Drewry’s Bluff Trail (Richmond National Battlefield Park, VA)

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Drewry’s Bluff Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park, March 2018

– Civil War Series –

As Union gunboats approached Richmond, the Confederate capital, on the morning of May 15, 1862, they were greeted with a hail of heavy artillery fire from what would come to be known as Drewry’s Bluff, a Civil War fortification perched high above Virginia’s James River. Named for local property owner Augustus Drewry, the commanding heights offered a prime position for Confederate defenses, which were constructed just in time for a small but critical role in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign: by halting the advance of the Federal squadron—led by the famed ironclad USS Monitor—the artillerymen at Drewry’s Bluff closed off the Union’s option for attacking Richmond by water.

Today part of Richmond National Battlefield Park, a nearly 1-mile round-trip hike circles the fortifications at Drewry’s Bluff, some of the best preserved in the area. The highlight is an 8-inch Columbiad cannon positioned at the cliff’s edge. Despite being on the official Richmond Battlefields driving tour, Drewry’s Bluff is relatively quiet and perhaps overlooked.

Drewrys Bluff Trail hike information Richmond National Battlefield Park

 

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Map of Drewry’s Bluff Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park

The hike

The Drewry’s Bluff Trail begins at the end of Fort Darling Road, which doubles as a frontage road to the east of Interstate 95. (Note: The small and wooded parking area is situated about a 20-minute drive south of central Richmond. Follow the signs as you get off I-95 Exit 64, swinging north on Jefferson Davis (ugh) Highway, Bellwood Road, and Fort Darling Road. Fort Darling was the official name of the military installation during the war.)

At the parking area is a three-paneled sign with information on Drewry’s Bluff, Richmond National Battlefield Park, and the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. To the right of the sign, the path follows a wide, paved track as it bears northeast through the woods. After about 150 yards, the path bends slightly left, skirting a field of tall grass on the right. In another 70 yards, the path abruptly turns from smooth pavement to a rough mix of packed dirt and gravel. At 2/10 mile, the narrowing trail descends rather sharply to cross a minor stream, then climbs to the first of several interpretative signs on the trail. Just to your right, there once stood a small hotel, part of the wartime encampment at Drewry’s Bluff.

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Initial trail

At the sign, a short spur trail bears off into the woods to the left, approaching the edge of the earthworks. A second interpretive sign tells the tale of Camp Beall, a Confederate Marine outpost that was constructed here after the May 1862 battle.

Returning to the main trail, continue east until reaching an open grassy pasture, with the bulk of the earthworks beyond. Off to the right, there is little remaining of what was once the grounds for a small chapel and cemetery constructed during the war.

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Fort Darling earthworks at Drewry’s Bluff

Continuing straight toward the fortifications, hikers will reach a trail fork at 0.35 miles. This is the start of the loop section of the trail. Heading left first, the path skirts the outer earthworks and climbs a flight of stairs to the main overlook. Peering out over a striking bend in the James River, one can imagine the sights and sounds of May 15, 1862…

We fought the enemy for almost four hours…and such a perfect tornado of shot and shell, right, left, front, rear, and on top of us, never was seen before. It was an awful sight to see our killed and wounded, some with an arm or leg blown off, some entirely disemboweled.

Confederate officer, excerpt from History of the Confederate States Navy from its Organization to the Surrender of its Last Vessel, by John Thomas Scharf, 1887

As the five Union ships rounded the bend on the morning of May 15, the squadron set its sights on neutralizing the Confederate defenses at Drewry’s Bluff, the last significant obstacle to a Federal entry to Richmond. However, before the USS Galena, the lead ship, could let off its first shot, it came under fire from the gunners at Drewry’s Bluff.[1] During the more than 3-hour battle that ensued, the Galena would take 44 hits, reducing the gunboat to a badly-damaged “slaughterhouse” in which 13 were killed.[2]

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View north over the James River

Up on the bluff, the Confederate defenders comprised the Southside Artillery—led by Captain Drewry himself—and a handful of navy sailors who, just days earlier, had set fire to the famed CSS Virginia, the South’s first ironclad, to avoid falling into Federal hands.[3] (Note: The USS Monitor, the Union foil of the Virginia, also fought in the battle and was undamaged by Confederate fire.) The Southerners also took casualties from the attacking Federals, and their defense was compromised in part by human error: the 10-inch Columbiad quickly went out of commission after recoiling so severely that its physical supports broke down. The Confederate defense held, however, and the Federal ships were forced to retreat by midday on May 15.

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View southeast

The story of the battle is told through a series of interpretive panels at the main viewing platform. The Union gunboats would have traveled upstream from around the bend to your right, halting just before the bluff before they were forced to turn around. Today, the James River is quiet and calm, bounded on both sides by thick forest.

From the overlook, continue the hike by descending a flight of stairs back to the base level, then proceed to the foot of the 8-inch Columbiad, the only cannon remaining at the site. Just beyond, the dirt trail winds around a large depression in the ground, the site of a collapsed bombproof during the war. The fortifications at Drewry’s Bluff were expanded significantly after the battle, becoming a key training grounds for the Confederate Navy and Marines.

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Columbiad cannon

From here the trail climbs to the outer perimeter of the fort structure, situated at the edge of thick woods. Circling clockwise around the fort, the footpath rounds a right-hand bend at ½ mile then crosses a short wooden bridge. Dropping down to the base level again, a wayside offers a photograph of what the “perfect Gibraltar” looked like at the time of the war.

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Drewry’s Bluff Trail

The loop ends back at the initial trail fork, situated just beyond the site of a former hot shot furnace. From here, head back on the initial trail you took to arrive at the fort. It’s about a 3/10 mile walk throughout the forest back to the trailhead and parking area. In total, allot 45 minutes to an hour for the round-trip hike.

[1] Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 93-94.

[2] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 94.

[3] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 92-94.

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Big Devils Stairs (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

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Big Devils Stairs Trail, Shenandoah National Park, March 2018

Despite being in Shenandoah National Park’s busy North District, the Big Devils Stairs hike is relatively free of crowds, leaving visitors alone to explore one of the area’s most spectacular metabasalt gorges. Most hikers will turn around at the primary overlook at 2.3 miles, perched stop the east rim of the canyon with the cascading creek below. The trail from here turns faint and continues to the bottom of the gorge at the park border, where it ends at the edge of Big Devils Stairs Creek. Instead of doubling back, however, adventurous visitors—at least in winter and early spring—can return to higher ground by bushwhacking straight up the canyon, which offers an up-close experience with the stream’s many beautiful cascades. (Note: This off-trail section, while not technical, is strenuous and requires some minor scrambling.)

