Thursday, May 29, 2014

Shenandoah National Park: Blackrock Summit (Blog Hike #468)

Trails: Trayfoot Mountain and Appalachian Trails
Hike Location: Shenandoah National Park, Blackrock Summit
Geographic Location: northeast of Waynesboro, VA (38.22293, -78.73329)
Length: 1.1 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2014
Overview: A short climb to an impressive, rocky view.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: The Blackrock Summit Parking Area is located on the west side of Skyline Drive at mile marker 84.8.  This mile marker is located 19 miles south of US 33 or 21 miles north of I-64.

The hike: My two visits to Shenandoah National Park have come 14 years apart.  On my first visit in April 2000, spring had arrived in the surrounding valleys but not on the mountain.  Most of the park’s facilities were still closed that time of year, and I drove Skyline Drive, the park’s famous view-filled scenic highway, in such a hurry that I finished the last few miles in complete darkness.
            My second visit came in May 2014 on a week-long hiking trip to Virginia.  At that time of year, the park featured more activity, but the summer crowds had not yet arrived in full force.  Ironically, although I lived in Virginia for almost 3 years in between these visits, I never came here while I was a Virginia resident.
            Whether you come on vacation or as a Virginia native, in the off-season or at the height of vacation season, a visit to Shenandoah National Park offers a special treat.  Established in 1935, the park is one of the oldest national parks in the east, and the many fine trails and buildings constructed by the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) still serve park visitors well today.  Because the park is much longer than it is wide, most of the good loop hikes have short length.  I focused on the northern half of the park on my first visit, so on my second visit I focused on the southern half, starting with the short loop to Blackrock Summit described here.
Trailhead at Blackrock Summit parking area
            This hike starts on the Trayfoot Mountain Trail, which leaves the southeast corner of the parking area at an information board and yellow chain that blocks vehicle access.  As the chain and this trail’s wide path give away, this section of trail doubles as a fire road.  A few dirt waterbars have been installed in the trail to help reduce erosion.
            After 0.15 miles of moderate climbing on the fire road, you reach an intersection with the Appalachian Trail (AT).  A concrete post inscribed with the familiar AT symbol marks this intersection, which is also the beginning of the loop portion of this hike.  The loop is a little easier to hike counterclockwise, so this description will angle softly left here to enter southbound on the white-blazed AT.  The powder blue-blazed Trayfoot Mountain Trail exiting on the fire road at a hard angle left will be our return route.
Intersecting the AT
            For the next 0.25 miles the AT climbs gradually through high-elevation forest, which includes a few yellow birch trees.  At 0.4 miles, the trail curves right to enter a boulder field on the west side of Blackrock Summit.  A lot of hard work went into building this section of trail, as the grade and treadway stay nearly level despite the jagged Hampton quartzite rocks all around.  The black color of the rock is due to lichen called rock tripe that live on these rocks.  Outstanding views open to the west with the forested hills of Shenandoah National Park in the foreground, the cultivated fields of Shenandoah Valley in the middle ground, and the rugged Allegheny Mountains in the background.  Some other boulder fields can be seen on neighboring mountains.
Trail through boulder field

View to the northwest
            At 0.5 miles, where a connecting trail to Trayfoot Mountain exits downhill to the right, continue straight on the AT, soon leaving the boulders.  Ironically, the Blackrock Summit loop does not go to Blackrock Summit; you will need to scramble up the boulders to the left here if you want to obtain the actual summit.  At 0.6 miles, you reach an intersection with the Trayfoot Mountain Trail, marked by another concrete post.  Turn left to begin the return portion of this loop.
Returning on the fire road
            Still following the grassy fire road through stunted high-elevation forest, the Trayfoot Mountain Trail climbs moderately before leveling out at the highest point on this hike and then descending.  At 0.9 miles, you close the loop.  Angling right to stay on the fire road will retrace your steps 0.15 additional miles to complete the hike.  Alternatively, you can follow the AT downhill a short distance and cut cross-country to the parking area if retracing your steps seems too boring.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Liberty Mountain Trail System: Peak-2-Peak Trail to Monogram (Blog Hike #467)

Trail: Peak-2-Peak Trail (to Monogram)
Hike Location: Liberty Mountain Trail System
Geographic Location: southwest side of Lynchburg, VA (37.35216, -79.16788)
Length: 1.6 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2014
Overview: A peak-hopping route to the LU monogram.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at Liberty University’s Snowflex, which is located on Candler’s Mountain Road just south (up the mountain) of US 460.  Park in the gravel general parking area to the right as you enter.

