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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

Driving, not hiking

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So, I promised myself that if I wasn’t able to go hiking this week, that I’d at least go for a drive, and that is what I ended up doing. It’s a pity in a way, because if I’d planned a little better in advance, I would have gone hiking on Friday when the weather was finally above freezing.

Such is the way of things though, and weather is always fickle and unpredictable. Even checking the weather now, it looks like next week is going to be mostly terrible again. I just seem to have the worst luck lately.

I had a plan and a backup plan. I would go check and see if Skyline Drive was open, and go drive down it if it was. If it wasn’t, I’d go down US522 instead, as I hadn’t really gone down that road much, so I wanted to see where it would end up, other than intersecting with US211. I’d passed by the junction a few times on my way to hikes in the Sperryville area, so I wanted to see where it went.

That’s something I picked up from my mom. She has always liked to say, “I wonder where this road goes?” and then find out. It can be a useful way to find out more about a place, and going down random roads is something I’ve always enjoyed doing with her.

I trundled along through lovely Front Royal and on to the toll gate at the start of Skyline Drive. I didn’t look up at all but started to immediately dig in my pack for the entrance fee.

“Road’s closed” the ranger said, and I looked up to see the gate across the way. Silly me. We chatted a little bit about the weather and when it would be open again. It seemed the little 1/8 of an inch of snow we’d had on Tuesday was enough to turn everything to ice again, making the road unsafe.

I pondered my options. As I mentioned, I had planned on immediately going down 522, but I decided to take a detour to Shenandoah River State Park instead. It’s only about 10 miles from the Skyline Drive entrance, so down the road I went.

It was open, but oh so cold. Still too cold to hike, although the day was starting to warm up a little bit. The sky was clear and blue. I got out at the overlook and snapped some pictures, my fingers quickly numbing in the chill air. I let my dog wander around a bit, and we got back in the car and headed down to the visitor center. There, the little creek they have circulating around the building was iced over, but it was very pretty still. The visitor center is very nice, and has a gift shop and Wifi access, which is one of the only places in the park where there’s any signal.

I decided since I’d come all this way already, we’d head down to the river itself. I parked down by the canoe loading area, where the little side part was frozen over. The banks were very icy and cold, and the water was a deep grey. There was a whispering, slithering sound as the ice and water ground against each other. It was very beautiful, but also a little sinister.

Back in the car, we headed back to Front Royal and down US522.

I really need to learn to stop and take pictures while I am driving. I have a hard time figuring out where a good place is to stop, and I hate inconveniencing cars behind me or becoming an impediment to traffic. I think this is because of where I grew up. Growing up in a tourist town makes one extra sensitive to doing touristy things. I think it is also some of my still-ever-present anxiety. It’s hard to figure out of I pull into someone’s driveway whether they’ll get mad or something. I just need to let go. This is my little apology/excuse for why there aren’t any pictures of the drive itself.

Chester Gap was beautiful, with the hills on the left side crisp with snow, undulating down to the valley. The road was windy but not overly so, dotted with farmhouses and country estates. I entered Rappahannock County, which is becoming quite the wine area, with several vineyards along the way (sadly closed) before I rolled into the town of Flint Hill.

It was lunchtime, so I thought that this might be a good place to stop and find some. I stopped at a likely looking place, a nice old building with a lot of flags and an interesting sculpture out front: a metal bull. I had arrived at The Flint Hill Public House.

It was quiet inside, (The parking area was pretty much empty) but they were more than happy to see me and sat me down in one of the front dining rooms. The decor was bright and shiny and modern, with comfy leather chairs and some half booths. As far as I could tell I was one of the only people there, although there was some sound coming from the bar area further on in.

The menu was expansive but not overly complex, featuring a good variety of dishes, from burgers and sandwiches to grilled items and quite a few vegetarian options. I’d classify it as nice Mid-Atlantic Pub style food: not too fussy, but also not too casual. They also were featuring a special menu celebrating chili week (probably because the Superbowl was coming up) and I saw something there that I just had to have.

Chili Nachos.

