Thursday, June 22, 2017

Robertson Mountain from Skyline Drive

Berry Hollow view from Robertson Mountain summit
6.2 miles round trip, 1250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Trailhead access off Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Although the eastern approach to Robertson Mountain from Weakley Hollow is known for being one of the steepest segments of trail in Shenandoah National Park, this western approach to the summit via the Old Rag Fire Road from Skyline Drive is not too difficult. This rarely-visited summit is undeservedly overlooked, providing sweeping views of the Central District of the park and plenty of mountain laurels blooming in the spring with just a fraction of the crowds that pack nearby Old Rag, Hawksbill, and Stony Man.

I made my third trip to the summit of Robertson- but the first on the route described here- with my family on a trip home to Virginia over Memorial Day. We set out on a comfortable, partly cloudy day from Fredericksburg, taking Route 3 to Culpeper, US 522 north to Sperryville, and then US 211 west to the Thornton Gap Entrance of the park. Once in the park, we followed Skyline Drive down to milepost 43 and parked at the small parking area for the Limberlost Trail, accessible via a short spur on the east side of the Drive. There are many trails emanating from the Limberlost Trailhead: we followed the Old Rag Fire Road, which from the parking lot initially looks as if it is a continuation of the road.

After we passed the gate on the road, the Old Rag Fire Road turned to gravel. In the first third of a mile of the hike, the fire road closely paralleled one of the legs of the Limberlost Loop Trail; the scenery was similar, with young hemlocks and almost-blooming mountain laurel lining the road. We spotted deer along the trail not far from the trailhead.

Deer on the Old Rag Fire Road
Barely over two hundred meters into the hike, the fire road passed an intersection with the Whiteoak Canyon Trail. We stayed on the fire road and continued onward, passing a second intersection with the Limberlost Trail one-third of a mile into the hike.

About two-thirds of a mile from the trailhead, the fire road crossed over the Robinson River. The river splits into two separate channels here, each with small, pleasant cascades; further downstream, the Robinson River plunges down the six wateralls of Whiteoak Canyon, one of the most popular and scenic spots in the park.

Robinson River
Past the river, the trail embarked on a brief uphill climb before flattening out and passing two marked trail junctions with the Skyland-Big Meadows Horse Trail; soon after, the trail passed by what appeared to be a Park Service cabin on the right (south) side of the fire road. From this point on until the junction with the Robertson Mountain Trail, the fire road followed a gradual downhill.

Spring is one of the best times to hike in Shenandoah: the return of flora to the Blue Ridge is eye-catching in its patterns, verdancy, and showy colors. Fields of ferns blanketed many parts of the forest floor; wildflowers of various colors lined the fire road. In winter, young evergreen hemlocks that have sprouted since the plague of the hemlock wooly adelgid provide some of the only color in the Blue Ridge forests here; in spring, their deeper green needles contrast nicely with the more vibrant green of new vegetation. Most of the hemlocks along the trail seemed free of adelgids- perhaps the trees that survive have developed resistance. I'm hopeful that two or three centuries from now, massive, towering hemlocks like the ones that once ruled Limberlost and Ramseys Draft will reclaim the upland forests.

Ferns on the forest floor
Trailside wildflowers
Hemlocks line the Old Rag Fire Road
At about one and two-thirds mile from the trailhead, we passed a junction with the Corbin Mountain Trail on the north (left) side of the trail. This trail led towards the Indian Run Trail, which in turn connects down to Corbin Cabin. We were struck by the fact that we had so far had the trail to ourselves despite being in the heart of one of the most popular parts of the park on Memorial Day weekend: Robertson Mountain is surrounded by spots such as Corbin Cabin, Old Rag, Skyland, and Whiteoak Canyon.

At 2.2 miles, we passed a junction to the left (north) of the fire road for the Corbin Hollow Trail, a rarely-visited trail down one of Shenandoah's most historically significant hollows that I had explored a few years earlier. Just a hundred yards further downhill, we came to the junction with the Robertson Mountain Trail, also on the left (this time, east) of the Old Rag Fire Road.

We took the left fork here to start up the narrow trail to Robertson Mountain. This trail, which immediately began burrowing through a thicket of mountain laurel, was much different in character than the wide fire road and was honestly much more enjoyable to hike- the flowers seemed closer to the trail and the landscape a little less manicured.

Whereas the mountain laurel at Limberlost, higher up the mountain close to the Blue Ridge crest, was just budding and still a week or so from blooming, many of the mountain laurel that lined the trail at Robertson Mountain had just began to bloom. It was my first time seeing laurel in bloom since I had moved from Virginia four years earlier. Many of the buds that were yet to bloom were beautifully pink.

Mountain laurel in various stages of bloom
Blooming Mountain Laurel
We continued up the Robertson Mountain Trail, which after an initial gentle climb started a more steady ascent with occasional switchbacks up the mountain. The trail finally leveled out upon reaching the ridge and followed the ridge towards Robertson's summit. Mountain laurel was plentiful here; we also spotted some pink azaleas blooming along the trail.

Wild azaleas on Robertson Mountain
The spur for the summit viewpoint at Robertson Mountain was unmarked but noticeable: a social path led off to the south (right) of the trail about 3 miles from the trailhead, winding up a last short uphill to an area of open rocks on the south side of the summit. Robertson Mountain has one of the better views in Shenandoah National Park, but there aren't many visitors that come up here: we saw three other hikers at the summit on a busy holiday weekend who were actually the only other hikers that I've seen at this summit in three visits.

View of Old Rag from Robertson Mountain
The southern view encompassed a 180-degree slice of the Blue Ridge and Piedmont from Old Rag to Stony Man. The rocky summit of Old Rag was visible to the eastsoutheast at roughly horizon-level: Old Rag and Robertson are the same height. The Southwest Mountains and Carters Mountain were visible directly to the south; Charlottesville lies at the foot of Carters Mountain. The most eye-catching part of the view was the jumble of granite and granodiorite peaks to our south across Berry Hollow: the steep, accented ridges of Doubletop, Jones, and Fork Mountains rose out of the Piedmont. Fork Mountain is the third tallest mountain in the park section of the Blue Ridge but lies outside the park proper; instead, the third tallest peak in Shenandoah is Hazeltop, which lay just to the right (west) of the tower-topped Fork Mountain. Closer in, we could see the more gradual forms of Hawksbill and Stony Man, two Catoctin formation peaks that together are the tallest two peaks in the park.

Hawksbill Mountain from Robertson Mountain
We lunched at the summit and explored around the nearby boulders. I scrambled up the boulders at the true summit of Robertson for a slightly obscured view to the north of Mount Marshall and the Peak. I was glad to be back in Shenandoah.

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