Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Dolly Sods 2018: Braving the Cold

We spent the weekend on our annual trip to the Canaan Valley. We rent a cabin very large house near one of the ski areas with a number of friends. We spend the days hiking and playing outside and the evenings eating too much, playing board games, and working on puzzles. I always look forward to the trip and the time spent with friends. This year, it was 65 degrees and raining when we arrived in Davis. Two days earlier, there was over a foot of snow up on the plateau, but two days of rain washed it all away. By Saturday morning, the temperature had dropped more than 50 degrees and a couple of inches of snow fell in the last few hours of the storm.

Saturday, we hiked up to the top of the plateau and in to Dolly Sods. It was ten degrees and the winds were blowing at 40 mph. It was also still snowing lightly. 
 Dolly Sods in a rare moment of sun on Saturday. It was not remotely warm. Any time we were exposed on the ridge, we were getting blown around pretty badly. Given the combination of wind speed and temperature, we were pretty cold.
 Rocks on the west side of Dolly Sods.
 Michael and our friends hiking in the snow and wind.
The ice-covered trail. Because of the rain the day before, a lot of the trail was covered in water. Even though it was well below freezing, it hadn't had time to freeze yet.

Sunday, we woke up to this:
That motivated no one to head outside right away. However, almost as important as the temperature number is the wind speed on the lower right: 0 mph. That is a rare, rare thing in the West Virginia Highlands.
While we were eating breakfast, we noticed that, because it was so cold, moisture was crystallizing out of the air and floating around in the sun like glitter. You can just see it in the top center of the photo above. It was magical and fascinating to watch.
Another view of the "glitter" and the hoar frost on the ridge behind the house.

Michael and I drove up to a parking area near the top of the ridge and hiked from there to the Forks of Red Creek. We figured that, with all the rain a couple of days before, Red Creek would be running high and the waterfalls would be pretty impressive. Even though it was five degrees when we started, which was colder than the day before, it was so much more pleasant. There was no wind, which never happens in Dolly Sods and it was bright and sunny.
 Hiking south along the Valley View Trail.
 Ice feathers on the trail.
 Hoar frost on a tree.
 Looking back north towards where we started.
 A wild turkey track in the snow.
I mentioned that, the day before, water covered the trail in many places. By Sunday morning, it was almost all frozen. In this case, the trail was basically an ice rink. We had microspikes on, but the ice was hard enough that they wouldn't dig in very well, so it was still pretty slow going.

The hike over Breathed Mountain was really pleasant. There are a couple of ways to get to the Forks of Red Creek, but Breathed Mountain is the only one that doesn't involve a major stream crossing. We saw seven (!) backpackers in two separate groups hiking the other direction. They had all started on Friday night in all the rain. One of them said his tent poles froze together after the temperature dropped Saturday morning.
 Fresh bobcat tracks on Breathed Mountain.
 The Left Fork of Red Creek
 Icicles on Red Creek.
 A cairn marking the trail
 The waterfall at the Forks of Red Creek. This was as close as I could get. There was so much water in the creek and no way to cross the Left Fork, let alone the main stream. If you want to see a comparison, the photos on this post show what it looked like in the summer a few years ago.

After spending a few minutes at the falls, we turned around and headed back. We wanted to make sure we got to the car before dark and we definitely didn't want to worry anyone at the cabin. The temperature started dropping pretty quickly as the sun sank towards the horizon.
 The Valley View trail in the late afternoon sun.
Michael hiking towards the parking area.

All said and done, we hiked 8 miles and really enjoyed doing something a little different.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Little Devil's Staircase in a Cold Snap

Little Devils Staircase was the very first hike I did in Shenandoah National Park way back in 2005. It seemed like a pretty big, steep hike at the time, even though we only did the shorter loop that day. I've hiked it several times since then, but oddly, not since 2010. We snowshoed it that year after snowmaggedon. It is a great hike up a narrow canyon filled with little waterfalls. We figured that, since we haven't warmed up to even freezing in the last two weeks, that all of those waterfalls would have nice ice formations.

Today, it was 10 degrees when we arrived at the trailhead. Fortunately, there wasn't any wind. One nice thing about starting at the bottom of the mountain at those temperatures is you get warmed up fairly quickly from the work of hiking uphill immediately.
 Leaves trapped in the ice on the frozen creek.
 One of the first waterfalls
 Ice near one of many places where the trail crosses the creek. A couple of the crossings involved shuffling across very slippery ice (The creek is generally not very deep).
 Ribbons of ice across a rock. These look a bit like snakeskins to me.
 Ice at the bottom of a waterfall.
 Fungi on a tree.
 The Little Devils Staircase trail ends at the Keyser Run Fire Road. We decided to hike up the fire road to Skyline Drive.
 Once at the drive, we walked a short distance down to the Mount Marshall Overlook and had a great view to the east. That is The Peak on the left side of the photo.
Looking up at the trees near the Bolen Cemetery on Keyser Run Fire Road.

It was a lovely hike. After not doing much hiking beyond volunteering on Old Rag in 2017, it felt really good to be out. We saw a grand total of three people on the trails. By the time we reached the car, it was a balmy 25 degrees.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Seventh Annual Hike Off the Pie: Camp Ridge, Shenandoah National Park

Last year, for Hike off the Pie, we had intended to bushwhack up to a mountain called Pinnacle Peak, descend the west side of it and then hike up to Skyline Drive and descend back down to the car via Camp Ridge and the Nicholson Hollow Trail. It didn't quite work out that way, so this year, we decided to do the Camp Ridge portion of that hike. Also, different than last year: this year's Hike Off the Pie was held on Saturday, which meant that Michael got to come along!

