Monday, July 26, 2010

Eight Miles of Bears, Butterflies, and Wildflowers

In spite of the forecast 100 degree heat, the 40 mile bike ride on Saturday, and the annual neighborhood barbecue on Saturday night, we managed to get out of bed to get a hike in yesterday.  The temperature was 87 degrees when we finally got around to leaving at 8:30 a.m. and the dog, enjoying her retirement, looked at us as though thinking, "Didn't you guys learn your lesson on the bike ride yesterday?"  Apparently, we did not.

We decided to return to the Hazel River area of Shenandoah National Park.  We hiked there once this past winter, but otherwise had not been back there in four years.  Since the area does not have expansive views and the trails are on the steep side, it is quiet and there are good chances to see wildlife. 

We parked in one of the three parking spots by the Hazel River near the eastern boundary of the park and walked up the road to the trailhead (note: the road between Virginia Route 600 and the trailhead is closed to non-local traffic).  We headed up the Hazel River Trail, passing the junction with Sam's Ridge trail.  The trail starts out pleasantly flat, meandering back and forth across the river.  This time of year, the river is not much more than a small stream.  Prunella vulgaris (Selfheal) and Desmodium cuspidatum (Large-Bracted Tick Trefoil) lined the trail.

After 1.7 miles, we crossed the river for the last time and began the short, but very steep climb on the White Rocks trail to the top of the ridge.  From there, it continues west over three knobs.  It was brutally hot and, because there had been a fire a number of years ago, the knobs are not densely forested, so we were out in the sun more than we would have liked.  We were rewarded with a few blueberries and a couple of good views of Mary's Rock and Hazel Mountain.

We soon arrived at the junction with the side trail to a waterfall and shallow cave.  The trail down to the creek is steep and covered in loose gravel, but the waterfall was pretty and the pool in front of it was nice and cool.  I couldn't resist dunking my head to help fight off the 98 degree heat.  Near the pool, 20 or 30 swallowtail butterflies congregated in the mud.  When we walked by them, they all lifted off at once and we were surrounded by butterflies.  Soon, it was time to continue.  Back on the White Rocks Trail, we continued to walk west and then south towards the Hazel Mountain trail.  Along the way, we found a few wineberries.  We turned east on the Hazel Mountain trail and passed two backpackers, the only other people we encountered all day.

Once on Sam's Ridge Trail, we saw increasing signs of bear activity:  overturned and moved rocks, logs with scratches, and bear scat.  The forest is young through here, so there are a lot of fruit-bearing shrubs and small trees.  It is very good bear habitat.  All of a sudden, ahead of us, we heard a heavy animal crashing through the brush moving away from us.  One of us actually caught a glimpse of it as it ran.  Now we were on alert for bears. 

A little while later, I stopped to glance at a flower, looked up at the sound of footsteps, and there was a medium-sized bear sniffing around about 15 yards into the forest.  It slowly moved away from us as we watched, apparently not noticing us since it didn't really change what it was doing.  Then, we heard footsteps on the other side of the trail, right behind us.  We both started, whipping around, only to find two deer almost on top of us.  We must have made some noise, because then we heard the bear run off downhill, away from us.  Unfortunately, I never had a clear enough view to get a picture of it.

After that excitement, a storm blew in, bringing a bit of rain and cooler air for the very steep descent down Sam's Ridge and the return to the car.  Apparently, the storm that hit the DC area was much stronger than what we experienced because we returned to Silver Spring to no working stoplights and no power at home.  It was a great excuse to end the day with another neighborhood cookout.

Edited for grammar.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Desmodium cuspidatum (Large-Bracted Trefoil) along the Hazel River Trail.

Limentis arthemis asyntax (Red-Spotted Purple butterflies) on a rock in the middle of the Hazel River.

Looking east along the Hazel River.

Buck Ridge (foreground) and Mary's Rock from the White Rocks Trail.

A large (2-3 inches) moth on the roof of the shallow cave.

The waterfall on the upper Hazel River.

Swallowtails near the waterfall.

Eupatorium sp. I haven't figured out which species this is yet.  The leaves are coarsely toothed and whorled.  The stem is not spotted.

Goodyera pubescens (Downy Rattlesnake Plantain).

Monday, July 12, 2010

Wildflowers, Blueberries, and a Sunburn in Dolly Sods

Four of us went out to Dolly Sods in West Virginia this weekend for a quick overnight backpacking trip.  We arrived late on Friday night at Red Creek Campground, after a long, slow drive up Forest Road 75 in the fog and rain.  The rain had nearly stopped when we arrived, but as soon as we thought about setting up the tents, the heavens opened.  We quickly pitched tents and pitched a tarp over the picnic table so we had a relatively dry place to sit and chat.

When we woke on Saturday morning, it had stopped raining.  It was a little chilly out, which was a nice change after a brutally hot week in DC.  As we made coffee and breakfast, the clouds slowly moved off to the east and the sun came out.  We packed our backpacks and, after a slight directional mishap, headed for the Bear Rocks trailhead.

The trail wound its way westward, down from the ridge, through blueberry bushes full of ripe fruit and cranberry plants in bloom.  We arrived at a small stream after about a mile to discover that the Rhododendron maxiumum (Great Rhododenron) were in bloom.  Further on, we turned southwest on a bypass trail, which took us to the Raven Ridge Trail.  As we slowly descended on the Raven Ridge Trail, trees became larger and more numerous, but we were still hiking primarily in the meadows.  In one small drainage, we discovered a beaver dam and a rather large snapping turtle.  The turtle's head was about the size of a baseball and its shell was about 15 inches in diameter. 

