Friday, July 21, 2017

New River Gorge National River: Endless Wall Trail (Blog Hike #643)

Trail: Endless Wall Trail
Hike Location: New River Gorge National River
Geographic Location: north of Fayetteville, WV
Length: 4.5 miles ROUND-TRIP
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2017
Overview: An out-and-back atop the cliff-lined north rim of New River Gorge.

Directions to the trailhead: From the New River bridge, take US 19 north 0.9 miles to Lansing-Edmund Road.  Turn right (east) on Lansing-Edmund Rd.  Drive narrow and winding Lansing-Edmund Rd. east 1.3 miles to the Fern Creek Trailhead, which is the western trailhead for the Endless Wall Trail.  If the Fern Creek Trailhead parking lot is full, the eastern trailhead for the Endless Wall Trail is the Nutall Trailhead, which is located another 0.5 miles east on Lansing-Edmund Rd.  Each of these trailheads features a vault toilet and an information board but no other amenities.

The hike: For my general comments on hiking in this part of New River Gorge, see my hike on the nearby Burnwood Trail.  Many people think the Endless Wall Trail described here is the best short hike at New River Gorge; others think it is the best short hike in all of West Virginia.  The trail takes you atop a long series of cliffs that comprise the gorge’s north rim, so the unrivaled gorge views provide this hike’s main attraction. 
As described in the Directions to the trailhead, the Endless Wall Trail connects two trailheads both of which lie on Lansing-Edmund Road.  While it is possible to form a loop by hiking 0.5 miles along the road, such a route is not recommended due to the narrow, winding roadbed that carries moderate volumes of traffic.  This description starts at the western Fern Creek Trailhead and leads to the eastern Nutall Trailhead.
Endless Wall Trail at Fern Creek Trailhead
            The Endless Wall Trail starts at the far (west) end of the parking area and immediately heads into a dark forest dominated by hemlocks.  The trail surface starts as gravel, but as the trail curves left to head for the gorge rim it turns to dirt with some rocks.  The initial hemlock forest is fairly open, but thick walls of rhododendron enclose the trail when you get further in.
Walls of rhododendron
            At 0.5 miles, the trail crosses cascading Fern Creek on a sturdy wooden footbridge.  Next comes a gradual climb first to New River Gorge’s north rim and then along the north rim.  In total, the trail gains just over 200 feet of elevation from its low point at Fern Creek.  At 0.7 miles, you reach the gorge rim and the first access point for rock climbers.  This climbing access point gives your first view into New River Gorge.  All overlooks along this trail are unprotected, so keep kids and pets in firm tow if you venture near the cliff edge.
The official trail parallels the rim 20 to 50 feet from the cliff edge, but many unofficial trails lead to nice views at the brim of the gorge.  A narrow unofficial trail treads right on the cliff edge, but it is too precipitous for my taste.  Scraggly pines eek out a living along the rocky rim.
Unofficial overlook
1 mile into the hike, you reach the spur trail to Diamond Point Overlook, the only official overlook on this hike.  Standing above a northward bend in the river, Diamond Point offers fantastic views of the seemingly endless cliff wall upstream, US 19’s New River Gorge bridge downstream, and the river itself in the gorge below.  During the summer you are likely to see and hear rafters trying to negotiate the river’s rapids.  Take some time to enjoy the unrivaled views Diamond Point has to offer.
New River, as seen from Diamond Point

North rim's endless wall

Looking downstream from Diamond Point
Many people turn around at Diamond Point having taken in the best views of the hike.  For hikers with more time and energy, the Endless Wall Trail continues its eastward course atop the gorge’s north rim.  More unofficial trails exit right to more unofficial gorge overlooks. 
Hiking along the rim
Just shy of 2 miles, you reach the signed eastern rock climbing access point, which also represents the eastern-most gorge overlook.  The Endless Wall Trail curves left here to leave the rim area, top a low ridge, and begin the steepest descent of this hike.  After crossing a small tributary to Fern Creek, you reach the Endless Wall Trail’s eastern terminus at the Nutall Trailhead.  Unless you have arranged a car shuttle here, you next have to retrace your steps 2.25 miles to the Fern Creek Trailhead that contains your car to complete the hike.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Ryerson Station State Park: Iron Bridge and Lazear Trails (Blog Hike #642)

