Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Two Lightweight Backpacking Lantern Options

I purchased a couple of UCO Claris LED Lanterns for backpacking use recently.

I really like this flashlight.  It pumps out an exceptionally strong beam for a small lamp - 150 lumens, and the plastic casing slides out to become a frosted globe lantern.  The flashlight has three settings: bright, dim, and strobe.  Using the dimming switch allows you to control the level of light.

The flashlight is pretty light at 3.8 ounces, which is lighter than the 4 ounces/112 grams the packaging states.  The lamp includes a metal ring for hanging the lantern using a clip.

The flashlight takes 3 AAA batteries, which fit into a case that slides into the flashlight.  The packaging claims "up to 70 hours" run time, in the low setting.

The only issue I had with the flashlight was that one of the units came with a bad battery pack.  You put in batteries with the negative side on the spring and the positive on the contact, unless one battery compartment has no springs and another has two springs.  Finding the company online was difficult and they did not answer my email.  Finally, I tried calling the company and spoke directly to a person - no "Push 1 for Customer Service."  The woman I spoke with promised to send a replacement battery pack, which quickly arrived at my door.  If you need to call them, Industrial Revolution, Inc., which makes the flashlights, can be found at 888-297-6062.

I also received as gifts a couple of solar lanterns called "Luci Lux Inflatable Solar Lantern."  This is a plastic device that is inflated and gives off a nice amount of light.  It costs around $20 and weighs 3.4 ounces.  It is powered by a small set of solar panels.  Because it is inflated like a small beach ball, it floats on the water.
This provides a surprisingly good light source, though nowhere near the beam the UCO Claris Lantern provides.  I like that it doesn't require batteries.  It will, however require some careful recharging, or you might find yourself without light after a day on the trail.

While neither lamp is one the ultralightweight backpacker is willing to take, I would not hesitate to take either on my next backpacking trip.  The days of flashlights powered by two or three heavy "D Cell" batteries is long gone.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Shenandoah National Park - January 24, 2015

It was briefly sunny in Charlottesville this morning, and warmer than expected.  I took advantage of conditions to grab my loppers and work on the section of the Appalachian Trail I maintain, still motivated by running into another trail maintainer over in the Rich Hole Wilderness last weekend. Trouble was, the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park was closed.  So I drove out to Sugar Hollow and hiked up to the Appalachian Trail using the Moorman's River Road and Turk Gap Trail.

Conditions were constantly changing and often amazing.  I took the photos below.  Within 300 yards of my car was the first stream crossing - there was not another hiker or footprints for the entire 11 miles after that crossing.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Rich Hole Wilderness, West of Lexington

The Rich Hole Wilderness is a federally designated wilderness area just off of Interstate 64 west of Lexington, created by Congress in 1988.  It lies just east of the Rough Mountain Wilderness, which I have visited several times even though Rough Mountain is much less accessible than Rich Hole. I had not hiked Rich Hole in several years, and had to abandon my plans to hike the trail when I last visited due to high water levels (Link).  (Tip - don't hike this during high water periods!) A warm January day in 2015 seemed like a good time to return.

There is one trail in the Rich Hole Wilderness, and it has parking areas at either end.  The northern parking area is on old U.S. 60 right next to Interstate 64. I cannot think of any other wilderness areas in Virginia that are this close to an interstate exit. To get there, take Interstate 64 west past Lexington to Exit 43, the Goshen exit, then follow Route 850 (the old U.S. 60) to the northern trailhead. There is a pulloff on the right side of the road, a wilderness sign, and a large kiosk about 50 yards up the trail that is visible from the road.  
Interstate 64 as seen from a rock overlook in the Rich Hole Wilderness
Starting from the north, the steepest part of the trail is right at the beginning. The trail gains over 1000 feet in the first 1.2 miles. The highlight of the climb at the beginning is a large rock overlook about 0.6 miles into the hike. Hike a little further, round a couple of curves, and you reach the steepest section of the day, but it is short. For about 750 feet, the trail climbs at a 28% grade, which would translate to a 1500 feet elevation gain over a mile. Elevation gain over this section is just over 200 feet. I remember this section being brutal when I hiked it 15 years ago, but steepness seems to increase in my memory - it wasn't that bad, or that long, this time.

