Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sinclair Hollow Trail, GWNF

The Sinclair Hollow Trail is located in the North River Ranger District of the George Washington National Forest, near the Virginia/West Virginia line. This is not a trail that is easy to reach. The trail climbs the western ridge of Shenandoah Mountain and accesses parts of the George Washington National Forest on the western edge of Ramsey's Draft Wilderness Area. I have tramped past the eastern end of this trail a couple of times, on the crest of Shenandoah Mountain at the boundary for Ramsey's Draft Wilderness. This point is a long round trip from any trailhead, which reflects the wonderful remoteness of this region.

The highest point of the Sinclair Hollow Trail meets the Shenandoah Mountain Trail at a point that is (each way):
  • 4.3 trail miles from FS 95 to the north via the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.
  • 4.8 miles from Camp Todd and FS 95 to the east via the Wild Oak Trail, the Hiner Springs Trail, the Ramsey's Draft Trail, and the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.
  • 7.0 miles from the Confederate Breastworks on U.S. 250 to the south via the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.
And, this is the easiest part of the Sinclair Hollow Trail to access!
Lynn checks out apparent bear hair in the lower right portion of the chewed up hiker sign.
Sinclair Hollow is one of the few trails that I can honestly state has a roadside trailhead that is even more remote than the other end of the trail, just inside the wilderness boundaries! I have earlier stated my belief that the Rough Mountain Wilderness's Crane Trail's trailhead is the most remote trailhead in the George Washington National Forest. The Sinclair Hollow Trailhead is more difficult to reach.
Can you see the hair hanging down from the sign at the 5:00 position?
From Charlottesville, I drove west for an hour and 7 minutes to meet up with a trail crew from the Southern Shenandoah Valley Chapter of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. We met at a parking area next to the Girl Scouts Camp May Flather near Stokesville, where you can keep your car if hiking the 26 mile Wild Oak Trail. After we all met up, we piled into a high clearance, 4x4 Chevy pickup truck and together traveled over Forest Service road FS 95 to FS 64 for the final 21 miles. This portion of the trip took us another hour-and-a-half. (Directly from Charlottesville, it would be quicker to continue past Churchville on U.S. 250 to Braley Pond Road and take that north to FS 95. Take a left on FS 95 to access FS 64.)

Although FS 95 was in great shape, the FS 64 portion involved some rough driving and a stream ford. I would not attempt this drive without a high clearance 4x4, and was glad that others could shuttle me to the trailhead! I would not even do it with my Subaru Outback unless this part of Virginia had been experiencing an extended dry period. FS 64 is gated near where we parked our vehicle, though the gate did not have a lock, so we continued past that point.

And, although some guidebooks state that FS 64 links to the south with US 250 in the town of Head Waters, I do not believe this is true. So there are no shortcuts to this remote trailhead.
Crossing Shaws Fork of the Cowpasture River near the beginning of our hike.

Sinclair Hollow Trail starts out on level ground at about 2600 feet elevation, crossing Shaws Fork of the Cowpasture River soon after passing the sign for the trail on FR 64. Shaws Fork and its feeder stream in Sinclair Hollow are the northernmost streams in the James River system. The stream just to the north (Brushy Fork) flows north into West Virginia before becoming part of the South Fork, Potomac River and reaching the Chesapeake via Washington DC instead of Richmond.

