Sharp Top Trail (Jefferson National Forest, VA)

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Sharp Top Trail, Peaks of Otter Recreation Area, Jefferson National Forest, July 2019

Viewed from the valley below, Sharp Top (3,862’) in central Virginia is an imposing peak, once thought by 19th century Virginians to be the highest point in the state. Although later surveyors found this not to be true (the honors go to Mount Rogers at 5,728’), Sharp Top remains a popular destination for hikers seeking sweeping views of the Peaks of Otter Recreation Area in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The 1.5-mile ascent to the summit is straightforward but brutal, covering an elevation gain of more than 1,300 feet. Along the way, consider a slight detour to Buzzard’s Roost, a collection of rock outcrops with a commanding vista.

Sharp Top Trail Peaks of Otter hike information

The hike

The steep climb to the summit begins at the Sharp Top Store, situated just off Route 43 as it weaves through the Peaks of Otter area, a stone’s throw from the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center and Blue Ridge Parkway. The Sharp Top Store is also the starting point for a shuttle bus that takes riders most of the way up the mountain…but, of course, this is cheating.

After loading up with water and snacks, follow the well-marked signs to the start of the trail, which begins as a neatly-constructed stone staircase. An interpretive sign tells the story of Sharp Top, including its long-held misrepresentation as the highest peak in Virginia. Sharp Top was a landmark well-known to early pioneers of the area, and, during the construction of the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, Virginia residents sent a stone from the peak to be placed in the obelisk.

After some initial steps, the Sharp Top Trail quickly comes to a junction, with a spur trail heading left to the Peaks of Otter Campground. Stay straight as the path enters deep woods. After about 200 yards, the incline eases slightly, and the footpath bends right along a heavily-vegetated slope.

At 2/10 mile, the wide path crosses a paved road (the route of the shuttle bus) and then enters a mild uphill as it wraps around a left-hand bend. The path soon passes under a canopy of mountain laurel and settles into a steady ascent. Rocks become more abundant as the trail traverses a green gully, with largely obscured views to the west.

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Mountain laurel along the Sharp Top Trail

After passing the half-mile mark, the ascending trail climbs a pair of switchbacks at the base of a 15- to 20-foot rock outcrop, then leads into a left-hand horseshoe bend. A couple more stone staircases lead up to a relative straightaway that nonetheless continues to climb persistently up a woody ridgeline. Two more narrow but short staircases give way to a left-hand switchback at ¾ mile. Here the first real views emerge: hikers can peer west toward McFalls Mountain and Campbells Mountain (2,414’), with the principal Blue Ridge just beyond.

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First views above the trees along the Sharp Top Trail

Additional switchbacks and well-crafted stone stairs lead to the base of a rock outcrop at about 9/10 miles that, from a rear angle, looks like a nest of mammoth-sized eggs. As the incline eases, one can peer up to the left to a row of cliffs—this is near the summit of Sharp Top. But the trail here remains about 400 feet below the summit, requiring the path to swing around to the south to a high gap to clear the cliffs. For a brief moment at the 1-mile mark, the trail actually dips to clear a rock field, and the size of the boulders gets noticeably larger just beyond.

At 1.1 miles, the rock boulders temporarily disappear, and the now relatively smooth and level path reaches a high saddle where there is a trail junction. While the Sharp Top Trail continues left, consider heading right first on the short spur to Buzzard’s Roost, where exposed rock outcrops offer excellent views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Piedmont plateau to the west and south. You can also, from this vantage point, view the summit of Sharp Top to the north.

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View south from Buzzard’s Roost

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Sharp Top from the viewpoint at Buzzard’s Roost

From Buzzard’s Roost, return on the 1/10-mile spur back to the trail junction, this time continuing right for the final approach to Sharp Top. The uphill path continues to weave among rock outcrops and is occasionally even asphalted. Guardrails assist with the climb in a couple areas as the path switchbacks up the mountain. At 1.5 miles (including the spur to Buzzard’s Roost), the trail dips down through a rocky notch, followed by more stone staircases. Within around 200 yards, the trail splits, with a spur heading left to the upper terminus of the shuttle bus. Continue straight to Sharp Top.

Stay right at another junction at 1.65 miles, this time with the summit now visible ahead. Pass a sign built by the National Park Service on the right (“Weather at Work”), as well as an old and empty cabin. Beyond, a final set of staircases provides easy access around a jumble of boulders to the summit—3,862 feet above sea level.

The various viewing areas atop Sharp Top offer views in all directions. The most striking views are to the north, looking across Abbott Lake and Peaks of Otter Lodge to Harkening Hill (3,372’) and Flat Top Mountain (4,001’). The Blue Ridge Mountains continue to the horizon to the northeast, while the Shenandoah Valley unfolds to the northwest.

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Abbott Lake, Flat Top Mountain, and Peaks of Otter area from Sharp Top

Looking east, the mountains give way to small hills and flats—the Virginia Piedmont—which continue eastward toward Lynchburg and Richmond. The southward views are partly obscured (they are better at Buzzard’s Roost), but, like the northerly vista, the Blue Ridge Mountains disappear into the horizon.

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Views south from the Sharp Top summit

The views from Sharp Top are particularly stunning at sunrise and sunset and, of course, as the fall colors alight the slopes with bright yellows, oranges, and reds.

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Sun beginning to set on the Peaks of Otter area

Once ready to return, head back the way you came, carefully weaving down the seemingly endless stone staircases to the trailhead. Hiking time for the Sharp Top Trail varies widely by fitness level: quick hikers can complete the round-trip in about 2-2.5 hours, while most will require more than three hours because of the slow pace induced by the relentless climb.

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Sharp Top Mountain from Abbott Lake

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Jonathan Run Trail and Sugar Run Falls (Ohiopyle State Park, PA)

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Upper Jonathan Run Falls, Jonathan Run Trail, Ohioyple State Park, May 2019

The Youghiogheny River Gorge in southwest Pennsylvania’s Ohiopyle State Park has many echoes of other, arguably grander canyons in the area, such as New River Gorge in southern West Virginia and Cheat River Gorge at Coopers Rock State Forest near Morgantown: sweeping vistas and lush side canyons, flush with rhododendrons and picturesque waterfalls. While most visitors to Ohiopyle—a 1.5-hour drive from Pittsburgh—flock to the main Ohiopyle Falls and Ferncliff area, hikers seeking relative solitude can find it on the Jonathan Run Trail in the northwest section of the park. In the course of 1.6 miles, the trail passes two beautiful waterfalls, and it is a short walk from the end of the trail to a third, Sugar Run Falls. Visitors in late spring can expect terrific flows through dense green thicket, with the three flumes inviting hikers to stay awhile…

Jonathan Run Trail Sugar Run Falls hike information Ohiopyle

Jonathan Run Trail Ohiopyle State Park map

Map of Jonathan Run Trail and Sugar Run Falls hike, Ohiopyle State Park, adapted from https://www.dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark/OhiopyleStatePark/Pages/default.aspx

The hike

Jonathan Run, a modest tributary of the Youghiogheny River, cuts through the northwest arm of Pennsylvania’s Ohiopyle State Park. While also accessible from the Kentuck and Sugar Run Trails, the best access point is its namesake path, the Jonathan Run Trail, which begins roughly 1.5 miles up the Holland Hill Road. (Note: From the Visitor Center at Ohiopyle Falls, head south on Highway 381, bear right on Ohiopyle Road, passing Cucumber Falls. Then stay straight at the four-way intersection, where the name changes to Holland Hill Road.)

