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. 

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