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Going For a Drive – Skyline Central Section in Shenandoah

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The wind howls, shaking the branches in the trees in the neighborhood. This, combined with the temperature, kills any hopes I had of doing any hiking.

I sigh. There’s been too many weeks of this. I’m tired of winter. I’m tired of snow, and bitter cold. I’m tired of my knuckles bleeding from dry skin. I’m tired of having to wear my hiking boots everywhere.

There’s no use complaining. Complaining isn’t going to make the wind die down. I load up the dog and my pack into the car. I suspected that this was going to happen, so I was prepared to go for a drive.

So, into the car, and out 66 towards Front Royal, and Shenandoah National Park.

I’ve been having pretty back luck with the park as well. Every time I think of coming out here for a drive, Skyline has been closed. Sometimes this has resulted in more interesting drives, sometimes it just annoys. Some of my attempts to go down Skyline have come from times when I couldn’t hike as it was, doubling the frustration. It’s not the fault of the NPS. They’re just trying to keep people safe. Seasonal closures are to be expected.

Still.

This day is of course, no different. I roll up to the booth and the ranger informs me that they have someone checking the conditions, it might be a while. I’m welcome to pull over and wait and see.

15 minutes later … The North District is closed for now, but the central part is open. Time is ticking, and I really want to go drive in Shenandoah, so I do the next best thing and I get on US 340, which goes from Front Royal to Luray.

It’s quite a nice drive, actually. It cleaves closely to the course of the Shenandoah River, so you do get some nice views as you go, as well as access to Shenandoah River State Park, which I’ve mentioned before.

I spotted a historical marker on my left, and decided to stop and take a look. It’s a set of markers describing the historical bridge here, as well as the nearby town of Overall, which used to be called Milford, where a number of battles took place during the Civil War, the Valley Campaign of 1864. The battlefield itself is on private property, so other than the markers, there’s no point in me lingering.

Finally, I make it to the central entrance for Skyline, and of course, the North District is open again. I briefly consider heading north, but I’ve driven it before, and even though I’d like to see it again, I’ll settle for the central district.

After getting my passport stamped, I head in and stop at the first rest stop, which is also the trailhead for a short jaunt up to Mary’s Rock if one is so inclined. For about 30 seconds I entertain the notion of going for a quick hike up there, but as my hands start to go numb and my nose gets cold from the biting 20mph wind, I change my mind.

Sadly, this is a theme that repeats itself throughout the drive. I knew it was going to be too cold because of the forecast, but you know, if the opportunity presented itself I’d at least try. It was way too cold to try.

So, I had to be satisfied with seeing the park from the comfort of my warm car, with occasional jaunts outside to take some pictures.

It is fun to drive along and see some of the parts of Skyline that I’ve only seen a few times from crossing it on foot. It showed me a different perspective, and it brought a smile to my face every time I recognized a crossing. Same thing with the overlooks. It was great to see Old Rag again from high up.

It was also nice to finally see Big Meadow, even though the visitors center and campgrounds were all closed, and the wind was still much too cold and bitter. I was able to get out of my car for a little bit, and I ventured out and looked around some. It looked lonely, but I’d love to take a weekend and stay at the lodge, and be able to wander the meadow.

Back in the car and driving along, seeing the snow scudding along the road, swirling and making little snow devils. I see a few deer occasionally and slow down. They have no fear of me or my car whatsoever. They’re almost tame.

I can’t wait for spring to finally get here. I’m tired of the winter.

Eventually I hit the southern entrance of the central district. Part of me wants to keep going, to head a little further. But I was advised that not all of the southern district is open anyway, there were some road hazards. So, homeward I head.

Skyline 02/27/14

Shutdown Hike #1 – Bear Church Rock – Shenandoah NP

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Hike Summary

So, the government is shut down, and that means that the National Parks and National Forests are … technically closed.

This isn’t exactly stopping anyone from going out and hiking, myself included. I consider this an act of civil disobedience, and if caught I’ll comply with the authorities and remove myself. I understand the risks. I just want to go out there and hike, and I’m not going to let some jerks in our legislative branch keep me from doing so.

So, that’s that. I’d planned on doing some hikes that start from Skyline Drive, in order to take advantage of the beautiful foliage changes at this time of the year, peak season for Shenandoah, but alas, that’s proving somewhat difficult.

