Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bear Tracks, Bobcat Tracks, and Snow!

A little bit of snow fell in the Washington, DC area last week, so we figured a little bit more must have fallen in the mountains.  With holiday baking to do, we did not want to drive a great distance to hike, but we wanted to get out yesterday.  A loop consisting of Buck Ridge, Mary's Rock, and Buck Hollow fit the bill.  As a bonus, with the exception of the Mary's Rock portion of the hike, solitude is pretty easy to come by on this hike and in winter, it is pretty much guaranteed.  We were not disappointed in that regard.

We arrived at the trailhead early and met a trailrunner who mentioned that we would see bear tracks on Buck Ridge.  After packing up, we headed up the trail.  The Thornton River was running a little high and the rocks were icy, but manageable.  The rocks in the river were covered with snow and impressive ice formations.  After a few hundred feet, we turned up the Buck Ridge trail and began the steep climb that the trail is known for.  The first mile of the Buck Ridge trail is one of the steeper climbs in the park.  It is a challenging hike when it is dry.  The two inches of snow on the ground made it more of a challenge yesterday.  The pain is over quickly, though.  After about twenty minutes, the trail gradient eases somewhat into a more reasonable climb towards Skyline Drive.

Shortly after we finished the steepest section, we saw our first bear tracks.  The bear that left them followed the trail for a few feet and then turned off into the brush.  As we climbed towards the drive, we must have seen seven or eight more sets of bear tracks, several of them very fresh.  When we've hiked Buck Ridge in the summer, it always feels like a good place for bears since the trail is lined with blueberry bushes in several places.  Apparently, the bears agree.  We also saw a few bobcat tracks.  One bobcat left a set of tracks about half a mile long in otherwise untracked snow on the trail, before it turned off into the brush.

We crossed Skyline Drive and began the steep climb up the Meadow Spring Trail to the Appalachian Trail.  We were the first hikers on Meadow Spring since the snow fell.  We ran into another set of interesting bear tracks about halfway to the Appalachian Trail.  A tree had fallen across the trail and was covered by a couple of inches of snow.  We noticed bear tracks on the ground near it.  We were startled to see that the bear had walked up to the tree, then climbed up on it, and crossed the trail on it, leaving tracks in the snow on the tree.

We ate a quick lunch at the junction with the Appalachian Trail and continued on to Mary's Rock.  Although it was overcast, there was a good view from Mary's Rock.  Since it was cold (but not windy, at least), we didn't linger long up before returning to Skyline Drive.  From there, we headed down the Buck Hollow Trail.  There were some impressive ice formations on the waterfalls along the trail.  There were also some impressive ice sheets on the trail.  We returned to the car, having done almost 9 miles in the snow.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

  The Thornton River.

Buck Ridge Trail.

Ferns in the snow on Buck Ridge (If anyone knows which kind these are, let me know).

Bear track on Buck Ridge.  My foot is in the picture for scale.

Another bear track, this one more recent than the one above.

The only tracks ahead of us on Buck Ridge were left by a bobcat.

A bobcat track and some bird tracks.

The bear tracks on a long on the Meadow Spring Trail.

Mary's Rock.  It was about noon when I took this picture, but the clouds partially obscured the sun, making it look much later.

Bootshot off of Mary's Rock.

Ice formations on a waterfall.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Winter: The Peak and Big Devil's Staircase

We had originally planned to do a long loop hike in the North District of Shenandoah National Park that would have started from Skyline Drive.  Hunting season threw a wrench into those plans as they close Skyline Drive from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. each night to prevent poaching.  Since our plan involved almost three miles of bushwhackin, we were not confident that we could finish the hike in time to be out of the park by 5 p.m.  We decided to start at the eastern boundary of the park instead and hike up the Jordan River Trail.  This allowed us to do the bushwhack up to the Peak and still get a 14 mile hike in.