The Jonathan Run Trailhead, situated at a sharp left-hand bend in the northbound road, is tucked away in the trees off to the right. A small, unpaved parking area has space for maybe a half-dozen cars.

The Jonathan Run Trail, the only path that heads off from here, begins by keeping its distance from its namesake creek but sporadic views of the stream appear on the left. The easy-to-follow path bears uphill in fits and starts, crossing a muddy ravine after about 1/3 mile. From here the trail drops down to creekside, following yellow blazes.

Now over a half mile from the start, the trail begins an abrupt climb to a higher level, putting hikers at least 30 feet above the creek bed. The track stays at this height for around 200 yards then drops back to stream level.

The hike, to this point pleasant but nothing spectacular, becomes considerably more interesting as it ducks under a canopy of leafy rhododendrons at 8/10 mile. These beautiful plants thrive in the moist, streamside setting, giving the ravine a more memorable character.

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Rhododendrons along the Jonathan Run Trail

Steps further, the trail crosses a wooden bridge that, at the time of the author’s hike, appeared freshly constructed. Staying in the floodplain, the trail along the western bank gains little elevation. At 1.1 mile, the yellow-blazed path leaves the main track to the left. (Note: The path heading right leads to a difficult creek ford that is no longer used.)

Hikers will again cross the creek, however, in about 100 yards, just after a fork with the Sugar Run Trail (stay right). (Note: Visitors can venture a little way up the Sugar Run Trail, however, for a peek at nearby Fechter Run Falls.) The Jonathan Run Trail, after the second bridge, quickly ascends to another trail junction, this time with the Kentuck Trail, which offers access to the Kentuck Campground.

Continuing left at the fork, start to look for a set of social trails bearing off to the left. These paths, well worn but still steep and requiring careful footing, converge on the base of Upper Jonathan Run Falls. (Note: This waterfall, unlike the other two, is NOT labelled on Ohiopyle maps.) While not particularly high or wide, this private cascade is arguably the best of the bunch because of its secluded location and multitiered tumble that leaves visitors with the sense that they are surrounded by flowing water.

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Upper Jonathan Run Falls

Below the main falls, Jonathan Run drops another three feet off a sandstone ledge, pouring into a beautiful bowl-shaped pool that is attractive for swimming. It is easy to spend upwards of an hour relaxing in this beautiful area, and crowds are likely to be few or nonexistent.

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Swimming hole at Upper Jonathan Run Falls

Once ready, climb back up to the main trail and bear left, heading downhill on the wide path. Keeping to the right of the creek, the Jonathan Run Trail descends steadily for ¼ mile to the next attraction: Lower Jonathan Run Falls. At the sounds of rushing water, start to look again for a set of interconnecting social trails on the left. This time, the descent to the falls is considerably more difficult—and not recommended for small children or those without proper footgear. (Note: At one point, the path is so steep that a rope has been installed to assist with the descent.)

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Lower Jonathan Run Falls

Those who brave the drop, however, are rewarded with another intimate waterfall. Unlike the upper falls, Lower Jonathan Run Falls tumbles over just one main drop that ends in a small pool. Large boulders along the creek offer a nice place to again rest and take in the scenery.

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Lower Jonathan Run Falls

After a grueling ascent back to the Jonathan Run Trail, bear left again. The trail ends soon after, spilling out onto the Great Allegheny Passage, a hiking and biking superhighway that extends 150 miles from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland. In Ohiopyle, the wide and largely flat path follows the Youghiogheny—partly visible straight ahead—for the roughly 10 miles that it weaves through the park.

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Great Allegheny Passage, heading west toward Sugar Run Falls

Hikers can use the end of the Jonathan Run Trail as a stopping point, a prompt to turn around and retrace your steps back for 1.6 miles to the trailhead. But those thirsty for one more waterfall can bear left on the Great Allegheny Passage and follow it for 250 yards to the junction with the single-track Mitchell Trail.

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Sugar Run Falls along Mitchell Trail

Bear left on the Mitchell Trail, entering a dark ravine with the sounds of more rushing water. After a few minutes of climbing, the footpath reaches the base of Sugar Run Falls, a small but beautiful cascade that is even more likely than the others to be devoid of crowds. Be careful scrambling around here, as the viewing space along the banks is tight and rocky.

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Sugar Run Falls

While the Mitchell Trail continues uphill from here, it is time to turn around and return to the trailhead, following the route you came. It is a roughly 1.8-mile journey, this time covering a modest but steady uphill gain of about 300 feet in elevation.

The entire 3.6-mile journey, with little to no breaks, can be completed in less than two hours. But those seeking some serenity at the three falls, should allot for at least three hours for the moderately-difficult hike.

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Jumonville Glen Trail (Fort Necessity National Battlefield, PA)

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Jumonville Glen Trail, Fort Necessity National Battlefield, May 2019

What precisely happened on May 28, 1754 at Jumonville Glen in southwestern Pennsylvania remains unknown to this day. British forces led by a young Lieutenant Colonel George Washington claimed that, when they encountered a French contingent encamped at the base of a cliff, the French fired first. The French forces, commanded at the time by Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, claimed that Washington’s forces surrounded and massacred them while they were resting. Whatever the reality, the results were profound: the short skirmish—which killed 13 French soldiers and one of Washington’s—kicked off a war between the two European powers that would last until 1763. The French and Indian War, beginning here at Jumonville Glen, would help cement British control of North America, until the Revolutionary War two decades later.

Today, the shady glen is preserved as part of Fort Necessity National Battlefield, situated in the Laurel Highlands of southwest Pennsylvania. (Note: The Jumonville Glen Unit is located 8 miles northwest of the main battlefield grounds.) A brief but pleasant loop hike encircles the area where the skirmish occurred: in addition to the historical relevance, the rocky sandstone ledges are interesting in themselves.

Jumonville Glen Trail hike information Fort Necessity

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Map of Jumonville Glen Trail, Fort Necessity National Battlefield

The hike

The Jumonville Glen parking area is situated deep in the wooded highlands above Uniontown, Pennsylvania, roughly a 15-minute drive north of the main section of Fort Necessity National Battlefield. (Note: This primary area includes Great Meadows, site of a later battle in July 1754, when French forces caused Washington a humiliating defeat.)

Behind a covered information kiosk, the short trail to Jumonville Glen begins as a well-paved track into the wilderness. Stay on the pavement as the path forks, saving the interpretive sign (“From Jumonville to a World War”) for the end of the circuit. From here the modern, asphalted track bisects an old roadbed—remains of the famed Braddock Road, which was built in 1755 to transport British forces during the ensuing French and Indian War. (Note: The trace was named for Major General Edward Braddock, Washington’s commander who died during the Battle of the Monongahela in 1755.)

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Traces of Braddock Road at Jumonville Glen

Heading southward, the trail gradually descends amid thick forest, then bears east. Ferns, chestnut oaks, birches, and maples dot the landscape. At about 250 yards, hikers will come across a minor monument to George Washington, revealing that the Jumonville Glen area is also known as “Washington’s Rocks.”

