The Hazel Mountain and River Area Exploration

In many ways, the hike that we did last Saturday was a different experience from the ones we had done the previous two weekends. For one thing, there would only be two of us hiking this time. Christina had committed to a volleyball session that morning.

We had started this series of hikes with the mindset of tackling the more interesting, challenging, and spectacular, hikes available in the Shenandoah National Park. The question was if we would be able to find a hike for this weekend that could live up to expectations that were set based on our experiences the previous two weekends. We ended up on a hike that was a little different, and perhaps more conventional.

Jesse went to work trying to put together a loop trail in the Hazel Mountain and River area that would be interesting and challenging. We ended up traversing the loop that you see in the trail map that I am providing through this link, except that we started the hike on the road at the bottom of the mountain (on the right side of the map) instead of on the Skyline Drive (on the left side of the map). We would not be hiking the section of the Hazel River Trail shown in the map from the Skyline Drive to the loop itself. Instead, we would be following the Hazel River Trail beyond the loop at the bottom of the mountain for a very short distance to its termination point at Route 600. We would be tackling the loop in a anticlockwise direction (“counterclockwise” for most Americans! ), similar to what is shown in the map. Our total hike would be shorter than the total hike tracked at the website reached from the link.

Route 600 turned out to be a small country road. It was small enough that it was covered by gravel instead of asphalt. Driving on the road was a bit challenging. In a certain area we even drove on a steep slope that was covered with an additional layer of somewhat large sized chunks of loose crushed stone, spread there to provide better traction. It was rough on the suspension and the bottom of the car. It was notable that this was a populated area. There were a few homes behind the trees and along the side of the road. There even seemed to be local mail delivery. We could see mailboxes extending from the the sides of the road towards the roadway on supports in an attempt to reduce the risk of the mail van running off the road during delivery.

We arrived at the parking area on Route 600 to find that there was no parking lot there. One would have to park beside the road. This appeared to be a trailhead that was not used that much. There was only one vehicle parked there when we arrived.The Hazel river flowed just beside the road.We followed the road and river to a point where we had to turn left onto a private road to get on to the trail.This section of the road is considered a part of the Hazel River Trail on the map. There was a house on a hill, surrounded by woods, at the end of this road. We left the road and continued on a real trail after entering the park itself.We were already beginning to gain some altitude at this point but the slope was quite gentle.

It was a really nice day, and the temperatures were higher than during the hikes of the previous two weeks. It was not too long before layers of outerwear began to be shed. We did encounter a few people in half-sleeved T-shirts and shorts during the day.

There were a number of stream crossings in this section as the trail crisscrossed the river several times. Some crossings were more challenging than others.

At one particular spot, my water bottle came loose from the backpack, fell into the water, and began to flow downstream. Jesse managed to see where it had gotten caught in an eddy, and he managed to make his way downstream through the brush to save the water bottle as it exited the eddy.

This might also have been the same crossing where we did not cross at the marked crossing itself because of my lack of confidence. We walked upstream along the side of the river looking for a better spot. While crossing, I was reaching for rocks close to the level of the water itself at one point to make sure I did not fall in.

We arrived at a point where we left the Hazel River Trail and got onto the White Rocks Trail. This trail departed from the side of the river and took us onto a ridge that ran beside the river. It was a steep and challenging climb to get up to the ridge. During the initial section of this climb we took a direct route up a steep incline at a location where we could have taken a longer but more easily doable route. That was an intense climb, and the leaves on the trail did not make it any easier.We did get to a section of the trail that was not as steep, where we were able to catch our breath, but soon after that we were headed once again further up the side of the mountain on another steep trail to the top of the ridge. This climb kicked our butt!

Once on top of the ridge, we could get some open views on both sides of the ridge, including the hills surrounding us on both sides. This was one of the views towards the west.We could see Hazel Mountain close by, and in the distance we could even make out sections of the Skyline drive. (There is a lookout point for Hazel Mountain on the Skyline Drive.)

