Saturday, April 29, 2017

Veach Gap

Bend in the Shenandoah River, with Dickey Ridge and Compton Peak rising in the distance
7 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, small trailhead parking lot, no fee for access

Veach Gap is one of the more enjoyable day hikes at the northern end of Massanutten Mountain, requiring just a little effort to reach a sweeping view of Page Valley and the wide meanders of the South Fork Shenandoah River. Equally impressive are the exposed geologic folds of the Massanutten synclinorium seen along the way; in a state where most geologic features are buried beneath layers of soil and sediment, this is a rare chance to see the bones of Massanutten Mountain. Although the hike is called Veach Gap, the destination is actually the ridgeline of the eastern ridge of Massanutten Mountain; the trail passes through Veach Gap, a water gap through one of the Massanutten Mountain's parallel ridges, in the first mile of the hike. The trail is rocky at times but is generally not too difficult, as the 1100 feet of elevation gain are very evenly spread out over the course of the trail.

I hiked this trail with a geologist friend who I had known since elementary school; we left Fredericksburg early morning and followed US 17 north past Opal and Warrenton to its junction with I-66 near Great Meadow. We then followed I-66 west to exit 6. The weather was overcast and still a little drizzly when we left Fredericksburg in the morning, but the clouds cleared up as we passed through Manassas Gap and by the time we were near Front Royal we were out in the sun. Leaving I-66 at exit 6, we followed US 340 south towards Front Royal, crossing the North Fork Shenandoah bridge and then turning right onto VA Route 55 and following it towards Strasburg. We continued west on Route 55 until we came to the turnoff for Fort Valley Road; here we made a left turn and followed the narrow road to the foot of Massanutten Mountain. Fort Valley Road then followed the narrow, wild water gap which Passage Creek has cut into the mountain through the northern end of the mountain and into Fort Valley. We then proceeded south into Fort Valley for about 10 miles, turning left onto Veach Gap Road (Route 774). We followed Veach Gap Road across a small, narrow bridge and continued along the road for a mile as it turned to gravel; we parked at the unmarked trailhead, where two roads branched off and the right road widened into a small parking area.

The trail started by following the road just downhill from the parking area, heading east. The old road led through the forest; the trees were all small enough that it was clear nothing here was remotely near old growth. The trail ascended slightly as it approached the foot of Massanutten Mountain; as the trail began to enter the narrow water breach of Veach Gap, it began to follow Mill Run, a small stream that had carved this gap into the mountain.

Mill Run flows through Veach Gap
The trail was soon sandwiched between the two mountain walls rising on either side of the gap. At the center of the gap, about a mile from the trailhead, the trail crossed Mill Run- be sure to watch for blazes on the other side of the stream here to stay on the trail.

Near the stream crossing, I found signs of life in the otherwise barren winter landscape: a puffball fungus sprouted out of the forest floor near the trail.
Just a few hundred feet past the crossing of Mill Run, my friend and I came to an exposed fold of the mountain. The Ridge and Valley Appalachians- of which Massanutten Mountain is a part- are a series of parallel folded mountains. Imagine laying a sheet of paper on a flat surface, then pushing in on the sheet from opposite ends. The paper bulges up and out- sometimes in a series of parallel folds. Compressive plate tectonic regimes created a similar effect in the Ridge and Valley Appalachians. Here at Veach Gap, one of the folds of the mountains was exposed, providing remarkable evidence of the mountain's formation history.

Fold in the Massanutten synclinorium
Continuining onward, we hiked through Veach Gap and into the valley on the far side. The trail came to an intersection with the Massanutten/Tuscarora Trail, blazed orange for the Massanutten and blue for the Tuscarora. We took the left fork at this intersection, heading north up a valley. The blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail is a little-known sibling of the Appalachian Trail that offers an alternate route through the Valley and Ridge from Shenandoah up to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Also near the trail intersection, we found an abandoned shack that was likely once a stream gauge station for Mill Run.

The next two miles of the hike were uneventful as we followed the hollow of Mill Run up towards the stream's source; unfortunately, the trail was removed from the bottom of the hollow and never really followed the run itself. There were occasional views through the trees of the ridge to our east, the trail tread was often rocky, and at one point we passed a nice campsite, but there was little else to comment on.

At about three miles into the hike, the trail reached the head of the hollow and made a turn and began climbing up the other side of the hollow. Even here, as the hike entered its final ascent, the grades were not too difficult. At a switchback, we had some partially obscured views to the southwest of Veach Gap, Fort Valley, and the western ridge of Massanutten Mountain.

View of Fort Valley and Massanutten Mountain from the trail
After the switchback, the trail continued a steady but not difficult ascent until it reached the ridge. Following the ridgeline, we could see the exposed layers of the Massanutten Mountain syncline at many points. The trail tread was quite rocky along the ridgetop.

One tree along the ridge had an impressive collection of fungi growing on its trunk.

Some sort of polypore growing on a tree
Ridgetop trail at the turnoff for the main viewpoint
The main viewpoint of the hike came near the end of the hike along the ridge: a small, unmarked spur headed off to the right from the trail and led to a ledge with a good view of the Page Valley. The Blue Ridge Mountains- here, the peaks of Shenandoah National Park's North District- lay across the valley from us, with Skyline Drive visible as it cut its way up Dickey Ridge towards Compton Peak and Mount Marshall. The many-humped summit of Hogback was visible further to the south. In the valley below, the South Fork Shenandoah River meandered through enormous snaking bends, with at least five of its wide turns visible from this viewpoint.

The Blue Ridge rises above the bends in the South Fork Shenandoah River
To the north, we spotted the town of Front Royal at the foot of Dickey Ridge. Farther north, we could see the smaller ridges that composed the Blue Ridge north of Manassas Gap; the view of the Valley continued north, too, past the point where the North and South Fork Shenandoah Rivers converged.

Front Royal
After enjoying the view, we continued a little further along the trail, reaching a second viewpoint with a campsite and a fire pit. The view here was equally as enjoyable, with a bit less visible to the north and a bit more visible to the south. We were disappointed, however, to find that campers who had been at the site the night before had failed to fully put out their fire before leaving. Don't do this! Extinguish your embers before you leave a campsite!

On our return hike, odd weather returned and it hailed briefly as we made a quick return to the trailhead. All in all, this is a recommendable hike: the views from the top are good and the geology en route is interesting.

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