Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bear Tracks, Bobcat Tracks, and Snow!

A little bit of snow fell in the Washington, DC area last week, so we figured a little bit more must have fallen in the mountains.  With holiday baking to do, we did not want to drive a great distance to hike, but we wanted to get out yesterday.  A loop consisting of Buck Ridge, Mary's Rock, and Buck Hollow fit the bill.  As a bonus, with the exception of the Mary's Rock portion of the hike, solitude is pretty easy to come by on this hike and in winter, it is pretty much guaranteed.  We were not disappointed in that regard.

We arrived at the trailhead early and met a trailrunner who mentioned that we would see bear tracks on Buck Ridge.  After packing up, we headed up the trail.  The Thornton River was running a little high and the rocks were icy, but manageable.  The rocks in the river were covered with snow and impressive ice formations.  After a few hundred feet, we turned up the Buck Ridge trail and began the steep climb that the trail is known for.  The first mile of the Buck Ridge trail is one of the steeper climbs in the park.  It is a challenging hike when it is dry.  The two inches of snow on the ground made it more of a challenge yesterday.  The pain is over quickly, though.  After about twenty minutes, the trail gradient eases somewhat into a more reasonable climb towards Skyline Drive.

Shortly after we finished the steepest section, we saw our first bear tracks.  The bear that left them followed the trail for a few feet and then turned off into the brush.  As we climbed towards the drive, we must have seen seven or eight more sets of bear tracks, several of them very fresh.  When we've hiked Buck Ridge in the summer, it always feels like a good place for bears since the trail is lined with blueberry bushes in several places.  Apparently, the bears agree.  We also saw a few bobcat tracks.  One bobcat left a set of tracks about half a mile long in otherwise untracked snow on the trail, before it turned off into the brush.

We crossed Skyline Drive and began the steep climb up the Meadow Spring Trail to the Appalachian Trail.  We were the first hikers on Meadow Spring since the snow fell.  We ran into another set of interesting bear tracks about halfway to the Appalachian Trail.  A tree had fallen across the trail and was covered by a couple of inches of snow.  We noticed bear tracks on the ground near it.  We were startled to see that the bear had walked up to the tree, then climbed up on it, and crossed the trail on it, leaving tracks in the snow on the tree.

We ate a quick lunch at the junction with the Appalachian Trail and continued on to Mary's Rock.  Although it was overcast, there was a good view from Mary's Rock.  Since it was cold (but not windy, at least), we didn't linger long up before returning to Skyline Drive.  From there, we headed down the Buck Hollow Trail.  There were some impressive ice formations on the waterfalls along the trail.  There were also some impressive ice sheets on the trail.  We returned to the car, having done almost 9 miles in the snow.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

  The Thornton River.

Buck Ridge Trail.

Ferns in the snow on Buck Ridge (If anyone knows which kind these are, let me know).

Bear track on Buck Ridge.  My foot is in the picture for scale.

Another bear track, this one more recent than the one above.

The only tracks ahead of us on Buck Ridge were left by a bobcat.

A bobcat track and some bird tracks.

The bear tracks on a long on the Meadow Spring Trail.

Mary's Rock.  It was about noon when I took this picture, but the clouds partially obscured the sun, making it look much later.

Bootshot off of Mary's Rock.

Ice formations on a waterfall.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Winter: The Peak and Big Devil's Staircase

We had originally planned to do a long loop hike in the North District of Shenandoah National Park that would have started from Skyline Drive.  Hunting season threw a wrench into those plans as they close Skyline Drive from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. each night to prevent poaching.  Since our plan involved almost three miles of bushwhackin, we were not confident that we could finish the hike in time to be out of the park by 5 p.m.  We decided to start at the eastern boundary of the park instead and hike up the Jordan River Trail.  This allowed us to do the bushwhack up to the Peak and still get a 14 mile hike in.

To access the Jordan River Trail, you have to cross private property, although on a road.  There are signs on nearly every tree on each side of the road announcing the trespassers will be prosecuted.  We decided they meant trespassing by leaving the road and that we would be all right walking the 100 yards to the boundary of the park (your mileage may vary).  The Jordan River Trail climbs steeply from the boundary up to Thoroughfare Gap, where it meets the Mount Marshall Trail.  The trail was covered in leaves that hadn't begun to decay nor had they been trampled into dust yet.  This meant we slipped a lot on them and tripped over the rocks they hid. 

