The Hiking Weekend: The Billy Goat Trail (And Other Trails At Great Falls)

The Great Falls of the Potomac river are located not too far from where we live. There are parks associated with these Falls on both sides of the river. Great Falls Park is on the Virginia side of the river. On the Maryland side, the park is considered a part of the 184.5 mile C&O Canal National Historic Park that runs from Washington, DC, to Cumberland, MD. The Billy Goat trails are located in the Great Falls section the national historic park. There is an old tavern beside the canal at Great Falls that now serves as a Visitor Center for the park. There are many visitors to this section of the C&O canal, most of them who have come to get a view of the Potomac river and the Great Falls from Olmsted island. You can see the river in all its fury as the river channel narrows and the mass of water is funneled down into the Mather Gorge.

But the adventure that drew me to this location was not the Great Falls themselves. I was here because I wanted to hike the Billy Goat trail, Section A – the original Billy Goat trail. (Sections B and C are more recent additions.)

It had been many years since I had faced the challenge of the Billy Goat Trail. It was a distant memory by this point. I remember clambering over rocks of random shapes and sizes and negotiating rocky cliffs. I remembered having to use my hands for climbing, and my butt for sliding down. I also remembered the views of Mather Gorge from the trail. I had a memory of how much fun it all had been.

The trail system around Great Falls was not well developed when I last explored the original Billy Goat Trail. I decided that I would get my miles in by exploring these newer trails also this time. I finished the day walking almost 9 miles.

This Billy Goat Trail has become more and more crowded in recent times because of of its location. This is a well populated section of Montgomery County, the place where we live. These are also the suburbs of Washington, DC – a big city and the capital of the country! The Billy Goat trail is probably the most challenging trail close to us.

In order to better manage an untenable situation with an increasingly overcrowded trail, starting in 2020, the authorities have strongly recommended its usage as a one-way trail. (Indeed, all the relevant trail markers do not indicate that this is only a recommendation!) This setup prevents one from running into people going in the opposite direction in sections where it is clearly impossible to pass each other. You are supposed to hike the trail from north to south. The best place to park your vehicle to get to the trail head as quickly as possible is at the Visitor Center at Great Falls, a location less than a half-an-hour drive from home. So, there I was!

This was the morning after the change from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time. As a result, I was at the park very early. I walked south along the canal towpath to get to the entrance for the trail.

There were other signs warning people about the challenging nature of the trail. This was not a hike primarily about climbing great heights or descending down mountains. The main challenge is keeping your footing when climbing up and down the big rocks. Dogs are not allowed on this trail!

The early sections of the hike were relatively easy, but the random rocks that you saw along the way were an indication of what was to come.The trail ran parallel to the Mather Gorge. There were certain places where you could walk up to the edge of cliff to view the gorge. This is a panoramic view of Mather Gorge early in the hike. (I “stitched” three individual picture to create this view.)From the pattern of the shadows in the gorge, you can make out that it was still early in the morning when I took the picture.

Soon we were clambering over rocks. It was easy to get lost because there was no obvious trail, and the only indication that you were headed in the right direction were the trail markers, sometimes at a distance, painted on the rocks. You had to scan the horizon (in a manner of speaking) to find out where the next marker was located since the path to be taken to get across the rock piles was not necessarily a straight one. Having said that, it would probably be difficult to get lost in this space if one kept going a generally southerly direction. The primary issue when going off-trail was probably wandering into ecologically sensitive areas and causing damage.

You had to use both your hands to climb up and down rocks, and to keep your balance on uneven surfaces. There was the occasional use of the butt to slide down rocks. The trail even went up and down the side of the cliff beside the river on a couple of occasions. I had to put my camera away in the backpack so that it would not bang on to the rocks and get damaged. I would only take it out on occasions when I sensed a photo opportunity.

It was about this time of the hike that I began to feel the draw of this particular trail in a stronger and more insistent manner. This was exciting! The adrenaline was flowing.

Here are a couple of pictures of the gorge taken a little later in the morning.
The most challenging section of the hike was the location seen in the picture below. I believe that unofficial name for this place is The Traverse.

Although difficult, the challenge of The Traverse is probably more mental than physical. You do have to overcome your fears. You will reach out with your hands and feet for something that seems unreachable. You will have to also trust the traction on your shoes as you step on the inclined rock. (Do not wear shoes with worn out soles!) In the end, people of varying abilities and of a wide range of ages seemed to be able to make it through. Of course, you would not want to try to get across The Traverse if you had some infirmity that limited your movements in any way.

After a while, the trail veered away from the river towards its termination point on the the C&O Canal towpath at Widewater. The nature of the trail changed somewhat,although there were still some rocky sections like this one.Once I was back on the towpath next to Widewater, I proceeded south to the bridge at Anglers Inn.