The trail climbs Shenandoah Mountain's west side, going 1.6 miles up Sinclair Hollow. The trail is fairly steep for half of the length as it ascends the mountain, so be prepared to work hard.
Panorama from the Sinclair Hollow Trail, taken about half way up the mountain.
Elevation change ranges from 2600 ft. to 3600 ft. The slope ranges from 5% to 25+%, but averages at about 15% for most of the mile when it is climbing the main slope of Shenandoah Mountain. There are a couple of areas where the trail makes a small detour because of downed trees. Other than at these spots, the trail is relatively well marked. The occasional plastic diamonds are usually found in areas where the trail is obvious. Returning back down the trail, it is a little tough to follow for the first 50 feet after leaving the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, but is evident once you start dropping off of the crest.
Yellow plastic diamond signals the trail as it descends Shenandoah Mountain.
Water is available from the creek in the hollow. There is also a small pond near the lower end of the trail, which appears to provide a nice, remote spot to camp.
Sign where the Sinclair Hollow Trail ends at the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.
You can see a Wilderness Boundary sign above the trail sign, though most of that sign is gone.
Having lunch at a large campsite on the Shenandoah Mountain Trail
next to the Sinclair Hollow Trail's terminus.
The group called Friends of Shenandoah Mountain has been working with multiple stakeholders for the past several years to construct a long term protection plan for this part of the National Forest.(Disclaimer: several members of my trail work group this day are organizers of the Friends of Shenandoah Mountain. I am fortunate to know these folks, who really love this part of the George Washington National Forest.) The Friends group has proposed designating as Federal Wilderness the land to the south of the Sinclair Hollow Trail and west of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, to be called the Lynn Hollow Wilderness. There are no trails in this proposed wilderness are that currently exist. (Map)

The Sinclair Hollow Trail itself would be part of the proposed Shenandoah National Scenic Area (NSA). NSAs have fewer use restrictions than Federal Wilderness Areas, so mountain bikes and hunters' game carts would be permitted on this trail. (An example of a local NSA is the summit of Cole Mountain, on the Appalachian Trail near Amherst and Buena Vista.) As a result of accommodations to various groups with sometimes disparate interests in the use of the National Forest, the Friends proposal has received endorsements from a large number of organizations (List). I recommend that you check out their website and review their proposals, and I strongly support their work.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Dozen Most Interesting Things to See on the Virginia Appalachian Trail

About a week ago, I recounted my 12 favorite overlooks I saw during my hikes on the 550 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia (Link).  It was really hard to whittle the list down to a dozen, and I received some thought provoking responses from readers about spots I should have considered more thoroughly - both on the blog and on the wanderingvirginia Facebook site.  This blog's two commentors both asserted that I should have included a spot near Roanoke known as Dragon's Tooth among my list of best overlooks in the state.

Dragon's Tooth is one of my favorite spots on the A.T. in Virginia, and I have hiked to it a couple of times over the past 20+ years.  In fact, it was the first spot I visited on the A.T. south of where it crosses the James River.  The thing is, I would not put it in a list of the best overlooks in the state, as I don't remember a view that doesn't include the big honking rock that makes this such a great place to visit!  Maybe I missed the view, but I do remember another view a trail mile north called Rawie's Rest - a great view, that I didn't include on the list.

But this got me thinking of the need to come up with another list, one that accounts for my fondness of Dragon's Tooth. Below are my dozen favorite spots on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia - favorites for reasons other than being a great overlook.  Like the previous listing, they are in order from South to North.

1. Damascus.
I know.  You are hiking the A.T. to get into the woods and connect with nature.  So am I.  But Damascus is such a hiking town that it has to make any list of A.T. highlights in Virginia.  It is well known as the "friendliest" town on the trail. There are several hiker hostels to stay - allowing the hiker to connect with others who share this passion.  There is a pretty great outdoors outfitter right on the trail, and a great burrito place right around the corner.  I had a blast walking through town - on the trail - and hanging out here over my last weekend hiking the Virginia portion of the trail.  I hope to someday return for its annual "Trail Days" celebration (Link) - the 30th annual edition is in 2016.
You can get to almost anywhere from Damascus.

This is one of several hiker hostels in Damascus.

The old Deep Gap Shelter, just south on the A.T. from Mt. Rogers, has been moved to a park in Damascus.

2. Mt. Rogers Highlands Horses
The wild ponies in the Mt. Rogers area are justifiably famous among those hiking the A.T.  When I try to convince my scouts to take a nearly 4 hour drive to this part of the state to hike the A.T., I don't talk about the views or the fact that the area has the highest elevation hiking in the state.  It is the possibilility of getting close to  wild ponies that has the boys' interest.
Boy Scout backpackers encounter horses on the A.T.