I ordered and they were quickly brought, a nice pile of warm tortilla chips, red chili, cheese and salsa and sour cream. it reminded me very much of the way my mom taught me to enjoy chili: served over corn chips, that good old frito pie. I tried not to wolf them down too quickly, they were very delicious. The dining room was a little chilly so the food did cool quickly, but I hadn’t really realized it in time to ask them to make it warmer, so it’s not really anything to blame them for.

Another thing I was impressed by was their wine list. There was the usual selection of popular California varieties, but most of the list contained wines from all over the local area, most of which were within 10-30 minute drives. I always love when restaurants embrace their place.

I considered ordering a dessert glass, but I decided that since I was the only person driving, it wasn’t a great idea. Instead, I ordered something more substantial.

I’m a sucker for desserts, and particularly anything involving chocolate. The Triple Chocolate Brownie that was presented to me was no disappointment. There were three layers of chcolately deliciousness as promised, plus sprinkled chips and a little bit of ice cream to cut the chocolate. I was very happy and satisfied.

Service was very friendly, with my server (whose name I unfortunately completely forget; I am terrible with names) being awesome and chatting with me about the hiking in the area.

Flint Hill Public House is in my opinion, definitely worth a return trip (or several) and is on my short list of places to consider for the upcoming annual Mother’s Day lunch.

Anyhow, it was time to roll on. I was using a slightly new to me navigation program, and it decided that I was on my way home (pretty much true at this point.) It directed me on Ben Venue road instead of straight out to 211.

This is another of those times I wish I’d had the fortitude to stop and take photos, you will have to rely on my words I suppose. Ben Venue Road is tiny and windy, going around and through several apple orchards on the way out to 211 at Ben Venue.

The sky was a rich, deep blue, and the bare apple trees were stark and black against the sky, their branches reaching up almost like claws. Spring seemed like a long way away. The drive was lonely, there were no other cars on the road. Nothing but hillsides on the left, and farms and orchards on the right, with hills in the distance.

Eventually, Ben Venue Road, as I said, met US 211, and it was time for a rather uneventful drive back home. 6 more weeks until Spring. Hopefully the weather will cooperate more than it has so far.

Jan 30, 2014

Kennedy Peak – George Washington National Forest

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Hike Summary

There was a narrow window of good weather this week when I checked, only a Tuesday would be good for hiking. I dithered quite a bit making a decision on where to go.

I seem to have this problem lately, I have a terrible time choosing between options. It’s called analysis paralysis, and it’s something that comes and goes in waves with me. It just is a simple struggle to make a decision, and I often find myself asking others to make that decision for me. It makes me feel childish and childlike. I suspect it has some deeper roots in my overall life situation, and is something I hesitate to go into deeper at the moment.

Eventually, I just declared as I was walking upstairs that I would go to Kennedy Peak, partially because I wanted a hike that took me through Front Royal on the way home, because I wanted to test my hypothesis on whether the burgers at Spelunkers are really as good as my starving self said they were the last time I was there. More on that later.

Kennedy Peak is in the Southeastern section of the ridges and folds that make up Massanutten Mountain. The ridge runs along the boundary between Shenandoah and Page counties.

Once I got to the trailhead, I set out on the Stephens Trail, which leaves from one end of the parking lot. The trail winds gradually through Redbud and Maple and other broadleaf trees that I’m still learning to identify. I do now know what Sassafras looks like, and saw quite a few of those as I made my way along the trail. The trail was fairly rocky and definitely seems to be a favorite of horseback riders, as I saw quite a few piles of horse droppings along the way.

Then, I started encountering the blackberry bushes. It’s starting to become the season where berries are ripe, but the canes are everywhere, and they were growing closely along the trail. By the time the hike was over, my left leg was scored all over (my right being more shielded because of my walking stick) and I still have scratches all over, a week later.

As I said, the blackberries were starting to ripen, and I picked a few as I went along. I wished that I had a basket or bag or something to carry them with me, as I have a very nice recipe for Blackberry Blondies that I made a couple of weeks ago, and I’d like to try with some wild berries this time.

Stephens trail makes a turn up the ridge and eventually intersects with the everpresent Massanutten Trail, which of course goes along the ridge. As I was hiking along, I encountered a rider with the most gorgeous horse. She said it was a Tennessee Walker, which is one of my favorite breeds of horse. It was a fantastic color, with a black and silver mane and tail. I only later realized I never took a picture, and I wished I had. I often still have problems asking strangers for things like pictures when I’m out, it’s that social anxiety kicking in. I’ve gotten better but still have miles and miles to go in that department.

