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Tuscarora Trail to Kepler Overlook – George Washington National Forest

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Hike Summary

This particular day for this hike was forecast to be such a nice day that I felt it was criminal to not go for a hike. So, despite a little bit of ankle pain (from ODH training) I picked a region I hadn’t been in a while.

Good old George Washington National Forest. You are my old and I think bestest friend, followed closely by Shenandoah and the AT.

GWNF, with your obscure trailheads, your barely visible blazes, your rules allowing me to let my dog off the leash. Your rustic sensibilities, your frequent campsites, your dirtiness. Who knows what manner of moonshiner or pot grower lives within you, as long as they don’t decide that I’m an intruder.

Finding the trailhead was an adventure, as trailheads usually are here. There are some really nice cabins and houses back in these obscure folds of land in Virginia. I assume that a lot of them are seasonal hunting lodges, or just people who like living somewhere that there aren’t people out to bother them. The first part of the drive up from Woodstock, up Zepp road, was pretty, with nice views. Then at some point it devolved into almost single-lane gravelly road, which is totally fine with me (although probably not so much my car’s alignment.) Finally, we end up at a pretty decent parking area with campsites, and a little connector trail/gate gravel road out to the Tuscarora Trail.

I really do want to backpack the Tuscarora Trail someday. It is a trail with a lot of character, the way it goes over the various ridges and makes a big western arc to and from the AT. It took over the path of several other trail names, so it retains those names in its own name as it makes its way through VA and WVA before turning east into PA. There are a few shelters like for the AT, but it’s mostly pretty much on your own for finding places. I’ve noticed quite a lot of camping spots though, so that seems pretty easy.

The day started out pretty grey and overcast, but warmed up as I went along. The first part of the hike is pretty easy, and there’s a nice campsite along Cedar Creek where I cross it. The trail follows an old ore road up the mountain, and then there’s another extremely … creative bridge over the creek again.

My dog has more sense than I and just fords the water. I hold onto the railing and make my way across the rickety thing, worrying all the while that it’s going to fail on me and I’m going to fall in.

This is not to be. I am safe and sound as we continue up the trail. Things look like they’re all thawed, but then I encounter an area that is pretty much all still snow covered. It’s a little slow going, as things are icy and even with my nice boots things are either slippery, or like hiking through sand dunes. Eventually though, I make my way through the winter wonderland and up to the top of the ridge.

There’s an excellent view of the Shenandoah Valley from here, along a ridge/cliff of rock. There are several campsites along the area, and someone has helpfully nailed a thermometer to a tree, allowing me to check out the current conditions.

58F. Not bad.

It was still pretty hazy up there, but the sun was coming out here and there through the clouds, so I spent at least an hour relaxing up at the top, enjoying the view. I scribbled in my journal, taking notes on the hike so I don’t forget when it comes time to sit down and write. There’s a really nice fire ring with seating there, so it made it extra easy to linger.

I thought about adding some extra miles to the hike, but my ankle was still a little sore from the hike (plus the next day I foolishly went for another hour long walk instead of doing nothing,) so I figured it was a bad idea to push things. It was time to head back.

On the way out of the area, I decided to try to find Van Buren Furnace, which is another one of those pig iron furnaces that dot this region. I found it, but oddly there was a “No Trespassing, Private Property” sign. It struck me as odd, because it’s supposed to be on an acre of forestry land. I suppose the locals were just trying to keep people like me away.

Kepler Overlook
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Woodstock Equestrian Park – Montgomery County, MD

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Hike Summary

Since I have been logging some pretty long and hard miles during my One Day Hike training hikes, I thought it would be a good idea on my “fun” hiking days to go on some shorter hikes that I might not normally do. I don’t know if it’s something in my slightly warped OCD brain that’s broken a little or what, but I have a hard time considering any hike under 10 miles to be much of a hike these days.

I need to learn to enjoy the short hikes, too.

I picked this hike at the last minute, thinking that this particular day there was going to be some snow or rain, but at mid morning the forecast said it was going to be nice, so I threw all my hiking stuff in my bag, loaded up the dog and headed up there.

Woodstock Equestrian Park is a relatively newish park in the more rural part of Montgomery County, Maryland. It is primarily intended as an equestrian park (duh) but the cross country course is just as usable for a hiker with their dog.

The park goes through rolling hills, mostly fields, with some thickets of trees interspersed here and there. The snow was starting to melt (it would be totally gone by the end of the next day) so at times it ended up being a little bit of a mudpit. Thank goodness for waterproof boots.

One of the nice things was that someone from the maintenance department had driven through with a vehicle of some sort, so there was a flattened strip of snow through the park, making it a little easier to get around.

At one point when I was hiking along, a herd of deer burst through the edge of the field and ran across it. I was so bemused taking in the scene that only at the last minute did I start to fumble for my phone and the camera. By the time I peeled off my gloves, they were gone. There was something enchanting about seeing them run across, they were almost floating over the snow.

There was a rich, tannic smell to the air at some points, hard to tell if it was the fields or just the smell of the thawing earth. At the time it smelled like spring, but now that I’m sitting, writing this with almost a foot of snow on the ground, it must have been a false spring.

