Thursday, October 11, 2012

Shenandoah National Park's South End - How an Apple Affected the Park Boundary

My friend Bryce (of the wonderful website Hiking Upward) asked me the other day about one of my favorite spots on the Appalachian Trail - the old tractor seats on top of Bear Den Mountain a few miles north of Interstate 64.

I had always wondered who put them there, and put out the word to my hiking buddies and soon got the answer via the trails supervisor for Shenandoah National Park's Southern District.  He told us that the tractor seats are up there because the family that owned this property used to have picnics and cookouts and bonfires up on the top of Bear Den Mountain, particularly to watch the fireworks on July fourth.  As the family patriarch got older, the family brought bench seats and the tractor seats to the mountaintop so the family could enjoy the views while seated.  The bench seats are no longer there, though they were observed there as recently as 1988.
The mysterious tractor seats.  Thanks to Bryce Allison for the photo.

The family that owned the property was identified as the Bocock family, and were major shareholders in Royal Orchard.  Eventually, they sold their property on Bears Den Mountain to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which operates the land as National Park Service land separate from Shenandoah National Park.

This is part of an interesting history of this part of the mountains.  Take a look at the bottom end of this map of Shenandoah National Park.  Park Map.  You will notice that SNP hardly exists for the southernmost few miles of the Skyline Drive.  All of the land in here was part of a large landholding called Royal Orchard.

The orchard grew a type of apple called the Albemarle Pippin that was presented to Queen Victoria in 1838.  According to legend, the queen loved "Albemarle Pippins" so much that for decades thereafter they were allowed to enter the British Isles duty-free, and they were a large export for Virginia during much of the 19th Century.  The orchard became known as Royal Orchard.

Albemarle Pippins are still available locally, but do not really ripen until November.  They may, however sell out as early as mid-October locally.  Here is some information on the apple's history.

In 1903 Frederic W. Scott of Richmond purchased the 388-acre Royal Orchard for $3,900. Scott was a founder of the Scott and Stringfellow Brokerage firm, and perhaps most famously in Charlottesville, is the namesake for the UVA football stadium, as a result of a 1930 donation of $300,000 towards the stadium's construction.  The Scotts continued to add to their land holdings, eventually enlarging the property to nearly 4,000 acres.  This was the family's summer home, when they weren't living in their Richmond mansion.

At the same time, the Scotts constructed a mansion that looks like a castle that still stands on Scott Mountain just north of Interstate 64.  You can see the castle from the interstate if you look real carefully at the exact right time.  I think it is only visible for about 30 seconds of driving.  (Photo of the Scott Mansion from behind, showing Humpback Mountain.)  The property received some notoriety recently when workers killed a rabid black bear that attacked them, only a short distance from the A.T.

Around the same time that Scott was getting his name etched on UVA's football stadium, the U.S. Government was acquiring lands that would eventually comprise Shenandoah National Park.  If you remember from watching the Ken Burns series, national parks in the East are generally newer than those in the West.  The Feds didn't put eastern parks together using land that was already public, as it did in the west.  It also did not construct a park from a wealthy philanthropist's land donation, such as Rockefeller donations that became Acadia and Grand Teton National Parks.

The land was instead bought by the Commonwealth of Virginia and then transferred to the National Park Service.  Virginia's interest was in creating a park that would encourage tourism spending.  These land purchases were generally from small landowners who lived as mountain folk, and many felt they were not given the true value of their holdings.

The original plan was to have Shenandoah National Park end at Jarman Gap; the Skyline Drive would dead end here.  The final southern boundary of Shenandoah National Park as accepted in deeds transferred by the Commonwealth of Virginia to the Department of the Interior in December, 1935, stopped at Jarman Gap.

However, in August, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited CCC camps in Shenandoah National Park and approved the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway to connect the Skyline Drive with the proposed Great Smoky Mountains National Park over 400 miles to the south. This meant that the federal government would take responsibility for obtaining the remainder of the park south of Jarman Gap.

The feds negotiated with the Scott family and eventually reached an agreement where the Drive would not use the ridge top heading south of Jarman Gap.  Instead, the Drive was moved to the west side of Scott Mountain (the Scotts called this "the back side"), away from the Castle.  The Scotts gave an easement covering 400 feet on either side of the roadway, all the way to Rockfish Gap.

Topo map showing the position of the AT relative to the Scott Mansion.
Note that it is on the other side of the ridge top from the mansion.
Note the ribbon of land comprising Shenandoah National Park (orange next to the Skyline Drive).
A National Park Service web page gives more information about the reasoning behind this ribbon of land.

This instance at first suggests nothing more than another case of public policy being determined by position and influence. It is granted that the prominence of the Scott family first allowed them to have their estate excluded from the boundaries of the proposed park and later to have access to a "high government official." But few things are ever quite so simple.