The hiking here was very different from what we had experienced in previous weeks. It was more of a conventional walk through the woods.There were a series of crests and drops all along the way on the ridge. The trail was designed to take us straight up and down the hilltops rather than skirt them. We were getting a great workout!

In a short while we reached the turnoff for the short trail to Hazel Waterfall.

Although it was short in distance, the trail to the waterfall proved to be challenging in scope. For the most part it consisted of a series of stone steps that went more or less directly down the side of the ridge to the level of the Hazel River.

The waterfall itself was not that impressive after all that we had experienced in the previous weeks.We had our lunch at this point.

We wanted to find out what lay upstream, beyond that waterfall. We climbed over the rock beside the falls (that you can see to the right of the picture above) to get a better view, hoping to see a series of waterfalls.Once above the waterfall, we were not impressed enough to try to clamber further upstream over the rocks beside the river.I should also mention that there is the cave next to the waterfall that is also sometimes talked about in the description of the area. It is considered an additional attraction to the place.

We climbed back up to the ridge to continue on the White Rocks Trail after our explorations.

The White Rocks Trail ended at an intersection with the Hazel Mountain Trail. We turned left, crossed over the Hazel River, and continued on the Hazel Mountain Trail for a short distance. We then got on to the Sam’s Ridge Trail for the rest of the walk back to the Hazel River Trail, at an intersection close that trail’s trailhead. This whole part of the hike was through the woods. The notable aspect of this part of the walk was the sharp drop in elevation towards the end of the trail. (You can see it in the elevation profile on the map you can reach from the link I provided at the beginning of this blog.) Leaves covered the trail in many places, creating a bit of a challenge in some of the steeper sections.On the positive side, the surface of the trail was, in general, better than that of the trails that ran next to the rivers and streams. For the most part, one did not need to step over uneven rocks, or risk tripping over them.

The hike ended with a short walk back on the Hazel River Trail and then on the road on which we had parked the car. More people had arrived while we had been hiking.

The drive back home was notable for the fact that we nearly got rear-ended by the same driver at two different intersections on the same road. The guy was coming at high speed, and did not notice until the last minute that vehicles had slowed down on the road in front of him to allow for one of them to turn onto a side road. And he did the same thing twice! Talk about not learning a lesson! We were happy to see the vehicle go off in a different direction when we turned off one of the roads we were being followed on.

The hankering for a burger for dinner had begun during the hike. A plan was set in motion to satisfy this craving once we got home. We probably enjoyed the food more than we normally would have because of our hunger. We had expended a lot of energy that day! The movie that we watched that night turned out to be a total disaster, but I had had enough beer that I dozed off through certain parts and did not complain to the extent one normally would have. I was quite happy when the movie finally ended and I could crash out on the bed in exhaustion. We had done about 9 miles of hiking and over 2300 feet of ascents and descents that day.

PS. As should be obvious, some of the pictures in this blog were taken by Jesse. He used his iPhone.

Chasing More Waterfalls

The target for last Saturday’s hike was a loop including both the White Oak Canyon Trail and the Ceder Run Trail. The trail was said to be difficult, but very beautiful because of its numerous waterfalls. We would be climbing from the base of the mountain ridge all the way up to the Skyline Drive – the road which runs along the ridge of the Appalachian mountains in the Shenandoah National Park.

I would be the first to admit that I was a little nervous at first about this hike. This was the first time in a long while that I was tackling a challenge like this. But I also had reason to feel some level of confidence. I believe I have successfully built up the relevant muscles, and my stamina, with my exercise routines and other activity over the years. This mountain was not about to stop me!

It was a long drive to get to the trail head. At some point during the drive we had to leave the bigger roads and drive on smaller country roads. We passed through farm lands and small villages. We even passed through the village of Syria close to trail head. The trail head was on private property just outside of the park boundary. The parking area was bigger than the one for the trail head we had visited the previous week. And they also had porta-potties in the parking area this time. I had to visit one immediately on arrival. The coffee that I had along with my breakfast during the drive had done its deed!

