Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, NJ


Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, October 2016

The dilapidated storefronts and crumbling edifices of downtown Paterson, New Jersey tell the story of a town battered by the winds of change. Once a booming hub for manufacturing—in fact, it was the first planned industrial city in the US—Paterson has never quite rebounded from a cascade of factory closures in the latter half of the 20th century. Since the 1960s, the city, New Jersey’s third-largest, has suffered from high unemployment and white flight—as well as a series of terrible floods and fires—leaving a sagging economy now held together in large part by a recent influx of immigrants.

Enter the National Park Service, which, while far from reversing Paterson’s economic fortunes, has worked to preserve an important slice of the city’s natural and human history. Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, inaugurated as a Park Service site in 2011, centers around Passaic Falls, a 77-foot chute that is both naturally beautiful and essential to the city’s origin story. The protagonist in this story is none other than Alexander Hamilton, the distinguished founding father and America’s first Treasury Secretary, who founded Paterson in 1792 on the idea of using the water power of the Passaic River to fuel industrial development. Two years later, engineers completed the construction of a “raceway” system that channeled the racing waters above the falls to power a bevy of local factories. In the next century, industry in Paterson took off, and the city came to be known as the “Silk City,” named for its predominant textile, made possible by Hamilton’s hydropower project.

Today, Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park comprises shuttered factory buildings, a high suspension bridge, and a set of excellent overlooks of Passaic Falls. Begin your visit at the parking area and main overlook of Passaic Falls, then walk to the Paterson Museum or Great Falls Cultural Center (where the title track from famed Broadway musical “Hamilton” plays on a loop). It’s worth walking from here to Mary Ellen Kramer Park, a ¼-mile trip along wheelchair-accessible paths and sidewalks. Along the way, the journey passes behind the S.U.M. Hydroelectric Plant, then traverses a high bridge over the Passaic gorge, fed by the cascading falls.

A small plaque in Mary Ellen Kramer Park summarizes the geologic story: around 190 million years ago, lava flows laid the foundation for the basaltic cliffs of today, and, thanks to uplift, formed a narrow notch, into which the Passaic River now tumbles. By volume, Passaic Falls is surpassed only by Niagara Falls for the distinction of largest waterfall east of the Mississippi River.

(Note: A final distinction of the park is its recent acquisition of Hinchliffe Stadium, which is adjacent to Mary Ellen Kramer Park. It is one of only a handful of surviving baseball fields used by the Negro League; during the 1930s-1940s, this stadium hosted the New York Black Yankees and Negro League legends like Satchel Page and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe. While the stadium remains closed to visitors, the park is in the process of opening for tours in the future.)

Check out the photos below for a closer look at Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, a worthy destination for travelers heading through northern New Jersey.


Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park near the parking area


View of Passaic Falls from the main overlook


Great Falls of the Passaic and the S.U.M. Hydroelectric Plant


Alexander Hamilton, founder of Paterson, New Jersey


View of Passaic Falls from the bridge


View of falls (at very low volume in October) from Mary Ellen Kramer Park

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Monarch Pass, CO


Monarch Pass, September 2016

Monarch Pass, situated between Gunnison and Poncha Springs along Colorado’s Route 50, crosses the Continental Divide at 11,312 feet, offering spectacular vistas of central Colorado’s Sawatch Range, which boasts many of the state’s highest peaks. Including the Monarch Mountain ski area, the area around the pass is a launching-off point for skiers, hikers, and bikers, while the Monarch Pass Scenic Tram offers a lift for the less adventurous to the summit of Monarch Ridge. Heading east from the parking area, the Monarch Crest Trail extends for nearly 35 miles and is a local favorite among mountain bikers, while heading west on the Continental Divide Trail links Route 50 with Old Monarch Pass, another high, alpine gap. The visitor center and gift shop offers information, food, souvenirs, and an extensive book and map collection.


Monarch Pass on the Continental Divide


View of Monarch Ridge and Mount Ouray (13,971′) from the Continental Divide Trail


Route 50 traces southward toward Gunnison, viewed from a viewpoint on Monarch Ridge


Mount Aetna (13,745′) and Taylor Mountain (13,651′) from just north of Monarch Pass

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High Bridge Trail (Box Canyon Park, CO)


High Bridge Trail, Box Canyon Park, September 2016

The High Bridge Trail is a more strenuous alternative to the lower Box Canyon Falls Trail, climbing 200 feet to a suspension bridge that spans Box Canyon and offers views northeast to Ouray, Colorado. On sunny summer days and weekends, it’s also likely to be jam-packed with visitors, making an early morning or late afternoon jaunt the best option.



Map of High Bridge Trail, Box Canyon Park, Ouray; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Begin at the Nature Center in Box Canyon Park, situated halfway down the signed, one-way drive that connects Route 550 (a.k.a., “Million Dollar Highway”) with 3rd Avenue in Ouray. A $4/person entrance fee applies.


Initial climb on High Bridge Trail

After exploring the Nature Center, head west on the wide trail and take your first left at the foot of a metal staircase, which marks the start of the High Bridge Trail. (Note: The main trail to the base of Box Canyon Falls continues straight.) Climb the stairs for initial views of Ouray, then continue left as the path hugs the hillside en route to a covered shelter after around 50 yards. Billed in the trail guide (obtained at the Nature Center) as a “panorama,” there are some decent views from here of Ouray and the San Juan Mountains. On a clear day, it is easy to spot Cascade Falls across the valley, as well as geological features known as the Blowout and the Amphitheater.


