Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Compton Gap to Manassas Gap on the Virginia Appalachian Trail

Back to hiking:  We got a late start on Sunday. By the time we were on trail, it was 11:30 a.m., but none of us had anywhere to be in the evening, so we decided to hike 13 miles anyway (we could have opted for an 8.2 mile section hike).  We met a friend at the parking lot at Manassas Gap, left her car there, and drove south, into Shenandoah National Park, to Compton Gap.

The trail climbs slightly from the parking area before a long descent out of the park.  The summer wildflowers were in full bloom along the trail here.  There had been a storm the night before, so the ground was damp and soft.  Not too long after we started, we were startled by a tree falling.  It wasn't very close, but it was loud.  We would see and hear branches falling all day.  By the end of the day, none of us wanted to stand under a tree with obvious widowmakers.  It was as if the forest was throwing a tantrum.

We quickly reached the park boundary and had lunch at the Tom Floyd Wayside, a pleasant shelter.  From there, we passed the 4-H Center, crossed a county road, climbed a short hill, and made it to Chester Gap.  We crossed Highway 522 and started to gradually climb towards High Knob, the only serious climb of the hike.  The first part of the climb passes along the fence of the National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center.  Sadly, no baby red pandas or leopard cubs were seen on the hike (not that we actually expected to see them, but how cool would that have been!).  We did see some lovely butterflies on Eutrochium purpureum (Joe Pye Weed).  The climb up to High Knob starts out very gradually.  It gets steeper, but is never very difficult and the trail doesn't actually go to the top of the ridge, rather it skirts around it.  Just beyond the high point of the trail, we spotted a grouse crossing the trail.  We were surprised to actually see it.  Usually, you just jump out of your skin as they dramatically fly away, sounding like a helicopter taking off. 

The trail down the other side of High Knob is much steeper, but not too difficult.  We crossed another county road and began the last small climb of the hike.  At the top of that hill, there was a really nice open bald.  We met the PATC trail overseer for the section and chatted with him for a few minutes before hiking the last mile to the car. It was a good hike, but it was hot and humid.  Climbing the hills left us all soaked from sweat.  It rained once, but it only lasted a few minutes.  We ended the day with pizza in Front Royal. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on a large (~6 feet) Eutrochium purpureum (Joe Pye Weed)
 Lactuca floridana (Blue Lettuce)
 Silene stellata (Starry Campion)
 Clinopodium vulgare (Wild Basil)
 Lobelia inflata (Indian Tobacco)
 Verbesina occidentalis (Crown-beard)
 Solanum dulcamara (Bittersweet Nightshade).  This one is not native to Virginia.
 Rain clouds passing over an old pasture.
 Impatiens capensis (Jewelweed)
 Mimulus ringens (Monkey Flower)
A bench under an old apple tree right on the trail. 

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