Monday, January 30, 2012

Dickey Ridge Trail in Shenandoah National Park: Flowers in January?

This weekend was beautiful, particularly for January.  We have parked at the Dickey Ridge trailhead, at the very north end of Skyline Drive, a number of times, but always for cycling.  Yesterday, we headed out to hike the Dickey Ridge Trail.  It felt a little strange to watch other cyclists donning helmets and airing up tires and not be doing the same.  The beginning of the trail is relatively flat and follows an old roadbed along the creek (which isn't named on my map) south and upstream.   After about a mile, it turns uphill and begins the long climb up to to the top of Dickey Ridge.  We stopped for lunch after we crossed Skyline Drive, enjoying the relatively warm sun.  When we started again, we got into a rhythm and before I knew it, we arrived at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. 

From there, we decided to keep going to the top of the ridge.  On the way up the ridge, we decided it might be nice to do the Snead Farm Loop since we were in the area anyway.  There is no view from the top of the ridge, but just beyond the high point of the trail, the path breaks out of the woods into a clearing with a nice view of Hogback Mountain and New Market Gap to the south.  The Snead Farm Trail basically winds around the east side of the ridge that we had just come over.  I had a little trouble finding information on the history of Snead Farm.  The park's website has surprisingly little about it.  According to Hawksbill Cabin, the Snead Farm was an apple farm that was acquired by Shenandoah National Park in 1962.  The barn still stands today, but none of the other buildings do.

We returned to the Dickey Ridge Trail via the Snead Farm Road and headed north.  We took another short detour on the Fox Hollow Trail.  Back on the Dickey Ridge Trail, we made good time getting back to the car.  We started out intending to do a moderate hike of around 10 miles (we'll just hike up Dickey Ridge until we feel like going back).  Once we got out there, we felt pretty good and just kept going, ending up doing over 14 miles in six hours.  The Dickey Ridge Trail is a pleasant walk through the woods, but it is very close to Skyline Drive, so it might be much noisier when the park is busier.

The weirdest thing about the whole hike:  Just before we got back to the car, we saw crocuses blooming.  In January.  It really has been a mild winter.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Looking west towards Mansanutten from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. 
 Interesting fungus on a log.
The signpost at Snead Farm
The house site at Snead Farm.  The steps presumably went up to the house or a porch on the house.  The boxwood tree, which was probably planted beside the steps has completely taken over.
 The barn at the site.
A small waterfall on the creek.
Crocuses getting ready to bloom.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ice and Snow at Little North Mountain

I stumbled across the description for Little North Mountain last week, which included a phrase along the lines of, "one of the best kept secrets in the area," and thought we should give it a try.  There is a ton of hiking in the Great North Mountain area (on the Virginia/West Virginia border) and we have only hiked Big Schloss.  Little North Mountain is not a long hike - only 8.5 miles - but it promised nice views and a short bushwhack. 

We found the parking area easily and set off down a old, snow-covered fire road.  The first mile was pretty easy going.  After an initial downhill to get to Cove Run, the old road trended gently upwards, following the creek upstream.  Cove Run entertained us with lots of small waterfalls and glass-like pools surrounded by snowy logs.  Then the blowdowns started.  I lost count of how many we had to climb over or scramble around, but it was a lot.  The dog with us got a lot of agility practice.  That isn't a complaint:  It definitely added to the adventure. 

Eventually, the road ended and we needed to bushwhack to the top of the ridge.  The rosebushes and briars just added to the challenge.  We flushed three grouse out of one thicket.  They took of in their characteristic spectacular fashion, catching the attention of the dog hiking with us (on leash, so her interest didn't get her anywhere).  We continued uphill, following the creek to its headwaters:  a pretty little spring surrounded by snow.  On the opposite bank, we noticed a path leading uphill in the right direction.  We followed it cautiously, keeping an eye on where we wanted to end up.  Pretty soon, we started to see old sawed logs, indications that it was a maintained trail at some point.  It was pretty narrow and faint in places and we didn't see any blazes, but after ten minutes, we popped out onto the Tuscarora Trail.

Just before we hit arrived at the Tuscarora Trail, we reached an elevation where hoar frost had formed on the trees.  Everything was coated in tiny needles of ice, giving the forest a spectacular, other-worldly appearance.  We turned east and then north on the Tuscarora Trail, which was a superhighway compared to the path up the hill.  The hoar frost needles got larger as we got higher.  Some of them were almost an inch long.  We did not, however, get any views.  The top of the ridge was socked in the clouds.  The spectacular frost made up for it, though. 

