Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Avoiding the Crowds: Little Devils Staircase

We were not planning to go hiking this weekend.  After all of the travel, we were a bit tired and the apartment needed to be cleaned.  The forecast for Sunday made us reconsider.  How many more 75 degree days are we going to get this year?  We made good progress on the cleaning front on Saturday, so on Sunday, we got up early and headed to Little Devils Staircase in Shenandoah National Park.  Our goal was to avoid the crowds of people who would be clubbing each other for parking spaces at certain trailheads

We arrived at the parking lot to find just four other vehicles there.  Talk about a good start.  The leaves in the valleys haven't reached peak color yet, so the trail was lined with a mix of yellow and green.  We leap-frogged with a group of five briefly before leaving them behind as we began the steep climb up into the canyon.  The higher we climbed, the better the leaves got, with bright yellows and the occasional bright red filling the narrow valley.

The climb up the staircase is steep, but short and soon, we were at the Keyser Run Fire Road.  We stopped for lunch at a campsite near the junction.  While we were sitting there, we listened to several woodpeckers "calling" back and forth by loudly hammering trees.  After lunch, we continued on the Pole Bridge Link Trail and then the Sugarloaf Mountain Trail.  The latter took us up to the Appalachian Trail (AT) and Skyline Drive.  As we got near the drive, we saw a few more people, but mostly we just heard the traffic.  We stopped at one of the overlooks and were impressed (not in a good way) with the amount of traffic on the drive.  Walking was definitely the better way to get up there.  The view to the west from the overlook was worth it, though.

From there, we continued south on the AT, crossing Skyline Drive twice and passing the trail down to Overall Run Falls.  It was amazing what a difference a few feet made:  The leaves were completely off the trees and the grass completely dormant on the highest points along the AT.  Just a few feet down, the grass was still green and the leaves were still on the trees.  A few more feet down and asters were still blooming. 

We quickly reached the junction with the Piney Branch Trail and headed back down towards the valley below.  Soon the traffic noise died away, except for the occasional motorcycle and even their noise faded eventually.  We hiked for several miles without seeing another person.  At the waterfall a mile or so above the junction with the Hull School Trail, we stopped to take a few pictures.  We climbed the hill on the Hull School Trail, connected with the Keyser Run Fire Road, and made our way back to the car. 

The leaves were spectacular on the hike, and apart from the two overlooks on Skyline Drive that we passed, we probably saw 20 other people over almost 12 miles.  Most of them were on Little Devils Staircase and Sugarloaf Mountain Trails.  That is more people than one would usually see on those trails, but it was also the busiest weekend of the year in the park.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

 Lower Little Devils Staircase Trail.

 Orange tree on Little Devils Staircase.

 More pretty trees on Little Devils Staircase

Ageratina altissima (White Snakeroot).  Eupatorium rotundifolium (?) (Round Leaved Boneset).  I am not certain I've identified this correctly, so if anyone has any other ideas, I'm open to them.

 Maple leaves.

 Pole Bridge Link Trail.

 Cars at an overlook on Skyline Drive.  It was a bit cloudy when we were up near the drive.

 Looking east from Skyline Drive.

 Looking northeast from Skyline Drive.

 The waterfall on Piney Branch Trail.

Keyser Run Fire Road near the cemetery.


  1. Regarding the wildflower ID, how long were the petioles on the upper and lower leaves? I can't tell from the photo but it appears they might be long enough to indicate White Snakeroot, Ageratina altissima (formerly Eupatorium rugosum), which is listed as common in the SNP flora, versus uncommon for the E. rotundifolium.

  2. Thanks! I am pretty sure you are right. I've made the correction. Apparently, my books (Newcomb's and Peterson's) are old enough not to have the new name.