Thursday, November 22, 2012

Best Shenandoah Hike for Kids: Bearfence Mountain Loop

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, son has no school, and dad has the day off from his job at the University, while mom still had to work.  Dad gave son the choice between biking a semi-nearby rail-trail or going hiking in Shenandoah National Park.  Son chose hiking the trail he first hiked with the old man half his lifetime ago and several times since: the Bearfence Mountain rock scramble.

Today's hike got me to thinking that Bearfence Rocks just may be the best hike for a boy to take, as I can think of no better views to be had with such little effort in Shenandoah.  There are 360 degree views from the top, and lots of great rocks to climb.  Of course, it may not be such a good hike for moms to take with sons, as they might be just a little nervous to see the real love of their life climbing out on rocks with a steep drop.
It really is a scramble to the top.
There are two loop possibilities with Bearfence Rocks ("BFR").  When son was 6, we took the shorter loop.  Now that he is 12 looking at teenage, we took the longer loop, which tops out at a whopping mile-and-a-half (or so).
Checking out the big sky from BFR
The BFR scramble is accessed from the Skyline Drive near MP 56, a little over a mile north of the Lewis Mountain Campground.  The toughest part of the hike is the first part of the trail - between the parking lot and the rocks.  But that is when young legs have the most energy, so it isn't a problem for the little ones.  After you hit the rocks, there are a number of spots requiring a climb - the favorite activity for boys from 6 to 12, and beyond.
Enjoying the view west towards Massanutten Mountain.
As son approaches teen years, dad realizes that events like this one may be limited in number.
The trail tops out at a 360 degree viewpoint after following blue blazes on the rocks to the peak.  Back in the day, son believed that only Jedi could see the blazes and Yoda had painted them.  Son first learned to follow blazes on this trail.  The top is a great spot for snacks when hiking with younger boys.  And with an older boy, the spot seems appealing for a short nap.

There are a couple of return options taking a short section of the Appalachian Trail.  From the A.T., little eyes can look up and see the rocks they climbed.  This is a popular hike, and for good reason.
Bearfence Rocks Elevation Profile
Topo map of the Bearfence Hike.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Morning hike of The Priest, May 11, 2011

Had the time today to take a quick training hike up the Appalachian Trail to summit The Priest.  I had last done this hike in June, 2010 when I did it twice in one day training for the Half Dome hike.  This time my friend Marit and I had time to do it once.

I chose this as our training hike for our separate summer activities because it is a good workout, climbing from 1000 feet to over 4000 feet, and it is on the Appalachian Trail.  When I had completed another nearby section of the A.T. last week, I ran into several thru-hikers.  Marit hiked the entire A.T. back in 2009, and I figured she'd enjoy talking to some members of this year's class.

The trailhead is just down the road from the Crabtree Falls trailhead, which is a 5 star hike for many folks in Charlottesville.  It takes about an hour to get there, driving past the turnoff for the Wintergreen Ski Area.  Here is the quickest way there from Charlottesville:  Map.

The last time I hiked this, I was on the trail around 8:30 and back down by noon.  We got there a little later today, and the parking lot was really rutted, so I had to be careful parking the car.

Marit left some "trail magic" at the trailhead for the thru-hikers.  In this case, trail magic was a ziploc bag full of Starburst and Hersey's candies, and a gallon jug of water.

For the first couple of miles, we were kind of worried we wouldn't run into anybody.  The folks staying at The Priest Shelter could have already passed by, and those who stayed at the more distant Seely-Woodworth Shelter (on the other side of Spy Rock) wouldn't have reached this part of the trail yet.   So we enjoyed the flowers (which were very different than the ones I saw last year in early June) and trucked up the trail.

Gracie the dog came with us, and I kept her on leash for much of the lower elevations.  There was abundant poison ivy off the trail, and I wanted to make sure she was under control.  She fell into a good pace behind me, though she clearly would have rather run free.  When we got about 2500 feet the forest understory seemed to clear out, and I let her off leash.  After getting her "ya ya's" out (as Marit called it), she again fell into lock step behind me, despite the lack of a leash.

We ran into our first through hiker, "Blue Sky" at the overlook about 2/3 up the mountain.  Mysteriously, he is living in California, but chose to come to the Appalachians to hike. He wouldn't be the first we'd meet today with that background. After that, we interacted with a number of section hikers or thru-hikers.  I took one photo of Marit talking to a hiker from New Hampshire who called himself "Earl Gray."  Earl told us he was looking forward to getting to Waynesboro where he would meet up with his wife.