I crossed the bridge

and got on the Berma Road trail to connect to the newer trail system at Great Falls (that I talked about earlier). I took a random path through these trails, moving generally in a northerly direction, but also checking out as many of them as I could in the process. The Gold Mine Loop Trail appears to be the trail of note here. The trees were generally still mostly green in the woods.I was able to make my way back to The Tavern using the Overlook Trail.

I could have ended the hike at this point since I was back at the place where I had started it, but the distance I had covered at that point was less than what I had covered the other days of the weekend. It did not feel right! I compensated by walking a further couple of miles – going north on the River Trail and returning to The Tavern on the towpath.

This was a fantastic end to a weekend of hiking!

The Hiking Weekend: Seneca Creek State Park

Seneca Creek State Park is a place that I go to regularly. It is actually a part of one of my running loops that I can get on to directly from home. I typically run along the south shore of Clopper Lake, and on Mink Hollow Trail and the Greenway Trail, approaching and departing the park from the south.

You get a nice view of Clopper Lake and its shoreline through the trees when driving on Longdraft Road. The view tends to draw your attention (you might end up taking your eye off the road for just an instantšŸ˜‰), especially in the early mornings when the sunlight lights up the trees on the sides of the lake. From past experience, I know that this view can actually be somewhat stunning when Fall is at its peak. I had been hoping to actually see and experience this view this year. It had been a while since I took my last Autumn picture from this vantage point. A hike going through this location became a goal for the weekend’s activities.

I needed to get to the target location for the picture I wanted to take a little later in the morning, after the sun had cleared the trees. The point was to get the sun shining directly on the trees rather than have them in the shadows. Since the park was close to home, I had to make sure that I did not leave home too early.

This is a picture I got from the location of interest.My overall timing for the picture had ended up not being ideal – too late for the colors and too early in the morning to avoid shadows. This was not the picture I had had in my imagination, but it would have to do.

There happened to be a few birds in the water in that corner of the lake.
I walked along the north shore of Clopper Lake. (As I mentioned before, I am usually on the other side of the lake.)

Fall could be experienced in its full brilliance along the lakeside.But there were also other sections of the trail where all the leaves on the trees were still green. These sections tended to be a little away from the shoreline. While I was generally not motivated to take pictures of green foliage, this section of evergreens, away from the lake, did catch my eye.

I took a diversion from the lake to walk along a road leading towards the entrance of the park. I then took a trail leading down to Seneca Creek from the parking lot for the Park Office near the entrance.I ended up on the Greenway Trail which runs all along the creek, beyond the boundaries of the park itself.

This is a picture of another section of the park closer to the Long Draught Branch, a creek at emerges from the dam for Clopper Lake. The trail is called the Long Draught trail.As the pictures in this blog show, different kinds of trees dominate different sections of the park. There must be a logical reason for this.

This hike did not take too much time. I was generally zipping up and down slopes which in past years would have presented actual challenges. But I was also getting tired towards the end of the hike. I slowed down in the section south of the Great Seneca Highway closer to home.

Not having had to drive anywhere to get on the trail, and because of the relative ease of the trail, I was done with the hike rather early in the morning. I did manage to cover over over 8 miles.

The Hiking Weekend: Sugarloaf Mountain

I found myself on my own last weekend, the rest of the family – the ladies – having decided to have a weekend to themselves in NYC!

My thoughts turned to outdoor activities. This was an opportunity for me to focus on things I could do on my own, to do things my own way, and to push myself to my own limits without worrying about others.

It was too cold for biking. I decided to spend the weekend hiking. I could hopefully cover significant distances, and also tackle some challenges that I have not been able to get to recently.

I was also hoping that during the weekend I would meet with some level of success in finding places where the leaves were turning on account of Fall. (Some hopes never seem to die!) I was successful in this endeavor, but with one surprising twist. I would find areas of green, changing color, and even trees without leaves, all within within a few hundred yards of each other within a single park. There could be any number of reasons for this. Perhaps it was difference in the kind of trees in different locations in the park. It could have been the location of the trees themselves – beside a body of water, or on a hill, or in a location that was exposed to winds in a certain way. It was a “micro climate” kind of phenomena that I had not anticipated. Or, perhaps, I was being more sensitive to this phenomenon this year.

Having said all that, my focus when taking pictures during the weekend to a large extent still remained the phenomenon of Fall. How could it not be? This turning of the leaves is something that happens only once a year, and it lasts for such a short period of time. It transience is part of what makes it attractive. For that reason only, the pictures that I post will probably be primarily about Fall. The reader may get the mistaken impression that the experience of the hikes of the weekend was fully about the colors of Fall. That was not the case.

My destination for the first hike of the weekend was Sugarloaf Mountain. I was able to get out of the house very early, and was at the trail head shortly after 8 am, less than half an hour after sunrise. The temperatures had fallen below freezing during the night, and it was still cold. I was dressed warmly in a few layers.

I was able to get this picture just outside the park. The scene caught my attention as I was driving past. It has to be noted that this is a fully landscaped area with trees planted for their visual impact. This is not completely natural. But, it did have the Fall colors I was hoping to see!

I met an older gentleman at the start of the first trail I took, near the entrance to the park. From the way he was dressed up and equipped, he appeared to be a seasoned walker. As I overtook him, I made a comment about the fact that the leaves on the trees had not changed color in that area. He mentioned right away about how beautiful it had been in the Shenandoah National Park the previous weekend. He noted the bright reds of the Oaks and the Maple he had seen during his visit. Dang! We had been about three weeks too early when we made our own visit.

I was keeping a brisk pace up the mountain. I was feeling it! As I left the older gentleman behind, I was wondering what his life story was all about. His face look quite weathered. He had a Peace Corp logo stitched into his beanie, and he seemed to be able to spend his weekends enjoying the experience of hiking on his own in the mountains. These were all positive signs to me.

Surprisingly, I ran into the same gentleman in the park on two other occasions – once in the middle of the hike, and once towards the end. I was generally walking at a much faster clip than he was, but was deliberately taking longer routes. I even took a break in the middle to make a phone call to India!

Here are some pictures from the hike.

This is the extent to which the colors were turning in certain sections near the beginning of the hike.The sun was still low in the sky at this point.

My first stop was the overlook at the eastern parking lot.

The next stop was the overlook on Sugarloaf Mountain, the main peak in the park. The trails to this peak are the steepest in the park and are quite challenging. It was a good way to start the day.You can see the Potomac river and the towers of the Dickerson Power Station from the summit.

And then it was time to descend from Sugarloaf Mountain and head off towards the northern peaks of the park. This was a long stretch of hiking. I had the trail mostly to myself, very rarely running across another human being. It was very peaceful – just me, the trail, and the woods. I cannot even remember the sounds of the birds. It was quiet except for the occasional distant sound of the rumble of traffic.

The view from the White Rocks, the northernmost peak in the park, was not as panoramic as that from Sugarloaf. I took this picture to try to capture how the colors were changing in a wooded area below us.

On the way back from the northern peaks, the trail descended all the way down to the level of a road that runs through the park. (I have biked on this road before!) This was how the trees looked at that level.It felt like the phenomenon of Fall was past its peak in this section of the park.

And then it was back once again on a trail that went up the mountain. I had an opportunity to climb to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain once again, but decided not to push my luck since I was a little tired at that point. I took a trail that skirted the peak. On the way down the mountain, during the last stretch, I came upon these ruins on a short side trail.I find it interesting that a majority of of the old stone ruins that I have come across while hiking seem to have only their chimneys still standing. There is surely a logical reason for this.

I hiked a little more than eight miles on Friday. Having started early in the morning, I had time to do some shopping at the grocery store on the way back home. I was feeling good. I rewarded myself with a turkey panini from the deli. It was a very satisfying finish to the activity of the morning.

The Third And Last Day On The Skyline Drive

We were up early once again this morning.After breakfast, we had to pack away all our stuff into the car because we were checking out. The plan was to get back on the Skyline Drive and, instead of exploring the southern section of the park once again, head north – in the general direction of home!

It had been very quiet around the tiny home during our stay. This morning I happened to hear what sounded like birds. So I stepped out with my camera to take some pictures. The sun was rising through the trees.I managed to find the Wren that had been making the noises.

Our first stop in the park that morning was in the Big Meadows Area. This is one of the popular sections of the park. It includes a Visitor Center, and even a gas station and a lodge. Our destination for the hike was the Dark Hollow Falls trail, between the mile 50 and 51 markers. Although short, the trail was advertised as being steep and rocky with a challenging return climb. Dogs were not allowed.

The parking lot was full even though it was early in the day. The trail turned out to be quite popular. This was the first trail on which we experienced true fall colors in the park.

We descended into the woods on a trail that was challenging in places.There were older people who were having a hard time of it in certain sections of the trail, and, unfortunately, some people had even brought their dogs.

The walk was worth it. The falls were quite beautiful.
We were done with this hike quickly. We headed further north to the Thornton Gap Area. The goal was to climb up to Mary’s Rock Summit, a landmark which lay on the Appalachian trail. We would be hiking from the parking lot for the Meadow Spring trail just north of Mile 34 on the Skyline Drive. We could not find parking space the first time we drove by the lot. We could not even find parking on the other side of the road, where the trail starts.We were fortunate to find an empty spot the second time we drove past the lot. We had to drive more than a mile away from the lot before we could to find a place where we could turn around to return to the parking lot!

You could see the signs of Fall at the entrance to the Meadow Spring Trail.The trail itself was fairly steep, taking us straight to the top of the ridge, where it ended.We then headed north on the Appalachian Trail which ran along the top of the ridge. After an initial climb along the ridge line itself, we were on a trail that ran fairly level the rest of the way to Mary’s Rock. Both sides of the trail were potentially open to panoramic views on the east and west sides during this part of the hike. Unfortunately most of the view was obscured by the vegetation.

There were signs of autumn along the trail. This part of the hike was easy. We got to Mary’s Rock without too much delay. The view from Mary’s Rock Summit was spectacular!We could see the Thornton Gap below us, and we could see US Route 211, the highway that we were going to take to get out of the park, at the point where it intersected with the Skyline Drive.

The hike back to the car was uneventful.

We had not prepared lunch for the day. We ate the leftover meatballs and spaghetti from the first day of this trip, and filled our stomach with other stuff.

We were able to head back home immediately after this hike. I thought we would make it home early. Unfortunately, we hit rush hour traffic by the time we got close to the city. It was not a good combination – being tired after all the activity of the day and then sitting in heavy traffic. I was quite exhausted by the time we got home. It was a stressful drive!

The First Day on The Skyline Drive

We started our short vacation in the Shenandoah National Park last Sunday.

The Getaway Outpost near the park that we were going to stay at was located closer to its southern end, just outside the village of Stanardsville, VA. My initial thought had been to drive to Stanardsville directly, driving on the main highways in order to get there as quickly as possible. I changed my mind shortly before we started out. We decided to start our explorations of the park on Sunday itself, starting at the northern end of the park. That entrance to the park, just outside of the town of Front Royal, VA, was very easily accessible to us via Interstate-66 – the most direct route to the park from Washington, DC. This was how we usually got into the park. This was also Mile 0 on the Skyline Drive.

I-66 transported us from the crowded suburbs and the unending construction close to the city to the bucolic countryside of Virginia. Soon we were approaching the eastern ridges and the hills and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains.

As we got closer to the park, we could not help but notice that the foliage everywhere was still green.

The Senior Pass that I had just got helped us bypass the longer lines at the entrance to the park. The first order of things was to stop at the Visitor center to decide the places that we wanted to visit within the park. A ranger indulged us with maps and suggestions for places to hike. The places suggested were located all along the park – starting close to the visitor center where we were beginning our visit, and extending to the place that would exit the park to get to Stanardsville (just beyond Mile 65 on the Skyline Drive) at the end of the day.

I could not help but notice that the Dickey Ridge visitor center that we were at was busy, but not overcrowded as it sometimes gets during the autumn season. People from the Indian subcontinent were present in large numbers.

Thankfully, the crowds diminished as we drove further into the park.The first stop was in the Compton Gap Area, just beyond mile 10. We hiked up to Compton Peak West from the Compton Gap Parking area. The parking lot was full but we found some space next to the road.The hike was mainly along the Appalachian trail.

We realized very quickly that this was not going to be like our typical weekend walks along the C&O Canal. The climb started right from the beginning of the trail.

The climbs were significant and persistent.This being the first of our hikes for the week, we had to take more than our usual quota of breaks to catch our breath. I did not think that the altitude was significant enough to be contributing to our troubles.

The Compton peak viewpoint itself was occupied by a group of young people who seemed to have had settled themselves in for the longer run. I had to settle for this picture.You may be able to actually make out the Skyline Drive on the ridge in front of us in the picture above (click on the picture to enlarge it). The roadway itself can be seen in one spot through a gap in the trees. You can see the road better in the zoomed-in picture below.

We did see some yellows on the trail.This being the first day of our visit to the park, we still had hope that we would see more Fall colors.

After the hike, we continued our way south into the park. We stopped at the Elkridge Wayside area and found a picnic bench where we could eat our peanut butter and cranberry marmalade sandwiches.

Along the way, we kept our eyes peeled for signs of seasonal change.

Our next hike was in the Hawksbill area. We took the Upper Hawksbill Trail from a parking lot south of Mile 46. This trail had a shorter climb to the peak than the Lower Hawksbill Trail, but was longer in distance, and also took a longer time. Our choice of trails is a good indication of our mindset when it came to hiking at that stage of our travels. We were conservative in our efforts.

The climb up the Upper Hawksbill Trail was not as challenging as the one we had done in the morning. We did see more signs of early autumn as we made our way through the woods.

The wind was picking up as we hiked the trail. We could hear it howling through the trees by the time we got to Hawksbill peak and the viewing platform there. It was even difficult to hold steady while taking pictures at the top!

