Sunday, December 22, 2013

Winter Solstice Cycling

The weather was incredible yesterday: highs in the 60s and mostly sunny. I almost had to check the calendar to remember that it was, actually, the winter solstice. Michael, a friend, and I headed for Skyline Drive for what could be considered either a very late training ride for this year or a very early training ride for 2014. Either way, it was a beautiful, warm, nearly traffic-free day in the park.
 Looking southeast from the Range View Overlook around milepost 17.
My bike taking a break and enjoying the view of Compton Peak from the Gooney Run Overlook.
Ice on some cliffs near milepost 11. There was still quite a bit of snow in the ditches along the road, particularly in shady areas, but it was melting quickly.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Snowy Antietam

Horizontal Tread invited Michael and I up to Antietam National Battlefield for an afternoon on snowshoeing on Sunday. While we didn't get any snow to speak of, they had 4-6 inches up there. That is just barley enough snow to use the snowshoes. In a perfect world, it is nice to have a foot of snow for snowshoeing, but we can't be too picky in the Mid-Atlantic. Opportunities to use them without driving three hours don't come along even every winter.

When we left the DC area, it was 45 degrees and sunny. I thought I would be snowshoeing in my base layer. It was colder in the Sharpsburg area, which wasn't a surprise, but the moment we arrived at Antietam, it clouded over and the wind picked up. I wound up needing a coat for the whole hike. We started on the the north side of the battlefield and made our way south across the cornfield. We passed several farms and stopped to have lunch on the porch of one of the houses that are part of the national battlefield.After lunch, we headed south, pausing to climb the Tower and then further south, all the way to Burnside Bridge. By the time we made it back to the car, the mood was up and the sun was below the horizon. One of the cool things about this hike was that we weren't really following any trails. We just set out across various fields, generally aiming for the next stop. 

Horizontal Tread was a great tour guide, providing context for what we were seeing. I don't know enough of the details of the battle to get into it beyond noting that more soldiers (on both sides) died that day than in any other single-day battle in the Civil War. Almost a quarter of the troops involved in the battle perished. A detailed account of it can be found here

 Looking southwest towards the observational tower, which was built in 1890.
One of the cannons in the Cornfield.
 A directional plate in the observational tower.
A dried seed pod in the snow.
Horizontal Tread (left) on interpretive duty.
 A snowy field in the late afternoon.
 Burnside Bridge.
A Red Bellied Woodpecker in a Sycamore Tree (click to enlarge).
 Monuments near the visitor center in the setting sun.
Moonrise over the fields near the visitor center.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Third Annual Hike Off the Pie: Bushwhacking the North Side of Old Rag

For the third year in a row, I celebrated Black Friday with an epic hike with my friends from WanderMindfully and Horizontal Tread. This year, we added two additional Old Rag Mountain Stewards to make a party of five. This year's hike didn't involve much walking on actual trails, except on the way back down. We explored the north slope of Old Rag, looking for old cabin sites. The valleys around Old Rag had been settled over 100 years before Shenandoah National Park was created. Evidence of those farms and villages can be found throughout the park. Most trails in the park pass stone walls, house foundations, and rock piles left from cleared fields. Old Rag is no different. Exploring another side of the mountain seemed like a perfect way to spend the day.

Friday was sunny, but cold (although, not nearly as cold as last Sunday). We arrived to find this, much to our surprise:  
We actually had to park in the back of the parking lot. We didn't really expect very many people to be out on a chilly day when most people are focused on standing in line at the mall. I guess our party wasn't the only one who opted out of the crazy. 

We made the easy walk up the road to the trailhead and then crossed the high water bridges before leaving the road. It rained hard on Tuesday and Wednesday, so crossing Brokenback Run proved to be a challenge, but we all made it across with dry feet. From there we followed old road beds, game trails, and sometimes made our own path up the mountain. Way back in the woods, high up on the north slope of Old Rag, we ran into two guys who were camping. They were definitely as surprised to see us as we were to see them. We chatted for a minute and continued our explorations. Higher up on the slopes, a light dusting of snow covered the ground. We saw a lot of evidence of the large fire that swept over the mountain in the year 2000. The ground in many places was scattered with artifacts of those who lived there before the park existed. We emerged onto the Weakley Hollow Fire Road just before sunset, much to the surprise of some downward-bound hikers. We arrived back at the car just as darkness fell.
 Crossing Brokenback Run on a log.
Part of a chimney is all that remains of a cabin high up on Old Rag.
A broken crock.
Snow on the leaves.
A large stone wall along Brokenback Run.
A walled in spring. Springs were often used to keep food from spoiling before refrigeration.
 A seed pod from a Frasier Magnolia (Magnolia fraseri).
Old Rag through the trees.
If you enlarge this one, you'll see an old road bed through the trees.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Winter's Arrival: A Cold Hike on the Pennsylvania Appalachian Trail

