Monday, May 23, 2011

Miles and Miles of Flowers: Stony Man Overlook to Hawksbill Summit

We set off in search of flowers yesterday and did we ever find them.  We also picked up a couple of trails that we hadn't been on before.  We started at the Stony Man Overlook near milepost 39 on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.  The flowers started as soon as we got out of the car:  Scattered around the south end overlook were Aquilegia vulgaris (Garden Columbine), a non-native, but lovely flower.  As soon as we entered the woods, we encountered the distinctive smell of Rhododendron roseum (Hoary Azalea).

Our route for most of the day would be the Appalachian Trail.  After less than a quarter mile of walking, we came out into a clearing along the edge of Skyline Drive.  Yesterday was one of the first truly warm days of the year, so we were pretty happy to get to the south end of the clearing and back into the full shade of the woods.  The woods at the elevation of the overlook are completely leafed out and transitioning to early summer.  From there, the trail begins a gradual, pleasant climb up to Little Stony Man, passing the Passamaquoddy Trail along the way.  We spent a few minutes on the rocks of Little Stony Man, before continuing the climb up to Stony Man.  Even though it was warm and we were climbing, there was a nice breeze.  As we got closer to Stony Man, there was less shade since the trees haven't fully leafed out at that elevation. 

We had lunch on Stony Man and even had a few minutes of solitude on the summit.  On the way down the Nature Trail/Appalachian Trail, the forest floor was covered in Houstonia caerulea (Bluets).  We passed Skyland and the horse stables and continued towards Hawksbill, the highest point in Shenandoah.  We had much of this section of the trail to ourselves, only occasionally passing another hiker.  The birds filled the air with songs and we occasionally heard a Pileated Woodpecker crying in the distance.  We passed through groves where Hay Scented Ferns covered the entire forest floor. 

When we reached the Lower Hawksbill parking area, we took the Lower Hawksbill Trail up to the summit.  The weather seemed to be deteriorating and it sort of tried to rain for a little while as we were climbing.  By the time we made it to the summit, however, it had stopped and we had a decent view.  We returned the way we came until we reached Skyland, where we turned west on the Furnace Spring Trail. 

The Furnace Spring Trail does not appear to get used very much, in spite of its proximity to Skyland.  It is one of the least distinct trails I've seen in Shenandoah (I say this having not hiked in the south district very much).  There isn't much to it in the half-mile between the Appalachian Trail and the junction with the Passamaquoddy Trail.  The Passamaquoddy Trail might have the most letters in its name per mile of any trail in the park, especially since it is only a mile long.  That mile was one of the more pleasant of the day.  The trail winds along the cliffs below Stony Man for the first three quarters of a mile.  At one point, we found a tiny waterfall pouring down from a cliff, nearly onto the trail.  As we walked up an indigo bunting flew off.  Behind the waterfall, there was a perfectly flat rock in the cool shade.  We took the opportunity to splash the cold water our faces and took a short break on the rock.  Further on, we passed Little Stony Man and another nice overlook, before returning to the Appalachian Trail and to the car.

We hiked about 14 miles.  It was one of those perfect days with birds singing, flowers blooming, and good timing.  We made it to the car just ahead of a downpour.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Viola pedata (Birds Foot Violet).  This violet is named for the shape of its leaves. 
 Aquilegia vulgaris (Garden Columbine), with Stony Man in the background at the Stony Man Overlook.  Non-native, but very pretty.
 Pedicularis canadensis (Wood Betony, Lousewort).  There are two color varieties of P. canadensis:  Burgundy and yellow (below).  These two were growing right next to each other.

 P. canadensis, Houstonia caerulea, and the leaves of Amianthium muscaetoxicum (Fly Poison) on the Stony Man Nature Trail.
Viola canadensis (Canada Violet).  The backs of the petals are lavender in this variety of violet. 
Micranthes virginiensis (Early Saxifrage) along the Appalachian Trail.
 Actaea pachypoda (White Baneberry, Doll's Eyes). 
 Early Spring near the summit of Hawksbill.
 Packera aureus (Golden Ragwort) on the Appalachian Trail.
 Potentilla canadensis (Dwarf Cinquefoil).
 Ranunculus fascicularis (Early Buttercup)
 Hay-Scented Ferns
The view from the overlook below Little Stony Man on the Passamaquoddy Trail.

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