To access the Jordan River Trail, you have to cross private property, although on a road.  There are signs on nearly every tree on each side of the road announcing the trespassers will be prosecuted.  We decided they meant trespassing by leaving the road and that we would be all right walking the 100 yards to the boundary of the park (your mileage may vary).  The Jordan River Trail climbs steeply from the boundary up to Thoroughfare Gap, where it meets the Mount Marshall Trail.  The trail was covered in leaves that hadn't begun to decay nor had they been trampled into dust yet.  This meant we slipped a lot on them and tripped over the rocks they hid. 

At the junction with the Mt. Marshall trail, we began looking for a footpath to climb a mountain called The Peak.  The park used to maintain a loop trail that went over the summit, but for reasons I have not been able to determine, decided to stop maintaining it at least 15 years ago (based on the earliest guidebook our friend had checked).  We expected to have to bushwhack the 2.8 mile trail up the ridge across the summit.  SSW Spouse found the path right away.  We were surprised to discover that the path was more distinct that some maintained trails in other parts of the park or in the national forests.  In addition to the relatively clear footpath, even with the leaves on the ground, there were still blue blazes on some trees.

The first part of the path is one of the steeper ones I've been on in Shenandoah; not the steepest, but a pretty good climb.  It suddenly levels out on an old fire road that wraps around the south side of the mountain.  There were many, many blowdowns on the fire road.  There were also ice formations and a light dusting of snow on the trail, the first of both that we have seen this year, along with some good views of Old Rag and Mary's Rock to the south.  Near a ridge southeast of the summit, the path leaves the fire road and circles back to the summit.  In this area, the path was least distinct.  This was the only area that I would consider us to have been navigating "off-trail."  In the summer, however, the path would probably be nearly impossible to find (the entire path up and around The Peak would be overgrown and miserable in the summer). We had lunch on the summit and made our way back down to the junction with the Mt. Marshall Trail. 

From the junction, we turned uphill.  After half a mile, we came to the Bluff Trail.  From there, we hiked towards Big Devils Staircase.  Several streams crossed the Bluff Trail, some of the flowing right on the trail for a short distance.  We found a couple of small, pretty waterfalls and a spring.  The rain last week had all of the small streams flowing at or over their banks.  When we reached the junction with Big Devil's Staircase, we headed downhill to the overlook.  We took a break on the rocks and let the sun warm us up a bit.  There was a nice view of the waterfalls below us.

Big Devil's Staircase Trail, apparently, used to be accessible from the east boundary of the park.  It is no longer.  This means that to get to it, one has to hike in a relatively long distance from either Skyline Drive or one of the other boundary trailheads.  Since we were there, we decided to go ahead and hike down to the boundary.  Once we left the overlook, we hiked down towards the valley in a fairly unremarkable stand of forest.  Based on the disturbance of the leaves, I think more people have hiked The Peak since the leaves fell than have been down Big Devil's Staircase.  The trail turned toward the river just before we reached the boundary.  There were a few nice small waterfalls and some threatening signs about trespassing, but otherwise, it is not one of the more compelling trails I have hiked in the park.

From there, we made the steep climb back up to the Bluff trail and the long descent back to the car in the waning light.  Although I don't think it got out of the mid-30s, it was not windy, which makes for a pretty good day of winter hiking.  I would definitely go back and do The Peak again and hike down to the overlook on Big Devil's Staircase.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

 Frost on an oak leaf

Frost flowers along the Jordan River Trail.  Shenandoah Mountain Guides has a good explanation of how these form and great pictures of prettier ones than these.

The Mount Marshall Trail at Thoroughfare Gap.
Frost on the path up to The Peak.

Ice along the old fire road up to the Peak.

The view south from the old fire road.  Mary's Rock is visible in the center of the photo.

Bootshot from Big Devil's Staircase overlook.

Small waterfalls on the river below Big Devil's Staircase near the park boundary.

Looking south from the Big Devil's Staircase overlook.