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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

Appalachian Trail – VA 605 to Rod Hollow Shelter

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Hike Summary

The Appalachian Trail, or the AT, as most people who are familiar with it, winds 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine. Most of it lies within driving distance of much of the population of the east coast.

Sometimes I’m a little surprised that more people don’t know about it, but then again, most people don’t hike as much as I do, or aren’t into hiking as much as I am. I was recently listening to the Nerdist Podcast where they were interviewing Michael C. Hall (of Dexter and Six Feet Under) and I was a little surprised when the host seemed unaware of what kind of hike the AT was.

Unfortunately, because of Mark Sanford and his infamous “I was hiking the Appalachian Trail” remark during his scandal, the AT trickled into the consciousness of pop culture as the butt of a joke. I cannot tell you how many times  I’ve mentioned to people that I’m hiking on the AT, only to get references to Sanford or other giggly responses.

The AT is so much more than that. It’s a trail, yes, but sometimes I think it’s much more than that. It’s a link that crosses all those states and although it often goes over terrain that really just wasn’t wanted, it goes through some remarkable places, and affords wonderful views.

Although on this particular day, I didn’t really hike anywhere that was all that remarkable, view wise. I hiked a section of the AT that is famous (or infamous) amongst hikers: The Roller Coaster.

The Roller Coaster section (or, the part I hiked of it, about half,) winds up and down hollows, in an area that’s more or less unremarkable. There aren’t really any views at this time of the year because of the leaf cover, and it’s mainly just a hike of endurance, knowing that beyond one hill is another hill, over and over until the other side. It’s sort of numbing, even with a day pack, I can imagine it is probably pretty unpleasant for thru hikers.

Still, let not my description fool you, there’s still plenty of things of interest along the way. It’s getting on in the summer, but there are still wildflowers about, particularly in the wetter areas. Berries are starting to ripen, but not along this area, I’m sure there are more to the south in Sky Meadows and GRT.  There are some solid rock formations, and I found a nice one and a shaft of sunlight to sit in for a time while I was out. I didn’t actually want to leave the spot, it was so pleasant. Those big jutting rocks must have been awful for farmers, but I find them now to be like little islands amongst the sea of foliage. They bring to mind gongshi, Chinese scholar rocks.

Hiking overall is a bit of meditation for me. I leave the modern world behind. I (for the most part) put the trappings of civilization away, or at least stow them in my pockets or pack, unused except to take photographs or find my way. I generally try to avoid using my phone except to keep loved ones updated with my status.

I leave my mind open, quiescent. Whatever trickles into my thoughts does so, and I try to look at it and then let it go. This way it helps my mind to decompress from my stresses and frustrations. Sometimes I wish I could spend all of my time on the trail, because of that sense of tranquility I get. I am often envious of the thru-hikers I encounter, although I suppose they’re just as envious of the ability I have to go home and take a shower and sleep on a mattress.

After the Roller Coaster section of the trail, I went a little further to Rod Hollow Shelter, one of the many shelters along the AT. I’d been here before back in March, and it was for the most part unchanged. A little dryer, a little stinkier, but still a pleasant place to stop and eat a snack. I saw some gorgeous Cardinal Flowers. They’re fairly ephemeral, but when seen they really are quite a show.

The return trip was much the same. The same up and down undulation of hill and hollow, with just myself and my dog. The other hikers I’d encountered were long gone, on their way to Bear’s Den or other points north on the trail. I wish them well on their journey to Katahdin.

For me, it was a trip back home, although I found a new ice cream stand to stop at. It’s called Bears, and it’s in the middle of downtown Marshall. It wasn’t stupendous, but it wasn’t bad. Ice cream, in my opinion, is like sex or pizza: Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. They did have some pretty awesome street art for their place, although it didn’t … quite match the name.

2013-08-09 Ashby Hollow

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


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

New Obsession – iNaturalist

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So, I was flipping through a magazine, and saw a recommendation for a website and app: iNaturalist. Seemed pretty neat, so I decided to check out the app and the website.

They have an app for both iPhones and Android phones, the Android one is slightly primitive but it seems to work alright. You take a picture, or attach one from your gallery, and upload it. If you’re not sure what it is, the helpful people (many of whom are botanists and other types of researchers) can help you identify it.