Big Devils Stairs Trail hike information Shenandoah

Big Devils Stairs Trail map Shenandoah

Map of Big Devils Stairs hike, Shenandoah National Park (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Situated between Mount Marshall (3,368’) and Hogback Mountain (3,474’), Gravel Springs Gap serves as the trailhead for this hike, as well as a number of others in the area. (Note: Gravel Springs Gap is located at around Mile 17.6 on the Skyline Drive.) While the Appalachian Trail crosses Skyline Drive at Gravel Springs Gap, you will not be hiking on it today. Instead, head south on the wide, gravel drive at the end of the parking lot; this service road provides access to the PATC Gravel Springs Hut.

Before getting to the hut, however, keep an eye out for the start of the Bluff Trail, which veers off to left just as the forest road cuts right, at approximately 3/10 mile. Follow this narrow footpath as its heads south and approaches a second junction at around 0.35 miles. Stay left again at the fork. After a downhill turn to the west, stay left once again at the third trail junction, leaving the maze of interlocking trails in the Gravel Springs area behind.

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Heading east on the Bluff Trail

Bearing east on the Bluff Trail, the incline gradually picks up around 6/10 mile as the path hugs the south flank of Mount Marshall, named for the family of famed 19th century Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, a Virginia native. After about a half-mile, the climb eases and briefly gives way to a brief downhill. There is not much to see during this part of the hike, save for a gradual increase in the number of basaltic boulder piles as you approach Big Devils Stairs.

Around 1.7 miles from the trailhead, the Bluff Trail crosses Big Devils Stairs Creek, still well upstream of the gorge but a welcome sign that you are nearing the canyon. About 1/10 mile later, the trail crests a low ridgeline and splits, with the Bluff Trail continuing left while the 1.3-mile Big Devils Stairs Trail begins its snaking downhill to the right.

Bear right on the blue-blazed path as it enters a charming patch of mountain laurel, with occasional Virginia pines towering above. (Note: For overnight hikers, there are several good campsites in this area.) As the mountain laurel begins to disappear, the Big Devils Stairs Trail descends in earnest, following the woody ridgeline that will form the eastern end of the canyon.

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Mountain laurel and pines on the Big Devils Stairs Trail

At about 2.2 miles, the trail cuts sharply right and approaches the rim of the canyon. While views are partly obscured at this point, continue down the stony staircase to an unobstructed overlook. Peering over the gorge, the cliffs drop more than 100 feet to the cragged valley floor, where the cascading waters of the canyon’s highest waterfall (more on that later) can be seen below. Off to the southwest, the grassy field seen at the foot of the valley lies just outside the park, with woody Jenkins Mountain (2,024’) beyond. The taller peaks on the horizon lie in Shenandoah’s Central District, south of Thornton Gap. (Note: The experience is far better in winter or early spring, when the lack of foliage reveals better views of the canyon walls and rushing creek.)

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At the Big Devils Stairs Overlook

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Along the trail past the overlook

Many visitors will turn around here, but the determined hiker can continue as the footpath hugs the canyon rim for the next 1/10 mile, allowing for several excellent photo ops. From the overlook, the trail sheds nearly 800 feet in elevation over the course of less than a mile. As it turns away from the cliffs, the trail becomes harder to follow—keep a keen eye out for the faint blue blazes marking the way. Eventually, at just over the 3-mile mark, the formal trail ends abruptly at the banks of Big Devils Stairs Creek. A thin barbed wire fence forms the edge of the park, with private property beyond.

Hikers can turn back here, retracing your steps for three miles back to Gravel Springs Gap…

Extra credit

…But if you have made it this far—and you are prepared for some mild bushwhacking and rock scrambling—you may as well take the alternative route, straight up the heart of the canyon, back to the start. (Note: This is only recommended for winter and early spring, when there is no poison ivy or other pesky undergrowth.) It’s a real treat—while there is no established path, or even a faint social trail, it is hard to get lost as you follow the creek upstream.

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Near the start of the bushwhacking route

The stream begins as a mild meander, taking short tumbles as it cuts through the valley. After about 250 yards, however, hikers will enter a narrow gorge section, where the cascades grow in height and number. High, moss-covered walls line the canyon, making for an alluring sight. Expect to have to rock-hop across the stream multiple times as the canyon grows tighter.

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Small cascades along Big Devils Stairs Creek

For a brief period (at least when we were there in March 2018), the stream disappears, hidden under piles of sediment and other debris that have filled the canyon. Soon enough, the water resurfaces and the cascades continue, interrupted by small and solemn pools. About 2/10 mile up the creek, a small, dark cave appears on the right.

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Cave

The waterfalls grow larger and the walls higher as you continue upstream. After mounting another dry boulder jam, the stream reappears as it hugs a mossy wall on the right. At about 3.5 miles, you will enter the best part of the hike: a series of terrific waterfalls, inaugurated by a beautiful cascade that drips straight over a vibrant green rock face.

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Dripping waterfall

A great set of multitiered cascades follows around 10 minutes later. A bit of arm-strength will help you overcome the hike’s toughest obstacle at about 3.65 miles, where skirting a 12-15 foot waterfall requires mounting a wet boulder.

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Cascades

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Beautiful waterfall

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Close-up view

The terrific views culminate in a 20-25 foot waterfall, the canyon’s tallest, at about 3.7 miles. Here the creek tumbles straight over a slippery chute, dropping into a small pool. Surmounting the falls requires swinging out to the right or left to clear the sheer rock wall.

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Approaching the final falls

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Tallest waterfall in the gorge

Above the final waterfall, the waters calm, the valley widens, and the route gives way to dense brush. Beware of thorns and branches, which clog both sides of the creek for the next ½ mile. Despite this frustrating finale, most visitors will find the alternative route—which links back up with the Bluff Trail at around 4.3 miles—well worth the work.

From the end of the bushwhacking route, turn left on the relatively level Bluff Trail (heading away from the creek) and follow the trail back to the first of the three trail junctions in the Gravel Springs area at 5.5 miles. Make three straight right turns at the trail forks, ending up back at the Gravel Springs parking area after a relatively short but strenuous, 6-mile round-trip hike.

While it’s possible to cover the round-trip to and from the overlook in 2-3 hours, be sure to allot between 5-7 hours if you plan to explore the canyon in full, including the off-route excursion.

Posted in Shenandoah National Park, Strenuous Hikes, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, TX

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Mission San Jose, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, February 2018

There’s no doubt that the iconic Alamo, site of the famous battle in 1836, is the most famous mission in San Antonio, Texas. Although the oldest in the area, the Alamo was neither the largest nor the most populated of the Spanish missions along the San Antonio River. Throughout much of the 1700s, Catholic missionaries operated a string of missions in the San Antonio area—as well as across much of what would later come to be the state of Texas. The Spanish Empire used the missions to extend its control of the area while educating Native Americans on European religion and traditions. At their peak, hundreds of native Coahuiltecans lived at the missions, where they received food and refuge in exchange for labor, conversion to Catholicism, and—over time—an indelible loss of their ancient living habits. This practice continued into the early 19th century, when the missions were “secularized”—transformed into civil, rather than religious, communities with greater local ownership.

