Riverbend Road Trail (Great Falls Park, VA)

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Riverbend Road Trail, Great Falls Park, September 2018

The Riverbend Road Trail is easily the least interesting of the hikes in northern Virginia’s Great Falls Park and is largely out of the way of the other trails in the park. Those seeking to conquer every trail in the area, however, may find some charms in this short, out-and-back jaunt. Situated in the park’s northwest corner, the single-track trail weaves through woods and across a perennial stream, connecting the parking area north of the Visitor Center with Riverbend Road.

Riverbend Road Trail hike information Great Falls Park

The hike

Because there is no evident parking along Riverbend Road, begin and end the hike along Riverbend Road Trail at the northernmost parking lot in Great Falls Park. (Note: Some will complete the hike in conjunction with the nearby Mine Run Trail.) From the parking area, a graveled road (closed to vehicles; hiking and biking only) heads off into the woods to the west, skirting the northern flank of Clay Pond. Follow this gentle path for about 1/3 mile, first passing the turnoff for the Mine Run Trail on the left, then proceeding further north—almost to the boundary of Riverbend Park—to the start of the Riverbend Road Trail. (Note: Both are marked with trail signs.)

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Gravel road

Bear left on the narrowing footpath, which starts by descending steadily to a wooded floodplain dotted with oaks, maples, chestnuts, and the occasional beech. Roughly 4/10 mile from the start, hikers will cross a small, muddy stream, then climb again to another floodplain.

 

Patches of verdant undergrowth are interspersed with relatively barren earth as the trail bobs up and down, bearing west toward the edge of the park. The trail climbs out of the woods suddenly at about the 7/10-mile mark, running under a set of power lines and approaching Riverbend Road, the terminus of the short path.

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Looking back at the trail from around Riverbend Road

From this point, return the way you came, or venture south on the lovely Mine Run Trail. If completing just the out-and-back, plan for a little less than an hour of hiking.

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Riverbend Road Trail, Great Falls Park

Posted in Easy Hikes, Great Falls Park, Virginia | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Mine Run Trail (Great Falls Park, VA)

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Mine Run Trail, Great Falls Park, September 2018

The Mine Run Trail is an oft-forgotten path nestled in the northwest section of Great Falls Park, away from the namesake waterfall, Mather Gorge, and Potomac River. Mine Run, nonetheless, is a lovely tributary of the Potomac and is the highlight of this pleasant, 0.7-mile stroll. Small cascades dot the creek, shaded under a thick canopy of deciduous trees.

Mine Run Trail hike information Great Falls Park

Mine Run Trail map Great Falls Park

Map of Mine Run Trail, Great Falls Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The Mine Run Trail is technically a one-way track, but a loop can easily be formed. Start the hike at the signed trailhead, situated virtually halfway between the north and south parking areas at Great Falls Park, roughly a ¼-mile walk up the length of the southern parking lot from the Great Falls Visitor Center.

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Start of Mine Run Trail

After leaving the road, the wide but root-laden trail bears west into the forest, with Mine Run appearing almost right away on the left. Hikers can also see a boggy depression on the right, filled with water—this is Clay Pond. Within 1/10 mile, the trail runs right up to the banks of Mine Run, which gently cascades through the greywacke.

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Mine Run along the trail

Upstream from this point, the path suddenly climbs, then approaches some steeper drops on Mine Run on the left. Around 300 yards into the hike, the path bends north, leaving Mine Run behind. However, a well-worn social trail on the left leads to the best scenery of the hike: a beautifully cascading slide of water, blighted only by the sight of a road overpass upstream.

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Beautiful slide on Mine Run

Back on the main trail, bear north as the trail continues through wooded uplands. Moss-covered rock outcrops on the right and views of a Mine Run tributary on the left offer some natural interest, but the route is relatively banal from this point. At ½ mile, the Mine Run Trail ends, merging with a gravel road running north-south. Bear right, following the road back to the northern parking lot in 2/10 mile (then walk south to return to the start), or, alternatively,  continue northward to the Riverbend Road Trail or Riverbend Park.

The Mine Run loop takes around 20-30 minutes, plus additional time to explore the lovely creek.

Extra credit

Try one of the other trail routes in Great Falls Park, including the Great Falls Overlooks, Great Falls Loop, or Patowmack Canal and Matildaville Trails.

Posted in Easy Hikes, Great Falls Park, Virginia | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Fort Circle Park Hiker-Biker Trail (Fort Circle Parks, DC)

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Fort Circle Park Hiker-Biker Trail, Fort Stanton Park, January 2019

– Civil War Series –

The Fort Circle Park Hiker-Biker Trail is part of a broader network of trails and bike routes surrounding Washington, DC that provide access to the Civil War Defenses of Washington, a ring of Civil War era fortifications. Situated east of the Anacostia River, the 6.2-mile stretch described below—unlike the rest of the larger trail network—comprises almost entirely true hiking trails through the woods, making it a more pleasant experience than tracing the sidewalks along the bustling roads of the city. Hikers are never too far away from development, however, as the hike crosses a dozen different streets and weaves through residential neighborhoods. The highlights are the relative peace and quiet of Fort Dupont Park and short spurs to six Civil War defenses: Fort Mahan, Fort Chaplin, Fort Dupont, Fort Davis, Fort Stanton, and Battery Ricketts. A principal advantage of the hike is its accessibility by Metro: the below description covers the hike from north to south, starting at Minnesota Avenue Metro station in Northeast and ending at the Anacostia Metro in Southeast DC. (Note: See here for a hiking guide by the National Park Service.)

