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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting you found that explanation of the frost heaves.