgeline was quite windy, so after stopping briefly for photos we began following the Cerro Este Road downhill. This trail continued along the ridge, dropping gradually as it passed a beautiful lone oak tree and then a number of small ponds, each of which hosted a number of thirsty cows. Although the views gradually diminished as we headed downhill, the scenery was consistently good as the trail remained more or less in the open and the path was constantly surrounded by green grass and picturesque trees.

Sunol countryside
Cows along the Cerro Este Road
We followed the trail downhill past the junctions for the McCorkle Trail and the Canyon View Trail. The further we hiked, the less far we could see: the Calaveras Reservoir was initially visible directly before us but gradually disappeared behind the hills as we dropped towards the bottom of the canyon along Alameda Creek. At one point, a large, exposed outcrop was visible just uphill of the trail, marking the most interesting rock feature on the hike since the cliffs on Flag Hill. After following the Cerro Este Road for almost two miles since joining that trail after the junction with Cave Rocks Road, we came to the Camp Ohlone Road at the bottom of the canyon; the total distance covered at this point was about 6.5 miles. We continued past the road, going downhill just a slight bit more to reach the creek inside Little Yosemite. Even with the qualifier "little," the name is a bit of a misnomer: the largest features in the canyon are rocks perhaps only tens of feet in height. Still, the rock eroded rock walls of the canyon were pretty and allowed for us to scramble downstream just a bit to a small waterfall and a set of shallow pools.

Little Yosemite
After a short stop at Little Yosemite, we headed back uphill along the Cerro Este Road about a fifth of a mile to the junction with the Canyon View Trail. We took the the Canyon View Trail west (to the left). The trail climbed a bit and followed the side of the hills fairly high above the canyon of Alameda Creek. After a short while of following the canyon, the trail swerved to the right and reentered the landscape of rolling hills. The cliffs rimming Flag Hill, our destination earlier in the day, appeared before us, indicating that our loop was approaching its end. After passing the McCorkle Trail once more, the trail made a final descent back to the side of Alameda Creek. We followed the trail along the creek past the Indian Joe Nature Trail until we reached the bridge near the visitor center where we had started the hike in the morning.

View into the canyon
After finishing our hike, we hurried back to San Francisco to catch a key ACC basketball game airing that afternoon.

Hiking in the Sunol is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Although the scenery is rarely jaw-dropping, there are more or less continuous views along the trail and the countryside that the loop traverses is very pleasant. Bay Area hikers should certainly not miss out on hiking in the Sunol Wilderness; however, while visitors would likely find this hike enjoyable as well, the scenery here is certainly not exemplary in Northern California.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Hazel Falls and White Rocks

Hazel Falls (Cave Falls)
9 miles loop, 2000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, but bushwhacking and scrambling necessary to reach the views at White Rocks
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Here's a loop that offers a little bit of everything: a serving of history, a small waterfall, and for those who are up for it, a dab of bushwhacking enroute to a nice view. Hazel Country is a unique corner of Shenandoah: once of the more heavily settled areas of the park, it's now one of the more rarely visited areas, despite being just a stone's throw from US 211 and the Thornton Gap Entrance. Hazel Falls is the only location on this loop that gets a fair share of visitors: once you follow the trail out to the White Rocks and up along a stream in the shadow of Hazel Mountain, you enter some rarely visited terrain, shared only with the ha'nts of Hazel Country's past. The loop is moderate at its easiest but potentially more difficult during times of high water, as crossing the Hazel River is necessary.

I hiked this trail on a crisp, clear December day that marked my first return to the park in nearly two years, my longest absence from the park since age 12. I made my way out to the park from Fredericksburg on Route 3 west through Culpeper; turned right onto Main Street, drove through downtown Culpeper, then made a left onto US 522, which I followed to Sperryville. At Sperryville, I made a right turn immediately after entering the town to stay on 522 and then made a left at the junction with US 211 to head towards Thornton Gap. At the gap, I followed Skyline Drive south briefly to the parking area for Meadow Spring and Buck Hollow on the left (east) side of the drive near mile 34.

