Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Waiting for Spring: Two sections of the Pennsylvania Appalachian Trail

This post will be a double hike bonus post: We have managed to hike both of the past two weekends, but I started a new job last week, so I didn't get a post up about the first one.

Two weekends ago, we went out with two friends and hiked a new (to us) section of the Pennsylvania Appalachian Trail (AT) from Shippensburg Pike to Pine Grove Furnace, with a side trip to Sunset Rocks. We were very lucky with the weather, considering how cold it has been. It was bright and sunny and probably in the 50s with little wind. This winter, that qualifies as a super warm day.

 Tom's Run Shelter. This was near the halfway point of our hike and it was where we had lunch. Pro tip: Make sure you put the memory card in the camera. I took some pictures on the first half of the hike, but the camera didn't have a card in it. Oh well. Anyway, it turns out that there used to be two shelters here, which we've seen elsewhere in Pennsylvania (sometimes one is labeled "snoring" and the other "non-snoring"). One of them was apparently burned down in 2013 by a careless hiker.
 Daffodils popping up near the shelter.
 An old chimney at the shelter.
 Just north of the shelter is the halfway point of the Appalachian Trail.
 We took a side trip up to Sunset rocks. It was a steep climb followed by a really pretty little scramble through some rocks and pine trees.
 Michael out on Sunset Rocks.
 Fold lines on a boulder
 Ferns on the rocks.
At the end of our trip, we visited the Appalachian Trail Museum. The building is an old grist mill in Pine Grove Furnace State Park. The museum opened just a few years ago, but it has a nice little exhibit on the AT. One kind of cool thing: They have a sign from the summit of Katahdin in Maine, which is the end of the trail. It turns out that it is the sign that was on the summit when we hiked it in 2009. It was replaced in 2010.

This was a really nice, interesting hike and was about 11 miles, total. We saw a few people near Sunset Rocks, but not very many and the weather was just great.

Sunday, we returned to Pine Grove Furnace State Park with two friends and hiked the next section of the AT north to the parking area just north of highway 94 for a total of 11 miles. The hike started with a short walk on a gravel bike path along a really pretty spring. The weather was much colder than last week. The highs only reached the low 40s and it was pretty windy, which made it feel colder.
 Rocks along one section of the trail. This is as close as we got to any views on this hike.
 Lichens on rocks.
 One of our friends standing near a coal pit. There were a number of these of varying depths along the trail.
 A pretty stream near James Frye Shelter.
 This was a really interesting tree: a Winged Elm (Ulmus alata). If you click to enlarge, you can see way the bark stands out away from the branches in wings. I have no idea what kind of tree it is. Michael figured out what kind of tree it is.
 Our first true wildflower of the season: Simplocarpus foetidus (Skunk Cabbage).
 The trail along an old railroad grade.
Right at the end of the hike, near a road, we found another wildflower: Claytonia virginica (Spring Beauty).

This wasn't a bad hike at all, but it is probably one I don't need to repeat unless it is part of a longer trip. It is a fairly unremarkable walk through the woods.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Dolly Sods: Snowshoeing to Bear Rocks

It snowed here last week. It snowed a lot up in the mountains. Given that we hadn't seen enough snow in the last two years to use our snowshoes, we couldn't resist a day trip up to Dolly Sods. Usually, when we go up there, we hike in from the west side, near Timberline Ski Area. This time, I wanted to try something different: hiking to Bear Rocks on the east side of Dolly Sods. It is an extremely popular area in the summer, but winter is a different matter. Access to the east side of the wilderness in winter is challenging: the US Forest Service gates the road three miles below the boundary of Dolly Sods. You can park at the gate as long as you don't block the gate.

The drive up to the gate got interesting once we passed the last driveway. It isn't plowed. All wheel drive or four-while drive is definitely advised. Once parked, we headed up the hill. At first, there wasn't much snow and I was worried we had driven all this way only to get skunked. But, I needn't have worried. Soon enough, the snow was deep enough for snowshoes. We passed one party on their way down. They had spent a long, cold night out and hadn't made it to Bear Rocks. Once we passed their campsite, we were breaking fresh trail. The hike up the road was uneventful. It is just three miles of steady climbing, none of it terrible. We made it to the boundary of Dolly Sods in time for lunch.

After lunch, we set off exploring Bear Rocks and snowshoeing down the road. It was spectacularly beautiful up there and amazingly quiet. I never realize how much background noise we all live with every day until it is absent. The only sound was the wind, which was mercifully light by Dolly Sods standards. The sun was warm and it was a perfect winter day.

 The road up to Dolly Sods
 The boundary of Dolly Sods
 Rabbit tracks in the snow
 A turkey track
 Snowshoes!
 A bobcat track.
 Michael at Bear Rocks
 Looking east from Bear Rocks towards North Fork Mountain. By the time we reached this point, the sky had become a bit hazy.
 Another view from Bear Rocks.
 Icicles on a conifer
 Remnants of snow on a conifer
 Looking west into the wilderness area.
Michael snowshoeing down the road.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Stricklers Knob