So, alternatives must be found. There are plenty of places where the trailheads are outside of the park, and so I drove out to almost the limit of my distance from home (within 90 minutes) to check out this hike, in the central section, down below Madison.

It was quite warm as I set out on my hike, no need for a jacket this time. It was a little hazy and overcast, but pleasant. I followed the trail along the Rapidan River, and caught some pretty reflections of the water in the morning light. The Rapidan is a cheerful little river at this point, full of trout waiting to be fished.

Soon, there was an intersection ahead, and I followed the Staunton River trail uphill, which unsurprisingly, follows the Staunton River, another pleasant little cascade. There are lots of rocks and things for it to fall over, making a very musical sound as it winds its way downhill. There’s supposed to be a swimming hole along the river at some point, but I wasn’t quite sure where it was.

The trail was lined with pretty purple asters, and some other late season wildflowers. I saw blue lobelia and even some blue phlox, which is a flower I haven’t seen much since April.

Along the way, I saw a strange sight. I’ve seen plenty of rock walls and remnants of foundations and such during my hikes, but these were different. They almost seemed like retaining walls, or fortifications or something like that. I did a little research, but I couldn’t find anything in particular anywhere on the internet about these rock piles, so they’ll remain a mystery.

The trail came to an intersection, and a very steep uphill climb. As I was making my way up, I saw a little toad making his way along, and I held out my hand. He hopped right up on my hand like it was no big thing, and stared at me for a while, allowing me to catch my breath some. I set him back down and he made his way into the drift of leaves, never to be seen again.

I decided to make a side trip for a good lunch eating spot at the Jones Mountain Cabin, which is owned by the PATC. It’s situated about 2/3 of the way up to the top, on a little side trail that’s about 1/3 of a mile. It would make a great afternoon hike and basecamp for exploring the other trails in the area. There’s a privy and a spring nearby, and some lovely trees that were changing color. There’s also a spicebush right next to the cabin, which lent a nice, fragrant smell to the immediate area.

After eating my snack, I set back out. The hike up to the top has a lot of switchbacks, and it seems forever with the steepness of the trail. There was one section lined with Mountain Laurels that had a slightly creepy look with the way their twisty trunks outlined the trail. If it hadn’t been such a nice day, it would have felt almost menacing.

Finally, after what seemed like the hundredth turn, I reached the top. It was a remarkable view. It wasn’t quite peak color yet, but the views were still glorious. So glorious, that I forgot to take pictures with my normal camera, and only took two with my phone! I am still kinda kicking myself over that one.

The only drawback was there were a large number of stink bugs up there, and although they’re pretty harmless, they’re also annoying, and they kept bumping into me, and attracting attention from my dog, who wanted to snack on them.

As I made my way back down, I encountered a couple of hikers. They were government workers who were on furlough, and decided to take advantage of their unexpected vacation by going for a hike. This was one of the first of several encounters on the way back. I ran across more hikers this day that I think I had in the previous month of hiking.

I decided to take an alternate path back instead of back down the Staunton River Trail. I had been tempted to extend my hike even further by hiking past Bear Church and heading up to the connection with the Rapidan River Trail, but I decided that that would have been a little too much hike.

All in all, this was a great day, and I think that Bear Church Rock, although somewhat far, is probably one of my favorite hikes in Shenandoah.

2013-10-04 Bear Church Rock

Stony Mountain – Shenandoah NP

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Hike Summary

Stony Mountain is a section of Shenandoah NP that is pretty off the beaten path as far as hiking goes. It’s out behind Syria, Virginia, which is a great little town that is home to Graves Mountain Lodge. You can get apples, a place to stay, and a nice breakfast or dinner. I’ve been there a few times for Mother’s Day, and the food is quite excellent!

So, up past the lodge, at the end of VA670, the road terminates at a locked gate. The hike continues as a fire road, winding its way up. Unfortunately, this first part of the hike really wasn’t all the picturesque. It was chilly in the morning, enough so that I had to wear my jacket again, something that will be happening pretty often I imagine, as the summer transitions to the fall and we get lots of cold nights and warm days.

I somewhat regret not extending the hike up to Dark Hollow Falls, and I’ll probably make a return trip here soon to do it as an out-and-back perhaps.

