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Spotsylvania Courthouse Battlefield

Hike Summary

Wintry still, and another trip to a battlefield. The previous week was a total loss all round: although I’d gone for a drive, I ended up not taking many pictures and was just generally feeling like crap that week, so that explains the lack of posting.  The winter blues I suppose.

So, the Spotsylvania Courthouse Battlefield is one of 4 battlefields that make up the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. It covers a huge part of two counties and a city, and I had a hard time at first getting my bearings with the whole thing. It was a little difficult to figure out where to get started, because unlike many of my other hikes, there was no preplanned route for me to follow from the wonderful people at Hiking Upward.

It took a bit of research on finding which park actually had a decent length loop hike, and Spotsylvania was the place. I did want to stop by the visitor center first though, so that is where I directed my GPS to go. The visitor center is in old town Fredericksburg, a place that I really need to spend some more time just exploring. My previous experiences have been limited to the movie theater that is located off of the interstate that we’ve been to a few times, but if the avalanche of tourism info I received from them is anything to go on, there’s a whole lot more stuff to do than meets the eye.

So, the visitor center was a bit gutted to say the least. All of the displays were currently removed and so there really wasn’t anything to see there. However, I got some helpful additional brochures, including interpretive directions for the Bloody Angle Trail, which was part of my hike. I also decided to stop in the gift shop, because I’m a sucker for gift shops and always like to buy things if they’re any good.

Again, no good stickers for my laptop. I continue to be disappointed in this regard. However, I did run across something that I was almost forced to get, and my inner 10-year-old is very happy:

A National Parks Passport. This is possibly a silly thing to have, but it’s also neat. It’s a little spiral bound book where you can get cancellation stamps of all the parks you’ve visited. Pretty much every National park has a cancellation stamp somewhere, and my inner completionist now has me wanting to revisit all the parks I’ve been to.  There are a lot of National Parks I’ve been to in this area, even if not all of them have hikeable places, but I am more than happy to go back again.

While I was there also I hiked around the very short Sunken Road walking tour, which was interesting, with a lot of ruins and foundations, as well as a hawk that I attempted to get a clearer picture of.

Legs stretched, we made our way to the Spotsylvania Battlefield, which was about a 20 minute drive from the visitor center.

There’s a little shelter, kind of like a highway rest stop, with some bathrooms and little informational overviews of the battlefield. There are some extra pamphlets and a donation box: this is one of the few National Parks I’ve been to that doesn’t require a fee to enter: the rangers told me that things are so spread out that it’s virtually impossible to enforce. That doesn’t seem to stop Shenandoah, who has fee forms at far-flung locations, but then again Shenandoah is probably considered to be one of the crown jewels of the parks system, plus they get all the Skyline fees.

The first part (and several parts, to be honest) are along the shoulder of the road that winds its way through the park. At first it was pretty mundane, with a lot of woods and road, not exactly the most compelling sort of hike. The weather had warmed up nicely over the last day, melting most of the snow, leaving only little rotten bits behind.

The trail finally veers off the road at Upton’s trail and starts to wind through the trees, and then breaks out of the trees into a field. There’s a monument here for Upton’s Charge, where he took 5000 men on an attack of the Confederate earthworks.

There are earthworks everywhere here at this battlefield, both sides put them up. Most of them are not much more than gentle ridges in the ground now, but they can still be seen fairly clearly from the air. There’s a rebuilt section of it later on in the hike (also accessible by the car tour)  where you can see what they looked like at the time of the war.

Like the other battlegrounds I’ve been to, this place is both steeped in history while at the same time somewhat banal. Sometimes it’s easier than other times at getting a grasp on the history, of being able to see exactly what went on here. It’s hard to see it sometimes when I’m hiking along and a helicopter from Quantico is buzzing overhead, or the traffic is making that sibilant shushing noise as it goes past. I’m thinking one of these days, possibly this year since it’s the anniversary, I’ll come and see a reenactment.