3. Settler's Museum of Southwest Virginia
Shortly after leaving the Mt. Rogers Highlands, and before the A.T. crosses Interstate 81 for the first time near Mountain Empire Airport, the trail cuts directly through a museum.  The museum was founded in 1987 and includes a functioning farm circa 1890, There is also an 1894 schoolhouse, which appears to be always open, and when I hiked through there had a big stash of "trail magic" supplied by a local church.  The Spring day I hiked through here was warming up nicely when I arrived with a couple of friends on a multi-day backpack
Hanging out in front of the school,

Inside photo of the school.

4. Burkes Garden
Burkes Garden is a 5 mile by 9 mile valley surrounded on all sides by mountains.  The A.T. crosses the ridge of the southernmost of these mountains - Burke's Mountain.  Although there are not a lot of views into the valley, there are several interesting places to stop along the ridge.  James Burke found the area in 1748, and, according to legend, buried potato peelings only to find them sprouted upon his return the following year.  Hence, "Burke's Garden."  It is said that Cornelius Vanderbuilt wanted to buy the land to build his famous Biltmore Mansion, but none of the locals would sell to him.
Enjoying the view into Burke's Garden

5. Audie Murphy Monument
Audie Murphy, decorated WWII fighter pilot and actor, was a passenger in a plane that crashed into Brush Mountain in 1971.  At the top of the mountain, just outside of Brush Mountain East Wilderness, is a memorial in Murphy's honor.  The memorial, erected by the VFW, attracts offerings from its visitors.  Be sure to bring a small rock to add to the pile.

6. Dragon's Tooth
The Appalachian Trail Guide for Central Virginia calls Dragon's Tooth a "Silurian sandstone monolith" on top of Cove Mountain.  The tallest spire is about 35 feet tall.  Access from the closest parking area is a tough climb, featuring iron steps drilled in the rock, but it is a great spot to visit.

7. McAfee Knob
Though McAfee Knob was on the list of best overlooks in the state, it is also one of the most interesting places to visit because of the number of visitors, each of whom wants to take the ultimate hiker photo.  It is said to be the single most photographed spot on the entire A.T.
A rare moment when nobody is out on the rock posing.

8. Apple Orchard Mountain
Hike over Apple Orchard Mountain and you will not hike higher on the A.T. heading northbound until you reach New Hampshire, more than 1000 trail miles away.  The mountain is the site of a former Strategic Air Command center, which took the A.T. off of the summit between the 1950's and the 1990's.  There was once an installation of 30 different buildings housing over 200 men up here. Now you are luck to see one or two people up here.  Many of the buildings are gone, but radar antennae looking like giant golf balls remain.

9. The Guillotine
Just north of Apple Orchard Mountain, the A.T. weaves its way to this landmark.  Do you think you can walk under this rock without being at least a little nervous?  I think you cannot, at least if you are honest with yourself!

10. James River Foot Bridge
The A.T.'s route over the James River uses foundations from a former railway bridge, and was completed in 2000 after many years of negotiation. The bridge replaced a dicey highway bridge crossing that dated back to the Trail's origin. The Foot Bridge is a very popular spot, with great views south into James River Face Wilderness and north towards Fullers Rocks. It is the longest pedestrian only bridge on the entire A.T.
Scouts cross the James River Foot Bridge

11. Spy Rock
A supposed lookout point for the Confederates during the Civil War, Spy Rock is a great place to take kids between 7 and 12 - a short, tough hike from the trailhead and then a relatively easy and fun rock scramble to the top.  I have been taking kids up here for over 20 years, combining it with a visit to the Montebello Fish Hatchery.  There is a nice flat (though dry) campsite between the A.T. and Spy Rock.
Enjoying the view from the top of Spy Rock.