Shafts of intense sunlight cut through the dark clouds moving over the valley, lighting up parts of the valley selectively.

As you can see below, the ridge line was clearly visible from the peak. If you open up the pictures below and look at them carefully in sequence, you can zoom in on an overlook on the Skyline Drive near the top of the ridge line. The overlook is on the west side of the ridge (on the left side of the ridge as seen in the picture). These pictures should hopefully give you a good idea of the scope of the panoramic view we were getting from this mountain top.

There were clearly signs of autumn in this section of the park.

This is a picture of Byrds Nest 2 shelter near Hawksbill peak. There are shelters and cabins throughout the park.Incidentally, Hawksbill is the highest peak in the park.

This was our last significant stop for the day. We drove further south on the Skyline Drive towards our destination for the evening, and left the park at the Swift Run exit just south of mile 65. We took US Route 33 East out of the park towards Stanardsville. We had to descend from the ridge on which the Skyline Drive is located on a winding road which was a little challenging, especially at the advertised highway speeds. The town was a few miles away from the park. We first did a bit of light shopping at the grocery store in town before heading out to the Getaway Outpost just outside of town.

The first evening at the outpost was a bit of an adventure. It was simply a matter of getting used to our own place in the woods.

The inside of the tiny home was quite cozy.

That evening we enjoyed a dinner of fresh pasta with marinara sauce and meatballs that we had brought with us from Gemelli’s Italian Market! I had been having a craving for spaghetti with meatballs during that period of time. It was a part of my physical and mental recovery from my trip to India.

We were quite tired from the day’s activities and crashed out soon after dinner, well before our usual bedtime.

You can read about the second day of our trip here.

Re-engagement and Re-connection

The re-engagement process started in earnest last weekend. The period of time after my return from India had been difficult. I had mostly been in recovery from some strange ailment that had hit me towards the tail end of my travels. The doctors at home could not figure out what I had caught, but whatever it was had thrown a few of my systems off-kilter. I lost a lot of weight – still have not made up the deficit. I was feeling a very strange lack of energy, and, other than a few isolated cravings, had no desire to eat or drink stuff that I usually enjoyed. The situation had kept me indoors most of the time since my return home.

But things could not stay this way indefinitely. I was getting stronger. I had to get out of the house and re-engage with my daily routines. I had to figure out how much I was really capable of doing.

What finally forced my hand was a trip that had been planned about six months ago. We had made arrangements to go down to the Shenandoah National Park to enjoy the autumn colors, staying a couple of nights at a place featuring tiny homes parked in the woods. The booking at the Getaway Outpost was not refundable. Making a reservation so far ahead of time to see the Fall colors had been a gamble.

As it turned out, we were, unfortunately, a little early for the colors of Fall. We could see the beginnings of change in the park, especially in the higher elevations, but the rest of the space was still green and lush. But how could that be a bad thing?! Regardless of the colors, you cannot go wrong visiting the Shenandoah National Park, especially if the weather cooperates. We enjoyed three gorgeous days in the park. We had clear skies all the time we were there. The mornings were quite chilly, more than I expected, especially when compared to home, but the days warmed up nicely for hiking. We had a wonderful time!

We drove to different locations along the Skyline Drive, stopping at a few of the overlooks along the way that provide views of the valleys below the ridge line, but spending much more of our time hiking on trails that started from beside the main road. The park was less crowded than I expected it to be. We were always able to find some place to park the car. We would split the day into a couple of somewhat shorter hikes, having lunch in-between – either at a picnic bench or seated in the car itself. Even though the distances covered in each of these hikes during the day were shorter, they were pretty intense hikes for novices like us, with steady climbs and descents. We covered about 16 miles, and did over 4000 feet of climbing and descending. We pushed ourselves, even when on the rough and rocky trails that we sometimes encountered, taking breaks as needed. We learnt more about our capabilities and limits as the days went by. We were really capable of doing more than we initially thought we could.

A lot of our time was spent on the Appalachian Trail that runs all the way through the park. Destinations on the trails included mountain tops and waterfalls. We walked up to the highest point in the park. We went down to what might be its most popular waterfall. Since the park runs over a hundred miles north-to-south (or south-to-north, depending on your point of view!), we were able to find trails at several spaced-out locations along the Skyline Drive, far away from the park entrances where the crowds tend to gather. We had a lot of time to ourselves on some of these trails, while some of the more popular ones got a little bit crowded. But, surprisingly, even the popular trails were not as crowded as I expected this close to the phenomenon of the autumn colors. We were usually walking in solitude in the woods by ourselves – surrounded by the thick forest vegetation. Whether we encountered signs of autumn was a matter of luck.