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park preserves four separate missions—Concepción, Espada, San José, and San Juan—while the lovely Mission Trail driving tour leads north into downtown San Antonio, ending at the Alamo. Start your visit at the Visitor Center at Mission San José, the largest of the missions, where rangers offer hourly guided tours of the site. Then continue south to Mission San Juan and Espada, before heading north again to Mission Concepción and the Alamo.

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Mission San José

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Mission San José

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Espada Aqueduct

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Mission Espada

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Mission San Juan

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Mission Concepción

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Remember the Alamo!

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Weir Farm National Historic Site, CT

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Weir Farm National Historic Site, October 2017

Weir Farm National Historic Site is the only National Park Service unit in Connecticut and the only NPS site in the country dedicated to the visual arts. Weir Farm, the summer home of Julian Alden Weir, commemorates the life and works of one of America’s most prominent Impressionist painters. Visitors today to the 68-acre park can walk amid the gardens, studios, and grassy slopes that helped give Weir his inspiration, while neighboring Weir Preserve offers several short hiking trails in the woodlands.

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Weir House

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Weir Studio

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Secret Garden at Weir Farm

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Weir Farm sign

 

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Nature Trail (George Washington Birthplace National Monument, VA)

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Nature Trail, George Washington Birthplace National Monument, December 2017

– Revolutionary War Series –

The roughly one-mile Nature Trail at Virginia’s George Washington Birthplace National Monument offers a short journey through peaceful woodlands situated across Dancing Marsh from the main historic area. The forest was the old stomping grounds of George Washington, who, despite moving area from the Pope’s Creek area when he was only three, often returned to visit the plantation during his childhood. Washington serves as the narrator for the hike, with interpretive signs along the trail describing the future U.S. President’s childhood views of the farmstead on the Potomac River.

Nature Trail hike information George Washington Birthplace NM

The hike

There are three principal ways to access the Nature Trail: first, parking at the picnic area at Duck Hall Point; second, connecting with the ¾-mile Dancing Marsh Trail; or third, crossing a lengthy footbridge from the historic area. This route description covers the third option, as the Nature Trail makes for a good complement to a tour of the Memorial House and farmstead.

From the Memorial House, head north on the graveled path leading down to the banks of Pope’s Creek, where you will find the lengthy wooden footbridge and the start of your hike. Traverse the bridge over a tidal marsh, then bear right at the trail fork as the Nature Trail splits. This is the start of the loop portion of the hike.

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Footbridge connecting historic area to Nature Trail

For the next 100 yards, the Nature Trail hugs the edge of Pope’s Creek, approaching a spur trail to the Log House—a former gift shop, restaurant, and inn built in 1932. Stay right at this fork—as well as a second junction at about 2/10 mile. By now the trail has climbed roughly 10-20 feet in elevation, flattening out as the path emerges from the woods and crosses a grassy field at the picnic area.

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Nature Trail along Pope’s Creek

Head west and cross the paved road, looking for the continuation of the trail as it darts back into the woods. By now the path is wide and grassy and bears west through a forest dotted with holly, hemlock, and sweet gum trees. Occasional interpretative panels paint a picture of life on the Pope’s Creek Plantation in the 18th century, when George Washington and his relatives roamed the area.

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Nature Trail

Never quite leaving earshot of the road, the trail crosses the pavement at about 7/10 mile, then bears south and descends gradually to Dancing Marsh. Bear left at the junction with the Dancing Marsh Trail, bearing east on the Nature Trail as it heads back toward the footbridge.

Steps later, the path passes under a set of powerlines. Soon the footbridge comes back to view, with Pope’s Creek beyond. The loop section ends at around the 1-mile mark; bear right and cross the bridge, returning to the historic area and bringing the short hike to a close.

Allot between 30 minutes to an hour for this easy hike.

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Footbridge to the Nature Trail

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George Washington Birthplace National Monument, VA

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George Washington Birthplace National Monument, December 2017

– Revolutionary War Series –

George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Tidewater Virginia is, at least to some degree, a fraud. Yes, to the best of our knowledge, the Revolutionary War hero and first U.S. president was born here, on what was once Pope’s Creek Plantation, in February 1732. The structures that exist today, however—from the farm fences to the horses’ stables to the quaint brick Memorial House—all date to the 1930s. They had no connection to George Washington, and there was little effort to mimic what Washington’s childhood home probably looked like. Even the traces of old foundations from the 18th century, uncovered by archaeologists in recent decades, are not yet confirmed to be Washington’s true birthplace.

At best, the homey farmstead can be viewed as a 20th century interpretation of the birthplace that Washington deserved. The Memorial House boasts grand bedrooms and cozy fireplaces, while sheep, ox, pigs, and horses roam the grounds. The natural beauty of the area—situated on the banks of Pope’s Creek, which feeds into the Potomac River—helps explain the future U.S. president’s affinity for the outdoors. The farm, gardens, and Memorial House are a short walk from the modern-day Visitor Center, while a pair of short hiking trails circles the Dancing Marsh to the north. (Note: See my subsequent post for a description of the 1-mile Nature Trail.)

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Pope’s Creek

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Approaching the Memorial House and grounds

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Foundation of what was possibly Washington’s birthplace

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Pigs!

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Oxen

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Thomas Stone National Historic Site, MD

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Thomas Stone National Historical Site, December 2017

– Revolutionary War Series –

Thomas Stone National Historic Site commemorates the life of Thomas Stone, a Maryland planter and politician during the Declaration of Independence. Aside from signing the Declaration of Independence, there is little notable about the soft-spoken Stone, but his lovely home and estate—known as Haberdeventure—is well-preserved today by the National Park Service. A few short trails crisscross the woods and fields on the property, which in the late 18th century hosted between 25-35 people, including Stone’s family and a handful of slaves. Thomas Stone and his close relatives are buried in a modest cemetery on the grounds, a short walk from the main house.

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Stone family home at Haberdeventure

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Cemetery at Haberdeventure

 

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Coastal Trail – Lands End Section, including Mile Rock Beach (Golden Gate National Recreation Area, CA)

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Coastal Trail – Lands End Section, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, December 2017

The windswept shoreline of Lands End forms the northwest tip of the San Francisco Peninsula and is easily accessible from northern California’s iconic cultural capital. For those looking for a brief urban escape, the Land’s End section of the Coastal Trail offers a surprisingly rugged hike through cypress groves and along rocky cliffs, with excellent (weather-permitting) views of the Golden Gate Bridge. A short detour to Mile Rock Beach offers access to the ocean and the idiosyncratic “Labyrinth,” an artistic rock maze. Combine with a walk along the El Camino del Mar Trail to form a loop, or catch public transportation to take you anywhere in the city.

