Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fifteen Miles of Old Farms - The Thornton River Area of Shenandoah

Three of us set out yesterday to hike from the eastern boundary of Shenandoah National Park at the Piney Branch Trailhead, where our North District PATC map indicated there was a trailhead and limited parking.  As happens with maps, conditions have changed and that is no longer accurate.  There is a locked gate and a No Trespassing sign across a private road where hikers were once likely allowed access to the park.  It is hard to say what happened:  The property could have changed hands or the landowner may have had a bad experience with people crossing his or her land to visit the park.  It is a good reminder to be respectful of people who live near the park so that everyone may continue to have access.

Fortunately, the Thornton River Trail was just a mile south of where we were.  We found a parking spot and set off west, toward skyline drive, with a slightly altered route.  The first 1.8 miles of the trail climbs very gradually along the right side of the Thornton River.  At the first trail junction, we turned right on the Hull School trail and began to climb. 

Before long, we turned left on the Piney Ridge Trail.  This area of the North District was one of the more heavily populated in Shenandoah.  Stone walls and house foundations were everywhere and we also came across an old family cemetery along the way.  As we climbed higher, the trail leveled out in several places.  On these flatter spots, we found old orchards with apple trees and blackberries still growing.  Few of the apple trees had any fruit on them and, with one exception, the fruit on those that did were tiny.  Just after we turned south on the Appalachian Trail, we found a tree with relatively large apples on it, some of them ripe.  We paused for a few moments to eat a few.  They were tart, but good.  While we were eating, another hiker passed and gave us a funny look. More apples for us!

After a quick mile, we arrived at Elkwallow Wayside and the pandemonium of Skyline Drive.  We took advantage of the facilities and decided that we could not pass the store without getting a blackberry milkshake as a reward for the climb up from the valley.  We sat in the shade for a few minutes, enjoying our milkshakes and people watching before continuing south on the Appalachian Trial.  The trail skirts west of the wayside and then climbs up above Jeremy's Run.  This was probably the steepest climb we had all day.  Fortunately, it was short.  After nearly three miles, we turned back east on the Thornton River Trail and made our way down to Skyline Drive.  From there, we had five miles back to the car.  On our way down to the valley, we passed an old rusted out car from the 1930s.  We also startled a bear that ran off before we got the chance to see it. 

All said and done, we hiked 15 miles yesterday, which is the longest hike we have done in quite a while.  Although the trails we hiked yesterday are used more frequently than the ones we've been hiking over the past several weeks, they are still very quiet.  Not including the wayside, we only saw seven other hikers and four of those were in the four miles were were on the Appalachian Trail.

Summer is definitely winding down.  Although it was hot and humid yesterday, higher up on the mountain, the leaves are yellowing on the underbrush and beginning to drop.  Blackberies, one of the last summer fruits, are nearly done.  I am sure there is more hot weather ahead of us, but fall is not far away.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

A butterfly along the road where we were waiting for a friend.

Trees pulled down by bears trying to get to the berries on them.  The bears are pretty happy to use the human trails to get around.

Mushrooms along the trail.

An apple tree on the Appalachian Trail.

Butterfly on a thistle at Elkwallow Wayside.

Impatiens capensis (Jewelweed) near Elkwallow Picnic Area.

 Symphyotrichum patens (Late Aster) along the Thornton River Trail)

Aureolaria flava (False Foxglove) on the Thornton River Trail.

Verbesina alternifolia (Wingstem) along the Appalachian Trail.  Composite Family

The next two photos aren't great, but they show some flowers I haven't seen before and I thought it would be worthwhile to include them. 

Prenanthes trifoliata (Tall Rattlesnake Root).  This plant has uniquely divided leaves and is typically found further north than Shenandoah. Composite Family.

Lobelia inflata (Indian Tobacco).  I included this one because it shows the marker of the Lobelia Family:  Flowers in this family all have a lower lip with three distinct lobes.  This plant is pretty small, about 8 inches tall and the flowers are less than 1/2 inch long.


  1. Those are some of my favorite trails from my youth! Piney Ridge used to just be a fft (fire foot trail) Piney Branch is likewise beautiful... I used to help tend the Dwyer cemetery when I was a kid...with the Dwyer kids. Just below the junction of PRT and HST is an old cemetery with numerous graves (as in more than 20) said to be slave graves..
    ..As far as the gate, That's the problem with newcomers from the outside... they always want to shut out all others.. close the door behind them..even for those who have a long time history in the area... and respect and love for the land. urgh!

  2. I last hiked Piney Branch trail from the east boundary 9 or 10 years ago and I remembered parking near the trail head and hiking a short way through private property to the park boundary. It was a little disorienting at first, trying to figure out what changed...we compared maps (my 1994 PATC North District Map to Emily's fairly new map.) Mine indicates a trail from the road to the park boundary...hers shows a road leading to the trail head. And now even the newer map is not accurate.

    Being the flexible folks we are, we easily came up with Plan B and had a great hike.