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.

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