Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Blue Ridge Parkway: Mountain Farm and Humpback Rocks (Blog Hike #329)

Trails: Mountain Farm Trail, Humpback Rocks Loop
Hike Location: Blue Ridge Parkway, Humpback Rocks Visitor Center
Geographic Location: south of Waynesboro, VA (37.97250, -78.89923)
Length: 4.8 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: October 2010
Overview: A stiff climb to Humpback Rocks followed by an easy downhill glide on the Appalachian Trail.
Directions to the trailhead: The Humpback Rocks Visitor Center is located at milepost 5.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Milepost 5.8 is (obviously) 5.8 miles south of I-64 and 21.6 miles north of SR 56.

The hike: If you are starting south on the Blue Ridge Parkway from milepost 0 in Rockfish Gap, the first major point of interest you come to is the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center and its adjacent Mountain Farm.  Some people do not see the need to stop so quickly, but for those willing to stop and spend a few hours, interesting history and great views await.
            Mountain Farm is a recreated 1890’s Appalachian farm.  Most of the buildings in the farm have been moved from other points along the Parkway.  By touring the farm and the adjacent Visitor Center, you can get a good idea of what life was like in this area over a century ago.
            The farm area will be crowded on a nice weather day, but only a few people will hike to Humpback Rocks, and even fewer will hike the entire Humpback Rocks Loop described here.  Combining the developed Mountain Farm Trail through the farm and the rugged Humpback Rocks Loop yields an interesting hike replete with history, scenic views, and great forest hiking.
Entering Mountain Farm
            From the Visitor Center, pick up the paved trail that heads south toward the farm.  When I visited Mountain Farm in early October, the area was decorated with harvest-themed items and pumpkins.  Pass through an opening in the split-rail fence to enter the farm; the trail turns to gravel here.  You will first pass the vegetable garden on your right and the log-cabin-style homestead on your left.  Some chickens were roaming around this area and ran toward the woods as I walked by.  A period-dressed interpreter showed me around the homestead.
Barn at Mountain Farm
            More buildings sit beyond the homestead, including a spring house, a barn with large gaps between the logs, and some pigpens.  Past the last building, continue on the gravel trail to pass through “kissin’ gate” and leave the farm area.  A short ascent will lead you through a meadow to the Parkway, where you should cross the road to reach the Humpback Gap Parking Area and the beginning of the Humpback Rocks Loop.
Humpback Rocks trailhead
            The Humpback Rocks Loop begins at a blue and green information board at the rear of the parking area.  The wide gravel trail immediately begins a moderate to steep climb through the maple-beech and oak forest of Humpback Mountain.  Some wooden planks have been placed across the trail to help prevent erosion, but judging from some deep ruts in the gravel, they have only been moderately successful.
            0.5 miles from the Visitor Center, an opening in the trees to the right gives a nice view across the meadow and toward the Shenandoah Valley to the west.  This meadow is called Coiner’s Deadenin’.  Deadenin’ was a method of clearing land to prepare it for farming.  Trees would be stripped of their leaves, and crops would be planted between the leafless skeletons.  Unable to perform photosynthesis, the trees would die, and the trunks would be chopped down at a later, more convenient date to fully clear the land.
Climbing through Coiner's Deadenin'
            The trail continues climbing with several benches providing opportunities to rest.  At 0.8 miles, you reach one of the few level areas on this part of the hike.  Ignore a rough side trail that exits left (that is the old trail to Humpback Rocks), and continue straight on the rerouted and better-graded official trail.  The Humpback Rocks Loop is blazed with light blue rectangular paint blazes, but the trail is easy to follow and you will not need the blazes except at intersections such as this one.
Old trail to Humpback Rocks exits left
            The level area is soon behind you, and you find yourself climbing again first up some intricate wooden steps and then up some steep, rocky switchbacks.  You might begin to think that the name “Humpback Rocks” refers to the rocks in this trail, but the real destination still lies ahead.  The switchbacks ease the grade, and some carefully arranged stone steps make the ascent more manageable.
            At 1.2 miles, you reach the crest of the flat-topped ridge and a trail intersection.  Our hike will eventually use the trail to the right to reach the Appalachian Trail (AT), but for now angle left on the spur trail to Humpback Rocks.  A wooden post bearing the word “Rocks” and an arrow marks the way. A few hundred feet of rather flat hiking will lead you to the base of the rocks.
Spur trail to Humpback Rocks
            You do not have to climb all of the way to the top of the rocks to get a view: about 6 feet of climbing up a vein in the rocks will open up the classic view to the west through a gap in the rock.  A few low ridges are in the foreground, but the featured object is the wide and broad Shenandoah Valley in the background.  If you come here in early April, spring will be well underway in the valley while winter still dominates up at the rocks.  Beyond the Shenandoah Valley, jagged Little North Mountain, located in the George Washington National Forest, rises almost as high as the peak you are standing on.  You have worked hard for this view, so take a few minutes to rest and enjoy it.
View from Humpback Rocks

The Mathprofhiker at Humpback Rocks
            From the rocks, retrace your steps to the trail intersection.  Most people go back down the way they came up.  They must not know that only 40 more feet of climbing will yield some time on the AT plus a more gradual and less crowded route back to the parking lot.  You have already climbed over 700 feet, so you might as well reap the full benefits of this investment by continuing straight at the trail intersection, heading for the AT.
            A little more moderate to steep climbing over another 0.2 miles will lead you to an intersection with the AT 1.5 miles into the hike.  Turn left to begin heading northbound on the AT, following the famous white rectangular paint blazes.  As painful as the climb up was, this part of the hike is equally delightful.  Based on the crowded parking lot, I was surprised when I did not meet another single person on the AT.  I also found it hard to believe that a descent this gradual could get me all of the way back down, but it did and does.
A switchback on the AT
            The AT switchbacks down the northeast side of Humpback Mountain.  At 2.2 miles, you pass a small rocky spring on the right side of the trail.  Past the spring, the trail joins and leaves old roads several times and often at switchbacks.  Double blazes mark sharp turns, and keeping a watch for them should keep you on the trail through the switchbacks.  The forest here is dominated by broadleaf trees such as maple and oak with a few ferns in the sparsely populated understory.
Hiking on Howardsville Turnpike
            3.7 miles into the hike, the AT joins the old Howardsville Turnpike as you reach the lowest point of this hike.  The trail becomes noticeably rockier and begins a gradual climb at this point.  In the early to mid 1800’s, the Howardsville Turnpike was billed as the most gradual route across the Blue Ridge.  Hence, the road was one of the main routes for trade.  Horse-drawn carts and wagons carried goods from the Shenandoah Valley to the west to the historic town of Howardsville on the James River to the east.  As they climbed this mountain, wagon drivers would look up to Humpback Rocks to gauge their progress through Humpback Gap.  Thick trees prevent such a gauge today, but you can still imagine what it was like to drive a wagon full of goods to market along this rocky road.
            At 4.1 miles, you reach a signed trail junction.  The AT heads right to continue its northward journey to Maine, but our hike continues straight on the Howardsville Turnpike to head back to the parking area.  The white blazes of the AT are replaced by the light blue blazes of the Humpback Rocks Loop.  At 4.5 miles, you close the loop as you reach the Humpback Rocks parking lot.  Retrace your steps across the Blue Ridge Parkway and along the gravel Mountain Farm Trail to complete the hike.

1 comment:

  1. Cool. I was at this place too. I went with my brother last winter in Jan.