Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Walking Across New Jersey: 78 Surprisingly Beautiful Miles

We spent last week section hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) in New Jersey. I'll give everyone a moment to complete their jokes about hiking up the Garden State Parkway or thru-hiking parking lots....Ok, all done now?

I sort of wondered what it was going to be like, too. We hiked a little bit of the NJ AT in April, when we took a friend out for his first backpacking trip. It was pretty, but it was such a short distance - just six miles and my vision of NJ is pretty urban. It turned out to be a great hike and well worth the trip.

After the April trip, the fourth person who was along said she was interested in doing the whole thing. She grew up in New Jersey and thought it would be cool to hike across the state. The AT in New Jersey is 72 miles. The first road crossing in New York is six miles into that state, so 78 miles total. An expedition was born.

We started in Pennsylvania at Delaware Water Gap and hiked north for eight days until we reached New York highway 17A. The hike began with crossing the I-80 bridge from Pennsylvania into NJ. There is something clarifying about having 18-wheelers going 70 mph four feet away, just on the other side of the jersey barrier. Fortunately, that section doesn't last too long. After crossing underneath the highway, we started climbing.
 The state line on the I-80 bridge
 Cold bumblebees on goldenrod at our first campsite.
Our first campsite in Delaware Water Gap. The first two days, in Delaware Water Gap, we hiked in the fog. I love hiking in fog. Forests are so pretty in the mist, but I would like to go back at some point to see the gorge. It rained the first night after we were already in our tents, but otherwise, we remained relatively dry.
 Hiking in the fog the second morning.
Sunfish Pond on the second day. While we were standing there taking pictures, the fog rolled in across the water, obscuring the shoreline.

While we were having breakfast on the third day, I looked up and realized that I could see blue sky: the fog was burning off. It took a little while, but soon enough, we were hiking in the sun. Around lunch time, we found a sunny spot to dry out all of the damp gear.
 The trail follows an old road for part of the way.
An old pond. We had lunch here and dried our gear on the rocks.
Looking into Pennsvylvania from Rattlesnake Mountain. Sun!
A bright orange shelf fungus on a downed log at the Brinks Road Shelter.

We took an easy day on the fourth day, hiking just six miles from Brinks Road Shelter to Gren Anderson Shelter. Along the way, we crossed a highway at Culver Gap. On our first day, a random hiker told us in passing that we should get make sure to get pie at the Culver Gap General Store. We were all looking forward to it. We got to the highway crossing there and there was a bar, a cafe that was closed, a service station with no convenience store and a hunting store. None of them sold pie or even a package of M&Ms. So, it was back into the woods for us for a dehydrated lunch.
Looking south back to where we had been hiking near Culver Gap. As we hiked north and as the week progressed, we saw more and more color in the trees.

On our fifth day, we started the harder portion of the trip. Due to the spacing of shelters, the next three days were each 13 miles. While that isn't far for a thru-hiker who has reached NJ, for the three of us who work office jobs, it is a long day's hike with a full pack. On the bright side, we had eaten half of our food by this point, so the packs were getting lighter.
 When we started hiking in the morning, fog filled the valleys.
 Someone took the time to carve the AT symbol and directions into a downed log.
A little group of mushrooms on a log.
High Point State Park. The obelisk it at the highest point in NJ. We didn't take the side trip up to the monument because we had been there in April.

That night was our coldest night on the trip. It got down to around 40. Not terribly cold, but definitely a sign that fall is advancing. The sixth day was really pretty and varied.
 Hiking through a young stand of trees in the morning.
The trail descends out of High Point State Park and then crosses farmland as it follows the NJ border southeast.
At lower elevations, we started crossing bogs on impressive networks of bog boards.
We took a side trip into Unionville, New York for lunch at Annabella's pizza. Well worth the extra mile of walking (round trip).
Late in the day, we had to walk around the Walkill National Wildlife Refuge (apparently, this is the only NWR that the AT crosses). Pochuck Mountain is in the background.
Ducks in the refuge
Cranes feeding in the wetlands.

After leaving the refuge, we had to climb up Pochuck Mountain to the shelter. Unfortunately, there isn't any water at the shelter. The official, NJ State Parks endorsed water source is a spigot at an abandoned house a half mile below the shelter. Fortunately, we had to pass the house before hiking up the mountain to the shelter. Southbound hikers aren't nearly so lucky. We spent a pleasant evening at the shelter, chatting with a southbound section hiker.

I felt like the seventh day was the toughest day. We had to cross several ridges, including hiking up Wayawanda Mountain. It was also one of my favorite days. Like the day before, we crossed another large swamp on the Pochuck Boardwalk. Then we climbed "the Rockpile" up Wayawanda Mountain. There were steps in some places, at least.
 The Pochuck Boardwalk. It is over a mile long and took seven years to build.
The bridge over Pochuck creek.
The view from the top of Wayawanda Mountain. We could see Delaware Water Gap and the monument at High Point State Park along with the trail through the valley. It was pretty neat to see the entire distance we had walked - over 60 miles- from one point.

Wayawanda Shelter also has no water. The official source there is the state park office, also a half mile from the shelter.

The last day, we woke up to gray skies, but no rain, which was an improvement over the forecast just a day or two before. We had four miles to go in New Jersey and then six in New York to the first road crossing. This day was spectacular.
 Wetlands at Long House Creek. We saw a couple of swans here, but they were too far away to get a good picture.
 At the NJ/NY state line.
 Once in New York, the trail went up and down over a series of slabs on the top of the ridge. Blazes were infrequent and we had to stop every now and then to make sure we were still on the right path.
Michael climbing a ladder up onto one of the slabs. The last couple of miles were an easy walk in the woods and we were all pretty happy to see the highway.

It was a great trip. New Jersey is spectacular and a seriously under-rated section of the Appalachian Trail. The little bit of New York that we did makes me want to section hike that state, too. Nearly everything went flawlessly, including the weather. Many, many thanks to our friend's mom, who drove us to the trailhead and picked us up eight days later.

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.