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.

Posted in Easy Hikes, North Carolina, Outer Banks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Upper Fish Creek Falls (Routt National Forest, CO)

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Upper Fish Creek Falls, Routt National Forest, September 2018

While many visitors to Steamboat Springs, Colorado flock to Fish Creek Falls Recreation Area to the see the state’s second-highest waterfall, there are in fact two significant waterfalls in the vicinity: the famous 284-foot Fish Creek Falls and the lesser-visited Upper Fish Creek Falls. While significantly shorter in height, Upper Fish Creek Falls is charmingly nestled in a rocky cleft along the heights of a hanging valley, making the roughly 2-mile trek to the falls as interesting as the destination. Upper Fish Creek Falls is situated along the much-longer Fish Creek National Recreation Trail, which extends from the main parking area at Fish Creek Falls to Long Lake high up in the Park Range. (Note: See my post from December 17, 2018 for a description of the shorter Fish Creek Falls Loop.)

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Upper Fish Creek Falls trail map Routt National Forest

Map of Upper Fish Creek Falls 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 Fish Creek Falls Recreation Area in Routt National Forest is a top destination in the Steamboat Springs area, and the parking lots are sure to fill up quickly on a nice day or weekend. Arrive early to get a spot and, if forced to park in the lower lot, hike the extra 2/10 mile on a paved track to reach the official trailhead for Fish Creek Falls.

A couple of trails begin at the upper parking area, including the paved and wheelchair-accessible Overlook Trail and the Fish Creek National Recreation Trail (NRT), a dirt track that offers access to both the lower and upper falls. Lower Fish Creek Falls—a titanic cascade at 284 feet—is visible from a small wooden bridge at 2/10 mile. (Note: Stay right at the two junctions with trails heading to the picnic area.)

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Lower Fish Creek Falls

Lower Fish Creek Falls is situated at the terminus of a glaciated hanging valley—a valley above a valley—that will serve as the primary highway for the hike to Upper Fish Creek Falls. To reach the valley, however, requires a steep initial climb, an ascent that begins right away after crossing the bridge. Immediately the Fish Creek NRT gains about 200 feet of elevation within a quarter-mile as it switchbacks out of the lower canyon. Dark metamorphic rocks predominate, while the soil is topped with a variety of pines and—increasingly as you climb—beautiful aspens.

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Gnarly trail

At ½ mile, the switchbacks pause and give way to a straight ascent as the trail bears eastward. Entering the hanging valley, the terrain remains lush with vegetation that largely conceals any views—although an occasional window provides a look back west and north to aspen-covered hills. The switchbacks return around 8/10 mile but then end again within 300 yards. The relentless slope gradually eases thereafter, leading to a pleasant flat section through aspen groves.

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Aspens in fall along the Fish Creek National Recreation Trail

Finally, around 1.25 miles, the trail climbs out of the forest and into a barren, rocky area that affords views of the valley ahead. The rest of the hike to the falls cuts through similar terrain. From here the route flattens out again and even gradually descends in spots as it approaches Fish Creek. Amid relatively dense woods, the trail crosses a wooden bridge over the creek, which is cascading at a decent clip. A large rock slide covers the slope on the right.

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Views down the valley toward the start

Past the bridge, the trail climbs amid scrub oak with views of the hanging valley and down to Steamboat to the west. A particularly scenic section traverses a wide rock ledge at 1.8 miles, hugging a high gray wall as the trail bends to the left. The valley below forms a wide U shape, with the larger flats around Steamboat visible in the distance.

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Ledge section en route to Upper Fish Creek Falls

Beyond the ledge section, a shooting cascade appears on the right, and the trail briefly splits. Heading in either direction largely leads to the same place, although the maze of trails can be confusing. At about 1.9 miles, the trail diverges again, with a left turn heading to an overlook.

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Vista of Fish Creek Valley

Continue right, climbing out of an area of dense scrub. After cresting a ridge, the trail drops, and the sounds of Upper Fish Creek Falls roar louder. The falls are not located on Fish Creek proper, but rather a minor tributary that nonetheless carries water year-round.