The Bloody Angle section was quite interesting, even though I did it backwards. There’s a special separate interpretive pamphlet for it, and there are signposts describing what went on that day. The Bloody Angle is similar to Bloody Lane in Antietam – a place of great slaughter. It’s named for the funny angle that the earthworks took in this section, where Major General Wright’s troops assaulted for almost 24 hours straight.

There are many ruined farmhouses along the way as well, since the poor farmers were basically caught in the crossfire, and had their houses burned down and destroyed by the troops to prevent sharpshooters from taking up places to snipe from. One of the ruins is a relatively new find, only rediscovered in the past couple of years.

I think my favorite part was the last bit, the Laurel Hill Loop. This is where the battle started. This was mainly open, rolling fields with a couple of markers. I liked the sense of openness at this section, with the blue sky overhead and a single large tree in the field.

Back at the car, I decided to stop at the Wilderness battlefield. I drove around that battlefield, but didn’t really get out of the car to look at much, it’s something I’ll definitely need to revisit, along with the Chancellorsville Battlefield site.

Since it was on the way, I couldn’t pass up an excuse to stop at one of my favorite places, Moo Thru. I love ice cream as you know, and this place serves some excellent stuff. It’s all from local cows, and they have a great selection of flavors in traditional as well as soft serve, and they’re pretty generous with their servings. They also have soups and sandwiches, the grilled cheese is delicious. I like to try to make a Neapolitan type sundae with strawberry, chocolate and vanilla, they didn’t have a plain vanilla so I went with caramel toffee instead, which was excellent. If you’re ever anywhere near Remington, I highly suggest stopping here.

Feb 20, 2014 Spotsylvania Battlefield

Antietam National Battlefield Park

Hike Summary

Finally, the weather and my body have cooperated enough to allow me to go on a hike for the first time since the beginning of December. Since then, as I may have mentioned, I have either been sick or it has been snowing/too cold. This is a big contrast to last year, where I had few if any interrupted weeks of hiking.

All this being trapped indoors has made me a little nervous about my conditioning for the One Day Hike in April, but we’ll see how it goes.

Antietam is, almost surprisingly, not really all that far away from Northern Virginia. It’s about an hour and 20 minutes, give or take, from my place, and it’s a pretty pleasant drive up some scenic byways in Virginia, West Virginia, and then into Maryland. I’ve been using Waze lately as my navigation program, and it took me on some back roads on the way there.

This whole region is kind of the heart of classic Civil War Battles. I live right next to Manassas Battlefield, and as I am fond of sometimes saying, you really can’t swing a dead cat around here without hitting a place that took part in the war. I saved some of these places for winter exploration, because I figured with them being fairly flat, hiking would be less treacherous than somewhere like Shenandoah or out in GWNF.

And this theory seems to have borne out, at least on this occasion. I got there to the visitor’s center shortly after it opened, and had a little look around the gift shop before I headed out. It’s a pretty large shop, with a lot of the usual tchotchkes that one would find: T-shirts, mugs, pint glasses (which I almost bought one of but decided it seemed inappropriate somehow,) and pins and books. I was a little disappointed by their sticker selection – what I’d like to do with my Chromebook is to cover it with stickers of places I’ve visited – but the only sticker they had was a generic ANT circular one. Perhaps I should have stuck with my old plan of collecting patches, but I never quite know what to do with them. So, I bought a little pewter pin and headed out to the parking area.

There was little to no breeze, but it was cold. I had brought 2 hats and a couple of layers of clothes to wear. This was the first chance I’d get to try out the silk insulating layer that I got for Christmas. I spent so much time fumbling around with equipment initially that my fingers started to go numb. I actually went and sat in the front seat of my car and turned the engine back on, thawing my hands back out. One of the things I really should look into are liner gloves. I hate the way my hands feel when I am trying to use my camera or even doing simple things like pulling a map out of my pocket. I am always wanting to pull my gloves off for better dexterity.