Their site is also easy to use, and you can keep lists of flora and fauna that you’ve seen or that you’d like to see. There are also research projects that you can join to help naturalists; I joined a project on the Redbud (Cercis) genus of trees.

It seems like another fun thing I can add to my hikes and a way to feel more useful.

And if you do join, follow my observations there!

Bull Run Mountain Conservancy

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Hike Summary

It was a rather warm July morning when I set out, and I steeled myself a little in anticipation of a somewhat busy hike. It was a Friday, but it was also the Friday of a 4-day weekend, so I had a feeling that it was going to be rather busy anyhow.

I was very much correct. Bull Run Mountain Conservancy is one of the closer hiking areas to suburban Northern Virginia, and only about 10 minutes from my house. I hadn’t ventured in before now because they had a no dogs policy, but at some point in the past year, they seem to have changed that, and now allow dogs on leashes, which makes me pretty happy.

I like to think I’m a good dog hiker, I make sure he’s leashed and I don’t let him wander too far or be obnoxious. I always get off the trail and let other people pass by. I always pick up after him. It drives me up the wall that there are some dog owners out there that have to ruin it for the rest of us with their bad behavior.

So I set off, and followed the trail, which was very wide and park-like. It goes past the ruins of a house and the Chapman/Beverly Mill, which is a mill that was in operation before the Civil War, and was occupied by both sides during the war and used as a staging area. It burned down, and there’s a group working on restoring it. Hiking in BRMC is one of the ways you can actually see the mill up close, as opposed to seeing a glimpse of it as you zoom past on I66.

The interstate is, unfortunately, an almost constant presence in the park. It takes some time before you get fully away from the sound of the cars. The trail continues on up a nicely graded path towards the overlook. I was sort of but not entirely surprised at the number of people I saw hiking, even at this early hour. I quickly lost count of the people I let pass me or I saw coming down the hill. I also have a feeling that there are some people that have a quick out and back hike up to the overlook and back, and that might be something I add to my workouts to get more hills rather than just walking on a flat surface. It’s something to think about, anyhow.

While I was hiking, I noticed lots of little holes in the trail. These were most likely from the recent brood of cicadas we had this year. They’re gone now, and they honestly seemed not nearly as dire as they were predicting. I heard them quite a few times when I was out hiking, but they weren’t nearly as bad as they were the previous year.

I got up to the overlook and took a break, taking some notes in my notebook (a new habit I’m adopting so I’m better able to remember points about my hikes, so these posts are more interesting,) and eating a snack. I tried to sit away by myself a little, so I had some solitude. Not long after I’d sat down, a group of teenagers came hiking up, talking loudly and generally being a little obnoxious. One of them even stepped on my pen after I’d sat it down to just (try to) enjoy the view. They do say that hell is other people, and that’s one of the reasons I prefer to hike during the week, so there are less people to disturb me.

One of the things I enjoyed about the overlook is it’s something I’ve seen many times from I66 as I’ve been driving out to Front Royal and other parts west. You can see it very clearly from the interstate, a slash of white on a ridge across the way. It was nice to be able to see the interstate and the surrounding countryside from up on high, although it was quite a bit overcast still, with a little wind.

After enjoying the view, I decided to keep on the trail as it went on up a little higher. There were a couple more overlooks, and the trail came to the top of High Point, and then started to descend. I was really quite curious as to where the trail ends up, but I decided that maybe I’ll find out another day, unless someone out there knows the answer. Upon some further investigation with Google Maps, it looks like it may go all the way to Hopewell Road on the other side, at least if Street View is to be believed.

On the way back I started to descend the other side of the mountain, and this way was very steep and poorly graded, and I had to inch along a little bit. The trails in this area are generally fairly poorly signed, with only some numbered signposts at intersections. It is pretty much a requirement to have a map while you’re in this park. In fact, I ran across a very lost group of people that were trying to get to the top, and I gave them directions. They’d lost their map.

I was in a section of the park that was a maze of little side trails. The guide I was using had pointed to a spur trail that didn’t exist anymore, and I slogged through some mud  and decided to head off in a different direction, towards the edge of the park. There was an area, past the railroad crossing, where there were some planted pine trees. It smelled very nice, but it also felt so sterile. The trees were laid out like graph paper, marching away in rows, and it just felt unnatural and kinda spooky. I turned around at the boundary of the park and made my way back, adding in a little side loop in the middle of the park for some added miles.

At this time of the year there aren’t as many wildflowers, at least not in this park, but I did see quite a few interesting mushrooms and fungi. Not all of them were listed in my little Audubon Mid-Atlantic Guide, but one of the more interesting ones that was in there was an Old-Man-Of-The-Woods. It looked almost like it was encrusted with black crystals, very pretty.

My hike completed, I decided to take a little detour on my way home and I drove out to New Baltimore and to Effie’s Frozen Favorites, another roadside ice cream stand. They have a number of sundaes on their menu, and I couldn’t resist getting a brownie one. A great way to finish off the day!

2013-07-05 Bull Run Mountain Conservancy

Laurel Run – George Washington NF

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Hike Summary

I decided to range out to a different area this week, and so I went to the section of GWNF that’s west of I-81. It’s a bit of a drive, but it is also a much wilder area of Virginia, straddling the VA/WV border, feeling really out in the middle of nowhere.

At first, I missed the turnoff and parking spot for the hike, as my phone GPS (that I use for driving) seemed to think that the parking was somewhere that it wasn’t. I fired up my handheld, and luckily it was able to more accurately pinpoint where the starting place was, so I turned around on the unmarked forestry road and made my way back.

This little mishap is one of the reasons I don’t like to use my smartphone as a navigation aid whilst out hiking. The GPS isn’t as accurate as a handheld, and the battery life is nowhere near necessary. GPS navigation is a heavy draw on a battery, and you can run it down in a matter of a couple of hours. I usually prefer to keep my battery for taking some photos and for the need to make a phone call if necessary, although even that is not something that can be guaranteed while out in the wilderness.

I went hiking on a Wednesday this week, instead of my usual Thursday. The night before, I decided to check on the weather forecast. There were some hefty thunderstorms and rain forecast for Thursday, so I decided I should move things around and I am glad I did. The weather was fairly tempestuous, but nothing too severe or too hot.

the first part of the hike, up Laurel Run Trail, was pretty steep and frequently rocky. It seems like this trail probably gets frequent rainfall and so there’s a bit of erosion. It’s broken up a couple of times by some gorgeous open meadows.

Up at the top, the trail meets up with the North Mountain trail. This was a great trail that, appropriately enough, skirted along Great North Mountain, along the border between Virginia and West Virginia.

There were quite a few views from up here, but the trail was also incredibly overgrown at times by summer grasses. I had a hard time getting to one of the overlooks because of this; the grass was a few feet high and made footing a little rough.

Despite this, there was still a great variety of terrain and plantlife to walk through. There were forested copses, high ridges, meadowy balds that were full of thistles (and this made me very glad I had my walking stick with me, so I could push them out of the way!) and thorny humps of berries and roses. I saw some wild blueberries and sampled just one; I don’t like to take anything out of the land if I can help it.

The day was growing warmer but also seemed a little unpredictable, as if a thunderstorm could roll in at any moment, so I kept moving for the most part and didn’t really stop as much as I’d like to take in the scenery, or really to eat much more than a Clif bar and some trail mix. This is something I feel I need to work on sometimes. I need to be able to just relax and take things in, and worry less. It’s just part of my slightly anxious nature, I suppose. I do feel overall as if the hikes are still very much helping me. It helps to just get out and not have to be constantly distracted by phones and computer things so much. It helps to just sometimes only think about where the next footstep goes.

After a while along the varied terrain, I came upon the intersection with the Stack Rock Trail. This was a bit of an interesting trail, as it wasn’t blazed incredibly well, and that same issue with overgrowth almost at one point took me off in the wrong direction. I quickly realized my mistake and corrected it. It was a pretty steep descent down a series of switchbacks to the Laurel Run Spur Trail, which is actually also a gravel road. One of the things I noticed is you can tell that there probably was clearcut logging at some point in the past, as there were a lot of open meadows along this trail.

Back to the end I was, and time for another visit to Spelunker’s in Front Royal. A sweet waffle bowl ice cream sundae was the perfect way to end the day.

2013-06-27 Laurel Run