So, the trail went on up to the top of the peak, where there’s a wooden observation tower that is need of some serious repairs up top. The bench section of the tower has split apart somewhat and is hard to get a comfortable seat on, and the railings were starting to crumble. There also seemed to be a hornet’s nest somewhere around, but I managed to luck out, and the hornets weren’t being particularly aggressive. (It was actually only later, when I was home, that I realized that they were hornets that were occasionally buzzing around me.)

I stopped to have a snack and to look out at the views. There really is a great view of the valley to the East, with the south fork of the Shenandoah River, and pasturelands out towards Luray. Birds wheeled in the sky, gliding on the thermals. The sky was blue and streaked with clouds, so that the day passed from bright to dark, heralding the storm that would pass through later that week.

I sat and jotted notes in my journal, and then we headed back. At the junction to go more downhill, I saw wild grapes growing, which are always an enjoyable sight.

As the trail started to descend, it became wider, and probable was following an old road. I saw a lot of what I believe are woodland sunflowers, but I have discovered that there’s quite a bit of fiddly identification associated with these flowers. When I later posted some of my pictures on iNaturalist, one of the botanists there shared the difficulty in their identification, something she’s written a helpful blog post about. I love learning about this sort of thing, so the next time I’m out, I’m definitely going to have to do some work!

I noticed along this part of the Massanutten trail, there are a lot of excellent campsites, and it seems like it would be a great place overall to camp. Hopefully one of these days I’ll actually be able to do that.

The trail eventually runs out to Fort Valley Road, and there’s a great viewpoint right at the border of Page county, looking out towards Luray. It took me a moment of looking around before I figured out where the trail went, in the opposite direction, downhill. It wanders down switchbacks, going back and forth across a power line clearing, before winding up back at the opposite end of the parking area.

I was pretty glad to be back, my hip had actually started to get sore going downhill, so my steps were starting to become painful.

After, it was a little drive up some back roads to get to US 340. As I was going along one of the back roads, I looked up to the west and saw Kennedy peak poking up out of the landscape. It was a nice framing moment for the day.

Once back in Front Royal, I did indeed stop at Spelunkers again, and it was no fluke. Their burgers really are that good. If I hadn’t been so hungry, I’d actually be a more responsible blogger and post a picture of these delicious items, but they are just so good that I don’t want to stop to snap a photo.

Next time, I promise I will!

2013-07-30 Kennedy Peak

 

Veach Gap – George Washington National Forest

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Hike Summary

Oh the weather, the weather continues with its mercurial behavior! Most of the whole week was a mess, with nothing but rain. This time I was a little better about planning ahead, and switched around my normal hiking day to a Friday instead of a Thursday.

I had intended to go on a different hike than this one, but because of the day change, I was worried that the parking area (near Old Rag) for the other one would be too crowded on a  Friday, so Veach Gap it was.

I managed to get out of the house in a fairly timely fashion and got to the trailhead at about 8AM. It was a little chilly, and I was almost fearful that I needed a jacket, so I packed my rain coat just in case. However, once I got my muscles moving, this fear was pretty minor. It was a nice day, mild and pleasant. I am trying to really appreciate and treasure these days, as I know they won’t last, and soon the swelter of real VA summer will be here.

Veach Gap trail goes for about a mile or so, with Mill Run running alongside it for the way up to the junction. There was one crossing that was very confusing for me, as the trail guide mentioned that the trail crossed Mill Run, but my GPS and the map were kinda vague on where the trail went after that, and Mill Run was pretty swollen from the previous weeks rains. Luckily, I finally spied the yellow blazes going up the left side, and realized that the creek had slightly overtaken the trail. It wasn’t in a dangerous manner that required wading or anything, just a little bit of intermittent stream action. I followed it up, and eventually hit the intersection with the Tuscarora and Massanutten trails, both of which went up to the ridge.

There was a lot of switchbacky trail hiking up the gap by Little Crease Mountain, and then we finally broke out onto the ridge. I could see Massanutten Mountain in the distance, between the trees, and it looked very fine.

I saw lots of signs of a recent forest fire (I later discovered this was last year) as I continued up to the top of the ridge.

