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.

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