Saturday, Michael and I finally got out after what seemed like months of rain only on the weekends (ok, maybe a month of rainy weekends). I don't mind hiking in the rain in the summer, but I'm not a big fan of cold rain. We intended to do the Stricklers Knob-Duncan Knob loop, which is about 10 miles. Michael had never done it before and it has been a number of years since I've been on those trails. We arrived to find the road gated about three miles before the Scothorn trailhead. We talked for a few minutes about driving to Kennedy Peak, but we weren't really interested in spending more time in the car. After consulting the map, we could walk up the road 3/4 of a mile and pick up the Massanutten Trail. From there, we would be able to hike to Stricklers Knob. Once there, we could decide whether to return the way we came or hike straight down the mountain and walk back on the road.
 The trail started out with a pretty walk along the ridgetop. Once we turned a corner, we could see Strickler's Knob and it was right there across the hollow beside us below. Unfortunately, we had to descend very steeply all the way down to the bottom of that valley and then hike back up it before we would get there. All the way down into the valley we listened to someone's hunting dogs baying.
 A campsite on the Massanutten Trail at the bottom of the valley.
Four miles later, we made it to Scothorn Gap and were well on our way to Stricklers Knob. The trail passes through a fire scar.
 The trail out to Stricklers Knob turns into a rock scramble for the last two hundred yards or so. A pair of black vultures were fairly annoyed to be disturbed by us. They would flap their wings and fly a few yards away, only to land directly in the next spot we were hiking to.
 A closer view of one of the vultures (I have a decent zoom lens). They finally flew off and we proceeded out to the knob.
 The view east from Stricklers Knob.
 There is another cliff just northeast of Stricklers Knob that actually has a bit better view. I took this panorama from there. That is the Shenandoah River in middle of the photo.
 The cairn marking the path out to Stricklers Knob. At this point, we decided we didn't need to see the bottom of that valley again, so we hiked down the Scothorn Gap Trail to the road.
 We had a pleasant three mile road walk back  to the car.

The temperature was nearly 50 degrees, which was a nice change from our string of rainy, cold weekends.


Thursday, February 1, 2018

Wildlife in Yellowstone

We spent last week in Yellowstone National Park. This wasn't our typical trip. There was some minimal hiking, but otherwise, it was mostly riding in vans, looking for wildlife, and watching said wildlife in scopes. It was an amazing trip. When we visited Yellowstone in 2015, we did a one-day guided wildlife watching trip with a company called The Wild Side Wolf Tours (we paid for our trip). We had a great time and learned a lot from our guide, but it was August, which is not the best time to see wolves or grizzly bears. We saw other animals, but our guide said we really needed to come back in winter for a week-long tour. So, last week, we did and he was completely right.

We had ten people plus our guides, which was a good number (and it was a good group!). We spent our days in the park and there were fascinating talks in the evenings after dinner. The tour itself was three days, but another guest asked if Michael and I wanted to go in with her on an additional day. We decided that spending more time in the park was preferable to spending that time in Bozeman. Don't get me wrong, Bozeman is a lovely town, but I am always going to choose to spend time in the great outdoors vs. spending time in town.

All said and done, we saw about a dozen individual wolves from three different packs (Junction Butte, Lamar Valley, and the 8 Mile Subgroup) on three out of four days. On two of the days, we saw wolf tracks and spots where they had marked their territory on the side of the road. On our last day, we were able to follow their tracks up over ridges with the scopes, but we never actually spotted any of the animals. We also saw, over the course of the week: bighorn sheep, lots of bison, moose, elk, pronghorn antelope, mule, deer, bald eagles, golden eagles, mountain goats, coyotes, pine martens, and foxes.

Michael and I spent couple of days in Bozeman before meeting our group and going to Yellowstone. The first afternoon in the park, the group took a quick trip to Mammoth Hot Springs. It was really neat to see it in the snow and without millions of our closest friends.
One of the terraces above Canary Spring.
Looking north towards Mammoth.
Green terraces on one of the lower springs. That really is the color!

The next three days, we started our morning at 5:45 at a little restaurant near our hotel. By 6:30 a.m., we were all in the vans, headed for the Lamar Valley to see if we could find wolves.
The temperatures never made it much above 20 degrees all week. On our first day in Lamar Valley, they struggled to get out of negative numbers. The picture above is the temperature at 8:15 a.m.

What follows is wildlife and scenery pictures from four days in Lamar Valley.
 Sunrise from the Lamar Valley.
 A bison cow near where we were watching wolves.
Setting up scopes to watch the Junction Butte Pack of wolves feeding on a carcass.
On our first day in the valley, we did a short hike from Yellowstone Picnic Area up onto a ridge above the Lamar River Narrows. We had a great view from the top of the ridge and there were animal tracks everywhere.
 Looking out over the Lamar River.
 Mountain Lion tracks. I should have put something in the photo for scale. The track itself is about the size of my palm.
 A thermal area on the Lamar River.
 A collared bison cow.
One night we walked around the town of Gardiner, which is where we were staying. We came across two young elk sparring and pushing each other around. They didn't pay much attention to us, but every now and then, they would stop and watch traffic on the main road.
There really are wolves in this picture! Four of them! Our third day, we got to see the Junction Butte Pack again. This was the closest we ever got to them. The view through the scopes was pretty good, though. They were a lot closer than our earlier sighting and they were playing in the snow.  We were able to observe them for close to an hour (maybe? It seemed like a long time). One nice thing about The Wild Side: They had enough scopes for everyone, so we all got to spend as much time as we wanted watching the wolves without worrying that others weren't getting an opportunity to watch the animals. Not every company does that.
 Bighorn Sheep working it for the camera. We had a theory
 Another view of a very photogenic Bighorn Sheep.
 The Lamar River on a gray morning.
 On our last official day with the whole group, we got to do a short walk up Pebble Creek Canyon. So pretty!
 Another view of the canyon.
 Pebble Creek under a lot of snow.
Pine Martens! These guys are members of the weasel family and they move fast (which is why it isn't the sharpest picture)
We saw a number of coyotes on the trip. There is actually one in this photo. It blends into the sagebrush really well. See if you can find it.
On our last day in Montana, we drove around the valley around Bozeman as much as our little two-wheel drive rental car would allow. This farm was in the hills near Bridger Bowl Ski Area.