Trails: Iron Bridge and Lazear Trails
Hike Location: Ryerson Station State Park
Geographic Location: west of Waynesburg, PA
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2017
Overview: A lollipop loop, occasionally muddy, occasionally steep, and occasionally overgrown, featuring an overlook high above Ronald J. Duke Lake.

Directions to the trailhead: In southwestern Pennsylvania, take I-79 to SR 21 (exit 14).  Exit and go west on SR 21.  Drive SR 21 west 22.4 miles to Bristoria Road.  There is a brown highway sign for Ryerson Station State Park at this intersection, which is located at the bottom of a long, steep hill.  Take a sharp left on Bristoria Rd.  Drive Bristoria Rd. east 1.3 miles to the park office, where you should stop to pick up a trail map.  Then continue east another 0.5 miles to the signed Iron Bridge Picnic Area.  Park in the gravel roadside parking lot.

The hike: Tucked deep in the hills and hollows of southwestern Pennsylvania, Ryerson Station State Park protects 1164 acres along the North Fork of the Dunkard Fork of Wheeling Creek (a very long name for a very small creek, and henceforth simply called “the Creek”).  The park’s name comes from the historic Ryerson’s Fort, which was built by the Virginia Colony some 2 miles downstream from here at the confluence of the Dunkard Creek’s North and South Forks.  The fort operated between 1774 and 1793, and it protected English settlers from attacks by Mingo, Shawnee, and Lenni Lenape Indians.  The park was established in 1958 as part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s plan to have a state park within 25 miles of every resident.
            True to its rustic nature, Ryerson Station State Park offers limited amenities that include a 46-site campground, 2 cottages, 5 picnic shelters, and fishing in the park’s Ronald J. Duke Lake.  For hikers, the park offers 13 trails that total 13 miles, but many of the trails can be combined to form longer hikes.  This hike features the park’s longest trail, the 2.4 mile Lazear Trail, and leads to a nice overlook high above the lake.  Parts of this hike pass through land that is open to hunting, so wear bright orange in season to prevent accidents.
Iron bridge at trailhead
            The Lazear Trail is a loop that can be accessed directly from picnic shelter #3, but to also see an interesting iron bridge I recommend starting at the Iron Bridge Picnic Area and getting to the Lazear Trail via the Iron Bridge Trail.  To execute such a plan, start by walking across the picnic area’s namesake iron bridge.  Both the superstructure and deck of this bridge are made of iron, and stout stone supports undergird either end.  This bridge carried vehicle traffic in its pre-park days, but today it carries hikers on the Iron Bridge Trail over the Creek.
            After crossing the iron bridge, trails go right and left.  Turn right to continue the Iron Bridge Trail.  The wide grassy trail parallels the Creek as it heads downstream along the edge of a wet meadow.  The first and last parts of this hike pass beside a wetland area, so be sure to wear good bug spray during the warm months.  Also, some wet areas will need to be negotiated if it has rained recently.
Hiking beside the wetland
            At 0.3 miles, the trail curves left to enter the woods and begin heading up Munnell Hollow.  The biggest trees in Munnell Hollow are tulip poplar and sycamore, but quite a few oak, maple, beech, and hemlock also live here.  The small stream that flows down Munnell Hollow makes scenic cascades as it spills over some low rock ledges.
Stream in Munnell Hollow
            0.4 miles into the hike, the Iron Bridge Trail ends at a junction with the Lazear Trail, which goes left and right.  To make the climb more gradual, this hike turns left and uses the right trail as a return route, thus hiking the Lazear Trail clockwise.  Named for a former landowner, the Lazear Trail follows an old two-track dirt road as it climbs on a gradual to moderate grade up Munnell Hollow.  Overall, the trail gains just over 400 feet of elevation over the next mile.
At the next three intersections, continue straight where two side trails exit right and one exits left.  The Lazear Trail is not blazed, but most intersections are signed, and the path is wide and easy to follow in the hollow.  As I approached the top of the ridge, the trail conditions devolved, and I ended up wading through some knee-high vegetation for short stretches.  I saw evidence that the grassy vegetation had been mowed several months ago, but parts of the trail needed clearing again.
Approaching the top of the ridge
At 1.3 miles, the trail curves softly right to leave the old road.  A sign that simply says “trail” marks this turn.  After a sharp switchback to the right, the ridge’s 1400-foot crest comes into sight to the left, and some east-facing views start to emerge to the right.  In another 0.1 miles you reach the overlook that marks this hike’s highest elevation.  A narrow gap in the trees allows you to view the park’s lake over 400 feet below, and a bench allows you to rest near the midpoint of this hike.  Some raspberries grow near this overlook and may provide a snack in season.
View toward park lake at overlook