We arrived in the Old Rag parking lot at 9 a.m. and it was already nearly full. There were people everywhere, including a group of what must have been 30 people. We packed up, showed the rangers our park pass and made our way to the Nicholson Hollow trailhead. As soon as we turned off of the road, we left all of the crowds behind. We saw a couple of fishermen and one family in the first mile and they were the last people we saw until we were within a quarter mile of Skyline Drive. The hike up went smoothly. We had lunch near some ruins at the junction of the Nicholson Hollow Trail and the Corbin Cutoff trail. We took the latter up Skyline Drive and the walked on the drive for about a third of a mile to the spot where the Camp Ridge Trail once intersected Skyline Drive.

We think we found a few blazes, which got us started the right direction, or at least it was a happy coincidence. There was initially a footpath, but quickly lost it in a thicket of mountain laurel, so we generally made our way out to Camp Ridge using the map. As we were making our way along, Michael spotted the path again and this time, we were able to follow it all the way out to the end of the ridge. It wasn't an easy walk: the mountain laurel put up a good fight. I don't know when the Camp Ridge Trail was last maintained, but it is pretty grown over now. We had a snack at the summit of the little ridge. Then we started down the south side of the ridge, slowly making our way down the steep slope to the Hughes River. For the record, bushwhacking down a steep hill is much worse than going up it. We got very lucky and met the Hughes river at a spot without steep banks, so we didn't have to bushwhack downstream to cross. At that spot, the Nicholson Hollow Trail was right next to the river as well, so we didn't have to slog uphill to find it. On our way down, we were plotting our next bushwhacking adventure on a nearby ridge.

We made it to the road just as the last light faded and back to the car just after dark. It was a great day and the weather was amazing for November.

The ruin of an old cabin on Corbin Cutoff trail. Logs have been removed and this is mostly the second story.
 The wall of the cabin.
 A butterfly on a log. Like I said, it was incredible weather. Even at 2500 feet, it was probably close to 60 degrees.
 An old stone wall on the Corbin Cutoff Trail. If you look closely, you can see a tree growing on top of it near the center of the picture.
 Old Rag from Skyline Drive
 Michael on the old Camp Ridge Trail. This was some of the less dense mountain laurel that we had to push through. I have a love-hate relationship with mountain laurel. In May and June, when it blooms, it is beautiful. The rest of the year, I feel as though it is trying to kill me.
 Oak leaves.
 Fungus growing on a tree.
 The old trail through the mountain laurel
 Puttyroot orchid leaves. These little guys are interesting. They bloom in the summer, but they only put up leaves in the winter, when there isn't any tree canopy to block the light.
 I grabbed this branch for blance when we were descending off of the ridge. It turned out to be covered with tiny prickly things. I have no idea what the branch is or if the prickly spikes are thorns or some kind of parasite.
The final descent to the Hughes River. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Odds and Ends: Old Rag, A Perfect Day, and the National Arboretum

I'm catching up on the last few weeks:

We volunteered on Old Rag two weeks ago on a lovely (weather-wise) Saturday. It was absolute madness. We arrived at 9 a.m. and the parking lot was already full. There was a line of 12 or so cars waiting to turn into the parking lot. The neighbor was already charging people to park in her pasture and she had opened up a second pasture so even more people could give her cash hike Old Rag.  We spent an hour in the lot talking to people about the hike and handing out flyers to recruit for Old Rag Mountain Stewards. When we turned on the radios at 10 a.m., we found an incident had just started. We headed up the mountain, pushing past lines of people and spent the morning assisting a hiker who had taken an unfortunate fall. It was about as smooth of an evacuation as we could have asked for and we spent most of the rest of the day on the summit, talking to people as they passed through. In my haste in the morning, I forgot my camera, so all of these are taken with Michael's camera, which is a point and shoot.
The helicopter approaching.
 I already talked about the crowding. That was before we had to close the trail for almost an hour while we worked to evacuate the patient. If you click to enlarge, you'll see the crowd backed up just after we re-opened the trail.
 The spot near the summit where I always take a picture.
 Changing leaves in the valley.
 Looking south from the summit.

The following week, we were contacted by NPS staff about helicopter hoist training on that Friday. Did we want to attend? Of course! It wound up being an amazing day.

To make it to Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park by the training start time, we left the house at 5:15 in the morning and picked up another volunteer at the metro at 5:45 a.m. There was much grumbling all around, but then we got to see this nice sunrise:
 Looking east from Skyline Drive
 Old Rag on the right from Pinnacles Overlook on Skyline Drive
 Everyone taking pictures!
When we were almost to Big Meadows, we saw a mother bear and two cubs hunting for food near the road. This cub was nice enough to pose for us.
All three of the bears. The bears and the sunrise made us forget our unhappiness at having gotten up so early.

Then there was the training:
We spent most of the morning practicing attaching a litter to the hoist on the helicopter. Everyone had to wear fire-resistant clothing for the training.
Then, we got the chance to be hoisted up onto the helicopter while it was in the air, which was amazing. I am the person on the left in this picture. It wasn't actually all that high, but it was still pretty darn cool. Many thanks to the US Park Police and Shenandoah National Park staff for including us in the training.

Last weekend, the weather was kind of gross, so we went down to the National Arboretum.
 The bonsai exhibit is always fun to walk through. This time, there was a special exhibit of deciduous bonsai trees in the process of changing colors for fall.
 The old Capitol columns.
 The path in the native plants area.
Blue Bottle Gentian (Gentian andrewsii) - the last of the season's flowers.