Sunday, November 29, 2015

Fifth Annual Hike Off the Pie: Waterfalls and Rocks

Every year, I go hiking with friends on Black Friday. This year, there were three of us and the weather was unbelievable: highs in the upper 60s. As usual, we managed to find an epic off-trail adventure.

We started at eastern boundary of Shenandoah National Park on the Rose River Fire Road. As soon as we crossed into the park, we took a fisherman's path down to the river. We needed to cross the river and take the first significant side stream that entered from the north side of the river. The water was too deep to cross without changing shoes, so we just looked for a wide, slower spot in the river. The water was cold. Not surprising - it is November, but still...brrr. We would not have attempted this hike if the temperatures had been closer to normal for this time of year. It was bad enough when the air temperature was in the 60s. Feet dry and boots back on, we hiked up the side stream, reaching Climbing Rose Falls in relatively short order. The falls were really pretty, well worth the trip. I would like to go back there early in the morning or late in the evening to take more pictures.

From there, we hiked straight up a crazy steep hill towards the top of the ridge, where we would take a right and head across a saddle to Buzzard Rocks. The climb was tough and the leaves made it hard to find footing in a lot of places. It wouldn't be a Hike Off the Pie without a memorable climb, though. We ran across some old farm ruins along the way, which was a neat surprise. You can see similar ones throughout the park, but this one was a little bit unique. In other areas of the park, often there is evidence of old roads near the ruins. Not in this case. Whoever lived in this spot reached in solely on foot or on horseback. A little bit later, we reached the saddle, where we found a footpath that led all the way to Buzzard Rocks. We had lunch there. I tried to reach the top of the rocks, but didn't have any luck. I got a point where I would have needed climbing gear, but not before a pitched battle with mountain laurel and greenbrier.

After lunch, we headed west towards the Skyland-Big Meadows Horse Trail. This involved climbing 2.5 miles over Spitler Hill. It seemed to go on forever and there must have been 15 false summits before we finally reached the trail. The walk was very pretty, but by the time we reached the trail, we were all tired of route-finding and wading through briers. We took a break on the trail and then began the long hike back to the car. We paused again at Dark Hollow Falls before heading down the Rose River Fire Road. We finally reached the car an hour after sunset. It was a great hike. I definitely want to check out Climbing Rose Falls again.
Crossing the chilly Rose River
Upper Climbing Rose Falls.
I used this log to brace my camera when I was shooting the waterfalls. I looked down and happened to notice the crawdad claw and head. Something caught the crawdad and had a meal on the log, leaving a few bits behind.
The ruins we found near a spring.
Wild grapes tangled in greenbrier.
The view from my high point on Buzzard Rocks. The peak in the distance is Stony Mountain.
 Lichen on rock.
 A little bird nest.
Lower Dark Hollow Falls shortly before sunset.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Quick Backpacking Trip on the Laurel Highlands Trail

More than a month ago, we scheduled a backpacking trip for this past weekend and crossed our fingers that the weather would cooperate. I did some research and we wound up picking the Laurel Highlands Trail in western Pennsylvania. The whole trail is 70 miles long and has shelters along the way, similar to those on the Appalachian Trail. We did 18.5 miles of it.

We started at PA route 653 and hiked south towards Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. The first day, we hiked 12 miles under overcast skies. The trail was pretty easy. It is well-maintained and stays mostly on the top of the ridge. We kept a pretty quick pace because we wanted to make sure we reached our shelter before sunset. There are actually stone mile markers, which made it easy to track our progress.
Stone steps and moss on the trail.
Rhododendrons and boulders. The trail wound its way through the boulders like a little bit of a maze. We passed through a number of areas like this. It was one of my favorite things about this area.
The trail (on the right side of the photo) along the edge of an area that had been logged. It looked like they had logged everything except the oak trees.
A little pond.
Fallen oak leaves in the pond.
Moss on a log. The overcast skies made the bright green moss stand out.
One of the stone mile markers.
 A split log bridge. Even the smallest gullies on this trail have split log bridges.
An overlook of the Youghiogheny River valley before we began our descent into Ohiopyle State Park. The last half mile of the day was a tough, switchback-less descent to the shelters in the state park. It was rocky. Many of those rocks were loose and all of them were covered in a few inches of leaves, providing many opportunities to trip. We were all pretty happy when the side trail down to the shelters came into view.
This was home for the night. The shelters ostensibly sleep five, but we were pretty snug with four and a dog. As far as backcountry camping goes, this was pretty luxurious. There are bathrooms, a water pump, and trash cans. The park also provides firewood. We had a nice fire, a dinner of black bean and squash tacos, hot chocolate, and smores.
After the fire went out, it got chilly. Our friend's dog cold and couldn't sleep, so our friend put her down vest on her. The dog warmed right up and went to sleep, but she was unimpressed with having to wear a vest.

We woke up to a sunny sky on the second day. We lingered over breakfast and coffee, finally starting out around 9:30 a.m. The terrain was much tougher in the last six miles of our hike than the first day's walk. Instead of keeping to the ridgeline, the trail took us up to the top of the ridge and then down into the valleys several times. The scenery was just as nice as the day before and we got several nice views of the river valley below us. One final steep climb took us to the lot where backpackers are required to park.
The Youghiogheny River from the trail
Red oak leaves.
Club moss.
A hole in a hollowed out tree.
One of the more elaborate split log bridges, complete with a stone footing.
Crossing one of the roads.
One last overlook of the river. This was such a nice trail. We talked about coming back sometime and hiking the entire 70 miles.

