Sunday, August 13, 2017

Peaks of Otter: A weekend of Hiking and Riding

We spent last weekend at Peaks of Otter in Central Virginia. They have a lovely lodge that we stayed at last year when we did our epic Blue Ridge Parkway ride. This year, we were just out for a weekend getaway and some training in serious hills. That section of the Blue Ridge Parkway was my favorite in the Virginia portion of last year's ride.

We took Friday off and made the long drive south. After we arrived and got checked in, we decided to do the signature hike at Peaks of Otter: Sharp Top. There are signs warning that it takes 1.5 hours to hike the 1.5 miles. It is a little steep and I'm sure it does take many people that long, but we made it in 55 minutes. Mostly, it is just a steady uphill hike. There were lots of late-summer flowers blooming on the way up. The top was spectacular with a 360 degree view of the area. On the way down, we encountered a rattlesnake who really wanted to use the trail. Eventually, it figured out where to get away from us. We did get to do a little bit of interpretation about the snake with some visitors from Germany. It is a lovely little hike, which we finished just in time for dinner in the lodge. Overall, we saw just a handful of people, but the trail is six feet wide and the parking lot is large. Clearly, they get a lot of traffic, likely mostly on the weekends. We were pretty happy to have it mostly to ourselves.
 The Sharp Top Summit.
 A cool little caterpillar on some fern fronds.
 Monarda didyma (Wild Bergamot)
 Spirea latifolia (Meadowsweet) near the summit of Sharp Top.
 The view to the south of Sharp Top
 Looking down towards the Peaks of Otter Lodge. I was trying out a new wide-angle lens for my mirrorless camera.
 Michael on the summit
 Flat Top Mountain and the valley below (click to enlarge)
 A directional plate on the summit
 A large shelter just below the summit of Sharp Top.
 The rattlesnake we encountered on the way down (I have a good zoom lens)
 Another view of it as it was moving.

We spent Saturday and Sunday riding the Blue Ridge Parkway. On Saturday, we just rode north out of the lodge, up over Apple Orchard Mountain. The weather was actually chilly enough that I had to put on a windshirt for the twelve-mile descent off of the back of Apple Orchard.  The top third of that descent wound up being a challenge because they had very recently chip and sealed it. There was a lot of gravel, which meant we had to be really, really careful with turns. After about four miles of that, we hit normal pavement and were able to have fun with the downhill. After lunch, we had to pay it all back by riding back up the 12 mile climb. We ended up doing 60 miles by the time we were done. Unfortunately, I didn't take a ton of pictures.
 A couple of miles below the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain.
 My bike taking a break at the top of Apple Orchard.

On Sunday, we drove to our Saturday turnaround point and rode north from there. This is one of the best sections of the Parkway for riding in Virginia: Little traffic, amazing views, and good climbs.
Taking a break just north of US 60.

We had a great weekend, couldn't have asked for better weather, or better riding.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Bear Church Rock and Staunton River

A few weeks ago, we took a break from training for this year's bike vacation to get out for a hike. We did a loop in Shenandoah National Park that was mostly new to both of us. We started at Bootens Gap in the Central District of the park. We followed the Appalachian Trail uphill for about half a mile before turning east on the Laurel Prong Trail. We passed lots of late summer flowers. After a sharp climb up Cat Knob, the trail gently descends the the back of the mountain for a few miles to Bear Church Rock where there is a great view of the valley and Old Rag peeks out from behind a ridge.

After Bear Church Rock, the trail dives off of the mountain in a steep set of switchbacks. We took a short detour to see Jones Mountain Cabin, which was built in 1855 and is now maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. We then began to work our way back uphill towards the car on the Staunton River Trail. We passed a few pretty little waterfalls along the way. The Fork Mountain Fire Road was lined with more late summer flowers and butterflies. All said and done, we hiked 12 miles and saw exactly three other people on trail.

 Lillium michauxii (Turk's Cap Lily)
 The Jones Mountain Trail.
 Helianthus divaricatus (Woodland Sunflower)
 Impatiens pallida (Yellow Jewelweed)
 A snakeskin in Mountain Laurel on a rock where we stopped to have lunch
 The view from Bear Church Rock. Old Rag is just visible in the center of the photo.
 Tiny little fungi along the Jones Mountain Trail
 A tunnel through the Mountain Laurel near Jones Cabin
 Jones Cabin. You can actually rent this cabin from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.
 Campanulastrum americanum (Tall Bellflower)
 Small waterfalls along the Staunton River
 A tree that grew around a log which later rotted away. It isn't particularly common to see these in Shenandoah.
Helianthus annuus (Common sunflower)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Tuscarora Trail from Dry Gap to US 50

Normally, we work on Old Rag on the weekend closest to July 4. This year, however, we had already been up and down that circus a number of times, so we decided to go backpacking with a couple of friends instead on the Tuscarora Trail. The Tuscarora Trail is a long trail that was once envisioned as an alternative route for the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT's right-of-way through northern Virginia wasn't secure, so in the event that a landowner decided to block access to the trail, the Tuscarora Trail would serve as the new route. Over the years, the AT's right-of-way has been secured permanently and the Tuscarora Trail is a long trail in its own right now.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of road-walking involved if you are going to hike the entirety of the Tuscarora Trail, but the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) is working on that. Our hike included one of the newest sections to be re-located: approximately 8 miles from Dry Gap near the Virginia-West Virginia Border to Pinnacles Shelter.

