Sunday, January 24, 2010

Snickers Gap to Keys Gap--14 miles on the VA/WV Appalachian Trail

Yesterday, we hiked 14 miles, mostly on the Appalachian Trail (AT), near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  The weather forecast for the day was sunny and 40 degrees - perfect for winter hiking.  Although snow had been forecast on Thursday, on the drive up to Keys Gap, it didn't look like the area received more than a dusting.  At Key's Gap, though, the trees and the parking lot were covered in ice.  We met our friend there just after nine, climbed in her car and headed south to Snickers Gap, where we met up with another friend.  The Snickers Gap parking lot condition was similar, giving me the opportunity to take a few pictures before we even got started on the trail.

We had to walk a short way down highway seven to get to the Appalachian Trail.  We made a right turn onto the trail and started walking towards our car, 13.5 miles north.  The trail was covered in about an inch of ice and old snow, making my microspikes useful once again.  The trees were all coated in a few millimeters of ice, making them shine in the bright sun. The first part of the hike is somewhat hilly, with a couple of quick up and downs.  We crossed a couple of old rock slides that had streams running under them.  It is pretty neat to stand on what appears to be a dry pile of rocks and hear a fairly large stream flowing under your feet.  We took a break for lunch at Crescent Rocks, where we met a Boy Scout troop hiking in preparation for Philmont.  It was warm enough in the sun to sit without putting on an extra jacket.  Looking out over the valley, the forest shone silver from the ice.  

After lunch, we picked up the pace a little and made our way along the ridgeline to the junction with the trail to the Blackburn Trail Center, 7.5 miles from where we started.  On our way we ran into a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) trail maintainer out to clear blowdowns. We took the time to thank him for the hard work that he does.  Around 1:30 p.m., we arrived at the Trail Center, a hostel, shelter, and campground all rolled into one a quarter of a mile below the AT.  There were some younger boy scouts at the shelter who offered to cook us lunch and seemed rather disappointed when we said we had already eaten.  Apparently, they were working on their cooking badges.

Back on the AT, we had six more miles to go.  The ice had melted off most of the trees and the snow was melting on the south-facing slopes of the hills, but the north slopes were still covered in solid ice.  We took another quick break at David Lesser Shelter, which is one of the nicer trail shelters that I have seen.  We ran into two more PATC volunteers who were the maintainers for that shelter.  Again, many thanks to the volunteers that do the hard work to keep trails and facilities open.

We made it back to our car in 6 hours and 45 minutes.  Considering the ice and the distance, not a bad day at all.

Ice-covered branches in the Snickers Gap parking lot.
Grass coated with ice.
Mountain Laurel leaves coated with ice.
Ice covered trees in an old rock slide.
Crossing into West Virginia.
The ice makes the forest look like it is made out of crystal.  Crescent Rocks.
A frozen twig.
The Appalachian Trail.
A frozen pond near Route 9.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Signal Knob - What a Difference a Week Makes

Three of us took advantage of the Federal holiday today.  We hiked a 10.6 mile loop including Signal Knob and Meneka Peak in the George Washington National Forest.  Signal Knob is at the north end of the west ridge of Mansanutten Mountain.  The weather today was a nice break from the cold that we had through most of December and the first half of January.  There were no clouds in the sky and by the afternoon, the temperature would be over 50 degrees.

We started up the orange-blazed Signal Knob Trail just ahead of a group of Boy Scouts.  Ten minutes into the hike we had to stop to shed layers. No hats and gloves were needed for the first time in weeks.  After yesterday's rain, most of the trail was clear of snow.  The trails in the Mansanutten area make one appreciate the less rocky trails of Shenandoah National Park.  This one is certainly no exception.  The Signal Knob Trail crosses several inactive rock slides that keep eyes focused on the trail.  Look up for too long and you will soon trip over a rock. 

At the signed Fort Valley Overlook, we took a couple of pictures.  From there, the trail curves around, following the ridgeline to the north to the junction with the Meneka Peak Trail.  As we climbed higher, patchy snow appeared in the woods.  Just beyond the junction, there was a short stretch of trail covered in snow, the only real snow we saw on the trail today.

Signal Know itself was sunny and warm.  We sat on the rocks, ate our lunch and chatted with a couple of mountain bikers doing nearly the same loop we were.  It is a rare treat to sit in the sun in January and not need a coat.  We returned to the Meneka Peak trail and followed it along the ridgeline to where it meets the Tuscarora Trail.  The Tuscarora Trail winds nearly four miles down the ridge into the valley where it meets up with the beginning of the Signal Knob trail, half a mile from the parking lot. All in all, it was a beautiful day and a great hike.

The Signal Knob Trail just above the first overlook.

The view southeast from the Fort Valley overlook.

The last remnants of snow on the trail.
Lichen and moss on a log.
A small waterfall on the Tuscarora Trail.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Twelve Miles in the Snow - Big Schloss

Hunting season is over, so yesterday we ventured out to the George Washington National Forest to hike Big Schloss.  The thermometer in our friend's car said it was 12 degrees at the Front Royal Park and Ride where we met her.  Luckily, the road to the trailhead, although covered in packed snow in places, was passable.  By the time we got there, the temperature had risen to a balmy 16 degrees.  It wasn't windy, though, at least down in the valley and the sun was shining, so it promised to be a beautiful hike.

