Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Shenandoah Wilderness: Nicholson Hollow Trail and Corbin Mountain Trail

Although 42% of the acreage within Shenandoah National Park is federally designated wilderness, this isn't something that is obvious to the hiker.  Unlike wilderness areas in the national forests, there are no signs telling you that you are entering a wilderness area.  The differences between wilderness areas and non-wilderness areas are subtle, at best.

A recent hike in Shenandoah National Park brought me into part of this wilderness via a loop using the Nicholson Hollow Trail, the Indian Run Trail, and the Corbin Mountain Trail.  I had several reasons for taking this hike.  I had never hiked a majority of the day's trails, and I am checking off unhiked trails in Shenandoah National Park.  I wanted to see the park's Corbin Cabin, located along this route.  I wanted to work on learning the DeLorme inReach Satellite Communicator, which I am testing out for one of the organizations I volunteer for.  And I wanted to log another 10 mile hike within a wilderness area as I work toward completing 12 such hikes before September, 2015 as a part of the "Dirty Dozen Wilderness Hike Challenge" from the Wilderness Society.  This would be my third hike of the dozen required.

Starting on this hike means parking at the Old Rag Parking Lot and experiencing a ton of cars and other hikers.  Even at the end of December, the lot must have had 50 vehicles.  Previous experience had taught me, however, that those folks would be joining me only for the road walk at the beginning. Within 500 yards of the Nicholson Hollow Trail, I was only to see a PATC Trail Maintainer (on Corbin Mountain Trail, and he thanked me for having my dog on a leash) and a group of 3 folks with a couple of dogs.  Nobody else until I returned to Route 600 some 12 miles later.
Winter woods on Corbin Mountain
During the loop, there are plenty of opportunities to soak in the solitude during the 8.6 mile loop between the Corbin Mountain Trail and the Nicholson Hollow Trail.  Climbing Corbin Mountain, I had several views of Old Rag nearby, with its Ridge Trail no doubt backed up in spots, while virtually no one had chosen instead to hike into the wilderness.  This loop does not have the views or the climbs that make Old Rag so popular and the parking lot so large.

Winter views aplenty along the Corbin Mountain Trail.  This view looks down Nicholson Hollow eastward.
Instead, there is a small waterfall part way up Corbin Mountain, some evidence of communities that predate the establishment of the Park, a rental cabin that dates back to those times, and numerous stream crossings - some treacherous.  And solitude.

Corbin Mountain Cabin at the intersection of two trails.
One crossing was particularly difficult - crossing the Hughes River on the Nicholson Hollow trail between intersections with the Corbin Cabin Cutoff Trail and the Hannah Run Trail.  Trail maintainers placed large boulders at strategic spots in the river, but mid-stream forced a decision: I could either soak my feet or my whole body.  I chose to keep my body wet below the ankles only.

Crossing the Hughes River proved harrowing.
At the end of the hike my body had that "good workout ache" telling me that I had burned some holiday calories.  I could return home and grab an extra helping of lasagna.  And I did.

Hike details.
PATC Difficulty Factor: 340.3
Total Distance: 13.5 miles 
Total Time: 5 hours, 08 minutes, including stops.
Steepest Uphill: from 2.3 miles to 2.8 miles; 15.2% average grade.  

Starting Elevation: 835 ft.
Low Point: 826 ft.
Highest Point: 3131 ft.
Difference: 2305 ft.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Virginia's Best Appalachian Trail Sections: Description List

One quarter of the Appalachian Trail lies in Virginia.  There are more miles in this state than any other over its entire length from Georgia to Maine.  Since moving to Virginia in 1992 I have been working on completing the A.T. in the state, though I have really only concentrated on it over the past 3 years.  Many of my A.T. hikes have been documented in my blog.  Below is a list of hike sections described in this blog, from south to north.  There are several gaps, usually areas that I didn't find interesting enough to write about (such as most of Shenandoah National Park).
Celebrating completing the entire A.T. in Virginia - at the TN/VA border, October 24, 2015.
I always try to find out as much as I can about the A.T. sections I have targeted to complete in advance of hiking them.  If you are interested in information on a particular section of the A.T., this collection may help you prepare for certain section hikes.