So, as I said, the beginning portion was mostly fire road, and then up near the highest elevation point of the hike, the trail goes off towards the Rapidan Road. At the intersection where the trail met the road, there was a nice little meadow clearing, and I decided to lay my blanket out and relax.

The ground was dotted with red clover, and I could hear the bees buzzing. It was nice to be able to just relax in the sun on this last week of summertime. The sky was a deep, clear blue with only a few fluffy clouds drifting overhead. The bees and butterflies busily attended the flowers.

After munching on a snack and drinking most of my tea, I headed back down. Again, it was a good chunk of mostly fire road, which was pleasantly in the sun after the chilly forest ascent of the Rose River fire road.

There was one spot which was supposed to be a decent view, but was blocked by leafy trees. I’m sure it’s much more clear in the wintertime.

The oddly named Upper Dark Hollow trail (to me, the name made no sense, it was below the falls) turned off from the Rapidan road, and I was finally on what felt like a “real” trail again. It was pretty steep on the way down, and I think it might have been recently maintained to help with water runoff, as there were a lot of dug up sections of trail, forming channels for water to go off of the trail itself. The shade was pleasant this time.

Upon rejoining the Rose River fire road, I noticed that there’s a nice swimming hole. I think that would make for an excellent stop during the hotter summer months, but it was a little too cold and I kinda wanted to get home by this point.

After heading out, I decided to make a stop at the Graves Mountain apple packing storefront, where you can buy apples that are in season. I decided that since there were plenty of Winesaps there, I couldn’t help but get a big bag of them! I still have them, 2 weeks later, although I’ve baked 3 cakes with them so far. My favorite of these cakes has been the Apple Cake with Brown Sugar Glaze.

2013-09-20 Stony Mountain

Nicholson Hollow/Corbin Hollow – Shenandoah NP

Hike Summary

I haven’t been up this way since the day I lost my last hiking staff. This was the hike I was supposed to have done that day. It was very wet and foggy. Everything was damp, and as I approached the stepping stones across Hughes River, I realized that a panic was in danger of setting in. Last time I’d been to this spot, my dog had fallen into the icy stream, and I had to wade in and fish him out, putting an end to our misadventure for the day.

I tried not to worry as I crossed the stream, but I could have sworn that the rocks were super slippery. I’ve been having a lot of footing problems as of late, and I really do need to replace my boots soon, hopefully with something that is a bit more surefooted.

I steadied myself with the staff and made my way across. I breathed a sigh of relief, and felt better, but my heart was still racing, still pounding. It put me in a slightly cranky mood for the next couple of miles, but the nervous energy also seemed to give me some extra push, and I made some pretty decent time up the first portion of the trail.

This route on my trail guide was referred to as Corbin Mountain, but it really isn’t so much. Only about half a mile of the hike spends time on Corbin Mountain trail itself. Much more of it is spent on the Nicholson Hollow Trail and other connecting trails. I’ll have to venture out and do a shorter hike on the Corbin Mountain trail itself. It would make for a shorter loop, and perhaps isn’t all that picturesque, but it would be something different. Besides, I need excuses to hike trails down in this area, as Carousel will be closing in October for the season, and I have to get delicious ice cream while they’re still making it.

On the way up, I didn’t see a ton of flowers, I did see quite a few spotted touch-me-knots, and what I have now discovered is New York Ironweed (the same purple flower I couldn’t identify on my last hike.) I came across two girls who were trying to get to Old Rag, but they had a bit of a long hike ahead of them – I think I was about 3/4 of the way to Corbin Cabin when I encountered them. I showed them my map and gave directions on the fastest way to get there from where we were (likely back the way I’d come already.)

I came across another crossing of Hughes River and saw a very fine swimming hole, and stopped to eat a snack. There are a lot of nice swimming holes and campsites along the river, would be a pleasant place for a weekend camp.

Even more pleasant, however, would be Corbin Cabin, one of the PATC cabins that are available for rent that are in Shenandoah and elsewhere in the region. I’ve stopped here before, and although it’s locked, it makes an excellent place to stop and take a lunch break. There’s a nice, wide porch not unlike an AT shelter, so I can put my pack down without worrying about something crawling into it and hitching a ride. Having flat ground is nice as well, and a clean spot to sit down that isn’t a rock or a damp stump.