At the junction with the Mt. Marshall trail, we began looking for a footpath to climb a mountain called The Peak.  The park used to maintain a loop trail that went over the summit, but for reasons I have not been able to determine, decided to stop maintaining it at least 15 years ago (based on the earliest guidebook our friend had checked).  We expected to have to bushwhack the 2.8 mile trail up the ridge across the summit.  SSW Spouse found the path right away.  We were surprised to discover that the path was more distinct that some maintained trails in other parts of the park or in the national forests.  In addition to the relatively clear footpath, even with the leaves on the ground, there were still blue blazes on some trees.

The first part of the path is one of the steeper ones I've been on in Shenandoah; not the steepest, but a pretty good climb.  It suddenly levels out on an old fire road that wraps around the south side of the mountain.  There were many, many blowdowns on the fire road.  There were also ice formations and a light dusting of snow on the trail, the first of both that we have seen this year, along with some good views of Old Rag and Mary's Rock to the south.  Near a ridge southeast of the summit, the path leaves the fire road and circles back to the summit.  In this area, the path was least distinct.  This was the only area that I would consider us to have been navigating "off-trail."  In the summer, however, the path would probably be nearly impossible to find (the entire path up and around The Peak would be overgrown and miserable in the summer). We had lunch on the summit and made our way back down to the junction with the Mt. Marshall Trail. 

From the junction, we turned uphill.  After half a mile, we came to the Bluff Trail.  From there, we hiked towards Big Devils Staircase.  Several streams crossed the Bluff Trail, some of the flowing right on the trail for a short distance.  We found a couple of small, pretty waterfalls and a spring.  The rain last week had all of the small streams flowing at or over their banks.  When we reached the junction with Big Devil's Staircase, we headed downhill to the overlook.  We took a break on the rocks and let the sun warm us up a bit.  There was a nice view of the waterfalls below us.

Big Devil's Staircase Trail, apparently, used to be accessible from the east boundary of the park.  It is no longer.  This means that to get to it, one has to hike in a relatively long distance from either Skyline Drive or one of the other boundary trailheads.  Since we were there, we decided to go ahead and hike down to the boundary.  Once we left the overlook, we hiked down towards the valley in a fairly unremarkable stand of forest.  Based on the disturbance of the leaves, I think more people have hiked The Peak since the leaves fell than have been down Big Devil's Staircase.  The trail turned toward the river just before we reached the boundary.  There were a few nice small waterfalls and some threatening signs about trespassing, but otherwise, it is not one of the more compelling trails I have hiked in the park.

From there, we made the steep climb back up to the Bluff trail and the long descent back to the car in the waning light.  Although I don't think it got out of the mid-30s, it was not windy, which makes for a pretty good day of winter hiking.  I would definitely go back and do The Peak again and hike down to the overlook on Big Devil's Staircase.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

 Frost on an oak leaf

Frost flowers along the Jordan River Trail.  Shenandoah Mountain Guides has a good explanation of how these form and great pictures of prettier ones than these.

The Mount Marshall Trail at Thoroughfare Gap.
Frost on the path up to The Peak.

Ice along the old fire road up to the Peak.

The view south from the old fire road.  Mary's Rock is visible in the center of the photo.

Bootshot from Big Devil's Staircase overlook.

Small waterfalls on the river below Big Devil's Staircase near the park boundary.

Looking south from the Big Devil's Staircase overlook.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Winter's Arrival - Hazel River Area

When we got up this morning, the thermometer said 33 degrees.  Two weeks ago, when we were last out hiking, the leaves had still been on many of the trees and it was warm enough to hike in short sleeve shirts.  What a difference two weeks can make.  No leaves remain on the trees in Shenandoah and all of the underbrush has died away for the winter.  In spite of the cold, winter is a very pleasant time to visit the park if one is prepared for the weather.  There are few tourists and more views since the leaves are off the trees. 

We hiked up the Hazel River Trail from county road 600 with a vague plan for the day.  Soon after we started, we met a large church group, one of just two groups we saw the entire day.  We crossed the Hazel River several times before turning sharply uphill on the steep White Rocks Trail.  As we climbed, we could hear the wind howling above us.  Once in a while a gust would catch us, blasting us with cold air.  At the top of the ridge, we were pretty much constantly in gusts of wind of varying strength.  In a shady part of the trail, we saw our first frost flowers of the season.  We hiked the quarter of a mile down to White Rocks Falls and found a sunny lunch spot that was sheltered from the wind.  There was far more water in the falls than there was when we hiked there in the summer.  The first icicles of the season hung on a small branch over the creek below the falls. 