The rest of the hike was a pleasant ridge walk.  When we reached the road, we had a brief encounter with a young yard dog.  His owner came out to settle him down and we left without incident, but it was a tense few moments.  The only downside of the hike was the mile road walk back to the car.  The road is narrow and people drive fairly fast, so we had to be alert for cars coming around the blind corners. 

Overall, it was a great hike and we are looking forward to more explorations of the area.  I also wanted to add a note of thanks for the excellent description of the hike on Mid-Atlantic Hikes. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
The old road was initially a clear, wide, easy path.
 A small waterfall on cove run.
Interesting fungi on a snowy log.
Another small waterfall on cove run.
Climbing through a blowdown.
Climbing through another blowdown. 
Sammie guiding the way through the bushwhack.
Small hoar frost crystals on Mountain Laurel.
Higher up on the ridge, the crystals got bigger.
 The Tuscarora Trail on the top of Little North Mountain.  All of the trees were covered in hoar frost.
 More hoar frost.
Frost-covered trees at one of the socked in overlooks.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Quick Overnight on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park: Swift Run Gap to Bear Fence Hut

We got out for a quick overnight this weekend.  All things conspired against us, between work schedules and weather, we wound up on Plan C.  The original plan was to hike about 2/3 of the Appalachian Trail in the South District of Shenandoah National Park.  The weather caused Skyline Drive to close, so we talked about hiking the entire Central District Appalachian Trail.  In the end, we hiked about 9.5 miles from Swift Run Gap to Bear Fence Hut, where we camped.  Then we hiked out of the park via the Meadow School Trail, a short trail down the west side of the ridge. 

The temperature was in the 20s when we set off from Swift Run Gap yesterday.  Our friend who is working on hiking every trail in Shenandoah needed to hike the first 1.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail north of Swift Run Gap, so she joined us for that section.  We quickly reached the junction with the Saddleback Mountain Trail, where she turned around and headed back to the car.  The plan was for her to go hike some other short sections she needed to pick up.  At the end of the day, she would park the car at the Meadow School trailhead and hike up to Bearfence Hut to camp with us. 

There were a surprising number of dayhikers out, but once we passed the South River Falls trail, the only tracks we saw belonged to bobcats, deer, rabbits, birds, and various rodents.  We hiked through a thin layer of snow that got as deep as an inch at higher elevations.  We brought microspikes in anticipation of ice on the trail, but with the exception of one spot, we didn't see much ice at all.  There was a lot of frost heave on the trail, making it interesting to step on what appeared to be solid ground only to break through the thin crust and fall an inch or two.

We spent a pleasant, if chilly evening beside a fire at Bearfence Hut.  One of the nice things about Skyline Drive being closed was the lack of noise from traffic, particularly motorcycles.  In spite of the cold (the cheap zipper-pull thermometer on my pack said it was in the lower teens last night), I was warm in my sleeping bag.  This morning, we made the short hike down off the mountain on the Meadow School Trail, followed by lunch in Shenandoah, Virginia.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 The Appalachian Trail near Baldface Mountain.
 Snow on moss.
 Icicles on Baldface Mountain
 Skyline Drive
 Ice and a small waterfall on the Meadow Spring Trail.
 Tracks on the Meadow Spring Trail.
Ice in Michael's beard.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

An Easy Day in Shenandoah: Harris Hollow, Bluff, and Mount Marshall Trails

A friend of ours is very, very close to having hiked every trail within Shenandoah National Park.  She has less than 18 miles left and is hoping to have finished the park by her birthday at the end of the month.  The only trail in the north district that she had left to do was the Harris Hollow Trail, which is only 2.8 miles long, including a 1.6 mile walk up a road to the park boundary.  We made a day of it, parking a car at the park boundary at the Mount Marshall trailhead and driving further up the road to leave a car at the Harris Hollow trailhead.  Our plan was to hike up the Harris Hollow Trail, down the Bluff Trail, and then leave the park by the Mount Marshall Trail, which would be just about 10 mile, with a side trip thrown in.  We added a bushwhack to a very lovely waterfall.