Sunday was cold. As in, breathtakingly, huddled under a rock, no breaks cold. We hiked on the Appalachian Trail from the Old Forge Picnic Area outside of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania to Caledonia State Park, about 11 miles. We started out from Old Forge Picnic Area somewhat sheltered from the wind. It is a relatively gentle climb to that point, which was welcome, given the cold. I love Tumbling Run shelter.  It is one of the nicer shelters out there, which two actual sleeping shelters and a nice, covered picnic table. The table even has metal plates on it to protect it from stoves. The best part of the shelter, however is this:
 One of the shelters is designated for snorers.
And the other is reserved for non-snorers. I don't know how strictly it is enforced, but I love the thought behind it.

We debated having lunch at the shelter, but decided to push on to Chimney Rocks. The climb up to Chimney Rocks was steep enough that I actually had to shed a layer on the way up. As soon as we arrived at the top of the ridge, however, the full force of the wind blasted us. Instead of having lunch with a view, we found a sheltered nook under a large boulder. We were out of the wind, but since we weren't moving, the cold quickly set in. Before long, everyone was packing up so we could get moving. 
I climbed up onto the rocks and braved the wind for a quick picture. This the view from Chimney Rocks.

From there, we hiked north to Caledonia State Park. It is an easy walk and there were some interesting rock formations, but no more views. 
A gravel road crossing south of PA Route 233.

The Appalachian Trail keeps to the ridge top in this area, so we were in the wind most of the time. In some sense, the toughest part was the last three miles:  All downhill and straight into the wind. It was just cold and we weren't working hard enough to fight it off completely. We were all pretty happy when we reached the car! It was a pretty hike and literally saw no one else out hiking (wonder why!).

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Week in Colorado

I spent last week in Colorado, both for work and play. Over the years, the number of people that I am close to, both family and friends, who live in the Denver/Boulder area seems to have grown somewhat exponentially. I flew out a few days before my conference so I could spend time with several of them. I met up with my brother Friday afternoon and we drove up to Roxborough State Park. Roxborough's claim to fame is the upright rocks of the Fountain Formation, a sandstone formed around 300 million years ago during the Pennsylvanian Period. This formation also forms the Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado, and Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.
We didn't have a lot of time to explore because the park closes at 5 p.m. in the winter, but we were able to walk around for about 45 minutes. That was enough to get a few nice views.  
This is looking east from the trail. There is a 12-point Mule Deer Buck in the center of the photo. Unfortunately, I only had my small camera with me, so I couldn't get a good picture of him.
On Saturday, my brother and I went hiking in Castelwood Canyon State Park. The park includes ruins of Castelwood Canyon Dam, which failed in 1933. The canyon itself is a pretty jumble of boulders and a clear, babbling creek.
 Looking down towards the canyon.
 Aspens along the canyon trail.
 Dried Oak leaves.
This boulder is interesting because it fell off of the cliffs above (as a side note, those are full-size trees around it). Then the lake formed by Castlewood Canyon Dam deposited sediment around it, partially burying it. Once the dam failed, the creek eroded the sediments away on one side of it, leaving it as it is today.

I spent Saturday night with my friend from Tangled Up in Denver and her family. Then, on Sunday, I visited friends who moved to the Denver area from DC. We took a drive up towards Mt. Evans Sunday evening. 
The road was mostly clear. As we were driving up, we did see a snowplow on its way down. 
Echo Lake, which, according to Wikipedia, is at 10,600 feet. It was cold. And beautiful. We turned around at Echo Lake because it was getting cold and headed back to Idaho Springs for dinner. We ate at Tommyknocker Brewery, which clearly survives on the quality of its beer rather than that of its food. On Monday, I met up with my coworkers and began a week of a conference, meetings, and good restaurants in Denver. I had a great time, especially seeing my brother and friends and exploring, but I'm glad to be home.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Old Rag Mountain Stewards Final 2013 Weekend

Michael and I spent the weekend out with Old Rag Mountain Stewards, doing our normal trail patrol and having a little fun, too. Saturday's group of volunteers met up at the Berry Hollow parking lot and got the very last three spaces there. The volunteers who stopped at the fee station to pick up a backcountry permit spoke of flying monkeys, crazy large groups, and full parking lots on the other side of the mountain. This is what passes for a normal fall Saturday on Old Rag.