I am no Chanel camper, or someone who thinks the best idea of camping is a hotel room, but it is nice to have a dry behind when you’re trying to gnaw on a Clif bar.

I sat there, getting a little warmth from the bit of sun, and watching my dog nose around the container holding his treats. He’d come up to it, poke it with his nose, and then look at me, as if to say, “It is time for you to dispense with the treats!” Of course, I had to oblige him. He hikes just as much as I do.

I sat and mused on writing. I think I might have finally gotten a character in my head and a story that is starting to form around him. I’ve jotted some notes down in my notebook as the thoughts have struck me, now I just need to get them onto paper (or into a document I suppose.)

Break time over, I headed out again up Indian Run Trail, where things grew steeper for a while. I thought for sure all this hiking would end up making me sore later on, but even this uphill gave me little soreness the rest of the week. I’m not sure how I’m going to make things harder, short of taking up rock climbing (which is not really something I’m all that interested in in the wild, since my dog can’t come with me on that.)

I hiked on through the gloomy trees, until I spotted some cluster of berries growing close to the ground. I was having trouble holding my camera steady, and I moved my hand over to give myself more support. Stupidly, I stuck my hand right into the middle of a stinging nettle plant. Sharp zings of fire went up my arm immediately, and my fingers swelled up a bit. It seemed I didn’t do too much damage, as the pain went away fairly quickly. I was thankful I didn’t have to go looking for some mud to stick my hand into.

I went on Old Rag Fire Road for a ways, and then turned down Corbin Hollow trail. There, I saw some fields of giant ferns, and I encountered another hiker, who seemed completely flabbergasted to see another hiker. “I’ve been hiking this trail 15 years,” he said, “and this is the first time I’ve ever seen another person on it.” He then advised me that he had spotted no less than 3 copperheads on his way up the trail – something that could be a bit of a danger to my dog. This resulted in some additional anxiety for me as I made my way down, keeping my dog tethered closely. I almost wish he hadn’t told me, but I was definitely better off knowing.

Eventually, I hit Weakley Hollow Fire Road and the most interesting bits were over. Fire roads are pleasant strolls, but they don’t feel all that much like hiking to me, particularly Weakley Hollow, which is a thoroughfare for anyone heading up to Old Rag.

2013-08-30 Nicholson Hollow-Corbin Hollow

Overall Run/Beecher Ridge – Shenandoah NP

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Hike Summary

This really has been the best summer since I’ve moved to Virginia. It’s been nice and cool, almost like where I grew up, in California.

The hike of Overall Run starts out at the end of a road, which turns into a private drive for about 3/4 of a mile. Along the road I saw mounds and mounds of spotted touch-me-nots. I had thought that they were just solitary flowers, from the ones I’d seen before, but here they were everywhere along the road.

Everything seemed like a jungle that day as I got to the trail itself and made my way in. As the trees closed around me, the world went quiet. There was a lot of dampness from previous rains, and the sun filtered in in little rays. The forest seemed to give me that same feeling that you get when you go into a cathedral or large building of worship – that feeling of silence. I imagine the feeling of the stillness of nature is possibly one of the things that influenced architects in the first place; we want to go back to where we came from, in the trees.

There was a fruity perfume in the air again, I am not sure which plant or wildflower causes it, it might be the blackberries that are nearing the end of their run perhaps, and fermenting on the vine.

The trail starts to climb, gently at first, meandering alongside Overall Run, which was a little dry at this time of the year, despite the rains. I came upon a brilliant purple flower out of nowhere as I was going along. I still haven’t gotten an ID from it, but its color was startling to behold out of nowhere.

The trail continues up on switchbacks, and I took some time to stop at a nice campsite to eat a snack. Continuing on my way, I got to the top of the ridge, and the view was clear out across the valley towards Massanutten mountain. As I stopped to take some pictures, I was joined by a pair of hikers making their way down. From this point on, for a good while, it was a rather busy hike as the trail comes very close to Matthews Arm campground, and there were a lot of campers getting in a last summer vacation in Shenandoah.

A little bit further on, the Overall Run falls were in view, but they were a tiny bit disappointing. As I said, even though it had rained, it was still a mere trickle due to it being late in the summer. I’ll definitely have to repeat this hike next spring.

Continuing with my hike, I made my way along towards Matthews Arm, and then the trail split off to go downhill. From this point on it was again pretty quiet, with fewer hikers. The character of the forest was a little different as well. Gone were the tulip poplars and oaks, and there was a drier, more piney forest.

I made my way around a bend and I heard a sudden crashing. I stopped, and I saw retreating from me two black bear cubs. Not wanting to have any encounters with their mother, I started to hike along much more swiftly, singing in a loud voice about how I was not very edible to bears, and that my dog and I were both rather stringy and not appetizing. This seemed to have done the trick.

I continued on, down the gentle decline of Beecher Hollow trail. About halfway down the descent, I encountered the two hikers again. Seems that we were both taking the same route, but in opposite directions. I gave them some assurances about the route back, and then blurted out some food recommendations, in case they were not familiar with the area.

I felt kind of silly about it afterwards, I often feel like I have a tendency to blurt out things at the wrong moment, or at an inappropriate time. I worry that I’m inserting myself into conversations in the wrong way, and worry that people thing I am making things all about myself. I’ve never had many friends, and I often wonder if this is why.

The trail made a right turn at the bottom of the hill and started to ascend again. It felt almost like the hike was already over, even though there was a way to go before I turned back off of the loop. The trail follows the river here, and eventually there’s a big swimming hole, which I didn’t partake of, there were people there and also some dogs. I had to set a pretty swift pace to keep ahead of the ones that had left the swimming hole the same time as I.

Retracing my path, I arrived at my car and set off for home, with a stop at Spelunkers and some Red Velvet Cheesecake frozen custard.

2013-08-21 Overall Run Beecher Ridge

Piney Branch Trail – Shenandoah National Park

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Hike Summary

Piney Branch Trail is a trail that is close by to Little Devil’s Stairs, a hike that I did sometime last year. The route I took starts out in the same parking area, down near Gidbrown Hollow.

It was a pretty chilly day, I actually brought a sweater with me, although I ended up not wearing it. I tend to be a little overcautious sometimes and want to pack everything, just in case something should arise. I’m sure if I had the means, my backpack would end up being stuffed with all sorts of things I don’t actually need, and my Amazon wishlist is full of things like titanium sporks and so on.

A titanium spork could come in handy if I were to ever go on an overnight hike, so I don’t think it would be all that useless.

So, I set off up Keyser Run Fire road, which is a pretty steep ascent, or so it felt to me that day. It winds through pretty unremarkable territory and then makes its way up to Bolen Cemetery.

I’ve been past here before, but this time I decided to open the gate and take a look inside. I saw a little monument that was separate from the gravestones, a little memorial to those who lost their land to the park. It always makes me feel sad to know that those people had their land taken away, and still people often picture them as being ignorant hillbillies, which I think is unfair. They were people, just like the rest of us.

The Piney Branch Trail itself goes off from Keyser Run and winds up alongside Piney River. There are quite a few nice campsites along the way, in shady groves. Piney River is a pleasant little river, with lots of little cascades and waterfalls.

As I was hiking along, I started noticing some interesting plants, that gave me a little bit of a shiver. They were bright red stalks, poking up out of the greenery. On the end of these stalks were … eyeballs. It was a little bit disconcerting to me to see these plants, seemingly looking at me as I hiked along. Also known as White Baneberry, they are extremely poisonous to humans.

I made my way up to the highest point, where the trail rejoins Keyser Run at Fourway. From this point, one can go up to Skyline, or down via Little Devils Stairs. I gave some other hikers some directions and made my own way down Keyser Run.

I started to notice an abundance of blackberries along the way as I hiked. It seemed to be almost at the peak season, so I got a container out of my pack and started to pick berries as I hiked, remembering how I had been kicking myself for not doing this at Kennedy Peak. I also noticed several butterflies along the way, some of which I hadn’t seen before. I added Pearl Crescent and Silver-Spotted Skipper to my list of new butterfly sightings, along with the ubiquitous Tiger Swallowtail.

Once home I set out to bake. I used the recipe I tried before from Baking Bites for Blackberry Blondies, and had excellent and delicious results.