We continued down the Red Creek Trail, pausing for a break near the creek, which soon became completely forested.  After crossing Red Creek, the trail stays high above the valley.  We turned off on Rocky Point trail, which lived up to its name.  It was, apparently, an old railroad bed and it was covered in places by ankle-breakers - rocks that if you step wrong, can break your ankle.  We reached the side trail up to Lion's Head and one member of our party said she would take a break while the three of us went up to check out the view.

The first 100 yards of the trail up to Lion's Head were the steepest trail we hiked all day, but that is more of an indication of the gentle grade of most of the trails we hiked in Dolly Sods.  On top of the ridge, the trail leveled out into a grove of obviously replanted pines.  They were growing in straight rows.  We made our way through the rhododendrons on the far side of the grove of pines and came out onto Lion's Head and a spectacular view of the Red Creek Valley below us.  On our way back, we discussed the possibility of camping on the ridge.  The campsites were pretty nice, but we needed water, which would mean hauling it from nearly a mile away.

Ultimately, we decided that hauling water would be worth it.  We retrieved our packs and the fourth member of our party and returned to the campsite on the ridge.  After setting up camp, three of us went back down to the trail and hiked to a waterfall on Big Stonecoal Creek to get water.  We made dinner when we returned and went out to Lion's Head to watch the sun set.  We returned to camp just before it got fully dark.  The guys built a small campfire and I made tea.  The breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay.  It was one of the nicer campsites I have used in a long time.

Yesterday morning, we had a leisurely breakfast before packing up.  We headed down the trail, pausing at the waterfall on Big Stonecoal Creek again.  Soon, we were back in the blueberries and the meadows of the morning before.  We took a break for lunch in a shady cedar grove.  Although we hiked uphill for most of the morning, the grade was gentle enough that we hardly noticed it. 

After lunch, we climbed onto a ridge and had a great view of the valley to the west, including the wind farms near Canaan Mountain.  The Rocky Ridge Trail took us past beautiful white rock formations and more blueberries.  The open terrain, stunted trees, blueberries, sandy trail, and big sky reminded me of hiking out west.  We saw a little bit of bear sign along the trail.  Given the number of blueberries, I am surprised we did not see more of it.   We turned east and hiked through the meadows back to the car, taking a short break in a grove of trees to escape the heat.  Yesterday afternoon was quite a bit warmer than Saturday afternoon and we were out in the sun for most of it. I paid for the good views with a good sunburn.

All said and done, with the water haul, we hiked almost 23 miles.  The trail wound through some of the most diverse, spectacular landscapes I've seen in the Mid-Atlantic.  We will definitely be back.

Lots of pictures (click to enlarge):
Rhododendron maximum (Great Rhododendron)

Following the bypass trail towards Raven Ridge

Dennstaedtia punctilobula (Hay Scented Ferns) near the Raven Ridge Trail.

Heiracium aurantiacum (Devil's Paintbrush)

Blueberries along the trail.  These were not left behind.

Potentilla tridenta (Three Toothed Cinquefoil)

Vaccinium macrocarpon (Large Cranberry).  It isn't a great picture, but I do not get the opportunity to take pictures of cranberry flowers very often.

Beaver Dam along the trail.  The water is red due to the high tannin content.

This snapping turtle was resting in the mud just below the beaver dam.

The grove of replanted pines where we camped.

The rocks at Lion's Head.  This photo is looking northwest.

Bootshot over the Red Creek Valley

Lion's Head at sunset.

Sunset at Lion's Head looking south.

Waterfall on Big Stonecoal Creek.

White rocks on the Rocky Ridge Trail.

Hiking along the Rocky Ridge Trail.

A small stream close to the trailhead.

Lilium philadelphicum (Wood Lily) near the trailhead. 

Chamerion platyphyllum (Fireweed) along Public Road 75 near Red Creek Campground.

A butterfly on Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed) along Public Road 75. 

A Monarch Butterfly caterpillar on a A. syriaca leaf.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Independence Day - Last Day of the Season for Old Rag Mountain Stewards

Yesterday was the last day of the spring/summer season for Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS).  We take the last half of the summer off and start up again in the fall, when the mountain is really busy.  It was nice and cool when we left Silver Spring, but by the time we started up the Fire Road, it was well into the 80s.  I stopped at the Hughes River and dunked my head.  I also stopped a few times along the way to take pictures of flowers.

At the summit, we found a shady spot to wait for the group of stewards coming up the Ridge Trail.  We talked to a few people and gave out chlorine tablets to one group who was out of water.  We also met a man who volunteers with a program similar to ORMS on the Billy Goat Trail at Great Falls Park.  Now that is a crowded trail because it is right outside the Beltway in Maryland.  After a while, we headed down to Byrd's Nest Shelter for a first aid scenario. 

On the way home, we were able to see fireworks from a few of the DC suburbs.  I'm looking forward to both hiking in other places and being back on Old Rag in the fall.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Swallowtail butterflies drinking the moisture from a wet spot on the fire road.

Goodyera pubescens (Downy Rattlesnake Plantain).

Ipomoea pandurata (Wild Potato Vine).  A member of the Morning Glory Family.

Desmodum nudiflorum (Naked Tick Trefoil).  This was a bit challenging to photograph since the flowers are small and the spike was swaying in the breeze.  These are blooming all along the Fire Road right now.

Another view of D. nudiflorum.