The mountain was just as crowded as was observed in the parking lot. After setting up camp, we walked up the Saddle Trail. Multiple groups of 20 or more people passed us on their way down. The summit was pandemonium. There was a dull roar from all of the people talking over the wind. We picked up trash in the area, which was a little maddening. There is a small ravine that leads off of the north side of the summit that, I swear, had nearly as much trash as a back alley in downtown Washington, DC. Some of it, like the energy bar wrappers, probably just blew there, but the water bottles and bricks, yes, bricks, were almost certainly thrown. Around an hour before sunset, we started asking people if they had lights for the walk down (which takes most people 2-2.5 hours). Some do, many don't. Did I mention the guy in a union suit? At this point, anyone who goes into the woods to get away from people is probably crossing Old Rag off of their list of hikes they want to do. I don't blame you. Fall Saturdays are Old Rag at its worst and most crowded. 

But, Old Rag is beautiful and amazing in the fall, too. At some point, the crowd thinned and I realized the dull roar was just wind. I wandered around taking pictures, watching the ravens play on the wind, and enjoying what was left of the fall colors. As the sun dropped below the horizon, we headed down to Old Rag Shelter. The six of us camping out had a nice cookout at the shelter. We shared the fire with another group camping nearby. That night, all of us listened to the wind scream above us, happy to be camping below it.

Sunday couldn't have been more different than the day before for Old Rag Mountain Stewards. Like Saturday morning, we hiked up the Saddle Trail, but there we turned off on a climbers path and bushwhacked to a completely different adventure. We repeated an ascent that we had done three years ago. We spent the whole day making our way up slabs on the west face of the mountain, an area that few people other than a handful of climbers ever see. This year it was cold and crazy windy. Three years ago, we hung out on the last slab waiting for the rappel rope to be set. This year, those of us who arrived on that slab first tucked ourselves into a nook to get out of the wind. The sun was nearly set by the time we reached the Saddle Trail and our group had spent the day on the busiest mountain in the mid-Atlantic in solitude. A great end to another season with Old Rag Mountain Stewards.

The view down below the Ravine of Trash. The wind took care of a lot of the leaves this weekend.
I'm not sure why anyone would haul bricks up the mountain, but throwing them into a ravine off of the summit makes even less sense. This was just one of more than a dozen.
Did I mention the guy in the union suit? It turns out that he did have pants with him. He just stripped down to his long johns on the summit. Whatever floats his boat.
Fall colors from the summit.
One of my favorite things about fall on Old Rag is watching the ravens play on the wind near sunset. There was plenty of wind for them this weekend. They are hard to photograph clearly, but once in a while I get a few good shots.
Another raven riding a thermal.
This group of ravens were diving and soaring south of the summit.
The spot where I always take a photo. Three weeks ago, there were many more leaves on the trees. Winter has arrived at the summit.
The shadow of Old Rag in the valley.
As we got ready to leave the summit, I happened to look down the Saddle Trail and, just for a minute, all of the trees were bathed in red light from the sunset. A few seconds after I took this picture, it was all gone.
 We spent Sunday coming up the mountain the hard way: on ropes. We didn't really climb so much as use the ropes to assist walking up steep slabs and as safety lines. I didn't get many pictures, but this one is at the top of the ascent.
Sunset from a boulder in the ravine we climbed to get back to the trail. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Tuckahoe State Park: Peak Leaf Colors

Tuckahoe State Park is located near Maryland's Eastern Shore, out on the DelMarVa peninsula. Neither Michael nor I felt like driving very far today, so we decided to check it out. It isn't a very big park, but the trails connect to make a 9.4 mile loop, which is further than I've hiked one day since January. Although it was very windy where we parked, the trails were tucked into a small somewhat protected valley, so we didn't get too much of it. Out of the wind, it was a very pleasant day to be out.
The leaves were at their peak today. This is the Tuckahoe Valley Trail.
Piney Branch
Leaves on Piney Branch.
Michael on the bridge over Piney Branch. Although Tuckahoe State Park is in a relatively wet, coastal area, the trails were pretty dry. The soil is very sandy and well-drained. Most of the wetter spots were bridged or had bog boards.
There was a lot of evidence of people who lived here before it was a park. This pile of metal is actually an old bicycle. The front fork, rim, and fenders are visible.
I'm not sure why people have piled bits of glass, pottery, feathers, and small rocks at the base of this tree, but it was neatly done.
A Sweet Gum leaf in the sun.
Eyonymous americanus (Strawberry Bush). These little pink fruit are about the size of a quarter and are growing on a low shrub. I'm not sure what they are. Thanks to David for identifying them for me.
Symphiotrichum racemosum (Small White Asters). These are probably the last flowers to bloom in the area for the year.
Oak leaves in the sun.
I walked right by this Black Rat Snake, but Michael noticed it lying right beside the trail. It wasn't especially big - maybe three feet long.