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Jumonville Glen Trail

The pavement ends at an overlook about 50 yards farther, where an interpretive sign sets the stage for the battle on May 28, 1754: having heard that a group of French soldiers was in the vicinity, Washington and about 40 men formed a raiding party, setting out to investigate. As they approached, they spotted the French party at the base of this glen, ostensibly resting: what were their intentions? To spy or to negotiate? Washington and his native Iroquois allies prepared their approach…

After the overlook, the pavement disappears, transforming into a dirt, rocky single-track. Follow this path as it descends, switchbacking down the hill to the base of the sandstone ledges. Here, about 1/3 mile into the hike, was the site of the French encampment. A second interpretive sign picks up the story…

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Base of the cliffs at Jumonville Glen

On the morning of May 28, as the 32 French troops prepared breakfast, they were suddenly startled by the presence of the British and Iroquois soldiers. Who shot first remains a mystery, but the French were quickly drawn into a volley of fire. The entire skirmish lasted only 15 minutes, but 13 Frenchmen were mortally wounded, including Jumonville, the group’s commanding officer.

At this spot, hikers can peer up at the rock outcrops, the enviable position held by about 20 British soldiers during the short battle. Washington and 10 others entered from the woods off to the left, while Tanacharison and Monacatootha led a contingent of Iroquois warriors from the right.

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Sandstone outcrops at Jumonville Glen

When the dust settled, all but one of the surviving French forces were held prisoner (one escaped back to Fort Duquesne to alert the French command), and the representatives of New France were outraged, demanding retribution for what they viewed as an unjustified slaughter. Washington’s raid at Jumonville Glen would come back to haunt him weeks later, when the French easily overran Washington’s field headquarters at Fort Necessity on July 3. (Note: Unknown to Washington (who could not read French), the surrender papers he signed included a provision that held him personally responsible for the death of Jumonville on May 28.)

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Climbing through a notch at Jumonville Glen

From the interpretive sign, bear left on a dirt path that hugs the base of the cliffs, ignoring a social trail that heads right. The route cuts through a notch in the ledges of Pottsville sandstone, then descends. Another small outcrop requires a minor ascent to evade. Several social trails veer off from around here; stay generally left on the most well-trodden of the bunch.

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Jumonville Glen Trail as it meanders back to the start

At 4/10 mile, ascend a set of stone steps then swing around a bend, reclaiming the high ground above the cliffs. From here the path follows a ravine on the right that is choked with vegetation. Through gradual meandering, the trail weaves its way back to the initial junction. The interpretive sign here discusses the consequences of the skirmish: the subsequent Battle of Fort Necessity and the start of a global war. The French and Indian War morphed into a broader conflict in 1856 with the opening of a European Theater that came to be known as the Seven Years’ War.

At this final junction, bear right and return to the parking area. Allot around 30-45 minutes for the entire circuit.

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Raven Rock Trail (Coopers Rock State Forest, WV)

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Raven Rock Trail, Coopers Rock State Forest, May 2019

At Coopers Rock State Forest in northern West Virginia, the Cheat River carves a deep, sandstone canyon through thick forest, making the area one of the most popular outdoors destinations in the Morgantown area. While most flock to the overlook near the main parking area at Coopers Rock, the nearby Raven Rock Trail offers an opportunity to stretch your legs and visit a quieter viewpoint that is arguably even more expansive. Short but rocky, the out-and-back track forms a 2.5-mile round trip.

Raven Rock Trail Coopers Rock hike information

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Map of Raven Rock Trail, Coopers Rock State Forest

The hike

The Raven Rock Trailhead is situated roughly 2.2 miles down Coopers Rock Road, a short drive from the entrance to Coopers Rock State Forest at the junction with Interstate 68. Heading south from I-68, the marked trailhead will be on the left, although the parking area is located opposite the start on the right.

Passing around the closed gate, the trail begins as a wide gravel road. Maps are located at a small information stand on the right, after which the track leaves the parking area behind. In about 50 yards, bear right at the junction, leaving the dirt double-track as it bears left into the woods. The trail from here remains wide but rockier and more natural.

A steady downhill pace sets in as the track descends a wooded hillside en route to the rim of the Cheat River Gorge. At about 300 yards, stay straight at the trail junction—the orange-blazed trail that bisects the path offers connections to the McCollum Campground and Coopers Rock area.

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Sea of ferns along the Raven Rock Trail

Descending amid a sea of ferns and other greenery, the trail approaches a large rock monolith on the right at about ¼ mile. The declivity remains but eases slightly, still bearing south toward the canyon. The ravine on the left gradually takes on more form, with a trickle of water becoming a steady flow.

Another row of cliffs come into view on the right at 4/10 mile, followed by an unmarked path that enters from the left. Within the next 300 yards, the trail flattens out considerably. At 7/10 mile, a brief uphill leads quickly into a sharp decline, with the stream becoming louder on the left and hemlocks and rhododendrons become more ubiquitous.

At about 9/10 mile, the trail reaches a somewhat confusing fork, with a spur trail heading straight while the main track veers sharply to the right and begins an abrupt uphill. (Note: The left spur is worth exploring, as it leads to a beautiful, shaded stream.) The next section is the most difficult of the hike, climbing roughly 120 feet in elevation in less than 300 yards. But the sharp ascent ends at about 1.1 miles, and—even though trees still obstruct the view—one can sense that the canyon rim is near.

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Sandstone cliffs under the power lines

At 1.2 miles, the trail veers toward a set of power lines, towering over a jumble of rocks that are worth exploring in themselves. Finally, continuing south on the trail, the path passes directly under the power lines and ends at the stunning Raven Rock Overlook.

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Panorama view from Raven Rock Overlook

Below, the majestic beauty of the Cheat River Gorge unfolds, with the waterway itself visible off to the southeast. It is a jaw-dropping 1,100 feet from here down to the base of the canyon, a height that eclipses the better-known New River Gorge in southern West Virginia. Looking right, it is possible on clear days to spot Coopers Rock to the northwest, a small protrusion of sandstone on the near side of the canyon. Beyond, the Cheat River forms a lake, a popular destination for swimming, rowing, and fishing.

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Eastward view of the Cheat River Gorge from Raven Rock

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View west over the Cheat River Gorge from Raven Rock Overlook

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Raven Rock Overlook

Arriving early in the morning, there is a good chance of having this spectacular viewpoint all to yourself. But once you are ready to return, turn back and follow the way you came—this time the ups and downs are reversed, with a sharp downhill followed by a slow but relentless climb that will feel much harder than the arrival trek.

Allot at least 1.5-2 hours for this out-and-back hike.

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Westward view, with Coopers Rock (the faint pinnacle on the right) visible in the distance

Posted in Moderate Hikes, West Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Swallow Falls Canyon Trail (Swallow Falls State Park, MD)

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Muddy Creek Falls, Swallow Falls Canyon Trail, Swallow Falls State Park, May 2019

The roughly one-mile circuit hike in Maryland’s Swallow Falls State Park would be impressive enough if its only attraction was the last remaining stand of virgin hemlock and white pine trees in the state. But in addition to this exquisite forest, the Swallow Falls Canyon Trail also passes four waterfalls, cuts under towering sandstone cliffs, and spans a shady landscape dotted with alluring rhododendrons, all in one brief and relatively easy jaunt.

Swallow Falls Canyon Trail hike information

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Map of Swallow Falls Canyon Trail

The hike

Expect to see plenty of people at Swallow Falls State Park, a popular destination in western Maryland near the West Virginia state line. But the crowds are largely there to swim, fish, and camp, leaving the hiking trail itself relatively breathable. The circuit begins at the main parking area in the park, just beyond the entrance on the right, where there is a small trailer that functions as a visitor center. The start of the Swallow Falls Canyon Trail is hard to miss: a towering entrance sign more than 10 feet high signals the way.