After this climb, the trail goes around the top of the mountain (it does not crest the mountain), and then drops 2100 feet over the next 5 miles to its low point at the southern parking area. The trail follows the North Branch, Simpson Creek between Brushy Mountain and Mill Mountain and crosses Simpson Creek so many times you sometimes think the creek IS the trail. The challenge is to get across all 16 stream crossings (plus two side streams) with dry feet.  I failed. And then, unless you have a car shuttle, you have the same challenge on the return trip. I failed again on the way back.
Straightaway trail through the wilderness.
Fortunately, it is a pretty walk, and the trail is in exceptional shape. There were a lot of new cuts to logs that had previously fallen across the trail, and this made the trail a delight to hike. I wondered who had taken the care and time to clean up this trail - it couldn't be a mountain bike group because (1) this is a wilderness area, and (2) as a collective group, they don't seem to maintain much mileage on trails. I hadn't heard about a trail group that maintains trails here, like the Southern Shenandoah Chapter of the PATC maintains Ramsey's Draft Wilderness trails, the Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club maintains many of the St. Mary's Wilderness Trails, and the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club maintains many of the trails in the James River Face Wilderness.
One of many stream crossings.
I was able to meet the trail maintainer and get my answer. Mark Miller was sawing at a blowdown when my dog and I descended the trail, and we stopped to talk to Mark. Coincidentally, Mark is the co-author of a book I had accessed in preparing for this hike - Wild Virginia: A Guide to Thirty Roadless Recreation Areas Including Shenandoah National Park. Mark is also the Field Director for the Virginia Wilderness Committee. Although I am not a member of this group, I have hiked with a couple of members of their board.

Talking with Mark confirmed why I rely on his book. The book is valuable because Mark has walked the areas he covers, he knows them well and it shows in the book. He told me how he loves Rich Hole, and how the Virginia Wilderness Committee is working to expand this wilderness (Map). He talked about trails he has uncovered through is explorations off of the one trail that bisects the wilderness, trails that he hopes can be mapped and maintained in the future so that Rich Hole Wilderness may someday have 14 miles of trails. Mark feels it is his duty to go out to the Rich Hole Wilderness on his off days to make sure that this wilderness has an accessible trail. He was out there when I hiked - with just his dog and several saws and loppers - the only guy responsible for about 5.6 miles of trail.  I felt like a slacker for only maintaining 2.5 miles of trail in Shenandoah, and doing it with a co-maintainer!

This is not an easy trail to maintain, in part because Rich Hole Wilderness experienced a large forest fire back in April, 2012. This fire closed the Rich Hole Trail for a while, and even caused a temporary closure of Interstate 64 because of smoke.  (Trail Closure Map.) Even nearly 3 years later there is much evidence of that fire, as shown in the charring of the Yellow Poplar in the photo below.

Charring on tree trunk from April 2012 fire, taken January, 2015.
Normally, after a wilderness hike, I might think that I was inspired by the peace and serenity that getting away from other humans might provide. In this case, I was inspired by my interaction with the only other person I met that day. Mark Miller is an inspiring guy to come across on  hike!

There are currently 24 different wilderness areas in Virginia. Rich Hole is the 8th largest, but it would move up to the third largest with the addition. Mark showed me that there is still a lot to explore in this area.  I won't take so long to return for another visit.

PATC Difficulty Factor: 359.1 (both ways)
Total Distance: 12.3 miles 
Total Time: 5 hours, 44 minutes (including stops)  Moving time: 4:53

Low Point: 1423 ft.
Highest Point: 3412 ft.
Elevation Difference: 1989 ft.

Like what you see?  Check out my other blog postings!  LINK.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Buena Vista's Reservoir Hollow Trail

The Reservoir Hollow Trail is in the George Washington National Forest near Buena Vista, Virginia. On a sunny January Saturday, my friend Larry and I found ourselves down in Buena Vista (pronounced like "view" with a "B" - "Beu-na Vista")  helping the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's GPS Rangers surveying crew obtain precise GPS measurements of trails in the George Washington National Forest.

Older trail maps and hiking guides list several trails in the Pedlar District of the GWNF ascending from two different streets in the city of Buena Vista, and ending at either the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), the top of Elephant Mountain, or U.S. 60 about 2/3 of the way towards the BRP. These trails consist of the Reservoir Hollow Trail, the Elephant Mountain Trail, and the Indian Gap Trail, and are collectively known as the Elephant Mountain Trail System.