Ouray on a rainy morning

Continuing onward, the narrowing footpath rounds a switchback at about the 100-yard mark, and then climbs sharply westward toward the Box Canyon. The tree life is classic Colorado: Rocky Mountain junipers, Douglas firs, ponderosa pines, and other conifers – plus some deciduous, like Gambel oaks, mixed in.

The steep and rocky climb ends abruptly at around 0.15 miles, where the High Bridge Trail merges with the Ouray Perimeter Trail. With the bridge in sight, take a right, continuing the last few steps to your destination.


Box Canyon from the bridge, looking upstream

The bridge spans a deep and narrow gorge composed mostly of ancient, white quartzite and black slate (550+ million years old). A wayside at the bridge extends the stratigraphic column to include “newer” layers of limestone, sandstone, and shale (300-400 million years old), which are visible along the canyon’s right flank. Directly below your feet, of course, Canyon Creek tumbles through the deep-cut gorge, forming Box Canyon Falls. While barely visible, the presence of the falls is unmistakable by the thundering noise of the crashing waters.


Leadville limestone, Ouray limestone, and Elbert Formation (yellow) layers above a bed of quartzite and slate

Just beyond the bridge lies a remnant of human history: a dark and damp tunnel that was built for a water pipeline project in the early 1900s before it was abandoned in the 1950s. After exploring the bridge and tunnel, return the way you came—or continue down the Ouray Perimeter Trail to return to town. For the out-and-back to the bridge, allot between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on fitness levels for the steep climb.


Downstream from the bridge at Box Canyon

Extra credit

Hike the lower trail in Box Canyon, then explore some other, more challenging trails in the Ouray area, such as the Ouray Perimeter Trail, Portland Trail, or Sutton Mine Trail.

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Box Canyon Falls Trail (Box Canyon Park, CO)


Box Canyon Falls, Box Canyon Park, September 2016

Billed as “Ouray’s slot canyon,” Box Canyon Waterfall and Park is one of the most popular destinations in the area. Situated just outside southwest Colorado’s “Switzerland of America,” Box Canyon Falls is concealed in a dark, narrow gorge accessed only by a steel-reinforced walkway and staircase. Visit in spring, or after heavy rain, to see the falls in full force.



Map of Box Canyon Falls Trail, Box Canyon Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the interactive map and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Start this very short hike—unfortunately not wheelchair-accessible—at the Nature Center, which serves both as the entrance ($4 per person) and information desk. Shortly past the center, the trail splits—a metal staircase takes visitors up the High Bridge Trail on the left (see post), while the main path heads right. Less than a minute later, take a left at the second junction, dropping down a flight of stairs en route to the Box Canyon. (Note: The Native Plant Loop heads right.)

At the foot of the staircase, the trail enters the narrow gorge, carved by Canyon Creek. The box canyon—and falls—owes its existence to the Ouray Fault, where a mix of sedimentary and metamorphic rock layers drop some 200 feet; the canyon has slowly whittled away at the exposed quartzite, here a charcoal color due to the presence of tiny iron oxide flakes. Putting the Mesozoic layers (deposited 252-66 million years ago) of southern Utah to shame, this Precambrian era-rock dates to at least 550 million years ago.


Entering Box Canyon

Entering the canyon, the metal walkway hugs the left wall for a couple of minutes, then drops down five flights of stairs to reach the canyon bottom. The falls, off to the left, are partly hidden from view by the dark bends and twists of the canyon, though the thunderous echo cannot be missed. Looking downstream, Canyon Creek squeezes through the narrow chamber, continuing to cascade.


Box Canyon Falls

In high season, this trail is sure to be teeming with people, making for a particularly awkward situation at the hike’s terminus, where the stairs effectively end at the slippery banks of the creek. (Note: In fact, the best thing that could have happened on the September morning we visited was rain showers, which scared away other visitors, leaving the entire trail to ourselves.)

After spending some time in the eerie slot, return the way you came. Allot about 20-30 minutes for the round trip. (Note: With some extra energy, climb the 200 feet in elevation on the High Bridge Trail for a bird’s eye view of the canyon and falls.)


Canyon Creek cascades through Box Canyon

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“Million Dollar Highway” – Ouray to Silverton


Million Dollar Highway, September 2016

Southwest Colorado’s “Million Dollar Highway”—also known, less memorably, as Route 550—traverses some of the most breathtaking scenery in the state. With sharp curves, steep grades, and a conspicuous lack of guard rails, it is also one of the most harrowing drives in the Rockies. The 23-mile section connecting Ouray to Silverton features historic ghost towns, stunning waterfalls, and spectacular vistas of the San Juan Mountains, headlined by a steep climb up and over Red Mountain Pass (11,018’), named for a string of nearby peaks streaked with ruddy iron ore.


Bear Creek Falls, just south of Ouray


Abrams Mountain and Uncompahgre Gorge


Crystal Lake in Ironton Park with Red Mountain beyond


Red Mountain #1 from the Million Dollar Highway


Red Mountain #3 near the old mining town of Ironton


Distant moose off the road to South Mineral Campground


Looking north toward Ouray from outside Silverton


San Juan Mountains south of Silverton

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Sutton Mine Trail (Uncompahgre National Forest, CO)


Sutton Mine Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest, September 2016

The Sutton Mine Trail—situated just south of Ouray, Colorado—rewards hearty hikers who brave the initial, gut-wrenching ascent with spectacular views of Ouray, Uncompahgre Gorge, Bear Creek Falls, and Abrams Mountain. Ending at an abandoned mine, this 2.2-mile jaunt packs nearly 700 feet in elevation gain into the first half-mile before leveling out atop a rocky plateau in the shadow of Hayden Mountain. With the best views to the east, hike in the afternoon after the morning shadows have lifted.



