Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ramsey's Draft Loop: November 10, 2010

Ramsey's Draft is a federally designated wilderness area west of Staunton and just off of U.S. 250.  It is named after the creek, or "draft" that flows through the middle of the wilderness.  I have hiked several of the trails in this wilderness area over the past few years, but because some sections of the wilderness are so far away from roads, there are major portions of trail I have never experienced.  And since one of my favorite trails skirts the wilderness - the Shenandoah Mountain Trail - I have wanted to get deep into this trail system for a while.
Ramsey's Draft is very dry this time of year.

Normally, this is an overnight backpack trip.  That is how all of the guidebooks describe it, and usually they are describing a shorter loop.  I prefered not to do this as an overnight and hoped I was still in shape for the hike after this summer's 19 mile Half Dome ascent in Yosemite.  I calculated this hike to be a little over 17 miles.  I asked a friend who through hiked the A.T. a couple of years ago to come along, and we were on the trail by 10 AM, dressed in orange because you never know when hunting is in season in Virginia.  The season seems to be different in each county!

I've been on several parts of this loop in the past where access is straightforward from various trailheads.  But parts of this hike are so remote that access is really only possible by backpacking overnight or by a long dayhike.  I was excited to experience these parts of the hike.

View from Bald Ridge Trail towards the east.
The loop started near U.S. 250 and the Mountain House Picnic Area.  We cut right (east) and ascended the Bridge Hollow Trail for 51 minutes, just over 2 miles, and 973 feet elevation gain before reaching the Bald Knob Trail.  The Bald Knob Trail took us along a ridge that, over the next 4.5 miles, took us over or alongside The Peak, Bald Ridge Knob, The Pinnacle, and Gordon Peak.

We briefly stopped at an overlook near Bald Ridge Knob for a snack and to place a new geocache two hours into the hike and just outside the boundaries of Ramsey's Draft Wilderness.

We reached the Leading Ridge Trail at just before 1PM.  At this point, we were 6.5 miles into the hike and concerned that we might not have enough daylight to complete the loop.  Neither of us had a flashlight, but we elected to move fast and complete the loop before losing light.  Maybe one of the campsites near Hiner Springs wouldn't have been a bad option, but we were equipped only for a day hike.  Gone was the opportunity to take the one mile side trail to the top of Hardscrabble Knob, the highest point in the wilderness and the 44th highest peak in Virginia.  We passed this trail at 2:41 PM, and reached the Shenandoah Mountain Trail at 3:00.
Elevation Profile of the Ramsey's Draft Loop

The Shenandoah Mountain Trail is a wonderfully level trail that constitutes the western edge of Ramsey's Draft Wilderness.  We needed a level trail, and moved quickly over the next 5.7 miles, reaching the Road Hollow Trail in less than 1 hour, 50 minutes.  The Road Hollow Trail took us back to our car, 2.5 miles by trail.  We got back to the car at 5:43, within 5 minutes of total blackness.

Clearly, I'm going to have to get on the trail earlier or choose shorter hikes until we start getting longer days again.

Ramsey's Draft Loop 
 November 10, 2010
 PATC Difficulty Factor 364.9
 Total Altitude Gain 3622
 Total Distance 18.4
 Low Point 2248
 High Point 4119
 Time of Hike 7:31
Hemlocks still live in Ramsey's Draft.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rocky Mount/Gap Run Loop: October 31, 2010

Halloween day opened up as a hiking opportunity quickly, and I took advantage to take the dog on a training hike. It also happened to be her five month birthday, and I aimed to get her out for a seven or eight mile trip, after she had performed spectacularly on a five mile hike around Humpback Rocks the week before.

I settled on the Rocky Mount/Gap Run loop in the Southern District of Shenandoah N.P. Although I had climbed to the top of Rocky Mount years before, I had never done the whole loop.

This is a trail that gets mixed reviews online. On the Hiking Upward site, one user complains that it is just too hard a hike to justify the occasional view, and real, the best view is at the start and end of the hike, from the parking spot on the Skyline Drive. Even the Hiking Upward guys rate this hike a "5," meaning it is one of the hardest hikes in the area, at least in their view.

I concur with the position that there are no better views than from the car on this hike. But is that really the point? Whether the hike is worth taking depends on your own outlook, I suppose. I am now a little closer to achieving my goal of hiking every trail mile in that part of Shenandoah, though this is admittedly not a spectacular hike. And there were some nice views and great solitude. I loved the workout. The day was beautiful. And the dog hiked exceptionally well, staying behind me at my feet for 90% of the hike.

I don't think the hike justifies a reputation as one of the hardest in Shenandoah. Statistically, it is nearly identical to the White Oak/Cedar Run waterfall loop a few miles north that is very popular - if you go all the way up to the Skyline Drive via the Limberlost Trail, and don't cheat by taking the fire road from White Oak to Cedar Run. These two hikes have very similar elevation gains and hike distances.

The difference is that the White Oak loop has all of its elevation gain at the beginning of the hike, while Rocky Mount saves some of its gain for the end of the hike. If you like to limit yourself to an 8 mile hike (as many of us do), the last couple of miles of uphill is not necessarily welcome.

I recommend climbing Rocky Mount first. The hike is not as steep this way, as the steepest section of the trail is a 25% grade on the back end of the mountain. There are some nice campsites in the hollow along Gap Run after you have gone over Rocky Mount, and I doubt there is much competition for these sites.

As I returned to the overlook on the Skyline Drive where I parked, a young couple inquired about hiking opportunities in the area. They were just out for the day and clearly new to the area. I did not send them down this trail, but instead directed them to the waterfalls south of Loft Mountain Campground. That sums up this hike for me - it is not the first hike to take in this part of the Park, but it is a nice workout and a great hike for solitude.

I thought often on this hike about the last time I hiked part of it. It had to be over 12 years ago, and was with my friend and co-worker Beth. As we hiked, Beth and I swapped stories of our weddings. Beth's family has now expanded to include three children, and there is no parent more devoted than Beth. Beth has taken those children around the world and the family has now settled in New England. The family chose to leave because Virginia laws are not kind to her kind of family. Losing Beth, those children, and Beth's partner is a loss for all of us in Charlottesville. 

Rocky Mt/Gap Run Loop 
 October 31, 2010 
  PATC Difficulty Factor 222.5 
 Total Altitude Gain 2630 
 Total Distance 9.4 
 Time of Hike 3:58  

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