Coastal Trail Lands End GGNRA hike information

Coastal Trail Lands End GGNRA map

Coastal Trail – Lands End Section, Golden Gate National Recreation Area (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Many visitors to the Lands End section of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area begin their day at the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center, situated just up Point Lobos Avenue from the Cliff House in San Francisco. It’s a short walk west from the Visitor Center to the Sutro Baths, once a massive bathhouse built by millionaire Adolph Sutro in 1894. Decaying and declining in popularity, the baths were bought by real estate developers in 1964 who planned to construct high-rise apartments; perhaps fortuitously, however, a fire destroyed the site in 1966, persuading the developers to abandon the project and preserving the stellar views of the Pacific Ocean. Visitors can explore the ruins of the bathhouse today.

The Visitor Center and parking area are on the grounds of the short-lived Sutro Pleasure Grounds at Merrie Way, another of Adolph Sutro’s enterprises. The amusement park, which included a crude roller coaster and early version of a Ferris wheel, lasted only four years, closing its doors in 1900 following Sutro’s death. Today, there are no traces left of the Sutro Pleasure Grounds.

What has remained is the natural beauty of Lands End, and the 1.4-mile Coastal Trail section from Lands End Lookout to Eagle’s Point covers the best of it. From the Visitor Center parking area, the Coastal Trail bears north through shrubby chaparral to the edge of the cypress forest. The trail begins as a paved, wheelchair-accessible track; stay right at the first trail junction, where a dirt track bears off to the left toward Sutro Baths. Seconds later, stay left on a wide dirt path that cuts off a paved switchback. Here another paved path merges from the right; stay left again, continuing north.

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Cypress forest

Passing under a cypress canopy, the Coastal Trail winds eastward to the Coastal Trail Overlook, first of several viewpoints of the Golden Gate Bridge. The iconic structure, constructed in 1937, connects San Francisco to the hilly Marin Peninsula and serves as the divider between San Francisco Bay to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. On a clear day, one can see as far west as Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands. (Note: The staircase that comes in from the right offers access to the USS San Francisco Memorial, which commemorates the 106 Americans killed in the WWII Battle of Guadalcanal.)

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Golden Gate Bridge from Coastal Trail Overlook

Continuing east along the wide and hard-packed path, visitors will reach Mile Rock Overlook at about the 1/3-mile mark. Here the vistas are even broader and more spectacular than before. The large outcrop just off the coast looks suspiciously like a sleeping man, while the smaller Lobos Rock—further out to sea—is sure to be covered with sea-loving birds. Off to the northeast, the small peninsula sticking out into the ocean hosts the Labyrinth (and will be visited later in the journey).

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Sleeping Man Rock and Lobos Rock

From Mile Rock Overlook the trail narrows and reenters the forest, dominated by willow and cypress trees. At about ½ mile, an unmarked trail heads up the hillside to the right; stay left along the cliff’s edge. Just beyond, the trail dips suddenly into a brushy ravine and forks at a signed junction. Stay left again, then climb out of the ravine and back into the shady woods.

At about the 2/3-mile mark, the Coastal Trail splits. Most will want to bear left, hewing closer to the coast. Steps later, bear left on the Mile Rock Lookout Trail, a short but steep detour that drops about 175 feet to the sea. The ubiquitous stairs end at Mile Rock Beach, a small but peaceful shore at the foot of the Lands End Cliffs.

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Mile Rock Lookout Trail

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Mile Rock Beach

From the beach, hike a short loop by bearing left on the trail winding northeast to the Labyrinth, a small rock maze originally constructed by artist Eduardo Aguilera in 2004. A popular destination for meditation, the maze mimics the design of the 13th century Chartres labyrinth in France. It also boasts yet another great view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Mile Rock Beach from near the Labyrinth

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Labyrinth

 

From the Labyrinth, climb the winding trail as it hugs the cliffside then returns to the main Mile Rock Lookout Trail. From here it is roughly 70 yards back up to the Coastal Trail, marking the end of the 1/3-mile detour.

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Painted Rock

As the Coastal Trail continues east, it passes the chalky-hued Painted Rock, which was once used by passing sailors as a navigational aide. At about 1.2 miles, the path begins to climb sharply up a set of stairs, coming within earshot of the Lincoln Park Golf Course to the south. (Note: The trail heading left at the foot of the climb is off-limits because of risk of rock slides.) The trail crests a ridge at 1.25 miles, then drops down a winding path with open views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Presidio area to the northeast.

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Coastal Trail en route to Eagle’s Point

After clearing a grassy ravine, the Coastal Trail levels out and hugs the coastline for 4/10 miles before approaching Eagle’s Point Overlook, a windswept viewpoint overlooking the Golden Gate waters and headlands. This is a crowded spot, by virtue of its relative proximity to a parking area, situated around 50 yards past the overlook.

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Eagle’s Point Overlook

The Eagle’s Point parking area marks the end of this one-way hike. Soak in the views, then return the way you came, link up with the El Camino del Mar Trail heading west, or continue on the Coastal Trail as it hugs the roadside heading east toward China Beach and the Presidio. Allot 1-2 hours for the one-way hike, including the detour to Mile Rock Beach and the Labyrinth.

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Road to First Manassas Driving Tour

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Henry Hill Loop Trail, Manassas National Battlefield Park, April 2017

– Civil War Series –

At the start of the Civil War in 1861, both the Union and the Confederacy foresaw a quick conflict, expecting to be done fighting by summer’s end. Politicians in the North believed the Federal Army would conquer Richmond, the Confederate capital, in one fell swoop, while top Southern general P.G.T. Beauregard bragged that his army was “certain to triumph” against an adversary he viewed as little more than “an armed rabble, gathered hastily on a false pretense.”[1]

Both sides would quickly be sobered. Under pressure from President Lincoln and others to deliver a decisive Union victory, Gen. Irvin McDowell led a force of 35,000 Northern volunteers on a march toward Richmond in mid-July 1861. The green soldiers, however, would make it only as far as Bull Run—just north of a key railroad link at Manassas Jun Junction, Virginia—before Confederate resistance and a series of Union blunders sent the Federal Army stumbling home in retreat on July 21, 1861.

The First Battle of Manassas, as it would come to be known in the South (the North dubbed it the First Battle of Bull Run), was a wake-up call for an overconfident Union. Yet the Confederate Army, exhausted by the intense battle, was unable to press on to Washington. Each side dug in for what would become a four-year war.

Touring the “Road to First Manassas” offers curious visitors today an opportunity to trace the lead-up to the war’s first significant battle. This two-day driving route covers the period of May-July 1861, starting in Alexandria, Virginia and ending at Manassas National Battlefield Park, where a series of hiking trails crisscross the former fields of fire. This post covers all the key stops, including a handful of museums, preserved forts, and the sites of several skirmishes in May-Jun 1861. Plan to spend the whole first day covering the lead-up to Manassas, then devote the second to exploring the battlefield itself and its five hiking trails.

