Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Oventop Mountain

View of Hazel Mountain and Buck Hollow from Oventop
4 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate; good navigation skills necessary for bushwhacking, some rock scrambling
Access: Paved road to trailhead; no pass necessary to park

Oventop Mountain is a secret hidden in plain sight. Most visitors to Shenandoah National Park have seen Oventop, even if they're unfamiliar with the name. Rising above Sperryville in the North District of the park, just northeast of Thornton Gap, the peak is a common sight from Piedmont-side overlooks on Skyline Drive near Panorama and is seen by nearly all visitors headed to the Central or North Districts on US 211. In the early days of the park, a trail led along the ridge of this minor peak, but the park ceased maintenance of the trail decades ago, allowing nature to gradually reclaim the mountain. Today, it makes an excellent off-trail, bushwhacking destination for hikers with appropriate skills and experience due to both the ease of accessing this mountain from US 211 and because of the good and unique views of Mary's Rock from outcrops near the summit. Navigational abilities and good map-reading skills are a must; although the hike is not physically very difficult, it's important to understand that there is no longer any trail to follow. While it's possible to hike further and visit all three summits of Oventop, the hike that I'll describe here visits only the main summit and viewpoints on nearby granite slabs.

Oventop is visible from Buck Hollow Overlook on Skyline Drive, just south of Thornton Gap; for me, this multi-peaked ridge has always been a park greeter, welcoming me back to the Blue Ridge. Although Oventop is a fairly rounded and muted ridge, I've long stood at Buck Hollow Overlook and eyed the large granite slabs near the mountain's main peak, which I've always expected would have good views of Mary's Rock and the Hazel Mountain area. Returning to Virginia for the holidays, I decided to tackle Oventop with a friend in the winter to take advantage of the sparse vegetation, which makes for easier bushwhacking. Oventop also seemed a logical choice for us on a day when Skyline Drive was closed due to recent ice and snow.

Oventop (center) viewed from Skyline Drive, with the target rock slab visible along the ridge
I hiked Oventop with a friend on a cold, cold New Year's Eve, during a rare winter when thermometers in Virginia were reading in negative Fahrenheit. Luckily for my friend and I, the temperatures on the day of our hike broke 10 degrees F, making for a relatively toasty day in an abysmally cold winter. We set out from Fredericksburg west on Route 3, stopping at a Sheetz along the way for lunch, a variety of unhealthy snacks, and barely edible hot chocolate. At Culpeper, we followed US 522 to the north and west, passing through Culpeper's revitalized downtown before the Piedmont hill drive that brought us to Sperryville. At Sperryville, we turned left onto US 211 west, following US 211 past the Shenandoah National Park boundary sign. Instead of driving up to Skyline Drive, we drove briefly uphill to a wide left bend in the road with a gravel parking area on the southern (eastbound) side of the road. We pulled into unmarked parking lot and then walked across US 211 to the concrete post marking the lower trailhead for the Pass Mountain Trail. As this trailhead is not on Skyline Drive, it's typically possible to access this hike even if Skyline Drive is closed due to snow.

We started up the Pass Mountain Trail, following the slightly-packed snow of the path through the snow-coated hardwood forest. Near the trailhead, we immediately spotted signs of the park's past, noticing a stone fence built by the mountain settlers who lived in the Blue Ridge until the park's establishment during the Great Depression.

Stone fence built by the former residents of the mountains
The wide trail climbed steadily through the snowy forest, making two switchbacks as it approached a saddle between Oventop and Pass Mountain. The trail had at some point almost certainly been a road, likely built by the mountain settlers to access their homes in the hollows; at one point, up to 10,000 settlers of European descent had lived in the Blue Ridge in what is now the park, building farms, homes, schoolhouses, living off mining, logging, and farming.