The hike: If you were a university, what would you do with 5000 acres of forested, mountain land that is too steep for constructing buildings?  Build a trail system, of course.  At least, that is what Liberty University did…eventually.  Though the university was established in 1971, the trail system was not built until 2006.  The lightly worn pathways still have the feel and problems of a young trail system, but the potential for a great hiking and biking destination can be seen already.
            The trail system consists of two-track old logging roads and single-track newly constructed trails.  Over 50 miles of trails are open to hikers and mountain bikers during daylight hours.  As the system’s name suggests, some of these trails are quite steep, but others have only moderate elevation changes.  Also, the trails close to campus are quite popular, while the more remote trails are seldom-used.
            Obviously, many different routes are possible through the trail system.  Due to the expansive views it offers, the most popular destination is the gazebo atop the infamous (in some circles) LU monogram.  The best hiking route to the monogram has changed over the years due to construction on Liberty Mountain.  At the time of this writing, the shortest hike leading to the gazebo that avoids long stretches along the road is the one described here.
Start of Peak-2-Peak Trail beside Monogram Road
             Walk around the front of Snowflex, following black and white signs for the Monogram.  Pick up the Peak-2-Peak Trail where it starts beside a yellow vehicle gate to the right of gravel Monogram Road.  The trail heads through a recently graded area before entering the forest and beginning its climb to the first peak, the peak that features Snowflex.  True to its name, the Peak-2-Peak Trail traces three peaks, the third of which bears the monogram.
            At 0.2 miles, you reach a post marking the intersection of the Monorail and Peak-2-Peak Trails.  Although nothing about the sign would indicate such, you need to take the second trail going left here to stay on the Peak-2-Peak Trail.  Angling right will take you down the Dirty Ridge Trail, which circles the knob and heads south toward Camp Hydaway.  If you reach a hand-carved sign that says “Dirty Ridge,” you have missed this turn, as I did the first time.
Eastern box turtle on the trail
            The trail descends gradually to reach the south shoulder of Monogram Road at 0.3 miles.  Rather than crossing the road, the trail ducks back into the woods on the same side of the road where a couple of other trails exit right.  A trail sign reassures you that you are on the Peak-2-Peak Trail.  On my mid-May hike, some mountain laurel was in full bloom near this junction.
Mountain laurel in bloom
            After topping the second peak, which is considerably lower and more gradually sloped than the first one, you again come out on the south shoulder of Monogram Road, this time at a major trail intersection.  Champion Road and a couple of single-track trails exit right, while the dead-end Luge Trail exits left. (Parenthetical note: the Luge Trail was the best route to the monogram before its lower end was obliterated by construction.)  The Peak-2-Peak Trail again stays on the south side of Monogram Road as it begins the final push to the monogram.
Beginning the final climb to monogram
            The final 0.2 miles are the steepest of the hike, as the trail gains more than 200 feet of elevation over this segment.  Just before reaching the top, you get an interesting side view of the monogram, a view people who drive up here never get to see.  At 0.8 miles, you reach the gazebo atop the monogram and the best view on campus.  On a clear day you can see the entire campus in the foreground, the wooded Piedmont hills in the middleground, and the rugged Peaks of Otter in the background.  I came up here on a cloudy day, and the view was still excellent.  Also, there is an interpretive sign presented by Liberty University’s graduating class of 2010, the last class to have Jerry Falwell Sr. as Chancellor.
View from monogram
            The Peak-2-Peak Trail continues past the monogram, but there are no more fantastic views.  If you wish to explore deeper into the Liberty Mountain Trail System, make sure you print and bring a trail map: many of the trails beyond here are unmarked, and most of the intersections are unsigned.  Enjoy your trip to Liberty Mountain, but make sure you get back to the Snowflex trailhead before sunset.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Blackwater Creek Natural Area: Ruskin Freer Loop (Blog Hike #466)

