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.

1 comment:

  1. I've been wanting to hike up to Monkeyhead for a couple of years now. I tried it yesterday, starting from the Graves Mill parking area. That means climbing either the Palatine or Withoite trails up from the Rapidan family camp. I couldn't the Palatini trailhead, so I took the Withoite, which I found pretty overgrown and rough. Along the way, I met a bear heading down the trail. The ridgetop heading to Monkeyhead was practically impenetrable. I got to one overlook after maybe 1/3 mile and then turned back. Never made it to the Monkeyhead view. I'll make another attempt from the Meadows cabin side. Very wild and beautiful area.


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