Sunday, May 31, 2015

Spy Rock, The Priest, and Five New Backpackers

One of my cousins and her family visited last week on their vacation. My cousin and I spent a fair amount of time together as kids.  Since we've become adults, though, we haven't seen each other more than a dozen times, mostly because I moved away. The last time I saw her, her kids were little. Now, two of them are teenagers. Time flies by.

Anyway, they hike a lot in Missouri and they've camped, but they had never put the two together, so I offered to introduce them to backpacking. I thought about a lot of different places that we could go in the Mid-Atlantic. Ultimately, I decided there is no better place to start backpacking than on the Appalachian Trail (AT). While I love Shenandoah National Park, the AT through the park is a little bit dull compared to some of the other places the trail passes through. I finally settled on the first place I hiked the AT: the section including Spy Rock and the Priest.

We borrowed gear from a whole bunch of people (thank you!) and, on Memorial Day, set out from the Spy Rock parking area. The first mile was tough and probably the least pleasant of the trip: a mile walk on a gravel road straight up to the top of the ridge. Once on the Appalachian Trail, things improved markedly. We had a nice breeze and as we climbed, we got glimpses of the valley below through the trees. At Spy Rock, we dropped our packs and scrambled up to the top of the outcrop to find a spectacular view of the mountains and of The Priest - our destination for that night.
The sign where we joined the Appalachian Trail.
 The trail through the campsite near Spy Rock.
Minuartia groenlandica (Mountain Sandwort) on top of Spy Rock.
 The view to the north from Spy Rock.
The mountains to the south of Spy Rock.

From Spy Rock, we headed north on the the AT, descending into a valley before the climb up to the top of The Priest. The flowers along the trail were pretty spectacular. I tend to forget how high the mountains are down there (The Priest is over 4,000 feet), so I was pleasantly surprised to see several high-altitude species.
Clintonia umbellata (White Clintonia Lily)
Rhododendron catawbiense (Catawba Rhododendron). One of the biggest, coolest surprises of the trip was that the Rhododendrons were blooming. In places, both the Rhododendrons and the Mountain Laurel were blooming, almost creating tunnels of flowers.
Cypripedium parviflorum (Yellow Lady Slipper). 

We hiked to the The Priest Shelter for a total of 5.5 miles for day 1. Since we were a big group and we were passed by a lot of thru-hikers, we didn't even try to see if we could stay in the shelter. We pitched our tents at the campsite near turnoff to go down to the shelter. It was a spectacularly beautiful campsite. We got to watch the sun set through the trees. There were rocks for the youngest kid to play on and there was plenty of good water down at the shelter. 
Our campsite on The Priest.

It took us a little while to get going in the morning, but once we did, we were rewarded with a beautiful view on top of the Priest. We stopped for a bit and chatted with three thru-hikers who had been on trail for two months already.
My cousin and her husband on top of The Priest.
Cypripedium acaule (Pink Lady Slipper) near the top of The Priest.

The descent down the north side of the Priest is long, almost five miles. By the time we stopped for lunch on the way down, the youngest kid was pretty convinced that backpacking was not a worthwhile enterprise. Everyone else was in pretty good spirits, though.
One of the older kids spotted this yellow phase Timber Rattlesnake a few feet off the trail. If you click to enlarge, you can see its rattle just below its head.
The last overlook on the way down the mountain.
Rhododendron maximum (Great Laurel)
The two older kids hiking through tunnels of Rhododendrons.
Sedum ternatum (Wild Stonecrop). This interesting little succulent was growing all along the trail on this section.
We finally made it to the road. I greatly underestimated how long it would take us to descend the almost five miles to the Tye River. We weren't in a hurry, but it did mean that everyone was on their feet longer than I anticipated.
We crossed the Tye River and took a nice long break in the shade. While we were sitting there, we made the decision that I would go ahead with the two older kids while the rest of the adults hiked with the youngest. We only had a little over 2.5 miles to go to our campsite, but there were two significant climbs and it had gotten hot. The three of us set off and quickly left the rest of the group behind. We passed a thru-hiker who commented that I was hiking them up the mountain and I responded that they were hiking me up the mountain. We made good time. 

Rather than hiking up over Three Ridges, which is one of the tougher climbs on the AT in central Virginia, we took a left on the Mau-Har Trail. We listened to thunder off in the distance and I kept my fingers crossed that everyone would make it to camp before it let loose on us. We were pretty happy to make it to our campsite, which was right on a pretty stream. About an hour after we got in, the rest of the group came around the corner. It sprinkled a little bit that evening, but we got lucky and the storms completely passed us by.

Our last, shortest day on trail started with a scramble down to some very pretty waterfalls.
This was the third time I've been to this area and this was the first time I had hiked far enough downstream to find these falls.
A black snake curled up on a tree stump on the hike out.
After three short miles, we made it back to the car at Reed's Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had a great hike. The trail was spectacular. It really is one of my favorite sections of the Appalachian 
trail in Virginia. My cousin and her family seemed to have a good time (well...the youngest had a good time when he didn't have a pack on his back). Best of all, I got to reconnect with her and I got to know her husband and kids better. 

Monday, May 18, 2015


Last weekend, I flew down to Georgia to spend a great weekend with friends. My friend picked me up at the airport and we spent the afternoon in Atlanta at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, went out for a nice dinner and saw a show at the Fox Theater.
Earth Goddess, a plant sculpture at the botanical gardens

My friends have a three-year-old daughter, so we went out for several short hikes in a couple of Georgia state parks (and we went strawberry picking, too!).

We visited Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area. The main attraction of the park is a huge granite monadnock with rare plants growing in the solution pools (called obferkessels) on top of the mountain.
Diamorpha smallii (Red Diamorpha). This little plant is a succulent. It was done blooming for the year. As it gets hot and dry, the plant shrivels up and dries out to survive until the next time it rains.
Opferkessels with D. smallii, and purple Tradescantia virginiana (Spiderwort) on the summit of Arabia Mountain.
 Near the top of the mountain, there was a pool of water. We found salamander eggs (the white shapes in the water above).
A spider riding a leaf in the pool.
A juvenile salamander in the pool.
Minuartia uniflora (Single-flowered Sandwort). This is a rare little plant that is primarily found in the Piedmont of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

On another short hike, we visited Hard Labor State Park.
A tiny seedling in a nurse log.
A mushroom in the leaf litter.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

North Fork Mountain: 25 Miles of Views

Back in March, we hiked a tiny portion of the North Fork Mountain Trail - just enough to find out that we needed to get back there and hike the full 25 miles of the trail. The same friend that went with us on that hike wanted to go as well and schedules aligned this past weekend. Coming from our area, setting up the car shuttle takes some time. By the time we left a car in the parking lot on Smoke Hole Road on the north end of the trail and drove down to the south trailhead on US Highway 33, we had been on the road for over four hours.

We set off from the southern trailhead just after 10:30. The trail starts at the top of the mountain. In spite of the green and flowers down in the valleys, spring had yet to climb to the very top of the ridge. None of the trees had leaves on them yet and much of the forest was still dormant. There were small signs of spring, though: blooming serviceberry trees and spring beauty carpeting the ground wherever the trail dropped a few feet in elevation.

There are probably good views early in the hike, but the first few miles of the trail pass through private land and there are No Trespassing signs here and there, so we stayed on trail.
The trail near the southern end of the North Fork Mountain Trail
Goodyera pubescens (Rattlesnake Plantain) leaves. This is an orchid that blooms later in the summer.
One of many, many great views to the west. The shadows from the clouds made for interesting patterns in the valley below.
An old hang gliding launch.
Pine cones.
Micranthes virginiensis (Early Saxifrage)
Claytonia virginica (Spring Beauty). Wherever the trail dropped a few feet in elevation and had good sun exposure, the early spring wildflowers would appear.
North Fork Mountain is a lot drier than higher areas of Dolly Sods and Roaring Plains, which are across the valley to the northwest. It still gets some impressive winds, though, based on the fact that all of the trees on the edge of the ridge are flagged like these. This is looking to the southwest.
This is back of Seneca Rocks from mile eight. The timing of this picture is a bit unfortunate. The trees haven't completely leafed out, so there isn't a lot of contrast between the rocks and the trees. The back of the rocks are also in the shadow. Morning would be a better time to get a good shot there.
Bootshot from one of the overlooks.
An old barn down in the valley. The fields in the valley looked so green compared to where we were hiking.
 Amelanchier laevis (Allegheny Serviceberry)
Another view to the south from the trail.
An ephemeral pond below the spring near our campsite at mile 12.5. North Fork Mountain is dry. Even though it had rained the week before our trip, we only saw water in two places in the entire 25 miles. More on that at the end of the trip report.
Sunset at our campsite. There is a road, FS 79 that intersects the trail at mile 12.5. We found a camspite near there, but mostly out of sight of the road. We had a great view of the sunset and spent a pleasant night there.

We woke up on Sunday to a clear sky and the promise of a hot (for May) day. After breakfast, we continued north. We immediately ran into a group of 19 high school students and their teachers doing the trail in the opposite direction. They were the only people we would see on Sunday until the very end of the trip, when we saw two dayhikers.
The first part of Sunday's hike led us through a lot of areas that had been burned, some of it severely. The trees at our campsite showed fire damage, but the fire clearly burned hotter in areas like the one above.
Most of the many views on the trip are to the west. This was a rare view to the east.
A cool erosion feature, about the size of my fist, in a rock along the trail.
The view from the campsite near the Redman Run Trail
Uvularia puberula (Mountain Bellwort). The trail was generally a few hundred feet lower on the second day and we started seeing a greater variety of wildflowers.
The home stretch: Looking north towards Chimney Top (the high point in the band of cliffs). At this point, we had less than four miles to go to the car.
 The benchmark on at the summit of Chimney Top
Looking down at one of the spires of Chimney Top.
 The view to the south - from where we'd come.
From Chimney Top, we hiked the three steep miles down to the car. At some point, Michael and I realized that the trees had leaves on them and everything was green. We had hiked from late winter back into early spring.
Dodecatheon meadia (Eastern Shooting Star). I've seen the western variety of this cool little flower several times, but I'd never seen the eastern species. We ran into them near the trailhead, which was a nice way to finish the hike.

This hike is amazing. We would definitely do it again. The views are non-stop and incredible. I can only imagine what it must look like during fall leaf change. It isn't remotely crowded. Other than the group of high school kids, we saw three other hikers and six mountain bikers in two groups. 

Water is an issue, though. The spring at mile 12.5 had several inches of water in it, but it is May. I don't know how much would be there in, say, September. The pond below it definitely dries up. The only other place we saw water was in large truck ruts around mile 11. They wouldn't be my first choice of water sources, but in a pinch, with a filter, they would work. Of course, they dry up as well. FS 79 is passable to regular cars, so caching water near the campsites at mile 12.5 probably makes the most sense if there aren't recent reports of water in the spring or if it has been dry.