From the trailhead, I followed the yellow-blazed Hazel Mountain Trail downhill. The below-freezing temperatures of the night before had elevated the surface of the trail with needle ice, making the ground crunchy beneath my boots.

Needle ice
I passed by the trail down Buck Ridge about a half mile into the hike. At that junction, I stayed on the Hazel Mountain Trail. Soon enough, the rounded, forested top of Hazel Mountain itself was visible through the trees due to the lack of foliage. In another mile, I came to the junction with the White Rocks Trail. Here, I took the left fork and began to follow the White Rocks Trail, which wound through the forest for a bit before finding its way onto a forested ridge decked with mountain laurel.

After a mile of hiking on the White Rocks Trail, I came to the junction with the trail down to Hazel Falls and the cave. This spur trail, which headed south from the ridge down to the Hazel River, was the steepest part of the hike. Although only a fifth of a mile long, the spur trail quickly dropped almost 200 feet along a series of stone steps down to the side of the Hazel River, then followed the Hazel River briefly upstream past some small cascades to the falls and the cave.

Hazel Falls is also known as Cave Falls, due to its vicinity to a small cave near the Hazel River. The cave is interesting to briefly check out but is quite small. Anyone expecting Luray Caverns will be sorely disappointed: this cave is perhaps ten feet deep and can be explored thoroughly without a flashlight. Unlike Luray and Grand Caverns, the cave at Hazel Falls is not made of limestone, thus making it incapable of forming the great karst underground landscapes.

Inside the cave
Hazel Falls is just past the cave. This is a small waterfall, less than 20 feet tall, but the drop is pretty and fairly photogenic. A few icicles still hung off the sides of the rock walls near the waterfall: the sheltered position of the falls had prevented sunlight from reaching it for most of the day.

Hazel Falls
Many hikers visit Hazel Falls as a day hike and then return directly to the trailhead. A much better option for those with a bit more stamina and decent experience with river crossings and bushwhacking is to continue onwards along the White Rocks Trail and then to return via the Hazel River and Hazel Mountain Trails.

Just past the junction with the trail to Hazel Falls, the White Rocks Trail passes the first set of rock outcrops, which lie far right of the trail and offer no views. The trail then descends to a saddle before visiting a series of four small summits. The first summit has no real views to speak of: I could see through the trees to Mary's Rock and Oventop at points, but these views would be obscured by foliage in summer. While approaching the second summit, I could already tell there would be better views: to the left of the trail, there was a small clearing with lower vegetation. While the views from the trails were still poor, there was less dense foliage obscuring the peaks here than from the first summit.

The best views, however, weren't on the trail. To the right of the trail, just short of the second summit, I could make out a set of fairly prominent rocks separated from the trail itself by an abundance of underbrush. At no point did I see a noticeable path through the underbrush, so at the far end of the set of rocks (the eastern end), I bushwhacked through the thorns and laurel until I reached the rocks; circling around the rocks, I found one spot where an easy scramble brought me to the top of the White Rocks.

The views were fairly remarkable when I considered the fact that most other hike descriptions rate this hike as having little or no views. The summit of the rocks offered a clear view from Hazel Mountain to Oventop, encompassing the summits of the Pinnacle, Mary's Rock, and Pass Mountain in between.

Mary's Rock and the Pinnacle from White Rocks
From the top of the White Rocks, I noticed a few more granite outcrops facing south, projecting over the hollow of the Hazel River. I bushwhacked a few yards over to those rocks and found a nice view of Hazel Country and the Piedmont.

View of Hazel Country from White Rocks
The third bump along the White Rocks ridge provided the only decent view along the trail itself. From the top of this bump, a few rocks on the left side of the trail provided a peek of Oventop, Mt. Marshall, the Peak, and the Piedmont around Sperryville.

Piedmont and the Peak
I crossed a last hump along the White Rocks Ridge before descending to a deep saddle in the ridge and then beginning a steep descent down the west side of the ridge. This portion of the trail was often quite slippery due to the copious amount of fallen leaves that remained. The leaves across the trail remained uncompacted, suggesting that few hikers ventured to this point along the White Rocks Trail. When I reached the bottom of the descent, I met up again with the Hazel River, which at this point was a substantially stronger and wider stream.

