Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wild Oak Trail Loop, March 15, 2012

The Wild Oak Trail is a loop trail in the George Washington National Forest west of Churchville and Staunton.  The trail received a National Recreation Trail designation in 1979.  The present trail is a series of older trails cobbled together.  The trails date back to the 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps built portions for forest fire control purposes. I have hiked much of it in the past - as part of six different day hikes - though I had never hiked the entire loop.  Because the loop is listed as being 25.6 miles long, it has always been a goal to do the entire loop in one day.

My friend Marit suggested we go for a hike as she prepares to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail this Spring. I have hiked often with Marit in the past, and she is the toughest hiker I know.  When I suggested we try this hike before she leaves for the Sierras, she jumped at the opportunity.  Marit knows long distance hiking, as she completed the entire Appalachian Trail in 2009.

The dog and I left the house at 6:45 AM and met Marit at a McDonalds near Waynesboro at 7:30.  We left her car and drove the remaining miles together.  Marit didn't think we needed to drop a water cache (and she was right), so we were on the trail just after 8:30.  We hiked the loop in a counterclockwise motion, starting at a parking lot at about 2:00 on the loop below - near a Girl Scout camp named Camp May Flather.  It isn't easy to find your way here (and even tougher to get out), thanks to a series of farm roads that all look alike.
Wild Oak Trail - west of Churchville and north of U.S. 250.
We grabbed trail maps the Forest Service provides at the trailhead, and began our climb up to Little Bald Knob.  We started at 1689 feet elevation, but were soon climbing steeply, passing the Grooms Ridge Trail (which makes a nice, and much shorter loop hike) before the trail leveled out.  After almost a mile of fairly level hiking, we climbed again, reaching Little Bald Knob, the high point on our hike at 4,351 feet. We didn't get up there until 11:30, which was a little disconcerting (3 hours to go the first 7 miles is not a good sign when you are shooting for 25 miles in a day), but we stopped to eat lunch anyway.  Marit took the photo next from here, though it doesn't do justice to the view we had from the top of Little Bald Knob.
We then headed down the mountain at a steep rate, shown on the elevation profile below between 8 and 10 miles.  Along the way, it occurred to me that there was a geocache on this part of the trail.  I looked at my GPS and discovered we were 17 feet from the cache.  Unfortunately, we found the cache in several pieces.  
We stopped again, this time to enjoy the view of mountains to the north, which seemed to go on forever.  The trail was in really good shape through this section, with new saw cuts evident on trees next to the trail.

At the bottom of the mountain, 10 miles into our hike, we had the only stream crossing on the hike.  It was a little dicey, especially since the dog didn't want to cross, but we all made it over the stream, crossed FDR 95, and headed right back up the mountain.

Another steep climb took us to the edge of Ramsey's Draft Wilderness Area, and we hiked a section of trail the two of us had hiked back in 2010.  This section took us over Big Bald Knob, which ironically isn't as high as Little Bald Knob had been several miles earlier.  Then it was back down Dividing Ridge, steeply.

As we made our way to FDR 96, I felt great that, even though we still had over 10 miles left on the trail and it was nearly 4:30, we seemed in good shape.  There were still 3 hours of daylight left to do 10 miles.  We could do it if we moved fast.  Especially since the next mountain (Hankey Mountain) involved a climb that I remembered to be easier than the other climbs on this hike.

I remembered wrong.Hankey Mountain was a tough slog.  Maybe it is because we were already 0ver 15 miles into our hike.  Whatever the reason, it was a hard climb that seemed to go on forever.  The trail peaked 2.3 miles later on Hankey Mountain, at 3,407 feet, nearly 1,000 feet above FDR 96.

And then the trail kept going forever.  Until after the sun went down.  Venus and Jupiter came out.  Mars glowed red over near the Big Dipper.  Harrisonburg glowed brightly in the distance.  And we followed our headlamps slowly down the mountain, using my GPS to make sure we were staying on the trail.  (I love using map and compass, but the GPS was sure handy once it got dark out.)

We finally reached the car again at 9:30.  We hiked 27.4 miles according to the GPS, possibly higher than the published length of 25.6 miles due to going off trail to have lunch and retraced our steps when Marit lost part of her trekking pole.  I didn't get home until after 11, thanks to a few circular miles on the farm roads east of the mountains.

It is amazing to think that there is a trail running event every February that strives to run this trail four times in 24 hours.  I cannot imagine!  I now know that I can do a Grand Canyon rim to rim hike - which is on my lifetime list.

South Rim to North Rim via the South Kaibab Trail: 20 miles, 6000 foot elevation gain.
Wild Oak Trail: 27.4 miles, 8699 foot elevation gain.

Hike Details
PATC Difficulty Factor: 690.1 (a new record)
Distance: 27.4 miles (also a new record)
Total Altitude Gain: 8699 feet 
Lowest Point: 1688 feet (at the parking lot)
Highest Point: 4378 feet (at the crest of Little Calf Mountain)
Steepest elevation gain: 28% climbing Hanky Mountain.
Total hiking time: 12 hours, 49 minutes

Monday, March 19, 2012

Shenandoah NP Maps for the iPhone Reviewed

The PATC recently debuted its first electronic map for the iPhone, an app called PATC Shenandoah that features full content of Maps 9, 10, and 11, covering Shenandoah National Park.  I purchased this app and thought it would be useful to put together a review.  [Note: I am a member of the PATC Maps Committee, though I had no input on this product.]  At the same time that I purchased the PATC app I also bought the app from National Geographic's Trails Illustrated, entitled Park Maps.  Here is a comparison; it is not intended to be comprehensive.

The PATC's January 2012 newsletter announced the new product, stating it features the following:
  • Full content of Maps 9, 10, and 11
  • GPS tracking of your location, even without WiFi or cell reception
  • Photos and descriptions for key locations throughout Shenandoah National Park
  • Navigation tools including distance, bearing, compass and location
  • Customized pins to record photos and locations along your hike
The app costs $4.99 and is currently only available for the iPhone - there is no Android version.

When purchasing the PATC Shenandoah app, I also came across and purchased National Geographic's Park Maps app, also listed at $4.99, though I was only charged $3.99.  Maybe it was on sale?  

PATC Shenandoah
Opening screen to PATC Shenandoah App
Signing onto the PATC Shenandoah app, the user is greeted by the same statement: "USE OF THIS APPLICATION IS AT THE USER'S OWN RISK."  In order to get into the map, you need to click that you agree.  Every time.  

Every time you reopen the app
you get this screen...
Really?  Does the PATC's lawyer require this in order to minimize PATC liability?  I don't have to acknowledge this when I unfold a paper map.  It is an irritant and serves no apparent purpose.  

Once I get past that, a screen shows the entire SNP, along with at least 50 pins dropped in it.    

The pins represent places of interest, where a photo can be accessed.  

In standard iPhone. iPad, iPod manner, the user zooms into the desired section of the map using his/her index finger and thumb.  

Eventually, a map looking like the NPS map given to Shenandoah visitors comes up. 

When you scroll in a bit further, the familiar PATC map comes up.  The PATC maps are actually updated more recently than the current versions of the print maps, as I noticed at least one trail (found within the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area adjoining the Park boundary) not on the latest edition of Map 10, covering the Central District.

I also placed this map on the family's first generation iPad.  At first the maps looked like they would be fuzzy - indicating an iPhone app that had not really been produced for the iPad, but it came in clear once the maps came up, and it is overall a very good resolution.


Above is a comparison of the two maps, showing the Thornton Gap area of Shenandoah National Park.  Note that there is a road to the Pass Mountain Hut that is only shown on the PATC map.  Overall, the PATC map has better detail.

The PATC map also has a nice feature called the Line Tool, which allows me to estimate the length of a trail using my finger.  And I love the option to locate where you are on a Shenandoah trail with the PATC app.

What the National Geographic app offers is more map.  For Shenandoah, the NG app offers nearly all of Massanutten Mountain - really nice if you want to check out the interesting rock formations in Veach Gap or try hiking to Strickler Knob.  But wait!  There's more!  NG includes not just Shenandoah, but maps of 20 National Parks, ranging from the really popular ones like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Great Smoky Mountains, to less visited parks like Joshua Tree and Channel Islands.  Just the thing to pass the time while waiting in line for lunch.  The high def versions of these maps must be downloaded to the iPhone (no doubt so you don't use up all your memory), but I make due with a couple of well-used maps (Shenandoah and Grand Canyon) and a couple of others for dreaming, like Olympic.  And even if you don't download the high def version, you can look at the standard issue NPS version of each park's map.
You must install the high def maps in the
National Geographic app, but you get a
boatload to choose from.
The PATC app came out in mid-March with a new update, allowing for sharing of custom markers with others who have the app, a bug fix, and a "revolutionary new feature" called trail navigation.  This apparently determines the fastest route from the starting and ending locations that the user has defined.

Finally I should note that I have another app on my phone, called ATTrail 6.  Though #6 does not cover much of Shenandoah - starting south of Roanoke, this app covers about 150 miles of the AT through the Calf Mountain Shelter in Shenandoah's South District.  It is nice to have elevation profiles, which this app gives.  But the app costs $2.00 for every 100-200 miles, dividing the AT up into 16 parts.  And #6 has some bad data - although it lists the James River Foot Bridge, it does not show it on the map.  It instead shows the older route used before the Foot Bridge was completed in 2000.   A more recent AT reroute around Humpback Rock is also missing.  Not recommended.

So which app do I recommend?  If you are just hiking Shenandoah, there is no question that the PATC map is superior.  But I am happy I got both.  This way I can dream of returning to Glacier National Park.