Anyhow, off we set. The first portion of the hike was paved road, leading over to the observation tower, which was supposed to be closed, according to park rangers. The rolling fields were cold and empty, with very few people or even cars around. A little bit of a breeze was kicking up, making my face feel cold. I got to the observation tower and paused for a moment, examining the Irish Brigade Monument and getting my bearings to head down Bloody Lane.

Bloody Lane is a name that brings up a lot of imagery for anyone who has more than a passing interest in the Civil War. It’s one of the bloodiest spots on the bloodiest battlefield in US history. Over 5000 men were killed on this short stretch of road in a matter of only 3 1/2 hours. I am not sure exactly what I expected to feel. Maybe my mind was numbed a bit by the cold, or I was concentrating on keeping my footing in the icy setting, but the place was terribly banal. Snow smooths over everything, giving it a sort of sameness.  At this moment of time, to me, struggling with keeping my face warm and my legs moving, it was just a sunken country road.

I made my way down it, and then across the fields and up to the back side of the visitor’s center again, where I stopped to eat a snack and drink some tea. I got a view of hills off in the distance, framing the horizon.

I headed down the field towards Mumma Farm, where some of the real hiking started. At the Mumma Farm, there was a little spring house from which a spring (naturally) came forth. I found I spent quite a bit of time following this little stream as it wound its way around, eventually joining Antietam Creek.

I came down to the Roulette Farm, where I encountered one of the only other people on my hike, another person with their dog. I also saw some pretty blue skies to the northwest, in contrast to the gloomy clouds in the opposite direction. It made for some nice contrasting pictures.

As I made my way along, I’d been noticing these parallel furrows on the trail. I thought at first that they might be bicycle tracks, but they were too close together for that. Once I got into the wooded section of the Three Farms Trail, it finally struck me what they were.

Cross country ski tracks. Of course, silly me. It didn’t quite occur to me at first that a place like this would be a wonderful place for skiing. The same characteristics that made me pick it as a hiking location in the winter would be just as good for someone wanting to ski.

I ended up being a little too focused on those ski tracks I think, because it caused me to miss my turn at once point and I had to retrace my path and find my way. The forests opened up to the rolling battlefield hills again as I went past some of the other farms.

I went down and under the turnpike, and that’s when we really started to hike parallel to Antietam Creek. When I hear the word creek, I expect more of a trickle, but this body of water is pretty impressive, although it is likely swollen by snowmelt. It’s a pretty unforgiving looking creek, something about it made me nervous. Perhaps it was finally the events of what transpired here finally getting to me, but I really didn’t enjoy hiking next to it like I usually do with creeks and rivers. There were parts where it had eroded the banks and I got the superstitious feeling that it was grasping at the banks.

Another road crossing and my dog and I were closing in on Burnside Bridge. There were a couple of different approaches to the bridge, I decided to take the higher trail so I could see it from above.

It’s a very pretty bridge for so much blood that was shed over it. I stopped to take a look from above, and noticed something unexpected: the bridge was closed!

I was faced with a dilemma. Should I cross the closed bridge (which the visitor center rangers had assured me was open) or should I double back and retrace my path back to a turnoff where I could get back to my car?

I decided that if I didn’t tarry and went across quickly, it would be OK. The part of the bridge that had been damaged was barricaded off in addition to the barriers barring entry (which were easy to walk around,) and I didn’t mess with anything, not even taking my camera out, until I made it to the other side. There, I took some pictures of the damage, and set off on the last loop, around Snaveleys Ford Trail.

This was another nice little hike through the woods, a contrast to the earlier part of the hike which was mostly fields (except the one shorter section.) There are a lot of benches along the trail, mostly facing Antietam Creek, and I took an opportunity to take a break at one and eat another snack and jot down some notes. Stopping for any amount of time made me get a little chilled, so I wasn’t able to make as many notes as I usually do when hiking.

The very last section mainly consisted of following the road back to my car, which I was happy to see.

