Monday, March 29, 2010

Great North Mountain - Walking in Two States

I spent the weekend in Bayse, Virginia with two good friends, eating good food and getting a nice long hike in on Saturday.  It was a nice treat to wake up Saturday morning and linger over coffee before driving 15 minutes to the trailhead.  Much better than rising at six and drinking coffee on the two hour drive to the trailhead, which is what we normally do. 

Great North Mountain is in the George Washington National Forest.  The Great North Mountain Trail is a long trail running a number of miles along the spine of the ridge west of I-81, following the West Virginia/Virginia state line in many places.  To reach the Great North Mountain Trail, we hiked 2.75 miles up the Falls Ridge Trail.  The relatively steep (but nothing like last week) trail starts off following an old roadbed and passes an old broken down DC Transit bus.  It makes a right turn at the junction with the purple-blazed Fat Mountain Trail.  It is easy to miss the junction because there is a low berm blocking the view of the Falls Ridge trail.  The trail quickly narrows and up high on the ridge, it is so overgrown with mountain laurel that wearing shorts would be a bad idea.

We had lunch on some rocks at the junction with the Great North Mountain trail.  Although it was bright, sunny and relatively warm on the rocks, the wind had a cold edge to it, reminding us that it is still March.  After lunch, we turned south and followed the relatively easy trail along the ridge (and the state line) for almost 4.25 miles.  There were actually a few remaining snowbanks in the shady spots.  We stopped at an overlook where we could see all the way from Signal Knob to Hawksbill in Shenandoah National Park and further south.

When we reached a set of radio towers, and began our descent off the ridge with a one-mile road walk.  Coltsfoot was blooming in the ditches.  We also saw a neat old homesite, complete with a little pond.  All that remained was the stone chimney, a rock wall, and a lot of daffodils.

Then we arrived at the gasline cut.  The best things I can say about it are:  there was a good view, and at least we didn't have to hike up it.  It was as steep was what we hiked last week, if not as long.  There isn't really a trail and the gravel isn't really packed down, so you pretty much just stumble down the mountain.  The pictures below don't do it justice.  I would guess that, in the summer, the gasline cut is an overgrown, thorny, tick-infested mess - not that those things would keep me away.  At the bottom of the hill, the Laurel Run Connector Trail is marked on the left by about six blue-blazed trees and two large cairns.

The Laurel Run Connector Trail follows a roadbed and is marked with blue blazes.  The logging operations apparently also use blue blazing, although a different shape, to mark trees.  If you weren't familiar with what the blazes are supposed to look like, it could make for an interesting hike:  Seemingly every other tree is marked with some blue paint, often stretching far into the woods away from the trail.  After a couple of miles, we turned right on the Fat Mountain Trail, passing a pretty little stream before returning to the truck.  In 11.7 miles, we only saw one other person the entire day - a PATC trail maintainer.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Lichens on the rocks where we had lunch.

A snowbank near the top of the ridge.

White rocks on the Great North Mountain trail.

A bracket fungus on a decaying log.  The fungus grew around the blade of grass.

Tussilago farfara (Coltsfoot - non-native) growing in a ditch.

Daffodils near the road.

Hiking down the gasline cut.  The ridge in the far distance is Mansanutten West and you can see Signal Knob at the far end of it.  The junction with the Laurel Run Connector Trail is in the small clearing near the middle of the photo.

Small waterfall on the Fat Mountain Trail.

Another look at the gasline cut from the road.  We hiked from just below the curve to the bottom.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Double Top Mountain and Old Rag - Waterfalls, Bushwhacking, and Wildflowers

Warning:  This is a long post.  The weather this weekend was too good to pass up.  We got two hikes in, putting off the laundry and groceries in favor of walking through the woods.  On Saturday, we joined the Northern Virginia Hiking Club for a hike of Double Top Mountain.  On Sunday, two friends joined us for a hike up Old Rag. 

Double Top Mountain
By 9 a.m., when we met the rest of the group of about 20 hikers, it was warm enough to hike in a tank top.  The hike started at Graves Mountain Resort and wound its way around the east and south side of Double Top Mountain, following horse trails and old roads.  An hour into the hike, we saw the first showy wildflowers of the year:  Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  It is one of the first flowers to emerge after skunk cabbage, blooming before anything else has turned green, and I think it is one of the prettiest spring flowers.  S. canadensis is named for the color of its roots, which are bright red and were once used for paint by Native Americans.

We crossed a creek and worked our way up to a waterfall, where we had lunch.  The waterfall, while not the largest in the Shenandoah/Rapidan area, was spectacular in the number of different cascades on the same fall.  One part of the falls was just a small rivulet falling over bright green moss.  Another poured over a section of the cliff before splitting again into more cascades.

