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).

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