Note: The below driving tour roughly follows the itineraries laid out by Virginia Civil War Trails and Michael Weeks’ Civil War Road Trip: Volume I (2011). In this age of GPS, I have included addresses for each site (rough approximations—for example, the nearest house) in lieu of specific directions.

DAY 1: ROAD TO MANASSAS (MAY-JULY 1861)

Stop 1: Marshall House (480 King St., Alexandria, VA)

Day 1 is a busy day, and you will have to contend with notorious DC area traffic, so get an early start. The tour begins in Old Town Alexandria, a picturesque colonial town that was abandoned by Confederate soldiers early in the war and occupied by Union forces on May 24, 1861. It was here at the Marshall House—now the site of The Alexandrian hotel—that the Federals experienced their first casualty: on May 24, facing incoming Union troops who threatened to take down his Confederate flag, the innkeeper at the Marshall House shot and killed US Army Col. Elmer Ellsworth, the commander of the 11th New York Fire Zouaves and a friend of President Lincoln. The innkeeper, James W. Jackson, was subsequently quickly killed himself by Ellsworth’s men.

Up until very recently, there was a plaque on the wall of the Alexandrian that glorified not Ellsworth but Jackson, dubbing him the “first martyr to the cause of Southern independence.” Curiously, it has recently been removed as the hotel changed management.

Note: Allot 5 minutes to explore this site.

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Site of the former Marshall House, Alexandria, Virginia

Stop 2: “Alexandria in the Civil War” sign (110 Callahan Dr., Alexandria, VA)

The second stop, situated a mile up King Street at the Alexandria Amtrak station, features the first of several “Civil War Trails” signs, this one dedicated to telling the story of Alexandria during the war. The city was ruled as a military district, the longest occupied territory of the war. There is an unmarked monument at Amtrak station, with a clear view of the 333-foot George Washington Masonic National Memorial to the northwest.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site, which is little more than a sign and a view.

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View from the “Alexandria in the Civil War” sign, Alexandria, Virginia

Stop 3: Panorama of Alexandria (101 Callahan Dr., Alexandria, VA)

Next drive up Shooter’s Hill to the base of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial for a splendid panoramic view of Alexandria. The 44th New York Volunteer Infantry, known as the “Ellsworth Avengers,” camped at this site during the occupation of Alexandria. The city looks far different today than it did in the 1860s, but many historic buildings still remain, and the greenery of George Washington Memorial Park preserves the vista.

Note: Allot 5-10 minutes to explore this site, more if you plan to visit the Masonic museum.

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Panorama of Alexandria, Virginia

Stop 4: Fort Ward Park (4301 W. Braddock Rd., Alexandria, VA)

Leaving Old Town Alexandria behind, it is a 10-minute drive to Fort Ward, a beautifully-preserved earthen fort that was built by Union forces to protect Washington, DC. The fort never saw fighting during the war, but it did experience a flurry of activity, undergoing a series of expansions between 1861 and 1865. By 1863, the fort perimeter surpassed 800 yards and boasted room for 36 guns.[2]

More than 90 percent of the earthworks remain intact today, encompassed in the 45-acre Fort Ward Park. The Northwest Bastion has been reconstructed with a handful of cannons, and the Fort Ward Museum, open Tuesday-Sunday, features a 4,000-object rotating collection of maps, weapons, and trinkets from the time period.

Note: Allot 45 minutes-1 hour to explore the grounds and museum.

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Fort Ward Park, Alexandria, Virginia

Stop 5: Fairfax Museum (10209 Main St., Fairfax, VA)

By around mid-morning, you should be on your way out of Alexandria and heading toward suburban Fairfax. Here the small Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center offers a handful of exhibits on the city’s history, including an admittedly sparse section of the Civil War. This is a good point to pick up the story in the spring of 1861, however, when Union forces were gradually fanning out across northern Virginia to weed out Confederate positions. In the pre-dawn hours of June 1, a Union scouting party surprised a local militia positioned at nearby Fairfax Court House, fighting the small Confederate force to a draw in one of the first skirmishes of the war. Each side lost a soldier each, including the Confederate militia leader: Capt. John Marr.

Note: Allot 20-30 minutes for this site.

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Fairfax Museum, Fairfax, Virginia

Stop 6: Fairfax Court House (4110 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax, VA)

From the Fairfax Museum, make your way up Main Street to the site of the old Fairfax Court House (situated next to the new Court House). It was on this hill that the skirmish took place. There is a stone monument dedicated to Captain Marr, as well as a pair of small cannons and a Civil War Trails sign. Fairfax Court House changed hands twice in 1861: on July 17, Gen. Irvin McDowell’s troops seized the city; by July 22, as Union forces retreated from the Battle of Manassas, it returned to Confederate control.

Note: Allot 10 minutes to explore this site. Free parking is available two blocks east at the corner of Main Street and East Street.

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Fairfax Court House, Fairfax, Virginia

Stop 7: Freeman Store & Museum (131 Church St. NE, Vienna, VA)

Two weeks after the skirmish at Fairfax Court House, Union forces fell into an ambush in the nearby town of Vienna as Brig. Gen. Robert Schenck was transporting the 1st Ohio Infantry along the Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad. As Confederate Col. Maxcy Gregg’s troops heard the railroad whistle in the distance, they moved forces into positions and surprised the incoming Federals, incurring several casualties before Schenck’s troops were able to retreat on foot. While the Freeman Store and Museum is light on Civil War history, a Civil War Trails sign out front tells the story of this skirmish.

Note: Allot 10-20 minutes for this site.

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Freeman Store & Museum, Vienna, Virginia

Stop 8: Vienna Community Center (120 Cherry St. SE, Vienna, VA)

The minor “Battle of Vienna” actually took place near the modern-day Vienna Community Center, just off modern-day Park Street. Here the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail traces the former route of the railroad where Schenck’s troops were ambushed. (Note: Reportedly, there is a stone marker along the W&OD Trail that denotes the first railroad battle in history; however, I could not find it for the life of me!)

Note: Allot 5-10 minutes for this site.

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Site of Battle of Vienna, Vienna, Virginia

Stop 9: Taylor’s Tavern (801 Ridge Pl., Falls Church, VA)

After grabbing lunch, head back east on Interstate 66 to the town of Falls Church. Just southwest of Oakwood Cemetery, look for a pull-off and a small Civil War Trails sign. While the sign covers the Union occupation of Falls Church, the real destination is reached by way of a short, woody path that climbs to the former site of Taylor’s Tavern, where Union balloonist Thaddeus S.C. Lowe used an old racing balloon to conduct the first aerial reconnaissance in American military history on June 24-25, 1861. (Note: Skip this site if you do not want to backtrack to the east, as the detour adds about ½ hour to the trip.)

Note: Allot 10-15 minutes to walk the short trail and explore this site.

