Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Booker T. Washington National Monument (Blog Hike #776)

Trails: Plantation and Jack-O-Lantern Branch Trails
Hike Location: Booker T. Washington National Monument
Geographic Location: northeast of Rocky Mount, VA (37.11982, -79.73205)
Length: 2.1 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2019
Overview: A double loop around the tobacco plantation on which Booker T. Washington was born.
Monument Information:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Rocky Mount, take SR 122 north/east 15 miles to the monument entrance on the right.  Park in either of the small paved parking lots near the Visitor Center.

The hike: Perhaps no life exemplifies the challenges faced and determination exhibited by African-Americans in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s than the life of Booker T. Washington.  Born a slave on a tobacco plantation in about 1856 (slaves had no calendars to mark birthdays), Washington later wrote that the first time he realized he was a slave was when he was “awakened by my mother…kneeling over me…praying…that some day she and her children might be free.”  That freedom came when he was about 9 years old, but by the late 1800’s new oppression had risen in the form of disenfranchisement and Jim Crow laws.
            In the face of that oppression, Booker T. Washington became the dominant leader in the African-American community by championing education and entrepreneurship.  On point, Washington founded both the National Negro Business League and the Tuskegee Institute.  Through these institutions, Washington established a political and social coalition of middle-class blacks, church leaders, and white philanthropists that he led until his death in 1915.
            Today the grounds on which Booker T. Washington was born are preserved as Booker T. Washington National Monument, which was established in 1956 as the first national monument named after a person.  The Visitor Center features an informative and inspiring video about Washington’s life, and two trails form end-to-end loops around the grounds.  This hike uses both of the monument’s trails to form a grand tour of all the monument has to offer.
Start of trail behind Visitor Center
            Walk out the back door of the Visitor Center and follow the asphalt trail that heads first east and then south through a sunny mowed-grass area toward the reconstructed plantation.  Where the asphalt ends and the trail splits to form the Plantation Loop, choose the option on the right to pass beside the reconstructed slave cabin where Washington lived.  Next you pass the reconstructed smokehouse before descending steeply and entering the woods.
Reconstructed slave cabin

Reconstructed tobacco barn
            After a brief stint in the woods, you reach the reconstructed tobacco barn and a trail intersection.  The other arm of the Plantation Trail goes left, and we will go that way eventually.  To also hike the Jack-O-Lantern Branch Trail, angle right and begin heading downstream on a wide two-track dirt trail with Jack-O-Lantern Branch on your left.
Jack-O-Lantern Branch
            Tiny Jack-O-Lantern Branch is rockier and livelier than you might expect for a stream in this part of Virginia, and it even features a couple of small cascades.  The riparian forest is a dense mixture of oak, red cedar, sycamore, and black walnut.  Some numbered signs indicate the existence of an interpretive brochure, but the Visitor Center did not have one when I inquired.
            At 0.5 miles, the Jack-O-Lantern Branch Trail splits to form its loop.  To follow the numbered signs in increasing order, I continued straight here and used the right trail as my return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  A gradual descent ensues with Jack-O-Lantern Branch keeping you constant company.
Hiking along Jack-O-Lantern Branch
            Just shy of 1 mile, the trail curves right and climbs slightly to reach the short-cut trail, which exits right.  Angle left and descend again to stay on the outer-most loop.  Soon Gills Creek comes in sight on your left; Gills Creek is much larger than Jack-O-Lantern Branch.
            At 1.1 miles, the trail curves right and begins a moderate climb away from Gills Creek.  The difference between maximum and minimum elevations on this hike is only about 120 feet, but you gain most of that elevation in only 0.2 miles on this climb.  Where the short-cut trail rejoins from the right, look to the right for an old cemetery.
Entering the meadow
Horses outside of horse barn
            A service road exits left as the trail enters a sunny, grassy meadow, the only real meadow area on this hike.  After reentering the woods, a short but steep descent closes the loop.  Turn left to return to the reconstructed barn, then angle right to hike the other arm of the Plantation Trail.  The eastern arm of the Plantation Trail features a tobacco field, a corn crib, a horse barn with live horses, a chicken house with live chickens, and hog pens with live hogs.  Where the Plantation Trail’s loop closes, turn right to head back to the Visitor Center and complete the hike.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

George Washington National Forest: Crabtree Falls (Blog Hike #775)

Trail: Crabtree Falls Trail
Hike Location: George Washington National Forest, Crabtree Falls Recreation Area
Geographic Location: northwest of Lovingston, VA (37.85104, -79.07993)
Length: 3.4 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: August 2019
Overview: An out-and-back, occasionally steep and occasionally rocky, along cascading Crabtree Falls.
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 29 and SR 56, take SR 56 west 16.8 miles to the signed national forest entrance for Crabtree Falls on the left.  Alternatively, reach this point by taking SR 56 east 6.4 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Pay the small entrance fee and park in either the upper or lower parking lots.

The hike: The Appalachian Mountains have many waterfalls named Crabtree Falls, but none of them match the size and scale of the Crabtree Falls in Nelson County, Virginia.  This Crabtree Falls drops 1200 feet over 5 major cascades, and it tumbles down the south side of the deep and steep ravine that contains the South Fork of the Tye River.  Taken together as a single water feature, the 5 cascades form the tallest waterfall in Virginia and maybe the tallest waterfall in the entire eastern United States depending on how you group other sequences of cascades on a common watercourse.
            Crabtree Falls is the centerpiece of George Washington National Forest’s Crabtree Falls Recreation Area, and the national forest’s Crabtree Falls Trail follows Crabtree Creek for 2.7 miles.  The lower-most 1.7 of those miles climb beside Crabtree Falls, offering fantastic views of all 5 cascades.  Doing those 1.7 miles as an out-and-back forms the 3.4 mile hike described here.  Note that Crabtree Falls is located fairly high in its watershed, so you need to come after a good rain to see the falls in their full glory.  I have been here twice, once in April 2003 and again in August 2019, and I had a nice hike and visit each time.
Trailhead: Crabtree Falls Trail
            The Crabtree Falls Trail starts at the rear of the upper parking area.  A sign for the Crabtree Falls Trail, a large information kiosk, and some benches mark the trailhead.  The first 500 feet are paved with asphalt, and the trail is wide enough and the grade gradual enough to allow wheelchairs and strollers access to the lowest cascade.  A small pioneer cemetery protected by a wooden fence is passed on the left less than 200 feet from the trailhead.
Small pioneer cemetery
            At 0.1 miles, the asphalt ends where you reach Crabtree Falls’ lower-most cascade.  This bottom cascade drops about 30 feet down a bare rock outcrop that features a lot of algae.  Several people have fallen to their deaths by climbing on the waterfall and slipping on the algae, so be sure to stay behind erected barriers.  A dense forest consisting of oak, tulip poplar, and a few pine trees makes for a cool, dark, and damp setting.
Crabtree Falls, lower-most cascade
            The dirt trail now begins the long series of switchbacks that climb alongside Crabtree Falls.  The east end of each switchback brings you back to the falls, and a new cascade seems to be seen with every switchback.  The second cascade features more boulders than the first, and some constructions such as steep wooden and stone steps aid the climb in several places.  Wooden mileposts appear at 0.1 mile intervals, and they simultaneously push you on by telling you how far you have come and warn you about how far you still have to go.  Pace yourself and feel free to turn around if your stamina wanes: the old motto “climbing up is optional but climbing down is mandatory” applies on this hike.
Climbing the switchbacks
            Continuing to climb the switchbacks, the third time you get back to the waterfall brings you to a bench that provides your first north-facing view across the Tye River ravine.  Crabtree Falls is a tall sheer cascade here.  The trail climbs beside the waterfall for a few hundred feet as it passes a small rocky cave.  Adventurous hikers can climb through the cave and re-emerge on the trail a few feet higher.
Peering through the cave
            More switchbacks lift you further up the hillside, and as you approach the rim of the ravine the understory becomes denser with ferns and stinging nettle.  On my visit some monarch butterflies were fluttering around some yellow violets that were in bloom, and I watched a blue-trailed skink dart beside the trail.  I also paused while a timber rattlesnake crossed my path, and I looked carefully to make sure it had no cousins nearby before I proceeded.
Crabtree Falls, upper-most cascade
             At 1.4 miles, you reach the base of the upper-most cascade.  Another drop over bare rock, this cascade may be the tallest of the five cascades that comprise Crabtree Falls, and it is definitely the brightest: the large bare rock outcrop allows plenty of sunlight to strike the water.  A sign tells you that this is the last waterfall view, and some people turn around here.  However, climbing for another 0.3 miles not only leads to the top of the falls but also to a fantastic view.
View at top of falls
A final long switchback lifts you to the top of Crabtree Falls, where you reach a trail intersection.  The Crabtree Falls Trail turns right to continue a more gradual but less developed climb along the west bank of Crabtree Creek, but you want to turn left and cross Crabtree Creek on a wooden footbridge to quickly arrive at the top-of-the-waterfall view.  A bench and overlook provide a fantastic northwest-facing view up the heavily forested Tye River ravine toward the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  After taking in the view, you can extend your hike by continuing up the less developed portion of the Crabtree Falls Trail, but eventually you will have to retrace your steps back down to the parking lot to complete the hike.