As I mentioned, the first mile of the hike was up a road to the park boundary.  It was a steady climb, but after last weekend, none of it seemed too difficult.  Harris Hollow is one of the higher elevation boundary trailheads, so the climb seemed really short.  We are used to starting way down in the valleys when we hike in from the boundary, but we had driven half the climb today.  Soon enough, we arrived at the Gravel Springs Hut, which is just below the Appalachian Trail and Skyline Drive.  There was nothing wrong with the Harris Hollow Trail, per se, but I can't say that I feel the need to do it again.  There just isn't anything remarkable about it, either.  We took a short break in the sun before turning downhill on the Bluff Trail.  We took another break for lunch at the junction with the Big Devil's Stairs Trail.  From there, the trail winds gently downhill for a couple of miles to meet the Mount Marshall Trail.  The Mount Marshall Trail is an old road that descends steeply to the valley below The Peak.  For once, we made it back to the car while it was still daylight. 

It was nice to do an easy hike today and the bushwhack to the waterfall was definitely the best part of the day. The falls were actually a series of half a dozen or so cascades in a narrow valley.  Getting to them was all kinds of fun scrambling over boulders.  On the way out, we lucked into a deer trail, which made it much easier.

P.S. to the owners of Cafe Indigo in Sperryville:  If you are going to be closed for the month of January, you might want to mention that prominently on your website instead of featuring your "current" menu.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
The waterfall.  We didn't have ideal lighting for taking pictures of it (too bright), so I stacked my ND4 filter with my circular polarizer counter the brightness of the falls a little bit.  I have no idea if one is "supposed" to do that, but it seemed to work all right. 
I think this is Lycopodium selago (Mountain Club-Moss).  It is about 6 inches tall.  If it is, I have no idea what it was doing growing beside a road.
 Another view of the waterfall.  This one is probably 25 feet or so from top to bottom.
 More waterfall.
Yet more waterfall.
Even more waterfall.
Bootshot next to the falls.
 A dried stem of flowers.
 Fungus on a downed log.  They are about 1 1/2 inches at the widest point.
Bright green moss growing near the trail.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year's Appalachian Trail Backpacking Trip: Virginia Triple Crown

The plan was to get a three-day snowshoeing trip in for New Year's weekend.  The snow, unfortunately, didn't get the memo, leaving the highlands of West Virginia bereft of the white stuff.  We still wanted to get out, though, so we decided to a three-day backpacking trip on a section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) near Roanoke, Virginia, commonly called Virginia's Triple Crown. 

Day One (12 miles):  On New Year's Eve, we met up with a friend of ours (author of Horizontal Tread), left a vehicle at the end point for our trip, and headed to the Dragon's Tooth trailhead.  The relatively warm, humid weather made it feel like March, rather than the last day of December.  The climb up the Dragon's Tooth access trail to the AT was a nice warm-up and not too hard.  None of us had been able to do much hiking in December, much less carry a pack loaded down for winter camping, so it was nice to start on a moderate note.  Once on the AT, we stashed our packs and walked the 3/4 of a mile to Dragon's Tooth. The trail was pretty rocky in places and there were even a couple of ladder rungs in one place.  Dragon's Tooth lived up to its name:  a giant wedge of nearly vertical sandstone that resembles a large tooth.  We took a few minutes to scramble up it and admire the view.  This was one of my favorite spots on the trip.

We returned to our packs and headed north on the AT, descending into a valley and then passing over another ridge.  At the bottom of the next valley, we passed a cool little, now disused, hydroelectric dam.  Just below the dam we encountered our first stile, an A-shaped ladder over a fence, with rungs on each side.  From there we entered the first of several pastures that we had to cross.  We surprised a flock of Eastern Bluebirds, which was a nice surprise and we had a good view of the next ridge we had to climb.  The last two stiles were over live electric fences, so we made sure to keep our trekking poles clear of the wires.  We crossed Catawba Creek and began our ascent to the top of the ridge the quick way:  straight up a power line cut.  The rest of the hike that day was up and down small knobs on the top of the ridge.  Unfortunately, we felt a bit rushed because we were running out of daylight.  When we reached Hwy 311, we had a mile left to get to the John's Spring Shelter, where we were hoping the ephemeral spring was actually running.  The last half-mile of our hike was in the dark, but we were pleasantly surprised to find both water and an empty shelter.  John's Spring Shelter feels sort of urban.  The highway and the small town of Catawba are visible at night from the shelter, but we had a pleasant night there.  We built a nice fire and had hot chili on a relatively warm New Year's Eve.  All three of us were fast asleep by 10:30. 