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Grandiose start of the trail

As soon as the hike begins, hikers enter the splendid forest of earthy hemlocks and pines, a beautiful combination and relative rarity in the Mid-Atlantic. The 37-acre Youghiogheny Grove includes trees that are more than 300 years old, casting a shadow that offers cool freshness on even the hottest days.

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Boardwalk through the Youghiogheny Grove

Within 50 yards, the trail forks, marking the start of the loop section. Bear left first, heading north through the woods. The broad and easy path gradually descends, reaching an additional parking area (for those with wheelchair placards). Stay straight on the path as it turns to a wooden boardwalk. About 300 yards into the hike, the boardwalk ends, and a flurry of trails head off in different directions. Make your way down the hill toward the edge of the sandstone gorge: here an overlook offers the first look at Muddy Creek Falls, a 53-foot chute that is the highest free-falling waterfall in Maryland.

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Muddy Creek Falls

Bear slightly left to find the trail heading down to the base of the falls. From here you can view Muddy Creek as it drops through neatly-carved layers of exposed sandstone and shale. The pool at the base fans out to fill a large basin before the creek continues down a set of cascades beyond. (Note: The presence of Muddy Creek Falls within a park bearing the name of another significantly smaller and less impressive waterfall is somewhat confounding.)

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Base of Muddy Creek Falls

From the falls, follow the continuing trail, now fully dirt, as it hugs the edge of the sandstone cliffs. Beautiful rhododendrons dot the landscape, offering further shade. At about ¼ mile, the trail rounds a right-hand bend; just off to the left is the confluence of Muddy Creek and the larger Youghiogheny River, which cuts a steep gorge through the surrounding mountains.

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Sandstone cliffs and rhododendrons line the trail

Just beyond, climb a set of stairs, then follow a high wall before passing under two high overhangs. By 4/10 mile, the river on the left has actually calmed, a relative stillness that belies the waterfalls ahead. The ascending trail gradually narrows and weaves under another set of hemlocks.

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Lower Swallow Falls

At ½ mile, the trail approaches Lower Swallow Falls, a short but pleasant drop along the Youghiogheny. After the falls, the trail ascends a spiraling wooden staircase, ending at a spur trail that heads left to a relatively distant view of Upper Swallow Falls, slightly more impressive than its smaller neighbor.

Returning to the main track, head south and stay left at the trail fork at 0.55 miles. About 125 yards later, stay left again at the next fork; by now you have reached the base of Upper Swallow Falls, a popular swimming hole for visitors. The waterfall fans out into an accessible spill, reachable by way of the shallow waters downstream.

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Island of rock at Upper Swallow Falls

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Upper Swallow Falls from above

Heading a little further on the trail brings one to the top of the falls, a popular spot for photos. Upstream, the river is calmer, with the bridge carrying Swallow Falls Road visible in the distance.

Continue south on the Canyon Trail as it bends sharply right, away from the Youghiogheny River. There is one more waterfall to be found: Tolliver Falls, a short but aesthetically-pleasing drop set in a shady ravine with an alluring pool. The tree canopy makes Tolliver Falls easier to photograph than its larger cousins.

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Tolliver Falls

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Tolliver Falls and trail

After the falls, the trail bears right again, following a sign pointing toward the parking area. The path traverses relatively level terrain through thick forest, reaching a trail fork at 9/10 mile. Stay left, then follow the remainder of the track as it returns to the initial junction at the start of the hike. Bear left and exit the woods, returning to the sunny parking area and trailhead.

Swallow Falls State Park is an easy place to spend a whole day, but those looking just to hike can complete the entire loop in under an hour.

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Humpback Rocks Trail (George Washington National Forest, VA)

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Humpback Rocks Trail, George Washington National Forest, April 2019

Once a prominent landmark for wagon trains travelling along the Howardsville Turnpike in the early 19th century, Humpback Rocks is today an iconic, jagged promontory in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest frequented by hikers. Its proximity to Interstate 64 and Charlottesville, Virginia makes Humpback Rocks a dizzyingly popular destination, but no amount of crowds can mar the spectacular views from the overlook, high above the Shenandoah Valley. Visitors must work for the vista, however, ascending a crushing 800 feet in elevation in less than a mile. (Note: Ambitious hikers can continue onward from the rocks to nearby Humpback Mountain for additional views.)

Humpback Rocks hike information trail

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Map of the hike

The hike

The out-and-back hike to Humpback Rocks begins and ends at the Humpback Gap Trailhead, situated just south of the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center and mountain farm along the Blue Ridge Parkway (around Mile Marker 6). The parking lot is small and sure to fill up quickly – best to arrive early or late in the day.

Humpback Gap itself is a grassy neck between Dobie Mountain (2,712’) to the north and Humpback Mountain (3,080’) to the south, both part of the broader Blue Ridge Mountains, which extend from Pennsylvania to Georgia. The well-trodden, 9/10-mile hike to Humpback Rocks climbs a section of Humpback Mountain, where ascents are steep and switchbacks few.

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Start of the hike to Humpback Rocks

The aggressive climb begins immediately, ascending the spine of Humpback Mountain amid modest tree cover. The path is wide, partly graveled, and easy-to-follow, with occasional obstacles (fallen trees, sharp steps). In winter, when there is little foliage, it is easy to gain views to the east and west: to the right is the sweeping expanse of the Shenandoah Valley; to the left, the sharp edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains gives way to gentler hills and, eventually, the Piedmont plateau region that spans central Virginia. The blue-blazed Humpback Rocks Trail here is within striking distance of the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail (AT), which ducks east from the summit of Humpback Mountain.

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Sharp, steady climb

Around 4/10 mile, a large rock jumble comes into view on the left, while outcrops on the right offer obscured views to the west. The trail then briefly drops and traverses a welcome flat surface for a short period, curving westward to parallel a tall rock wall on the left. Astute hikers will notice, through the trees, a ship-like pinnacle high up above on the left: this is Humpback Rocks, your destination.

The Humpback Rocks Trail narrows and mounts a set of wooden steps, then sharply bends left and enters a steep climbing section. This group of short switchbacks is perhaps the most grueling part of the hike, but the incline begins to crest at around ¾ mile. Nearing the ridgetop, sharp protrusions of rock are visible on the right: these are collections of Catoctin greenstone—the same stuff of Humpback Rocks—that were thrust upward during the Alleghanian orogeny, a period of mountain-building that occurred 300-250 million years ago.

Once at ridge level, the trail forks, with the spur to Humpback Rocks heading left. (Note: The continuation to Humpback Mountain and the AT bears right.) From here it is a short climb to the overlook, itself an impressive jumble of greenstone, angled at a sharp diagonal and bisected by a rocky fissure.

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Humpback Rocks

Climb either side for magnificent views. From left to right: the views span the Blue Ridge Mountains’ west flank to the southwest, with Torry Ridge, Kelley Mountain (3,280’), and Kennedy Ridge in the distance; then continue due west across the Shenandoah Valley to the Great North Mountain area; followed by northward views to Humpback Gap, Dobie Mountain, Rockfish Gap, and the South District of Shenandoah National Park; and finally, east, to Rockfish Valley and the Piedmont. Parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway can be found down below.

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Westward view across the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Shenandoah Valley

Humpback Rocks is a fine place to stop for an hour to eat a snack and reflect on the scenery—if you can tune out the thick crowds of others trying to do the same. After taking in the views, hikers can continue onward to Humpback Mountain for more serenity or head back the way they came: a much easier, 9/10-mile descent to the trailhead.

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Eastward view from Humpback Rocks

Allot at least 1.5-2 hours for the round-trip, out-and-back hike.

Extra credit

The other prominent highlight in this area of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the superb hike to Crabtree Falls, Virginia’s highest waterfall, and The Priest, a towering peak with excellent views. Best to leave this for another day, however, as it is also challenging with considerable elevation gain.

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Crabtree Falls and The Priest (George Washington National Forest, VA)

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Crabtree Falls, Crabtree Falls Trail, George Washington National Forest, April 2019

Dropping more than 1,000 feet into the lush Tye River Valley, Virginia’s Crabtree Falls is often claimed to be the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi. This is a deceptive title, as the falls is actually a series of cascades, dropping in fits and starts over the course of more than a mile. But the drawn-out nature of the falls is ultimately what makes Crabtree magical: just as hikers on the Crabtree Falls Trail have a sense of completion, there is another, larger drop just around the corner. While the first 1.7 miles of the hike are extremely popular, ambitious hikers can shed the crowds and continue on, past the falls, to the high, sweeping vistas of The Priest, one of the highest peaks in the region. The below description captures the blow-by-blow of the hike but is no substitute for actually being there, where the roar and spray of the falls—as well as the valley views from The Priest—instill a sense of natural wonder that is hard to match. (Note: This hike should not be confused with another Crabtree Falls in nearby North Carolina.)

Crabtree Falls and The Priest hike information

Crabtree Falls and The Priest map

Map of Crabtree Falls and The Priest, George Washington National Forest; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The one downside, of course, is that the (arguably) tallest waterfall in the eastern United States attracts a throng of visitors: the Crabtree Falls parking area in George Washington National Forest is often swarming with hikers. If you arrive after 10am on a busy weekend, expect to park a good distance from the trailhead. (Note: All vehicle owners must pay $3 to park.)

The parking area is situated along the Tye River, which—at least in spring—is raging at a rapid clip. The trail begins on the south side of the river. Once parked, make your way toward the pit toilets, located on the second tier of the parking area (uphill from the river). Here a large information board marks the start of the Crabtree Falls Trail.

Crabtree Falls section (1.7 miles)

The path begins as a wide, paved, and wheelchair-accessible track, skirting a vegetated slope on the right. Near the start is a small graveyard, the final resting place for members of the Fitzgerald family, who lived at the base of Crabtree Falls in the 19th century.

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Start of Crabtree Falls Trail

As mentioned, Crabtree Falls drops in fits and starts, and the base of Lower Crabtree Falls can be reached in around just 150 yards from the trailhead. The multi-tiered cascade here is impressive in itself, although just a preview of what is to come.

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First falls along Crabtree Creek

From this initial viewpoint, the climb begins: a dirt track takes off from the paved path, leading into a lengthy bend that cuts away from Crabtree Creek. After rounding a sharp switchback, the trail edges back toward the stream, bounded by high greenstone cliffs on one side. At about ¼ mile, the footpath returns to the creek, where an overlook provides stunning views. Below, Crabtree Creek hurdles over a two-tiered drop, while a look upstream reveals a glimpse—through the trees and brush—of an even higher waterfall ahead.

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Looking upstream along Crabtree Falls

From here, the trail ascends a set of staircases, up a slippery escarpment abutting the creek. By 3/10 mile, hikers reach the base of an impressive torrent of water, dropping roughly 60 to 80 feet, the highest single drop yet.

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Highest drop of Lower Crabtree Falls

From here, the path repeats its tried-and-true formula: the trail draws away from the creek, with the sounds of the pounding falls gradually receding, before then switching back again toward the stream to a viewpoint of another falls. Flanked by rhododendrons, the stream plummets with great haste toward the earth, while the steep angle of the drop allows for views through the trees to Fork Mountain (3,240’) to the north. By now you have reached the ½ mile mark.

Once again, the trail pulls off to the right and ascends another short switchback. Returning to Crabtree Creek, a wooden platform marks what appears, at least at first, to be the top of the falls. However, a look upstream—past a short section of relative calm—reveals another torrenting flume in the distance.

At 6/10 mile, the trail levels off for a brief period, following the west bank of the relatively gentle stream. A dark, cave-like opening amid a jumble of greenstone on the right provides brief respite from the day’s sun and heat. At about the 8/10-mile marker, the trail approaches the base of another two-tiered waterfall.

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Cave along the Crabtree Falls Trail

Following lichen-covered walls, the Crabtree Falls Trail cuts right again and resumes its steady ascent. The trail follows a wide switchback to the top of the latest cataract, above which the creek is descending a series of smaller cascades. Looking upstream, one can catch initial glimpses of Upper Crabtree Falls, the highest and mightiest of them all.

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Cascades below Upper Crabtree Falls

It is still more than a quarter mile from here to the base of the upper falls, however, as the trail bends back and forth again to gain elevation. A short spur at around 1.1 miles leads to a view of the water as it plunges down the sun-soaked cliff. It is not until about 1.4 miles—about 800 feet higher than the elevation at the trailhead—that hikers approach the base of Upper Crabtree Falls. Relatively free of tree cover, this photogenic flume is the thunderous climax of the initial Crabtree Falls section.

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Upper Crabtree Falls

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Vaiant hikers at Upper Crabtree Falls

Of course, the trail continues onward, switchbacking again up the hillside to the top of the falls at 1.7 miles. But from the viewing area atop Upper Crabtree Falls, all but the lip of the flume is obscured from view. The overlook does offer unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains, however, with Fork Mountain again the most prominent. Down below is the Tye River Valley, where the hike began.

Crabtree Falls to Crabtree Meadows (1.1 miles)

The vast majority of visitors who make it this far, content with what has already been a fantastic hike, turn around here and head back down to the trailhead. Those seeking a serene vista to match the beauty of the falls, however, can continue onward to the summit of The Priest (4,063’). From the overlook atop Upper Crabtree Falls, retrace your steps over the wooden bridge above Crabtree Creek, then bear left on the fainter but still relatively well-trodden trail.

The creek above the falls is noticeably more peaceful, and a few minutes distant from the overlook, it’s hard to imagine from the quiet rippling of the creek that a mile-long torrent is just ahead. While hugging the creek for around 1/10 mile, the trail briefly diverts to the right to avoid a set of fallen trees. By the 2-mile mark, the trail is back to its original tread, and small cascades along Crabtree Creek have begun to return.

The trail for the next 8/10 mile is relatively level and uneventful, save for the remains of a stone structure on the right at about 2.5 miles. At 2.8 miles, the trail ends in an area called Crabtree Meadows, where hikers are greeted with an uninspiring, gravel parking lot with pit toilets. (Note: It is possible to drive up to this point on State Route 826, although four-wheel drive is recommended.) The information board, once evidently useful, is now stripped bare, leaving only the wooded structure, adding to the gloominess of the place.

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End of Crabtree Falls Trail at Crabtree Meadows parking area

Crabtree Meadows to The Priest (2.0 miles)

The approach to The Priest unfolds in several phases, with the first being a largely undistinguished meander along gravel roads. From the parking area, take a left on State Route 826, following it down to the banks of the creek. Cross the stream, then continue uphill past a group of rarely-used campsites. You are now on the Shoe Creek Trail, an obscure four-wheel drive route usually known only to 4×4 enthusiasts.

At about 3 miles from the trailhead, the gravel road steepens significantly, making for a tough but short slog up to the ridgeline. You are climbing through the Religious Range, not a proper mountain range but rather a group of religion-themed peaks, named The Priest, The Friar, and The Cardinal. At roughly 3,300 feet above sea level—and 3.4 miles from the trailhead—the Shoe Creek road crests a high gap and reaches a junction with the Appalachian Trail (AT), the famed 2,200-mile track that spans from Maine to Georgia. (Note: It is possible to miss the AT because of a lack of signage; however, look for the AT’s typical white blazes, which are clearly visible.)

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Entering The Priest Wilderness along the Appalachian Trail

From here, take a left (east) on the AT, which leaves the road behind and enters The Priest Wilderness, a nearly 6,000-acre tract of land, free of the blemishes of development. As the AT gradually climbs, one can spot through the trees a higher peak ahead—do not be fooled, as this is not The Priest, but rather a lower point called Pinnacle Ridge (3,707’). As hikers pass through a gap in the ridgeline, however, the trail cuts sharply right and the towering hulk of The Priest finally comes into view (barely, through the thick tree cover) across Cox’s Creek Valley.

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View toward The Priest (right)

As the trail climbs southward, it follows a narrowing spine with some limited views on either side before turning east again and flattening out considerably. At 4.25 miles, the AT passes a peculiar rock outcropping (a plump boulder appears to stand upright atop another) and then reaches a four-way junction. While AT thru-hikers may seek a night’s rest at The Priest shelter (straight ahead), day hikers to The Priest should head left toward the summit.

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Peculiar boulder structure

The final stretch requires a gradual climb through increasingly windswept terrain. Views are largely obscured until around 4.4 miles, when a set of spur trails lead out to decent vistas. But the best viewpoint comes at around 4.6 miles—a group of granodiorite (I think) ledges offer one of the finest perches in the state: a blissful view to the north and east, with Cox’s Creek Valley unfolding more than 2,000 feet below.

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View northwest from The Priest toward Pinnacle Ridge, Spy Rock, and Maintop Mountain

To the northwest, on a clear day, one can clearly see across Pinnacle Ridge to Maintop Mountain, Spy Rock, and even the Great North Mountain area in the distance. Straight north, beyond Pinnacle Ridge is Fork Mountain, Round Mountain (3,440’), and the Saint Mary’s Wilderness. The Three Ridges and Chimney Rock dominate the scene to the northeast, while the continuation of the Blue Ridge Mountains stretches onward to the horizon. Though not visible from the overlook, the gap between the Three Ridges and The Priest leads to the abrupt eastern flank of the mountains and unfolding Piedmont.

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View north across Cox’s River Valley and Pinnacle Ridge

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View northeast from The Priest

While not the true summit of The Priest, this is by far the best viewpoint on the mountain. Determined hikers can venture 2/10 mile further to the real high point, but—aside from some limited views through the trees—the area is largely obscured.

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Obscured views from near The Priest summit

The summit is roughly 4.8 miles from the trailhead, meaning a lengthy and winding return journey that brings the total hike to about 9.6 miles round-trip. While not a loop, most hikers will be pleased to retrace their steps through the action-packed Crabtree Falls section, one of the most stunning natural beauties in Virginia. For most, the out-and-back trip will take much of the day. (Note: It took us about 5 ½ hours on our April 2019 trip.)

Posted in George Washington National Forest, Moderate Hikes, Strenuous Hikes, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mount Falcon (Mount Falcon Park, CO)

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Eagle Eye Shelter, Tower Trail, Mount Falcon Park, May 2019

Mount Falcon, rising to 7,841 feet above sea level, guards the eastern gateway to the Front Range outside Denver, Colorado. A short drive from the city, Mount Falcon Park is a popular destination for local residents, attractive hikers, mountain bikers, dog walkers, and horse riders to its grassy meadows and rocky outcrops. While the Mount Falcon East Trailhead in Morrison, Colorado is closest to Denver, the climb to the summit of Mount Falcon requires a grueling climb of more than 2,000 feet. Fortunately, an easier approach lies on the other side of the park at Mount Falcon West Trailhead. From here, it’s a little over a mile and a half to the summit and back, with relatively little elevation gain.

Mount Falcon hike information Tower Trail

Mount Falcon Tower Trail map

Map of Mount Falcon hike, Mount Falcon Park; https://www.jeffco.us/1332/Mount-Falcon-Park

The hike

Reaching Mount Falcon West Trailhead requires driving up a series of winding (but paved) roads to the inner flanks of Mount Falcon. The closest town is the dispersed, slopeside community of Indian Hills, situated off U.S. Route 285. Even at the trailhead in Mount Falcon Park, you have already crested about 7,200 feet, making for a relatively level approach to the summit of Mount Falcon.

Sweeping vistas are already available from the parking area, especially from a small veranda and picnic area to the southwest. Here you can peer out over Parmalee Gulch, with additional foothills of the Front Range beyond.

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View from the picnic area at Mount Falcon West Trailhead

The main route to the summit of Mount Falcon lies across the parking area to the northeast. Follow the wide path that marks the start of the Castle Trail, the principal thoroughfare into the heart of the park. Starting amid ponderosa pines, the trail descends slightly to pass picnic areas to the left and right, then reaches an information kiosk within around 100 yards. Here there is a large map of Mount Falcon Park and its set of interlocking trails. Just beyond, the path approaches a fence line, passing through it at the junction with the single-track Parmalee Trail. Stay straight on the broad dirt road.

 

By now the views have reappeared, with the route traversing an open ridgeline west of the summit. At ¼ mile, hikers reach the lowest point on the hike, effectively the neck between two higher knolls. From here the path climbs gradually and approaches a high, wispy meadow that unfolds on the left. Here the route splits, with the Castle Trail continuing left while the Meadow Trail heads off to the right into the woods again. Bear right on the Meadow Trail for the most direct access to Mount Falcon.

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Meadow near the junction of the Castle Trail and Meadow Trail

At the next junction, roughly ½ mile from the trailhead, take a right on the Tower Trail, a moderately difficult track that leads eventually to the namesake lookout tower on the summit. Take another right at 6/10 mile to explore the Eagle Eye Shelter, which offers even better views than the lookout tower. This picnic shelter used to be a summer cabin owned by members of the local Kirchhof family from 1933-1972.

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Eagle Eye Shelter and the view to the northwest

What a view the Kirchhofs enjoyed! The aperture extends from Mount Lindo and the Turkey Creek area to the south to the Mount Evans area to the north and west.

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Turkey Creek Valley from the Eagle Eye Shelter

Returning back to the Tower Trail, bear right to continue east, gradually climbing uphill amid the rock outcrops toward the summit. The path divides again at 7/10 mile; bear right to begin the final stretch, a short loop that includes the summit. A couple steep and rocky sections require careful footing, but before you know it, the squat tower is within reach. At about 8/10 mile, climb the staircase into the covered tower.

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Approaching the tower atop Mount Falcon

Additional views unfold from the summit, including a look to the north, although they are partly obscured by the tall pines that dot Mount Falcon’s slopes. Denver is visible on clear days to the east.

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Obscured views toward Denver

Once ready to move on, return to the foot of the tower and then follow the continuation of the Tower Trail as it descends the north slope of the peak. This section is relatively steep, punctuated by a sharp switchback, but very quickly returns to the junction reached at 7/10 mile. From here, return the way you came, back down to the meadow, ridgeline, and parking area. (Note: Visitors can also continue east on the Tower Trail to reach the east flank of the meadow, as well as the Old Ute Trail and the Summer White House area. See here for a hike description.)

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A break in the clouds reveals more…snowy peaks

For just the 1.5 mile stem-and-loop, allot around 1-1.5 hours, building in time to take in the scenic vistas.

Posted in Colorado, Jefferson County Parks, Moderate Hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Interpretive Trail (Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park, VA)

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Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Interpretive Trail, Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park, February 2019

– Civil War Series –

1861 was a rough year on the battlefield for Union forces in the Eastern Theater. After the Civil War commenced at Fort Sumter in April, the young Federal Army suffered a significant setback at the First Battle of Bull Run in July. Although the Confederate Army failed to push the offensive, the two capitals—Washington and Richmond—settled in for what would become a long and bloody chess game. The rest of 1861 was relatively quiet, at least on the Eastern Front, save for an avoidable mistake by Federal forces at Ball’s Bluff on October 21, resulting in another Confederate victory that humiliated Washington.

Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park in Leesburg, Virginia commemorates this early battle of the Civil War. While the park is crisscrossed by a dizzying array of hiking trails, the Battlefield Interpretive Trail Loop provides the most complete tour of the battle grounds and includes a decent overlook of the Potomac River, which Federal forces fatefully crossed on the morning of October 21, setting off an engagement that ended in a Confederate rout.

Balls Bluff Battlefield Interpretive Trail hike information

Balls Bluff Battlefield Interpretive Trail map

Map of Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Interpretive Trail, Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the interactive map and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The roughly hour-long hike around the battlefield begins at the main parking area in Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park, a short drive from downtown Leesburg, Virginia. An impressive array of signage and maps helps orient the visitor, putting them in the shoes of Northern and Southern soldiers as the battle approached…

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Battle of Ball’s Bluff battle map

The story from the Union side is centered around the brigade of General Charles Pomeroy Stone, a prominent commander in General George McClellan’s fledgling Union Army. Stone, a veteran of the Mexican American War, was given the role in early 1861 of securing President Abraham’s Lincoln Inauguration, making him a key player in Washington’s defenses on the eve of the Civil War. After commanding a brigade during the Battle of Bull Run in July, he took the reins of a full division tasked with guarding the Potomac River above Washington in the fall.

On October 20, with Stone’s force situated across the Potomac in Maryland, McClellan directed Stone’s division to send a small scouting party to the Virginia side to make a “slight demonstration”—a feint intended to uncover Confederate soldiers operating in the area. The scouting party reported back that they had discovered an enemy camp that appeared to be deserted—news that persuaded Stone to plan a raid on the camp for the next morning.

Early on the 21st, Colonel Charles Devens led five companies of the 15th Massachusetts across the river from Harrison’s Island, landing around dawn. After they scaled Ball’s Bluff, however, the truth was revealed: the scouting party the night prior had mistook a line of trees for a Confederate encampment. As Devens’ 15th Massachusetts waited for reinforcements, they managed to encounter real Confederates after all, although not what they expected: a portion of Nathan “Shanks” Evans’ Confederate force—Company K of the 17th Mississippi—was on picket duty and ran across and briefly engaged the Federals at around 8:00am near the Jackson house, the opening salvo of what would become a bloody, day-long affair.

The former site of the Jackson house is situated in the woods to the west, outside the park on private property. But heading up the gravel road from the parking area north from the parking area leads hikers to the main battleground. To follow the directions in the “walking tour” handout (found at the entry kiosk), take the first right on the leaf-strewn Burt Trail, the first of several short sections comprising the overall Battlefield Interpretive Trail Loop.

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First right, onto the Burt Trail

The Burt Trail leads uphill to a vista point with a view of the relatively intimate battle grounds: a 10- to 12-acre meadow enclosed by woods with difficult terrain. The bluff and Potomac River lie just beyond to the east. While the loop hike technically bears right before the viewpoint—bearing right on the Featherston Trail—it is worth the extra few paces to climb up to the lookout in order to gain a lay of the land. A pair of battle maps provide a description of the engagement as it shapes up on the afternoon of October 21.

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View of the Ball’s Bluff Battlefield

After engaging in two more skirmishes with the Confederates, the 15th Massachusetts withdrew to the bluff (passing through the area presently occupied by the parking lot). As the 8th Virginia pursued, the Federals were reinforced by a much larger force under the command of Colonel Edward Baker. Baker was notable for also being a US Senator at the time of the battle; while “political” generals were common in the Civil War, Baker would become the first—and, to date, only—sitting US Senator in history to perish on the battlefield.

As the map in front of you indicates, Baker arrayed his forces around the meadow in a formation that resembled a backwards “L.” The 15th Massachusetts pulled back to the north, reinforced by a second regiment from the Bay State, in addition to troops from California, Pennsylvania, and New York.

From the vista, complete an about-face and retrace your steps back down the Burt Trail, then turn left on the thin Featherston Trail, which is marked but easy to miss. This path bears southeast through the woods; within around 70 yards, the trail passes a sign for the 17th Mississippi. Although the first Southern contingent to engage the Federals at the Jackson house, the 17th Mississippi Infantry was the last to arrive at the battlefield on the evening of October 21.

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At the junction of the Featherston and Markoe Trails

It was around this wooded area—open and exposed at the time of the battle—that Baker sent the Union forces on the offensive at around 3:00pm on October 21. Two companies from the 1st California, led by Captain John Markoe, fought a skirmish with the 8th Virginia, leading to Markoe’s capture. Both sides pulled back to resupply and reorganize.

Now on the Markoe Trail (there is no junction, just a name change), the path descends to a sign for the 18th Mississippi Infantry—commanded by Col. Erasmus Burt—which was the second Confederate regiment to arrive for the afternoon battle. The force took position atop the hill behind you before descending, running into a hail of Union bullets that mortally wounded Burt. As Lt. Col. Thomas Griffin took command, the regiment regrouped and split in two, aiming to outflank the Californians. Half of the force dropped down into Deep Ravine to your right to initiate further attacks on the Union left.

Just ahead, the Markoe Trail passes a junction with the Griffin Trail (stay right) and then descends to cross a wooden bridge over a minor ravine. Roughly 2/10 mile from the trailhead, another sign recounts the role of the 42nd New York Infantry, skipping ahead in the story to discuss Col. Milton Cogswell—the regiment commander—who took command of the Federal force after Baker’s death around 4:30-5:00pm. Cogswell’s forces attempted a breakout against the creeping Confederate force but was unable to turn the tide.

After passing a junction with a green-blazed path on the left, hikers continuing on what is now the Markoe Trail will approach a sign for the 1st California Regiment. The 1st California, commanded by Col. Baker, was in fact composed of mostly Pennsylvanians.

The trail junction at ¼ mile (the River Trail heads north, while the Cogswell Trail bears south) offers a good place to briefly diverge from the main loop and head up into the open field, where there is a small cemetery and a flurry of informational signs.

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Marker for Col. Baker’s death, likely 75-100 yards off from the actual site where he was shot

A marker outside the cemetery offers an approximation of where Col. Baker was mortally shot, and a broad wayside with two maps offers an update of where the battle stood in the late afternoon of October 21. What began as a meager Confederate force had grown into an enveloping army, fanned out across the high ground around the meadow. After Cogswell’s brief offensive action failed, the Federal force stumbled back toward the bluff in retreat.