The secondary reason for avoiding the Scott property was also a direct result of their wealth and position-the "Royal Orchard" was an extremely valuable property. As in the case of several highly productive orchards in Rappahannock County, the cash-strapped Virginia Commission for Conservation and Development could not afford to purchase these valuable properties for inclusion in the core area of the proposed park. The land appraised as less-productive by commercial standards, the smaller tracts, and the homesteads of those not visited by a "high government official" were those that by-and-large became the park.

So, the fact that Queen Victoria really liked some apples given to her in 1838 meant that the land where those apples were grown was too valuable to purchase for Shenandoah National Park 100 years later.  This explains why the park abruptly becomes a tiny ribbon south of Jarman Gap.

But the story doesn't totally stop there.  It is important now to note that the Park Service is now statutorily prohibited from acquiring additional land for Shenandoah National Park by direct purchase or condemnation. (Source.)  So what do they do with the Appalachian Trail over this section?  There isn't enough room to put it next to the Skyline Drive.

The AT north of Rockfish Gap is on National Park Service (NPS) land, but it is part of the NPS's Appalachian Trail corridor, and not part of Shenandoah National Park.  The land that includes the summit of Bear Den Mountain and Little Calf Mountain was owned by the Scott/Bacock families (one of Scott's daughters married a Richmond attorney named Bocock, as is recounted in this memoir: Never Ask Permission).  The Bococks sold portions to the National Park Service, bur retained rights to use of the land on horseback.  This explains the zig-zag stiles at the A.T.'s road crossing at Beagle Gap.  It is important to note that none of the land was obtained by eminent domain.

Those tractor seats stay on top of Bear Den Mountain because they pre-date public ownership of the land.  They stay, even though they don't really overlook anything anymore - the trees have grown up around the summit so views are limited now.  But I am glad they are there, and never pass up the chance to sit on them a spell when I am walking by.  Check them out next time you are in the area - it is a delightful short walk from Beagle Gap!

If you liked this posting, please check out the rest of the blog and don't forget to subscribe!  Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Hiking Charlottesville's Rivanna Trail

The Rivanna Trail loops Charlottesville and is around 20 miles in length.  It does not have a great amount of elevation change, at least relative to trails in the Blue Ridge and Alleghenies to the west.

I have hiked nearly all of the trail in sections, but never done the entire thing in one day.  Hiking the entire trail is actually pretty tough to do, at least legally, because there are three railroad crossings that are considered trespasses.  In addition, sewer expansion in several areas of the city and surrounding county have decimated former sections of the trail, and most of these sections have only recently been reconstructed.    And it seems that the trail's route is constantly changing as the foundation that maintains the trail negotiates better routes, and landowners on other sections revoke access to their property.  (The most famous example was a woman who incredibly strung razor wire across the trail to keep people off her property, which caused the City of Charlottesville to take her to court. We avoided the trail here, but reportedly the razor wire still exists.)

So why do the trail now, in early October, when there are so many seemingly better trails to explore?  I am a merit badge counselor for Hiking Merit Badge.  Several of the scouts in my son's troop need a 20 mile hike in order to earn the badge.  Hiking 20 miles with boys aged 11 through 15 is no easy feat (no pun intended), so completing the hike near the scouts' homes seemed like a good plan.

The scouts met up at 8 AM on Saturday, October 6th next to one of the railroad crossings - on Old Ivy Road over near the back side of the UVA Baseball Stadium and the University Village Retirement Home. Meeting here meant that we could end the hike only a few feet away, on U.S. 250 west of the UVA campus, and not have to cross the railroad tracks (involving either a trespass or a long detour).  I had developed work-arounds for the other railroad crossings, as described below.

We started off just after 8:15, heading north on the trail.  Our hike initially took us past the Leonard Sandridge Drive, which is the newest road in Charlottesville and connects the U.S. 29 Bypass and UVA's new basketball arena.  Then we threaded past the Business School, Law School, and JAG School along a route that passed some very old building foundations and over a brand new wooden bridge built for the Rivanna Trail.  It is the first ever bridge I have seen with an integrated flower pot and even had a watering can attached to the bridge.  Nice job!  (It turns out that this bridge was built by a group from a nearby all-girls school, as profiled here.  They deserve to put a plaque on this work of art taking credit for their achievement!)

Descending steeply near the U.S. 250 bypass.
After about 1.8 miles, we crossed Barracks Road and headed up a back street.  The trail was not very well marked here, and it was fortunate that I was familiar with its path.  You have to really have a sharp eye to see the trail marker on a light pole down the street, then find another trail marker attached to a picnic table next to a business complex's parking lot.  This took us behind the Federal Executive Institute, which is some kind of training facility for federal workers.  The signs told us to stay on the trail, which quickly took us back through the cyclone fence and onto another street.  We crossed U.S. 29 at a traffic light with a pedestrian signal, and then passed the Bodo's Bagels Restaurant.  We didn't stop here, but I eat at this place at least three times every week.  Inexpensive and highly recommended.  But if you are from Charlottesville, you already know this.

We were back on trails again after passing the English Inn, and were soon passing under the U.S. 250 bypass on concrete blocks in a culvert.  This is always a big adventure spot for a group of boys!

