Friday, December 9, 2011

Jones Mountain Trail/Staunton River Trail Loop: December 8, 2011

After days of rain and reported snow in the mountains, I took off with a couple of friends and the dog for Graves Mill in Madison County to hike portion of Shenandoah National Park's Central District directly south of Old Rag and near Hoover's Rapidan Camp.  The Skyline Drive was closed due to the weather, and I wanted to investigate a trail I remember seeing off of the Jones Mountain Trail a few years back that is not on the PATC's map of the area.

Bear Church Rock
The hike started at 10:23 AM along the Rapidan River, which was roaring from all the recent rain.  After a half mile, we cut west on the Staunton River Trail.  The SRT is probably most used to take overnighters up to the PATC's Jones Mountain Cabin.  I endured a frigid overnight in this cabin almost exactly two years earlier, recounted here.  About 2.5 miles after it starts, the Jones Mountain Trail splits off towards the cabin.  That was the route we took up the mountain, reaching the cabin just before noon.

The two women I was hiking with both plan to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in the Spring, so our climb on this day was not an issue for them.  However, neither had seen the cabin, so we made a side trip to let them get the experience.  We spent about 10 minutes wandering around and taking a couple of photos.  From the cabin, we climbed steeply for about 20 minutes from the cabin turnoff to Bear Church Rock, where we had lunch and enjoyed the view.  We spent a leisurely twenty minutes at the rock before heading further up the trail.

Hiking in the snow.
The Jones Mountain Trail continues heading east, eventually linking up with other trails that go all the way to the A.T. and Skyline Drive.  We weren't taking the JMT all that way, but were instead searching for a trail in the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area.  We found it after hiking for a little over an hour from Bear Church Rock, arriving at 2:00 PM.  We followed the trail about a quarter mile southeast, far enough to get an idea of its general direction, though I didn't get enough information on the trial to be able to add it to the next map.

At this point, we had a decision to make.  We had been on the trail for over 3.5 hours, and had hiked a distance I later calculated to be 7.1 miles.  We had about 3 hours of daylight left.  Looking at the map, it appeared that continuing east then looping down the mountain to the north would be the quickest way back.  But we were taking a chance, as we could see that the trail we would be taking crosses the Staunton River twice.  We had to hope that we were far enough upstream that crossing would be possible.

Hiking The Sag's access road
So we headed west towards a trail that was identified as the Gap Trail on my GPS, but was really the Jones Mountain Trail again.  At Cat Knob, the JMT turns into the Cat Knob Trail, while the JMT itself takes a hard right turn and heads down the mountain.  (The JMT for us started heading southeast, then changed to northeast, then changed to southwest, then changed to northwest, then ended going pretty much due north.  It is almost as if the SNP trail naming folks ran out of extra names, and just named everything in the area the JMT.  Kind of like Rugby Road in Charlottesville.)  We reached this right turn at 2:35 PM.  This was the high point of our hike - the rest of the trip would be a steady downhill.

The trail was dark and snow covered when we returned
to the Staunton River Trail
The downhill started out steep, and it was in the snow.  We completed the JMT about 20 minutes later, having descended for a mile.  At the end of the JMT we were surprised to find a government truck (with a major winch on the front), and a road that had seen several vehicles since the previous night's snow.  The road heads up to a transmission tower, but it is literally in the middle of the National Park, so it is jarring to see vehicles where we expected trails.  This area is identified on the map as "The Sag," but it does not appear different than any other part of our hike, so a special name seems a little strange.

Hike Profile
We had to follow the road for about 7/10 of a mile before reaching one of the ends of the same Staunton River Trail we took at the beginning of the hike.  We took the SRT and travelled through some 4 inch deep snow along a strongly flowing stream.  Clearly, no one had been on this trail that day.  The snow was untouched.

We travelled slowly through this part of the hike, as the snow covered holes and slick rocks, and we had to cross the Staunton River a couple of times.  We made the crossings unscathed, but it took a while to find the right spot to cross.  Even the dog was nervous about this crossing!  We reached the point where we had turned off to the Jones Mountain Cabin that morning at 4:06 PM, approximately 4.5 hours after we had last been there.  And it took us about an hour from here to get back to the car.  We found a nearby geocache left by prolific geocacher Team.Hepler near the lot, then headed back to town.

Hike Details
PATC Difficulty Factor: 343.9
Distance: 14.5 miles
Total Altitude Gain: 4082 feet (basically a climb equal to The Priest, but over a longer distance)
Lowest Point: 805 feet (at the parking lot)
Highest Point: 3706 feet (at the point where the Jones Mountain Trail met the Cat Knob Trail)
Steepest elevation gain: 19% between Jones Mountain Cabin and Bear Church Rock.
Total hiking time: 6 hours, 40 minutes

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

100 Great Day Hikes Every Charlottesville Hiker Should Try

Top 100 Hikes Near Charlottesville

100 Mountain Day Hikes Near Charlottesville
(with a few overnights thrown in.)

This list is a work in progress.  I don't think I even have 100 hikes listed!  I have linked each hike to a description where I have one.  Click on the name of each hike to read the description.  This list is continually updated, most recently in 2016.

It comes out of frustration that one local Meetup hiking group insists on scheduling the most boring local hikes because they are close to town.  Even on weekends, they are loathe to drive much more than a half hour to the trailhead.  There are so many great hikes within a 1.5 hour drive of Charlottesville that every hiker should develop a checklist of hikes that should be taken.