The A.T. meets the Balcony Falls Trail in James River Face Wilderness.
Although I have enjoyed every mile of the 550+ I have hiked on the A.T. in Virginia, I have noted those sections that I consider to be exceptional.  The links below take you to descriptions of each section listed.  I only list sections that I have reported on in this blog.

Tennessee Border to Beartree Gap.  Link.

Elk Garden to Mt. Rogers.  Link.  (Highly Recommended.)

Mt. Rogers to Hurricane Shelter.  Link.  (Highly Recommended.)

Raccoon Branch Wilderness.  Link.

U.S. 11, Rural Retreat, Virginia, to Rt 42.  Link.

Rt. 42 to Burke’s Garden.  Link.   (Highly Recommended.)

Burke’s Garden to Va 615.  Link.   (Highly Recommended.)

Va 615 to U.S. 52.  Link.

U.S. 52 to Wood’s Hole Hostel.  Link.

New River to Rice Fields Shelter. Link.

Rice Fields Shelter to Pine Swamp Shelter. Link.

Va 635 to Rt. 42.  Link.

Mountain Lake Wilderness.  Link.   (Highly Recommended.)

Sinking Creek to Lee Hollow (Rt. 621).  Link.

Lee Hollow (Rt. 621) to Trout Creek (Rt. 620).  Link.

Dragon’s Tooth to Rt. 311. Link.   (Highly Recommended.)

McAfee Knob and Tinkers Cliffs.  Link.   (Highly Recommended.)

Andy Layne Trail to U.S. 220.  Link.

Rt 43 to Va 613 (Cove Mtn.)  Link.

Parker’s Gap Road to Petite’s Gap.  Link.

Thunder Ridge Wilderness.  Link.

Piney Ridge Trail to Matt's Creek Trail, James River Face Wilderness.  Link.   (Highly Recommended.)

Matt's Creek Trail to James River Foot Bridge. (Highly Recommended.) Link.

James River Foot Bridge to Hercules Road.  (Highly Recommended.) Link.

Saddle Gap to Saltlog Gap, near Punchbowl.  Link.

Brown Mountain Creek Shelter to Bald Knob. Link.

U.S. 60 to Hog Camp Gap.  Link.

Cole Mountain.  Link.   (Highly Recommended.)

Seely-Woodworth Shelter to Spy Rock Road.  Link.

Priest Summit to Tye River.  Link.  Link2.   (Highly Recommended.)

Tye River to Reed’s Gap (Three Ridges).  Link. Link2.   (Highly Recommended.)

Dripping Springs to Humpback Rocks Parking.  Link.

SNP Central: South River Falls to Lewis Mountain Campground: Link.

SNP Central: Hawksbill to Stony Man.  Link.   (Highly Recommended.)

SNP Central: Jewell Hollow to Mary’s Rock.  Link.   (Highly Recommended.)

SNP North: Elkwallow Gap to Hogback Overlook.  Link.

Chester Gap to Manassas Gap.  Link.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Appalachian Trail Signs in Virginia - Geography Quiz

Here is a tough geography quiz.  Below are photos of 26 signs I have taken while hiking the A.T. in Virginia. The signs range in location from Sky Meadows State Park in the north to Deep Gap, just south of Mt. Rogers in the south.  Each sign is labeled with a letter, ranging from A-Z.  Can you place the signs in order from North to South?

Here is a start.  The northernmost sign is labeled "I" and was taken in Sky Meadows State Park. At the bottom of this posting is a link to the answer key.  Let me know how you did - good luck!






