12. National Zoo.
Yeah, I skipped right past Shenandoah National Park.  Though it is a great introduction to the A.T. in Virginia, and there are multiple options along the way to hit the waysides and suck down blackberry milkshakes (if sugar is your thing), I personally find the A.T. to be "too civilized" throughout Shenandoah, as it never strays too far from the Skyline Drive.  Just north of where the A.T. exits the north end of the National Park, it travels along a fence that separates the Trail from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute where exotic animals and highly endangered species are kept and bred.  If you are lucky, you might spy some wild animal looking back at you from the other side of the fence!  I wasn’t so lucky, but the anticipation that there might be something out there makes this my final “most interesting place” along the Virginia A.T.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Virginia Appalachian Trail's Dozen Best Overlooks

The Appalachian Trail's 550 miles in Virginia have countless overlooks providing memorable views. I often came to a new overlook and thought about whether it made my "Top 12" list, but held off on completing the actual list until I finished the entire trail.  This may have resulted in a disservice to the more northern miles of the A.T. in Virginia, as I finished those earlier in my quest.  Nevertheless, I have collected my 12 favorite views from along the A.T.  Each view has to be within 100 yards of the trail - so Bearfence Rocks in Shenandoah National Park doesn't make the list, as the A.T. cuts just west of these views.  The views below are listed South to North - not in order of their "greatness." Listing each by its greatness would present a whole 'nuther level of hardness!

1. Buzzard Rock (Location Link)
Buzzard Rock is the southernmost viewpoint and was the biggest surprise of the twelve.  I hadn't read anything about this vista and was blown away by the beauty I experienced at this spot.  In addition, it is just south of, and downslope from the summit of Whitetop Mountain, the second tallest mountain in Virginia.  Mt. Rogers, the highest peak, has no views, so I certainly didn't expect a spectacular vista below the summit of this mountain.  I hiked here with my Boy Scout Troop as part of a multi-day backpack on the A.T., and the boys could have stayed here for hours soaking up the views.

Boy Scouts enjoy view west from Buzzard Rock in 2015, including my son wearing the bandanna headband.

2. Rhododendron Gap, Mt. Rogers Highlands (Location Link)
About 7 miles north on the A.T. from Buzzard Rock (and less than a mile north of the Mt. Rogers Access Trail) is Rhododendron Gap in the Mt. Rogers Highlands.  Where the A.T. intersects with the Pine Mountain Trail and the Crest Trail there is a large rock that I thought required a tough climb the first couple of times I passed it.  It turns out that there is an easy access from the trail around the back.  The view from the top looks northeast towards Grayson Highlands State Park.  I loved the sunrise from this spot!

The rock in the back of this photo provides a spectacular view.

Sunrise at Rhododendron Gap, August 2015

3. Burkes Garden from Chestnut Knob Shelter (Location Link)
The Chestnut Knob Shelter is my favorite A.T. Shelter in Virginia.  A friend and I stayed inside this cabin on a cold and windy October night in 2014 and were very grateful that it had four walls.  The shelter is at a high point 4400 feet above sea level.  One direction gives views into Beartown Wilderness.  The other direction gives views into Burke's Garden.  Viewing sunrise in Burkes Garden is an experience I will never forget.
Burke's Garden from the A.T. at the Chestnut Knob Shelter, October 2014
4. Unnamed Viewpoint between Wapiti Shelter and Woods Hole Hostel, Sugar Run Mountain
(Location Link)
The trail north from Dismal Falls is truly a "green tunnel" where you feel disconnected from the rest of the world.  There are no views for hours until you come to this viewpoint northward, with views of Pearis Mountain and the New River Valley towards Pearisburg.  It was wonderful to see out from the trees - a view this spectacular was a bonus! You can trace the path of the A.T. over the next 6 hours of hiking from this spot.  A couple hours north of here is Angel's Rest Overlook - it is probably better, but I have no photos of that or real recollection of its beauty.

