Monday, February 28, 2011

Waterfalls and Presidential Retreats

Yesterday was one of those warm sunny late winter days that are perfect for a long hike.  It was the first day of hiking in many months that we were able to hike in just long sleeved shirts.  In fact, when we were climbing hills, I was wishing for a t-shirt.  As we were driving to Big Meadows, I noticed that many of the trees have buds on them, which means wildflowers are just a few weeks away.  I have enjoyed the winter, but I am definitely ready for spring.

We met the Wandering Virginian at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park.  The parking lot was completely empty except for our two vehicles.  We started with a quick, steep 0.5 mile descent to Lewis Falls. The falls were running well and, in spite of the warm temperatures, there was still a lot of ice around them in the shade.  We spent a few minutes in the sunshine enjoying the falls before heading back uphill to the junction with the Appalachian Trail. 

The Appalachian Trail in this section is pretty flat and easy.  We passed the Tanner Ridge Cemetery, which is still in use, before reaching Milam Gap, where we took a break for lunch.  Along the way, we found several old fruit trees from when the area was still being farmed.  We were also lucky enough to see a couple of eastern bluebirds.  At Milam Gap, we crossed Skyline Drive and began the long, relatively gentle climb up to Hazeltop Mountain.  The ground was still frozen in shady spots and we noticed a strange thing happening:  When we stepped, the ground would break away and we would sink a couple of inches.  Frost heave had pushed the top layer of soil up, where it had dried, leaving a small hollow gap just underneath the surface. 

We took another short break on some rocks with a nice view just below the summit of Hazeltop.  From there, the trail descended to the Laurel Prong Trail, where we turned east.  After a mile, the trail turns north and descends towards Rapidan Camp.  The beginning of the descent was a muddy, slimy mess.  The ground had completely thawed, but had not dried out very much.  Once we were down the steepest section, though, the mud ended.  Go figure.  There were lots of blowdowns and windfall-not surprising, given the high winds of the last two weeks. 

At the end of the Laurel Prong Trail is the predecessor to Camp David:  Camp Hoover or Rapidan Camp.  The camp was President Hoover's retreat from Washington, DC in the summer.  President Roosevelt chose a retreat in the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland, which became Camp David.  Several of the buildings have been restored and it is in a beautiful location at the confluence of Laurel and Mill Prongs. 

From there, we hiked up the Mill Prong Trail, pausing to take pictures at Big Rock Falls.  Above the falls, the Mill Prong Trail turns away from the stream and heads uphill to connect with Big Meadows Fire Road.  We hiked the last mile on the road, reaching the car after 5 1/2 hours (we hiked 11 miles).  It was a great day and the weather just could not have been any better.  We only saw a handful of other people out hiking and the park just felt deserted.  That won't last long.  Soon Skyline Drive will be packed and the more popular trails like that down to Rapidan Camp will be thronged with people.  We'll enjoy the solitude while it lasts.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

Lewis Falls

 Looking southwest from the overlook near the summit of Hazeltop Mountain.

Looking west from the overlook near Hazeltop Mountain.
The presidential quarters at Rapidan Camp.
Big Rock Falls.
Another view of Big Rock Falls.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Great North Mountain: Falls Ridge-Laurel Run Loop

The end of last week was so warm and pleasant.  It was too bad that it didn't last at least one day into the weekend.  That being said, 50 degrees and windy is better than 20 degrees (which is still much better than 35 degrees and raining).  We spent the weekend with friends in Bayse, Virginia, which gave us the opportunity to hike in the Great North Mountain area. 

Getting up, having a leisurely breakfast (our friend made fresh scones!), and then driving just 15 minutes to the trailhead for a full day of hiking was a rare treat.   When we left the house in the morning, the wind was already screaming in the valley, which meant that it would be gale force on the ridge.  We opted for a loop that would only keep us on the ridge top for about two miles.  The Falls Ridge trail follows an old roadbed between two parcels of land with numerous "Keep Out" and "No Trespassing" signs on either side.  After crossing a logging road, it climbs steeply up to the top of the first ridge.  There are switchbacks, which help, but it is still pretty steep.  We stopped to have lunch once the trail leveled out.  In the sun and sheltered from the wind, it was quite pleasant out.