Sutton Mine Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

From Ouray, drive (or walk) 6/10 mile up Route 550—the so-called “Million Dollar Highway”—and turn right on the unpaved Camp Bird Road. Passing a maintenance shed on the left, round the hairpin bend and park 4/10 up Camp Bird Road on the right, where there is space available on the shoulder. Look for the “Sutton Mine Trailhead” sign across the road; this is your cue to leave the road and start climbing.

The narrow singletrack wastes no time in gaining elevation as it reaches a trail register in about 50 yards. Edging southward, the trail quickly puts distance between it and the service road visible below and then plunges into a thick conifer forest. At about 120 yards, hikers will round a pair of switchbacks, the first of a series.


Ouray from the Sutton Mine Trail

The second set of switchbacks comes at around 2/10 mile; by now you have already gained more than 250 feet. A third follows minutes later, then a fourth pair at 0.35 miles. After doubling back to the west at 4/10 mile, the unyielding incline increases further, requiring careful footing to clear some rocky obstacles.


Steep climb up to the flattop bench

At ½ mile, the trail rounds a sharp corner and climbs to Ouray Overlook, which offers an excellent vantage point looking north. Here the small mountain town unfolds below, bounded by steep, multihued cliffs. Twin Peaks (10,970’) dominates the landscape to the northwest.


Approaching Ouray Overlook with Twin Peaks beyond


Ouray Overlook

Beyond the overlook, the ascent eases as hikers reenter the woods. Briefly putting Ouray out of sight, the trail weaves in and out of rocky clearings before climbing again at 7/10 mile. Gaining another 100 feet, the path tops out again as it approaches the rim of a sharp drop-off on the left, which affords more excellent views.

At 9/10 miles, hikers reach the first unobstructed view of Hayden Mountain (13,139’), which rises sharply from the base of the plateau on the right. Also look to the south for cone-shaped Abrams Mountain (12,801’), which is even more striking, as the trail rides a wavy hillside through a lengthy clearing.


Abrams Mountain and Hayden Mountain

Around 1.4 miles from the start, the Sutton Mine Trail rounds a grassy meadow with a small pond in the shadow of Hayden Mountain. After another brief foray into dense forest, hikers will reemerge into the open at the Bear Creek Overlook at 1.6 miles. Though no better than many other vistas on the hike, the overlook—perched atop a rocky knoll—offers a nice excuse to stop for a snack.


View from Bear Creek Overlook

The scenery beyond alternates between sun-soaked hillsides and thick woods as the trail descends to cross a pair of streams at 1.75 and 1.8 miles. (Note: The first is likely to be dry in summer, while the second carries water year-round and produces a pleasant cascade.) One of the highlights of the hike is the unmarked but obvious overlook at 1.9 miles, which offers a distant view of Bear Creek Falls down in the gorge below. Here Bear Creek tumbles 225 feet in a single drop, making it one of the tallest free-falling waterfalls in Colorado.


Bear Creek Falls from the overlook at 1.9 miles

The trail ends about 3/10 mile later, culminating at the old Neosho Mine, where a handful of abandoned buildings come into view. One wooden building boasts a large sign reading “Antiques 9~5:30,” which is visible from the Million Dollar Highway down in the canyon below. (Note: Alas, due to time constraints, I was not able to make it to Neosho Mine—but check out some photos on Backcountry Post.)


Return trip

While some other sites note it may be possible to continue on to the namesake Sutton Mine, the official trail ends at Neosho Mine. The return journey is mostly downhill, reversing the strenuous ascent of the first half-mile. Total trail time will vary widely depending on fitness: hearty hikers will finish in 2 or 2 ½ hours, while others who struggle with elevation could take twice as long.


Fantastic views of Ouray from the Sutton Mine Trail

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Portland Trail Loop (Uncompahgre National Forest, CO)


Portland Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest, September 2016

The Portland Trail, just outside Ouray in southwest Colorado, offers close-up views of one of the area’s most striking features: a highly sculpted, bowl-shaped cliff face known as the Amphitheater. While composed mainly of grayish, volcanic rock, this west-facing wall is illuminated in the evening light, bringing out the whites, yellows, and purples and allowing visitors to examine the intricacies of the glacier-carved valley. At just 3.5 miles with a very gradual ascent of 750 feet, the Portland Trail is also one of the Ouray area’s easiest hikes. Hike this loop in mid-afternoon, waiting for the morning shadows to fully lift, for the best views of the colossal Amphitheater.



Map of Portland Trail Loop, Uncompahgre National Forest; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

*Check out more hikes in Colorado, Uncompahgre National Forest, or the Ouray area.*

The hike

Like many hikes in the area, the Portland Trail Loop has many possible approaches. The official Portland Trailhead seems like the most logical place to start, but it is situated along an unpaved road that may be impassable for some vehicles. The better alternative is to begin at the Upper Cascade Falls Trailhead, located at the end of the Amphitheater Campground Road, a paved drive that breaks with Route 550—a.k.a. the “Million Dollar Highway”—after two hairpin curves heading south from Ouray. Drive up the road and stay left at each junction, eventually ending at a dead-end parking lot surrounded by a sea of trees; this is the trailhead. There is a large hiking map and weathered trail sign at the south end of the lot. (Note: for visitors staying at the Amphitheater Campground, it is a short walk to the trailhead.)