This is the year I finally became eligible for the America The Beautiful Lifetime Senior Interagency Pass. I made sure that I got the pass before we set out on this trip. This pass gives me access to all Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and US Fish & Wildlife Service sites all over the country that charge entrance or standard amenity fees for the rest of my life!  I guess this is one of the few perks of growing old in the USA.

Walk, Bike, and Run

I felt good this morning. I was able to go for a run after a somewhat long break. The last couple of days have been a little cooler than usual, and the temperature was in the 60s when I started out. I thought that I would feel a little sluggish because of the break. That happened to not be the case. I got my mojo going pretty quickly, probably because of the cool temperatures. The running came easy. I was was able to maintain a decent pace throughout the run, and I actually felt wonderfully refreshed the rest of the morning.

We walked from Weverton to Harpers Ferry last Sunday. We were walking a section of this trail for the first time this year. Because of the location closer to Harper Ferry, there was more activity on the trail than one wishes and hopes for. But it was OK. We still had our extended periods of quiet. Here are some pictures from the walk.

The railroad line runs beside the canal all the way to Harpers Ferry.

This is the Route 340 bridge across the Potomac.

The river is very rough downstream of Harpers Ferry. The water is also very low in summer.

Harpers Ferry is across the river in West Virginia at the meeting point of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. The railroad line crosses over the river on the bridges to the right of the picture.

The newer flowers that we saw for the year during this walk include White Campion,

Buttonbush,

Queen Anne Lace (here in its early stage),

flowers that I was unsuccessful in identifying last year too,

Crown Vetch (distinguished from Red Clover because of the nature of the leaves),

Hedge Bindweed,

Wild Sweet William,

Rose of Sharon,

and Asiatic Dayflower.

My bike ride last Wednesday started once again at Pennyfield lock, but this time I headed towards Washington, DC. I rode up to Chain Bridge. It was a typical hot and humid Washington, DC, summer day. I covered more distance this time than I did during my first ride of the year last week. I put in a little more effort than during that first ride – keeping up a decent speed on the trail. There were quite a few people on the trail in spite of the heat. Thankfully, interactions with folks I encountered were generally pleasant, including a conversation with a couple who were in the early stages of an ambitious ride of over 60 miles! I hope they made it.

Here are a couple of pictures from my ride. The first one was taken at Widewater.

You can make out the typical haze of a Washington, DC, summer day in the second picture.

More Flowers Of The Season

We saw more flowers of Spring during our outing on the canal last Sunday. Here are the new ones that caught my eye.

Celandine:

Fleabanes:

Phlox:

Miami Mist:

The real Virginia Waterleaf! (I believe I falsely identified the following as possibly Virginia Waterleaf a few weeks back. The real Virginia Waterleaf grows closer to the ground than the plant we had seen earlier!):

Mayapple:

Star of Bethlehem (different from the Nodding Star of Bethlehem!):

Possibly Sweet Cicily:

and Dames Rocket:

We could see the distinctive Rosa Multiflora plants in some sections of the trail. These will be blooming soon, and, along with the honeysuckle, taking over the sides of the trail before too long!

The manner in which I have approached the presentation of the flowers observed along the canal this year has made me better appreciate, perhaps for the first time, the wide variety of the flora that we have been coming across over the years in our own backyard. This is amazing!

Our exploration last weekend started from Point of Rocks. It has been a while since we came here. There has been enough new development around the area of the towpath that I initially even missed the entrance to the park. I would consider Point of Rocks to be at a somewhat intermediate distance from home, creating the situation where one is not really sure whether to consider it close enough to home when planning Sunday walks when there are time constraints, or far enough from home when we wish to spend more time exploring less-visited and newer spaces. This indeterminate state of affairs is probably one of the reasons that has led to the less frequent visits to this place.

Also to be considered in the context of making excuses for not visiting Point of Rocks is the fact that there are a lot more people visiting this place these days than in the past. The place is actually crowded! I still remember the days when there was almost nothing here. I would see very few people in the parking lot or on the trail. At that time, I had discovered the area from some newly found source of information about the C&O Canal, and I was still in the process of exploring these new spaces for the first time. The parking lot at Point of Rocks used to be a small area of cleared gravel/dirt beside an undeveloped road – on the other side of a narrow wooden bridge over the dry canal bed. (I once wrote about a bird that landed on my car while I was in this parking area. I need to rediscover that e-mail!) In those days, the dirt road actually extended on to the then unmaintained towpath, and ran all the way to the bottom of the Route 15 bridge over the Potomac river. There used to be another undeveloped dirt parking lot under the bridge at that time. All of this has changed. The trail has been resurfaced since then and is no longer accessible to visitor vehicles, and the previous parking area under the bridge is now overgrown with vegetation. The NPS parking lot at Point of Rocks these days is huge. The lot has a paved surface, and there is also a nice boat ramp to the river at one end of it.

A noteworthy element of the experience of coming to Point of Rocks is the sight of the Route 15 bridge across the Potomac in the early morning light. It is always striking. I never fail to take pictures. Here is another example.

We walked all the way to the Catoctin Creek Aqueduct and back.(Can you imagine that this was how the place looked in 2006, many years before they began reconstruction of the aqueduct?!)

There were a lot of gnats in the air at the aqueduct. It is a reminder that summer temperatures are slowly but surely making their way to our neighborhood, although, right now, we do have some days that are still cold enough to require a light jacket or a windbreaker.

Last weekend was the first time we went out to a restaurant after a gap of well over a year. We were expecting to see a light crowd. It was a shock to see the large numbers of people gathered in the shopping area. They were out enjoying the great Spring weather that we were experiencing that day. The restaurants in the neighborhood were all also quite busy. If people had not been wearing their masks, and if the spacing between the occupied tables at the restaurants had not been increased for safety, one would have assumed that this was a normal day in the county without anything amiss. But there is indeed a pandemic still going on! It was a little difficult sometimes to maintain spacing with other people while on the walkways, but, thankfully, most people wore masks. We also sat outdoors at the restaurant. All of this was a little risky, I suppose, but new Centers For Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for people who have been vaccinated suggests that the risk levels are low in these situations. This is not an exact science. We are still learning. One still has to be very careful, especially with mutations of the virus, like the particularly virulent version that seems to be prevalent in India, that are spreading around the world.

We did enjoy our dinner, although there were elements of the experience that felt a little new and unfamiliar to me once again. The interactions with the waiter felt somewhat unnatural. Truth be told, we have gotten so used to ordering food to eat at home, and enjoying the food in the relaxed and quiet atmosphere at home, that the home dining experience feels more natural and easy. One would go to restaurants primarily to enjoy the company of friends. That was what we did on Saturday.

The Slog to Snyders Landing

I was torn between a few choices in selecting a subject line for this blog, but finally settled on the above. After all, Snyders Landing turned out to be a central element in the walk we did on Sunday. My plan had been to drive to Snyders Landing and park there, and then walk downstream towards the Shepherdstown entrance to the trail. Well, finding Snyders Landing Road, the road leading to the landing itself, was something I had attempted in the distant past without success. I had remembered that I had not been successful in reaching the parking lot at Snyders Landing at that time, but I had forgotten why. I was destined to learn my lesson once again! I missed the turnoff from Route 34 to Snyders Landing this time also, and, before I knew it, we were heading towards the Shepherdstown entrance to the trail.No problem! We could walk from Lock 38 at the Shepherdstown parking area towards Snyders Landing along the trail.

What we did not factor in was the distance between the two places. It was more than I had anticipated. I had not done my research properly. Since Snyders Landing had figured in the planning for the morning, we were still curious about it. Snyders Landing became the destination for the walk in spite of the distance involved. And we made it in good shape.We managed to walk the longest distance that the two of us have done together on the towpath! I call it a “slog”, but it was not too bad. The sun was out, but it felt cool. We were walking in the shade of the greening trees the whole morning. We took it really easy, enjoying our surroundings.

Another possible subject line for this blog could have addressed our experience with the Virginia Bluebells in this section of the trail. Some may be thinking that I have talked about these plants enough already, but Sunday’s visions of the fields of blue was even more expansive and amazing than what we had experienced the previous week – when I had thought that we were at the optimal place to experience the presence of bluebells. The bluebells were everywhere you turned during this walk. You could see these fields of blue and green extending to the limits of the woods. Bluebells dominated our experience of the morning. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the colors, pictures cannot do this sight and experience justice.

Another possible subject line for this blog could have been related to the caves that we passed by in this section of the towpath. There were many more than we usually see. One of the campsites in this section is named after a cave – the Killiansburg Cave Campsite. I am actually not sure which of the many caves we saw that this refers to. People seem to have a explored a few of them. But these caves did not excite me enough to want to explore them myself. It is partially a fear of the unknown. I have not read much about them. And there was nothing particularly enchanting to me about a picture of the mouth of these caves either. It was fairly easy for me to dismiss a title for the blog mentioning anything about this!

We saw a few more new flowers of the season. These included Speedwell,and Checkweed.Both of these flowers are really tiny and can be missed easily.

We did see some Trillium.

The Redbud trees are blossoming everywhere.I could not identify the bush pictured below with these unique flowers, but I suspect it could be a Virginia Waterleaf plant. (I have since confirmed that this is not Virginia Waterleaf!)Mayapple flowers should be out soon.

There were lot of butterflies, including different kinds of swallowtails and the Cabbage White (or Small White) butterflies. We could not get the butterflies to settle down long enough for me to take a picture, although a few of them seemed to be hanging around us for a while as we were walking. I did manage this one picture.

This was an especially long morning because of my initial misstep that caused us to miss our targeted destination, and because of the distance covered on the trail. We are getting much more used to such long mornings these days, especially since we have started to drive to places that are further away, places that we are visiting together for the first time. We do not feel rushed even after we get back home. I even had time for a nap!

A Morning for the Birds and Planes

We started seeing them soon after we started our walk from Sycamore Landing. They were everywhere. There were so many of them! This was the morning for the birds. And their presence was easily revealed because of the bare branches of the trees and bushes this time of year. There are other Sunday mornings, when we start the walk with my hope of seeing the birds in the woods before they become active and fly away from their nests, and we end up seeing very few of them. This was not that kind of a morning.

The first sets of birds we saw were at the parking lot even before we got on the trail, high up on a tree.In my mind, limited as it is in its capability to understand such things, the birds had nested close to each other on the tree for the night, had just woken up, and were getting ready for the activities of the day. You could see the early morning light hit the upper branches of the trees – to light up the birds, and to perhaps warm them up. I could not identify these birds. They looked like doves from this distance, but I could not confirm this in spite of some research.

We were happy to see that the work on upgrading the trail had already reached Sycamore Landing. They had even filled in the massive potholes that used to exist in the parking lot. We had noticed the previous week that progress on the upgraded trail had reached just north of Rileys Lock, which is the entrance to the towpath just before Sycamore Landing. The work is now complete to a point beyond Sycamore Landing, closer to Edwards Ferry. At this rate they should be able to get the work done by the end of the year. This is great! I can now start my bike rides heading north from Rileys Lock without having to fear the potholes and the puddles of mud. But back to he birds….

The whole area close to Sycamore Landing appeared to have a large concentration of birds. It was noisy. It looked busy. You could hear a lot of movement in some of the bushes beside the trail. They were full of sparrows, but very few of them were clearly visible. The brown branches provided a good camouflage.

A hawk hung around on the upper branches of a tree, most likely keeping an eye out for prey.

We saw this bluejay in the canal bed.

This was a woodpecker that popped up for a short viewing. It might have been a female Downy woodpecker.

This Pileated Woodpecker was high up on a tree. These woodpeckers are much bigger than the others that we usually come across.

I found this female Northern Cardinal in a bush by the trail. There were a few other cardinals that were flying around.

This Eastern Bluebird landed on the pathway in front of us in the later part of the walk towards Edwards Ferry.

I am posting this picture of this sparrow just because I like the way the picture came out!

And then there were the many aircraft that we saw crossing the river. They were flying at a low altitude and heading towards Dulles airport. They were coming in one after another at a very high frequency, to the extent that the noise that they were creating in the background was nearly constant. They seemed to be lining up for landing one after another. This level of air traffic felt unusual, especially for that time of day, and for that day of the week. Most of the aircraft were small to medium size, and seemed to be on domestic flights. I could recognize the United tails. I did recognize a flight from South Korea,and I thought I had seen an Emirates aircraft earlier on when we were driving in. Based on what I noticed that morning, I get the impression that the international carriers have reduced the size of the aircraft that they are deploying for their flights.

The volume of air traffic over our heads had reduced quite significantly by the time we started heading back from Edwards Ferry to Sycamore Landing.

We were thinking to ourselves that any story about a multitude of birds being sighted along the towpath would be incomplete without a picture of our signature bird, the Great Blue Heron. We had seen one in the distance as we were approaching Edwards Ferry. We had tried to keep our eyes on it through the bare branches of the trees as it flew away in front of us – in the distance over the bed of the canal. We had not been able to see it in the location where we thought it had landed. It turned out that it had landed high on a tree top, and we had missed it because we had been looking for it on the canal bed. We had walked past it without noticing it. Fortunately, the birds do not move around too much, and we found it on our way back to Sycamore Landing – high up on a tree!We had seen a Great Blue Heron in the same area during previous walks. This led us to consider the possibility that this was the same heron that we had seen before, and that the bird had somehow claimed this area as its territory. Fact of the matter is that we do not even know if herons are territorial and behave like this.

We saw some other birds during our return to Sycamore Landing. This is a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

I could be wrong, but my searches lead me to believe that the bird in the picture below is a Female Golden-crowned Kinglet. This is a bird I am not very familiar with.

Even though I had considered that possibility earlier in the year that 2020 could be the year of the owls, we did not sight one this Sunday!

I will leave readers with a picture that I took at Edward Ferry that gives you a sense to the wonderful morning we experienced on the trail. The picture is best viewed in its full resolution.