Trails: Blackwater Creek Bike Trail; Ruskin Freer Loop
Hike Location: Blackwater Creek Natural Area
Geographic Location: north side of Lynchburg, VA (37.41848, -79.18805)
Length: 3.3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2014
Overview: A nice forest and creekside hike partly on an old railroad grade.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at the Ed Page entrance for the Blackwater Creek Bike Trail, which is located on US 501 Business (Langhorne Road) 1.9 miles north of Memorial Avenue.

The hike: For my general comments on Blackwater Creek Natural Area, see my blog entry for the natural area’s Creekside Trail.  The Freer Loop is probably my favorite among the trail offerings at Blackwater Creek.  The Freer Loop passes through some of the nicest forest in Lynchburg, including a wide variety of habitats, and it is far enough away from the bike trail that most joggers and bikers never make it this deep into the woods.  This section of the natural area is named for Dr. Ruskin S. Freer, a noted botany professor at nearby Lynchburg College.
The only downside to the Freer Loop is the lack of direct trailhead access: you must hike other trails to reach it.  The shortest route to the Freer Loop starts at the Thomson Drive trailhead near Lynchburg General Hospital, but a lack of reliable parking on Thomson Drive makes that access a risky proposition.  Thus, I chose to start at the Ed Page Trailhead, which has a large and easily located parking area.
Ed Page Trailhead
Leaving the Ed Page Trailhead, the first 0.7 miles follow the paved Blackwater Creek Bike Trail, which in turn follows a series of abandoned railroad grades.  The blacktop is well-shaded by mature forest on either side of the trail, and some exposed rock cuts make the hiking more interesting.  While bike paths never make for the best hiking, this one ranks above average for its category.
Hiking the bike path
At 0.7 miles, the connector trail to the Freer Loop exits the paved bike path on the right.  This location is marked by a wooden post that bears trailhead and trail names.  Turn sharply right to begin the connector trail, which is appropriately called the Freer Link.
Leaving the blacktop; starting the Freer Link
The single-track dirt trail climbs slightly and curves left to reach the Freer Loop at 0.85 miles.  The Freer Loop is indeed a loop, so you could go either direction here.  The loop is a little easier to hike clockwise, so this description will angle left here and use the trail going right as the return route.  The Freer Loop is marked with occasional red paint blazes, but the treadway is clear and obvious on the ground.
Freer Loop in upland forest
The Freer Loop descends gradually through oak-hickory-beech upland forest before descending more steeply using two switchbacks to reach the creekside forest.  The hillside here is steep, but the switchbacks keep the grade moderate.  Upon reaching Blackwater Creek, the Beaver Trail exits left, as indicated by another wooden post.  Turn right here to continue the Freer Loop.
The next 0.6 miles parallel the creek, which remains in view most of the way on the left.  The nice upland forest is replaced by nice creekside forest, which includes some large sycamore and walnut trees.  For the most part Blackwater Creek is placid and murky, but a couple of areas feature some small ripples created by rocks just underneath the water surface.
Blackwater Creek
At 1.8 miles, you reach a high wooden suspension bridge across Blackwater Creek.  This bridge is used by the Creekside Trail, described elsewhere in this blog.  The Freer Loop stays on the north side of Blackwater Creek and, 200 feet later, reaches another trail intersection.  The Creekside Trail continues straight here, but the Freer Loop turns right.  Another wooden post marks this intersection.
The trail climbs moderately but only for a short distance to leave behind the creekside area and regain the upland.  Some tulip poplar trees join the broadleaf forest here, and a steep drop back to the creek occasionally appears on the right.  At 2.4 miles, you close the Freer Loop.  A left turn will take you back to the bike path, where another left turn will return you to the Ed Page Trailhead, thus completing the hike.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Sumter National Forest: Hidden Falls Trail (Blog Hike #465)