Map of the Amphitheater hiking area

The hike begins by gently tracing a brushy hillside for around 2/10 miles, when you will encounter the first of several trail junctions. Stay right, following the arrow pointing to the Portland Trail, which is from here a little over 1/3 mile away. (Note: The trail heading left—the Upper Cascade Falls Trail—will be your return route. Hiking in a counter-clockwise direction, this route offers the path of least resistance, climbing up the gradually-sloping Portland Trail, while saving the steeper Upper Cascade Falls Trail for the downhill.)


Initial trail junction and start and end of the loop portion

Leaving the trail fork behind, the singletrack path must first descend to clear Little Portland Creek before it begins the 750-foot climb to the scenic overlook of the Amphitheater. Meandering around a left-hand bend, the trail drops downhill to meet a second trail junction at 3/10 mile; stay left at the fork. (Note: The trail heading right descends sharply down to Ouray.)

Winding amid tall firs and ponderosa pines, the trail descends to cross the (usually dry) creek bed of Little Portland Creek at around 0.45 mile. Immediately after, the ascent begins, starting with a steep but brief haul up the southern bank. A third junction is reached just beyond the ½-mile mark: hang a left on the Portland Trail. (Note: There is a small hand-drawn map at the junction with accurate trail distances.)

For the next 1.5 miles, the footpath will climb gradually to the hike’s high point at around 9,200 feet. The ascent is made relatively painless by the development of long, gently-sloping switchbacks, the first of which you will round at about 0.57 miles. Occasional clearings offer nice views looking back toward Ouray, Hayden Mountain (13,206’), Potosi Peak (13,786’), and the Canyon Creek Valley. As the trail ascends higher, aspen trees pop up amid the mixed conifers, and the trail traverses hillsides of scrub oak and mountain laurel.


Views of Ouray, Hayden Mountain, and Potosi Peak from the Portland Trail

After briefly descending to clear a minor ravine at 1.7 miles, the trail climbs again to round a left-hand bend then levels off. The floor drops off to the right, giving way to a U-shaped valley carved by Portland Creek. The opposite flank, part of an unnamed ridge that reaches 12,300 feet, has been heavily mined, as it is rich in ores of all varieties. (Note: It is evidently possible with some good eyes, better than mine, to spot some crude mining infrastructure, long abandoned, along the grayish slopes.)


Approaching the Amphitheater on the Portland Trail

At around two miles, the trail passes a stand of aspens and makes a final push to the scenic overlook, marked with a small sign. Here one can see much of the curved Amphitheater in its full splendor. Intricate vertical cuts add texture to the soft, volcanic walls of the cliff face, which was formed by a receding glacier, leaving behind what is called a “glacial cirque.”


Amphitheater from the scenic overlook

The stony mass is capped by an unnamed peak that tops out at 13,111 feet and bounded to the northeast by peak aptly named Bridge of Heaven (12,368’), which can be reached on a very difficult hike from the Horsethief Trailhead north of Ouray. Dense stands of conifers and sporadic grassy pastures fill the bottom of the cirque, adding allure to the mountain nirvana.


Amphitheater from the Portland Trail

After enjoying a snack break at the viewpoint, continue northward on the Portland Trail as it reaches the highest point on the hike at around 2.2 miles. Here the trail forks again: a ½-mile spur trail continues straight ahead, leading to the Portland Mine and Portland Mine Road, while the loop continues left. Plunging back into the trees, the Portland Trail begins a sharp descent as it approaches the Little Portland Creek drainage. At 2.4 miles, the rocky trail crosses the creekbed—likely dry in summer—then traces the northern bank as it continues downstream. Crossing a series of tributaries, the trail bounds up and down before meeting a signed junction with the Upper Cascade Falls Trail at 2.7 miles. Stay left on the main track, also the main thoroughfare for hearty hikers heading to and from Upper Cascade Falls and the Chief Ouray Mine.

Now at least 150-200 feet above Little Portland Creek, the subsequent section offers terrific views toward Ouray and Hayden Mountain (though they will be cast into shadows in the late afternoon light).


Descending the Upper Cascade Falls Trail toward Ouray

The trail drops at a noticeably steeper incline than the gradual ascent and leads to another junction at around mile 3; stay left. Winding through a series of sloping bends, hikers will reach the original trail junction at 3.3 miles; take a right, and follow the gentle slope back up to the Upper Cascade Falls Trailhead, your start and end point.

As mentioned before, this 3.5-mile circuit is one of the easiest hikes in the area and will likely take 2-3 hours to complete.

Extra credit

Pair this afternoon hike with a morning jaunt on the Ouray Perimeter Trail, which forms a 4-5 mile circuit around Ouray and features multicolored cliffs, waterfalls, deep canyons, and panoramic views of the San Juan Mountains. Check out the hike description here.

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Ouray Perimeter Trail (Uncompahgre National Forest, CO)


Ouray Perimeter Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest, September 2016

The Ouray Perimeter Trail, as the name suggests, forms a circuit around the picturesque town of Ouray in southwest Colorado. Far from being an easy city walk, however, this rugged track traverses high ledges, crosses deep canyons, and passes waterfalls and rocky outcrops in a half-day hike that offers vistas of Ouray from all sides. The route described below cheats ever-so-slightly, as it includes a shortcut on the Ice Park Trail to shave off around 8/10 mile.