South of St. Mary's Wilderness, these trails and the Whetstone Ridge Trail are the only choices in the GWNF Pedlar District west of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I had tried hiking the Indian Gap Trail last July. Here are examples of what I encountered.
Most of the trail was laid out in an open area due to a power line cut.
This shot shows hanging cables and totally overgrown vegetation in July.
In the trees, an easily followed trail.  Too little of the trail was like this.
I had enough patience for about a mile of this overgrowth before turning around, because most of the trail seemed to be under a power line cut that allowed plant growth to be uncontested.

I later inquired with the Forest Service about the Elephant Mountain Trail System, and received the following reply: "As for the trails listed below – I can confirm that the Elephant Mountain System is not active."  

So these trails were not on our list to explore. Until, that is, we drove up U.S. 60 towards the BRP and came across a big brown hiker sign, at a point where the maps indicate the Indian Gap Trail ends (N37° 43.722' W79° 18.859'):

Hiker sign on U.S. 60.
 We pulled off - there is room for 4 or 5 cars on the side of the road.

Parking on U.S. 60
 And we hiked in a few hundred yards, just to check things out, before coming across this sign.

Mileage sign, near U.S. 60.  Here is what the sign used to look like: LINK.
 There are a couple of things to notice about this sign.  First, this sign did not strike me as one you would see on a trail that is "not active." And second, the maps indicated that the Indian Gap Trail ends here, and not the Reservoir Hollow Trail. We later found out from the Forest Service that the Reservoir Hollow Trail is still active, but none of the rest of the "system" remains in use.

Since my attempt to get here by trail last summer started at 21st Street and not, as stated on the sign, at 12th Street, we dropped a car here and drove back down to Buena Vista to find 12th Street and the other end of this trail.

We returned west on U.S. 60 until we came to U.S. 501, and we headed south on 501 looking for 12 Street.  Complicating our journey was the fact that 12th Street has a gap in it, so the trailhead is actually accessed using 13th Street. But we eventually found our way to the trailhead, which was marked by another new mileage sign:

Parking seemed a little sketchy on this end, as we passed numerous "No Parking" signs (we interpreted those to mean "No Parking right here.") And we passed another sign that said "Public Right of Way... Foot Travel Only." But the best parking spot was off the road just beyond that sign so we parked there, just before the city police shooting range.
Gates and signs greeted us, though we parked back behind all this.
We saw no shooters at the range.
The trail itself was easy to follow and had been maintained. There were 6 stream crossings before we started to gain elevation, and at the 0.7 mile mark we went by a large concrete container that looked like an old pool, but we believe it is really the old city reservoir. Once we started to climb, it was at a relatively easy 13% grade, which translates to about 700 feet per mile.
Larry waypoints one of several stream crossings in his Garmin GPSmap 62S.
View from the trail.  We started back in the gap in the mountains.
 The trail was easy to follow at all times, and after two miles we came to the following sign:
 Below is another perspective of that sign, showing the trail going by the sign, and rocks indicating that you should stay on the trail. I figured that this was the beginning of the old Elephant Mountain Trail, but we did not have time to explore that trail at the time. Was that also active? We didn't know, but at the start of the day we didn't think any of these trails were active.
Trail sign on the Reservoir Hollow Trail, as seen from off the trail.
About 0.2 miles after the trail intersection, we inadvertently got off trail.  The light cyan line represents the way we should have gone. The dark cyan shows the route we took. We didn't realize we were off our intended route until we came upon the Blue Ridge Parkway at a point near Indian Gap that is invisible from the road - the maps indicated that the trail didn't meet the BRP.  So we bushwacked downhill until we came to the intended trail. We figured that the trail would be evident when we crossed it, as most of the time our trail was easy to follow. We did find the trail again, after a bushwack shown on the map below.

I went back the next day and started the hike from U.S. 60, intent on figuring out where we messed up. The spot where we lost the trail is shown below, and it is important to note if you plan to take this trail from the City of Buena Vista to U.S. 60 like we did. This part is not at all obvious. You need to know that it is two tenths of a mile after the dual trail signs, and there is a small pile of rocks (a "cairn") at this point. The trail really looks like it should go to the right here, and the trail to the left is not obvious at all.