Pass Mountain Trail in the snow
At 0.6 miles from the trailhead and after about 400 feet of elevation gain, the trail came to the saddle. Old maps mark a four way intersection here, where no true intersection exists any more: now, the saddle simply marks a turn in the Pass Mountain Trail, which heads west and continues towards the AT and Skyline Drive. The footprints of hikers who had arrived before us all veered off to the left, heading up the Pass Mountain Drive. However, it wasn't hard for us to spot the other two trails that once led out from the saddle. One former trail led downhill, a continuation of the old road we had hiked in on that descended to the north into Thornton Hollow. The other trail, which was faint and unbroken in the snow, led directly uphill to the east along the ridge of Oventop.

The unbroken trail up Oventop
From here on, the hike was a bushwhack to the summit of Oventop. Following the trail trace, we began to work our way up the ridge of Oventop. While the trail may be difficult to find for those lacking extensive off-trail travel, habitual bushwhack enthusiasts will find this to be a relatively easy route. Undergrowth on Oventop was not excessively dense, which allowed us to make fast progress along the ridge.

A dicier stretch of trail
In sections, the trail had become overgrown or obscured, either covered in vegetation or lost completely in groves of mountain laurel. Deadfall was common and footing was uneven since we weren't hiking on a trail. In spots where we lost the trail, we generally stuck to following the ridge, though at one point the trail itself circled to the south side of the ridge before climbing towards the summit. The climb was steady and the summit of Oventop was over 600 feet above the saddle.

We saw many wildlife tracks in the fresh snow, including sets of paw prints that paced both directions on many fallen logs. We weren't able to identify the species identification of the previous hiker on Oventop, though our guess was that it had been a bobcat or a fox.

Animal prints- a bobcat or a fox?
At the true summit of Oventop, we passed a jumble of large boulders, exposing the granite bones of the mountain. Although this was the high point of the ridge, there were only partial views through the trees of the surroundings, so we continued onwards along the ridge towards the south-facing rock slabs, which were on the east end of the main summit.

Rock outcrops at the summit of Oventop
The ridge became substantially rockier as we approached the slabs, forcing us to stick to the south side of the ridge and work through thickets of mountain laurel. Soon, we caught sight of the granite slabs just downhill of where we stood on the ridge and we made our way down a small gully to the rocks themselves, doing a bit of scrambling along the way. Once out on the slabs, we had a wide and rarely-enjoyed view of Mary's Rock, the Pinnacle, and Hazel Mountain. Snow on the ground accentuated the layered ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Marys Rock, the Pinnacle, and Buck Hollow from Oventop
The slabs also offered a sweeping view of the Piedmont. We could see portions of Sperryville at the foot of Oventop, US 211 running below us towards Thornton Gap, and the rolling hills of the Piedmont. Notable features included the Southwest Mountains on the horizon, which run just northeast of Charlottesville, and Thoroughfare Mountain in Madison County. We enjoyed the views for a while until the cold forced us to start moving again.

View into the Piedmont from Oventop
Before heading back, we explored a bit more of the ridgeline area near the granite slabs. We found one decent north-facing viewpoint outcrop from which we could see down in Thornton Hollow and across to Pignut, Hogsback, the Marshalls, and the Peak. Looking out into the Piedmont in this direction, we spotted the Bull Run Mountains out by Haymarket in the distance.

Hogback, Mount Marshall, and the Peak
There were a number of other outcrops near the summit that would probably have been accessible by scrambling in less slippery conditions, but we chose to play it safe considering that we were off trail with snow on the ground. If you hike here in dry conditions, it may be possible to find a few more nice viewpoints. Additionally, the route continues along Oventop's ridge to its lower two summits; the last summit has a sharp rock outcrop that is visible from Skyline Drive that is also likely to have decent views. On a sub-freezing day, we chose not to continue to the end of the ridge, but there's plenty of exploring that one can do on Oventop and plenty of forgotten but beautiful views that few Shenandoah visitors see today.

2 comments:

  1. One of our favorite hikes,in late 70s and early 80s quick to reach from Alexandria for an overnite. We had a camping spot near the "slabs".
    Now I live at the base of Oventop--awesome

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    1. I'm glad you got to enjoy this awesome mountain! While it's a shame the trail is no longer maintained, in a way it's nice to be able to find peace and quiet here when many of the other summits near Thornton Gap are so busy with hikers.

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