How did you do?  Leave your score in the comments.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

A.T. Burke's Garden Backpack, Day 3: Va 615 (Suiter Road) to U.S. 52

Day 3 of our A.T. backpack past Burke's Garden on October 10th was the shortest of our trip from October 8th - 10th.  (Here are descriptions of our previous days: Day 1.  Day 2.)  We were scheduled to get picked up by a couple of friends, former thru-hikers both, at 11 AM on Friday, October 10th. The promise of a free ride back to our vehicle was a strong incentive to get on the trail and push towards the end, so we would be waiting for our ride, rather than the other way around.

The day's hike started out with 10 switchbacks up Brushy Mountain before reaching an intersection with the Trail Boss Trail.  The Trail Boss Trail is an old roadbed, and is the old A.T. route.  Continuing north, the A.T. now follows this roadbed for a little while before splitting off and hugging the side of the mountain.  
Intersection, Trail Boss Trail.
Along the way there were a few views from the trail, beautiful despite morning rains, and made more beautiful because of the autumn colors.  By the time we reached the end of our hike, it was raining hard.  

View looking west toward Round Mountain past Hunting Camp Creek.
View looking north towards Interstate 77 and the Kimberling Creek Wilderness.
We arrived early at U.S. 52 and passed the time by talking to several section hikers, including "Lebowski," who was packing a heavy tarp from Lowes.  Lebowski and his colleagues were thrilled to meet Pete, who is CEO of the company that publishes one of their favorite board games.  They literally treated him like a rock star! All three hikers were from Yorkville, Illinois, which is now on the edge of the Chicago suburbs but was rural farmland when I lived in Illinois.
"Trail Angels" who don't clean up what they leave behind are no angels in my book.

Pete poses with hikers from Yorkville, Illinois.
The three hikers gratefully accepted the extra food we carried for our entire journey before heading on their way.  I don't think I will ever master the art of carrying "just the right amount" of food when backpacking - I always carry too much.
Lebowski shows off his backpack cover.
This guy is definitely not an ultralighter! 
We were then invited into the Bland County Senior Center to warm up and dry off.  One of the regulars told us about when the A.T. used to be located on Walker Mountain, saying he never had any desire to hike any of the trail even though he had lived right next to it on Walker Mountain.  We appreciated the kindness of those folks and dried off considerably before catching our ride back to the starting trailhead.
Waiting for our ride outside the Bland County Senior Citizen Center.
Elevation Profile - Day 3
This was a very enjoyable three day journey!  It is a section that is overall very remote, and is therefore hard to do as a series of dayhikes.  I highly recommend it - if you can find a shuttle back to your starting point.  I am grateful to my friends who took time out on their way to a race to do the shuttle.  Here is a map of Day 3: Map.

For the year, there was one more section of new miles on the trail, just to the south of our starting point on this trip.  I completed it with the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club a couple of weeks later. Link.  As 2014 comes to a close, I have now completed over 500 miles of the A.T. in Virginia, including about 110 new miles this year alone - nearly all of them south of the New River.  I now have only a little over 10% of the state's trail left.  Completing those miles are high on the priority list for 2015.

Day 3 Hike details.
PATC Difficulty Factor: 161.8
Total Distance: 6.9 miles 
Total Time: 2 hours, 44 minutes 

Altitude Gain: 1895 ft.
Low Point: 2558 ft.Starting Elevation: 2558 ft.
Low Point: 2558 ft.
Highest Point: 3175 ft.
Difference: 617 ft.

Total Trip Hike details.
Total Distance: 35.7 miles 
Total Time hiking: 18 hours, 40 minutes over 3 days 
Total Altitude Gain: 11564 feet
Highest Point: 4444 ft.
Lowest Point: 2285 ft.
Difference: 2159 ft.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kennedy Peak/Massanutten Mountain, November 16, 2014

BSA Troop 1028's November campout took the group to Fort Valley Ranch in the Massanutten Mountains near Luray, Virginia, where a group of scouts completed the requirements for Horsemanship Merit Badge by participating in a guided trail ride.
Sue S took this photo of trail riders in action.
I joined the group late Saturday night, after the riding was complete, as I had other Scouting-related responsibilities which took me to Roanoke for the day.  I discovered, the hard way, that the Fort Valley  is a really dark place at night - I consider myself lucky to have found the group!  And you can forget about relying on cell service when you are in the bowl that is the Fort Valley, making it a really great place to take Boy Scouts who like to spend time texting.