When we reached the top of The Priest, we turned around.  There is no spectacular overlook up there, so one just has to decide, "this is the spot to turn around."  We could have kept going to the shelter, but we didn't see the point.

We started at 8:50 AM and ended at 12:40 PM, so the trail overall took us 3 hours and 50 minutes.  When I hiked it last year, the first time up took me 3 hours and 38 minutes.  No doubt we were slowed down this time by talking to the folks we encountered!  Total distance was 6.9 miles.  Total elevation gain was about 3000 feet.  A good morning workout!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

AT/Little Cove Mountain Trail Loop

This is a nice loop trail using Appalachian Trail near Buchanan, Virginia and near the National Park Service's Peaks of Otter Recreation Area.  It takes about an hour and a half driving time from Charlottesville, taking Interstate 64 west to Interstate 81, then exiting at Buchanan and taking State Route 43 to its intersection with the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The trailhead is about five miles south of the Peaks of Otter section of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

My hike was 11.8 miles because I wanted to complete an entire section of the Appalachian Trail.  If you are just looking for a loop hike and aren't in it to add to your A.T. total, the hike described below includes a really nice 7.3 mile loop that starts and ends at Va. 614 east of Arcadia, about 4.6 miles from Exit 168 on Interstate 81.  I highly recommend this hike.

For my trip, I combined this section of the Appalachian Trail with a side trail, called the Little Cove Mountain Trail, to form a semi-loop trail.  It allowed me to extend my continuous mileage on the AT south another 7 miles.  

I climbed up into the mountains from Buchanan on Route 43, parking for the hike within sight of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  This section of Route 43 is a pretty spectacular drive, as the slopes are steep and the road is windy.  There are few routes through the Blue Ridge in Virginia that are this impressive.  Just outside of Buchanan, a sign warns off tractor trailers and GPS users.

The A.T. has been rerouted where it meets Route 43.  Unfortunately, the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club, which does a spectacular job maintaining this section of trail, has not built a trail between the re-routed A.T. and the only viable parking area.  (Even this spot only fits three or four cars.)  I did not want to walk along the road with my canine hiking companion, so I bushwacked through the woods to find the trail crossing.

The NBATC tells me they have no plans to connect the parking area and the trail, as traffic volumes are low on this road and sight lines are good.  But a fog rolled in at the end of my hike, and I don't believe walking the road was safe.  It would certainly not be a walk I would take with my son's Boy Scout troop.
The Little Cove Mountain Trail's southern terminus
at the Appalachian Trail.

Heading north, the A.T. climbs Cove Mountain from the parking area, gaining about 450 feet before hitting the first of two summits of this mountain at about 8/10ths of a mile.  The second summit is nearly the same elevation, and is about twice as far from the parking lot, as the mountain is actually a ridge.  After topping the second summit, the trail drops down a couple of switchbacks before coming to an intersection with the southern end of the Little Cove Mountain Trail at the 2 miles.

I had a decision to make here.  I wanted to take each trail, but figured that the Little Cove Mountain Trail might be less likely to be properly maintained.  If so, I wanted to be able to turn back early in my hike.  There is nothing worse than being 2/3 of the way through a long circuit hike only to find a trail that is impassible.

At the point where the Little Cove Mountain Trail crosses the
Yellowstone Road, this sign attempts to justify a previous clear cut.
So I first started down the Little Cove Mountain Trail, which dropped through an area that had seen a forest fire a while back, giving nice views of the surrounding mountains as I hiked.  After several switchbacks I crossed the gravel Yellowstone Road at a point where you could park a car but not drive any further.  There was a car parked here, but I never saw its occupant.

Also here was a sign talking about clear cutting that had occurred at some point in the past.  The sign looked pretty old and had clearly been edited when more clear cuts had been made after the original sign was erected.   The trail continues on, just west of a ridge, before crossing the ridge and crossing a grassy roadway.  For the next 3/4 of a mile, from 3.75 to 4.5 miles, the trail is exceptionally scenic.  It is the prettiest part of the entire hike as the trail drops somewhat steeply into the valley created by Cove Creek and Little Cove Creek.  The trail crosses a creek three times on its way south - something to consider if you are hiking in wet season.