Fort Circle Park Hiker Biker Trail blog Washington DC hike information

The hike

From the Minnesota Avenue Metro (Orange Line), head east out of the station and walk ¼ mile down Grant Street until the intersection with 42nd Street. Here you can pick up the wide, paved Fort Circle Park Hiker-Biker Trail heading south. The path begins as little more than a glorified sidewalk, following 42nd Street southward into Fort Mahan Park.

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Start of the hike at Fort Mahan Park

Fort Mahan was constructed in the first year of the Civil War to guard the entrance to Benning’s Bridge, which offered passage across the Anacostia River to central Washington, DC. It was an irregular structure with nine sides and underwent significant changes throughout the war, despite not experiencing any fighting in the war. Soldiers garrisoned at the fort were unable to view approaches to the fort from the parapet, so Union engineers spent much of the war’s length constructing additional rifle pits and small bastions to improve visibility and defend the fortification.

 

Less than a minute from the hike’s start, the path crosses a gravel road leading up to a school and baseball field, and hikers will pass the first of several trail waysides (this one Mile Marker 6.2). These regular signs feature helpful maps and trail distances. From here it is 6.2 miles to the end of the hike at Anacostia Community Museum.

Continue south as the trail climbs into the woods for the first time. (Note: The path here is asphalted but wavy, making it potentially difficult for strollers.) On the left there is a set of exercise stations, and social trails bear off from the path to the right and left. Stay on the main track as it enters an open hillside at ¼ mile. One can follow the gravel path on the right up to a field that was once the heart of Fort Mahan—although today there is little to see except a grassy knoll.

Hikers can discern the fort walls on the right, however, as the path drops back into thick woods. Soon the path breaks out into the open again and hugs the hillside as it bends westward. A fork comes at 0.35 miles, with the route continuing left. But first, head straight for a couple dozen yards to read the informational wayside on Fort Mahan, complete with a copy of a drawing from the US Army Corps of Engineers. Then return to the intersection and make your way down to Benning Road.

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Fort Mahan Park, approaching Benning Road

Cross the street, then follow the roughly asphalted footpath as it follows Flint Place. At about ½ mile, the trail merges onto a well-paved track heading left. While the map appears to show the trail continuing through the woods, the way forward is not evident: instead, follow the paved route to its end at 41st Street, which is a dead-end road. Follow the street to its mouth: an intersection with busy East Capitol Street. Exercise caution in crossing the road, then bear right, following the sidewalk west to the next mile marker sign and continuation of the trail.

From here the trail turns to dirt as it climbs south away from East Capitol. This area is Fort Chaplin Park. The primary remains of Fort Chaplin lie in the distance off to your left. This fort was built relatively late in the war—1864—to cover the flank of Fort Mahan to the north; it was never fully armed or garrisoned.

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Woods in Fort Chaplin Park

Today Fort Chaplin Park is covered in thick woods, and the path winds around a set of shady bends before descending to the next road crossing: C St. SE. Take a right on the road, following it until the appearance of the trail continuation on the left. Here the trail enters a relatively long wooded area, flanked on both sides by residential neighborhoods. Down in the gully on the left is a small stream. It is a roughly 4/10-mile walk from C St. to the next junction at the corner of Texas Avenue and Ridge Road.

The Fort Circle Park Hiker-Biker Trail continues at the corner situated diagonally opposite, requiring hikers to twice cross the busy intersection to Fort Dupont Park. (Note: There is a separate path that heads west from the northwest corner, providing access to the western part of Fort Dupont Park.)

Covering one of the most pleasant parts of the hike, the narrow footpath stays on the heights as the terrain drops significantly off to the right into a collection of woody ravines. After a left-hand bend, the trail briefly climbs, then later drops through a surprising stand of mountain laurel, which continues to stay leafy green through the winter season.

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Fort Circle Park Hiker-Biker Trail in Fort Dupont Park

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Mountain laurel in Fort Dupont Park

Now bearing east, the trail drops steeply to clear a creek bed, then climbs again and crosses a larger stream. From here the path cuts sharply back to the west, clearing the ravine and returning to the high slopes. (Note: The primary trail map from the National Park Service shows a spur trail heading south from here to the Historic Earthworks Picnic Area at Fort Dupont. This is inaccurate; the spur is situated further along the trail.)

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Stream valley in Fort Dupont Park

After rounding a long left-hand bend, the gravelly path approaches a junction. This is the unmarked turnoff for access to the earthworks of Fort Dupont. The ½-mile out-and-back spur (not included in the route total) is worth the trip, despite the relatively steep climb: Fort Dupont is relatively well-preserved and fun to explore. In its heyday, the fort featured steep sides and a protective moat and served as a sanctuary for runaway slaves escaping the South.

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Fort Dupont with earthworks beyond

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Exploring the ramparts of Fort Dupont

Returning to the main trail, bear left and follow the winding path as it drops to clear a wooden bridge. Then the trail bears uphill again and weaves southwest to meet Massachusetts Avenue. Traverse the road using the crosswalk here, briefly returning to the woods before emerging again at Fort Davis Drive. The tread on the opposite side is briefly paved as it remains out in the open before returning eventually again to dirt.

The trail in this section threads a small patch of woods in Fort Davis Park between Fort Davis Drive up to the left and residences down to the right. The route drops to cross a stream, followed by a second creek within 200 yards. Eventually the path climbs to a flat and crosses Pennsylvania Avenue, with a brief view of foliage-laden Fort Davis off to the left. This small post hosted eleven guns and a mortar and acted as an outer defense for Washington.