View east near overlook
A trail appears to head straight downhill toward the lake, but it quickly ends.  The Lazear Trail continues north and soon reenters the forest to begin its descent.  The descent starts gradual, but the grade soon intensifies and involves a pair of switchbacks.  Where the Orchard Trail continues straight, curve sharply left to remain on the Lazear Trail.  Some interpretive signs that describe common flora in the forest and improved trail conditions give this part of the Lazear Trail a front-country nature trail feel.
            As you approach the bottom of the hill, you pass through a nice pine planting just before picnic shelter #3 comes into view downhill to the left.  At 2.2 miles, the spur trail to the picnic shelter exits left.  Turn right to begin the final leg of the Lazear Trail.
Hiking through the pines
            The Lazear Trail now undulates moderately as it heads east with the Creek’s wetland off to your left.  2.6 miles into the hike, you close the Lazear Trail’s loop at a junction with the Iron Bridge Trail.  A left turn and 0.4 miles of retracing your steps along the Iron Bridge Trail return you to the iron bridge and complete the hike.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve: Meadowview/Woodland Loop (Blog Hike #641)

Trails: Spring Hollow, Meadowview, Woodland, Goldenrod, and Upper Fields Trails
Hike Location: Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve
Geographic Location: northeast of Pittsburgh, PA
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2017
Overview: A short rolling loop through reverting farmland.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 8 and SR 28 in Etna, take SR 8 north 0.5 miles to Kittanning Street.  Turn right on Kittanning Street, which becomes Dorseyville Road after it leaves Etna.  Drive a total of 4.4 miles from SR 8 to the signed reserve parking lot on the left.  The parking lot was in the process of being expanded on my visit.