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Former site of Taylor’s Tavern, Falls Church, Virginia

Stop 10: Old Stone Church (13941 Braddock Rd., Centreville, VA)

From here, the story of the First Battle of Manassas picks up in earnest. Make your west along Interstate 66, roughly following the route taken by advancing Union forces in mid-July 1861. Facing mounting pressure in Washington to capture Richmond, Gen. Irwin McDowell and his hastily-assembled army of 35,000 men set out from Washington on July 16. The green troops advanced slowly, stopping frequently to clear the road, loot abandoned Confederate positions, and pick blackberries.[3] The force reached Centreville on July 18, passing the Old Stone Church, which would later be used as a field hospital during the battle. Today, the church has changed names—now the Church of the Ascension—but the historic structure remains. Look for a Civil War Trails sign on the site.

Note: Allot 5 minutes to explore this site.

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Old Stone Church, Centreville, Virginia

Stop 11: Blackburn’s Ford (7126-7152 Centreville Rd., Centreville, VA)

As the Federals advanced west toward Manassas, Confederate Gen. P.G.T Beauregard reinforced southern positions along the banks of Bull Run, a woody creek that would serve as the frontier of battle. On the morning of July 18, McDowell sent Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler’s First Division south from Centreville to Blackburn’s Ford, where he was instructed to feel out the Confederate defenses. An intrepid Tyler, confident that he could press the offensive, disobeyed orders and directed his infantry to cross Bull Run – only to meet a barrage of fire from Confederate soldiers, hidden in the woods on the opposite bank. The brief Battle of Blackburn’s Ford forced Tyler’s division to retreat and cost the lives of 85 of his men.

Today, the site of the battle is situated within Bull Run Regional Park; look for a gravel turnoff off to the right, just before Centreville Road (Route 28) crosses Bull Run. A small parking area offers access to the creek and the Bull Run-Occoquan Trail, a scenic track which follows the stream for roughly 20 miles—an endeavor for another day.

Note: Allot 5-10 minutes to explore this site.

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Blackburn’s Ford, Bull Run Regional Park, Virginia

Stop 12: McLean Farm (7500 Centreville Rd., Manassas Park, VA)

Just under a mile south of Blackburn’s Ford, Gen. Beauregard took up his headquarters here at the home of local farmer Wilmer McLean. Although the farm was ravaged in the Battle of Manassas, McLean would again come to play a cameo role in the Civil War five years later: on April 9, 1865, the Confederates former surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at McLean’s new home in Appomattox Court House. Today, the former site of McLean Farm, marked by a Civil War Trails sign, is tucked away in the back of a CVS parking lot.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site.

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Former site of McLean Farm, Manassas, Virginia

Stop 13: Mitchell’s Ford (7610 Old Centreville Rd., Manassas, VA)

After the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford, Gen. Beauregard believed that the Union forces would attempt to cross Bull Run at nearby Mitchell’s Ford, just upstream to the southwest. Accordingly, Confederate reinforcements flooded the area. On the eve of battle, however, McDowell’s forces were actually preparing to attack much farther north, aiming to surprise Beauregard’s troops by crossing at Sudley Springs on July 21 and outflanking the Confederate left.

While there are no markers today at Mitchell’s Ford, look for a Civil War Trails sign and wayside exhibit just inside the entrance to the parking lot at Yorkshire Elementary School.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site.

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Mitchell’s Ford sign, Manassas, Virginia

Stop 14: Signal Hill (9300 Signal View Dr., Manassas Park, VA)

“Look out for your left, you are turned.” As McDowell’s forces were preparing to cross Bull Run, Confederate Col. Nathan G. Evans received this message from Capt. E. Porter Alexander, a flag-waving signalman, on the morning of July 21. The warning probably saved Manassas from Union capture: Alexander spotted McDowell’s forces sneaking around the Confederate left, making way for the ford at Sudley Springs. Upon hearing the message, Evans would sprang into action, moving the majority of his brigade northwest from its defensive position at Stone Bridge to meet the Federals as they crossed Bull Run. McDowell initially caught the Confederates off-guard, but he had now lost the element of surprise.

The importance of Capt. Porter’s message is captured today in a monument atop Signal Hill, a now wooded knoll to the east of Manassas. Look for the site across Signal View Drive from the Signal Bay Waterpark.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site.

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Signal Hill, Manassas, Virginia

Stop 15: Mayfield Fort (8401 Quarry Rd., Manassas, VA)

This stop offers a chance to get out and stretch your legs on a short hike around a former Confederate fortification. Mayfield Fort, constructed in spring 1861, was part of a system of defenses intended to protect Manassas Junction, a critical node on the railroad connecting Washington and Richmond. A partly paved, 6/10-mile stem-and-loop trail crisscrosses the earthworks, with the highlight being an elevated view of the surrounding countryside. Be sure to see the two “Quaker gun” reproductions, fake cannons used frequently by the Confederates to fool the Federals.

Note: Allot 30-45 minutes for this brief hike, which features several interpretive signs.

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Quaker guns at Mayfield Fort, Manassas, Virginia

Stop 16: Manassas Museum (9101 Prince William St., Manassas, VA)

The Manassas Museum, open Tuesday-Sunday, is the center for interpretation of the Civil War era in the town of Manassas. Inside are relics from the time period: old newspapers, soldiers’ uniforms, and other war memorabilia. (Note: The docents at the site have a decisively pro-Confederacy leaning; better to wait until the next day to talk with the park rangers at the Manassas National Battlefield Park for a much more balanced view.)

Note: Allot 30-45 minutes to explore the museum and bookstore.

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Manassas Museum, Manassas, Virginia

Stop 17: Manassas Walking Tour (9101 Prince William St., Manassas, VA)

The Manassas Museum is only a stone’s throw away from central Manassas, inviting visitors to take a stroll around this quaint downtown area. There are several Civil War Trails signs, which tell the story of Manassas during the war. One of the most interesting anecdotes comes from July 16, 1861, when Gen. Beauregard received a coded message from Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow, who relayed from Washington that McDowell planned to send 35,000 men to march on Manassas. This piece of intelligence was critical in persuading President Jefferson Davis to reinforce Beauregard’s troops along Bull Run.

Note: Allot 45 minutes-1 hour to walk around Manassas. It will likely be evening by now; if you still have time, press ahead to Stop 18. If the sun is setting, save it for the next morning.

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Downtown Manassas, Virginia

Stop 18: Ben Lomond Historic Site (10321 Sudley Manor Dr., Manassas, VA)

On July 21, as the battle was underway, elements of Brig. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s brigade converted Ben Lomond Manor (also known as the Pringle house) into a Confederate field hospital. Owned by prosperous planter Benjamin Tasker Chinn, Ben Lomond Manor saw a significant decline due to the war, eventually forcing Chinn to sell the property and move to Washington, DC in 1870.

Visitors to Ben Lomond Historic Site can now explore the house and former plantation grounds for $5; tours are offered from May-October but only on Thursday-Monday between 11am and 4pm.