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Fort Davis across the road

Cross Pennsylvania Avenue to find the trail as it continues westward. This section is flat and sometimes muddy, although the terrain off to the right quickly begins to drop off into a series of ravines. (Note: The shiny, glass building on the left is the Francis A. Gregory Library.) The next road crossing is at Branch Avenue, roughly 4.3 miles from the start of the hike. Cross the street, then head straight on Park Drive, following it for roughly 100 yards. Here the trail picks back up again, heading back into the forest on the right.

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Trail continuation near Fort Davis

This section through Fort Stanton Park is relatively scenic, with a stream valley on the right and a trail that descends significantly down to streamside at about 4.9 miles. Another road crossing—28th Street SE—is just beyond. At this crossing, exit the woods and traverse the road, then bear left on the sidewalk, following it until the trail continuation appears on the right.

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Stream in Fort Stanton Park

In this next patch of the woods, the path climbs a set of stairs to exit the stream valley and then temporarily leaves the forest at the corner of 27th Street SE and Naylor Road. Cross Naylor Road at the crosswalk to find the trail continuation. The following section gains some elevation, staying high and offering some obscured views as far as the Anacostia River and downtown Washington. High rises on the right—the Marbury Plaza Apartments—eventually obstruct the views, and the trail descends a long, paved straightaway to Good Hope Road.

After crossing the street, the trail returns to dirt and traverses a relatively flat and marshy area. Eventually the flat gives way to a deep cut of ravines; with a confluence of creeks on the right, the trail crosses a pair of wooden bridges, followed by a steep uphill climb to a grassy, overgrown patch. While not visible from the trail, Fort Stanton is off to the right about a quarter mile. Named for Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the fort was constructed in 1861 to protect the nearby Navy Yard. By February 1862, the post was fully garrisoned and armed with ten 32-pound guns.

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Wooden bridge near the southern end of the Fort Circle Park Hiker-Biker Trail

Somewhere around here the trail enters Fort Ricketts Park, the final stage of the hike. Battery Ricketts is situated at roughly the end of the hike, as the trail climbs to merge with an old gravel road that cuts through a sliver of forest. Remains of the earthworks are located directly across the road. This battery was constructed earlier in the war as well to cover a ravine that could not be defended by nearby Fort Stanton. Like most of the other forts surrounding Washington, the fort was decommissioned after the war in 1865.

At the end of the hike, the gravel road cuts left to a picnic area and playground or right to an open field and the lovely Anacostia Community Museum—the southern terminus of the Fort Circle Park Hiker-Biker Trail. From here, it is a 1.2-mile walk to the nearest metro station—Anacostia—to the northwest.

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Final stretch down to Anacostia Community Museum

For a city hike, the Fort Circle Park Hiker-Biker Trail is relatively demanding because of its length and makes for a pleasant half-day walk. Allot 3-4 hours for the entire one-way hike of 6.2 miles (and additional, ½-mile side trip to Fort Dupont), plus additional time to/from the Metro if you do not live in the area or are without a car.

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Final mile marker sign on Fort Circle Park Hiker-Biker Trail

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Freedom Trail (Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, NC)

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Freedom Trail, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, December 2018

– Civil War Series –

In the early stages of the Civil War in 1862, Union forces quickly seized the Outer Banks of North Carolina during the so-called Burnside Expedition, which led to the creation of a Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke Island, a safe haven for hundreds of runaway slaves in the region. While the colony was decommissioned after the war, it remained a symbol of freedom and today is remembered as part of Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, situated on the northern tip of the island. Although the primary draw of the park is the 16th century English settlement established on Roanoke, the 1.1-mile “Freedom Trail” serves as a reminder of the island’s Civil War past. Although there are no historic traces of the Freedmen’s Colony along the trail, the wide and easy path weaves through maritime evergreen forest en route to the sea and ends at a lovely beach on the banks of Croatan Sound.

freedom trail hike information fort raleigh

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Map of Freedom Trail (red), Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

The hike

The Freedom Trail begins on the western fringe of a cul-de-sac in Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, across the circle from the entrance to the Elizabethan Gardens. (Note: It is easy to reach the trailhead from the Fort Raleigh Visitor Center by taking the northwest-bound paved path toward the gardens entrance.) The wide but unpaved trail, marked with lime green blazes, immediately dives into thick woods, an evergreen maritime forest dotted with holly, live oaks, laurel oaks, and loblolly pines. The forest here is relatively old, having recovered from previous periods when the woods were cleared for development.

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Start of Freedom Trail

Less than 100 yards into the hike, the trail traverses the paved but narrow Pear Pad Road, then continues its southwest-bound tread. About 150 yards from the road, the trail bears sharply right, following an old track southeast. Within a minute, the path cuts right again before repeating the southeast turn once more moments later. Here loblolly pines tower high above, creating a yearlong canopy.

 

At about 3/10 mile, the path resumes its southwest course and descends a long straightaway to cross Weir Point Drive. Now around ½ mile from the start, the Freedom Trail continues past the road, reentering the thick woodland. Within minutes, hikers approach a noticeably younger stand of smaller pines, and the trail cuts right. It is roughly 5-10 minutes from here to a point where the trail emerges out into the relative sun, with thick undergrowth on either site. (Note: This area is often muddy and collects puddles of rainwater.) By now hikers can hear the sounds of human development again: the whizzing of cars on US Route 64 to the south.