Trail: Hidden Falls Trail
Hike Location: Sumter National Forest
Geographic Location: northwest of Walhalla, SC (34.86338, -83.09808)
Length: 4.7 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2014
Overview: A ridgetop out-and-back to 50-foot high Hidden Falls.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: Although this trail is officially a national forest trail, it is accessed from a trailhead in Oconee State Park.  To reach the park, take SR 28 west out of Walhalla.  Follow SR 28 for 8 miles to its intersection with SR 107.  Take a soft right on SR 107.  Drive SR 107 for 2.3 miles to the state park entrance.  Turn right to enter the park, and pay the nominal entrance fee.  Bear right at the first intersection, heading for the Foothills Trail trailhead.  After driving 0.6 miles past the campground, park in the paved Foothills Trail parking lot on the right.  This parking lot was upgraded and expanded in 2014 to accommodate 17 cars.

The hike: For my general comments on this area’s hiking options, see the Tamassee Knob Trail blog entry.  Like the Tamassee Knob Trail, the Hidden Falls Trail starts on the Foothills Trail, the 87-mile long master path of upstate South Carolina.  Also like the Tamassee Knob Trail, the Hidden Falls Trail runs from Oconee State Park into adjacent Sumter National Forest, where this trail’s namesake waterfall is located.  Be advised that because Hidden Falls lies high in its watershed, the waterfall will be only a trickle during times of drought.  Plan a visit in the spring or after a good rain for best waterfall viewing.
Western Foothills Trail trailhead, Oconee State Park
            Register at the trailhead; different slots for your free registration correspond to the different trails that depart from this trailhead.  Start hiking up the Foothills Trail as the trail climbs gradually on a recently rerouted path.  At some points you can discern the old treadway on the ground about 20 feet to your left.  At 0.4 miles, you cross the Palmetto Trail, an old roadbed, and then reach a trail intersection.  The Tamassee Knob Trail exits right, so you should turn left to continue heading for Hidden Falls.
Hiking along the ridgetop
            The wide single-track dirt trail assumes a ridgetop character as it undulates gradually while skirting ravines to the right.  At one point an old fire tower road comes into view on the left.  When I hiked this trail in early May, mountain laurel flanked either side of the trail.  Some bushes had already bloomed, some were blooming, and others were just getting ready to bloom.
Mountain laurel
At 1.2 miles, the Hidden Falls and Foothills Trails part ways.  As directed by a sign, turn right to continue on the Hidden Falls Trail.  The trail briefly follows an old seeded-in roadbed before curving left to head into the woods, which consists of the usual combination of pines and broadleaf trees.  The trail drops off the main ridgeline on a gradual grade into a high dell carpeted with ferns.  You can hear a small stream flowing to your right, and an unofficial trail leads down to a small cascade, a prelude to the main attraction.
Fern-lined Hidden Falls Trail
1.8 miles into the hike, you begin the main descent to Hidden Falls, as you will lose almost 300 feet of elevation over the last 0.5 miles.  The grade is never too steep for too long: the trail drops in fits and starts, kind of like drinking a glass of water one drop at a time.  While descending, the trail also traces around a small finger in the ridge that rises to the right and falls to the left.
Hidden Falls
At 2.35 miles, you reach the base of Hidden Falls.  A small to moderate volume of water falls 50 feet in two main drops.  The water cascading through the boulder field at the base of the falls makes a pleasant gurgling sound that overpowers the sound of the waterfall itself.  A log at the falls’ base makes a perfect viewing spot.  Because the trail ends at the falls and does not form a loop, after viewing the falls you will need to retrace your steps 2.35 miles to the Foothills Trail trailhead to complete the hike.