Note: If you are taking the tour, allot 45 minutes-1 hour to explore this site. Because of the restrictive hours, however, it makes sense to skip this site or simply drive by for a quick peek before moving on.

DAY 2: BATTLE OF MANASSAS (JULY 21, 1861)

Stop 19: Henry Hill Visitor Center (6511 Sudley Rd., Manassas, VA)

After covering the lead-up to battle in day 1, the second day of the tour is devoted entirely to the events of July 21, 1861. Most visitors to Manassas National Battlefield Park begin at the Henry Hill Visitor Center, which offers extensive exhibits, including audio and video, on both the First and Second Battles of Manassas. The Visitor Center sits atop Henry Hill, site of the culminating engagements on July 21, 1861 and an excellent vantage point for observing the fields of battle.

Here you will be faced with a choice of options for the day. The first is to hike the 5.4-mile First Manassas Trail, which begins and ends at the Visitor Center and connects most of the major sites of interest by foot. The second is to drive between the sites, which allows visitors to see each spot in chronological order, starting with Sudley Springs and ending back here at Henry Hill.

(Note: See my post on March 15, 1861 for a detailed description of the First Manassas Trail. The remainder of this post covers the driving option, which still allows for several short hikes along the way.)

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View from Henry Hill Visitor Center, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia

Stop 20: Sudley Springs (5384-5400 Sudley Rd., Manassas, VA)

On July 19, 1861—two days before the battle—Gen. McDowell dispatched the Union Army’s chief engineer, John G. Barnard, to identify a suitable place for thousands of Federal soldiers, horses, and artillery to cross Bull Run undetected. Barnard found such a spot at Sudley Ford, well upstream of the Confederate positions near the sleepy town of Sudley Springs. Two days later, Gen. McDowell sent two divisions (roughly 13,000 troops) to cross Sudley Ford, the move that kicked off the Civil War’s first major engagement.

While Sudley Ford is on private property, the 6/10-mile Sudley Loop Trail, one of five hiking trails that trace the First Battle of Manassas, explores the area just south of the crossing.

Note: Allot 45 minutes-1 hour to explore this site. See my post on May 14, 2017 for a full trail description.

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Sudley Loop Trail, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia

Stop 21: Stone Bridge (16012-16020 Lee Highway, Centreville, VA)

At the time of the war, Stone Bridge offered the only road crossing of Bull Run in the area. As such, it was guarded by Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans’ 7th Brigade, which formed the extreme left of the Confederate defenses. On the morning of July 21, McDowell sent Brig. Gen. Tyler’s division to confront Evans’ force at the bridge, inaugurating the Battle of Manassas with an initial volley of artillery fire at around 6 am. But the attack was simply a feint, intended to disguise McDowell’s far larger movement of two divisions at Sudley Ford.

A popular, 1.6-mile hike crosses Stone Bridge (a reconstruction of the old causeway), parallels Bull Run, and then traces a circuit around the hillside where Col. Evans’ brigade was positioned. It also passes Farm Ford, where a certain Col. William Tecumseh Sherman would guide his brigade across Bull Run on the morning of July 21.

Note: Allot 1.5-2 hours to explore this site and hike the 1.6-mile trail. See my post on May 27, 2017 for a full trail description. By now, it will likely be around lunch time.

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Stone Bridge, Stone Bridge Loop Trail, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia

Stop 22: Matthews Hill (5911-5891 Sudley Rd., Manassas, VA)

By mid-morning on July 21, Capt. Alexander’s message had warned Evans that Tyler’s artillery barrage was merely a feint, and Evans had moved around 900 troops to meet Col. David Hunter and Col. Samuel Heintzelman’s Union divisions—which had slowly crossed Sudley Ford—at nearby Matthews Hill. Despite being outgunned and outmanned, Evans’ troops—supplemented by two brigades led by Col. Francis Bartow and Brig. Gen. Barnard Bee—held off the Federal advance for nearly 90 minutes. The delay was critical in giving the Confederates enough time to bring additional reinforcements for the afternoon engagements.

Situated off Sudley Road, the Matthews Hill parking area serves as the start and end point for the 1-mile Matthews Hill Loop Trail. This short hike dips in and out of the woods and crosses both the Union and Confederate positions during the brief but bloody battle.

Note: Allot 45 minutes-1 hour to explore this site. See my post on May 27, 2017 for a full trail description.

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Matthews Hill Loop Trail, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia

Stop 23: Stone House (12521 Lee Highway, Manassas, VA)

Situated in a low gully between Matthews and Henry Hills, the Stone House served as a makeshift Union field hospital during the battle. By late afternoon on July 21, the Confederates would reclaim the house and capture the wounded Federals inside. Surviving both the First and Second Battles of Manassas, the Stone House remains in remarkably good shape today, one of the few remaining structures from the time period. It is open to visitors from late spring through early fall.

Note: Allot 10-15 minutes to explore this site.

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Stone House, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia

Stop 24: Henry Hill Loop Trail (6511 Sudley Rd., Manassas, VA)

Drive back to the Henry Hill Visitor Center for the finale of the driving tour: a short, easy hike on the Henry Hill Loop Trail. (Note: If you have time and energy for only one hiking trail on this trip, this is the one to do.) The path circles the key battlefield on July 21, where Confederate reinforcements—led by “Stonewall” Jackson, who would earn his moniker here—won a surprise victory and forced McDowell’s beleaguered forces into retreat. A series of Union mishaps, including delays at Matthews Hill, allowed the Confederates to crowd Henry Hill, engaging the Federals in overwhelming artillery fire before cavalry and infantry units would ultimately force the Northern soldiers to flee.

Note: Allot 1-1.5 hours to explore this site. See my post on May 27, 2017 for a full trail description. This is the official end of the two-day driving tour.

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Henry Hill Loop Trail, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia

 The Civil War’s first major battle was a shocking defeat for President Lincoln and the Union Army, but the Confederate Army was too fatigued and too disorganized to pursue the Federals back to Washington. As summer gave way to winter, both sides would fall back into a defensive position, recruiting volunteers and shoring up their armies for an eventual return to battle. While there were some minor offensives throughout late 1861 and early 1862, the brunt of the armies would not meet again until the Peninsula Campaign of spring 1862.

 There are five hiking trails, all in Manassas National Battlefield Park, that cover terrain relevant to the First Battle of Manassas:

[1] John J. Hennessy, The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861 (Stackpole Books: 2015), pg. 4.

[2] Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walter Owen, Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (Scarecrow Press: 2009), pg. 42.

[3] Hennessy, The First Battle of Manassas, pg. 7-8.

Posted in Civil War, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Scenic Byways, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top 10 Hikes in 2017

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Dolly Sods North Loop, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, September 2017

2017 is nearly in the books, and it’s been a banner year for Live and Let Hike. Viewership reached new heights (roughly 85,000 and 167,000 page views in 2017), and I added 76 new posts this year that covered hikes, scenic byways, and other destinations in 11 different states: California, Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia. I also inaugurated two historical series in 2017, highlighting trails related to the Civil War and Revolutionary War.