At the 1-mile mark, the trail splits, and one can sense that the shores of Croatan Sound are near. Heading straight offers the quickest access to the beach—less than 150 yards to the wind-swept shores. Here one can peer across the sound to mainland North Carolina, and all of the William B. Umstead Memorial Bridge is in view. This vista also roughly marks the point where the Croatan Sound merges with the larger Albemarle Sound to the north.

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Croatan Sound from near the end of the Freedom Trail

 

Off to the south, hikers can spot a parking area with historical markers: this is the official end of the Freedom Trail. Access from the beach, however, depends on the height of the tides—a thin strip of land separates the sea from a small tidal pool and is potentially passable. However, even at low tide, it is thick with reeds and not recommended.

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View toward the parking area

Instead, backtrack to the trail junction at the 1-mile mark and bear right, following the relatively narrow path around the tidal pool. The path ends at the small lot just off Route 64. Here there is a large historical wayside dedicated to the story of the Naval Battle of Roanoke Island.

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Historical wayside

The bulk of this battle—a clear Union victory on February 7-8, 1862—took place further south, with Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s forces overwhelming the small and underprepared Confederate contingent on the island. The island would remain in Union hands for the remainder of the war, which made possible the establishment of the Freedmen’s Colony for runaway slaves and enabled future Union offensives on the mainland.

After taking in the sights, head back the way you came to complete the roughly 1-1.5 hour out-and-back hike.

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Pond formed by overflow from Croatan Sound

Extra Credit

Walk amid the forest explored by English scientist Thomas Hariot during his expedition to Roanoke Island in 1585-86 on the 3/10-mile Thomas Hariot Trail.

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Thomas Hariot Trail (Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, NC)

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Thomas Hariot Trail, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, December 2018

Now a bustling tourist site on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Roanoke Island was the site of the first English settlement in the New World, established in 1585. For one of the expeditions to the island, English explorers brought along Thomas Hariot, a talented scientist and mathematician tasked with studying and cataloguing the natural resources of the area. Having studied the local Algonquian language before his arrival, Hariot played a pivotal role in establishing positive relations with the resident Carolina Algonquians and recorded extensive accounts of the Native Americans’ customs before returning to England in 1586. Today, a short nature trail in Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is named in his honor, and the path passes through wooded terrain similar to what Hariot observed during his short visit.

thomas hariot trail hike information fort raleigh nature trail

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Map of Thomas Hariot Trail, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

The hike

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is located near the northwest tip of Roanoke Island, three miles from Manteo, North Carolina. The park preserves the site of the first English settlement and also serves as a commemoration to later events, including the establishment of a large Freedmen’s Colony for runaway slaves during the Civil War.

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Monument marking the first English Colony in North America and first American-born English child

To reach the short Thomas Hariot Trail, park at the Fort Raleigh Visitor Center, located along a circle drive in the heart of the National Historic Site. Bearing right, behind the visitor center, follow the paved track as it passes the 1896 monument, dedicated to Virginia Dare, who became the first English child born on American soil in 1587.  Beyond the monument, continue to the Reconstructed Earthen Fort—a reconstruction of an old structure thought to be part of the English Colony. From here, the dirt Thomas Hariot Trail begins off to the left.

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Reconstructed Earthen Fort at Fort Raleigh

Following the signs for the “Thomas Hariot Nature Trail,” the path passes an interpretive sign and map on the right and then approaches the edge of dense woods. Stay straight at the first fork and take the right-most track as it climbs into the forest. Here a wayside invites hikers to “join the exploration party” by imagining that you are on the expedition with Hariot and his Algonquian guides back in 1585.

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Thomas Hariot Trail

In contrast to the wind- and salt-swept islands further east, the loblolly pines, laurel oaks, and live oaks here on Roanoke Island grow relatively tall. The maritime evergreen forest is quiet and serene, a peaceful contrast to the often-bustling tourist traps on the Outer Banks.

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Banks of Albemarle Sound

At about 1/10 mile, a short spur trail on the right provides access down to the shores of Albemarle Sound, which feeds into the Atlantic Ocean and dominates northeast North Carolina. Off to the right is Roanoke Sound, a feeder of Albemarle and the primary barrier between Roanoke Island and the outer shores.

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Viewpoint of Albemarle Sound

Back up on the main trail, the path snakes around to a shaded viewpoint of the sound that is encircled by a group of wily live oak trees. A small wooden bench offers a chance to sit and take in the lovely scenery and makes for a nice spot to watch the sun rise or set (at least in winter, when the sun stays farther north).

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Live oaks along the Thomas Hariot Trail

Beyond the viewpoint, the Thomas Hariot Trail begins to bear westward, then south, through dark woods. Vines lace the tree trunks, and a thick understory forms. Soon enough, the path wraps back around to the initial junction—bear left here, then take a quick right, following the initial path back to the start of the hike. (Note: Or conversely, follow one of the many alternative trails heading west toward the Elizabethan Gardens or east to the Waterside Theatre on the banks of Albermarle Sound.)

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Thomas Hariot Trail

The entire hike takes 10-20 minutes, depending on pace.

