Saturday, April 24, 2010

Narrowback Loop - April 23, 2010

On a warm, sunny April Friday I went back west of Harrisonburg to do a loop I've wanted to check out for at least 10 years.  The Narrowback Loop consists of a group of trails up and down Narrowback Mountain (2500 foot elevation) on the eastern edge of GWNF west of Bridgewater, and up the Sand Spring Trail and then down the Timber Ridge Trail, which ascend Sand Spring Mountain (3720 elevation) and eventually summit Reddish Knob (4397 elevation).  This was my Apollo 10 hike - a test run to see if I am in good enough shape to take a trail all the way to Reddish Knob without actually "landing" there.  This hike went great, so the next hike I hope to take the plunge and summit Reddish Knob and back on a day hike.
Brand new clear cut.

The Narrowback loop started on the Tillman Trail, which summited Narrowback Mountain.  The Tillman Trail heads east from the Tillman Road (FS 101), climbing through a section of reputed old growth forest (see link), and passing by a fresh clear cut.  The Tillman Trail was the southern boundary for the clear cut, though who knows where it will be if I return, as the clear cutting does not appear to be over.
The Tillman Trail continues to climb until it comes to a road, where hikers turn left.  The trail follows the road until it reaches a tower owned by Clear Communications.  The route becomes a legitimate trail again on the other side of the tower, and stays on the ridge for a while longer before dropping back down to the road again.
At the top of the Tillman Trail.
At the road I ran into a couple of turkey hunters decked out in full cammo gear - even cammo shoes!  They were interesting to talk to, and I found out that Turkey Season in Virginia in April ends at noon daily, so the hens have some of the day to find food.  Of course, it is the toms they are after.  These guys really knew the mountains.
Heading up the Sand Spring Trail was a real slog.  The trail wasn't as steep as others I have taken, and it is wide enough for a truck to drive up, but it is all uphill and it is relentless.  The entire uphill averages 10% and has a section at 16%.  The uphill section lasts for 3.3 miles and lasts virtually the entire portion of the Sand Spring Trail until its intersection with the Timber Ridge Trail.  
Heading up Sand Spring Mountain
I headed back downhill after meeting up with the Timber Ridge Trail and eating an apple - my only food on the entire trip, thanks to some poor planning.  This trail follows the Hearthstone Ridge back to the Tillman Road and my car.  On the way down, there were a lot of spring flowers coming up, including bluet, dwarf iris, and star chickweed.  A large stand of mountain laurel was getting ready to pop, as well.  
Overall, this hike wasn't nearly as difficult as the nearby Hone Quarry Loop I did a couple of weeks earlier, though it is several miles longer.  A nice aspect to this loop was the fact that there were eight geocaches within 20 yards of the trail and several others a little further away.  I found them all, but passed a 9th that was two tenths of a mile off the trail - 1000 feet is too far to go off trail, in my mind.  The trail itself doesn't have a lot to recommend for a return trip, other than to get me up to Reddish Knob.
Mountain Laurel along the Hearthstone Ridge.

Hike Details.
Distance:  11.0 miles
Total Time: 5 hours 29 minutes, including geocache searches.
Steepest Uphill: from 4.67 miles to 5.06 miles; 16% grade.
Average Uphill: 10% grade
Lowest point: 1751 ft.
Highest point: 3727 ft.
Total uphill: 1960 ft.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Return to Monkeyhead (Sort of...) - April 18, 2010

I hiked the entire Doubletop Trail with four other folks on Sunday.  The weather was beautiful, with sunny skies and highs in the low 60's.  I had hiked part of this trail a few years back when I stayed at the PATC's Meadows Cabin, making it up to a rocky overlook called "Monkeyhead."  I had recalled this as a very steep trail, but hiked it before purchasing a GPS.  So I was excited to get back on this trail and determine whether the trail was as steep as I remember.
Early on the trail.

We all met at Sheetz in Madison before proceeding to Graves Mountain Lodge in Syria.  We dropped a car in the lot there and continued west to the trailhead parking at the entrance to the Meadows Cabin.  We were on the trail by 10:05 AM. The trail follows a rutted old road for a brief time before starting up the steep Doubletop Mountain, and climbs over 1000 feet in the first mile.

The trail stays somewhat steep for quite a while, forgoing switchbacks in favor of the direct assault on the mountain.  Because Spring was still young, we were able to see some of the early flowers and could still see nearby mountains as we ascended.  The trail was in much better shape since the last time I climbed Doubletop, with fresh blue blazes marking the way.  Last time, we lost the trail about half way up the mountain and bushwacked up the ridge.  This time it was clear where to go.

The first Doubletop peak looms ahead.
That clarity ended up being a two-edged sword, however.  Because we stayed on the trail, we missed Monkeyhead overlook.  We ended up lunching at a similar overlook, but it was at the second mountain peak, and I could not remember any descents on our previous hike. After returning home, loading the trail into Google Earth, and checking with Cullen (who had hiked the last time with me), I can say with certainty that we missed the overlook I had hoped to revisit.  The trail hooked east of the rocky point, and we did not see the rocks as we descended towards the second peak.

My memory of the Monkeyhead ascent was that the hiking was brutal. I remember literally pulling myself up the mountain using mountain laurel until we reached the rocks.  Although the hike was not that bad the second time around (possibly because we were actually on an established trail), the ascent was still the steepest of any established trail I have taken and measured in Virginia. Going up Doubletop averaged a 21% grade and hit 40% for a brief section. The steepest previous hike I had previously recorded is a brief portion of Old Rag that was a 33% grade. (A flyer for the Wild Oak Trail claims that a steep trail I took a decade ago from Camp Todd to Ramsey's Draft Wilderness Area has slopes "up to 46 percent.")  

Looking up the trail and into the sun at its steepest point.

But the descent of the first peak does not compare with the second peak. The second peak had a brief portion (1/20th of a mile) that was a 44% grade.  One of my fellow hikers, Iva, was particularly interested in this portion of the trail because she took horses over the trail last Fall, and the horses fell here. She and her crew ended up spending the night on the mountain when the group split up and the terrain became too steep. It was like returning to the scene of a car wreck, as Iva took pictures of snapped limbs and altered trail.

After scaling the second Doubletop peak, the terrain appeared to level out considerably. Because I thought I still had a shot at lunch on Monkeyhead overlook, I delayed the group while I fought the branches of a downed tree and found a route to another large rock overlook.  This one was the equal of Monkeyhead, though a couple of hundred feet lower.  We decided to have lunch there.
Elevation Profile of Doubletop Hike.

Lunch at Doubletop viewpoint.
A couple of our crew had gone on ahead, but they eventually returned to join us at our lunch spot.  We overlooked the Rapidan River valley and could see the fire road that leads up to Hoover Camp. Across the valley was a peak with some FAA relay towers. And, if you stood up and looked back past the twisted rock path that brought you to our lunch spot, you could spy Old Rag in the distance.

After lunch we headed off towards Graves Mountain Lodge. There was some concern at this point because it was after 1:30 and we had traveled less than 2.5 miles. But an hour had been spent on or near our lunch rock, and the rest of the trip was pretty level, so I wasn't too concerned.
Our trail route on Google Earth.

At 2.8 miles we came to the split with what we thought was the Palatini Trail but later determined was the western portion of the Whilhite Wagon Trail. This made this a somewhat confusing intersection, because the trail map indicated that the Palatini Trail split off sharply to the right, however the actual condition was that our trail split off sharply to the left.  We had to look down the side trail and see the white blazes on that trail, then look back on the extension of the Doubletop Trail to see a blue blaze before we were confident that we had taken the correct path. That was the last blue blaze we would see that afternoon.

Of course there is a trail here!
From that point on, we straddled the ridgetop constantly looking for evidence that a trail had once existed along the way, in stark contrast to the bold dashed line that trail cut on our map.  On occasion we would see a tree limb or trunk that had been sawed years ago.  Other times (particularly on the uphill portions), a path would present itself. And the map indicated we were headed the right way when we came to a clear border between the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area and Shenandoah National Park.

It isn't like there was real reason for concern, however. We were on a ridgetop, the map indicated that the mountain curved north towards Graves Mountain Lodge, and we could see the surrounding countryside below us and tell where we were in relation to landmarks on the map (including Graves Mountain Lodge).  While Iva might claim that the GPSs Tom and I had were critical to this hike, I am confident it could have been done without them, and even a map wasn't really needed (other than because I have to have a map).  Except for the intersection with the first Whilhite Wagon Trail, this trip really wasn't that complex, even without a discernible trail for much of the latter half of the hike.
Looking back towards the start of our hike.

Intersecting trails became increasingly faint.  While the Palatini Trail was so obvious we could have taken it and ended up on the wrong side of the mountain, the Wilhite Wagon Trail (the next trail dropping south off the mountain) was less apparent. We were never sure if we saw the 4WD Trail, and halfway down the mountain, the Hunter Trail never presented itself.

As you can see from the elevation profile, the final descent was also very steep.  From about 5.6 to 6.1 miles into the hike, we dropped almost 800 feet, a 29% drop.  I fell a couple of times on the way down, because I would step on a stick that would fly out from under my foot.  By this point, the trail had reappeared, wide and clear, and it looked like a superhighway to us.
We can see the trail again!  But it is about to drop...

The GPS gave us confidence to take an unmapped perpendicular trail at the end of our hike, which dropped us onto the back end of the Graves Mountain Property.  We arrived at the car at 4:20, over 6 hours after we left.  Dropping the hour we stopped for lunch still makes this hike about 5 hours and 15 minutes - a long time for a hike under 7 miles.  This should tell you how tough the hike was.

A postscript: Because I had enjoyed finding the geocaches over in Hone Quarry the week before, I decided to leave a cache on this hike.  It would be one of those caches that might get found once a year because getting to the location is so tough, but it would also highlight a beautiful spot that you might not otherwise visit.  I placed it near our lunch spot, so that anyone coming up to find the cache could not miss the fantastic view we experienced.
Graves Mountain Lodge at the end of our hike.
I should have checked local regulations more closely.  It turns out that, even though the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website mentions nothing about geocaching and the DGIF even sponsors events that teach geocaching, they quietly do not permit such placements on their land.  "As geocaching is not related to nor does it support wildlife or habitat management, this activity is not allowed on our WMAs," was their response.   So I really should go back sometime this year and pick up my cache.

On the bright side, it appears from discussions after my return that our crew has recruited hikers several enthusiastic about a return to the area despite our descriptions of the adventure.  We will make sure that we return in a manner that "supports habitat management."

Hike Details.
Distance:  6.8 miles
Total Time: 6 hours 14 minutes, including stops.
Steepest Uphill: from 2.22 miles to 2.27 miles; 43% grade.
Average Uphill: 21% grade
Starting elevation: 1738 ft.
Highest point: 3460 ft.
Ending elevation: 775 ft.
Total uphill: 2714 ft.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hone Quarry Hike - April 10, 2010

Thanks go to Betsy and Gigi for hosting my son on a Cub Scout overnight that did not require my presence over the weekend of April 10-11.  I used the opportunity to test out the new tent at George Washington National Forest's Hone Quarry Campground, west of Harrisonburg.  It was very peaceful out here, despite a supposed "student riot" going on at Harrisonburg's James Madison University at the same time.

After setting up the tent in the campground, I headed off on a long circuit hike.  I started by walking up the Hone Quarry Road past the reservoir, and after 2.4 miles came to the Pond Knob Trail.  The Pond Knob Trail climbed at an exceptionally steep 23% grade to the top of Pond Knob where a trail sign was leaning up against a tree.  This was the highest elevation of the hike, at 3576 feet, 3.7 miles into the hike.   

Here, I turned onto the Meadow Knob Trail.  The Meadow Knob Trail is an old jeep trail, though I cannot imagine any jeep ever taking this road.  It dropped breathtakingly fast - at a 27% grade - before climbing back up to the summit of Oak Knob.  

Oak Knob is slightly lower than Pond Knob at 3506 feet.  There is a geocache on the summit of Oak Knob that was easy to find.  It had not been accessed since June, the only time someone had nabbed it in the past year.

I continued on the Meadow Knob Trail for another mile-and-a-half to access another geocache.  This cache has only been accessed one time since 2006.  And I never saw another hiker after leaving the road.  Even the guy who placed the geocache on the Oak Knob summit emailed me asking about the trails I used to get to his cache - he'd clearly never taken the most direct trail to his geocache - the Cliff Trail.

Coming back, I re-summited Oak Knob then dropped down a few hundred feet to the Cliff Trail turnoff.  There was no sign for the Cliff Trail on the Meadow Knob Trail (not even one leaning up against a tree), but the blazes on the trees were pretty clear.  Also somewhat confusing, as I thought when I first passed it ascending to Oak Knob from Pond Knob that it might be the trail to the top, since all trails are blazed yellow.

The Cliff Trail is not a bad trail, but the upper portion of the trail traversed several sections of loose rock where a twisted ankle could happen at any time.  This greatly slows the hike and is an added difficulty to a trail that cannot show up in the calculations I make comparing trails.  

Closer to the trailhead, there are a couple of great overlooks that look down on the Hone Quarry valley.  I had been to one of these a couple of years ago when my nephew Ned came to visit.  I'd always wanted to come back and explore the area a little more closely.  I am glad I did.

Hike Details.
PATC Difficulty Factor 243.9 
Distance: 10.5 miles
Total Time: 4 hours 59 minutes, including stops.
Steepest Uphill: from 2.95 miles to 3.22 miles; 23% grade.
Starting elevation: 1984 ft.
Highest point: 3576 ft.

Meneka Peak Hike - April 6, 2010

The Glass House is connected to a series of trails on the north side of Massanutten.  The connecting trail, known as the Sidewinder Trail, is the only pink blazed trail I've ever seen.  It is in good shape, though the blazes were erased (the bark on the trees where the blazes had been were literally painted brown) for the first half of the trail.  After approximately a mile, the Sidewinder Trail crosses a road and the blazes appear on the trail.

The day we arrived, Brian and I took the boys on an out-and-back on the Sidewinder Trail, hoping to get to the top of the ridge to get cell service.  We didn't make it that far, but made it to where the Sidewinder Trail ends at the Bearwallow Trail before turning back for a 3 and a half mile journey.

The next day, Brian and I set out again just after 7 AM to get to one of the trails on the ridge.  I was drawn to the Meneka Peak Trail because a brand-new-yet-to-be-found geocache had been placed up there by some folks behind a hiking website I use a lot, the folks at  Hikingupward is a great resource for Virginia hikes and I have recommended it to several other hikers in Charlottesville.  They offered an additional incentive to find their geocache first: a hikingupward tee shirt.

After 1.7 miles (39 minutes - a lot less than when we were with the boys), the Sidewinder Trail ends at the Bearwallow Trail.  The Bearwallow Trail climbs the mountain in a series of switchbacks, reaching the top of the ridge at 3.4 miles (1.5 hours).  The Bearwallow Trail crosses a number of rock fields, slowing progress.  At the top of the ridge, the hiker has the choice of continuing on the trail and descending the other side of the ridge, or walking the ridge on the Meneka Peak Trail.  Thinking that the geocache was on the Meneka Peak Trail, we headed across the ridge.

There were numerous great views at the top of Meneka Peak, our highest point on our hike.  And this trail belies the thinking that ridgetop trails are somehow less challenging than trails heading up the mountain.  The Meneka Peak Trail was tough going in sections due to the challenge of sidestepping the many rocks along the trail.
We encountered one curious item along the Meneka Peak Trail.  It was an old ammo box painted white with the number "14" on the side.  We wondered what that was all about!  There was nothing inside, however, and no clues elsewhere.

We did not come upon the Meneka Peak Geocache until after leaving the trail of the same name and heading back downhill on the Signal Knob Trail.  But we were the first ones to find the geocache, and I got the tee shirt.  I'll probably never wear it because it was a medium sized shirt, but it was a great prize anyway.  The geocache was 5.1 miles from the Glass House.  If it had been on the Meneka Peak Trail, we probably would have gone back the way we came.  Because we were closer to Signal Knob, however, we instead took the Signal Knob Trail back to the valley and walked the road from the National Forest Picnic Area to the Glass House.

On the way back down, we stopped at a couple of overlooks, including one that I had reached two years ago when staying at the Glass House.  There was another geocache at this spot, and it was one that I could not find when I visited before.  Brian found it almost as soon as I said there was a geocache close by.  I guess it really does help to have two sets of eyes sometimes. As we descended from the last overlook we came across two other sets of hikers. The first was a pair of college aged females, and the second a couple of older fellows including one with a limp.
I did not ask the first set where they were going, as they looked like they were interested in getting some trail between us and them.  The older fellows were heading up to Signal Knob - a surprise because one walked with a pronounced limp.

By the time I got home another pair of searchers had posted for the geocache, and I think these guys were our competition.  I was glad we were on the trail shortly after 7 that morning.

We returned to the Glass House after a walk along the Fort Road.  Our entire trip totaled 10.2 miles, which means that the geocache was at the exact half way point of our hike.  It didn't matter which way we returned.

Hike details.
PATC Difficulty Factor: 273.1
Total Distance: 10.2 miles 
Total Time: 4 hours, 32 minutes, including stops.
Steepest Uphill: from 2.7 miles to 3.3 miles; 12% grade.
Starting Elevation:  880 ft.
Highest Point: 2396 ft.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Massanutten Overnight - April 5/6/7, 2010

Our family spent a couple of nights during Spring Break at a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club cabin in the Massanutten Range, in the Lee District of George Washington National Forest, near the Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area and Front Royal.  We were there with another family; friends whose children also had Spring Break this week.  This is the third year in a row that I've taken my son to a cabin during Spring Break, though it is the first year my wife came along.  Two years ago I took Will and a buddy of his to this cozy cabin.  I took better photos of the place back then.  Here are a few to give you the flavor of the cabin.
Front door.
The kitchen looks just the same.
I slept in this upper bunk during this visit - not as much fun as it looks!
From a hiking standpoint, Massanutten has never been of much interest to me despite its proximity, as I always have assumed that the trails would not be very interesting.  I may reassess that decision after this stay.  I figure I am doing well on a trip of this type if I get one good hike out of the three days spent in the woods.  I got that and will report on it separately.
The Fort Valley from our porch.
I took a couple of "last chance" books with me to the cabin.  This was down time - if I don't pick at least one of them up at this cabin, they probably aren't worth keeping anymore.  The cabin has electricity, but there's no cell service, no internet, no television.  It is a great place to take a ten year old during Spring Break, because it instead has plenty of woods, sticks, running streams, and hiking trails.  And it has a fabulous screened porch looking out on the Fort Valley.

I didn't get to any of my books.  Instead, I spent all my reading time pouring over an out-of-print book on the shelf in the cabin:  Geology Explained in Virginia's Fort Valley and Massanutten Mountains, a book I'd spent some time with two years ago at my previous Glass House visit.  I have always had an interest in Massanutten geology because, without really knowing a lick of geology, I have always maintained that Massanutten is of completely different origins than the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park.  While the Blue Ridge is a series of bumps, Massanutten is like the mountains west of Staunton and in Pennsylvania- folds in the topography.  It is very apparent from Interstate 81 heading north towards Pennsylvania. It would seem that once you get on top of one, you should be able to walk for miles with very little elevation change.  I recently bought a book, Roadside Geology of Virginia, to help me determine whether this is correct.
Apparently, Massanutten is a great geological classroom.  The mountain range (it is a series of mountains, even though it looks like just a single mountain from Interstate 81) is the subject of an annual geology course at Northern Virginia Community College.  (Complete with prerequisite online readings.)  And it has been the subject of  Ph.D theses on geology dating back to at least 1896, including this one.

Public domain photo of the Massanutten Mountains from the north looking south
Geology Explained tells me that the mountains are made up of Massanutten Sandstone, which is harder and more resistant to erosion than the surrounding rock types.  (I had always thought that sandstone was softer than other rocks.)  "Prominent linear ridges in the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Tennessee have the same origin."  To the west, the sandstone becomes Tuscorora Sandstone, such as Seneca Rocks in West Virginia (the only peak in the eastern United States accessible only through use of technical climbing gear).  "The A.T to the east is on much older rocks such as the Pedlar formation."

So Massanutten is separate geologically from the Blue Ridge.  On the other hand, it is not really upturned folds in the landscape but a synclinorium - a downturned fold in which the higher elevations have eroded away.  

Scheier Natural Area - April 4, 2010

On a very warm Easter Sunday when I really wanted to be camping, I took my reticent 10 year old son and headed east to check out the Scheier Natural Area.  Scheier (not sure how to pronounce it) is owned by the Rivanna Conservation Society and is located south of Lake Monticello and Palmyra.  From the RCS's website:  
The Scheier Natural Area is a 100 acre parcel of land with 8 ponds and over 3 miles of beautiful trails for hiking, enjoyment of nature, and environmental education. 

We hiked about a mile and a half of trail, and there was nobody else in the parking lot or on the trail.  Our isolation was due, according to my son, to the fact that "people on Easter usually sit at home eating chocolates all day."

The natural area had a swamp area with cattails on one end, and a stream at the other end.  The stream had some very small fish swimming in it.  

The area is best suited for families with children.  The trails are level, the area is small, and the topography is varied.  There are a couple of geocaches (we rescued a geocoin that had been in one cache for several months).  The kiosk in the parking area has several interesting and informative flyers.  (Did you know that 12% of the bacteria in the Rivanna River can be traced to pet waste?)  And from April to October, RCS sponsors the "4th Sunday at Scheier" Education Forums. 

Trail Map
Plant List

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

My Night in a Yurt - March 27-28, 2010

The Cub Scouts headed east towards Richmond the last weekend in March for an earlier-than-usual campout. As a hedge against volatile March weather, the Pack Committee agreed that we would stay in two Yurts provided by the Richmond Council at their summer camp facility in Goochland County. The boys that wanted to camp could do so, but the less experienced Scouts (and their families) could stay in one of the Yurts.  At least that was the thinking...

Wikipedia defines a Yurt as "a portable, felt-covered, wood lattice-framed dwelling structure traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. A yurt is... more home-like in shape and build, with thicker walls than that of a tent. They are popular amongst nomads."

The Family Camping Blog, in its article, "What to do if your spouse won't camp" recommends starting the family out in a Yurt.  Not this yurt. Not this weekend.

Our yurt consisted of a round wooden floor, canvas walls, 2 wood doors, a skylight with ceiling fan, and 8 double bunks with a capacity of 16.

Nobody was camping because lows dipped into the 20s overnight, with a nearly full moon.   I was overnight Men's Yurt guest number seventeen; the odd man out without a bunk.  I got two mattresses from the women's yurt and slept on the floor.  I believe it was below freezing inside the yurt.  I had a North Face winter down mummy bag.  I put Will in a 3 season mummy bag that was placed in an old 3 season cotton sleeping bag.

The group made it through the night thanks to some creative layering by the adult leaders.  One boy showed up with a "Cars" sleeping bag, which wasn't going to hack it this night.  Another had a mummy bag with a broken zipper.

But everyone had a great time and we took the boys on a 2.5 mile hike the next morning.  I was glad it was still March, because we used the official camp map and found that one trail listed (and taken) goes through a "do not enter" zone behind the rifle range.  Why keep that trail on the map?