Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Mount Rogers Backpacking: Views, Ponies, and Crowds

We spent the long weekend backpacking with two friends along the Appalachian Trail in the Mount Rogers area. After the long drive (Virginia is a big state, in case anyone was wondering) and setting up the car shuttle on Friday, we set off from Beartree Lake Campground. It was actually a little chilly when we left, but we quickly warmed up as we walked. Our destination for the night was Lost Mountain Shelter on the Appalachian Trail. We made good time, covering 4.5 miles in just about two hours. The shelter looked nice and no one else was there. We contemplated sleeping in it for a minute or two, but then we discovered lots of evidence of mouse activity and went off to set up our tents.

We spent a pleasant night there and woke up to a bright morning. After breakfast, our hike started with an encounter with some disgruntled yellowjackets. Their nest was right in the side of the trail and they were none too happy with our presence. I got stung once and Michael was stung three times. After that, we had a five mile climb that took the rest of the morning. Eventually, we reached Buzzard Rock, where we stopped for lunch. This spot was the first indication that where we were hiking had more in common with Old Rag than with the solitude we experienced at Roaring Plains two weeks ago. Buzzard Rock sits in an open bald below the summit of Whitetop Mountain and it has great views of the surrounding mountains. Buzzard Rock is also close to a road, so we shared our lunch spot with a fair number of people. At this point, one of our friends started counting people and dogs. Before we lost count near the end of the day, we were well over 50 people (and seven dogs) and there were likely a couple of hundred more where we wound up camping (more on that in a bit).

The walk from Buzzard Rock to the Mount Rogers spur trail was beautiful. We periodically passed through balds where we had spectacular views. Then the trail would take us back into the forest, which was nice and cool in contrast to the (relatively) hot sun on the balds. Towards the end of the day, we started looking for campsites, based on the advice of people we had passed. We finally found one just before the Mount Rogers spur trail, but it wasn't very nice: not very flat and not really enough room for two tents. It was also dark since it was under pine trees. I went with one of our friends to look for a better one while Michael and our other friend held it just in case. Nothing prepared me for the number of people camped just north of the spur trail. It was amazing. Pretty much every square of flat ground not covered in blackberries or fir trees had at least one tent on it. There is a shelter up there, too, but we were trying to avoid it because of mouse issues.

We were discussing the No Room at the Inn situation when two guys with a great campsite offered to share. After a bit of discussion, we decided to take them up on the offer. Our campsite wasn't going to be pleasant and they seemed like nice guys. The site was a little bit too small for two additional tents, so we laid out tarps and sleeping bags to sleep under the stars. Our campsite hosts were great company for the night. We shared cookies and hot chocolate to thank them for making room for us. We were treated to a great sunset and the stars (at ~5,300 feet) were amazing that night. We even saw a few shooting stars.
 Helenium autumnale (Sneezeweed).
Rhododendrons along the trail.
 The view from Buzzard Rock.
 Standing on one of the boulders at Buzzard Rock.
Epifagus virginiana (Beechdrops). We saw this little plant a lot along the trail. It is a parasite that feeds on Beech tree roots.
Thistle plant in a pasture at Elk Gardens
The trail between Buzzard Rock and Mount Rogers
Sunset from our campsite.

We woke up to a nice sunset in the morning. Everything was damp from fog that rolled through during the night, so we ate breakfast and hung gear up to dry. We left it there while we hiked up to the summit of Mount Rogers, which is the highest point in Virginia at 5,728 feet. There isn't a view at the summit, but it is a nice walk through a remnant grove of firs.

We returned to our campsite, packed up, and continued our journey north. The landscape was actually more incredible than the day before - wide open and filled with large rock formations. It was also filled with a steady stream of backpackers and dayhikers headed for the summit. Eventually, we saw the famous Grayson Highlands ponies. They are pretty cute. It is sort of interesting: The area was heavily logged and then heavily grazed. After it became a state park, ponies were released to maintain the balds. The balds are beautiful and allow for great views and they are entirely human-created.