Posted in Easy Hikes, North Carolina, Outer Banks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Buxton Woods Trail (Cape Hatteras National Seashore, NC)

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Buxton Woods Trail, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, December 2018

Situated on Hatteras Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Buxton Woods is one of the last undeveloped forests in the area and remains rich in plant and animal life. The Buxton Woods Trail in Cape Hatteras National Seashore provides a short preview of the terrain, forming a 7/10-mile stem-and-loop through the maritime forest. Countless signs provide interpretation of the local wildlife and tell the story of an environment constantly being shaped by the harsh elements: wind, water, and salt.

buxton woods trail hike information cape hatteras

The hike

The Buxton Woods Trail begins at the Buxton Woods Picnic Area, situated just down the road from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Once driving south on Lighthouse Road, you will enter Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and the town of Buxton will give way to a dense thicket of greenery. Stay straight at the turnoff for the lighthouse, then pull into the parking area on your right: this is the picnic area. There are a handful of picnic tables at the site, as well as a large dumpster for food and trash.

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Start of Buxton Woods Nature Trail

The well-signed Buxton Woods Trail takes off from here, leaving the road behind in favor of a canopy of live oaks. The sandy path climbs gradually as the tree life diversifies: oaks, loblolly pines, bayberry trees, hornbeams, and occasional dogwoods dot the landscape. A couple minutes into the hike, traces of water come into view on the right: this freshwater marsh is called a “sedge”—a pond-filled depression between old beach ridges. In fact, the woods here used to be entirely sand dunes until finally stabilizing, which allowed trees and shrubs to grow.

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Buxton Woods Trail approaching a freshwater pond

Roughly 250 yards from the start, the Buxton Woods Trail splits, marking the start of the loop section. Bearing right first, the wide and easy path skirts the banks of Jennette’s Sedge, a reed-filled freshwater pond on the right.

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Jennette’s Sedge

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Jennette’s Sedge

After the quarter-mile mark, a short wooden boardwalk provides passage over the creeping marsh, and occasional dwarf palmettos can be spotted along the trail. From here the trail leaves the water behind and begins to bend back to the south and west. The woods in this area have benefited from a relatively moderate climate—the buffer of the Pamlico Sound (to the north) helps Hatteras Island avoid extreme highs or lows. However, other elements stunt the development of the forest, including high winds and salt spray. Thus, the trees in this area rarely reach tall heights, and salt has clearly provided the death knell for certain patches of woods. (Note: Buxton Woods has also faced the threat of human development, but plans to build additional housing and a golf course in the area were thwarted by locals in the 1980s.)

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Boardwalk

Despite the difficult conditions for plant life, fauna thrives in the forest, from warblers, woodpeckers, and thrushes to squirrels, white tail deer, foxes, and river otters. Rattlesnakes and cottonmouths are common (but fortunately rarely bite unless provoked). Bald eagles and peregrine falcons have also been sighted from time to time.

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Yaupon holly

At 4/10 mile, another, smaller swamp appears on the right, and hikers will shortly thereafter pass a colorful yaupon shrub on the left that sports bright red berries. Weaving amid the relatively dense vegetation, the trail returns to the initial fork at just under 6/10 mile. From here, head back the way you came, following the wide path under the canopy of live oaks again to return to the Buxton Woods Picnic Area. All told, the hike covers 7/10 mile and requires about 30-45 minutes to complete.

Posted in Easy Hikes, North Carolina, Outer Banks | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Top 10 Hikes in 2018

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Whiteoak Canyon Trail, Shenandoah National Park, April 2018

The start of the new year offers a time to reflect on the year that was: although other commitments slowed my rate of production in 2018, I still managed to add 37 new posts during the year to Live and Let Hike. Like usual, the quest for hiking had me crisscrossing the country in 2018—from New Hampshire in May to Colorado in September. Most posts, though, featured day hikes closer to home, many from a series of trips through the Mid-Atlantic region, including jaunts in Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia. The Civil War and Revolutionary War series continued to expand, and readership crested new heights with more than 173,000 page views throughout the year (although barely surpassing 2017’s total of 167,000).

In 2018, the top 5 most visited posts (excluding the home page) were all from my previous years living out West: (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) ; and Chesler Park Loop Trail, including Joint Trail (Canyonlands National Park, UT); and (5) Capitol Reef Hiking Guide.

This year’s top-viewed posts, however, were all from hikes within a couple hours’ drive of Washington, DC: (1) Big Devils Stairs (Shenandoah National Park, VA); (2) Whiteoak Canyon – Cedar Run Trail Loop (Shenandoah National Park, VA); (3) Duncan Knob and Strickler Knob Loop (George Washington National Forest, VA); (4) Billy Goat Trail – Section C (Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, MD); and (5) Mount Marshall Loop (Shenandoah National Park, VA).

As is tradition, below is a review of my top ten favorite hikes completed in 2018, ranked in reverse order.

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Tracks in the Sand Trail, Jockey’s Ridge State Park, December 2018

10. Tracks in the Sand Trail (Jockey’s Ridge State Park, NC)

An unusual pick for a non-beach goer, but Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina is no ordinary beach: this underrated state park features the highest sand dunes on the East Coast. The Tracks in the Sand Trail treks through the heart of the sunny dune field, which can feel like an otherworldly experience for those used to hiking on hard-packed trails amid tall trees. The stem-and-loop hike is good for families and includes a visit to the shores of windy Roanoke Sound.

See my post on December 29, 2018 for a full trail description.

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Mount Marshall Loop, Shenandoah National Park, June 2018

9. Mount Marshall Loop (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

Mount Marshall—named for the famed Chief Justice—is one of the highest in Shenandoah National Park’s North District and offers two excellent vistas in a park largely shrouded in dense forest. The 13-mile Mount Marshall Loop, which includes the Bluff Trail and a section of the Appalachian Trail, makes for a long but relatively mild day hike.

See my post on September 26, 2018 for a full trail description.