We soon reached the North Mountain Trail, where we turned north towards the Laurel Run Trail.  The trail follows the ridgeline, which left us pretty exposed to the wind.  We made good time, though, crossing a couple of meadows along the way.  A band of cliffs formed the east side of the last hill we had to climb.  There were several overlooks along the cliffs, giving us a great view of the Shenandoah Valley.  We could see two fires burning in the valley, one of them large.  Given the dry conditions and the wind, we were not very surprised to see them.

We were happy to begin our descent on the Laurel Run Trail.  We were quickly below the worst of the wind.  We found a frozen little pond just below the ridge top, which was a surprise, considering how warm it had been.  The last part of the hike is 2.5 miles along a logging road, primarily crossing clearcuts.  It wasn't one of the more pleasant sections of trail I have ever hiked.  The wind was stronger in the clearcuts than it was on the wooded ridge and it kicked up dust and debris every time it gusted.  It is too bad that you have to walk that section to make a loop out of the rest of the trails (at least from the trailhead we used).

Pictures (click to enlarge):

Moss and Mountain Laurel on the North Mountain Trail.

Part of the band of cliffs on the North Mountain Trail.

The frozen pond on the Laurel Run Trail.

Ice on the pond.

 Water flowing over leaves in Laurel Run.

The Shenandoah Valley from an overlook along the North Mountain Trail.  Click to enlarge.  This is the first panoramic I've made using an automatic tool in a photo editor.  There are a few artifacts in it (such as the diagonal dark areas in the sky), but overall, it turned out pretty well.  It is made from six individual photos.  The large fire is visible near the center of the panorama.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Windy Day on Buzzard Rock

The original plan was to spend the weekend snowshoeing in Dolly Sods.  Unfortunately, the job that supports my outdoor habit interfered with the plan to be out of town all weekend.  I very rarely have to work on weekends, so I can't complain too much, especially since we were able to squeeze in a long dayhike with the Wandering Virginian

When we started from the Elizabeth Furnace area, the sun had not yet crested the east ridge of Mansanutten Mountain.  Passage Creek still had a lot of ice on its surface.  The trail up to Shawl Gap follows the creek north for about 1/4 mile before turning uphill.  The trail winds back and forth as it climbs the ridge in long, easy switchbacks.  Higher up on the ridge, ice covered most of the trail where it sees little sun this time of year.

We took a quick break at Shawl Gap before turning north for the two mile hike to Buzzard Rock.  After climbing up the first hill north of Shawl Gap, the trail sticks to the west side of the ridge.  Since it is in the shade most of the day, it was covered in several inches of snow in places.  As we progressed along the ridge, the wind picked up a lot.  By the time we reached Buzzard Rock, it howled and swirled through the trees.  We found a sheltered spot in the sun to have lunch.  I really like Buzzard Rock.  It is not dramatically high, at only about 1,400 feet, but it is an impressive knife-edged ridge.  The top of Buzzard Rock is only a few meters wide and the west side is a breath-taking drop of several hundred feet.  The rock is layers of sandstone which have been upturned and are nearly vertical, part of a much larger complex of folded rocks that make up Mansanutten Mountain (more information on the area's geology can be found here). 

From Buzzard Rock, we returned to Shawl Gap and continued south on the Mansanutten Trail towards Sherman Gap.  The trail stays on top of the ridge, so it was windy, but sunny and relatively warm.  Though there aren't really any clear views, this time of year Shenandoah National Park is visible through the trees from most of the ridge.  We took another break at Sherman Gap.  We decided to hike another 3/4 of a mile out to a rumored point overlooking the Shenandoah River.  Along the way, we flushed a couple of grouse and hiked through dense thickets of blueberry bushes.  The overlook had a nice view of the river through the trees.

We returned to Sherman Gap and began the long, rocky hike back to the car.  Once we dropped off of the ridge, the wind dropped off and it was quite a bit warmer.  We made it back to the parking lot about half an hour before sunset.  One of the great things about Mansanutten is solitude:  We saw three other people in 13.5 miles of hiking, all of whom were on the trail out to Buzzard Rock. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Shenandoah National Park in the distance to the east.
The ice-covered trail up to Shawl Gap.
Buzzard Rock
Boot shot from Buzzard Rock.  This is looking west over the valley.
Looking south from Buzzard Rock.
The Mansanutten Trail south of Shawl Gap.  If you enlarge the picture, you can see the ice-covered trail going up the hill.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Don't Try This at Home, Kids: Ice and Snowshoeing on Old Rag

A cautionary note about this hike:  Hiking Old Rag this time of year is a serious undertaking.  There is currently a lot of ice on the mountain, making many areas of the rock scramble dangerous.  On Sunday, many of the areas in the rock scramble would have been impassable without traction devices.  The solitude of hiking in the winter, combined with the extra risk from the ice should not be taken lightly.  Getting hurt likely means spending the night out in the snow.

The hike:  My only regret from last year's snowstorms was that I did not get to snowshoe on Old Rag.  Somehow, we just didn't get around to it.  We received enough snow in last week's snowstorm that a friend and I decided to make an attempt at snowshoeing the mountain on Sunday.  We arrived just before 10 a.m. and the parking lot was a sight to see:  only three other cars.  I think that is the fewest number of cars I have ever seen in the parking lot.  The road to the trailhead was plowed, so we strapped the snowshoes to our packs and set off.  The snow on the ridge trail was pretty packed down, so I put on my microspikes, rather than my snowshoes for the hike up.

We made good time on the Ridge trail.  The snow was packed, but not icy and it was warm enough to hike without a coat for the first time in a few weeks.  One of the local dogs, a little border collie mix, ran between us and a group of guys in front of us trying to convince us to throw sticks for it.  We left that group behind just before the rock scramble.  We encountered our first serious ice at the beginning of the rock scramble, just below the first big overlook.  We made it over without too much difficulty, but it was a preview of what was to come.  We took a break for lunch and to enjoy the warm sun at the overlook.  The group of guys playing with the dog earlier passed us and then returned a short time later, having been turned back by ice.

The Gumball Drop is the first big drop on the rock scramble.  It involves lowering oneself down into an eight-foot deep crack.  There are good footholds, which I was happy to see did not have ice on them.  Then we turned the corner.  The two drops below that were entirely covered in ice.  We very, very carefully descended, sticking the points of our traction devices into the ice.  These are spots that do not normally even register as difficult when it is dry, but they were pretty hairy with half an inch of ice on them.  There were fewer tracks in the snow beyond that point, but we definitely were not the first people who had hiked to the summit since the snowstorm.

There were a few more icy spots along the way.  A lot of the handholds that one would usually use in the more difficult areas were iced over and completely useless.  We went really slow and made sure each step and handhold was secure in every area that was icy.  We avoided the ice wherever we could.  The last, most difficult spot, the Chute, required a team effort to ascend because the handholds were iced over.  After that, we reached the summit without much more difficulty.  There was about a foot of snow in the sheltered areas of the summit ridge, while the more windswept areas of the summit were bare.  We took a short break and enjoyed the sunshine and the view.  A very frozen White Oak Falls was visible in the distance.

For the hike down, I put on my snowshoes.  The snow deep enough for them until just above the high water bridges on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.  We saw bear tracks along the road below the bridge over the Hughes River. 

It was a great trip, but not one to take lightly.  Traction devices of some kind are highly advisable.  The solitude of hiking Old Rag this time of year is a beautiful thing, but it also carries a lot of responsibility.  Once we left the Gumball Drop area, we did not see another person until we arrived at the upper parking lot on the way down. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
The Ridge Trail

The first big overlook on the Ridge Trail.

Ice on the rock scramble.  This is normally an easy move, if a bit of a squeeze.  The rock I am standing on and the rock I am leaning on are both covered in ice. 

Ice covering rocks near the summit.

A snow drift near the summit.

The S-curve where I always take a picture.

Bootshot from the summit.

The summit from the Saddle Trail.

Mountain Laurel on the Saddle Trail.

A dried flower head on the Saddle Trail.

A bear track on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.