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.

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