I stopped for a snack and a rest at the Seneca Stone Barn. This is an old stone horse barn that was restored by the parks department when they were working on improving the park, and they did a very nice job. There’s a little information station explaining the history of the barn. I do wish there was a bench to sit on here, I had to make do with one of the thresholds instead.  That’s my only complaint though, and really I should be used to not having much to sit on but logs as it is.

Moving on, I exited the field section and made my way downhill and across the busy road. Then there was a section that was a bit more forested and a bit snowy as well. It was nice to have some bits that felt more like “real” hiking, with the enclosure of the forest. There was one section with a bit of a hill and a powerline clearing that was pretty.

At the bottom of the hill was a dirt road and the way back to the car. I had had a good leg stretching. and a place I have wanted to visit was on my route home.

Rocky Point Creamery. The last time I tried to visit this place was possibly around the same time last year when I’d gone to Sugarloaf, and of course it being still wintry, they are on limited hours. This time however, I was there when they were open!

They do have excellent ice cream, as I’ve found to be the case pretty much for all local type ice cream places I’ve visited. They’re a tiny smidge pricier than some of the other places I’ve been to, but that might just be the price difference between Maryland and Virginia. I didn’t mind, it was tasty. I had Banana Pudding and Butter Pecan flavors in a sundae with caramel, and it was an all-round great combination. They’re also part of the Maryland Ice Cream Trail, and I think when that rolls around again this year, I’m going to have to participate.

As I continued on, I was still a little bit hungry. I was back in Virginia, and what should my eyes see but a roadside BBQ stand. If there’s one thing I’ve found in my wanderings, it is that roadside BBQ is some of the best BBQ. This place is run by Catoctin Popcorn, who also have a location in Harper’s Ferry. I had some of their pulled pork with NC sauce, and it was delicious. I thought about suggesting to them that they set up a booth during the One Day Hike (they’re located just across the Potomac from the C&O trail,) but if they did that, I’d be tempted to stop and eat too much.

Woodstock Equestrian Park

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

ODH Training Hike #3 – Northwest Branch and Sligo Creek

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Hike Summary

This was an extraordinarily long hike, but it was very enjoyable. It started out extremely cold, but as the day wore on it became very nice. I’m glad my backpack was mostly empty, because I had several layers that needed to be shoved into it.

On the first section of the hike I wished that I had my hiking boots and walking stick, as it was pretty much cross country type terrain, but the latter 2/3 of the hike I was glad I didn’t have them, as it was mostly paved. This has caused me a little bit of discomfort today, I seem to have strained a tendon on the front of my ankle and am trying to take things easy.

I’m very glad I was able to keep with the group, as I would have been lost without people that knew where they were going. There’s a lot of turns and detours on this route.

I met quite a few great people that I hope to see again at the upcoming training hikes. It also motivated me to join the Mid-Atlantic Hiking Group, as a couple of the hikers are hike leaders for that group and invited me to join them on their full hike of the Bull Run Occoquan Trail.

I wish I had time to stop and take more pictures, that’s the one disadvantage of these training hikes. One is so focused on getting the pace and miles in, it’s hard to really stop and take time to look around.

ODH Training Hike #2 – C&O Canal at Pennyfield Lock

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Hike Summary

It was very cold. So cold that the friends I made at the previous hike didn’t go.

I kinda don’t blame them, in retrospect.

Still, there was a pretty good handful of people there, and I managed to get 19.12 miles under my belt.

Lessons learned:

  • Either the new socks I got worked great, or the dirt/gravel surface was kinder. Possibly both!
  • Make sure, when it is cold, to keep one’s chin covered. I got frost nip or wind burn on my chin and a lot of peeling a couple of days later.
  • I was in this odd nowhere zone of being too slow compared to one group, and too fast compared to another, so I spent a majority of my hike on my own, which was a little bit lonely. I am glad I packed my headset though, and listened to a good chunk of audiobook. At the end of the time my headset was on low, so if I need to use it on the ODH, I’ll have to keep that in mind.
  • I drank almost all of my water, even though it was cold.
  • There’s always pretty things to see on the C&O. It’s much harder to stop and take pictures when you’re trying to get miles, though.

I hope the snow that we had all melts by next Saturday!

ODH Training Hike #1 – W&OD from Vienna to Reston

Hike Summary

There’s no corresponding photos to go with this, but I’ll just give a few notes.

17.5 miles. I didn’t intend to go that far. I really had only planned on the 12 mile option, but I met some nice people and made some friends, so we ended up going a little further!

Lessons learned:

  • Sports Bra works great, I’ll post a review of that soon.
  • Shoes seem to be good, but this was all asphalt for the most part, and since I was breaking in new shoes (and haven’t really been on a long walk in a while,) I have terrible shin splints.
  • Socks: I need to do some research. I ended up with one pretty large blister on one heel, so I need to get something better. I was using an older pair of mid weight hiking socks, and I think perhaps they’re just too worn for this kind of punishment.
  • Losing Weight: not my body (although that needs a little work) but in my pack. Ditch anything nonessential and/or get a smaller pack just for this purpose, that can carry a 3L water bladder.
  • I really should have gone on these hikes last year, and I would have learned more of these lessons! But I was (and always am) working on my social anxiety issues, and it can be rough to be in a group of strangers. I had a bit of anxiety at the beginning but it went away as I made some trail friends.

Hopefully the weather holds up this next weekend and I can get out there again.

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