Map of Ouray Perimeter Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

There are numerous options for accessing the Ouray Perimeter Trail but there is probably no better place to start than the Ouray Visitor’s Center and Hot Springs, situated just north of town. Park at the visitor center, then cross Route 550—which doubles as Main Street—to reach the start of the clockwise circuit. Here you’ll find a sign marking the Ouray Perimeter Trail, which has been stitched together in the past decade from a patchwork of existing trails.

Ouray Visitor’s Center to Baby Bathtubs Trailhead (1.4 miles)

The flat, wide path at the start quickly gives way to a staircase and a sharp climb. As the condominiums off to the left disappear, the trail gains more than 200 feet over the course of three switchbacks, then levels off at around ¼ mile. Hugging the side of Cascade Mountain, the path rounds a left-hand bend, crosses a rock slide, and affords excellent views of Ouray, Hayden Mountain (13,206’), and Canyon Creek Valley.


Ouray from the Perimeter Trail


Ouray from the Perimeter Trail

At around ½ mile, the trail traverses a thin shelf above a sheer drop-off; while not as daunting as the nearby Bear Creek Trail, the exposure is sure to spook those with a fear of heights.


Exposed section on Ouray Perimeter Trail

Nonetheless, the most intimidating section is less than 1/10 mile, and the steep incline on the right gradually diminishes as the Ouray Perimeter Trail approaches Lower Cascade Falls.


Lower Cascade Falls from the Ouray Perimeter Trail

At around 7/10 mile, with the falls visible on the left, the path drops sharply to meet Cascade Creek. Follow the signs for the Perimeter Trail as it descends through the shady gully and crosses the stream at ¾ mile. Look for the continuation of the trail along the east bank; stay left on the trail—the wider and well-trafficked Lower Cascade Falls Trail heads right to 8th Avenue in Ouray.


Lower Cascade Falls

Beyond the waterfall, the trail climbs up a woody hillside, a sharp contrast from the blocky cliffs that characterized the first ascent. Here the trail passes below the Amphitheater Campground area, situated atop a shady plateau; a spur trail at 0.95 miles provides access to the campground. Staying right at the fork, the Perimeter track runs through a sea of brushy scrub oak and lofty pines and passes a second trail junction at 1.1 miles.

The gradual ascent ends at 1.3 miles, where the path empties out onto the paved Amphitheater Campground Road. Take a right, following the road for 1/10 mile, until the small but marked Baby Bathtubs Trailhead appears on the left.

Baby Bathtubs Trailhead to Camp Bird Road (1.3 miles)

Here the Ouray Perimeter Trail traces the old Baby Bathtub hike upstream through one of the circuit’s most interesting sections. After an initial climb, the narrow footpath approaches an undulating ravine where water has carved smooth curves in the granite bedrock.


Baby Bathtubs Trail

After crossing the stream, the trail climbs to the rim of a second, deeper slot canyon with walls reaching as high as 40-50 feet. Numerous vantage points offer views of the canyon as well as the Baby Bathtubs area’s namesake bowls, one of which is easily reached as the trail comes level with Portland Creek above a winding chute at around 1.6 miles. In around 150 yards, the trail forks; stay right, then cross a wooden bridge to clear the stream.


Narrow canyon at Baby Bathtubs


Stream cuts through the granite at Baby Bathtubs

Cutting back to the west, the trail hugs the southern flank of Portland Creek then splits once more: bear left on the Ouray Perimeter Trail, which climbs abruptly up a grassy slope. Pass what appears to be an abandoned campground on the right at 1.7 miles, then bear left (uphill) on the graveled Portland Road at 1.9 miles. After 100 yards, look for continuation of the Ouray Perimeter Trail, which returns to a singletrack, off to the right.


Meadow with Hayden Mountain beyond

Cresting a small slope, the trail here crosses a beautiful meadow flanked with aspens. The flat fields soon give way to rocky outcrops as the Ouray Perimeter Trail crests ascends to an excellent, unmarked viewpoint at 2.1 miles.


Spectacular view south of Uncompahgre Gorge and Abrams Mountain

Here Uncompahgre Gorge and Abrams Mountain (12,801’) emerge to the south as volcanic rock dots the ridgeline in the foreground. Looking back northwest to Ouray, Twin Peaks (10,798’) and Whitehouse Mountain (13,492’) are in full view. Completing the picture are the multihued cliffs of the Cascade Mountain behemoth to the north and east.


Whitehouse Mountain and Twin Peaks from the Ouray Perimeter Trail

Having crested the high point on the hike, the trail begins a gradual descent from the ridgeline and reenters the woods at around 2.2 miles. Passing under a set of power lines, the Ouray Perimeter Trail crosses Route 550—the so-called “Million Dollar Highway”—within minutes. On the other side, hikers have a choice: either (1) head left to continue on the Perimeter Trail as it makes a lengthy detour along Uncompahgre Gorge; or (2) continue straight on the Ice Park Trail, a shortcut route that reconnects with the Perimeter Trail in about ½ mile and shaves about 8/10 mile off the total distance. (Note: Pressed for time, yours truly took the latter option, leaving the rest as mystery to be explored another day.)

The Ice Park Trail passes the grounds of the annual Ice Festival, held in January, when ice climbers from all over descend on Ouray to try their luck with picks and cramps in Uncompahgre Gorge. By contrast, in summer, the area comprises flowering fields, rocky balds, and sporadic conifer groves that are largely quiet. Ever downhill, the Ice Park Trail drops gradually, with one final steep push, to meet Camp Bird Road at 2.7 miles.