As someone who grew up in flat Illinois, I celebrate the variety of great workouts within a short drive of my home.

Consider this list to be a start; feel free to copy it and adapt it for your needs.  There are a wide variety of great books and websites on hiking trails in Virginia which can help everyone put together their own list.  Develop your own list and work to check off the trails.  An "(N)" below means that I have not yet hiked the trail.  Let me know if you find other trails - I come up with several new trails every year that I had never heard of before!

Be sure to check out my other posts at Wandering Virginia.

Shenandoah National Park South
Hightop Mountain via A.T.
Sugar Hollow to Turk Mountain
Browns Gap Turnpike in Winter

Shenandoah National Park Central
Dark Hollow Falls
South River Falls
Hoover Camp Loop (Mill Prong/Laurel Prong/AT)
Jones Mountain/Bear Church Rocks via Staunton River Trail
Wilhite Wagon Trail/Doubletop Mountain Trail
Sams Ridge Trail/Hazel River Trail Loop
Leading Ridge Trail out-and-back (steep!)
St. Mary's Wilderness Area
St. Mary's Trail 

Sherando Area
White Rock Falls Loop

Other Pedlar District Trails, GWNF

GWNF West of Staunton
Wild Oak Trail
Bald Mountain/Dowells Draft Loop
Chestnut Ridge/Grooms Ridge Trails Loop
Crawford Mountain Trail
Chimney Hollow Trail

Lexington Area

Ramseys Draft Wilderness Area
Georgia Camp Trail
Shaw's Fork Trail
Ramsey's Draft 18 mile loop
Bridge Hollow Trail to The Peak
Bald Ridge Trail to The Peak
Camp Todd to Hardscrabble Knob

Miscellaneous Hikes
Nature Conservancy's Fortune's Cove Preserve
Albemarle County Byrom Preserve Blue Loop Trail
Rivanna Trail (If you absolutely cannot get out of town...)

Appalachian Trail Throughout Virginia
List of sections reviewed.

Mid Atlantic Hikes a Little Further Away
Mt. Rogers from Grayson Highlands
Mt. Rogers from the south on the A.T.
Cranberry Wilderness, WV
Dolly Sods Wilderness, WV (N)
Roaring Plains Wilderness, WV
Big Draft Wilderness, WV
Virginia's Triple Crown - McAfee Knob, Dragon Tooth, Tinker Cliffs
Burkes Garden Backpack on the A.T.

Greatest Hikes I have Ever Taken
Half Dome, Yosemite National Park
South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch, Bright Angel Trail to South Rim, Grand Canyon
Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point, Grand Canyon
Knife Edge Trail to Katahdin, Baxter State Park, Maine (easily the most spectacular hike in the East)
Crawford Path to A.T. to summit of Mt. Washington and down the Ammonoosic Trail, New Hampshire
Franconia Ridge, New Hampshire (probably the second most spectacular hike in the East)
Mt. Mitchell climb, North Carolina
Garden Wall Trail, Glacier National Park
North Kaibab Trail to Roaring Springs and back, Grand Canyon North Rim
Carlo Col/Goose Eye Loop, New Hampshire and Maine
Mt. Adams Ascent, White Mountains, New Hampshire

Like what you see?  Check out my other blog postings!  LINK.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cellar Mountain Trail/Cold Spring Trail Loop: September 30 and November 2, 2011

The Cellar Mountain Trail is a seldom used trail in perhaps the most visited Wilderness Area in Virginia - Saint Mary's Wilderness.  Folks in Charlottesville who know of only a handful of trails in the mountains all seem to have hiked Saint Mary's Wilderness to see the waterfalls.  But the Cellar Mountain Trail doesn't go to a waterfall; instead it climbs the mountain that looks down on the Saint Mary's Falls.
Kiosk at the trailhead.

I had never hiked this trail, and it is one I've wanted to check off of my list for a while.  So while I was out this way checking on possible campsites for my son's Boy Scout Troop, I decided to do an out-and-back hike.   I also wanted to check some aspects of the trail for a volunteer job I do with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's Map Committee.

Overview looking southwest on Cellar Mountain Trail.
The Cellar Mountain Trail starts at about 2000 feet in elevation at a parking area off of the Coal Road (FDR 42), which connects St. Mary's to the Sherando area.  There is an information kiosk at the trailhead, and hikers pass through a livestock gate immediately after hitting the trail.  The trail itself wanders through the woods past a spring before climbing steeply to a fantastic lookout at about 2600 feet that views southwest along the ridgeline.

And just up the trail from this viewpoint I was excited to see what appeared to be a mature chestnut, complete with fruit.  It was off the trail, so I just took a photo and marked a waypoint on my GPS, and brought the photo back to one of the adult leaders of my son's Scout Troop who is also a professional forester.  I had read that mature chestnut specimens do occur, though they are exceedingly rare.  But the forester burst my bubble, saying he couldn't tell from the photo, but that the tree I had seen was probably the similar chinquapin.  (I am sure glad my son enjoys Scouts.  I'd hate to have to make him go...)

Chestnut or Chinquipin?
The trail continues to switchback up the mountain until it reaches a ridge top at about 3200 feet.  There are several views along the ridge, and a nice campsite with a small fire ring right at the beginning of the ridge.  At this point, the plant growth starts to overtake the trail and the hiker has to push through overgrowth.  The trail itself is still very visible if one looks at the ground, but vegetation makes the going tougher.

Is there really a trail in here?
I pushed through this all the
way to the end of the trail, at a parking area off of FS 162A.  (This parking area is at the end of a road recommended for clearances much higher than found on my Outback.)  Throughout much of this overgrown section of trail there is not much elevation gain, with the hike topping out just over 3500 feet.  In fact, there was a slight downhill trend as I approached the parking area.

After I reached the parking area I walked the Big Levels Road for a while, as the PATC map I used (Map 12, Edition 11) indicated that the trail ended at a road that continued in each direction.  I eventually figured out that this was wrong and returned down the Cellar Mountain Trail in the opposite direction.

After pushing my way back through brush on the level portion of the Cellar Mountain Trail and reaching the campsite mentioned previously, I discovered that my beloved Garmin GPS was no longer attached to my belt!  One of the branches must have taken it off of me and I never noticed.  So I turned around and hiked back to the last spot I was sure I had the GPS, at the Big Levels Road.  But despite the 1.5 mile extra walk in each direction, I failed to locate my GPS.
Upper end of the Cellar Mountain Trail.

I never would have thought such a loss would affect me so much, but I was at a loss for the next week without my GPS, until I finally decided I had to purchase a replacement.  I ended up buying a similar, but newer model, the Garmin GPSmap 62s, which has some fantastic new features as well as some frustrating aspects compared to my familiar, older model.  I will do a GPS review at some point on this site.

Almost exactly a month later I returned to the Cellar Mountain Trail, with both my new GPS and a strengthened resolve to make sure it doesn't escape me.  This one was looped on my belt using the wrist strap.  Most of the leaves had fallen by this time, making the ground easier to see, but increasing the likelihood that my GPS would be covered and not found.  I again looked for the old GPS, but to no avail.  My hope is that I'll one day get a call from some honest hiker or hunter, as you cannot turn on the GPS without my name and phone number coming up.

Cellar Mountain Trail from the Big Levels Road.
Having hiked the ridge of Cellar Mountain four times in the past month, I decided to do something different and take the Cold Spring Trail back down the mountain.  The Cold Spring Trail would take me back to the Coal Road, which I could then walk for a mile or so back to my car.  Curiously, the latest edition of the PATC's own Hiking Guide to the Pedlar District, which I had in my pack, described this as "an unmarked trail down the mountain" without even naming the trail.  But it was listed on the PATC map as a light duty road that went back down to the Coal Road.  That was what I hiked to confirm.

Cellar Mountain from the Cold Spring Trail.
The Cold Spring Trail starts from the same parking lot about 100 feet from the end of the Cellar Mountain Trail.  This lot is one of the few sections of either trail not within the boundaries of Saint Mary's Wilderness.  The Cold Spring Trail was not nearly as overgrown as the Cellar Mountain Trail had been, perhaps because it drops back down the mountain almost immediately, rather than going along a ridge.  It had great views of Cellar Mountain as it descended.

The trail eventually drops down off the mountain and crosses the stream from Cold Spring several times.  By this point, it is clear that the trail is on an old road that is no longer used.  I came to a sign announcing the trail to hikers just starting the trail, then I ended up in someone's yard, as shown from the photos below.
At the bottom of the Cold Spring Trail is a sign for hikers.
But the trail itself exits the woods next to a private building.
I came out of the woods in someone's yard.
(Straight ahead is the trail, while the driveway curves to the right.)
At no point was there a sign telling me to turn around.  So I walked down the road (it appeared to service three different houses) all the way to the Coal Road.  At that point there was a sign saying "No Trespassing," but it wasn't prominent.  If the trail I was walking on really was an old road as it appeared, I should have an easement under common law to use the way.  But I am glad I didn't meet up with anyone for fear I'd have to argue the finer points of ancient property law to the end of a gun barrel!

When I got back home I checked several of my guidebooks.  Hiking Virginia's National Forests, 6th Edition ©1998, describes this part of the trail as a "short level stretch will bring you to a gate, which marks the wilderness boundary.  A bit farther along is a Forest Service steel gate barring access for motorized vehicles.  The trail ends on FDR 42, just opposite a dirt road, which is posted."  Nothing about houses or trespassing.

Wild Virginia: A Guide to Thirty Roadless Recreation Areas IncludingShenandoah National Park ©2002, specifically features this loop over a couple of pages, but regarding the area in question states only that "the wide, easy-to-follow trail exits the wilderness and intersects with FR 42."

Hiking Virginia: A Guide to Virginia's Greatest Hiking Adventures ©2004, is full of errors and is the least trustworthy of my hiking guides.  It doesn't cover this trail but has a map of Saint Mary's Wilderness that indicates the Cold Spring Trail links back up with the Cellar Mountain Trail without ever reaching the Coal Road.  I wish!

The only accurate guidebook is the best book on Virginia hiking, Allen de Hart's The Trails of Virginia: Hiking the Old Dominion.  I have an older edition, ©1995 (older than any of these other books), which states that the trail "descends 1 mi. on switchbacks to a convergence of streams and springs.  It ends 0.3 mi. farther at the wilderness boundary and private property.  Backtrack."  Yup.

Elevation Profile, Cellar Mountain/Cold Spring Loop.
I spoke to a ranger with the Pedlar District about the Cold Spring Trail.  He told me that they had considered a link trail as shown on the map in Hiking Virginia, but decided against it because this is in a wilderness area and they don't want to add trails to wilderness areas.  In fact, he thought the Forest Service should basically decommission the Cold Spring Trail because he didn't think there was a public right to access via the private land along the Coal Road.  He agreed that I should recommend to the PATC that they change their map to indicate that there is no access over private property.

Along the Coal Road it was a 25 minute walk to cover the final 1.4 miles.  Not a single car passed as we walked back to our vehicle.

This experience has reinforced my resolve to contribute where I can to maintenance of the trails.  I now carry my Gerber Sportsman's Wood Saw in my hiking pack.  It is lightweight and does a good job on trees. I need to also get a pair of high end pruning shears, perhaps these, but I am still researching (and am open to suggestions).  I would like also to find more time to join some of the various work crews that give back to the trails, such as the Flying McLeods or joining the PATC's Charlottesville Chapter on their work trips.  Perhaps I can get the Scouts out there clipping.  As hikers, we cannot let these trails fall back into disuse - we owe it to future hikers!

Hike Details:
Total Altitude Gain 2440 feet 
Total Distance 6.4 miles
Lowest point 2021 feet above sea level
Highest Point 3528 feet above sea level 
Time: 3 hours, 13 minutes

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Laurel Fork: October 15-16

The weather guy in Charlottesville said that leaves in Highland County and west were at peak the weekend of October 15th, so it seemed like a good time to head further west than normal and test out some new equipment on an overnight backpacking trip.  It was just me and the dog, and it was the first overnight for the dog – so I was really testing her out, too.

The first of many stream crossings
I chose an area of Virginia that has been on my hiking bucket list for many years, Laurel Fork Primitive Area in the George Washington National Forest.  The drive took me a couple of hours, but I stopped along the way to look at the scenery, make a telephone call, and uncover a couple of geocaches.  There were lots of motorcycles out on the road, as the leaves were in the Autumnal glory.  

This area is so remote that it is best accessed from West Virginia (see map).  It requires driving out U.S. 250 through spectacular Highland County, then turning north on West Virginia Route 28 before reentering Virginia on a dirt Forest Service Road.  This part of the George Washington National Forest is not connected with any other part of the National Forest, and really would make a lot more sense to be administered by West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, which operates a campground nearby.

Evidence of an old railroad
I parked in a picnic area about a mile off of the main road to start the hike.  Three guys in a pickup truck pulled up as I was putting my boots on, and we talked for a while.  They were camping at a developed spot a few miles away, and came over to day hike the area.  I encouraged them to head out the trail straight east as it had quicker access to the main waterway, Laurel Run.  I headed down another path that took me south. 

My path took me though some dark woods that were described as old growth forest (uncut) in one guidebook.  I don’t know if they qualify as old growth, as they appeared to be hemlock, and the old growth hemlock in Ramsey’s Draft had much larger trees.  But it was a dark and mysterious place – and those places are harder to find these days.

This Sugar Maple on the Slabcamp Run Trail was no doubt spectacular
in red a week earlier.
After about a half hour of hiking, I came to a trail intersection that didn’t appear to be marked on my map.  As I was standing by the sign, the three day hikers came walking down the other trail.  Turns out that my map was incorrect, and the trail not on my map looped back up to the parking lot.  They gave me a copy of the crude map provided by the Forest Service at the Picnic Area, a map I had originally chosen not to take.  I now notice that every other map I have found of this area correctly had the missing trail, including the guidebooks that I left home to save weight.

I headed further south, crossed the first of many streams, then ascended briefly but steeply to an old rail bed that hugged the side of a mountain and very gradually gained elevation.  This trail took me west to a parking lot/campsite and the beginning of the Slabcamp Run Trail.  Slabcamp Run is a three mile trail that passes through a wide variety of different areas, including a beautiful field, an old apple orchard, a pine forest, and mixed hardwoods.  It starts at about 3600 feet in elevation and slowly drops to about 2800 feet after three miles.

Trail on old rail bed.
I am grateful to others who came before me and painted blue blazes on trees along this route.  Although it generally follows the streambed of Slabcamp Run for most of its distance, there were many times when a trail was imperceptible.  I pulled myself along, going from blaze to blaze over a leaf covered forest, not sure if I was on an actual trail.  For portions of the trail, I found myself on another old railroad bed, which made going easier.  But as the trail approached the main waterway in the area, Laurel Fork, the trail hopped the stream bed multiple times, and I relied on those blazes to keep me on route.

At Laurel Fork, the trail relies on rocks to cross this stream.  Due to several days of rain before my trip, however, the stream was too strong to try crossing.  There is a link below to some video that shows the strength of the stream.  At first, I tried to work my way off trail north to the next trail, but cliffs en route proved too difficult to overcome.  I backtracked to the spot where Slabcamp Run meets Laurel Fork, and camped in a small site in the mountain laurel for the night.

On this hike I was testing several new pieces of equipment, including some new style, lightweight hiking boots made in France.  I bought the Hoka One One hiking boots because I've been experiencing foot pain over the past year and I thought the cushioning would minimize pain on hikes.  Honestly, they are not very attractive boots.  I look like I am a 5'2" man trying to reach 5'5".  And I think they are wider than my feet should use.  But my feet feel better than they have in a long time wearing them, so I'll continue using them.

I was also trying out my new GPS after having lost my beloved Garmin GPSmap 60csx on a recent hike over an overgrown trail.  After much research, I replaced that GPS with the Garmin GPSmap 62s from REI.  The 62 is an upgraded version of the 60, with some really great additional capabilities as well as some frustrating features.  I'll address that in a separate posting sometime soon.

The GPS proved useful on the return hike on Sunday morning.  Passing through an area I had hiked the day before, it was difficult to tell where the trail headed.  I found myself walking through the woods without finding a trail to guide me.  I found my way back to the trail using the GPS route from the day before.  No amount of map and compass work can help when you know you are within a hundred hards or so of a trail but cannot find the right spot.  The GPS saved me several minutes of searching.
Hiking through an old orchard on Slabcamp Run Trail.
Laurel Fork is far enough from Charlottesville that an overnight is pretty much necessary.  There is a developed campground about 5 miles away, administered by the Monongahela National Forest, called the Island Campground.  I didn't check this out, though I know others who have camped there.  Overall, this was a surprisingly hard hike, despite the relatively gradual grades.  The stream crossings were always dicey - one slip and it would be hard to return to the car, and there was nobody else for a long way.  I was glad I followed proper procedure and left an expected hike itinerary back at the house!

I plan to return, maybe with some scouts, but plan to do so when it has been a little drier.  It will be interesting to compare the area at a different time of year.  I also put together a YouTube video of the trip using iMovie 11 (this program is also an upgrade with some very frustrating aspects - and the reason this blog posting took so long to put up).  Check it out for another view of the area.  

Monday, October 3, 2011

Fridley Gap/Massanutten South Trails: September 16, 2011

On a cool September Friday, my friend Jeff joined me to hike the southern part of Massanutten Mountain.  Jeff and I together hiked the South Kaibab Trail and the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon three Septembers ago.  And in 2010 we together scaled the highest peak I've ever hiked, the 13,000 foot Mt. Wheeler in Nevada's Great Basin National Park.  But work commitments had kept him from hiking with me since Mt. Wheeler 13 months ago, so it was great when he said he could join me for this trip.
The Fridley Gap Trail crosses the Massanutten South Trail.

The Fridley Gap/ Massanutten South Trail loop is a little north of the Massanutten Ski Resort, and is reached by heading north from Elkton on U.S. 340 to the town of Shenandoah, then heading south on Rt. 602 to Runkle Gap Road, which becomes Cub Run Road inside the National Forest.  The website describing this hike told us to park in a small parking area just inside the forest boundary (N 27.187, W 41.741; the lot is not on PATC Map H), but a single car took up all the usable space; the rest of the lot was washed out pretty bad.  So we found a spot just off of Cub Run Road about 100 yards up the road from the lot.

We started out the hike by walking up the road to the trailhead at about 10:30 AM.  Others who left comments on the website we used for coordinates complained that the trail was very hard to find from the road.  Granted, there isn't a sign on Cub Run Road.  But the trail starts right where the road makes a 90 degree turn from west to north and leaves a stream called Boone Run.  How hard can that be?

The trail heads west up the stream bed and after about a mile we came to a trail leading south on the mountain then nearly immediately another trail that leads a couple hundred feet to an Appalachian Trail style lean-to called the Boone Run Shelter.  The shelter looked like a great place to overnight with kids, as it had 4 bunks, a latrine, and a small fire pit.  On the other hand, there didn't appear to be any good campsites nearby, so if it is already in use you would be out of luck.  I have to figure that there aren't a ton of overnighters back on these trails, though.  Also on the downside, the shelter was littered with trash clearly left by some hunter - stuff like deer bait bags.  A whole lot of hunters don't seem to believe in "Leave No Trace."

Shortly after the cabin, the trail took a 90 degree right turn and continues along a stream bed, eventually climbing from 1650 feet elevation to 2780 feet about 2.5 miles into the hike at a relatively constant grade of 9 to 12%.  Before reaching the summit, we crossed a relatively flat section that was somewhat open and could be used for camping.  The Fridley Gap Trail intersected here but we stayed on the Massanutten South Trail by taking a sharp left and continuing up the mountain.

Elevation Profile
Massanutten Mountain at this point is a pretty confusing place, as it is actually a series of closely packed parallel ridges.  The easternmost one, named "First Mountain" (maybe someone can grab naming rights), we walked through at Runkles Gap while still on the forest road.  Boone Run cut through the second one, named "Second Mountain."  The Massanutten South Trail ascends Third Mountain at a steady 12% grade before crossing over the mountain about 2.6 miles into our hike (N 28.810, W 41.964).  Then it descends, only to ascend again onto Fourth Mountain at the hike's highest point, before dropping down to Fridley Gap, at 5.7 miles.  

Fridley Gap swimming hole
At Fridley Gap is a nice, but shallow, swimming spot and several campsites.  We stopped here to have lunch, thinking this might be a pretty popular spot in the summer, as there is a parking area on the west side of the mountain less than half a mile away.

The trail is a little confusing here, but we figured out that we had to backtrack a little on the north side of the stream, heading east before reaching a sign indicating the junction of the Massanutten South and Fridley Gap Trails.  We turned north (left) and followed both trails together for only a few hundred feet before the purple blazed Fridley Gap Trail turned due east, straight up the mountain.

This section of the hike was exceptionally steep, climbing at a 35% grade.  But we ascended the mountain fast, seeing views to the west quickly after attacking this part of the trail.  The entire ascent is just under 3/4 of a mile.  After popping over the top of Third Mountain, we descended to an intersection with the Martin Bottom Trail and Cub Run stream.  The trail here becomes a dirt road, and we walked 0.7 miles south to the intersection with the Massanutten South Trail, at a point we had passed 3:20 hours before.

The trail guides generally say to take the Massanutten South Trail past the Boone Run Shelter, which is the way we came up.  We decided to stay on the Fridley Gap Trail, which takes a sharp left turn at this intersection, climbing over Second Mountain, then descending to Cub Run Road.  We were hesitant to do this because it meant walking on Cub Run Road for an extra mile, and those Forest Service Roads can be pretty nasty and dusty when traffic goes whipping by you, a lowly pedestrian.

Fridley Gap Trail across Second Mountain.
But we were really glad we went this way, as the Fridley Gap Trail over Second Mountain was the highlight of the hike.  The area we hiked through had been the scene of a forest fire in April 2010.  A photo of the fire can be seen here.

Click on the adjoining photo to expand it, and you can see how the understory in the fire area has come alive since the fire 17 months ago.  Most prominent are chestnuts, though they are ultimately doomed to die back from the Chestnut Blight.  We saw evidence of the blight already taking its toll on the fast growing shoots.  But it was pretty interesting to see clearly how many spots had chestnuts - with much of the forest wiped clean, the chestnuts stood out much more prominently than in a forest that hadn't been cut back recently.
The town of Shenandoah from the top of Second Mountain,
with a chestnut in the foreground.

The trail took us over Second Mountain, instead of around it like we had come.  So we got a great view of the valley to the east and the Blue Ridge Mountains over in Shenandoah National Park.  We descended steeply to Cub Run Road.  The trail here is unmarked, but easily found with coordinates (N38 28.359 W78 41.205)
as there is a turnoff at the trailhead.

From this trailhead it was 1.6 miles and 30 minutes back to the car.  Not a single car came by in either direction while we were on the road, which was in excellent shape for a dirt forest road.  There were plenty of old water bottles containing brown liquid in them, however.  Tobacco juice, maybe?  We were in the car by 4:10 PM.

Hike Details:
PATC Difficulty Factor 240.3
Total Altitude Gain 2923
Total Distance 10 miles
Lowest point 1551 feet above sea level
Highest Point 2929 feet above sea level
Total Time 5 hours, 39 minutes  

Monday, July 18, 2011

Georgia Camp Trail, April 23, 2010

For something different, I drove out to Churchville early to meet up with the PATC's Southern Shenandoah Section for a hike on a trail scheduled to be part of the Great Eastern Trail, currently under development. By the time I met up with the group at Tastee-Freez, they had changed the hike route because of high water fears along the trail. Instead, we started at the Confederate Breastworks historic site on U.S. 250 at the top of Shenandoah Mountain, and headed south on the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.

Heading south on the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.
We started out by crossing U.S. 250 just before 10 AM, then hiked south for about a mile and a half on the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.  The Shenandoah Mountain Trail for the entire distance we hiked is actually a gated road.  Because we started on the top of the mountain, there was little elevation gain along this trail - perhaps 250 feet over a mile and a half.

We reached our turnoff for the Georgia Camp Trail at 10:30, having traveled 1.3 miles.  The group regrouped here, having spread out widely in this short section of trail.  The Shenandoah Mountain Trail continues south for about 25 additional miles, and becomes a real trail (not just a roadbed) about another mile and a half south of this point.  I took the trail portion a few months later.
Elevation Profile

Georgia Camp Trail near Shenandoah Mountain Trail
The Georgia Camp Trail is relatively new to the GWNF.  My official maps from the early 1990's do not have it listed.  Apparently, it is one of a series of trails climbing Shenandoah Mountain developed for equestrian use.  Most of the trail is on old roadbed, and is visible on topographic maps covering the trail.  The trail is named after Georgia Camp Hollow, which was logically likely a camping spot during the Civil War.

We made it down to the Trailhead on U.S. 250 at about 1:30, about 3.5 hours after we started.  Because we set up a car shuttle, this was one of the easier hikes I have taken in a while - mostly downhill!
Georgia Camp Hike,        
April 23, 2011
 PATC Difficulty Factor 94.8
 Total Altitude Gain 717 feet
 Total Distance 6.3 miles
 Lowest point 2202 feet above sea level
 Highest Point 3315 feet above sea level
 Time 3 hours, 38 minutes

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Onemile Run Trail: July 11, 2011

If Shenandoah National Park had data on the relative popularity of every trail in each of its three districts, I bet the Onemile Run Trail would be one of the least hiked trails in the Southern District.  There are probably other trails that see fewer hikers, such as the Lewis Peak Trail, but unlike Lewis, the Onemile Run Trail starts at the Skyline Drive.
Elevation profile of Onemile Run Trail hike.
I hiked the Onemile Run Trail with my friend Marit and the dog on a warm, muggy July morning.  Projected high temperature in Charlottesville was 98 degrees.  Both of us had to work that afternoon.  Later in the week was projected to be much cooler, but you can't always choose the day you can hike.

We got to the Twomile overlook on the Skyline Drive and headed off on the trail by 8:10 AM.  There was a wonderful breeze blowing on the Drive, but we knew it would end quickly!  It was a short walk along the drive to the trailhead, then a steep drop.  We started at 2812 feet and dropped to 1800 feet over just over a mile.  First, the trail drops along a ridge, then it cuts sharply left at a point where topo maps show another trail continuing straight to the top of Twomile ridge.  None of the trail maps show this, however.  After the steep drop, we kept dropping more gradually, as we dropped off a ridge to the Onemile Run stream at 1.3 miles.  This point is very visible on the elevation profile.
Hiking along Onemile Run

Reaching Onemile Run means that the stream crossings start.  One account of this hike I read stated that there are twelve crossings each way, but I didn't keep count.  From my perspective, the stream crossings ere great - they gave the dog an opportunity to keep hydrated.  We made sure to stop at each crossing to see if the dog would drink from the stream.

At about the 3 mile mark, the trail strays away from Onemile Run and heads toward the SNP boundary.  We only hiked as far as the boundary, even though the trail looks like it keeps going.  Unfortunately, the PATC map and the ATC Shenandoah Guide both discourage proceeding, even though I've read accounts online of hikers continuing to Twomile Run, then hiking back into the park on the Twomile Run stream bed.  After reaching the boundary, we turned around and retraced our steps.

Because we were down in the valley for the entire hike, there weren't any views to speak of.  Neither were there any waterfalls along the trail.  For this reason, I'd rate this hike below most others in the southern district of the park.  It is a great workout, though, especially since all of the climbing is at the end of the hike.
View of Onemile Run Valley from the parking lot at the beginning of the hike.

Hike Details: Onemile Run    
July 11, 2011
PATC Difficulty Factor 154.7
Total Altitude Gain 1617 feet
Total Distance 7.4 miles
Lowest point 1379 feet above sea level
Highest Point 2815 feet above sea level
Time:   3 hours, 52 minutes

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Torry Ridge/Mills Creek Loop: June 30, 2010

Sherando Lake and beach from Torry Ridge.
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs along the ridges in the background.
Thursday, June 30th looked like the best weather day for some time to come, so the dog and I dropped my son off for camp at 7:45 then headed out for Sherando Lake, south of Waynesboro and west of Wintergreen Ski Resort.  Sherando is probably the most popular place in the entire George Washington National Forest, with a beautiful campground, popular beach and steep hiking trails.  It always amazes me when people from Central Virginia tell me they have never visited this gem of a place.

There are several hikes in the Sherando area I have done numerous times.  I had hiked much of the Torry Ridge Trail as part of loops I have taken dating back almost 20 years.  There was one hike I had never taken. The Mills Creek Trail goes up the valley on the other side of Torry Ridge from Sherando.  It is a 7 mile trail that doesn't begin or end at a trailhead, so it requires a long hike to complete.  In the past, 15.3 miles just seemed a little too long to take, but since I had done 20+ earlier in the week, I figured I was in shape for this hike.

Rocky trailbed

To get to the Mills Creek Trail, I had to take the Blue Loop Trail up Torry Ridge from the Sherando Campground.  This is a steep climb, as the trail ascends at a 20% grade for the first mile, climbing from 1866 feet to 2733 feet over exactly a mile.  From there, there is another ascent then it is a long and gradual descent over rocky terrain, past the intersection of the Torry Ridge Trail and Mills Creek Trail at 4 miles, to a stream crossing at 5.6 miles. At this point, the trail heads back up a valley in the opposite direction I took descending on the Torry Ridge Trail.
Mills Creek Trail

It is interesting to think that the Mills Creek valley is probably very similar to what the Sherando Lake area once looked like, before the WPA dammed up the stream to form Sherando.  The trail showed areas where there had been mining years ago and was a pleasant forest walk, but didn't have much to make me anxious to return.  Although several guidebooks mentioned nice campsites along the trail, I did not see any that looked too inviting.  The elevation gain was very gradual until I hit the 9.8 mile mark.  At this point, the trail ascended via switchbacks at at 17% grade, going from 2462 feet to 3406 feet in elevation over just over a mile.  At the end of the climb, I am in a campsite on the edge of St. Mary's Wilderness, on a road I hiked last year with friends.
Elevation Profile

I hiked FR 162 for only about 3/10ths of a mile, but it was far enough to confirm that this road is not for my Subaru.  It is open to the public, but advised for high clearance vehicles only.  For good reason.

We left the main road onto a side road to get back to the other end of the Torry Ridge Trail.  None of these areas are marked with signs - a guidebook was essential.  In fact, I had enjoyed the view from the campsite at the end of the Mills Creek Trail last November, without knowing that I was within 20 feet of the trail.  Where the side road intersected with the Mills Creek Trail was the high elevation point of our hike - 3563 feet.
Mills Creek valley, with Torry Ridge towards the right
and Humpback Mountain in the background.

We hiked 2.9 miles on the Torry Ridge Trail until we reached the trail back down to Sherando.  At this point, I again attached the dog to a leash, and we returned to the campground where the dog could get a big bowl of water.  We then hopped in the car, drove back to Charlottesville, and arrived back in town just as my son's camp bus was pulling in.  Did we cut it too close?  It would seem we measured it out perfectly!

Hike Details
PATC Difficulty Factor 322.7
Total Altitude Gain 3408 feet
Total Distance 15.3 miles
Lowest point 1782 feet above sea level
Highest Point 3563 feet above sea level
Time 7 hours, 26 minutes

Monday, June 27, 2011

Cold Mountain Backpack: June 17-19, 2011

I spent Father's Day weekend in a part of the Virginia mountains where I first fell in love with Virginia hiking. My son and I joined his Boy Scout Troop for a two night, three day trip around and over Cold Mountain on the Appalachian Trail west of Amherst. This is a great intro hike for new backpackers, and one source rates this as one of the top 10 day hikes in Virginia.

Friday night camp with large White Oak to the right
of the fire pit.
Our group numbered 11 adults and about thirteen scouts. The drive from Charlottesville to the Mt. Pleasant trailhead parking lot took about 90 minutes, via U.S. 29 south to Amherst, then U.S. 60 west, past the Long Mountain Wayside where the A.T. crosses the road, then up into the George Washington National Forest.

We started on the Old Hotel Trail Friday evening and only walked slightly over a mile to a campsite I have eyed for years as an ideal overnight location. Surprisingly, we had the campsite to ourselves. I've hiked past this spot several times over the past couple of decades, and always thought how great it would be to camp here. The Scouts were to spend a couple of nights on the trail away from outhouses, and this spot fit the bill perfectly, though it is a dry campsite.

Will and his patrol mates pump spring water
for use while hiking
The campsite was appealing not just because of its beauty and location, but because it could be hiked to over a trail that had relatively little elevation gain. We didn't want to burn the young hikers, but we also didn't want to overtax a couple of dads who have knee issues but wanted to join the group. Nevertheless, our quick hike on Friday night had some huffing and a few kids asking if were there yet.  But after 43 long minutes and 2 breaks as directed by the acting Senior Patrol Leader, we climbed a total of 400 feet to the first night's campsite.

One of the adult leaders is a professional forester and I learned much from him along the trail. We talked a lot about the spectacular White Oak at our campsite - how it must have grown in a field because its branches spread out so far horizontally (one boy climbed the tree by taking a branch that reached the ground and tightroping it all the way to the trunk). And when I asked why the tree was short compared other White Oaks, he observed that it didn't need to grow high to get sunlight.

On Saturday morning we packed up and most of us continued on the Old Hotel Trail. (Two adults backtracked to save their knees and make sure we reserved space for Saturday night's camp.)  Passing an old stone fence that reportedly dates back to the 1800's provided a history moment for the scouts, about how the fences were used to keep cattle and hogs penned in, and the hogs came up from the valleys in the summer to eat chestnuts. But there are no chestnuts any longer because of the chestnut blight that wiped out the trees. I tried to impress upon the boys that this is one of the most important historical developments over the last 100 years in the mountains, but I don't think I got through to the group. Think about it - entire communities based their existence on chestnut trees, from feeding themselves and their animals with the nuts, to using the durable wood for their shelters, and using the bark for tanning. Wikipedia claims that 25% of the trees in the Appalachians were chestnuts.  The trees were all wiped out and, though new ones took their place, the forest isn't the same.

Turkeybeard at 3800 feet elevation.
Several adults brought up the rear of the line with me and we discussed the fate of the chestnut while finding several examples of chestnuts in the woods. Even decades later, the roots of many original trees remain alive and send up shoots, but those shoots develop the blight before they can mature. The shoots were all over the forest, and we could see the effects of the blight on the saplings. We also looked at the chestnut leaves and could see why the chestnut oak is so named, as the leaves look very similar.

We all hiked gradually downhill until we reached the Cow Camp Gap Shelter, which is an A.T. thru-hiker shelter. We stopped for almost an hour, pumping water into our bottles and bodies, some of us using the only latrine we would see on this trip, reading the shelter's log book (and some adding their own entries) and having a snack.

Then came the biggest climb of the trip, up and over Cold Mountain.  The mile long ascent took most boys over an hour, though we were only going from 3,500 to 4,000 feet.

Obligatory group shot at the top of the mountain.
At the top we hung out and talked to other hikers. One woman was section hiking and asked us immediately where we planned to camp.  She said she'd had bad experiences with Scout troops in the past, so she's wary.  But she stayed and had lunch with us when she learned we did not plan to take over an A.T. hut and when we offered to save her from pumping water by refilling her canteen.  She was a great source of information about what works and doesn't work on long distance hikes - I am always interested in the opinions of folks who have the real experience.

After getting a group shot at the summit, we walked along the meadows back down the mountain to our Saturday night campsite.
There are few miles of trail in Virginia as glorious
as the A.T. over Cold Mountain.

Even the boys enjoyed the views along this part of the trail, despite several hauling overloaded packs that they were ready to drop. We hiked down to the road near our original trailhead, then established camp in an old field across the road.  On Saturday night we weathered a few rainstorms and had the honor of witnessing a boy receive his Eagle rank.  Sunday morning we packed up our wet gear and headed home.  Overall, a great way to spend Father's Day weekend.
Troop 1028's Scoutmaster could not join us,
but no doubt he will appreciate the single file
line of hikers.