Hazel River
Crossing this river was slightly difficult but would have been much more so if I had not brought poles: the flow was strong enough that rock-hopping was not an option and the day was cold enough that fording by crossing through the river would be unpleasant as well. A narrow and slightly rotten log had been positioned to allow hikers to cross; however, the log was a bit slippery, making crossing on the log nonideal. Luckily, I was able to cross without getting wet by supporting myself across the log with my poles. On the other side, I met pole-less hikers trying to cross the other direction, who were the first other people I had seen that day since leaving the trailhead.

After crossing the river, I continued following the White Rocks, which now paralleled the Hazel River. In a few hundred yards, the trail crossed over a small feeder stream and then came to a junction with the Hazel River Trail. I followed the Hazel River Trail to the right rather than the left, which took me away from rather than towards the river.

The Hazel River trail began a steady but never steep ascent through a small hollow under the shadow of Hazel Mountain. The trail was very clearly a road built and used by the mountain folk who lived in Hazel Country: it was quite wide and had extremely sturdy rock work in many spots. After a short period of ascent, I followed the trail across the stream in this hollow. A little ways past the the stream crossing, I noticed a chimney in a small flat spot below the trail to the left. I left the trail and bushwhacked my way about half a hundred meters or so over to the remnants of a former cabin in Hazel Country.

In his guide to the park, Henry Heatwole described Hazel Country as a somewhat lawless and rough area. It's certainly much more quiet now. Saplings have taken root in the foundations of this homesite, sprouting where perhaps there once lived a mountaineer family, raising hogs and farming the steep slopes of the hollow. This homesite- along with the other former homesites in the park- has been abandoned for at least 80 years, since the park was established following the condemnation of the inhabitants of these hollows.

Former cabin off the Hazel River Trail
The remainder of the hike was fairly uneventful. The Hazel River Trail climbed out of the stream valley onto the upper slopes of Hazel Mountain, crossing a small saddle and passing through dense thickets of mountain laurel before descending to join the Hazel Mountain Trail. Most of the climb along this hike occurred between the junction of the White Rocks and Hazel River trails and the saddle on Hazel Mountain on the Hazel River Trail. Along the way, I met PATC members clearing some recent deadfall on the trail. At the junction with the Hazel Mountain Trail, I headed right, returning towards the trailhead.

The Hazel Mountain Trail was once a road as well and passed through an area frequented by former hollow folk; today, there are few traces of that history along this segment of trail. The trail crossed the Hazel River again, this time a much easier crossing at an upstream point along the river. Around this time, I ran into the group of hikers I had earlier met crossing the Hazel River on the White Rocks Trail: they were hiking the loop the other direction and had started from a trailhead off of Route 600 at the base of the Blue Ridge.

Looking at a map of my hike afterward, it appears that around this point I also passed a junction with the Catlett Mountain Connector Trail. This trail junction must have been somewhat easy to overlook as I blew straight past it without realizing its existence; luckily, I stayed on the Hazel Mountain Trail. I passed through quite a bit of mountain laurel along this part of the hike.

Mountain laurel on Hazel Mountain
After a final stream crossing, the Hazel Mountain Trail rejoined with the White Rocks Trail. From here, I hiked back along the way that I came that morning and ascended the final mile and a half back to the trailhead.

This is an enjoyable hike, but recommended only to those who are already fairly familiar with the park and want to explore some of its smaller pleasures. There are better views, more photogenic waterfalls, and better preserved homesites in this park. However, if you'd like to see Mary's Rock from a unique angle and to check out a tiny cave and gaze at a small cascade, this hike provides a good opportunity to do so. Other online hike descriptions recommend tackling this hike counterclockwise, rather than the clockwise description I've offered you. I think clockwise makes a little more sense: clockwise allows you to visit the more scenic spots of the hike earlier in your hike, making it less likely that one would run out of time to visit certain spots after having allotted too much time to earlier parts of the hike. Winter is a good season to attempt this hike if you plan to do any of the described bushwhacking, as the lack of foliage makes going through underbrush much easier.