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.

1 comment:

  1. believe it or not BDS was the ORM of it's day... and access was lost because of the same issues that face Old Rag... overcrowding, disrespect for the land and adjoining landowners, parking EVERYWHERE... being just a few miles from where I grew up, it was the closest "adventure climbing" for a bored teenager.The bottom of the gorge was truly a spectacular hike.. before the hemlocks died..