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.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Pittsburgh to DC, Part 2: the C&O Towpath

I left off in my last post with us finishing the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail in Cumberland Maryland. After lunch and a visit to the local bike shop for fuel and new tires for Michael, we continued on our way, starting the C&O Towpath at milepost 184.5. We had a better idea of what to expect on this section since Michael and I had biked the next 105 miles last year over Memorial Day weekend. By the time we left Cumberland, it was nearly 4 p.m. We only had 23 miles to go, so we managed to get to our campsite just before dark.
Looking back on Cumberland, Maryland.
Farm fields southeast of Cumberland.
We originally planned to camp at Potomac Forks campsite. When we got there, the water pump wasn't working, so we continued on to Town Creek Aqueduct campsite. It turned out to be a much, much prettier site. The picture above was taken as the sun was going down.
Day 5: This is the same view in the morning at sunrise. We couldn't have asked for a prettier spot to spend the night.
Five miles into our ride on day 5, we arrived at the Paw Paw Tunnel. At a half-mile, it is nearly as long as the Big Savage Tunnel on the GAP Trail, but unlike the Big Savage Tunnel, it is not lit. Last year, armed with a headlamp and a flashlight, I thought I would be able to ride through it. It got exactly three feet into it and realized that it was a horrible idea. The towpath through the tunnel is really uneven and there are puddles of indeterminate depth. Did I mention the canal, which I swear, harbors monsters as yet unknown to science? This year, I didn't even try. I just walked from the beginning.
The east end of the Paw Paw Tunnel.
One of the many lockhouses along the Towpath.
Remains of a cement plant outside of Hancock, Maryland and a nice example of an anticline below it.
We had gotten a weather forecast in Cumberland and heard that it was supposed to rain overnight. We had the option of camping or staying in the "bunk house" (above) behind C&O Bicycles in CumberlandHancock. I have to say, it reminded me of at least a couple of developing world hostels that I've stayed in, complete with outdoor showers (which were hot, at least). The price was right, though, and it was dry.
 Inside the bunk house.
Dam 5 on the Potomac River on day 6. It did rain overnight, so we battled soft mud all day long. I, not being a mountain biker, completely underestimated the energy and concentration it takes to muscle a bike, let alone a fully loaded one, through all of that.
One of my favorite places on the Towpath is Big Slackwater. I love how the path is perched along the edge of the river against the cliffs. It is also paved, which was a really, really nice break from the soft mud.
On day 6, we were headed for our friend's house, which turned out to be a good thing, given how dirty we all were at the end of the day. I think I carried as much mud on my bike, bags, and me as I left on the path. I got so much mud in my rear derailleur that I lost the ability to shift to different gears until I sprayed it off with my water bottle. We hosed everything off at our friend's house.
Day 7 was blissfully dry and the path had dried out quite a bit overnight. We made Harpers Ferry by lunchtime. This is the view from the bridge over the Potomac in Harper's Ferry.
 Monocacy Aqueduct, which is the longest of many aqueducts on the Towpath.
We camped that night at Chisel Branch campsite, which was right on the river. We had a spectacular sunset. The campsite is in Montgomery County, near White's Ferry, close to where we occasionally go out for road rides. It felt a little odd to camp so close to home, but it set us up for a great last day on the trip.
We got up early on the last day to get past Great Falls before the crowds arrived. We mostly accomplished that with time for a quick walk out to the overlook on Olmstead Island.
 Milepost 0 on the Towpath in Georgetown, tucked in between Rock Creek and Thompson's Boathouse.
 After finding Milepost 0, we rode over to the White House, had lunch in a coffee shop, rode up the National Mall and then to our house. Our original plan was to get on the Metro and get home that way, but a suggestion was made to finish the trip by riding home. It turned out to be a great idea and it was really cool to ride all the way to our house from Pittsburgh!