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Upper Fish Creek Falls

At 2.1 miles, the hike ends at the waterfall, and there are plenty of fine places to stop and sit for a snack or lunch. The often-shaded cascade drops 20-30 feet into a small pool, with the volume of water depending largely on the season: obviously spring and early summer are the best time to catch the snowmelt as it thunders over the falls.

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Up close at the upper falls

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Upper Fish Creek Falls

The Fish Creek NRT continues for another four miles to Long Lake and connects with the Continental Divide Trail at an elevation above 10,500 feet. However, most day hikers will want to turn around at the upper falls, returning the way you came. With time set aside for lunch and photography stops, it’s best to allot at least 2 ½ hours for the round-trip hike from Fish Creek Falls Recreation Area.

Posted in Colorado, Moderate Hikes, Routt National Forest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mad Creek Trail (Routt National Forest, CO)

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Mad Creek Trail, Routt National Forest, September 2018

The Mad Creek Trail is a popular hike in northern Colorado, just a 10- to 15-minute drive north from Steamboat Springs. The trail remains largely in the foothills of the Park Range but offers access to the higher Mount Zirkel Wilderness in the heart of Routt National Forest. The highlight is a rehabilitated barn dating to the early 1900s, situated in a beautiful meadow and glacial U-shaped valley. With relatively mild elevation gain, this is an ideal family-friendly hike in the Steamboat Springs area.

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Mad Creek Trail map Routt National Forest

Map of Mad Creek 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 Mad Creek Trailhead is marked by a roadside sign off Route 129, roughly 5.5 miles north of the intersection with US Route 40 in Steamboat Springs. The large parking lot is likely to be busy on nice, summer days, with the majority of visitors simply there to explore the creek just steps from the trailhead.

Hikers should head off north from the parking area on the wide and dusty trail, which quickly crosses a paved road that leads to private property. Once across the road, the so-called Mad Creek Trail actually follows the longer Swamp Park Trail (No. 1100) for most of its entirety. (Note: This description stops at the Mad Creek Barn, about 1.8 miles from the start, but the Swamp Park Trail continues for miles northeast into the Mount Zirkel Wilderness.)

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Start of Mad Creek Trail

The Mad Creek Trail immediately begins to climb. In contrast with the opposite side of the Mad Creek Valley, this flank is sunny and exposed, with the hillside littered with low-lying scrub oak. The trail keeps its distance from Mad Creek, but, at about 2/10 mile, hikers can look back at the creek and a bridge back near the trailhead that leads over the stream. Within about a quarter-mile from the start, the route rounds a left-hand bend, exposing the deep canyon ahead. Pines become more common as the trail passes under a string of power lines, and a mix of igneous and metamorphic boulders dot the hillside.

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Looking back at Mad Creek and trailhead

In the shadow of a large granite outcrop, there is a good view of the canyon, with its rushing cascades below, at about 4/10 mile. Continuing to hug the canyon’s left flank, hikers will pass a high rock sentinel—likely a volcanic porphyry dike—at the ½-mile mark, followed by a short and mild ascent.

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Rounding the bend

The trail levels out as it cuts through another sunny section with ubiquitous scrub oak. After one mile, a broad mountain appears up the canyon, and one can spot the meadow where the barn is situated. The canyon begins to give way to open pastures, and the sounds of Mad Creek grow stronger as the trail gradually returns to the vicinity of its banks.

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Mad Creek Trail with meadow ahead

Entering an aspen grove, a fence appears on the left, and hikers reach an easy-to-miss trail junction at roughly 1.6 miles. This is the start of the Saddle Trail (#1140), a short connector trail that, if taken to its end, leads to the Red Dirt Trail and beyond. (Note: Ambitious hikers can turn left here, following the Saddle and Red Dirt Trails back to Route 129 for a 10-mile loop.)

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Banks of Mad Creek

Just beyond, a couple of spur trails provide the hike’s best access to Mad Creek, and the trees vanish into a broad meadow. The Mad Creek Barn is visible ahead. To reach the barn, continue for another 1/10 mile, then bear left at the fork, following what was once an old road to the site.

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Mad Creek Barn ahead

The pioneer-style Mad Creek Barn was built in 1906 by rancher James Ratcliff, who eventually became the first Forest Supervisor for Routt National Forest. The barn fell into disrepair but was restored in 2001 and is now open for exploration. Horse stalls take up much of the room on the first story; for the adventurous, there is a wooden ladder leading to the second floor.

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Mad Creek Barn

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View from inside the barn

Outside, it is easy to admire the daily view Ratcliff once enjoyed while living here: the U-shaped glacial valley weaves northeast through higher, pine-studded mountains, while the view back south is highlighted by aspen groves and the Mad Creek Canyon. Wildflowers bloom part of the year, and the sounds of flowing Mad Creek are ever-present.

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Mad Creek Barn

This is the turnaround point for this hike—although ambitious backpackers are welcome to venture further up the Swamp Park Trail into higher terrain. Visitors to the barn should plan for around 1.5-2.5 hours of round-trip hiking.

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Aspens along the Mad Creek Trail

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Hahns Peak Trail (Routt National Forest, CO)

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Hahns Peak Trail, Routt National Forest, September 2018

Situated roughly a 30-mile drive from Steamboat Springs, Hahns Peak (10,839’) is one of Colorado’s most enticing summits. While not one of the state’s tallest mountains—or even the highest in the Elkhead Mountains—the volcanic peak nonetheless stands out for its prominence: a lonely, rocky bald visible from miles away, the guardian of the grassy valley below. The panorama from the top is exquisite, spanning as far north as the Wyoming border and south to the vicinity of Steamboat, with the snowy Park Range dominating the horizon to the east. It can often feel like it takes as much time and energy to reach the trail to Hahns Peak by car as it does to actually hike, but the relative ease and brevity of the 3.8 mile out-and-back to the summit makes Hahns Peak one of the more popular hikes in the area.

Hahns Peak Trail hike information

Hahns Peak Trail map Routt NF

Map of Hahns 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

Hahns Peak is situated at the eastern fringe of the Elkhead Mountains, a relatively rarely-visited range that runs east-west in north central Colorado, less than an hour’s drive from Steamboat Springs. Visible from miles down the road, unobscured by other peaks, the mountain entices hikers to conquer its pointy summit.

Reaching the trailhead, however, can be a challenge, especially for vehicles not built for rough roads. From Steamboat, bear north on US Route 40, then turn right onto Route 129 as it approaches the peak and cuts through a narrow gap laced with aspens. At the site of the Columbine General Store, turn right onto the unpaved Forest Road 490. Follow the gravel route for nearly a mile, then bear left at the junction. From here, the route gets rougher—while four-wheel drive is not necessary, it is recommended that you have a vehicle with high clearance. After another 1/3 mile, bear left as the road climbs a tree-studded hillside. Within a quarter-mile, the surprisingly large parking area appears on the left. (Note: Allot at least 20 minutes for this slow and rocky approach. It is possible to shave off the first half-mile of the hike by continuing up the rocky road, but the traverse requires 4WD, and there is limited parking at the upper lot.)

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Hahns Peak from the parking lot

Unlike many hikes, the destination—the hulking mass of Hahns Peak—is visible in full display from the trailhead. The trail, however, begins by heading the opposite direction: from the parking area, look back west to spot the start of the hike; a Forest Service sign signals the start of the Hahns Peak Trail. The first half-mile follows a gravel, 4WD road, beginning with a sharp ascent as the path bends north and east around a long bend. After initial huffing and puffing, the route levels out before the quarter-mile mark, then bears mildly to the northeast along a low crest. Aspens and pines dominate the landscape, while intermittent breaks in the woods provide excellent views of the Elkheads to the west—Nipple Peak (10,324’), Iron Mountain (9,725’), Shield Mountain (9,921’)—and beyond.

At around 4/10 mile, the road begins to noticeably climb again, although the grade remains relatively mild. About ½ mile from the start, hikers reach the upper parking lot—relatively rarely used because of the intense difficulty of the 4WD road to this point. Look for a sign marking the start of the single-track to Hahns Peak—leave the road here.

Now on a narrow trail, hikers will face a steeper incline as the path climbs a tree-studded ridge. After an initial switchback, the ascent eases slightly, and the Hahns Peak Trail hugs a grassy hillside interspersed with outstanding views to the northwest toward the Elkhorn Mountains and Little Snake River area. (Note: The Wyoming state line lies just beyond.)

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View of the Elkhorn Mountains

At around 9/10 mile, the trail rounds a right-hand bend and bears southward amid towering pines and, in some months, wildflowers. After a pair of additional switchbacks, the trees give way to an excellent vista, arguably the best of the hike, as it captures both the peak and the unfolding landscape to the south, including glimmering Steamboat Lake and mighty Sand Mountain (10,714’). In fall, visitors are rewarded with a view of fiery streaks of yellows and oranges that light up the forests below.

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Hahns Peak viewpoint

Ahead to the east is Hahns Peak, now considerably less intimidating as the summit appears within reach. Atop the summit, hikers can see a small tower: this is the fire lookout and terminus of the walk. A gravel road switchbacks up the rocky bald—this is not the trail, but it intersects the path at a later point.

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Hahns Peak

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View west to the Elkheads

Proceeding onward from the viewpoint, the trail cuts across a sunny slope, leading to a sharp climb, the steepest of the hike. Upon leveling off again, the path enters a long straightaway, then gently swerves before coming across the gravel road—an extension of an old mining track—that was visible back at the viewpoint.

By now, hikers have travelled 1.5 miles, and the remaining 1/3 mile cuts through a jumble of loose rock, largely lightly-colored rhyolite sometimes stained with red iron deposits. At the base of the rock pile, the trail splits—either path is fine, as long as you ignore the road bearing left down the north slope of the peak. The two routes converge farther up the hillside, and the trail is marked by large, man-assisted rock piles complete with tall wooden stakes. The views back to the north get better and better as the trail approaches the summit.

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The final climb to Hahns Peak

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View northeast from Hahns Peak

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Approaching the summit

At long last, the Hahns Peak Trail crests the mountaintop at about 1.9 miles, and the fire lookout provides some respite from the often-furious winds. The summit offers a true panorama—unobstructed views in all directions, from the Elkheads to the west and Sierra Madre and Park Range to the east. The high peaks of the Park Range are higher than Hahns, headlined by Mount Zirkel (12,180’) and Flattop (12,118’). Steamboat Lake unfolds to the south, as does the smaller and partially hidden Pearl Lake. Route 139 heads off into the distance toward Steamboat Springs.

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View east to the Park Range from Hahns Peak summit

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View south to Steamboat Lake

The summit of Hahns Peak lies at the heart of an eroded volcanic plug, itself part of a broader range of volcanoes once active between 10-12 million years ago.

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View north toward Wyoming

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View south toward Steamboat

Most hikers will require around 1 ½ hours to reach the summit—but the descent is considerably easier. Be sure to check the weather before ascending, as the peak is extremely exposed in the case of lightning.

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Vista from Hahns Peak summit

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Fish Creek Falls Loop (Routt National Forest, CO)

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Fish Creek Falls, Overlook Trail, Routt National Forest, September 2018

At 284 feet, Fish Creek Falls is the second-highest waterfall in Colorado and is easily accessible from popular resort town Steamboat Springs. For visitors with an hour or less, a 0.8-mile loop provides a look at the falls from two different vantage points: a high overlook with views from a distance and a look up at the mighty cascade from a bridge passing over Fish Creek. The trip to the overlook is wheelchair-accessible, while the descent to the bridge involves deep, wooden steps. (Note: See my post from December 29, 2018 for a description of a longer hike to Upper Fish Creek Falls.)

Fish Creek Falls Trail hike information

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Map of Fish Creek Falls Loop

The hike

From Steamboat Springs, drive along Fish Creek Falls Road east to its terminus, three miles from town and within the boundaries of Routt National Forest. Park at the upper parking area at Fish Creek Recreation Area if possible—if spaces are unavailable, backtrack to the lower parking area and follow the paved path that adds 2/10 mile to the hike.

From the upper parking area, find your way to the main map/kiosk, and then bear right on the paved track heading northeast amid brushy, sun-lit terrain. (Note: A second, unpaved path drops steeply from the parking area; save this for later—this is the return route.) This is the Overlook Trail. The wide, level path passes Gambel oak and shrub oak varieties, complete with a yellow shine as the seasons turn in September. The rock-studded slopes ahead mark the western fringe of the Park Range, illuminated in the fall by patches of golden-colored aspens.

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Overlook Trail heading toward Fish Creek Falls

Rounding a brushy gully, the Overlook Trail reaches a junction with the Picnic Trail at roughly 2/10 mile. Continuing left on the Overlook Trail, the level path, now heading south, approaches the first of two viewpoints. This one offers a fine view of the Fish Creek drainage as it bears westward toward Steamboat Springs, but views of the falls remain relatively obscured.

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Distant view of Fish Creek Falls and the Park Range

Continue on the trail as it cuts east, reaching the main overlook at about the ¼ mile mark. From here the 284-foot Fish Creek Falls unfolds below, tucked away in a shady canyon. Fish Creek Falls is situated at the end of a glaciated hanging valley—a valley above a valley—amid a jumble of dark metamorphic rocks, such as schist and gneiss. The rushing waters are usually at their highest flow in late spring to early summer, but they continue to drop a relatively significant volume into the fall. A wayside sign provides context on the falls, and a covered bench offers a place to sit to take in the view.

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After the overlook, it is time to see the falls from a different angle—down below from the wooden bridge at its base. To do so, backtrack to the junction with the Picnic Trail and bear left on the paved but steadily descending path. Hugging the hillside, the trail cuts sharply right after a brief view of the canyon below and then gradually descends to the well-shaded picnic area. Beyond the picnic tables, the path gets steeper and rougher, eventually emptying onto the wider and well-worn Fish Creek National Recreation Trail. (Note: The Picnic Trail is wheelchair-accessible with assistance, but the Fish Creek NRT is dirt and the ascent can be challenging.)

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Picnic Trail

To reach the base of the falls, descend the Fish Creek Trail as it drops steeply down a set of wooden steps, drawing nearer to the roar of the cascades. It is about a 5-minute walk from here to the bridge, positioned in a narrow cleft between rock faces. Because the waterfall is tucked away in the canyon above, it is only possible to view Fish Creek Falls from the far west side of the bridge—leaving limited room among the crowds that are sure to be there on a busy summer day. (Note: Adventurous travelers can try to rock hop to the actual base of the falls, but this involves some a steep drop from the bridge and a potentially dangerous traverse during high water. It is also possible to continue past the bridge for around two miles to reach Upper Fish Creek Falls, a smaller but charming waterfall in a hanging valley above.)

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Fish Creek Falls from the bridge

From the bridge, return the way you came, this time climbing up the steep stairs to the tune of 100 feet in elevation gain. Continue straight past the entry of the Picnic Trail on the right; the parking area is a short walk away. Once back at the parking lot, you will have completed the full circuit.

If parked at the upper lot, allot around 30 minutes to an hour for this relatively easy hike. (Note: Add another 10 minutes round trip if parked further down the road at the lower lot.)

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Fish Creek Falls

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Tuscarora Trail to Eagle Rock (George Washington National Forest, VA/WV)

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Eagle Rock, August 2018

The 252-mile Tuscarora Trail—the shorter cousin to the much-vaunted, nearby Appalachian Trail—weaves through tree-studded mountain ranges and rolling farmlands spanning four different Mid-Atlantic states: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. While completing the full length of the trail takes several weeks, day hikers can cover short sections along the trail. There are few better jaunts along the Tuscarora than the 3.6-mile out-and-back to Eagle Rock, where scintillating views of the Great North Mountain range and Shenandoah Valley make the moderately strenuous up-and-down of the access route worthwhile.

Tuscarora Trail to Eagle Rock hike information

Eagle Rock hike trail map

Map of Tuscarora Trail to Eagle Rock, George Washington National Forest; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The two most common ways to access Eagle Rock are from the west, following the Tuscarora Trail as it straddles the Virginia-West Virginia border. The shortest option is to park at Dry Gap, along Capon Springs Road (Virginia SR 209; West Virginia CR 16), and climb 500 feet in a little over a mile to reach the viewpoint. The second, and longer, option—and the subject of this hike—begins further south and west at the point where US Route 48 crests Great North Mountain—also the state boundary. As you approach the ridgeline, look for a gravel road, blocked to traffic, off to the south; there is also a small brown “Tuscarora Trail” sign. Park along the shoulder here on the south side.

After parking, cross to the north side of the road (carefully—traffic here is going fast), where you will find a well-trodden path. This is the northbound Tuscarora Trail. Leaving the highway behind, the trail climbs rapidly before gradually easing, approaching a junction with an old road heading left at around    150 yards. Stay right amid the rocky terrain. Peeking over the ridgeline, a small spur heads off to the right at about ¼ mile, offering a window view to the south toward Paddy Gap and Paddy Mountain (3,013’), part of the broader Great North Mountain range.

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View of Paddy Gap from the Tuscarora Trail

The Tuscarora Trail continues northeast from here, flattening out considerably as the ridge narrows. A few minutes later, hikers can spot a gravel road off to the left—this is Forest Road 539 on the West Virginia side. Merging with an old roadbed from the left, the trail passes an established campsite at about 6/10 mile and then a communications relay tower at around 8/10 mile. Just beyond the tower, the path passes under a set of power lines, offering a brief glimpse of the Cold Springs Gap area below. An uphill at about 1.3 mile brings hikers to the base of a second, larger tower. From here, the trail begins a gradual but steady decline, shedding about 300 feet in the next 1.2 miles.

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Tuscarora Trail

At 1.8 miles, stay right at the trail fork—the orange-blazed trail bearing left leads to the Hawk recreation area. (Note: This junction is less visible than it used to be because the Tuscarora Trail has been rerouted toward Eagle Rock rather than down to Hawk.) At about 2.3 miles, the footpath drops relatively steeply, ending the descent at a small parking area along the Capon Springs Road at Dry Gap. (Note: This is the start of the shorter version of the hike.)

Crossing to the other side of Capon Springs Road, the trail is much wider and well-defined. A small sign indicates that one is heading for Eagle Rock. Having lost 300 feet in elevation, the trail makes up for it again with a steady climb, wrapping around the north-facing side of Great North Mountain. The incline picks up around mile 3, and hikers reach a trail fork at 3.15 miles. Stay right, leading into a sharp uphill that marks the final approach. By 3.4 miles, the incline levels out again, and hikers can sense that the overlook is near. Finally, at about 3.6 miles, gaps in the trees begin to offer unobstructed views, and a set of rocky ledges—Eagle Rock—invite visitors to peer over the edge.

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Eagle Rock looking east

The vista at Eagle Rock, while not a 360 degree panorama, is one of the finest in the area. The best view is to the southwest, where two ridgelines—Paddy Mountain/Little Sluice Mountain and Great North Mountain—run parallel to one another for as far as the eye can see, while individual mountaintops dot the ridges, giving the terrain greater a scenic texture. The small bulge with a house on top of it in the foreground is, aptly named, Short Mountain (2,164’). Behind it is the higher Johnnies Knob (2,639’), while the stream in the gully below (seen in the distance) is Paddy Run, which leads into Vance’s Cove.

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Southward view from Eagle Rock

Over to the east, the green mountains give way to a broad valley bookended by Little North Mountain—beyond is the much broader Shenandoah Valley. On clear days, Massanutten Mountain and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park are visible on the horizon.

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Eagle Rock, with the Shenandoah Valley obscured by haze

The viewpoint offers a single stone bench that makes for a great lunch spot. (Note: Eagle Rock’s relative obscurity means the summit has far less crowds than many others in the area.) The Tuscarora Trail continues northward from here, but day hikers will want to return the way they came, traversing the 3.6 miles back to the start.

Allot 3-5 hours, depending on pace, for the moderately strenuous round trip.

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The author at Eagle Rock

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Minisink Battleground Loop (Minisink Battleground Park, NY)

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Battleground Trail, Minisink Battleground Park, July 2018

– Revolutionary War Series –

In July 1799, the Revolutionary War came to the Upper Delaware River Valley as a British-aligned militia led by famous Mohawk chief Joseph Brant raided the area to strike a blow at the morale of the revolutionaries. Incensed by the raid, a rapidly-formed counterforce under the command of Colonel John Halthorn tracked down Brant’s Volunteers and staged a botched ambush that resulted in a lopsided loss for the rebels. The site of the Battle of Minisink on July 22, 1779 is now preserved as part of Minisink Battleground Park, itself a subset of the broader Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, which spans the border of New York and Pennsylvania. A loop trail offers hikers a brief tour of the battlegrounds.

Minisink Battleground loop hike information

The hike

Situated in the hills opposite Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, Minisink Battleground Park is reached by way of a narrow but paved road on the New York side of the Delaware River. At the parking area is a small Interpretive Center with maps and information on the park and area. The loop hike begins just behind the center to the right.

Start on the wide and grassy Woodland Trail as it bears north and quickly intersects the Battleground Trail after around 50 yards. Bear right. Within a minute, a very brief spur trail bears left for a slightly better view of an underwhelming wetland before quickly merges again with the main path. At 1/10 mile, the footpath spills out onto Zane Grey Way Road, which is paved but blocked to vehicle traffic.

Bear left on the road and follow it uphill to a grassy field with a set of monuments. One is a stone marker constructed in 1929 to commemorate the fallen revolutionaries at the Battle of Minisink, while a new monument—a large rock with a plaque—was dedicated in 2017.

From here, continue north on the continuation of the partly graveled Battleground Trail, which is quickly immersed again in the dense woods. It is a short walk from here to Sentinel Rock, a chunky boulder where retreating forces under the command of Colonel Halthorn briefly took up position after encountering Brant’s soldiers down by the river. Here the rebels would be effectively encircled, outnumbered and outgunned by the opposing force of Indians and Tories.

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Sentinel Rock at Minisink Battleground

Hanging a sharp right, the trail bounds southeast amid a mix of pines, oaks, beech, and maples and approaches a trail fork at about ¼ mile. Stay right, following the Battleground Trail as it passes another unmarked junction steps later. Stay left this time, then bear left again at a third fork just beyond. Heading back toward the stout ledges near the top of the hillside, the trail reaches Hospital Rock at 3/10 mile. This was the last stand for much of the rebel contingent: 18 militiamen, including Lt. Col. Benjamin Tusten, were killed at or around this rock by the encroaching British soldiers.

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Hospital Rock

Beyond Hospital Rock, the Battleground Trail bears south and then begins a sharp descent. Stay right at the junction with the Woodland Trail at 4/10 mile. Around a minute later, hikers will approach another fork at Indian Rock, which was allegedly set by the Indians and Tories to honor their dead in the battle.

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Indian Rock

Hikers can bear right here on the Battleground Trail to head back to the parking area. But those looking for a little extra can continue straight on the Old Quarry Trail, which, as the name suggests, explores a modest quarry to the south. Small cliffs are terrifically exposed in this area as the trail snakes between minor ditches on the left and right. An unmarked trail comes in from the left at 6/10 mile, and there is a single bench to rest your legs. Staying right, the path passes a vertical rock face with a golden hue: this was presumably the heart of the rock quarry.

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Old Quarry Trail

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Cliff face along the Old Quarry Trail

From here it a short walk to the Interpretive Center and parking area. After crossing the road, the incline briefly picks up during the final stretch back to the start. The trail ends at the backside of the center.

Allot 30-45 minutes for this loop hike, or venture off to some of the spur trails to make for a longer walk of up to 2 hours.

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Upper Delaware River from a viewpoint southeast of Minisink Battleground Park

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