Descending the Little Cove Mountain Trail there are nice views to the west of Cove Mountain, which the A.T. Climbs.
Photos do not do justice to this exceptionally scenic section of trail.  
At 4.7 miles into the hike the trail crosses Jennings Creek and comes out on Route 614, also known as the Jennings Creek Road.  This road connects the Blue Ridge Parkway and Interstate 81.  As a result, there is some traffic on the road.  Where the trail meets the road there is a hiker sign, a pulloff and the bridge is very visible.  It makes a good place to leave the car if you only want to hike the 7.2 mile circuit hike, and don't want to add the 2 miles of A.T. each way to Route 43.  In addition, walking along this road is much safer than walking along Route 43, due to wider shoulders and less traffic on Route 614.

A bridge crosses Jennings Creek at the northern terminus of the
Little Cove Mountain Trail, at Rt. 614.
I didn't need to worry about the condition of the Little Cove Mountain Trail, as it was in great shape - well blazed and very easy to follow.  It is not as long as the A.T. heading north but is steeper, if that is a concern for you.

From the bridge I turned left on the road and walked along a road that was once a section of the Appalachian Trail.  According to a topo map I have, the A.T. intersected with the road right where the Little Cove Mountain Trail comes out, though it had come down from another mountain.  I wonder if that is why there is such a nice bridge over Jennings Creek here.  I walked 0.8 miles to the present A.T. road crossing at the Panther Ford Bridge.  Local legend has it that a woman and her child were killed eons ago by a mountain lion here, giving the bridge its name.  There is a parking area here, at the lowest point on the hike - 951 feet.  It is important to note that this is also the last part of the trail with a reliable water source.  There is a conspicuous sign on the trail letting hikers know that the section's trail hut does not have a spring - a rarity along the Appalachian Trail.

The A.T. climbs swiftly for 4/10ths of a mile before leveling off somewhat, but the trail generally climbs steadily from the road for 1.75 miles, reaching 1720 feet.  During this climb, the trail first passes through a couple of horse stiles where it intersects the Glenwood Horse Trail (at 6.7 miles) then it intersects with the Buchanan Trail (at 7.0 miles).

View from the Appalachian Trail looking southeast towards
Buchanan, Virginia
These two trail crossings illustrate why having more than one map is sometimes a good idea.  When hiking this area, I prefer the maps that came with my A.T. Guidebook because they have a better level of detail than the National Geographic/Trails Illustrated maps.  I prefer them even though my copies are now more than 20 years old.  The A.T. map showed the Buchanan Trail but didn't have the Glenwood Horse Trail.  Meanwhile, my Trails Illustrated Map (Lexington/Blue Ridge Mountains, #789) shows the horse trail but not the Buchanan Trail.  Each trail is obvious when crossing (the horse trail isn't marked by name, but has "no horses" signs on the A.T.), but neither map was giving me the full story.  I have a list of errors I want to send to Trails Illustrated for their various Virginia maps, and I will have to add this to the list.

The trail leveled off for a while, and at 8.6 miles came to a nice overlook.  I stopped here to lunch, as I had read that this is the only good viewpoint on this part of the A.T.  Although cold season hiking meant that I could see other vistas through the trees, this was the best place to stop.  

Cove Mountain Shelter, as seen from the Appalachian Trail.
The trail through here was easier than I expected.  The A.T. Trail Guide I consulted stated that I was in the middle of "10 knobs and 9 sags, ranging from 1,933 feet to 2692 feet, traversed in the next 4.0 miles."  But those knobs and sags were barely perceptible as I made my way southbound, as can be seen from the elevation profile at the end of this posting.  I might feel different, though, if I were thru-hiking with a heavy pack.

A few hundred feet later I came to the Cove Mountain Shelter, seen in the photo from the A.T.  The shelter had a requisite log book, where I documented my visit.  This shelter was originally located just north of Highcock Knob in the James River Face Wilderness Area, but was moved after wilderness designation.  This makes me wonder why other shelters have not been moved out of wilderness areas, such as the Matt's Creek Shelter which is still in the James River Face Wilderness.

Looking south from the Appalachian Trail as it climbs Cove Mountain.
Route 43 can be seen winding its way up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Back on the trail, altitude adjustment continued in earnest a short distance from the hut, as the trail headed uphill.  The A.T. curved eastward here, giving me a nice view northward of the section of Route 43 I took into the mountains from across the steep Bearwallow Valley.  I was hiking over the top of the section that amazed me on the drive up to the trailhead.

Between 9.5 and 10 miles into my hike, the view switched back over towards the valley created by Jennings Creek, and I found myself on the edge of a forest that no longer existed, clearly due to a forest fire some years back.  As happens after all forest fires, the land is slowly healing itself, and I estimated that the fire had occurred more than two and less than five years ago, based on the growth I was seeing.

A later Google search come up with a Roanoke Times article from July 2008, indicating that a fire had closed this section of the A.T. and the Little Cove Mountain Trail.  The article noted that the fire "consumed more than 500 acres," and officials believed it had started due to lightning.  Forest Fire News Article.  This must have been the source of the charred trees I also saw at the beginning of the Little Cove Mountain Trail.  There is also a news report about a 57 acre fire on Cove Mountain back in the spring of 2012, but I don't think the growth would be this far along after such a recent fire.
Evidence of a previous forest fire is clear in this photo, which looks back northwest from the Appalachian Trail,
near where it rejoins the Little Cove Mountain Trail, about 9.75 miles into the hike.
The A.T. follows the ridge top shown behind the burnt tree as it ascends from Jennings Creek.
The climb leveled off as I returned to the A.T./Little Cove Mountain intersection, this time at 10 miles into my hike.  From here I retraced my steps back to the car.  

If you are interested in taking this hike, the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club has a map online that you can print out.  I don't think it is quite accurate, as it shows the Little Cove Mountain Trail dropping all the way down to the Yellowstone Branch of Jennings Creek after its first road crossing.  In fact, the trail stays near the top of the ridge between road crossings.  But the U.S.G.S. topo map for this area does not show the Little Cove Mountain Trail at all, so the RATC Map is more useful.  RATC Map

Elevation Profile of this hike.
A hiking friend expressed amazement that I would drive solo from Charlottesville to take such a hike, and whether a trip of this distance is worth the time and gas required is a reasonable question.  I really enjoyed this hike, but 90 minutes each way is a long drive - about the edge of easy day hiking distance.  If I were going away for the weekend, I'd probably go a little further and check out McAfee's Knob or return to the Dragon's Tooth.  But there are good, funky restaurants in Lexington and in Buchanan that could be combined with a hike in this area.  And, at some point, it is the only way to get out and see new sections of the Blue Ridge.  So yes, Iva.  I think it was worth it.  And I'd like to go back out and rehike the loop during a different season to see the differences.  Maybe I'll convince some others to make the drive with me.
Trail map showing the A.T./Little Cove Mountain Trail loop.
My trailhead on Rt. 43 is off this map to the lower left.
Hiking Time/Distance Breakdowns:

Rt 43 to Little Cove Mountain Trail: 47 minutes.  1.8 miles
Little Cove Mountain Trail to Jennings Creek: 1 hour.  2.7 miles
Jennings Creek Road from Little Cove Mountain Trail to A.T.: 15 minutes. 0.8 miles
Jennings Creek Road to Cove Mountain Shelter: 1 hour 14 minutes (not including lunch time). 3.1 miles
Cove Mountain Shelter to Little Cove Mountain Trail: 42 minutes. 1.4 miles
Little Cove Mountain Trail intersection to Rt 43: 42 minutes.  1.8 miles

My GPS Data:
PATC Difficulty Factor 264.1
Total Altitude Gain 2947 feet
Total Distance 11.83 miles
Low Point 1007 feet above sea level
High Point 2724 feet above sea level
Time of Hike 4:53 hours: minutes

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Guillotined on the A.T.: Hiking Apple Orchard Mountain

There is nothing finer than a beautiful Autumn day in the mountains.  I used my off day on October 16th to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail near Lynchburg and came across 20 different folks out doing the same thing.  On a Tuesday!  I almost never see people on my mid-week hikes, and this time I saw so many that I had to go back in my memory and count them up.

The hike started at Petite's Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  This is about 5 miles south of the BRP's crossing of the James River.  I parked just off the BRP on a road that splits the James River Face Wilderness from the Thunder Ridge Wilderness, at about 2400 feet elevation. Heading south on the A.T., I was immediately in the Thunder Ridge boundary, and climbed to almost 3700 feet elevation in just over 2 trail miles.

Climbing the A.T. southbound from Petites Gap, I passed a small spring and a relatively flat, swampy looking area.  My A.T. Trail guide from 1994 states that this is the site of a cabin inhabited by a man that legend stated was a murderer who fled "from justice" after the Civil War.  There is no evidence of a cabin there now, though the guide states that the cabin existed when the A.T. Was first routed through the area.

The A.T. weaves in and out of the Thunder Ridge Wilderness, leaving the Wilderness to enter the National Park Service's Blue Ridge Parkway land, then going back into the National Forest Wilderness land.  It may seem obvious, but a lot of people miss the fact that the National Park Service is part of the Department of Interior, while the United States Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture.  This difference reflects the essence of how each type of land is administered - USFS land is not parkland, while NPS land is not intended to be farmed, hunted, or mined.

The trail climbs over about the next 3 miles until it reaches the Thunder Hill Overlook of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Here there is a split in the trail.  Going left takes you through the BRP parking lot (with trash cans), and right goes by a nice stone overlook that looks out over the valley to the west.  Both times I passed this overlook there were people there, so I cannot vouch for the view, but the stonework looked very nice.  (On the second pass, I encountered a through hiker taking a cigarette break - not something I often see!)

From this point, the trail drops again before crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway, at BRP mile 74.9.  I have driven this part of the Parkway before, but never noticed the A.T. crossing; it is not very obvious.  A few feet after the crossing, the Hunting Creek Trail splits off and heads east down the mountain.  There is a steep climb, then the trail levels off before coming to the Thunder Hill Shelter after another mile.  The Thunder Hill Shelter was built about 50 years ago, just like the next 5 shelters to the north and the Cornelius Creek Shelter to the south.   

The shelter's privy, however, is another story.  It appears to be only a few months old, though I didn't walk over to check it too closely. 

At this point, I was five miles into my hike, crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway a second time, and wondering if I would experience the two highlights of this part of the trail.  I needn't have worried, as after a slight downhill drop and another half mile of trail, I came across the famous Guillotine.  The Guillotine is a large rock boulder suspended of the trail in a narrow rock canyon.  It requires a slight swallow and no small amount of courage to pass through.  And in my case, it also required a little bit of muscle to bring a tricking dog through with me. 

It is a justly famous spot though, as it is so impressive!  I imagine the original A.T. was laid out specifically to pass through this spot, as there is a downhill southbound to get here, then a steep uphill to get up to Apple Orchard Mountain.  The folks maintaining the trail here have done a fantastic job laying rock to form steps up the mountain,  this section exhibits true craftsmanship that must be seen and appreciated.
Under the Guillotine!

Continuing on southbound on the A.T., I ascended to the top of Apple Orchard Mountain, next to an FAA relay station.  Apple Orchard Mountain is the highest point on the A.T. for 1200 miles of trail.  Heading north, a thru-hiker will not again ascend this high until the edge of the White Mountains in New Hampshire.  Nothing in Shenandoah National Park is this high.  Nothing in the next 8 states to the north reaches this height. 

Appropriately, I met Dreamcatcher and Spartan here, a couple of Sobos (southbound thru-hikers) heading for Georgia.  Spartan told me that they were from Colorado and were excited to experience the Bryant Ridge Shelter that night.  Spartan took a photo of the dog and me at the top of the mountain, and when I offered to reciprocate, he pulled out a large digital SLR from his backpack and told me that good photos were a very important part of his trip.  They would have to be, to carry that much extra weight!
Dreamcatcher and Spartan heading south to Georgia.

I left them at the top of the mountain, but knew I would run into them again because I was turning back at Parker's Gap Road, a little over a mile further south.  I descended the mountain, touched the road (which I had hiked to on the A.T. from the south a few months ago), them turned around heading north.  It isn't the most efficient way to hike the Appalachian Trail, but it got me back home in time for my son's baseball game at 6 that night.

Heading back north, I was surprised not to encounter Spartan and Dreamcatcher fairly quickly.  But they were quite a ways behind me and I found them near the top of the mountain where we had first met.  They explained that they had experienced "trail magic," where a non-hiker offers assistance or food to a thru-hiker.  An FAA employee had given each of them bottles of Vitamin Water. 
The view looking to the west from Apple Orchard Mountain.

I stopped at the top of Apple Orchard Mountain for lunch and was approached by the same man, who insisted on giving me a bottle of Vitamin Water and a bottle of regular water for the dog, even though I told him I was only out for a day hike.  I think he really enjoyed offering treats. 

As stated earlier, over the entire 14 mile trek I encountered 20 other hikers, which is amazing on a Tuesday.  I almost never see folks out hiking during the week, but this was near the peak of the Autumn leaves and the views were spectacular.  It was great to see so many folks out getting exercise and enjoying the trail.  I don't think any of them would disagree that this was a great way to spend a beautiful day.

The Appalachian Trail crossing Apple Orchard Mountain.

Trip Data:
PATC Difficulty Factor 340.0
Total Altitude Gain 4104  feet
Total Distance 14.08  miles
Low Point 2388  feet
High Point 4228  feet
Time of Hike 5:58  hours