Sunday morning we packed up and took a short hike during the trip back.  I chose a section of the Massanutten National Recreational Trail between Edith Gap and Kennedy Peak for the group.  It is a pretty easy mountain trail, with only 1551 feet of altitude gain over 5.6 miles, and it has a huge payoff at the mid-point of the hike with a spectacular view.

We parked at the point where SR 675 crosses the crest of Massanutten at Edith Gap.  SR 675 is the main route into Massanutten from Luray.  Edith Gap claims to be a hang glider launch spot in the guidebooks, but I wonder when the last time anyplace outside of the Outer Banks has last seen a hang glider.  I think that hang gliders have gone the way of "the Captain and Tennille," dying with the end of the 1970's.  Edith Gap is at 1850 feet elevation, and its coordinates are N43.515 W30.598.

There is a parking area here that holds around 10 vehicles, and the trail follows an old road northeast across the road from the parking lot.  Following this road for the first 1.5 miles gains you 310 feet in elevation before the roadbed ends, the trail takes a right turn, and the uphill starts in earnest.
Heading south along on the Massanutten Trail on the slope of Kennedy Peak.
At the 1.75 mile mark is a point that is easy to miss.  The trail follows a sharp switchback to the left at a point where there is a small rock cairn.  Part of our group missed that and continued on an old trail to a former microwave tower before realizing that they weren't on the main trail any longer.  Be alert in this section - you should never find yourself on the east slope of Kennedy Peak.

Near the summit, where a side spur leaves the main trail.
At 2.4 miles is a limited view of the Fort Valley - hardly worth mentioning, but the trails are a little confusing here.  Stay on the main trail and shortly thereafter, at 2.5 miles, is the side trail to the summit of Kennedy Peak.  Follow this side trail for 0.4 miles to reach the top at the hike's 2.9 mile mark - the highest point on Massanutten's east ridge.  At the summit is a lookout point that utilizes the stone base of an old fire tower.  The lookout was recently rebuilt - in fact, extra lumber still remains around the base.  The lookout provides a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. There are really very few viewpoints as great as this one in this part of Virginia.
Group photo from the tower.

View from the tower looking east towards the Shenandoah River and Shenandoah National Park.
View from the tower looking south.
The tower not only holds an overlook, but a small (3 person) cubbyhole shelter for campers.  It would be a gamble to plan an overnight here, though, as there is little room for tents if you arrive and find the shelter already full.

The tower was originally built by the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, and was rebuilt in July, 2014 thanks to the efforts of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and the same Fort Valley Ranch the troop had camped at the night before.  The December 2014 PATC Newsletter describes the process as one that required mules, helicopters, and a lot of labor.  Below are a couple of photos from the PATC showing reconstruction of the overlook.  These photos were part of a presentation at the PATC's Annual Dinner that I attended in November, 2014.
We returned via the same route we took to the tower, completing the hike in a little under 3 hours - including nearly a half hour of stops along the way and at the top.  This is a nice family hike, as it isn't very tough and the views are spectacular.  And I can point to several scouts who will vouch for the fact that snacks taste really good when eaten on the newly rebuilt observation tower.

For more information about the hike, I recommend the current edition of the PATC's "Guide to Massanutten Mountain Hiking Trails, 5th Edition" which I used to help plan the hike, and PATC's Map G - Massanutten Mountain, North Half, available at most outdoor stores in Northern and Central Virginia.  Here is a map showing our route: Map.

Elevation Profile
Hike details.
PATC Difficulty Factor: 132.2
Total Distance: 5.6 miles 
Total Time: 2 hours, 54 minutes 

Starting Elevation: 1857 ft.
Low Point: 1857 ft.
Highest Point: 2613 ft.
Difference: 756 ft.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A.T. From Interstate 81 to Virginia Rt. 42, November 2, 2014

On Sunday, November 2nd, I took advantage of the time change from Daylight Savings to Eastern Standard Time, got up very early, and hit the road to meet up with a hiking group from the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club. We all planned to hike my final 2014 "new miles" on the Appalachian Trail, this time just south of Burke's Garden and north of where the A.T. passes under Interstate 81. (Map). I had backpacked the Burke's Garden section over three days just a few weeks earlier (link).

The group met up at the Walmart parking lot in Dublin, Virginia.  Dublin is between Pulaski and Radford, just off of Interstate 81, and about a two and a half hour drive from Charlottesville. Here the group consolidated into three cars, and I gave my car to another hiker to drive to the end point of my hike on Rt 42. We drove that hiker's car to the beginning point of my hike, on U.S. 11 near Groseclose, Virginia, which was that hiker's end point. We planned to meet up in the middle and exchange keys. Not including the side trip to Walmart, the drive to the trailhead took three hours from Charlottesville, a distance of 200 miles.

Our hike did not start out without some difficulty. We chose to ask the store manager at a Sunoco gas station with a large parking lot on U.S. 11 if we could leave the vehicle for a few hours. He was not interested in helping us. This is pretty mysterious to me - why would someone with a business right on the A.T. want to alienate the hiking community? Word gets around. I was prepared to purchase items in the store, but put them back after hearing him bicker to our hike leader. I recommend that other hikers stay away from this business, despite abundant parking space.

We ended up paying $3 to the Relax Inn motel next door to leave the car.

After hiking up U.S. 11 and crossing under the interstate on Route 683 (Windsor Road), we started up the A.T. This is a pretty wet section, as can be seen by the raised walkways and bridges.

Stream crossing almost immediately after leaving the road under I-81.

Crossing a boardwalk.

The trail started out in pasture lands.
We passed into the Jefferson National Forest after 1 mile of walking, and shortly thereafter passed a side trail to the Davis Cemetery.  Davis was a name we would see a lot on this hike. At 1.3 miles we crossed the paved Davis Valley Road, with an actual hiker parking lot. And at 3 miles we came to the former site of the Davis Path Shelter.

The Davis Path Campsite, as it is now known, still has a picnic table, privy and the concrete pad from the shelter. Reportedly, the shelter was taken down because it was a party spot. This is a little strange, because the shelter is over a mile-and-a-half from any road. Usually, problem shelters seem to be much closer to civilization. The camp would be a great place to take a Scout Troop, as it requires some effort to get to, but is close enough for the youngest scouts to obtain. Having a privy doesn't hurt, either. The only downside is that there are no springs in the immediate area.
Photo of Davis Path Campsite shows table, privy, and former shelter site.
Over the next three miles we had one major climb (550 feet over one mile), walked along a ridge, then started to drop down to Reed Creek from Brushy Mountain. Be careful on the descent if hiking this section northbound, like we were. At about the 6 mile mark, we missed a switchback. The original trail alignment descended straight down the mountain, and we started following that route because none of us saw the switchback. When the original alignment started to get overgrown, we knew we were on the wrong path, and backtracked 50 yards to find the current trail.
View towards Mt. Rogers from the trail.
We descended a couple more switchbacks before coming to the other members of our group at 6.9 miles, nearly exactly half-way into our 14.2 mile hike. Both groups exchanged pleasantries, and more importantly exchanged car keys, and each went on their way. Our group dropped into the valley and had lunch.

The valley was a little bit of a mystery to me, and I would like to go back sometime. There was ths sign below stating the distance to the nearest road - not something I usually see in the middle of a remote area. And there was no sign indicating an intersection with the Walker Mountain Trail - the old A.T. alignment. I later figured out where this is and would like to go back and check it out.  
Road sign in valley.
After lunch we had the big climb for this hike - 940 feet over nearly 2 miles.  Much of the trail here uses an old road that predates the A.T. in this area.  The post-lunch hike uses a trail that was built in the 1970's to take the A.T. off of Walker Mountain.  We crossed Walker Mountain at Tilson Gap, and left the old roadbed to switchback down nearly 900 feet over the next 1.7 miles.
Green Tunnel as we climb to Tilson Gap.

Recent snows stuck to the tree branches.
At about the 10.4 mile mark we exited the woods and hiked through pasture, and would see an alternating landscape of woods and pastures for the rest of the hike.
Watch out for the cow pies!  The trail crosses the open field on the hill in back
then cuts into the woods.
This sign added some mystery to our hike, since the easement boundary was never obvious.

At 12.7 miles we descended next to the North Fork, Holston River, then crossed the river on a low highway bridge.  We entered the woods and paralleled the river for a while, with views of deteriorating Tilson Mill.
Trail descends to North Fork, Holston River.

Tilson's Mill doesn't have a lot of years left.
Hiking through pastures, with Walker Mountain in the background.
 We finished up the hike by crossing Rt. 42, then staying on the A.T. until it met up with the parking lot access trail I had used a few weeks earlier when hiking past Burke's Garden. There are several campsites just north of Rt. 42, and I remember thinking that they were strangely close to the road when starting out my backpacking trip in September.  Now I know why - the tight easements over the previous several miles heading north really restricts camping opportunities along the trail.  A flat spot near a stream in the National Forest probably is a welcome sight to a section hiker or thru-hiker heading north when reaching this road near the end of the day.

The end of the hike was not the end of the adventure, however!  

I planned to stay overnight in an inexpensive motel in Abingdon - 200 miles each way is too far to drive for a simple day hike, so I would stay overnight then get in a short hike the next morning before returning to Charlottesville. I ended up summitting Mount Rogers, reported here.

I drove south after the hike and realized after about 5 miles that I had little gas left in the car and I was in the middle of nowhere, at 5:30 PM on a Sunday. I would have to drive the remaining 17 miles to Marion on 10 miles worth of gas, because there would be nothing between where I was and Marion, which is on the Interstate. I had to hope that the engineers at Toyota had designed some reserve into the Prius.  

I was down to "0" on the gauge before I had to climb a big mountain - Walker Mountain, gaining 1400 feet over 3.3 miles. I had hiked over Walker Mountain earlier that day, but this is such a large mountain that construction of Interstate 77 a few miles north took 5 years to build a tunnel through the mountain rather than send traffic over the mountain.  

There was no space on the side of the road if the car gave out. The climb took forever and took a major push by the engine, complete with false summits and major anxiety.  But once I crossed the crest, I stayed off of the accelerator for the next 6 miles, using the electric engine as much as possible. I switchbacked down the mountain and cruised through the 35 mph zone in Hungry Mother State Park at 50. I had to stop at one traffic light, cursing its existence because I could see no need for it in the rural countryside.

But I made it into Marion and coasted into the gas station where I pumped as much fuel as I could into the car.  It took 9.6 gallons. So I look up the capacity of my 2010 Prius and what do I find out?  It has an 11.9 mile tank!  I could have continued on to Abingdon on Zero, 40 miles away! All that stress for nothing. Now I know that 0 miles left in the tank still means over 50 miles left - though I hope I don't ever have to test that again.
Hike and Drive Elevation Profile

Hike details.
PATC Difficulty Factor: 369.5
Total Distance: 14.2 miles 
Total Time: 7 hours, 21 minutes (6:04 moving time).

Starting Elevation: 2418 ft.
Low Point: 2415 ft.
Highest Point: 3580 ft.
Difference: 1443 ft.

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