Tricky stream crossing.
We then climbed up the embankment to a sidewalk, crossed the creek on a pedestrian bridge, dropped back down steeply on the other side of the creek, then went through another culvert under Hydraulic Road. People who live in Charlottesville tell me they have no idea that the Rivanna Trail crosses these two busy streets in this area; it is hidden in the open here.

At Hydraulic Road we stopped briefly to pick up two additional scouts and a dad, then continued north on the trail.  The trail here was a little confusing in sections, because it had been recently rerouted, though a tricky stream crossing I remember from past hikes was still there.  The sewer reconstruction closed the trail completely 4.0 miles into our hike, just as the trail crossed Brandywine Drive.  We had anticipated this because of an alert on the Rivanna Trails Foundation (RTF) website, and took neighborhood streets back to the bypass so we could take a side trail through McIntire Municipal Park to meet up with our first mom next to the baseball field at Charlottesville High School, at 5.1 miles.  Here, the boys refilled water bottles and devoured homemade chocolate chip cookies for 15 minutes.

After that, we walked down Melborne Street to rejoin the trail at Park Avenue.  The sewer project had been completed up here, and the trail followed the denuded path of the sewer pipe until after we crossed Holmes Avenue.   The trail weaved through woods behind several neighborhoods until it dumped us onto Locust Avenue so we could avoid the razor wire.  We lost two boys and a parent, who had sporting obligations that afternoon.  After passing that neighborhood, we were back on the trail and strolling along side the trail's namesake Rivanna River.  The trail here actually becomes paved and is much more crowded relative to other parts of the loop.  At the 10.6 mile mark, roughly halfway through our hike, we met Mom Number 2 and ate lunch at Riverview Park from 12:45 to 1:15, taking off again after the requisite group photo.  We lost an adult leader here.
Group photo halfway through the hike.

The only way to continue on the Rivanna Trail at this point is to trespass over a railroad bridge - something we weren't going to do with a bunch of boy scouts!  So we walked city streets for the next 1.7 miles, going past the region's sewage treatment facility, a large mobile home park, and the local stockyards.

We were back on the trail at 2:00, 12.3 miles into the hike, and would closely follow the western progression of Interstate 64 for the next several miles, until we reached Azalea Park at 3:30, 16 miles into the hike.  Here we met another mom, lost a boy due to foot problems, and gained another boy and a dog.  We skipped a small section of the Rivanna Trail during this part of the hike, choosing to walk the sidewalk of 5th Street rather than taking the trail behind Hardee's.  They both end up at the same place, but we wanted to get to Azalea Park sooner, for the sake of the hurting scout.

Stream Crossing just before reaching Azalea Park.
Another break at Azalea meant that we would not reach Fontaine Avenue until 5:02, an hour-and-a-half after reaching Azalea Park 2.6 miles earlier.  But this was a particularly enjoyable section of trail for me, as it involved a new section of trail that had recently replaced a series of street connections.  Unfortunately, another section just before that had formerly been part of the Rivanna Trail, but we had to detour because the landowner had revoked permission to cross his land.

At Fontaine we took our last snack break, a full 18.6 miles into the hike.  The final 1.8 miles was through the UVA-owned O-Hill section, scene of many trail runners and mountain bikers.  Some of the boys were really dragging here, while others broke into a run in order to get their ordeal over sooner.

The GPS read 21.7 miles at the end, though the data in the computer indicates it was only 20.4 miles.  Since we had to do 20, it was good to do some extra miles along the way.  The entire hike took the group approximately 9 hours and 45 minutes (some finished sooner, and some took a little longer).  The boys seemed very pleased to have completed the hardest requirement of their Hiking Merit Badge - the 20 mile hike.  Realistically, though, the hardest thing may be to get them to sit down and write the required trip report!

I did receive one report very quickly.  Here is another perspective on the hike:

On October 6th I hiked twenty-one and a half miles on the Rivanna trail. It was partly cloudy most of the trip and a mild temperature. The trail surrounds Charlottesville but we had to take some roads as detours and to complete the 20 miles. There were about 8 scouts on the hike and we gained and lost some people because of sore feet and soccer games. I packed lots of water and a lunch. I also had snacks along the way. Because of the trail being in the city, I didn’t see that much wildlife besides a couple squirrels. It was pretty smooth most of the way but in some places it was rocky and steep. It was even sandy in some places.

The next day my feet and legs were sore. It was a very long hike and I’ve never hiked that far before. I saw a great view from the Quarry Park section and I passed many places that I’ve been to before. Although it was very tiring, I wish I could do it again.

Start (Old Ivy Road):            0.0 miles
Emmet Street:                       2.1
Hydraulic Road:                    2.7
Brandywine Drive:                4.0
Charlottesville HS:                5.1
Locust Avenue:                     8.1
Riverside Park:                   10.6
Monticello Ave:                  12.3
Avon Street:                       13.5
5th Street:                          14.5
Azalea Park:                      16.0
Fontaine Ave:                     18.6
U.S. 250                            20.4