2013-08-15 Piney Branch

White Oak Canyon & Cedar Run – Shenandoah National Park

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Hike Summary

With the previous week having been so hot, I had been worried. Would it be another sweltering day? Would the weather just not cooperate?

The weather exceeded my expectations. It was so mild that I actually thought I might need a sweater when I awoke, and tossed one in the car, “just in case.”

It was just such a fantastic day, it was as if someone had smiled upon me and gave me beautiful weather because it was my birthday, and they knew it was a special hike.

White Oak Canyon trail is probably one of the most popular trails in Shenandoah National Park. You get to see one of the prettier waterfalls, and it has multiple cascades. If you’re a fan of water falling vertically downhill, this is the best trail to go on.

I started out from the bottom, at Berry Hollow. The trail winds through forests before starting an ascent ever upward. There were quite a few hikers, even during a weekday. I wasn’t totally surprised, because it was the first gorgeous day in a couple of weeks, and it is the most popular trail in the park.

Even though it’s midsummer, I saw plenty of wildflowers, and was stopping pretty often to take pictures. I leapfrogged along with a pair of hikers up to the lower falls, which were quite pretty.  There was another group of hikers, a family, behind me, but they turned around before the upper falls, which surprised me.

The upper falls were quite beautiful as well, although I don’t like going near cliff edges too much, I was able to take some pretty shots. It’s a testament to how popular this place is, that there are paved steps along parts of this upper trail. There are also signs warning people that the hike is strenuous (which it is) and to not overdo it. One of the things I did enjoy was for me, how much easier it seemed to get uphill compared to the other hikers. This was a change from Big Schloss, where I felt like I was the slowpoke.

I passed a couple more hikers and pointed out the nice vista to them as I went along. Once I got to the big junction of trails, I decided to take a route that was longer than normal, and continued up White Oak Canyon trail, until it intersected with the Limberlost trail.

The Limberlost trail was quite pleasant, gravel with a lot of benches along the way. I stopped at one of the benches to eat a snack, and I watched an Eastern Comma butterfly flitting around the sunny area. At this point I really didn’t see any other foot traffic at all, and in continued along the way, turning on the Crescent Rock Trail.

One thing I had done with this hike, because I wanted to go on a longer track than most of the hiking sites around, was modified the route to include these extra trails. I was a little bit nervous about doing this, because it seemed like there were slightly complicated intersections, but it seemed that I got it really almost perfectly. All the turns that I put in there were at the right places, and my GPS unit beeped it’s reassuring chime, alerting me that the trail I was on seemed to be on the right path.

I reached Skyline and started to cross, and about 500 feet away, a pair of black bears decided to do so as well. I pulled out my camera, but unfortunately all I got was a brownish blur in the distance. The traffic along the road got a much better look, and I think I’m pretty happy I wasn’t any closer, to be honest. I’ve had the good luck to have had all my encounters to be at a safe distance.

I crossed and took a connector down to the AT. As I ventured down below the Crescent Rock overlook, I saw quite a few pretty wildflowers, including a Purple Flowering Raspberry, which has one of the prettier flowers out there.

The trail wound out of the sun and into the gloom, and the footing was rather rocky but overall pretty even. I wasn’t on the AT for very long, cutting over at Hawksbill and heading down Cedar Run Trail.

Cedar Run Trail is pretty similar to White Oak Canyon trail, although to me it felt much steeper. This might also have been because by this time I was starting to get a little tired, and sometimes it feels like going downhill when tired is actually more difficult than going uphill.

The one major difference is Cedar Run’s falls are more swimmer friendly. There are quite a few swimming holes along the way, and I saw swimmers both leaving and heading to the falls. Since it was later in the day, and I had no swimming suit with me, plus a dog who isn’t enamored of the water, decided not to partake.

However, there was at least one crossing of Cedar Run that made me decide to take my boots off and wade across. The water was ice cold! It did feel good though, and I took my time and enjoyed the feeling of cooled off feet before I put my boots back on. There’s even one swimming hole that has a natural waterslide, hence the nickname “the slide.”

Finally, the trail leveled off and I was back to the parking area, where I saw a stand of wineberries which I ate a few of. It was a long hike, and I think the next time I will pare it down from 10 miles to the shorter 7 miles, but it definitely deserves its reputation as being one of the best hikes in the park.

2013-07-25 White Oak Canyon & Cedar Run