Monday, December 5, 2011

The Rollercoaster: 14 Miles on the Appalachian Trail in Northern Virginia

The Rollercoaster was the only section of the Virginia Appalachian Trail north of Shenandoah National Park that we hadn't done before yesterday.  It has the reputation of being fairly challenging at 14.1 miles and 3,900 feet of climbing (northbound).  We set up a car shuttle and parked at Ashby Gap on US Highway 50.  As we pulled in, a large group was just getting ready to depart for their hike and we crossed our fingers that they were headed in the opposite direction (turns out they were). 

The trail climbs immediately out of Ashby Gap.  It was cold, windy and clear, but climbing warmed everyone up and soon we were stopping to peel off layers of clothing.  There was a lot of storm damage on the trail.  The snowstorm a month ago felled lots of trees and broke countless branches.  There were more fallen branches and trees on this section of the Appalachian Trail than on any other section of the AT I've ever been on.  That is certainly not meant as a criticism of the maintainers of this section.  I would imagine they are working as fast as time, weather, and day jobs allow.  It is more a testament to just how much damage that storm caused.

The morning went by quickly and we made good time on the rolling hills.  The trail was rocky in a few places and the fallen leaves made that more of a challenge, but everyone was in good spirits when we stopped for lunch.  There aren't a lot of clear views on the Rollercoaster, but we had a few nice ones through the trees.  The hollows are pretty in their own right.  Most of them had a small stream with rocks covered in bright green moss.  We took a break at Reservoir Hollow for a side trip up to the waterfall at the head of the valley.

After the side trip, we focused on covering as much ground as possible before sunset.  We were treated to a beautiful sunset through the trees as we climbed the last ridge of the day.  By the time we reached Bear's Den Rocks, the last light faded from the sky and for the third straight hike, we had to use headlamps for the walk out. 

It was definitely an enjoyable, challenging hike.  A lot of the climbing is steep, but those sections are short.  There was a lot more to see than I was expecting:  old stone walls, a waterfall, pretty hollows, and nice views through the trees.  It is probably less interesting in late summer when leaves on the trees would limit views and the breeze and the streams are likely low.

 An old stone wall that crosses the trail.
Maclura pomifera (Hedgeapple, Osage Orange).  This grows everywhere in Missouri, where I grew up, but I have not seen very many M. pomifera trees here.  There were two or three growing along the trail.  The fruit is a little bit bigger than a softball.
The inside of the M. pomifera fruit.
Rocks near the trail, south of Ashby Hollow.
Dried sepals on a downed Tulip Poplar branch.
The lower falls in Reservoir Hollow.
The upper falls in Reservoir Hollow.
Michael waiting for the photographers to finish taking pictures of the sunset.
Sunset from just south of Bear's Den Rocks.

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