There were excellent views of the Shenandoah River from this point of view. It was far down in the distance, but still quite pretty and picturesque. I was feeling pretty energetic, and it still felt pretty early in the day, so I decided to add an additional mile to my hike, and I kept going up along the ridge, following the Massanutten/Tuscarora trail.

The Tuscarora Trail seems like it would be a pretty fun trail to go on a hike on. It is around 250 miles, and both starts and ends on the AT, starting out from Shenandoah Park in VA, winding through VA and WV, and ending up back at the AT in PA. It mostly goes through National Forest, and has many shelters like the AT. Perhaps one day I’ll get to go do some serious backpacking and do something like that.

For now, back to the trail. I had a snack at one of the campsites along the ridgeline, and then headed back down. I wanted to go visit the Veach Gap shelter, but that pesky Old Mill Run was quite swollen at the intersection, and I was feeling too lazy to take my boots off to cross. Back to the car I went, finally seeing other people just pulling in as I was pulling out.

One of the advantages of getting up so early was being able to catch lunch on the way back. I stopped at Spelunker’s in Front Royal, and had a (small) hamburger and some frozen custard. Both were quite excellent, and they were nice enough to give me a pup cup size for my dog, who very much appreciated it. Spelunker’s reminds me of how Five Guys was before they became a big chain, and is probably a place I’ll try to make sure to stop at on future hikes in the area.

2013-06-14 Veach Gap

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

Shenandoah River State Park

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Hike Summary

It was a blustery, and chill day, not exactly the kind of day you would expect in Spring, but Winter is still digging in claws in this area, even now.

I wanted a fairly easy hike, since I am still without my hiking staff after losing it. I also wanted to avoid river crossings, since that had been the cause of my calamity. So — The lengthily named Raymond R. “Andy” Guest, Jr. Shenandoah River State Park it was. It gave me a nice trip and hike without too steep of inclines and descents, and no big rivers to cross, just a gigantic one to hike next to.

This is a relatively newish park, some of the land has been acquired only in the last decade or so, and it has a brand new (and gorgeous) visitor’s center. I parked at the shambling looking horse stables, and made my way out.

Most of the first part of the trail is woodlands, with the trail meandering through river valleys, a vista that I’ve gotten pretty familiar with, but still enjoy. Part of my reason for hiking is also for fitness, so even if the views aren’t incredibly spectacular, I like being in the forest, and I like feeling my heart rate pick up and my body getting used to the rhythm of the hike.

This park has a dense network of trails, described on Hiking Upward as “a labyrinth” and they’re definitely not wrong. I only made one misstep, not totally paying attention at one intersection and wandering off on the wrong trail for about half a mile. I realized that my GPS was no longer making its characteristic beeps that I was on the trail, and realized I needed to turn around. Amusingly enough, if I had stayed on that trail it would have curved back around to where I needed to go in the first place!

The trail finally comes out to a vista point where you get some great views of the Shenandoah River. It was extremely windy by that point, so I huddled on a bench and drank my tea and a Clif Bar, trying to stay warm.

After that, the trail gently wound down to the lowlands by the river itself. This was a very pleasant portion of the hike, as the trail went alongside the river. There were ducks and geese in the shallows, flying up as I walked past. Plenty of benches lined the gravel trail, making me suspect that this is a great place in the winter. There were also a couple of cabins along the way, which would be a nice place to spend a spring or possibly even summer evening camping.

There was one difficult water crossing at the one end of the river section, as a canal was overflowing its banks, but I was able to go around one end and get away from it. After that, the trail wound back up the hill to the trailhead.

Afterwards, on the way out of town, I was particularly hungry for lunch, so I decided to stop by The Apple House Restaurant in Linden. It’s a little bit touristy, but a lot local — the kind of place that places like The Cracker Barrel are trying to be. Their specialty are apple doughnuts, which are incredibly delicious. I am both sad and glad I didn’t buy an entire dozen, as I doubt they would have made the car trip home. They also have sandwiches (named for many of the local college mascots) and some very delicious pulled pork BBQ. It’s definitely a great place to stop if you’re going into or out of any of the national/state parks in the area, and I’m sure they get quite busy during tourist season.

Shenandoah River State Park