There were already many cars in the parking lot by the time we arrived. There was a somewhat large group of people who were getting prepared to hike. The backs of a few of the vehicles in the parking lot were open and people were putting on their hiking gear. This was serious stuff! It looked like people knew what they were doing. And so did the two youngsters with me.

We brought out an additional pair of hiking poles from the car to carry with us this time. I had also sprayed Scotchgard to my hiking boots prior to the trip to prevent them from getting wet if they should go into the water. It actually worked! We also carried a pair of flip-flops just in case one had to walk in the water itself. We ended up not having to use them.

It was 34°F when we departed the car. We were appropriately dressed, perhaps better prepared than the previous week. Soon after we entered the park,we came to a point in the trail where we had to decide whether we would tackle the loop that we were hiking in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction. We followed the direction shown on the map that we were using and headed in an anticlockwise direction. We would be going up Whiteoak Canyon Trail first.

The trail took us straight up the canyon. The Robinson River was our companion for this section of the hike. This experience of walking uphill beside water that was flowing downhill was very different from the experience of the previous week. The water flow was more significant, and so were the waterfalls. The trail was also tougher. There were switchbacks, some of which were clustered together in short lengths to allow us to gain height within short distances. We found ourselves climbing from the bottom to the top of big waterfalls all along the way. The trail was wet in parts because of recent rains, and we could also see some water flowing from rocks beside the trail in some sections. Perhaps the pictures below can help tell a story, starting at the bottom of the trail and ending just where we left the river side.

We came to a point in the trail where we had to cross the river over a bridge.We left the Whiteoak Canyon Trail just beyond the bridge and got onto the Whiteoak Canyon Fire Road, the first step in connecting to the Ceder Run Trail in order to complete the loop. It was quite a steep uphill climb on this road,but we were able to pick up speed because of the nature of the surface we were walking on.

At a certain point, we got off the road and onto the Skyland Big Meadows Horse Trail. At this point we were walking parallel to the Skyline Drive which we could see just above us.This trail took us to the start of the Ceder Run Trail. We stopped at the intersection of the trails for lunch.It was a very short walk from there up to the parking lot on the Skyline Drive that was nearby.I wanted to check out the wayside display there.This parking lot also provided access to one of the trails to the Hawksbill Mountain viewing point, a place we had hiked to during our visit to the park last year. Hawksbill Mountain is the highest peak in the park.

Lunch did not take long, but we cooled down significantly during that short period of time. My fingers started to freeze, and I was not able to get over the numbness until a few miles further into the walk. I was also consuming more food during this walk when compared to our previous outing. We had expended more effort with the climb during this first half of the hike compared to last week. The elevation profile shown on the map page of the website linked to at the beginning of this blog tells it all.

It was going to be all downhill from this point onward. I started using the hiking poles. I had used them the previous week to cross a stream after my first experience of getting my shoes wet, but this was the first time in my life I was using them for regular walking (if you can call it that!). What a difference in experience! It almost felt like I was cheating. The poles provided so much additional stability. I could confidently step down over the uneven rocks on the trail without fear of losing my balance. I am now a convert, and I now understand why all the experienced hikers use the poles.

Ceder Run Trail was a very different experience for me from Whiteoak Canyon trail. The trail was generally steeper and rougher, and I had to exercise extreme caution. Going downhill is generally more challenging for me. It took me almost an hour to cover a mile of distance in one of the particularly challenging sections of the trail. The wetness of the trail, the fallen leaves, and the irregularity of the rocks on the trail in certain sections did not help, especially when all of these conditions were encountered all together, at the same time. There were also a couple of crossings of Ceder Run where the stream was flowing swiftly, and where the route across the water over the rocks that we could see appeared to be dicey. The hiking poles made the crossings easy to tackle. And, as a backup, I had the Scotchgard on my shoes! Go Scotchgard!

I must have missed many of the waterfalls on the trail because I had my head down – focusing on the hiking, making sure I would not lose my footing. I had only one stumble! A future hike that will tackle the trails in a clockwise loop is under consideration. But I did not miss all the views. I was being reminded every once in a while to turn back to enjoy what there was to see. Here are the pictures from the hike down Cedar Run Trail.

The water slide on this trail should be very obvious in one of the pictures above. I would be quite scared to do something like this! Apparently this place is a popular spot in summer.

We covered about 9 miles during this hike. It look us slightly less than 6 hours to complete the entire walk. We arrived back at the parking lot at roughly the same time as the group of hikers that we had seen getting ready for their hike in the lot in the morning. They had tackled the trail is the opposite direction as us.

And then it was time to drive back home. We picked up dinner on our way. Once home we settled down to some beer, dinner, and a movie. And then we crashed out. We were quite tired!

Chasing Waterfalls

The phrase “Don’t go chasing waterfalls” kept running through my head throughout this hike – even though the song itself has nothing to do with the activity that we were indulging in.

A temporary change in circumstances – being by myself for a few weeks – brought me to Virginia on a Friday evening for an adventure that was to begin the next morning. I had been successfully roped into a hike that I would not have attempted under normal circumstances. The Little Devils Stairs and Piney Branch Loop Trail, advertised as being 7.5 miles long and somewhat difficult, was the target for the next day’s activities.

We left home early, but it took us a while to get to the trail head. The drive was long. We had also stopped along the way to pick up breakfast. I indulged myself with a breakfast that was substantial and different from my usual pickings. After all, I needed the calories for the activities that were to take place that day.

The skies were clear when we arrived at the parking lot for the Little Devils Stairs Trail. The parking lot was quite full by the time we got there. We managed to find some space to park beside the road just outside the lot.

It was also cold. The temperature was hovering around freezing when we started up the mountain. Fortunately, there was no wind at that time. The rising sun on our backs, and the effort that we were making climbing up the hillside, warmed us up quickly and nicely. In fact, layers of clothing were shed as we climbed in spite of the temperature. The process started early in the hike,and we reached even further levels of upper body disrobing further up the trail.

What a climb this turned out to be! This was how it was nearer to the start,but pretty soon we were ascending quite steeply up the hill following the path of a stream called Keyser Run. The trail weaved its way up the sides of Keyser Run, crossing the stream itself on several occasions. We basically ended up on a trail climbing next to a string of waterfalls, walking on both sides of the stream and its waterfalls.

The slope of the trail increased as we reached further up.This turned into more of a rock-climbing exercise as we got higher and higher. There were even stairs created with rocks in some places to help. We could see other climbers making their way up – way above us – giving us a clearer indication of how steep the climb was, and of how much more we still had to climb. I did not hesitate to use my hands when needed to clamber up the rocks, making sure that the camera hanging around my neck would not slam onto the rocks, or even putting it back into my backpack in some extreme conditions.

We lost track of the trail at least once. Okay, I was responsible! I tried to lead us up a dangerous leaf-covered slope that turned out to be the wrong path. But it was not completely my fault. A tree had apparently fallen right over the intended path obliterating it from my sight. We had to detour on the rocks directly beside the flowing water to get past this section.

This awesome climb came to an end after about two miles, at a turn in the trail where it diverged from the path of the stream. This waterfall was the last we saw of Keyser Run.Soon after, we reached the Keyser Run Fire Road at a location called Fourway. The road would have provided the shorter route back to our trailhead, but we set out towards the Piney Branch Trail on the Pole Bridge Link Trail connector instead.

It should be noted that, in spite of all the climbing, we were still well below the Skyline Drive (the main road in the park) at this point. There were optional trails that could have taken us to the top of the ridge. We did not get onto any of them since such a detour would have added too much mileage to the overall hike.

After a relatively unexciting stroll on the Pole Bridge Link Trail, we turned left at an intersection to find ourselves descending down a hillside with a stream flowing below us. That turned out to be the Piney River. The river was going to be our companion for a while. We were now on the Piney Branch Trail.

At this point we started encountering heavy gusts of wind, and the sun was also beginning to play hide-and-seek with clouds that had appeared out of nowhere, presumably from the west. The heavy clothing that had been shed for the climb up Keyser Run went back on.

This part of the hike turned out to be a different kind of experience from that of Little Devils Stairs Trail. The slope of the trail was more gradual, and we also had the presence of a relatively placid Piney River flowing down the hill nearby. Depending on where we were, the trail either overlooked the river from a great height,
or ran closer to it.
I have to admit that this looked like more of a stream than a river at this point in its flow.

There were a couple of stream crossings.

It was during the first of these crossings that disaster struck. I got one of my shoes wet. I lost traction on the sloped surface of a rock when attempting to get across. This turned into my first experience on the use of poles to provide balance while crossing a stream. Once I crossed the stream, I had to squeeze the water out of my socks before continuing. I was surprised at how quickly I was able to adjust to the situation of walking in a wet shoe.

Lunch went down nicely as we relaxed beside the flowing waters.

Soon after, we reached a point where we had to take a turn to leave Piney Branch trail to get on to the Hull School Trail. This was a straight climb up a hill. The wind was howling in the dales below us, and also gusting around us, as we climbed. We put our heads down and focused on the climbing. It was an intense 500 foot climbing effort coming towards the tail end of what had already been a long walk. We were in good enough shape to make it without pausing for rest.

We met up with the Keyser Run Fire Road once again at the top of the hill. There was an interesting cemetery at this location. It used to belong to the Bolen family who used to inhabit the area. (Perhaps it still does!)They were forced to abandon their homes when this area was converted in a National Park in the 1920s. It is a sad story, captured in a poem on one of the tombstones. Unfortunately, I goofed when taking a picture of the tombstone. So I will have to say penance by typing out all the words of the poem:

Why The Mountains Are Blue, by Wayne Baldwin
Enter these here Blue Mountains,
And enjoy Sky-Line’s views,
Sample the streams and fountains,
But don’t forget the sacrifice that was made for you.

That you can come and experience this National Park today,
Many lives were affected in many different ways.
While you relax and take in all this natural beauty,
I’d be remiss if I failed in my duty…

To tell of a people who once resided on this land,
Who toiled, labored, loved, laughed and cried,
Having their lives altered by a “plan”,
And whose stories, many untold, shall never die.

Whose way of life and culture was exaggerated by many an unjust fact,
Whose property was condemned by a legislative act,
Who moved willingly or by force,
Changing forever their life’s course.

Out from the protection of the hollows and vales,
Out into resettlements onto properties their pittance procured at sales,
Looking over their shoulders with tears in their eyes,
Pitifully departing their old homes among the skies.

Leaving familiar sights, their homes, their burial plots,
Most left begrudgingly for some low country spots…
The blue of the mountains is not due to the atmosphere,
Its because there is a sadness that lingers here.

I have not been able to find out anything about the author of this poem so far.

This poem informs me of the fact that very often “progress” comes at a cost – with sad stories of the real human beings who are left behind. This is true even today. From the context of being a hiker on this every enjoyable trail, I ought to be saying a prayer of thanks. As a note, a similar kind of displacement of people, most likely on a larger scale, also took place during the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Incidentally, you will be hard-pressed to find any mainstream reference to Bolen Cemetery today. You are more likely to find blogs on the subject from other hikers like me!

The rest of this hike was all downhill from then onward, and I do not mean this in a negative sense. We walked down the hill on the Keyser Run Fire Road all the way back to the parking lot where we had started the climb up Little Devils Stairs Trail.

A short distance down the fire road, the presence of what looked like a power line running up the hill served as a reminder that we were heading further back towards civilization. There was even a clearing cut through the woods for this overhead line.We were feeling it in our muscles at the end of the walk. I am not sure if we could have tackled anything that looked like another uphill climb in good form at this point. It was good to shed off all the stuff we were carrying and for me to get out of my wet socks.

I was in a pleasantly languorous and detached state of mind as I sat in the back seat of the car while being chauffeured back home, listening to the still animated musings and conversations from the front seats. I was so happy and thankful that the young ones had included this older geezer in their activities of the day.

As a postscript, I realized after this hike that I am not in as bad a shape as I feared I would be. I am up for further adventures of this kind!

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 instant😉), 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.