The crowds were pretty overwhelming at this point, so it was a relief to pass a trail junction leading to a nearby parking lot. After that, we saw many fewer people, although we still passed groups of backpackers every five to ten minutes. We took a lunch break near a pleasant stream. The area near the Scales (a place that ranchers used to bring their cattle to have them weighed) was another open bald with a great view of Mount Rogers and the ridge we had walked down that day. We spent the night near Old Orchard Shelter.
 Sleeping under the stars.
Sunrise at our campsite. I will never get tired of being up on mountains looking down on clouds below.
The benchmark on top of Mount Rogers.
Michael on the trail in Grayson Highlands. This area was amazing.
 Sneezeweed in Grayson Highlands.
 I put this one in just to show the crowds around the ponies.
One of the more charismatic ponies in Grayson Highlands.
 Michael and a pony passing each other on the trail.
Michael crossing a style over a fence.
A somewhat skinny cow at the Scales.

Monday morning, we hiked a quick four miles to the car before driving home. This was a great trip. I'm so glad we made the long drive and I would love to get back down there to explore more of the area, especially in the state park. However, I probably won't do that on a holiday weekend again because of the crowds. I'm glad we went, though. The scenery was amazing and we got to share a campsite with two great guys from Lynchburg, Virginia.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Roaring Plains, or We Actually Went Backpacking

We went out to Roaring Plains with a couple of friends two weekends ago. The weather forecast, honestly, wasn't great. There were significant chances for showers both days, so I wasn't sure how it was going to go. Our itinerary was a little up in the air depended on how fast we were able to hike. I was hoping to explore a little bit more than the area where we've been up there. We were also hoping for blueberries. Neither of those things happened, but we still had a really nice trip.

Saturday, we really won the weather lottery. There were scattered clouds and a couple of times it looked like some of them might organized themselves into something more assertive, but it never happened. The temperature was nice and it was mostly sunny. Flowers were blooming everywhere in the bogs and meadows in an end-of-summer bonanza. We did find some blueberries, but only just enough for our morning oatmeal. Many of the blueberries we found were well past their prime. We made pretty good time to the gas line cut. From there the trail (which it technically is, but calling it that is...generous) gets more challenging to follow. When we did this trip two years ago, it took all four of us and two dogs paying attention to keep to the route. It was no different this time, although we only had one dog. Late in the afternoon, we picked a wonderful campsite right on the rim of the plateau with a great view of North Fork Mountain and Seneca Rocks to the southeast.
The path across one of the heath balds. The low shrubs are almost all blueberries.
 Picking blueberries.
The gas line cut through the area. After this the trail gets much more challenging.
Rudebeckia laciniata (Cut-Leaf Coneflower)
 The view from the promontory aptly named, "The Point"
 The same overlook.
 The view from our campsite.
Sunset from our campsite.

Clouds rolled in overnight and we woke up to overcast skies and high winds. The rain held off long enough for us to eat breakfast, but not long enough for us to keep the tent dry while we packed up. We debated which way to go: to continue on the loop or to turn back the way we came. As we were discussing it, the clouds lifted and we spotted some blue sky. We continued on the loop. The section of this trail (again, a term used generously here) between our campsite and where it meets up with the Roaring Plains Trail is probably one of the most rugged trails I've hiked in the mid-Atlantic. Even having hiked this before, we really had to pay attention to stay on the route. Even so, we had to backtrack several times to get back on the right path. By the time we reached the long boulder field that the trail descends, the wind had mostly dried the rocks, which made that section easier. The weather held exactly as long as we needed it to: As soon as we made it to the bottom of the boulder field, it started raining lightly again. We finally made it to the junction with the Roaring Plains Trial just before noon: three hours to go a little over two miles.

We caught another break in the rain for lunch at a nice campsite at the junction. As soon as we began packing up, the rain started again and, this time, with purpose. We took a right on the well-maintained Roaring Plains Trail and our pace tripled. Soon enough, we reached the forest road that we had to hike for a couple of miles back to the car.