The first day was spectacular. The hike starts with a mile or so uphill climb to a stunning overlook at Eagle Rock. Right now, since access is relatively recent, the trail is obviously used, but not trashed and the overlook is not covered in graffiti or litter. Someday, that will probably change, but we really enjoyed getting there before that happens.  Most people turn around at Eagle Rock and the trail sees considerably fewer people. In fact, we didn't see another person for the next day and a half. We were definitely not the first people to hike this section, but there were times where it felt like we were. In many places, we had to squint to see the trail, which was often covered in moss or grass. We also ran across a fairly large bear who was enjoying the berry crop as much as we were. He moseyed on without too much of an eye roll. The trail took us past great views and through beautiful forests. It was just a really nice hike.

We had planned to set up tents at Pinnacles Shelter, but there didn't turn out to be any tent sites there. The shelter is built into a very rocky hillside. Since there wasn't any evidence of mouse activity, we figured we'd just sleep in the shelter. How bad could it be? The mosquitoes and biting midges showed up during dinner and tried to carry us off as we turned in for the night. We all laid there for a while and finally decided to pitch our tents on the shelter's porch. Yes, this is bad form, but it was pretty unlikely that anyone else was going to hike in at 11 pm. And it allowed us all to get some sleep.

The second day was everything the first was not: noisy (ATV course and a gun range - together!), overgrown, no views, and lots of nefarious insects. We looked at the map, which showed 8 miles, mostly downhill and we all thought it was going to be an easy day. Oh how wrong we were. The first part of the trail beyond the shelter was pretty, but it deteriorated after that. Soon, we were hiking 10 yards away from ATV trails. No judgement to those who enjoy that sort of thing, but I don't really want to listen to it when I'm hiking. There was also a gun range relatively close by. Same thing: I just don't want to listen to it when I'm hiking. The trail was in rough shape as well with lots of rocks and downed trees to climb over, under, and around. At one point, we had to fight our way through blackberry bushes. The last insult was dodging poison ivy to get to the car.

We had a good hike. I would happily do the first half again, but I feel as though my life will be complete if I never retrace my steps on the second half.

 Chimaphila maculata (Striped Wintergreen)
 A Luna moth on an Azalea bush. We saw several Luna moths on this trip.
 The view looking south from Eagle Rock.
 Looking east from Eagle Rock towards Front Royal. There were a number of small thunderstorms visible in the distance.
 A bench up on Eagle Rock.
 The trail often looked like this: barely visible and covered in moss.
 A caterpillar on hitchhiking on my boot.
 Another example of the faintness of the trail. It actually extends out in front of the camera towards the center of the picture. Really.
 The view to the northwest from an overlook near Pinnacles Shelter.
 Day 2: Pinnacles Shelter
 A garter snake along the trail
 An interesting insect that I'm not familiar with.
Hiking along a field right before finishing the trip.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Soldier's Delight Natural Environmental Area

We wanted to get a hike in today, but we also wanted to avoid the traffic of everyone returning from a long weekend. Soldier's Delight Natural Environmental Area, northwest of Baltimore fit the bill. The area has some of the rarest habitat in Maryland, including oak savanna, partly due to its unique geology. You can read more about that here. The day started gray and foggy, but cleared up about halfway through our hike. We had a pleasant 6-mile walk and saw a number of flowers along the way.

 Oenothera biennis (Evening Primrose)
Red Dog Lodge, which was a hunting lodge for the former landowner.
 A rabbit looks on skeptically while I try to take its picture.
 Ferns growing on the chimney of the lodge.
 Packera anonyma (Small's Ragwort)
 A snail hiding in a borehole in a tree.
 The serpentine barrens that the area is famous for.
Arabis lyrata (Lyre-leaved Rock Cress)
 Silene caroliniana (Wild Pinks)
 The entrance to chromite mine that once operated here.
 We had lunch near this tiny pond and listened to Green Frogs call to each other.
 A mushroom near the trail.
 A white moth on Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
 An Eastern Box Turtle.
Cerastium arvense var villosum (Serpentine Chickweed) a rare variety that only occurs in serpentine barrens