Monday, October 24, 2011

How to Make a Hike Last All Day: Three Ridges and the Mau-Har Trail

I hiked the Mau-Har Trail in Central Virginia in 2002 as part of a five day backpacking trip.  The friend I was with and I decided to skip what looked like a more difficult section of the Appalachian Trail in favor a pretty waterfalls and a little less climbing.  Since then, I have wanted to go back there and hike the Three Ridges section of the Appalachian Trail, which we missed.  Starting at Reed's Gap, the Appalachian Trail and the Mau-Har Trail make a 14.4 mile loop that is considered to be one of the more difficult dayhikes in Virginia, with nearly 3,900 feet of climbing.

We spent the night before the hike in a condo at Wintergreen Resort thanks to a friend who rented it for the weekend for another event.  The hike had been on her list for a while, too, so it was the perfect opportunity to get it done.  Reed's Gap is just about 15 minutes from Wintergreen.  It felt a bit strange not to drive two hours before a hike, but I think I could adjust to it if I had to.  It was chilly enough for hats and gloves when the four of us started hiking at 8 a.m.  The early morning sunlight streamed through the changing leaves as we began climbing out of the gap.

We made pretty good time, at first.  We quickly reached Maupin Field Shelter and continued up Bee Mountain, the first serious climb of the day.  As we continued walking, however, we kept noticing more and more interesting things to photograph.  All four of us enjoy photography, so the pauses were frequent.  At Hanging Rock, we had a great view of The Priest to the south and all of the fall colors at their peak.  The sun warmed us up after a chilly hike in the shade to get there.  We must have spent 45 minutes taking pictures and enjoying the view. 

From Hanging Rock, the trail crosses the Three Ridges, which give the hike its name.  We reached the top thinking that for a hike that is reputed to be so difficult, the climbing wasn't difficult at all.  We would pay for our smugness later.  The descent off of the ridge was relatively well-switchbacked and the leaves were just amazing colors.  We stopped for lunch on a rock outcrop with a good view.  We also stopped at Chimney Rock and took more pictures.  For a few minutes, we had a good view of two turkey vultures sunning themselves on a rock.  Then they tired of the attention and flew off.  As we descended, the leaves became brighter and late asters bloomed along the trail. 

We took another long break at Harper's Creek Shelter.  At that point, it was 2:30.  We had hiked about 8 miles.  In 6.5 hours.  We still had 6.5 to go and about four hours of daylight.  We resolved to stop only twice more to take pictures.  When we reached the first spot, where the trail crossed the main part of Harper's Creek, it didn't turn out that the waterfall was quickly accessible.

At the next trail junction, we paused a moment before turning onto the much less well-traveled Mau-Har Trail.  I remembered the trail being difficult because I was carrying a heavy pack in 2002 and because I was not in terribly good shape then.  Well, it turned out that the trail was difficult because it is pretty steep, both going up and down. Going down was more challenging this time because fallen leaves covered the trail, hiding rocks and making the trail slippery.  We reached Campbell Creek and spent a little while exploring the waterfalls.  The climb out of Campbell Creek is steep, rocky, and spectacular.  The rhododendron-lined trail follows the creek for about a mile and passes countless cascades.  At this point, though, we were running out of daylight and tired, so we pressed on to the top of the ridge.  We took a break at the Maupin Field Shelter and made it back to the car at 6 p.m., just before sunset.

This is one of the toughest hikes I've done in the Mid-Atlantic (part of it was self-induced with the slow pace).  It is also one of the most spectacular.  Between the fall colors, beautiful waterfalls, and great views, it is in a class by itself.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Sunrise from Wintergreen Resort
 A turning maple leaf
 A fern along the trail.
 Bootshot from Hanging Rock with the Priest in the distance.
 Turning leaves from Hanging Rock
 Turning maple leaves
 Lunch.  We do like to "rough" it on trail with good cheese, salami, and chocolate.
 Club moss.
 A small cascade on Campbell Creek.
 Golden leaves.
 A turning sassafras leaf.
 The view from Harper's Creek Shelter
 Campbell Creek Falls
Sunset at Reed's Gap.

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