It was a great trip. This is one of my favorite areas to hike. I want to get back up there again and do more exploring. I sort of assumed that, since we had hiked the rough section two years ago, that we would move faster on it this time, which was wrong. It is just a hard, slow section of trail to navigate. Lesson learned and we'll do a different route next time if I want to see a different part of the plateau. Another bonus: We didn't see a single other person the entire weekend.
Waking up to gray skies.
Overcast, slightly dreary view before breakfast.
 After the first rain shower moved through, fog rose from the creeks in the valleys.
 Contemplating the boulder field.
 Platanthera ciliaris (Yellow Fringed Orchid). One of the more interesting plants in this area.
Gentiana linearis (Narrow-leaved Gentian). These beautiful little flowers were going off everywhere.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Blue Ridge Ramble, Part Four: Roanoke, VA to Front Royal, VA

Day 11: Roanoke to Peaks of Otter, Virginia. Our day started with the first law of cycling: What goes down must come up. We had descended six miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway to our hotel. In the morning, that meant climbing back up all of that elevation we lost the night before. We spent an hour just getting back to the point where we could continue north. We left early, so at least it was relatively cool.

This was a short, pretty day of riding, which worked out well after the hard ride the previous day. After ten miles or so of pleasant, flat riding in the valley, we began the long climb up to Peaks of Otter. We were back in the mountains, it was cooler, and there was almost no traffic. We couldn't ask for better riding. We pulled into the camp store at Peaks of Otter. Our intent was to get ice cream and cold drinks before heading to the campground. Then the woman working there mentioned a coffee shop in the lodge, so we headed over there. The lodge was nice. And it is right on the lake. And thunderstorms were in the forecast. It didn't take long before I was checking on the availability and price of rooms. We never did make it to the campground! After checking in and unpacking, we went up to the bar to play cards. Michael wound up fixing the bartender's stereo, which earned him a free drink.
A bee on Daucus carota (Queen Anne's Lace)
Passing under one of the stone bridges north of Roanoke.
This was probably my favorite part of the ride that day. There aren't many sections of the parkway where you get views on both sides. The road through here was on top of the ridge, which gave me the feeling of riding on top of the world.
 A Monarch Butterfly on Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed)
Our first view of Peaks of Otter
Sunset at Peaks of Otter

Day 12: Peaks of Otter to Otter Creek Campground. We took our time getting out of the lodge in the morning because this was going to be another short day. We had to climb up over Apple Orchard Mountain, which is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and then descend to the lowest point on the Parkway at the James River. We sort of expected the climb to be tough. Even though we had climbed halfway up it the day before, we still had seven miles to go. It turned out to be an entirely reasonable climb. Then we had a screaming 13 mile descent to the river. It seemed to go on forever, curving back and forth - so much fun. We actually saw a number of cyclists climbing it southbound. We took a long break at the James River Visitor Center for lunch before heading to Otter Creek Campground for the night.

Otter Creek Campground was almost deserted, but it was a nice, quiet place to stay for the night. It has a really abandoned feel. It used to have a restaurant and store, both of which are closed now due to budget cuts. The shuttered building sits on the parkway, the sidewalks covered in moss. There were only a couple of other parties in the campground (it was a weekday) and most of the parking places for the campsites were also covered in moss. The woman working in the office gave us freezie pops, which was pretty nice. That night storms blew through and it rained hard. Hard enough that we were getting ground splatter under the tent fly. We also discovered that our tent fly leaks in a few places. No one got a good night's rest that night.
 Getting ready to leave Peaks of Otter Lodge.
 Clematis viorna (Leatherflower) at the top of Apple Orchard Mountain.
 Looking northwest from the parkway.
 The James River
Our campsite at Otter Creek.
Otter Creek

Day 13: Otter Creek Campground to Waynesboro, Virgina. At 60 miles, this was another long day of riding with a fair amount of climbing. Until the last few miles, it was also one of the quietest. We sometimes rode for 45 minutes without seeing a car. This section of the parkway was my favorite in Virginia. The mountains are spectacular and I have hiked the Appalachian Trail along a large portion of this stretch. The heat wave abated a bit and we had some cloud cover, which was a nice change from the heat earlier in the week. We stopped for lunch at the Whetstone Ridge ranger station. The came out for a while, so we pulled out all of our wet camping gear and dried it out on the lawn. It looked like an outdoor gear store had exploded.

