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.

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