A quick note about the Laurel Highlands Trail: There is no fee for dayhiking. Backpackers are required to register and reserve shelters in advance. The fee is $5 per person per night. Permits and reservations can be found here.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Peak Color on Old Rag

Our schedule just worked out that we volunteered on Old Rag two weekends in a row, so we got to see a nice progression of the leaf colors. We were up there two weekends ago. It was predictably nutty up there, but it was also beautiful and much warmer than the weekend before.
 The first high water bridge on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.
Changing leaves on the fire road.
 A little toad in the leaves
The summit of Old Rag through the trees.
 Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel): The last flowers of the year.
 Looking towards Skyline Drive and Hawksbill Mountain from the summit.
 Looking northeast from the summit.
Changing trees in the valley.
A raven soaring over Weakley Hollow.
The view from the first false summit on our way down the mountain.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Old Rag: Not Quite Peak Color Yet

We went out with Old Rag Mountain Stewards last weekend. We had a good, uneventful day. The trees have started to change, but are still pretty green in the valleys. Some pictures from our day up there:

 The fire road. We hiked up the road first to avoid the lines in the rock scramble.
Interesting seed pods on a vine.
Looking southeast from the Saddle Trail
The bright red leaves near the summit on the Saddle Trail.
Looking down the rock scramble from the summit.
 Ravens playing over the summit.
 The spot where I always take a picture.
 Red maple leaves
 Michael towards the bottom of the rock scramble.
The sun hit these leaves near sunset, making them glow gold.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Labor Day Backpacking: Central District of Shenandoah National Park

We helped our friend Wildtype, finish section hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) through Shenandoah National Park over Labor Day weekend. We hiked the 35 miles of the central district from Swift Run Gap to Thornton Gap. The shelter spacing worked out a bit awkwardly. Our first day, to Bearfence Hut, was only 9 miles, but our last day, from Rock Spring Hut to Thornton Gap, was 15 miles. We have done a fair bit of backpacking this year, but 15 miles with full packs was a little bit ambitious.

Day 1: Swift Run Gap to Bearfence Hut: We started out in the clouds at Swift Run Gap. After a couple of hours, they cleared up, though. We climbed steadily to Lewis Mountain. There aren't really any views to speak of in this section, but it is a pleasant walk. We heard from other hikers that the spring is somewhat unreliable at Bearfence Hut, so we topped off our water at Lewis Mountain and got cold drinks from the camp store. After a quick mile to the shelter, we had cold cider and beer with dinner.
Starting in the clouds at Swift Run Gap.
 Solanum carolinense (Horse Nettle). This member of the Nightshade family was blooming in several places along the trail.
Chicken of the Woods fungus on a log.
Switchbacks coming down off of Baldface Mountain.
Ferns, moss, and lichen along the side of the trail.
An interesting fungus on a log.
We pitched our tent at one of the tent sites just south of Bearfence Hut. We thought tt looked "flat enough." We were badly mistaken. We spent the entire night trying not to roll down the hill.
Bearfence Hut.

Day 2: Bearfence Hut to Rock Spring Hut. We had eleven miles to do on our second day. We couldn't have asked for better weather. It was a beautiful, bright and sunny day.
We made a short detour about a mile into our day to hike up to the top of Bearfence Mountain. Michael and our friend are on rocky overlook near the top. Back on the AT, on the way down Bearfence Mountain, I caught my heel on a rock and turned my ankle pretty hard. For a few minutes, it looked like we might have to call the hike off. Michael wrapped it up and, after a few minutes,  I gingerly continued down the trail. We were going to have to hike a half mile to the next road access anyway. Slowly, the pain diminished and I made it all the way to Big Meadows, seven more miles, where we took a long break. After some discussion, we decided to continue. I won't lie, the last two miles weren't much fun, but we made it to the shelter just fine. We were treated to the sight of a bear in the woods near Rock Spring Hut while we were cooking dinner. That sounds scarier than it was. It was skirting wide around the shelter, avoiding coming too close on its way over the ridge.
The AT near Hazeltop Mountain.
A butterfly on a Cirsium vulgare (Bull Thistle - I think. I didn't get a very good picture of the leaves).
A Monarch caterpillar on milkweed.
The view from the rocky overlook behind Big Meadows campground. The trail skirts around to the west of the campground and mostly stays out of view of it. It is actually one of the prettier parts of the trail through this area.
Looking north towards Hawksbill Mountain from Big Meadows Campground.

Day 3: Rock Spring Hut to Thornton Gap. Another day of great weather and this was probably the day we got the best views. Initially, the plan was to hike to Skyland Resort, four miles away, where I would wait for Michael and our friend to go get the car and come back and get me, which would allow our friend to finish his hike. As we started hiking, though, my ankle felt much better and by the time we hit the coffee shop at Skyland, I decided to keep hiking. We got really lucky as we were returning to the trail after our coffee: we saw a mother bear with her cubs in the woods. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get any clear pictures because of the shade in the forest, but lets just say, they were so cute! The rest of the day went pretty smoothly. The last couple of miles were hard, but that was mostly because we haven't done that distance in a long time.
 Sedum telephoides (Wild Live Forever) on one of the rock slides on Hawksbill Mountain.
 We had lunch on Little Stony Man Mountain.
Near Jewel Hollow Overlook, we found this Timber Rattlesnake right beside the trail.
 Another look at it.
The trail near the junction with the Mary's Rock trail.

We had a good hike, it was fun to meet the other section hikers at the huts, and we really enjoyed helping Wildtype complete Shenandoah National Park.