We made it to the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway late in the afternoon and took a few celebratory pictures before heading down highway 250 to our hotel.
Oak trees along the Blue Ridge Parkway near US 60.
Our bikes taking a break at Whetsone Ridge ranger station.
 Drying out gear in the sun.
The Tye River Valley between Three Ridges and The Priest (on the right). This was probably my favorite view in Virginia. I've hiked the mountains in the photo above and it is such a beautiful area. I've driven through here, but we didn't stop and I didn't really notice this particular view. Traveling by bicycle gives you the opportunity to see things at a different speed.
 Raven Rock Overlook.
 A cycling shoe shot at Raven Rock Overlook.
 Michael and I at mile 0 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Days 14 & 15: Shenandoah National Park. We were in familiar territory now and it felt a bit like coming home. We bike the north district of Skyline Drive all the time. We've done all 105 miles of Skyline Drive in one day. Of course, that was on light road bikes, not on loaded touring bikes. Heading north from Rockfish Gap, the climbing got a little easier, even though there was still plenty of it. North of Swift Run Gap, traffic increased and so did the number of impatient drivers. Pulling into the Big Meadows Wayside, the sheer number of people was overwhelming and the store felt like a madhouse after so much time further south. We camped at Big Meadows Campground. Just as we were getting ready to make dinner, a thunderstorm rolled in. We waited it out and were rewarded with a beautiful rainbow.

The next day was really a ride home. We headed north, stopping for espresso at Skyland and then lunch at Elkwallow Wayside. Heading north from Elkwallow was the last long climb of the trip: three miles up to the top of Hogback Mountain. At that point, there are only five miles of the remaining 21 that are uphill. We had done it. Michael and I took our time with the rest of the ride because vacation would be over once we rode through the north gate of the park.
 The sign on the bridge between the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive.
 Our bikes at one of the overlooks in the South District of Shenandoah National Park.
 We were riding a section of the road that is paralleled by the Appalachian Trail. I heard a hike shout, "Bear!" We stopped at the overlook just past that point and were lucky enough to see this guy in the woods.
 The rainbow after the storm at Big Meadows campground.
 Clouds in the valley west of the park.
Flowers in front of Old Rag Mountain at Pinnacles Overlook.
Finished! The final six mile descent was pretty incredible feeling.
630 miles!

Final thoughts: We could not have done this without the support of our friends. Many thanks to Anne for driving our car back from North Carolina and then, with Andy and Sandy, picking us up in Front Royal; to Tonya for bringing us our re-supply box, to Chad for running me around the city of Roanoke in search of a bike shop; and to Becky and Dale for feeding us after a hard day's ride.

We've taken a lot of amazing trips and this ranks up with the best of them. We trained hard for six months leading up to it and it paid off in a big way. We had a good dose of luck, too, in not having even so much as a flat tire.

I was impressed by how varied the scenery and terrain were along the way. I kind of expected that ahead of time, but watching the landscape slowly change as you pedal through it is pretty cool. I was also impressed by how considerate drivers were. Over the course of 630 miles, I can only think of a few cases of bad behavior. That's pretty good.

We made some really good decisions in planning this trip that made it a lot better. We kept all of our days under 66 miles. I can easily do a 100 mile day on my light road bike. A 60 mile day on a fully loaded bike in the mountains is a long day. We were tempted in early stages of the planning to put a longer day in there. I'm very glad we didn't. I am also glad we opted to do shorter days in North Carolina so we could see more. It was such a spectacular part of the ride.

My favorite day: Asheville to Mount Mitchell. It was so pretty and such a challenging, rewarding ride.

Michael's favorite day: Peaks of Otter to Otter Creek Campground because of the nice scenery, the long descent, and the nice campground.

My least favorite day: The day we rode into Roanoke. So hot. So very hot. And long. Did I mention hot?

Michael said he didn't have a least favorite day. He felt like all of his riding days were pretty good.

I could really get into this bike touring thing. I'm already thinking about what our next tour might be.