Camp Bird Road to Ouray Visitor’s Center (1.5 miles)

From here, take a left, crossing the road bridge over Uncompahgre Gorge, a curvy canyon fed in part by a rerouted waterfall that comes in from to the right. About 250 yards from the end of the Ice Park Trail, the Ouray Perimeter Trail continues again on the right.


Crossing over Uncompahgre Gorge

It’s a short, easy walk of 2/10 miles from here to Box Canyon Park, where the Perimeter Trail merges with the High Bridge Trail, a densely-crowded path that leads to a walkway over the deep canyon carved by Canyon Creek. Composed mainly of charcoal-colored quartzite, the Box Canyon is deeper but arguably less interesting than the gorge crossed minutes earlier.


Box Canyon from the High Bridge

Past the bridge, the trail passes through a low-hanging tunnel that was built for a water pipeline project in the early 20th century before it was abandoned in the 1950s. After exiting the dim-lit passage, descend a sharp slope with the assistance of a rope on the left. With views of the Box Canyon on the right, the trail drops to meet South Pinecrest Drive, marking the end of the unfinished Ouray Perimeter Trail at 3.25 miles.

The remainder of the circuit consists of road walking, beginning with a downhill stroll on the unpaved but improved track of Pinecrest Drive. After crossing Oak Creek, take a left on Oak Street, a residential drive that parallels the Uncompahgre River as it heads northward. At 4.1 miles, take a right and cross the pedestrian bridge over the river; from here, it’s steps to the Visitor’s Center and parking lot where the hike began.

Allot at least two hours for this hike, which is probably best completed in late morning or early afternoon, before the evening shadows cast darkness over Ouray’s colorful canyons.


Ouray from near the end of the Perimeter Trail

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Buzzard Rock via Shawl Gap (George Washington National Forest, VA)


Buzzard Rock Trail, George Washington National Forest, September 2016

Buzzard Rock, situated at the northeast corner of Virginia’s Massanutten Mountain, is not a singular monolith as the name implies. Rather, it is a razor-toothed spine of sandstone more than a quarter mile long, perched high above Fort Valley and Passage Creek. While it lacks the heights of the nearby Signal Knob Loop, this 4.5-mile one-way trek to Buzzard Rock from the Elizabeth Furnace area is—in my opinion—a far better hike. In addition to the worthy destination, the strenuous walk features a paradise of stony jumbles, terrific views east over Shenandoah Valley, and a touch of human history thrown in for good measure.



Map of trail to Buzzard Rock via Shawl Gap, George Washington National Forest (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track.)

*Check out more hikes in Virginia, George Washington National Forest, or at Massanutten Mountain*

The hike

Most hikers approach Buzzard Rock from the northern end of the Buzzard Rock Trail, which starts from Mountain Rd./VA 619, south of Fort Valley Road. From here, it is a mere two miles to the rocks, though with a sharp 650-foot climb. The below description, however, covers an alternative route that is more strenuous and more than twice as long but unquestionably more scenic if you throw in a couple short detours along the way.

This hike begins at the Elizabeth Furnace Day-Use Area, situated around four miles down Fort Valley Road from VA 55, which provides access to Strasburg, Virginia and Interstate 66. Turn left at the sign for the picnic/day-use area, cross the small bridge over Passage Creek, and park in the large parking lot.

Confusion reigns at the parking area, as a bevy of trails veers off in different directions. At the end of the parking lot (farthest from the entrance), a wooden boardwalk heads off to the southwest, while a white-blazed trail—not to be confused with the white-blazed Buzzard Rock Trail—heads southeast. Midway down the parking area on the left, a wide and grassy “interpretive trail” heads east. (Note: This provides access to the short Pig Iron Trail and Charcoal Trail.) The shortest route to Shawl Gap and Buzzard Rock, however, leaves from the northeast corner of the parking area, next to the restrooms.

Trailhead to Shawl Gap (2.4 miles)

The unmarked path quickly gives way to a trail fork and a sign marked “Furnace Trails.” Bear left, heading toward the historic Elizabeth Furnace on the Pig Iron Trail, a self-guided path with regular informational waysides that provide greater context on the ecology and history of the area. At around 0.15 miles, Passage Creek appears on the left as the trail climbs gradually. Seconds later, Elizabeth Furnace, a giant oven reinforced by stone, appears on the right; stay left at the next trail fork, following the blue and orange blazes as the path leaves the Pig Iron Trail. By now you are on a path jointly blazed by the Massanutten Trail, a 71-mile circuit around much of Massanutten, and the Tuscarora Trail, which spans four states over the course of 252 miles.


Elizabeth Furnace on Pig Iron Trail

For the next 300 yards, the trail hugs the banks of Passage Creek then rounds a right-hand bend that leaves the stream behind. At 4/10 mile, the path crosses a wooden bridge over a minor ravine laced with boulders. Steps later, look for a stone pile on the left—more remnants of old settlements—as the trail climbs gently, then double back over the same ravine at around ½ mile. Just beyond, the trail settles into a southward course and begins to climb more steadily.

At around 0.65 miles, a series of long and gentle switchbacks ensues. At 8/10 mile, at the end of a long straightaway, the trail cuts left. (Note: An unmarked path—which we will revisit later—heads right from here.) There are some limited views through the trees as the hike continues upward, but the best, unobstructed vistas will have to wait for a couple more miles.

At around the one-mile mark, the trail makes straight for the mountain as it hugs the right flank of a shady gully. Rockier and steeper than before, the Massanutten/Tuscarora path approaches the edge of a massive boulder slide at 1.1 miles then hangs a right. Minutes later, the trail crosses an unmarked path—the same found earlier at mile 0.8—that can serve as a steep but speedy shortcut on the way down. With the hillside slanting sharply down to the right, there are some limited views of the Meneka Peak (2,393’) behemoth across the valley.

At 1.5 miles, the trail switchbacks left again then proceeds along a path that is sandy, even chalky. Beyond, hikers round a corner into a shady ravine and come within striking distance of a natural amphitheater in which tens of thousands of boulders have been deposited. At around 1.8 miles, the footpath crosses a minor rock slide on the left, then approaches the gargantuan rock depository again.


Rock slide along the Massanutten/Tuscarora Trail to Shawl Gap

From here the trail zigs and zags up the hillside, reinforced with sporadic sets of rocky steps. At 2.1 miles, hikers will cross the unmarked shortcut trail again then round a final, right-hand switchback. By 2.4 miles, you have reached the four-way trail junction at Shawl Gap, a worthy spot to take a break after the steady climb of nearly 1,000 feet.


Shawl Gap

Shawl Gap to Buzzard Rock (2.1 miles)

At Shawl Gap (~1,700’), leave the Massanutten/Tuscarora paths behind and turn left onto the white-blazed Buzzard Rock Trail. After an initial stretch of sandy flats, the hike eventually picks up elevation again as it heads northward toward the hike’s destination. Approaching 1,900 feet, look for an obvious spur trail on the left heading to a splendid campsite at about 2.8 miles. Walk through the campsite to a scenic perch identified on some maps as the “Elizabeth Furnace Overlook.” From this vantage point, hikers will enjoy splendid views of Fort Valley, High Peak, and Green Mountain, a scene that is particularly spectacular as dusk approaches.


Rocky Buzzard Rock Trail


Rock outcrop along the Buzzard Rock Trail

Returning to the main trail, continue north on the Buzzard Rock Trail, passing enticing rock outcrops on the right that nonetheless offer only obscured views to the east. Pay careful attention to follow the white blazes, as it is easy to lose the trail amid the rocky jumble. Trace the path as it straddles the ridgeline to a point at around 3.1 miles, where an unmarked social trail bears off to the right and down to a hidden gem: a spectacular, unobstructed viewpoint overlooking the Shenandoah Valley.


Shenandoah Valley overlook

This is hands-down one of the best vistas in the area, as a sea of green unfolds below, bounded on the horizon by the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park. The town of Front Royal is spotted due east, while the blue waters of the Shenandoah River snake through the valley. The Massanutten ridgeline—uninterrupted by development—continues for miles to the southwest.


Haze over the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah Valley, and Massanutten Mountain


View from the hidden overlook

Back on the main trail, it’s time to start a steep descent. After passing under a stand of hemlocks, the trail snakes downhill, then drops sharply down the rocky ridge. At 3.4 miles, the path briefly climbs to a point ruled by two gargantuan boulders. Then it’s downhill again, at one point switchbacking left, then right. Pass another campsite on the left at 3.9 miles, then proceed another 1/3 mile to the southern fringe of Buzzard Rock, where you are likely to encounter crowds on a nice, summer day.


Approaching Buzzard Rock

The hard Massanutten sandstone at Buzzard Rock has survived weathering while the softer, surrounding shale has not, leaving behind a thin but durable spine that reaches for the sky at a sharp angle. Gray to chalky white, the Buzzard cliffs are a favorite among local rock climbing enthusiasts and, for hikers and climbers alike, offer excellent views of Fort Valley and the narrow canyon carved by Passage Creek through Massanutten Mountain at Blue Hole. To the north, the mountain gives way to an open expanse dotted with small farmsteads.


Along Buzzard Rock ridgeline

It goes without saying—be careful on the rocks, as there is little protecting you from a fall of 100+ feet. The rocky spine continues for about a quarter mile, leaving plenty of spots to sit down for lunch or a snack.


Buzzard Rock

Many hikers will choose to turn around here. The lucky travelers who left a car at the northern trailhead, however, should continue onward, dropping further down the ridge to Mountain Rd./VA 619. Out-and-back hikers can also continue on for 1/3 mile past the start of Buzzard Rock to a decent view from the true northeastern tip of Massanutten Mountain. Here the neatly arranged ponds of the local fish hatchery are visible below, with Shenandoah Valley unfolding beyond. (Note: However, the hike to this viewpoint is not necessarily worth the extra effort because (a) it’s a steep climb back to Buzzard Rock and (2) there are better views back at miles 2.8 and 3.1.)


View of Shenandoah River and the fish hatchery

Return trip

It’s 4.5 miles in total—with significant elevation changes—from Elizabeth Furnace Day-Use Area to Shawl Gap to Buzzard Rock and the final viewpoint. The return trip, which includes a steady, 1,000-foot climb back up the ridgeline en route to Shawl Gap, can be draining; however, once at Shawl Gap, the aforementioned shortcut trims at least a mile off the descent.

To reach this route, head straight at Shawl Gap (toward High Peak), continue 25 yards, then head right on the unmarked path on the right. Because this yellow-blazed trail is unmaintained, hikers should expect to encounter loose rock and fallen logs; but the steep descent is over before you know it, crossing the Massanutten/Tuscarora Trail twice and ending at the Charcoal Trail near Elizabeth Furnace. Bear left, heading downhill to rejoin the Pig Iron Trail, picnic area, and parking lot.

Even with the shortcut, it’s best to set aside most of the day for this strenuous hike. (Note: With a few snack breaks and lots of huffing and puffing, I hiked to and from Buzzard Rock in around 5 hours, but it will take longer for larger and less experienced groups.)


Sun setting over Fort Valley from Elizabeth Furnace Overlook, Buzzard Rock Trail

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Billy Goat Trail – Section B (Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, MD)


Billy Goat Trail – Section B, Chesapeake and Ohio National Historical Park, August 2016

Most DC residents who know the Billy Goat Trail brag of completing the iconic Section A—a rugged and challenging hike in Maryland’s Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. While Section A’s Potomac vistas and rocky traverses make it one of the area’s most popular hikes, there are in fact two other sections of the Billy Goat—B and C—that offer quieter and more subdued alternatives. What A offers in beauty and white-knuckle scrambles, B matches with its peaceful serenity.



Map of Billy Goat Trail – Section B, Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and Map My Hike track)

*Check out more hikes in Maryland, the Potomac River area, or Chesapeake & Ohio Canal NHP*


The hike

Both A and B can be accessed from the parking area across MacArthur Boulevard from the Angler’s Inn (see map) in Potomac, Maryland. Parking can be sparse on a busy weekend in summer, so it’s best to arrive early or late in the day. (Note: There are a few rows of spaces up at street level, plus some overflow down closer to the trail’s start at the end of a gravel road.)

Follow the gravel road down from MacArthur Boulevard to reach the trailhead on the left. Here a large trail kiosk displays maps of the immediate area as well as of the length of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal (which extends to western Maryland and beyond). Descending a flight of wooden stairs and cross the bridge over the C&O Canal to the Towpath Trail, which extends 185 miles from Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD. Take a left to head toward Section A, completing only a tiny fraction. (Note: hikers heading to Section A should bear right after the bridge.)

Walk down the Towpath for 1/10 mile, paralleling the C&O Canal on your left, to reach the start of the Billy Goat Trail – Section B. Well-signed, the trail bears off to the right and plunges into the woods, remaining mostly level for the first 1/3 mile as it skirts a ravine and approaches the edge of a rocky cliff face above the Potomac River. In summer, views are largely obscured by tree cover, but there is a fleeting vista to the south just before the trail begins a rocky descent at ½ mile.


First vista on the Billy Goat Trail – Section B

From here, hikers must mount a rocky obstacle that requires some maneuvering to clear, though it’s a far cry from the onerous obstructions of Section A. At around 7/10 mile, the trail appears to split, with a seemingly well-worn path heading left, but the actual trail (marked with light blue blazes) heads right toward the Potomac. After negotiating a stony jumble, hikers will reach the river’s banks for the first time.

Here the Potomac River feels quiet, small, and intimate as Offutt Island cuts off this narrow channel from the main drainage. Minor tumbles over rocky waters give way to a still basin, hued with a glossy sheen.


Potomac River and Offutt Island

Continuing on, look for light blue blazes, which quickly usher hikers away from the banks and back into the woods. At 8/10 mile, the footpath begins a 2/10 detour that cuts inland to clear a deep-cut ravine. The trail crosses a minor creek at 0.85 miles, then heads south again to approach the river, which is by now some 30 feet below. A window between Offutt Island and Hermit Island appears through the trees, a small channel connecting the two parts of the bifurcated Potomac.

Paralleling the river, at 1.1 miles, the trail approaches a narrow ledge with a few feet of exposure, resembling a far smaller and less foreboding version of the diagonal 50-feet traverse on the Billy Goat’s Section A. As the trail climbs, it hugs the lip of the rock face, then rounds a corner at around 1.2 miles, where hikers pass a rocky promontory that juts out toward the Potomac like a ship’s bow.


Narrow ledge on Billy Goat Trail – Section B


Looking out at the Potomac River from the ship’s bow

Dropping again to a small beach, the trail bears northeast and parallels another channel along the Potomac, opposite Herzog Island on the other bank. Stay right at 1.4 miles, where a spur trail heads left to the Marsden Tract group campground. Soon after, the Billy Goat bears northeast and climbs steeply through a gap between two rock outcrops, traverses a rocky trough, and empties out at the Towpath Trail at around 1.6 miles.

Bear left on the wide and graveled Towpath Trail. (Note: Or stay right to continue east to connect with Section C of the Billy Goat.) Look for turtles and herons as you parallel the grass-clogged canal on the right. At 1.7 miles, another spur trail heads left to the Marsden Tract campground, and the Towpath Trail passes the newly-completed Marsden Bridge on the right. (Note: This provides access to an alternative starting point for this hike along MacArthur Boulevard.)


Blue heron on the C&O Canal

Continuing down the Towpath, the canal widens significantly around the 2-mile mark as it rounds a right-hand bend. At 2.4 miles, the start of the Billy Goat Trail reappears on the left; cross the original bridge at 2.5 miles, which connects with the start at Anglers Trailhead.


Towpath Trail as the C&O Canal widens

Allot at least 1.5 hours for this moderately-strenuous hike. Arrive early or late in the day on sunny weekends to avoid a parking jam at Anglers Trailhead.


Final stretch back to Anglers Trailhead

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