When I returned on Sunday, I also took the Elephant Mountain Trail, which is supposed to end at the summit of Elephant Mountain. This trail is no longer maintained, but it was generally easy to follow right up to Elephant Mountain. About a hundred feet or so below the summit, however, the trail seems to peter out with a steep climb required to get to the top. I was hiking alone, so I decided not to risk the final summit, though I was surprised to later find out that there is a geocache at the top. (Link) Then again, it hasn't been found since 2013, so it may not be there anymore.

Elephant Mtn Trail shown leaving the Reservoir Hollow Trail.
Elephant Mountain, as seen through the trees on the trail.
An old trail marker on the Elephant Mtn Trail.
The Elephant Mtn Trail becomes very steep and hard to follow.
I'd like to go back and summit Elephant Mountain sometime, but would wait to do it until I could bring another strong hiker. Heading out the Elephant Mountain Trail to the point where it fades adds another two miles and another hour to the hike, along with an extra 1000 feet elevation gain, total.

Because the trail is relatively short, it is easily done as an out-and-back, particularly if you stay on the established Reservoir Hollow Trail and not the inactive Elephant Mountain Trail. An out-and-back on the Reservoir Hollow Trail is around 8 miles total. And the U.S. 60 trailhead is only 7 miles west of the turnoff on 60 for the Cold Mountain/Pleasant Mountain Trails - less than 10 minutes in the car.
A power line cut provides a little bit of a view as we approach U.S. 60.
A side note.  If in Buena Vista, this non-red meat eater says absolutely do not leave town without experiencing JJ's Meat Shak. They serve wood fired pizza and the best roast turkey sandwich I've ever tasted (get it with provolone and roasted onions). This restaurant was just a trailer and some picnic tables a couple of years ago, and has grown dramatically since then, though the place still has a great semi-finished feel to it. I enjoyed the sandwiches so much that I returned bought three more on the way out of town the next day to take home to the family.

Hike details, from my GPS:

USGS Topographic Map of trails: MAP.

Just the Reservoir Hollow Trail
PATC Difficulty Factor: 119.9 (one way)
Total Distance: 3.7 miles 
Total Time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

Low Point: 908 ft.
Highest Point: 1960 ft.
Elevation Difference: 1052 ft.

Both the Reservoir Hollow Trail and Out-and-Back on the Elephant Mtn Trail
PATC Difficulty Factor: 183.6
Total Distance: 5.7 miles 
Total Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Low Point: 908 ft.
Highest Point: 1960 ft.
Elevation Difference: 1052 ft.

Like what you see?  Check out my other blog postings!  LINK.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Hiking Shenandoah in Winter - One Southern Option

One of the problems with hiking Shenandoah National Park in the Winter is seemingly random closures of the Skyline Drive. On December 28th I drove up to work on maintaining my section of the A.T. only to find the Drive closed - I should have called first, but there was no reason in Charlottesville to believe there would be issues in Shenandoah. Sometimes, this closure means that you can substitute a really peaceful walk on the Skyline Drive for your planned hike. This can be great when there is snow on the ground; not so much when the Drive is closed for patches of ice.
Boy Scouts backpacking on the Skyline Drive, February 2013.
Over the years, I have entered the park from roads along its eastern and western boundary during winter when the Drive is closed.  There are at least 10 different access points to the park from roads outside of park boundaries in the Central and Southern Districts of the Park. I am leery of trying new access points without finding out about them first in a guidebook or other resource, as some nearby landowners are touchy about hiker cars parking on the side of the road.

One option I recently encountered is Browns Gap Road in the Southern District of SNP.  It gives access to the Loft Mountain Area, the Doyles River Cabin, and the Doyles River/Jones Falls loop. It is really only viable for Charlottesville and Richmond hikers, as hikers in the Valley and further north have other options that are more convenient to them.