From there, we returned to the White Rocks Trail, which climbs slowly to the Catlett Spur Trail.  We turned onto the Catlett Spur Trail and hiked the mile to the Hannah Run Trail.  The Hannah Run Trail climbs steeply to the Pinnacles Overlook on Skyline Drive.  Normally, Pinnacles is a fairly busy overlook, but today it was empty.  With nothing to block the wind, it was also freezing cold, so we snapped a couple of pictures and returned the way we came.  At the junction of the Catlett Spur and Catlett Mountain Trails, we went east on Catlett Mountain Trail.  We made our way back to the car via Hazel Mountain Trail and a steep descent down Sam's Ridge Trail.  Sam's Ridge Trail was covered in leaves, making what is already a challenging descent even more exciting.

Winter has definitely arrived in the mountains.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

A small waterfall on the lower Hazel River

White Rocks Falls

Another view of White Rocks Falls.

Icicles over the stream.

Long shadows at 1:30 p.m. on the moss.

Frost flowers.

Old Rag from Pinnacles Overlook.

Pinnacles Overlook empty.  Quite a difference from the way the drive looked a month ago at another overlook.

Looking northeast towards Sperryville.

An interesting spider on Sam's Ridge Trail.  I don't know anything about spiders, so if anyone knows what kind it is, let me know.  She was about 1.5 inches across (including legs).

Monday, November 15, 2010

Old Rag Mountain Stewards: Weekend on the Ropes

This weekend was the last scheduled weekend of the year for Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS).  Once the leaves and the temperatures drop, visitation to the mountain usually drops off precipitously.  This weekend, however, the temperatures were in the high 50s to low 60s, so the crowds did not get the memo that the busy season is nearly over. 

We arrived Saturday morning at 9:30 and the parking lot was already nearly full.  There were lots of big groups and several parties with dogs (no dogs are allowed on Old Rag).  Several of us were scheduled to work and we had two new volunteers join us.  By the time we had gear and people organized, it was almost 11 a.m.  The new volunteers headed up the Ridge Trail with a more experienced Steward.  The rest of us got a ride to Post Office Junction to set up camp for that night and to return the rescue gear to the first aid cache after the previous weekend's carry-out.  Once we had pitched tents and hung bear bags, we loaded the rescue litter with gear and began pushing it up the Saddle Trail to the cache.  It is only two miles from PO Junction to the cache, but we were all ready to be done by the time we got there. 

After dropping off the gear, we proceeded to the summit, where we met up with the rest of the group.  We spent the rest of the afternoon setting anchors and practicing rappelling and ascending.  It was a good review.  We finished just as the sun went down.  Old Rag Patrols generously brought steaks and portabellos for the group for dinner.  We spent the evening at the Old Rag Shelter eating a fantastic dinner and enjoying a warm fire in the fire pit.  It was a little chilly camping that night at Post Office Junction, but nothing like what it could be in the second week of November. 

Sunday morning, several more Stewards met us at camp.  We headed up the mountain to one of the many climbing spots where two of the lead stewards had a challenge in store for all of us.  They had set fixed ropes on three pitches for us to ascend.  The first part was tough.  The rock was partly covered in pine needles, which made it tough to get good footing.  My calves burned when I had to stand for a long time at certain angles while trying to figure out the next move. After that, though, it got easier for a while.  I was able to walk and push the prussiks ahead of me.  At the first anchor, I moved my prussiks above it and waited for the next person so I could explain what to do before I continued.

The next few stretches were pretty straightforward except for some aggressive mountain laurel.  Then I reached a section that was vertical.  Another rope with knots had been hung there, but I had trouble getting up off of the rock I was standing on.  After a while, I realized I could tie knots in the second rope and use it as a step to push off.  After doing that a couple of times, I managed to get a foothold and get over the lip of rock.  The rest of the ascent went smoothly.  One we reached a relatively level slab of rock, we were able to unclip and eat some lunch while we waited for a rope to be set for rappelling. 

While we were waiting, a few falcons put on quite a show.  They soared above the valley next to us, diving down and landing in trees briefly before taking off again.  Every now and then they would fill the valley with their calls.  At one point, two of them drove a raven out of the valley, diving and darting at it while screeching.  Falcons are not common in Shenandoah, so it was a treat to see them.  In five years of hiking in the area, this is the first time we have ever seen them.