We headed up the steep side of the trail first.  It is a quick moderately steep 2.3 miles from the parking area to saddle where the Big Schloss Cutoff trail meets the Mill Mountain Trail.  Where the trail left the road, there was very little snow on it, as we climbed, the snow became patchy.  By the time we got to the trail junction, the snow was about a foot deep.  This section was in the sun and out of the wind, so it was nice and warm (relatively).

We headed south on the Mill Mountain Trail for a mile to the Big Schloss spur trail.  There were two-foot deep snow drifts on this section and we were a little more exposed to the wind, both of which made the going a little bit slower.  We actually had to break out the face masks on this section.  Fortunately, someone else had postholed the trail before we got there, making a little easier work for us.  We wished we had brought our snowshoes at this point, since there was definitely enough snow for them.  They would not have been too heavy to strap to our packs and carry up.

We were the first people to hike up the spur trail to the top of Big Schloss since the last snowfall (Thursday 1/7/10).  There were, however, lots of tracks:  rabbits, deer, birds, and mice.  We paused for lunch in a sheltered spot out of the wind before heading up to the top.  It was beautiful as always up there, but the wind on top was super cold, so we didn't linger long.  The air was clear enough to get a good view of Mansanutten and Shenandoah to the east.

From the summit of Big Schloss, we returned north along the Mill Mountain trail, passing the junction with the Big Schloss Cutoff trail after a mile. Almost two miles past the junction, we arrived at Sandy Spring.  It is a beautiful little spring and stream that crosses the trail.  The stream, although flowing, had feathery ice crystals scattered over it.  A side stream was completely frozen over.  The trail continued to slowly climb from there, to the top of Mill Mountain.  The snow got deeper again as we descended from Mill Mountain to the Tuscarora Trail. 

The Tuscarora Trail only had one set of snowshoe tracks on it, which made the walking fairly challenging.  We only had a half mile to hike on it before the next junction, but it was probably the toughest single stretch of the hike.  Soon enough, we arrived at the Little Stony Creek Trail and began the 3.5 mile descent back to the car.  We took a short break in the sun at Sugar Knob Cabin.  Little Stony Creek Trail had a lot of very icy sections covered by a thin dusting of snow.  The microspikes I received as a Christmas gift made this part of the hike much easier.


Hiking up the Big Schloss Cutoff Trail.

Hiking through the snow on the Mill Mountain Trail towards Big Schloss.

Looking north from the summit of Big Schloss.  The Mill Mountain Trail runs along the crest of the ridge.

Looking east from the summit of Big Schloss.  In the middle distance is Mansanutten Mountain.  In the far distance is the ridge of Shenandoah National Park.

A rabbit track near the trail.

The stream below Sandy Spring.

Feathery ice crystals in the stream at Sandy Spring.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Freezing, Windy, Beautiful Day on Old Rag

We just can't stay away.  Yesterday, we braved the wind and frigid temperatures to hike Old Rag with two good friends.  They have done a lot of hiking - one of them had hiked a lot in Shenandoah- but neither had ever hiked Old Rag.  It was 26 degrees when we left Silver Spring at 7:30 a.m., which isn't too bad.  And windy.  It was windy enough to blow our little car around on the way there. 

There were enough people who were also crazy enough to be out there that we had to park in the lower lot.  It was a very windy, cold walk up to the upper lot, but once we started up the ridge trail, we were sheltered from most of the wind.  The trail was covered in packed snow and a little ice here and there.  There were frost flowers blooming along the upper ridge trail.  Although it was very cold, the work of climbing the switchbacks kept us warm.  We stopped for lunch at the last good campsite before the rock scramble.  Given the temperature, we did not linger long.  We needed to keep moving to keep warm.

We expected the entire rock scramble to be blustery, cold misery (the good kind), but when we reached the first false summit, the sun came out and we were sheltered from the wind.  I would not say that it was warm, but we were able to stop long enough get a few pictures.  Much of the trail through the rock scramble was sheltered through the wind.  The packed snow actually made some parts much easier and teamwork made the rest work.  Most of the summit was protected from the wind, but past the boulders, looking towards the fire road, we could hear the wind angrily roaring through the rocks.  We all ventured out there briefly and quickly retreated. 

At Birds Nest Shelter, someone had built a fire and left it going.  We took advantage of it to warm up, but put it out before we left.  Dropping below the shelter, we went straight into the wind.  The Saddle Trail was much, much icier than the Ridge Trail.  The "slow is smooth and smooth is fast" philosophy got all of us down safely.  At Old Rag Shelter, we finally dropped out of the wind and the walk down the fire road was comparatively warm.  Our friends helped us spot three different species of woodpeckers (downy, hairy, and pileated) along the fire road. 

All in all, it was a great challenging day on the mountain since we were prepared for the cold and the snowy/icy conditions.  Some pictures:
Frost flowers on the Ridge Trail

View toward Etlan from the first false summit

An ice sheet near the Chute on the Ridge Trail

The S-Curve on the Ridge Trail near the summit