Before I’d set out to go hiking, I had scouted out a few places to check out food wise, somewhere that would be good to stop afterwards. One of these was an ice cream shop. My usual motto is “it’s never too cold for ice cream,” but today I just was way too cold. So instead, I went to the other place: Burkholder’s Baked Goods.

Burkholder’s Baked Goods is a Mennonite Bakery located just off of the downtown core of Sharpsburg (which is adjacent to the battlefield.) I drove up to the address, and at first I was taken off guard. This was a mostly residential neighborhood, and this place looked much like the other mid century ranch houses. There was a sign for the business out front, and there was parking, so I pulled in.

Inside, there’s a tiny storefront area with coolers filled with local milk and some chocolates, a couple racks of pastries, and a counter holding more. Since it was in the afternoon, pickings were a teensy bit thin, but they were bringing out more. The whole interior looked to be converted over to a bakery, with modest Mennonite women hard at work. I saw some cookies and I figured I’d take some home to my boyfriend, plus I got a couple of doughnuts for myself. Everything was incredibly inexpensive, doughnuts were only 50 cents a piece.

I brought my prizes out to the car and wolfed down the doughnuts. I almost went back inside to buy some more, they were that good, but I resisted. If you’re near the battlefield, this is definitely a good place to stop. I kinda wish they had some seating or coffee or something, but the quality of the goods made up for that lack.

2014-02-06 Antietam Battlefield

Loudoun Heights at Harper’s Ferry

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Hike Summary

I recently finished reading an excellent book: John Brown, Abolitionist, by David Reynolds. Since I had been steeped in so much history, and since the guys a HikingUpward had recently posted a new hike from Harpers Ferry up to Loudoun Heights via the AT, I figured it would be a good time to go visit.

Spring has given way to Summer, and this was a scorcher of a day. I managed to completely luck out and get a parking spot at the downtown parking lot (something I can’t imagine will ever happen again,) and I set out.

Harpers Ferry itself is almost entirely National Park, with most of the buildings serving as museums or commercial locations. I’m not sure anyone actually lives in the town, most people live nearby in Bolivar, WV. I followed the AT through down, passing by St. Peter’s church, the ruins of St. John’s church, and Jefferson Rock. You really can throw a rock and hit a historic site in this town.

John Brown himself held the armory for several days in 1859, his fort is still standing and serves as a museum site, and is one of the more popular attractions in town.

The day was really sweltering, and I was drenched in sweat for most of the hike, and I also had the unfortunate luck to forget my bandanna. Most of the hike was shady, but there were a few spots that were under the hot sun, and both I and my dog could feel the effects.

Passing on the AT over the Route 340 bridge was one of these spots. The sun beat down, but the view of the Shenandoah River was quite nice, nice enough to make me want to go down for a swim.

Then came the hill. Obviously, Loudoun Heights implies that it is indeed upon a hill, and so up a hill we went, following the AT on switchbacks, going up some cliffs above route 340, and along through the woods. I met a couple of day hikers, who asked me if I knew where the WV state line was. I confirmed on my GPS unit that it was along the Loudoun Heights trail, which was where I was headed, not far from where we’d met.

At the Loudoun Heights trail, there was a bit of up and down, with a few bits of clover flowers and the ruins of some Civil War Era fort emplacements. It isn’t as well documented with signage as Maryland Heights on the opposite side of the gorge. As with the view from that side, this side was quite impressive, seeing the rivers merging together, and seeing all the buildings below like little toys.

On the way back, I started humming the tune to “John Brown’s Body,” (better known now as the Battle Hymn of the Republic,) and gave in to the tradition of making up new and inventive lyrics:

“When we get to Harpers Ferry we’re going to eat us some ice cream”

“Oh yes, we will indeed!”

I had spied the two frozen custard stands on High Street, and when I made my way back into town, I stopped at The Coffee Mill and got some for myself and my dog. The prices were a little steep there, but it was totally worth it. The dog and I were both incredibly happy at the end.

Harpers Ferry Loudoun Heights