After lunch, we hiked down the valley a little ways before making our way up the Hunter Trail, which follows  an old road, towards the top of Double Top.  I have hiked a lot of places and this stretch of trail was one of the steepest sections I have ever hiked.  It rises over 1600 feet in 1.4 miles.  Every time I turned a corner, thinking I was near the top, the trail would stretch further up the mountain in front of me.  The heat of the afternoon made it more of a challenge.  In July, I would be grateful for a day in the high 70s, but after the cold rain of last weekend, it was an abrupt change.  All in all, though, the climb was manageable. 

The group took a break where the trail ended, after which we bushwhacked to the top of the mountain.  At the top of the ridge, we were treated to a few remaining snowbanks.  The cold snow felt great after the climb up there.  The descent off of the ridge was nearly as steep as the climb.  We got a nice view of Old Rag to the north on our way down.

More on Old Rag below the Double Top pictures

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Bear painted on a rock at the base of Double Top

Waterfall where we had lunch.

Another shot of the waterfall

A small cascade through moss.

Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot)

Another S. canadensis

Boot shot in the snow

Old Rag from Double Top

Sunday - Old Rag...More after the Jump

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Rainy Weekend - Patuxent Wildlife Refuge and the first spring flowers

The weather this weekend kept us from driving long distances to go for a long hike.  Yesterday, it rained hard most of the day.  The forecast for today was more of the same.  We decided to go for a four mile walk in Patuxent Wildlife Refuge in Laurel, MD just to get outside.  We piled three people and two dogs into our little car and drove over there in the rain.  This only works for short drives.  Once there, the rain stopped and we started the loop with the Fire Road Trail.  It was no surprise that standing water covered the trail in some places; in others, the trail became a running stream.  There is a lot of storm damage, particularly the holly trees, which did not take the heavy snow well.  The outlet stream from Cash Lake was over its banks, creating a second pond beneath the lake.  We saw several geese and a pair of ducks on the lake.  We had the trails completely to ourselves at what is normally a very busy park.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
The trail had become a full running stream in a lot of places.

An interesting fungus on a pine tree.  I don't know fungi very well, so I don't know what kind it is.  It is about the size of a golf ball.

Spring Flowers
Spring flowers are starting to emerge from the ground.   We found Simplocarpus foetidus, the aptly named skunk cabbage, in Rock Creek Park.  It is not the prettiest flower, by any measure, but it is one of the very first wildflowers to emerge in the spring.  Its odor and structure are adapted to drawing ground dwelling insects.  They crawl inside the flower seeking carrion and pollinate the flowers.
Simplocarpus feotidus in Rock Creek Park.

Snowdrops, one of the earliest emerging cultivated flowers, are also popping up everywhere.  Crocuses won't be far behind.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Buzzard Rock: 65 Degrees and Snowy

It isn't very often that you get to hike in short sleeves when there is still almost a foot of snow on the top of the ridge.  It also isn't very often in the Mid-Atlantic that there is a foot of snow left on the ground on March 7.  Today was a beautiful day:  bright, sunny, and warm, with lots of snow.

Three of us started out from Elizabeth Furnace and hiked 2.5 miles of the Tuscaroora Trail up to Shawl Gap.  Passage Creek was running at the top of its banks in places and is trying to swallow the trail near the picnic grounds.  There wasn't any snow in the valley, but about a third of the way to Shawl Gap, the trail was completely covered in snow.  It was pretty icy, so it was one more chance to use the microspikes and yaktrax this year.  We ate lunch in the warm sun at Shawl Gap next to an old U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey Marker.

After lunch, we turned left and headed towards Buzzard Rock.  The trail climbed quickly to a small peak before beginning a long descent to the rocks.  Although initially snow-free, after the first peak, the trail stayed just to the west side of the ridge in the shade and remained covered in pretty deep snow.  The afternoon sun warmed the snow, making it slushy and slippery.  As usual on snow, our pace slowed down quite a bit.  By the time we made it out to Buzzard Rock, it was warm enough in the sun that we didn't need jackets, even when we stopped to take pictures. 

Buzzard Rock is really more of a knife-edged ridge than a specific rock.  The west side of the ridge is a straight drop, nearly to Passage Creek 500 feet below.  There are good views of the Mansanutten trail to the west, across the valley and of Shenandoah to the east.

Today felt like spring and still looked like winter.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
The trail up to Shawl Gap.
The upper part of the trail to Shawl Gap.
The north part of Shenandoah National Park to the east.  Skyline Drive is visible near the top of the ridge.
Looking south along Buzzard Rock.
Looking down at Passage Creek and Virginia State Road 678.
Boot shot over a gooseneck of Passage Creek.
Sheer drop off the east side of Buzzard Rock.
Elizabeth Furnace, a blast furnace used to make pig iron in the mid 19th century.