Monday, May 2, 2011

Old Rag Mountain Stewards: Flowers and Crowds

We had perfect weather for Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS) on Saturday:  60s and bright and sunny.  That meant crowds.  When we pulled into the parking lot at 9:30 a.m., the lot was already three-quarters full.  There was a single church group with more than 150 (!) people milling about, getting ready to leave for their hike.  I've seen a lot of large church groups, scout troops, and hiking clubs on Old Rag, but this was, hands-down, the largest group I've ever seen up there.  That group was on top of the rest of the hikers that were planning to go up the mountain.  We decided that was a good enough reason to hike up the Weakley Hollow Fire Road, rather than the Ridge Trail, to avoid the backups such a large group would create in the rock scramble.  On our way up, we heard something on the radio that we usually only hear in the fall:  The Old Rag parking lot was full.

The fire road, however, was pretty quiet, and lined with wildflowers.  We didn't start meeting big groups until we were on the Saddle Trail.   By the time we made it to the summit, however, many of the larger groups were already on their way down.  We spent some time up there, enjoying the sun, giving directions, and doing some training on patient assessment. 

With most of the crowds gone, we hiked down the Ridge Trail in peace and quiet.  I really like hiking down the mountain in early evening in the spring, particularly the Ridge Trail.  The days are long enough that we aren't hiking out in the dark.  Most people hike down the Saddle Trail, so the Ridge Trail is usually pretty empty.  Birds sing in the cool evening air and the mountain is at its best.  One of my favorite spots on the mountain in the spring is a hillside, just below the beginning of the scramble.  Most of the year it looks like the rest of the mountain, covered in underbrush in the summer or dead leaves in fall and winter.  For a couple of weeks in the spring, however, the entire hillside is covered in Trillium grandiflorum (Giant Trillium).  It is a spectacular sight. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
The hillside covered with Trillium grandiflorum (Giant Trillium).
 Podophyllum peltatum (Mayapple). 
A dung beatle rolling a ball of dung in the leaf litter.
Orchis spectabilis (Showy Orchis)
Cypripedium parviflorum (Yellow Lady Slipper).
Corydalis semipervirens (Pale Corydalis).
 Robertson Mountain.  The leaves are budding out further up the mountains.
 The S-curve where I always take a picture.  The trees have just started to bud out up here.
 Rhododendron roseum (Hoary Azalea).  There are two kinds of azaleas on Old Rag.  This one is very fragrant and the stamens are about as long as the flower itself.  The name comes from the leaves, which are wooly all over the underside.
Rhododendron nudiflorum (Pinxter or Pink Azalea).  This one has no fragrance and the stamens are much longer than the flower. 
 This picture and the one below it are one of the big resource management problems on Old Rag.  In the rock scramble, long lines often form behind a couple of difficult bottlenecks.  Hikers get impatient and look for ways around the line.  When one person does this, the area can recover quickly.  However, when hundreds of people stomp a path through the brush every weekend, the area never has a chance to recover.  In this area, erosion gullies have formed and there are numerous social trails (i.e. paths that are not actually on the trail).  Given the fragile environment on the mountain, it is worth a few minutes wait to avoid further damaging it.
An erosion gully forming where people regularly leave the trail to avoid lines.

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