Sunday, November 30, 2014

Fourth Annual Hike Off the Pie: Lewis Mountain

For the fourth year in a row, I went for an epic hike with a friend on Black Friday. For this year's Hike Off the Pie, we decided to bushwhack up Lewis Mountain in Shenandoah National Park. Normally, we have a group, but due to various circumstances, there were just two of us this year. We picked this bushwhack because the topographic map of the area that we had shows an old trail leading up the mountain, connecting to Lewis Mountain campground. I was curious to see if we could find it. 

We started at the Pocosin Hollow Trailhead on the east boundary of the park. The old Lewis Mountain trail, theoretically connects with the Pocosin Hollow Trail just west of the trailhead. We didn't try to find it, however, because the Pocosin Hollow Trail crosses private land for about half a mile. Hiking through that land on the Pocosin Hollow Trail is ok, but venturing off of it to find an old trail is definitely not. Once at the park boundary, the trail almost immediately re-enters private land for about another half mile. Eventually, we crossed the creek and were firmly on national park land. 

From that point, we started working our way up the side of Lewis Mountain, looking for the old trail. The plan was to climb until we reached the top of the ridge and follow the ridgeline generally west, eventually reaching the Appalachian Trail at Lewis Mountain Campground. As we climbed, we started encountering snowy patches. By the time we reached the crest of the ridge, we were hiking in three or four inches of snow.  We paused for lunch in a relatively flat spot near the top of one of the knobs of Lewis Mountain. The snow was two days old, so there were tracks everywhere in it, including bear and bobcat tracks. 

From the top of the knob, we could see the higher peak on Lewis Mountain a short distance ahead of us. It should have been a quick walk across the saddle to get to the base of it and then we needed to climb up and over it. Up to that point, we had successfully avoided the dreaded mountain laurel thickets by going around them. At the bottom of the saddle, we reached one that we couldn't go around. We had to go through it, fighting our way through the tangle of dense branches, crawling under them in the snow where we couldn't get through on our feet. We followed bear tracks (they were at least a day old) because we knew that we could get through whatever they had. The thicket never seemed to end, although in reality, we were only in there for twenty or thirty minutes. It couldn't have been more than a few hundred yards long. We were able to look up and see the peak we were aiming for ahead of us, so navigating wasn't a problem, it was just figuring out how to get through the tangled morass of branches.

Once through it, we pushed up a very steep climb to the summit of Lewis Mountain. I popped out on top and found a blue blaze! There is a very short section of trail that is still maintained from that little summit I was standing on to the campground. I looked at the map, we turned right and headed for the Appalachian Trail half a mile away. The approximately four mile climb had taken us 3.5 hours - pretty standard for bushwhacking and not bad at all for route-finding in the snow. Now that we were back on established trails, we needed to move quite a bit faster if we wanted to make it back to the car by sunset. We hiked north on the Appalachian Trail to the Slaughter Trail, where we turned east back towards the boundary of the park. Eventually, the snow thinned out and we were able to take off our microspikes. A mile before the car, the trail meets the road at the Conway River, which was knee deep and running fairly fast. It does not have a bridge, so, given the distance to the car, we rolled up our pant legs and walked right through it (air and water temperature right at freezing). We made it to the car just as the last light drained from the sky.

It was a great hike and definitely met the criteria for the annual Hike Off the Pie. It was truly epic. The snow and the views through the trees were beautiful. We didn't see anyone else out hiking. We never did find the abandoned Lewis Mountain Trail. It would probably be easier to find it from the top (west) and when there isn't snow on the ground. That being said, I don't think I ever need to fight my way through that mountain laurel thicket again, so I doubt I will ever find out. 

 A waterfall on Pocosin Creek.
Moss on a rock in Pocosin Hollow
Aplectrum hyemale (Putty-Root Orchid) leaf. The plant puts out leaves in the fall and they stay out all winter. They don't have to compete with all of the other underbrush in the winter. In late spring, the leaves fade away and the plant will send up a stalk of flowers.
 The view through the trees on the way up Lewis Mountain.
 Snow near where we had lunch
A bear track in the snow. Lewis mountain is a popular spot for bears, based on the number of tracks we saw.
 Looking south from the very top of Lewis Mountain.
The Appalachian Trail between Lewis Mountain Campground and Bearfence Hut.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

New Orleans: All You Can Eat

I had to go to New Orleans for work last week. Since Michael had never been there, we figured it was a chance to get away for a few days and introduce him to a new city. And a chance to eat. Did I mention the food?  I don't think I've eaten so much in a single week in a long, long time.

We started the weekend with a culinary bike tour run by Confederacy of Cruisers. The tour took us to one restaurant on the east side of the French Quarter and then into the Treme and Mid-City neighborhoods. Not only was the tour great, thanks to Victor (our guide), but we got to see parts of the city that we wouldn't have seen otherwise. The tour was absolutely worth it and I definitely do it again (and we paid for the tour).

Michael and I wandered around on Sunday before his flight left, just exploring and visiting a few museums. Most of the rest of the week, I had to work at a conference, but I did get out to wander a little bit.
Saint Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square.
 A gaslamp in the French Quarter
 Ferns growing on a building in the Warehouse District
 Michael on his tour bike. The bikes they supplied were cruisers with coaster brakes (the kind where you pedal backwards to stop). I'm used to hand brakes and clipless pedals. When you stop with clipless pedals, you unclip your foot from the pedal and put it on the ground as you stop moving. It is a pretty deeply ingrained habit at this point for me. Coaster brakes are much, much less effective if one of your feet is off of the pedals! Frantically grasping for the hand brake levers is also an ineffective stopping strategy! I got used to it pretty quickly, though and we had a lot of fun.
One of the stops along the bike tour.
A building in the Warehouse District.
A sign on an old building in the Warehouse District.
 Jesus takes an interest in broken cell phones in New Orleans.
A classic French Quarter balcony.
 Houses along the east side of the French Quarter.
A restaurant boiling boudin outside overnight.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Crusher Ridge: A Quick Hike Up To Skyline Drive

Sunday, I actually got a second hike in for the weekend. A number of members of Old Rag Mountain Stewards stayed in Lambert Cabin, which is owned by the PATC, for an end of the year celebration. After working Old Rag on Saturday, we basically had a free day on Sunday, since check-out time was 3 p.m. Four of us climbed the Crusher Ridge Trail from the cabin in Shaver Hollow up to Skyline Drive. Along the way, we only met one other person: The PATC trail maintainer for Crusher Ridge. He had walked almost all the way down from the drive to clear a blowdown blocking the trail (we had to crawl under it on our way up).

The trail zigzags up the ridge. At first, there were a few trees with leaves on the, but by the time we were halfway up, all of the leaves had dropped. Winter has come to the mountains.
Lambert Cabin.
 A few remaining yellow leaves on the lower section of the Crusher Ridge Trail.
 Yellow leaves glowing in the morning sun.
 A milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seedpod on Skyline Drive.
Looking north from the Stony Man overlook on Skyline Drive.
Another view from the Stony Man overlook on Skyline Drive.
A fern along the trail.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Old Rag Season Wrap Up

We were out on Old Rag with Old Rag Mountain Stewards each of the last two weekends. November 1 was cold, cloudy, and really windy. Plenty of people hiked that day, but no one, including us, lingered on the summit. The original plan was to do some training at Byrd's Nest Shelter, high on the mountain. Everyone agreed that Old Rag Shelter, which was lower down, would be a better idea.
 The view of Weakley Hollow from the beginning of the rock scramble. The only places with any leaves left on the trees were those areas somewhat sheltered from the wind.
Looking up the mountain from the first false summit.
The spot where I always take a pictures. It will look like this until April.
A fungus on a downed tree near the summit.
The summit was completely socked in. Once in a while, the clouds would lift just a little bit and I got a misty view of the trees below.
Looking down the saddle trail to Old Rag Shelter. Even down here, it was brutally cold.
Maple leaves blowing in the wind.

This past weekend, we were out again on Saturday. The weather was much nicer, which meant the crowds were out in force. By the time we pulled into the parking lot, just after 10 a.m., it was full and the neighbor's pasture was half full. Not to mention the flying monkeys hovering over everything. Definitely a fall Saturday at its best on Old Rag. This time, training was a photographic scavenger hunt, which, I have to say, was a lot of fun. Thanks to ORMS leadership for putting it together.
 Hiking up the fire road. Very few trees have any leaves left.
A bit of rappelling training.
The view from the summit.
Looking down the Ridge Trail and the rock scramble near dusk.
A raven perched on a boulder in the rock scramble.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Old Rag: Fall Colors in the Clouds

We volunteered last Sunday on Old Rag. The weather was not fall's finest: cold, damp, and cloudy. The mountain was crowded anyway, although not nearly as many people came out to hike as would have been there on a clear, sunny day. People didn't linger, though, clouds make for interesting pictures, and we were off the mountain in time to get pizza for dinner. A good day.

Leaves just starting to turn on the Saddle Trail. This is part of my effort to take pictures of different parts of the mountain.
An interesting fungus on a rotting log.
A cool little caterpillar.
The view down the rock scramble from the summit. This valleys on this side of the mountain were largely socked in with clouds.
Looking south from the summit towards Fork Mountain.
Hamamelis virginia (Witch Hazel), the last-blooming flower of the year.
There is a spot on the Saddle Trail where you get a clear view of the summit. Most people walk right by it with their heads down, focusing on the rough, rocky trail beneath their feet. For years, I didn't know it was there until we paused for a rest there on a rescue last year. Now, I try to look up and point it out to people in my group when I descend the Saddle Trail.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Roaring Plains: Fall Colors and a Little Snow

We got a text last weekend, as we were finishing up our week-long ride from Pittsburgh to DC, asking if we wanted to go backpacking this weekend. At the time, it seemed kind of overwhelming to put together another trip, albeit a short one, on such short notice. After a day of thinking about it, we decided that it had been a really long time since we had actually backpacked anywhere other than to a base camp on Old Rag. In fact, our last real backpacking trip was in Icleand in 2012. It was time to spend a night out in the woods again for real.

We settled on Roaring Plains, just south of Dolly Sods, in West Virginia and then watched the forecast get colder and colder as the week progressed. Packing for the trip was sort of a challenge, mentally. I had ridden my bike to work in shorts on Friday. Friday evening, I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around packing for sub-freezing temperatures three hours' drive to the west. It was good that I did, though.
We arrived at the trailhead Saturday morning in the middle of a snow/sleet squall. While waiting for our friends to arrive, we watched ominous gray clouds roll through with alarming speed in the high winds. On the bright side, the leaves were turning. We chatted with some bear hunters at the trailhead who were out running their dogs to get them in shape for the upcoming bear season. We also chatted briefly with a group of four guys from Pittsburgh that we would end up spending quite a bit more time with, although we didn't realize it at the time.
 We set off down the South Prong Trail, crossing the many boardwalks over bogs. The blueberry bushes had turned dramatic shades of red that lined the trail for large sections of the trip.
The weather cleared up pretty quickly after we started hiking and we got a view to the north of Dolly Sods in the distance.

A couple of miles down the South Prong Trail, there is a turnoff to a bushwhack. We made the turn too early when we hiked in Roaring Plains in August and wound up spending about an hour wandering around a bog, looking for the path. This time, we avoided that and made great time hiking through the bushwhack. Although not technically a trail, the path is well-beaten and easy to follow - as long as you successfully find the start of it.
Our friends hiking along the bushwhack through Hay-Scented Ferns.
 Red blueberry leaves in a high meadow.
The bushwack ends at a gas line cut. We turned south on this and descended towards Jonathan's Canyon Rim Trail, at the bottom of the hill in the lower middle of the photo.
Spiranthes cernua (Nodding Ladies Tresses). This is the third orchid species I've found in Roaring Plains and the second of which I've found in the gas line cut. I was more than a little surprised to see them this late in the season.
Leaves on the beginning of Jonathan's Canyon Rim Trail. In spite of the fact that this was ostensibly a named trail, this was a much more rugged path than the bushwhack we had just completed. It is much more faint, especially where it crosses rock fields and slides. There are cairns, but there were also times where we were navigating by looking at where moss had been worn off of the rocks or roots had been rubbed by having been stepped on.

Even though it took a sharp eye to find the trail in several places, we never lost it. If we found a place where a couple of paths appeared to diverge, we would briefly investigate the possibilities and choose the one that looked most worn and kept parallel to the ridgeline we were following. That strategy never steered us wrong. That said, our progress was pretty slow that afternoon. We made one really fortunate decision regarding water. The trail description we were using said that water sources were fairly iffy beyond a certain point. We reached a good flowing stream and decided to go ahead and fill all of our water containers so that we would have the option of taking a campsite without worrying about water. It turned out that stream was the last water we would see that day or well into the next.
The trail along the edge of the ridgeline, still lined with blueberries (there really is a trail through that).
Looking southeast from an overlook called "the Point."

About an hour before sunset, we arrived at a dry campsite at the junction of our trail with TeePee Trail. We looked at how far we had to go to the campsite we had planned to reach, glanced at the time, and decided to stop for the night. The group I mentioned earlier from Pittsburgh was also there, trying to locate the TeePee Trail. Eventually, they found it, but they made the same available daylight calculation and with some apology, shared our campsite for the night. It was plenty big enough to accommodate two groups of four and they were pleasant company.

Saturday night was cold, especially after cycling in shorts the day before. It actually snowed lightly while we were sitting around the fire. It didn't stick to the ground, but it snowed. The wind also screamed all night. Fortunately, our campsite was somewhat sheltered, but we listened to it roar above us. We woke up to ice in our water bottles in the morning.

In the morning, we gave the Pittsburgh group our spare water since they were completely out. We then continued along the Canyon Rim Trail. We reached an epic boulder field that felt like it was miles long (it was probably half a mile long).
Cairns marked the way through the boulder field, which made things easier, but we still made really slow progress. It took us nearly two hours to about 1.5 miles. The Canyon Rim Trail is probably the most rugged trail I've been on in the Mid-Atlantic. It took constant attention to make sure that we didn't stray from it. Once we were off of it, I was pretty proud that we managed not to have any serious navigational mishaps along the way.
The Roaring Plains Trail seemed like a paved sidewalk in comparison to what we had just come through and we made fast progress on it.
A fern along the trail.
We hiked out a few miles along Forest Road 70. The road passes an old orchard and some of the trees had small apples on them. These actually turned out to be pretty good, in spite of their small size.

This was a spectacular trip. The fall colors, the rugged terrain, the challenge of navigating. All of it added up to a nearly perfect weekend in the woods. This trip just reinforced my initial impression of Roaring Plains from August: It is a remarkably beautiful, rugged place that is deserving of further exploration.