After we rappelled down into the ravine, we bushwhacked up to a climbers path that took us back to the Saddle Trail just below the summit.  It was slow going to get to the climbers path.  The entire valley seemed to be covered in blackberries and greenbriar.  By the time we reached the climbers path, it was nearly dark.  We made our way up to the Saddle Trail, pushing through one last section of mountain laurel, just as the light completely gave way to night.  We dropped our packs, put on our headlamps and went back down to the base of the climbers path to light the way for the others coming up.

At the summit, the wind had picked up and we could feel the weather system moving in.  No one else was up there, which is a rare, rare thing on Old Rag.  We stayed for a short while before making our way down. It was an incredible day.  There were some difficult spots, but it was an amazing way to go up the mountain.  The best part of the day was working together to solve the problems.  There is honestly no other group I would rather work with.

I want to thank Rudy's Pizza in Sperryville for staying open late so all of us could have dinner together before driving home.  It was a fantastic way to end the 2010 ORMS season.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Sunset from a small wall at the summit.
A fire near Graves Mountain.

Saxifraga michauxii (Michaux's Saxifrage) turning red before it goes dormant for winter.

Sunset on Saturday.

The ropes on one of the slabs on Sunday.

Hanging from the rope taking pictures.  Weakley Hollow is in the background. 

 Robertson Mountain.

A falcon soaring above us (click to enlarge).

Two Stewards waiting for the rappelling rope to be brought up.

Rappelling down into the ravine.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day Hike - Strickler's and Duncan Knobs

The Thursday holiday gave several of us the opportunity to hike mid-week, something we don't get to do very often.  It promised to be one of those rare, brilliantly sunny, perfect fall days and we were lucky enough not to be trapped in the office.  By the time we arrived at the trailhead, it was a little cool, but warm enough to start in short sleeves.  The Scotthorn Gap Trail climbs steeply up from Crisman Hollow road for almost a mile and a half before meeting the Mansanutten Trail.  We were surprised that there were still so many leaves on the trees.  Since I had not been hiking in two weeks, I expected most of them to have dropped.

Once on the Mansanutten Trail, we quickly reached the top of the ridge.  We took a short break and then looked for the semi-official trail to the top of Strickler's Knob.  There were no blazes at the junction of the footpath with the Mansanutten Trail, but the path was obvious enough.  Soon, pink or maroon blazes appeared on rocks along the path.  The path was really rocky and as we got closer to the end, it turned into a rock scramble.  Our friend's dog, Sammie, had to be helped over several of the spots, but otherwise handled it very well.  Strickler's Knob provided a perfect lunch spot with a great view.  Since it was bright and sunny, it was actually warm enough to sit, enjoy the good weather, and watch turkey vultures ride the thermals.

After lunch, we returned to the Mansanutten Trail and made our way downhill into Duncan Hollow.  The trail, after a few switchbacks, flattens out into a very gentle downhill.  We made good time to the junction with the Gap Run Trail.  The Gap Run Trail was the steepest section of the hike.  We climbed almost 900 feet in three-quarters of a mile.  One of the challenges in the Mansanutten area is that the trail is often covered in rocks sized perfectly for tripping or for rolling an ankle (on some trails, one would think the word, "Mansanutten" is an old Indian word for "really rocky trails").  The Gap Run Trail is no exception and with most of the leaves having fallen from the trees, there was the extra bonus of not being able to actually see the rocks.

The trail ends up at the top of Peach Orchard Gap, where a trail splits off leading to the top of Duncan Knob.  We took a quick break and headed up to the knob, which involved another rock scramble.  Sammie sat this one out.  The view from the top of the knob was incredible.  Although it was only 2:30 p.m., the sun was already low in the sky, which brought out the red leaves still on the trees in the valley.   We still had a ways to hike, so we didn't linger.  We rejoined Sammie and returned to the Gap Run Trail and headed downhill to the Scotthorn Gap Trail.

From there, it was an easy walk back to the junction with the Mansanutten Trail.  This time, we turned downhill, passing a small pond that none of us had noticed on the way up the hill, and returned to the car.  It was just starting to get cold as we ended the day. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Sammie looking out over the valley near Strickler's Knob.

The view south of Stickler's Knob.

A snakeskin on the Mansanutten Trail.  The pieces were over four feet long altogether.

Maple leaves.

The scramble up to the top of Duncan Knob.

 Bootshot from the top of Duncan Knob.

 The view west from Duncan Knob.

Aster sp. (Asters) on the Gap Run Trail.

The Scotthorn Gap Trail in the late afternoon sun.