When driving north of the little crossroads called White Hall towards Albemarle County's Patricia Byrom Preserve and its great lung-burning hikes, I had noticed parking signs on the side of the road just as it crossed Doyles River. It would take a new hike to check this out, and I could check off a section of fire road never before hiked in the Park.  Parking is at the intersection of Rt. 810 and Rt. 629, where 810 takes a 90 degree turn, about 6.5 miles north of Whitehall.  It is easily identifiable by the green and white signs near the road.
Hiker Parking sign is prominently visible from Rt. 810 NB before crossing Doyles River.
The hike itself parallels Doyle's River, heading past horse and cattle pastures, until it doglegs right over the river at the point where it meets Headquarters Lane.  Continuing straight, you would come to the end of the road in .15 mile.  Take the right and follow Browns Gap Turnpike.  There must be some confusion for some hikers, as a prominent sign at the Doyles River crossing warns visitors that this is not Sugar Hollow, the popular access point due west of White Hall that includes the swimming spot known locally as "Blue Hole."

The land in the area around where I parked was originally owned by Benjamin Brown.  A book, "The Undying past of Shenandoah National Park," reports that Benjamin Brown paid taxes in 1782 on 12 slaves, 5 horses, and 28 "neat cattle." One of Brown's sons, Brightberry Brown, owned the property called "Headquarters" that I walked by.  According to one source (link), Brightberry operated a toll house and a furniture factory in the area around Doyles River.  That source also says that Brightberry built the turnpike with William Jarman.

The Browns at one time owned all the land from the top of the Blue Ridge down to White Hall, and grew tobacco at higher elevations.  Historians seem to have some disagreement about the original house in the area.  It is either the house just before the bridge over Doyle's River or second house you pass on the old turnpike - the one now called "Brightberry."
Before the road takes an elbow right over Doyles River, "Headquarters" lies ahead.
The estate known as "Brightberry" lies behind tall boxwoods where the road takes
a dogleg left.
The Browns Gap Turnpike was the first turnpike in Albemarle County.  It was started in 1790, and completed in 1805-06.  It followed and improved upon a well-worn path, and was used until the National Park was constructed.  Stonewall Jackson marched his entire army through Browns Gap in 1862, during his famous Valley Campaign.  Headquarters was used as a wartime hospital, and several soldiers who died there are buried behind the house in the family cemetery.

The turnpike passes into the woods shortly after leaving Brightberry behind, and there are numerous "No Trespassing" signs pointed in every direction on trees along the road.  I believe these signs refer to the land on either side, and not the road itself.  After all, there is a designated parking area for hikers, and there is no gate across the road.  Later up the hill, the road forks, and the side fork is blocked by a gate with the same type of sign.  After that, no more "No Trespassing" signs.
The turnpike has silver blazes - some looking like they meet A.T. standards,
others, like this one, notsomuch.  Bill Fawcett tells me this is a "No Trespassing" sign
under Virginia Statutes.
The Turnpike seems like just a wide trail in spots.
Note the No Trespassing Sign, referring to land adjoining the road.
After passing into the woods, the road begins a steady climb at an 8% grade, which translates to a little under 500 feet in elevation gain for every mile.  The road climbs at 8% for the next 2.75 miles, ascending 1141 feet total.  The road passes into Shenandoah National Park a little after the 2 mile mark, and the mileage post says that it is another 2 miles to the Doyles River Trail.  But when you reach Doyles River Trail, it is only 1.5 miles back to the park boundary.  What happened to the other half mile?  My GPS split the difference, measuring 1.7 miles between the posts.

At the park boundary, the mileage strip says it is 2.0 miles to Doyle [sic] River Trail.
At Doyles River Trail, it is 1.5 miles back to the park boundary.
The surface of the road seemed to change immediately upon entering the park.  It was much less rocky, and more of a soft surface inside the park.  There were multiple pretty wintertime views along the way to Doyles River Trail, where I turned around.  And the roar of Doyles River Falls was heard from the road - unmistakable.
The road inside the park appears to have been used very little in recent years.
A winter view east from inside the park.
In all, it was a nice combination of things - solitude, history, views.  I would definitely return for another hike sometime when the Skyline Drive is closed.

Hike details.
PATC Difficulty Factor: 171.2
Total Distance: 8.2 miles 
Total Time: 2 hours, 43 minutes.
Steepest Uphill: consistent 7.8% average grade.  No real deviations.

Starting Elevation: 999 ft.
Low Point: 918 ft.
Highest Point: 2273 ft.
Difference: 1355 ft.