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Upper Fisk Creek Falls Trail, Routt National Forest, September 2018

8. Upper Fish Creek Falls (Routt National Forest, CO)

September brought me to the Steamboat Springs area in northern Colorado, which boasts Fish Creek Falls, the second-highest waterfall in the state. While the lower falls are the primary draw, a longer, 4.2-mile out-and-back offers access to the more secluded Upper Fish Creek Falls, situated in a hanging valley in the Park Range. The hike also features beautiful aspen groves and tremendous views down toward Steamboat.

See my post on December 29, 2018 for a full trail description.

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Mount Tammany Trail, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, May 2018

7. Mount Tammany Loop (Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, NJ)

At Delaware Water Gap, the Delaware River separates Pennsylvania from New Jersey and carves a picturesque cut through the Kittatinny Mountain range. One of the most popular hikes in Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the Mount Tammany Loop climbs to one of the area’s highest viewpoints. The excellent vista offers a bird’s eye view of the gap, while the start of the hike strolls along a charming stream with minor cascades.

See my post on September 20, 2018 for a full trail description.

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Rabbit Ears Peak Trail, Routt National Forest, September 2018

6. Rabbit Ears Peak Trail (Routt National Forest, CO)

One of the most iconic sights of the Steamboat Springs area, Rabbit Ears Peak—topped with volcanic crags—is a stone’s throw from the Continental Divide and overlooks vast valleys to the north and south. A moderately difficult climb of 2.6 miles (one-way) leads through open meadows and pine forests to the summit.

See my post on December 29, 2018 for a full trail description.

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Mount Monadnock, Monadnock State Park, May 2018

5. Mount Monadnock via White Dot Trail (Monadnock State Park, NH)

On a clear day, hikers can see all the way to Boston from the top of New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock, one of the most-climbed peaks in the world. Derived from an Abenaki word, “monadnock” is used by geologists to describe a mountain that stands alone, rising abruptly from a plain and separate from a broader mountain range. That means 360 panoramic views from the windy summit—a destination that requires conquering around 1,800 feet in elevation gain in less than two miles.

See my post on August 11, 2018 for a full trail description.

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Big Devils Stairs, Shenandoah National Park, March 2018

4. Big Devils Stairs (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

Situated in Shenandoah’s North District, Big Devils Stairs is a wildly scenic series of cascades that tumbles southward through a stony gorge. While the hike to an overlook overlooking the canyon is a worthy enough endeavor, the real treat lies in the off-trail, rugged climb back to the top, best completed in early spring when the water levels are high and there is less foliage to block the way. This alternative route involves scrambling and creek-hopping amid the beautiful cascades and high canyon walls.

See my post on April 8, 2018 for a full trail description.

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Strickler Knob, George Washington National Forest, April 2018

3. Duncan Knob and Strickler Knob Loop (George Washington National Forest, VA)

Duncan Knob and Strickler Knob are two of the most stunning summits along lengthy Massanutten Mountain in northern Virginia and can be reached in one long and relatively strenuous loop hike. A minor rock scramble is required to reach the top of Duncan Knob, while the spur to Strickler Knob seems to go on forever—but visitors are rewarded with fantastic views of the Shenandoah Valley and mid-Appalachians. Definitely one of Virginia’s best hikes.

See my post on July 7, 2018 for a full trail description.

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Hahns Peak Trail, Routt National Forest, September 2018

2. Hahns Peak Trail (Routt National Forest, CO)

When viewed from below, the volcanic summit of Hahns Peak appears to be an intimidating challenge, towering over the Yampa River Valley in northern Colorado. Yet reaching the summit requires less than two miles of hiking and a relatively modest ascent. From the lookout tower at the top, panoramic views unfold of the Elkhead Mountains, Park Range, and Steamboat Lake.

See my post on December 28, 2018 for a full trail description.

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Whiteoak Canyon Trail, Shenandoah National Park, April 2018

1. Whiteoak Canyon – Cedar Run Trail Loop (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

Never mind the sizeable crowds on most days, Shenandoah’s Whiteoak Canyon-Cedar Run Loop is hands-down one of the best hikes in Virginia—and perhaps the Mid-Atlantic region. Especially in spring, the circuit’s bevy of splendid waterfalls and high canyon walls are simply stunning: what Whiteoak Canyon offers in awe-inspiring falls, Cedar Run matches with serenity and majestic cascades. Visitors will have to work, however: the hike climbs all the way from the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains to Skyline Drive at the top, gaining more than 2,000 feet in elevation.

See my post on July 9, 2018 for a full trail description.

Honorable Mention:

Posted in Colorado, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Easy Hikes, George Washington National Forest, Moderate Hikes, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Outer Banks, Routt National Forest, Shenandoah National Park, Strenuous Hikes, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Soundside Nature Trail (Jockey’s Ridge State Park, NC)

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Soundside Nature Trail, Jockey’s Ridge State Park, December 2018

Although lacking the allure of the nearby Tracks in the Sand Trail, the Soundside Nature Trail in North Carolina’s Jockey’s Ridge State Park offers a pleasant and easy stroll through diverse terrain. The dunes of Jockey’s Ridge—the highest on the East Coast—are visible from the path, but the circuit hike largely keeps its distance from them in favor of maritime thicket. Spur trails offer access to the shores of windy Roanoke Sound.

Soundside Nature Trail Jockeys Ridge State Park hike information

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Map of Soundside Nature Trail, Jockey’s Ridge State Park

The hike

Unlike other routes in the park, reaching the trailhead for the Soundside Nature Trail requires leaving the park and driving around to the southern end of Jockey’s Ridge. From Croatan Highway in Nags Head, bear west on Soundside Road, a semi-residential drive. Just as the road begins to bend southward, take a right into the signed parking area.

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Start of the Soundside Nature Trail

It’s hard to miss the trail’s start, which is marked with a large sign complete with a small map. Just steps from the beginning, however, the trail reaches its first junction—a winding bend offers access to the left or right. Stay right—following the plastic stakes with directional arrows—to traverse the circuit in a counterclockwise direction. This part of the hike is relatively open, with brush giving way to thick clumps of sand.

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View toward the high dunes of Jockey’s Ridge

At around 150 yards, the route splits again. Meandering off to the right offers access to the high dunes in the distance, while the trail bears left and narrows to a single-track. On the left is a small marsh, overgrown with tall grasses. About 250 yards from the start, the path bears left and traverses a pair of wooden bridges. The terrain beyond is dominated by loblolly pines, as well as red bay, wax myrtle, live oak, and the occasional juniper.

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Bridges over marshy area

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Under a live oak tree

After 3/10 miles, the trail approaches a boardwalk and tall set of stairs, climbing to surmount a minor ridgeline. From there it is down again, dropping to an open area that resembles a sand superhighway. Bear left (following the arrows), then explore the spur trail heading off to the right: this path provides access to the shores of Roanoke Sound. This namesake body of water separates the Outer Banks from Roanoke Island and feeds into the larger Albemarle Sound.

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Roanoke Sound from a spur off the Soundside Nature Trail

Returning to the main trail, bear right and follow the path as it reenters the brush, following an old jeep track. A four-way junction at ½ mile offers access again to the shores of Roanoke Sound. The final stretch of trail traverses grass-laced terrain amid relatively high trees and shrubs. With the parking area back in sight, the track bears left, but a clearing provides access straight back to your car.

This short jaunt—good for kids and dog walkers—lasts 20-30 minutes and clocks in at a modest 6/10 mile.

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Tracks in the Sand Trail (Jockey’s Ridge State Park, NC)

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Tracks in the Sand Trail, Jockey’s Ridge State Park, December 2018

Jockey’s Ridge State Park in eastern North Carolina boasts a surprisingly impressive distinction: the highest sand dunes on the East Coast. With dunes reaching as high as 60 feet above sea level, this is no ordinary beach: Jockey’s Ridge is a wild and rugged sandscape that runs down to the banks of Roanoke Sound on the Outer Banks. The 1.2-mile Tracks in the Sand Trail is the best hike in the park and cuts through the heart of the dunes.

Tracks in the Sand Trail hike information Jockeys Ridge State Park

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Park and trail map, Jockey’s Ridge State Park

The hike

The Tracks in the Sand Trail takes off from just outside the Visitor Center at Jockey’s Ridge State Park: look for the sign marking “Sand Dune Access.” Climb the wide track as it cuts under a canopy of live oaks, one of the few shaded sections of the hike.

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Start of the Tracks in the Sand Trail

Out of the forest, the trail drops to an inlet of sand, surrounded on three sides by dense vegetation. Off to the left, the highest dunes of Jockey’s Ridge are visible on the horizon. Continue straight, cutting across the sandy avenue: look for a sign marked “Nature Trail.” This track slices through a stand of loblolly pines and then begins a sharp upward climb—a feat that is made more difficult by the shifting sands.

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Follow the signs for the Nature Trail

Once hikers crest the ridge, they are rewarded with a tremendous view: a playground of sand, with tracks cutting off to the right toward the five high dunes of Jockey’s Ridge. The Tracks in the Sand Trail stays right, skirting pockets of American beachgrass as the path heads toward the sea. (Note: Freewheeling hikers will be tempted to head left: to leave the trail to summit the highest dunes, a detour well worth the effort. From here you have a panorama of the dunes and views of both the Atlantic Ocean and Roanoke Sound. I would recommend leaving this for the return trip, however, in order to the conceal the surprises of the nature trail.)

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Tracks in the Sand Trail

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View of the high dunes to the south

At 3/10 mile, the Tracks in the Sand Trail crests a sandy ridge, only to reveal that another ridgeline lies ahead. The terrain ahead looks like something straight out of Tatooine: virtually barren, save for the occasional intrepid clumps of beachgrass. The winds create ripples in the sand, ever-shifting with the changing weather.

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View upon cresting the first ridge

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Blindly climbing the second ridge

Follow the wooden stakes marking the way—they are sometimes hard to spot amid the dunes—and climb over a second ridgeline at 4/10 mile. The top of this dune brings a surprise: the deep blue of Roanoke Sound appears ahead, with a crude and partial fence line ahead. Head toward the slats and follow the trail through a cut in the fence. This is the start of the loop portion of the hike.

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Atop the second ridge–Roanoke Sound comes into view

Begin the circuit by staying right, following the arrows as the trail drops to seaside. At around the ½-mile mark, the Tracks in the Sand Trail brushes up against the shores of Roanoke Sound. Bear left on the beach, following it for roughly 100 yards. At 6/10 mile, the trail cuts away from the sound and enters a dense maritime thicket. The vegetation does not last long, however, as the trail quickly reemerges onto the dunes. A steep climb is required upon exiting the brush, then hikers are on their own to return to the start of the circuit, as wooden markers are non-existent in this section.

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Roanoke Island from the Tracks in the Sand Trail

Once back at the fence, return the way you came—or turn right to conquer the heights of Jockey’s Ridge. Allot roughly an hour for a leisurely stroll around the stem and loop, leaving some time for exploration in this dune paradise.

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Panorama from atop the high dune

Posted in Easy Hikes, North Carolina, Outer Banks | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rabbit Ears Peak Trail (Routt National Forest, CO)

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Rabbit Ears Peak Trail, Routt National Forest, September 2018

Driving west toward Steamboat Springs on US Route 40 in northern Colorado, one of the most noticeable mountains is Rabbit Ears Peak (10,654’). Although its namesake “ears” have partly deteriorated, the multi-pronged peak remains an iconic fixture of the Steamboat area. A moderately difficult climb of around 1,050 feet—stretched out across 2.6 miles—offers hikers access to the summit and unlocks panoramic views of the Park Range and beyond.

Rabbit Ears Peak Trail hike information Routt National Forest

Rabbit Ears Peak Trail hike map PDF

Map of Rabbit Ears Peak Trail, Routt National Forest; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The route to Rabbit Ears Peak begins near Dumont Lake, just west of Rabbit Ears Pass (9,573’) on US Route 40. Bear north on the well-maintained, gravel pitch toward Dumont Lake, but instead of bearing left to the lake and picnic area, continue straight, then take the second left. Many hikers park here, but it is possible to continue another ¼ mile up another gravel road to the start. Bear right at the first fork (there is, amusingly, a rabbit-shaped sign marking the way to Rabbit Ears), then immediately park on the left or right. (Note: The road continues beyond but quickly becomes a 4-wheel-drive track.)

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Meadow view from route to Rabbit Ears Peak

From this parking area, the hike begins by continuing northeast up Forest Road 291 (a.k.a. Grizzly Creek Road). The dirt track climbs gradually and quickly offers views east across a grassy meadow, followed by the first look at Rabbit Ears Peak at about the ¼-mile mark. The destination remains in sight for much of the hike, although it always seems to take longer to reach than it initially appears…

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First peek at Rabbit Ears

At around 0.35 miles, the trail dips to cross a dry wash, and the road gets significantly rougher. (Note: It is feasible to drive a standard, 2-wheel-drive car to this point, but it is virtually impossible thereafter.) Just beyond, the trail enters a long, open meadow with continued views of Rabbit Ears. As the vegetation gives way, the route is in full sun for a lengthy stretch, interrupted only briefly by a minor cut through a line of pines at ¾ mile.

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On the route to Rabbit Ears Peak

The second meadow is even larger, and the track continues to mildly gain elevation. By now you can make out the broader ridgeline to the north that connects Rabbit Ears Peak with the Park Range and Continental Divide. At about 1.2 miles, the trail crosses a minor stream—a tributary of Grizzly Creek—and there are sometimes trucks and jeeps parked near the water’s edge. (Note: It is possible to continue driving past here, although the creek crossing is likely to be difficult for all but ATVs.)

Beyond the creek, the long meadow continues. A short steep section leads into a brief respite of shade before returning to the open terrain. At the end of this meadow, there is a steep climb through a stand of pines. Following another sunny section, the summit of Rabbit Ears briefly disappears from view and the path cuts sharply right. Now well immersed among the trees, the path bobs up and down, then flattens considerably.

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Excellent view to the south toward Whiteley Peak

At 2.1 miles, the trail bends east and climbs sharply. With the summit again briefly in view, the route takes a right and leads to a fantastic vista. The most striking feature of the multihued valley below is Whiteley Peak (10,115’), a pointy pyramid that stands alone. In front of Whiteley is Bear Mountain (9,845’), another peak in the Rabbit Ears Range. To the left is a collection of volcanic crags, remains of material launched from a nearby volcano between 23-33 million years ago—often confused for intrusive rocks that were part of the volcano itself. The basalt outcrops continue on your right as you approach the summit. (Note: Even ATVs riders must disembark at this viewpoint, as the terrain beyond is the steepest of the hike.)

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Basalt outcrops

Beyond the viewpoint, the trail enters an atrociously steep ascent, complete with zero switchbacks to ease the climb. The destination is within reach, however, providing the extra motivation needed to push onward. At 2.5 miles, the road levels out and approaches the base of a red and gray speckled outcrop—often referred to as the “Rabbit’s Back.” The actual “ears” lay hidden beyond, but this outcrop is worth exploring (and, while potentially hazardous, possible to climb without ropes).

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Steep climb

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Rabbit Ears summit

To the north, an excellent view unfolds of the Park Range: the hulking mass in the foreground is Elmo Point (10,692’), followed by a set of even higher ridgelines that extend into the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. The low-lying valley to the northeast, which appears dry and desolate, is the North Park Basin, where Walden, Colorado is located.

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View north to Park Range

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View northeast to North Park Basin

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Panorama view

Stay to the south side of the Rabbit’s Back to reach the Rabbit Ears. After an initial climb that requires some minor scrambling, a well-worn hiker’s trail provides a level path to the base of the Ears. The two thumbs tower well over 50 feet. (Note: The west (and closest) tower lost a chunk of its mass in recent years, leaving a slender version that nonetheless remains prominent.) From the saddle between the Ears and Rabbit’s Back, vistas open up to the north and south—although the often-fierce wind can prevent many visitors from wanting to stay too long.

This marks the end of the 2.6-mile walk—return the way you came for a 5.2-mile out-and-back that takes between 2.5 and four hours, depending on pace.

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Vista to the south from Rabbit Ears summit

 

Posted in Colorado, Moderate Hikes, Routt National Forest | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment