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