The hike: Originally known as Evans Nature Center, tiny Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve protects 134 acres of reverting farmland on the northeast side of suburban Pittsburgh.  The reserve is owned by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which received the land as a donation from Mrs. John F. Walton, Jr. and Mr. and Mrs. Joshua C. Whetzel, Jr. in 1977, and it is maintained by the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.  Before it became a nature reserve, the land was operated between 1903 and 1924 as a farm by State Senator William Flinn, one of Pittsburgh’s most powerful politicians of the late 1800’s.  SR 8 that you drove in on also bears Flinn’s name.
            The nature reserve’s first building was completed in 1979, and its present headquarters were built in 1989.  The reserve features 9 trails that total over 5 miles, and the trail system offers many possible hiking routes.  Though not the longest possible route, the hike suggested here samples both the meadow and forest habitats that comprise Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve.
            On a personal note, my ancestors emigrated from Bavaria, Germany to the Pittsburgh area in 1848, and the farm they settled on was located only a few miles from here.  I have three generations of ancestors buried in nearby Greenwood Cemetery.  As I hiked this tract of reverting farmland on a sultry hot summer day, I could not help but think of my great grandparents trying to eek out a living on a steep, rocky plot of land similar to this one.
            Before you hit the trail, stop in the Nature Center to pick up a trail map.  The trails at Beechwood Farms are marked only by tall posts at intersections, and the large number of trails packed into a fairly small area ensures that you will have plenty of opportunities to take a wrong turn.  On the bright side, the reserve’s small size makes it far more likely to become temporarily misplaced than seriously lost.
Start of Spring Hollow Trail
            Start on the Spring Hollow Trail, a packed gravel trail that goes in front of and to the left of the reserve’s education building.  The trail map incorrectly shows the Spring Hollow Trail starting behind the Nature Center with two other trails.  The trail climbs gradually through a more sunny than shady reverting farm field.  Meadow environments such as this one make for excellent wildlife viewing, which included deer and ground hogs on my hike.  Numerous benches appear beside the trails at Beechwood Farms, and more benches were under construction during my visit.
            At 0.2 miles, you reach an intersection with the Meadowview Trail, a grassy trail that goes right and left.  Turn left to leave the gravel Spring Hollow Trail and begin the Meadowview Trail.  Almost immediately you cross an asphalt driveway that leads to a private residence.
The trail descends gradually, and at 0.3 miles the Pine Hollow Trail exits left.  The 0.9 mile Pine Hollow Trail is Beechwood Farms’ longest and most primitive trail, but it was heavily encumbered by tall grass and downed trees on my visit.  The Pine Hollow Trail rejoins the Meadowview Trail in only another 400 feet along the Meadowview Trail, so feel free to explore the Pine Hollow Trail if trail conditions are better on your visit.
Pump House
            After the Pine Hollow Trail rejoins our route, the trail curves right as it approaches the power line that services the private residence mentioned above.  Just past the power line stands an old green wooden pump house, a relic from this land’s farming days.  The rusty pump still sits in the pump house for your inspection and observation.  Apple trees scattered throughout the reverting meadow provide more reminders of this land’s agricultural past.
Trail intersection on Meadowview Trail
            The trail climbs slightly and re-crosses the asphalt driveway before reaching an intersection with the Woodland Trail.  We will eventually turn left to hike the Woodland Trail, but first continue straight and look to the left for the reserve’s “treehouse:” a wooden overlook built over a deep ravine.  The platform’s height lifts you well into the forest’s canopy, thus giving you the feel that you are in a treehouse.  Note that the trail map has another error here: it places this “treehouse” in the wrong spot.
Tree Top Lookout
            Back at the Woodland Trail junction, turn right (coming from this direction) to begin the Woodland Trail, which as its name implies leaves the meadow and enters the woods.  The dirt Woodland Trail is the steepest and narrowest trail in the reserve, and it starts with a steep descent into a nice pine planting with a dense understory of ferns.  As a power line near the reserve’s northwest boundary comes into view, the trail curves right and undulates.  When you move away from the power line, traffic from nearby Harts Run Road becomes audible.  Thus, reminders of this reserve’s suburban setting are ever-present on the Woodland Trail.
            Just past 1 mile into the hike, the Woodland Trail ends at an intersection with the Spring Hollow Trail.  Turn left to rejoin the gravel Spring Hollow Trail just before it crosses Harts Run on a nice wooden footbridge.  The trail follows the upper reaches of Harts Run upstream to reach a man-made pond.  A wooden pavilion built beside the pond provides an opportunity to sit and observe the pond’s wildlife, which included a large turtle and some Canada geese on my visit.  Unfortunately, some approaching thunder caused me to cut my stay at the pond short.
Pond on Harts Run
            Turn right at the pavilion to cross the pond’s dam and begin the Goldenrod Trail, which continues your uphill journey back toward the Nature Center.  A member of the aster family, goldenrod is a common meadow flower found on this reserve.  At the next intersection, angle left to continue uphill on the Upper Fields Trail, which comes out behind the Nature Center and the parking area.  I made it back to my car just in time: a thunderstorm unleashed a torrential downpour on my car only seconds later.