Day One Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Looking southeast from Dragon's Tooth.
 Bootshot from Dragon's Tooth.
 Michael on top of Dragon's Tooth.
 Part of the AT getting up to Dragon's Tooth.
 A waterfall over a small, disused hydroelectric dam along the AT. 
A small bird's nest in one of the pastures. 
One of the four stiles we had to cross.
Looking back on Dragon's Tooth as we climbed the power line cut.

Day Two (10.3 miles):  The weather was bright, sunny and pretty warm by the time we got around to hiking in the morning on New Year's Day.  I was actually able to wear a short sleeve shirt for part of the climb up to McAfee Knob.  We quickly reached Catawba Mountain Shelter, about a mile from John's Spring Shelter.  From there, we made the long climb up to McAfee Knob.  Near the top, we passed through a field of giant sandstone blocks before finally arriving at the summit.  The temperature dropped and clouds rolled in not long before we arrived at the top, but they were at least high enough that we had a good view.  We had lunch at the overlook and took pictures before continuing towards Tinker Cliffs.  The descent off of the north side of Mcafee Knob was quite a bit steeper than the ascent on the south side.  Then it was more of the rolling ups and downs that we had done the day before.  The sun came back out, so we took an extended break on some logs.  It was warm enough that Michael took a brief nap on his log.

As we were starting out again, we noticed some rather ominous clouds over the ridge to the west of us.  I hoped it would just be more of the clouds we had seen on Mcafee Knob in the morning.  The climb up to Tinker Cliffs was the steepest section of the entire hike.  The trail corridor is pretty narrow and surrounded by private land, so there isn't much in the way of switchbacks.  About halfway up, the temperature dropped significantly and it started raining.  We kept hiking for a little while, hoping that it would just pass over, but we soon realized that we needed to put on rain jackets.  By the time we reached Tinker Cliffs, it was raining sideways in the 30 mph winds.  Needless to say, there were no views, nor pictures, from Tinker Cliffs.  Since the trail runs right on the edge of the cliffs, it was interesting to walk that section in the screaming-bad squall (fortunately, there was no lightning).  By the time we made it down the switchbacks on the north side of Tinker Cliffs, the weather had cleared again, although the wind stayed. 

We camped at Lambert's Meadow Shelter, which is next to a pleasant stream.  There is a great view of the stream from the door-less privy.  The wind howled all night, making us glad that the shelter was down in the valley.  Camping on the ridge would have been miserable that night. 

Day Two Pictures:

 Sunrise from John's Spring Shelter
 McAfee Knob overlook.
 Bootshot from McAfee Knob
 Michael and I on McAfee Knob.
An old International Harvester mower along the trail.

Day Three (9.4 miles):  The temperature was much, much colder when we woke up on Monday.  Water froze in our bottles and camelbacks, but it was bright and sunny again, so we hoped it would warm up some.  Snow flurries fell in spite of the sun and mostly blue sky over the first few miles of our hike.  The trail was relatively easy. We hiked along the ridge and occasionally had clear views on both sides.  The sun was not to last.  By the time we stopped for lunch, the wind had picked up in a serious, biting cold way and the temperature had dropped precipitously.  We passed graffiti-strewn Hay Rock (Someone with a can of spraypaint is a serious Ron Paul 2012 supporter.  I am not sure how many voters they are reaching there, though).  The trail follows the ridgeline for the next several miles.  It is actually a pretty interesting part of the hike, with lots of fascinating rock formations and views.  Unfortunately, the wind and cold kept us moving at a pretty fast pace.  By the time we reached switchbacks to get down off the ridge, we were all ready to have some shelter from the wind. 

Overall, this joins my list of favorite hikes in Virginia.  Except for at Dragon's Tooth, I would guess we saw fewer than 25 people on the entire three-day hike.  The views were spectacular and we experienced quite the variety of weather.  Actually, given the season, I can't complain about the weather at all.  We will definitely do this one again.

Day Three Pictures: 

 A sandy section of trail while the sun was still out. 
Cladonia rangiferina (Reindeer Lichen, Reindeer Moss) - a lichen - in a bed of moss. 
 Michael at one of the overlooks along the ridge.
 One of the rock formations along the ridge on the last day.
 Another interesting lichen on the rocks.
Carvin Cove Reservoir.