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Federal cemetery at Ball’s Bluff

After checking out the cemetery, return to the loop trail and bear left, quickly approaching a sign for the 20th Massachusetts Infantry. This regiment spent much of the day in the rear, boxed between the approaching Confederates and the sheer cliffs leading down to the river. Among the infantrymen in this unit was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would go on to become a gifted lawyer and Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. Company I of the 20th Massachusetts, led by Captain William Bartlett, led the final Union charge of the battle, a short and ill-fated move that was repulsed by members of the 18th Virginia and 13th Mississippi.

From here, the trail climbs uphill as the river comes into view to the right. At about the 1/3-mile mark, the circuit hike reaches Ball’s Bluff Overlook, a partly obscured lookout high above the Potomac and Harrison’s Island, from where the Federals launched their initial approach. The land beyond the island is mainland Maryland, controlled by the Union but often breached by Confederate attackers during the war.

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View of Potomac River from Ball’s Bluff Overlook

There is another junction at Ball’s Bluff Overlook. Bear straight on the Devens Trail, which wraps around to the west, back toward the meadow. At 4/10 mile, a spur to the left leads to a pair of Union artillery pieces. (Note: As of February 2019, these pieces were conspicuously missing.) The Federals lugged three pieces of artillery in all to Ball’s Bluff—all of them were overrun by the Confederates. The two mountain howitzers at this position were seized by the 8th Virginia in a bayonet charge at around 5:00pm on the afternoon of the battle.

The Devens Trail hugs the edge of the woods for the next 1/10 mile before approaching a junction with the short Battlefield Restoration Trail on the left. A sign at the end of this spur path discusses the restoration process for returning the battleground to its appearance as it was in 1861.

A minute further down, now following the Hunton Trail, take a right on the Jenifer Trail, which plunges into the forest. Confederate Lieutenant Colonel Walter Jenifer commanded a 300-man cavalry force, a portion of which participated in the early stages of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Jenifer’s cavalry was later posted in these woods, playing a largely secondary role during the climax of the battle in the late afternoon.

The Jenifer Trail runs for roughly 150 yards into the woods before reaching a sign for Jenifer’s cavalry, after which the trail abruptly doubles back to the left. Following a deep ravine on the right, the path ends back at the Hinton Trail, completing the minor detour.

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Jenifer Trail in the deep woods at Ball’s Bluff

Head right on the Hinton Trail, continuing to skirt the fringe of the meadow. The trail reaches a gravel road at about 7/10 mile, where there is a sign and privately-funded monument to the 8th Virginia. This group fought on its native soil during the initial clashes of the afternoon around 3:00pm and then returned to the battlefield for a bayonet charge around 5:00pm that crumpled the Union right.

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8th Virginia marker and service road to the cemetery at Ball’s Bluff

It was also around this area that the 17th Mississippi arrived around 6:00pm. The addition of these 600-700 fresh troops tipped the balance decisively in the Confederates’ favor, allowing them to drive the Federals to abandon their positions on the cliff. Many of the retreating Northerners were captured or drowned while trying to re-cross the Potomac, while the rest escaped to Maryland with the heavy embarrassment of a staunch defeat in a battle that, with proper intelligence, should have never occurred.

Follow the Burt Trail as it climbs up a hillside, returning to the initial vista with the two maps of the battlefield. Bear right here, dropping back downhill on the Burt Trail to the gravel road and parking area.

All told, the hike clocks in at a mere 9/10 mile, although hikers will want to take their time reading the ubiquitous signage and viewing the many historic markers along the way. Expect to take at least an hour touring the battlefield; there are also a number of other trails in the area, although they generally cover terrain that was relatively inconsequential to the 1861 engagement.

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff had limited strategic consequence, but it had a corrosive impact on Union morale and led to the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a political instrument of Congress used to investigate Union military losses. General Stone was arrested as a result of the embarrassing loss at Ball’s Bluff, which did irreparable damage to his status before the battle as a rising star in the Union Army.

Posted in Civil War, Easy Hikes, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Millers Head Trail (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

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Millers Head, Shenandoah National Park, April 2019

The short but steep hike to Millers Head in Shenandoah National Park’s Skyland area, while otherwise unspectacular, has one terrific payoff: excellent views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley, a particular treat around sunset. The out-and-back trail follows a snaking ridge out to a series of viewpoints, culminating in a partial panorama that is one of the best in Shenandoah’s Central District.

Millers Head Trail hike information Shenandoah Skyland

Millers Head Trail map Shenandoah Skyland

Map of Millers Head Trail, Shenandoah National Park

The hike

Catch the start of the ¾-mile path from the Skyland Amphitheater, situated roughly 11 miles south on Skyline Drive from the Thornton Gap Entrance Station in Shenandoah’s Central District. (Note: There is parking at the amphitheater or just outside the “Franklin” cabins, which are part of the Skyland Resort.) The trail begins just north of the amphitheater, cutting across a grassy lawn before entering Shenandoah’s ubiquitous woods.

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Near the start of the Millers Head trail

The narrow single-track begins as a gently meandering path, cutting close to a lightly-used gravel road and passing under a set of power lines. At around 200 yards, the trail crests a ridgeline dotted with shady hemlocks and then levels off. The gravel road enters from the left, and the path approaches a small communications tower at 2/10 mile.

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Approaching the Bushytop overlook

Passing to the right of the tower, the route descends to a trail fork, where a very short spur leads 40 feet to the right. Take this detour to the first of three fine viewpoints on the hike: the Bushytop observation point. This lookout offers expansive views to the northwest, peering out over the Shenandoah Valley, itself a patchwork of open farms and dense woods. The small pond visible nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains is Lake Arrowhead, while the largest town in the valley is Luray, Virginia. On clear days, one can easily spot Massanutten Mountain in the distance, with Great North Mountain beyond.

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View of Shenandoah Valley from Bushytop

From the overlook, work your way back to the main trail and turn right, beginning a sharp descent from Bushytop down to Millers Head. The next 2/10 mile are very rocky, with several steep and abrupt bends. The switchbacks ease at around 4/10 mile, when the trail briefly levels off and the ridgeline narrows considerably. Steps later, the route passes to the left of a tall rock outcrop.

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Winding trail down to Millers Head

At 6/10 mile, look to your left for a short spur to another fine viewpoint. This one showcases views to the south; the dominant feature is mighty Hawksbill (4,050’), the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park. Beyond Hawksbill, the next high ridge includes the Big Meadows area and Blackrock, which leads westward into Tanners Ridge.

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View of Hawksbill (4,050′) from Millers Head Trail

Back on the trail to Millers Head, the terrain drops again, snaking around a set of choppy bends. Cresting a small gap between outcrops, the trail cuts to the right flank of the ridgeline, marking the final stretch of the hike. At about ¾ mile, hikers must make a short climb, finally ending at a well-manicured viewing platform: Millers Head observation point.

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Millers Head observation platform

The view from Millers Head puts the previous vistas to shame: there are few to no obstructions to a 270-degree panorama, from Hawksbill to the south to the North District of Shenandoah to the north. Shenandoah Valley unfolds in beautiful splendor below, with Massanutten and Great North Mountains beyond. The scene is particularly spectacular around sunset, as the day’s last light nestles behind the ridges to the west.

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Sweeping view of Shenandoah Valley from Millers Head

Once you have soaked in the view, head back the way you came. The return journey should take longer than your arrival because hikers will have to negotiate 450 feet in elevation gain. Pack water for this deceptively short but tiring hike, and allot perhaps 1-1.5 hours for the round-trip journey.

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Sun’s last rays shine through the clouds as dusk approaches

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