View north to the New River, July 2014

5.  Rice Fields Overlook, Peters Mountain (Location Link)
Just north of the New River, a recent re-route completely changed the location of about 4 miles of trail climbing Peters Mountain.  I hiked both routes in 2014, and they came back together at the Rice Fields Shelter.  Near the shelter is an overlook into West Virginia that allows the hiker to experience sublime sunsets.  I'd love to go back again.  
Rice Fields, April, 2014

Boy Scouts enjoy the view from Rice Fields
6. McAfee Knob (Location Link)
McAfee Knob is well known because it is the ultimate selfie spot anywhere on the Appalachian Trail. It also has a killer view of the ridge that the A.T. traverses to the north, along with the valley to the west.  I had heard about this spot for years before I finally experienced it, and it lived up to all the hype and then some.  I had what I call a "Grand Canyon Moment" here, thinking that no photo in the world can do justice to the magnificence of the view from this spot.
Doing the Hiker Photo Thing at McAfee Knob, February 2013
7. Tinker Cliffs (Location Link)
The Tinker Cliffs overlook is a couple hours hike north of McAfee Knob.  Because Tinker Cliffs looks right down the valley, I felt that the view is better, on the day when I did both.  Note that you can see McAfee Knob in this photo - it is on the high point to the left in the photo.
Tinker Cliffs, February 2013
8. Fullers Rocks (Location Link)
Fullers Rocks are on the A.T. just north of where it crosses the James River.  It is a tough hike getting up here, with over 2000 feet of elevation gained.  It is definitely worth the views, despite the climb!  
The James River cuts through the Blue Ridge as seen from Fullers Rocks, with the James River Face Wilderness
on the right side behind the river

Panorama from Fullers Rocks, July 2013

 8. Cole Mountain Summit, Pleasant Mountain Scenic Area (Location Link)
Cole Mountain is the ultimate place to sing "The Hills Are Alive" along the A.T. in Virginia.  The Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club maintains the summit as a bald, and one can see mountains from Trayfoot in Shenandoah National Park to McAfee Knob south of Roanoke.  Every time I return there, I always am amazed by the view and wonder why I don't return there more often.

9. 2/3 Up The Priest From the Tye River (Location Link)
The Priest is a big climb from the north - ascending from about 1000 feet at the Tye River to over 4000 feet at the summit.  There is a view at the summit, but I always prefer the rock about 2/3 of the way up the mountain with its northeastern views.  Especially in the winter, this is a nice warm spot to sit and enjoy a snack and a great view, knowing that most of the climb is behind you.

Looking north towards Three Ridges from The Priest
Looking East from The Priest

10. Hanging Rock, Three Ridges Wilderness (Location Link)
This part of the A.T. has plenty of great overlooks, starting at Spy Rock to the south to additional views in the Three Ridges Wilderness.  I have always liked the view from Hanging Rock the best among the Three Ridges views because it looks straight down the valley.  Hanging Rock is the northernmost viewpoint along Three Ridges and about 2 miles south of the Maupin Field shelter.

Hanging Rock, Three Ridges Wilderness
My son and a friend looking down to the Tye River from Hanging Rock in 2013.
11. Blackrock Summit, Shenandoah National Park (Location Link)
Blackrock Summit may be the easiest to reach of any of the listed overlooks.  As a result, there are lots of little kids climbing the rocks on this summit.  It is a great place for new hikers to check out.

View from the trail as it crosses Blackrock Summit.  Trayfoot Mountain is on the right.

12. Mary's Rock, Shenandoah National Park (Location Link)
This may be the most popular spot in Shenandoah National Park - it is close to DC, a relatively quick hike to the top, and you don't even need to pay to enter the park.  Oh, and the view is spectacular.

My son lunching in 2010 at Mary's Rockx, Shenandoah National Park, wearing his Hiking Upward tee shirt.
You can see the SNP Entrance Station below.
Is your list different?  Let me know what you would change.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Random Signs on the A.T. in Virginia

A couple of months ago I completed the entire Appalachian Trail in Virginia.  Yay!  Along the way, I took photos of signs on the trail.  I enjoy looking at them again, and remembering the days when I was exploring new sections of trail.  Looking at these signs also reminds me of the trails I have yet to explore - and every unhiked trail holds the promise of adventure!  Here are a few of the signs I saw, in random order.