For the second year in a row, the top 5 most visited posts (excluding the home page) were all holdovers from past years: (1) Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s “Frontcountry”; (2) Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s “Backcountry”; (3) Peekaboo and Spooky Gulch Loop (Grand Staircase-Escalante NM, UT); (4) Capitol Reef Hiking Guide; and (5) Rock Circuit Trail (Middlesex Fells Reservation, MA).

This year’s most popular new posts, however, were all from the mid-Atlantic: (1) Dolly Sods North Loop (Dolly Sods Wilderness WV); (2) Appalachian Trail – Maryland Section 1: Pen Mar to Raven Rock Hollow, including High Rock and Devil’s Racecourse (South Mountain State Park, MD); (3) Yorktown Battlefield Auto Tour (Colonial National Historical Park, VA); (4) Stone Bridge Loop Trail (Manassas National Battlefield Park, VA); and (5) First Manassas Trail (Manassas National Battlefield Park, VA).

More importantly than page views, of course, was the quality of the hikes involved. In that spirit, check out the list below for my (heavily subjective) “top ten” best hikes of 2017, ranked in reverse order.

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Big Schloss, George Washington National Forest, October 2017

  1. Big Schloss (George Washington National Forest, VA/WV)

Taking its name from the German word for “castle,” the rocky outcrop at Big Schloss straddles the VirginiaWest Virginia border and features stunning, panoramic views of tree-laced mountains and majestic valleys. The 2.1-mile hike to the top is no slouch, either, with regular vistas as the trail follows the spine of a narrow, windswept ridgeline.

See my post on November 10, 2017 for a full trail description.

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Tibbet Knob, George Washington National Forest, October 2017

  1. Tibbet Knob (George Washington National Forest, VA/WV)

Better yet, make a day of it and hike to the top of Big Schloss’ less-visited cousin to the southwest, Tibbet Knob, which is arguably even more spectacular. An initial viewpoint at the hike’s ½ mile mark sports excellent views of the Shenandoah Valley, while the summit at 1.4 miles overlooks beautiful Trout Run Valley in the heart of the Great North Mountain range.

See my post on December 2, 2017 for a full trail description.

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Beech Cliff Trail, Acadia National Park, August 2017

  1. Beech Cliff Trail & Canada Cliffs Trail Loop (Acadia National Park, ME)

I had the pleasure of visiting Maine’s Acadia National Park for the first time this year and was not disappointed. Despite never surpassing 1,600 feet above sea level, the granite peaks on Mount Desert Island are wonderfully rugged and unlike nearly anything else on the eastern seaboard. The Beech Cliff Trail is one of the park’s four “iron rung” hikes: strenuous climbs that require negotiating ladders, iron aides, and steep staircases to mount exposed cliff sides. The reward is commanding views of Echo Lake, Somes Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

See my post on August 14, 2017 for a full trail description.

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Blackbird Loop, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, October 2017

  1. Blackbird Knob Loop (Dolly Sods Wilderness, WV)

After more than a year-long hiatus, I went on two overnight backpacking trips in 2017, both in West Virginia’s spectacular Dolly Sods Wilderness. This hiker’s paradise in Monongahela National Forest features alpine-like meadows, babbling creeks, high-altitude vistas, and broad ecological diversity, making it an increasingly popular destination despite its remote location. The Blackbird Knob Loop, the first of the two backpacks on this list, cuts through the heart of the Dolly Sods area, crisscrossing meadows as it visits both the forks of Red Creek and includes westerly views of beautiful Canaan Valley.

See my post on October 9, 2017 for a full trail description.

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Acadia Mountain Trail, Acadia National Park, August 2017

  1. Acadia Mountain Loop (Acadia National Park, ME)

This challenging hike on Acadia’s quiet west side leads to a stony summit with panoramic views, then drops to the banks of Somes Sound, a tranquil inlet that feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. The ascents and descents are sharp and rocky, making this one of the toughest hikes on this year’s list.

See my post on August 20, 2017 for a full trail description.

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Stout Grove Loop, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, July 2017

  1. Stout Grove Loop (Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, CA)

One of three hikes in the top ten from my July trip to northern California, the Stout Grove Loop is a short and easy circuit through one of the best redwood stands in the world. Walking through redwood groves, particularly in the region’s iconic fog or evening sun, is an otherworldly experience; these vermilion-hued sentinels, the world’s tallest trees, offer a distinctive beauty that is impossible to replicate in words or photographs.

See my post on November 4, 2017 for a full trail description.

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Prairie Creek Trail, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, July 2017

  1. Prairie Creek Trail – Foothill Trail Loop (Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, CA)

Longer and often less crowded than Stout Grove, this circuit hike in nearby Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park offers a casual walk through several groves of spectacular redwoods. While passing the much-vaunted “Big Tree,” the most beautiful trees are unlabeled, silent sentinels reaching for the sky. All 2.6 miles of this hike, save for one tricky section, are wheelchair-accessible.

See my post on November 4, 2017 for a full trail description.

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Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, July 2017

  1. Fern Canyon (Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, CA)

While the trees are the main draw, the most spectacular hike in Prairie Creek Redwoods is the Fern Canyon Trail, a short but exquisite passage between fern-strewn walls. Lush with greenery and dripping with moisture, this jungle-like canyon was once a shooting location for Jurassic Park: The Lost World. A mile-long out-and-back covers the best of the canyon and requires hikers to surmount downed trees and ever-changing stream crossings.

See my post on October 29, 2017 for a full trail description.

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The Beehive Trail, Acadia National Park, August 2017

  1. The Beehive Loop (Acadia National Park, ME)

The most popular of Acadia’s “iron rung” hikes, The Beehive Loop includes a hair-raising ascent up an exposed cliffside, ending at a summit overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Frenchman Bay. From here the loop traverses two lesser peaks and then drops to an attractive lake known as The Bowl. Strenuous and thrilling, The Beehive is an Acadia classic.

See my post on August 22, 2017 for a full trail description.

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Dolly Sods North Loop, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, September 2017

  1. Dolly Sods North Loop (Dolly Sods Wilderness, WV)

The Dolly Sods North Loop, a popular backpacking destination in central West Virginia, takes this year’s top marks for its diverse terrain and stunning views. A rim of Pottsville Sandstone along the Rocky Ridge Trail offers unparalleled vistas of Canaan Valley, while the hike’s numerous meadows and heath barrens bear closer resemblance to ecosystems in northern Canada than to the rest of the mid-Atlantic.

See my post on September 13, 2017 for a full trail description.

Honorable Mention:

Posted in Acadia National Park, California, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Easy Hikes, George Washington National Forest, Maine, Maryland, Moderate Hikes, Monongahela National Forest, Redwood National & State Parks, South Mountain State Park, Strenuous Hikes, Virginia, West Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment