Caves Trail (Craters of the Moon National Monument, ID)

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Indian Tunnel, Caves Trail, Craters of the Moon National Monument, August 2019

Following a volcanic eruption, underground lava tubes serve as thoroughfares for draining molten lava. When the lava cools and remaining flows drain out of the tubes, the subterranean passageways remain, leaving behind caves to explore. There are several spots in the United States to see lava tubes, including Lava Beds National Monument in northern California, Newberry National Volcanic Monument in central Oregon, and, of course, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. Another less known spot is Craters of the Moon National Monument in south-central Idaho, where relatively recent volcanic activity (15,000-2,000 years ago) left behind a lunar-like landscape on the northern fringes of the Snake River Basin. The 1.5-mile Caves Trail provides access to four cool, dark lava tubes, while the surface hike traverses an interesting mix of aa and pahoehoe lava flows.

Caves Trail Craters of the Moon hike information

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Map of Caves Trail, Craters of the Moon National Monument

The hike

Caving is a popular activity at Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument, but all spelunkers must first obtain a free permit at the Visitor Center situated at the start of the Loop Drive Tour. (Note: Because of the spread of white nose syndrome among bats, the park ranger at the time of the author’s visit in August 2019 were requiring that hikers seeking a cave permit must wear shoes that have never been in another cave previously.)

After obtaining a permit (a simple bat-shaped stamp), visitors can reach the Caves Trailhead only after driving most of the way around the one-way Loop Road through the park. Expect to see plenty of crowds at the trailhead on sunny summer days and weekends, with groups of kids flocking to the caves with their headlamps in tow. Be sure to wear sturdy, close-toed shoes, a jacket, and carry a flashlight or headlamp of your own before setting off on the Caves Trail, as the lava tubes are rocky, chilly, and, in some cases, pitch black.

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Start of the Caves Trail, Craters of the Moon National Monument

From the parking area, a paved, easy-to-follow path bears southwest across a craggy field of aa lava, part of the so-called Serrate Flow. The peaks to the north and east are the Pioneer Mountains and Lost River Range, while the tree-studded cinder cone to the south is Big Cinder Butte (6,515’), the highest volcanic feature at Craters of the Moon. After around 250 yards of hiking in the exposed sun, the trail cuts through a ridge of uplifted lava rock and traverses a small trench on the left. Shortly after, the lava turns from aa to pahoehoe, a smoother alternative. At 2/10 mile, an interpretive sign on the right explains the features of lava tubes.

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Looking back at the Caves Trail, toward the parking are and Pioneer Mountains

Dewdrop and Indian Tunnel Caves

Finally, at 3/10 mile, hikers will reach a trail junction, which doubles as the entrance area for Dewdrop Cave. This introductory cave is the shortest of the four and requires some minor scrambling to negotiate. Inside, there is a blocked-off section with green-tinted rock, while the main draw is the small water droplets inside the cave that give it its name. Also look for smooth pahoehoe flows, where the lava appears to have cooled after flowing over itself, forming slippery tube-like pillars.

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Dewdrop Cave

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Interesting lava flow in Dewdrop Cave

Back on the surface, bear right at the trail junction, heading in the direction of the second and most interesting of the lava tubes, Indian Tunnel Cave. At 4/10 mile, the well-trodden path passes over a section where the cave has collapsed on both sides—the natural end for all lava tubes with fragile ceilings. At 0.45 mile, another cave entrance is visible on the right. Venture a little further to the official start of the Indian Tunnel Cave.

Indian Tunnel is not a traditional cave, per se, as several collapses over time have spliced the lava tube into several sections, none of which is fully dark. It is these patches of light, however, in addition to the tunnel’s high and wide passage, that make this the most interesting cave of the four. To begin, descend the staircase into the broad tunnel, then follow the cave straight, passing under the first overhang. The iron tinge on the ceilings gives the cave a slight orange hue, a welcome contrast to the otherwise black and gray landscape.

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Just beyond the entrance to Indian Tunnel Cave

After skirting a rock jumble under a skylight, the cave darkens and narrows slightly—follow the path of least resistance to avoid the craggy surface rocks. The darkness is interrupted after a hundred yards or so by another skylight, this one leaving behind a boulder mass that requires some minor scrambling to clear. After a couple short cave sections, the trail makes way for the exit—a tiny wedge through a double-arched passageway, requiring hikers to duck their heads awkwardly, then pull themselves up out of the small tunnel.

From here, it is a straightforward walk back up to the surface. Once out of the cave, follow a series of stakes in the ground to make your way back to the initial entrance of the Indian Tunnel Cave. Then, once back on the paved trail, head back to the trail junction at Dewdrop Cave; this time, turn right toward Boy Scout and Beauty Caves.

Boy Scout and Beauty Caves

From the junction, it is roughly 250 yards across pahoehoe lava flows to the petite entrance to Boy Scout Cave on the left. This small passage, the second-longest of the group, is also the most strenuous. Hikers entering this cave will have to use caution on slippery and jagged rocks and, although the cave is not an extremely tight squeeze, it will sometimes require getting on hands and knees. The initial descent from the entrance is the steepest and most difficult. Those carrying backpacks are wise to shed them.

The principal attraction of Boy Scout Cave is the frozen ice, visible year-round in the chilly lava tube. The first ice patches (in the summer) are found in the initial entry room, but thicker patches are visible the further one travels into the cave. Most will turn around after about 250 feet, where the lava tube thins to a shallow passage with very low ceilings.

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Boy Scout Cave

There are also alternative passages back near the entrance heading in the opposite direction, although these are even more strenuous than the main course.

Exiting the Boy Scout Cave the way you came in, climb back up to the main trail and continue in a northwesterly direction toward the final attraction of the hike: Beauty Cave. As the name suggests, Beauty has slightly more attractive features than the other caves, including modest lavacicles and dripping water. After an initial descent at the entrance, the rest of the cave—though short—is relatively easy to traverse. Again, there are other side passages to explore, although they end relatively quickly.

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Passageway in Beauty Cave

After visiting Beauty Cave, make your way back to the main trail junction at Dewdrop, then continue right, back to the parking area. All told, not including the caves, the trail distance clocks in between 1.5 and 1.6 miles. To be frank, the lava tubes, while offering a fun opportunity to try some spelunking, are not the nation’s finest: for more diverse and colorful lave tubes, try the collection of caves at Lava Beds National Monument in California.

Extra credit

To cap off a visit to Craters of the Moon, climb the short, 0.2-mile trail to the summit of Inferno Cone for panoramic views of the area.

Posted in Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, Moderate Hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inferno Cone (Craters of the Moon National Monument, ID)

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Inferno Cone, Craters of the Moon National Monument, August 2019

“A weird and scenic landscape, peculiar to itself” is how President Calvin Coolidge described the volcanic, lunar-like landscape in south-central Idaho when he created Craters of the Moon National Monument in 1924. In the years before the designation, hearty explorers and geologists had crisscrossed and documented the unique volcanic features of the area, discovering a mishmash of cooled lava beds, cinder cones, fissures, and lava tubes. Among the various landmarks is Inferno Cone, a cinder cone that rises several hundred feet from the surface, offering panoramic views of Craters of the Moon, the Pioneer Mountains, and the surrounding Snake River Basin. The popular Inferno Cone Trail provides short but steep access to the summit.

Inferno Cone Trail Craters of the Moon hike information

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Map of Inferno Cone Trail, Craters of the Moon National Monument

The hike

Craters of the Moon National Monument spans a massive 750,000 acres in south-central Idaho, but the vast majority of visitors are confined to the northwest corner of the park, where a 7-mile loop road offers up-close access to the various volcanic features. Inferno Cone is Stop #4 on the Loop Drive Tour. (Note: Stop by the Visitor Center for maps and other information.)

From the parking area, first check out the information panels, which explain that cinder cones, despite appearing to be volcanoes in themselves, are in fact just accumulations of volcanic cinders from nearby explosions. The area all around you, however, was shaped by volcanic activity, and not so long ago: only 2,000 years ago, the area was rocked by eruptions similar to what might find in Hawaii today. Today, the basaltic lava fields are some of the largest and best preserved in the world.

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Climbing the steep slope up Inferno Cone

The hike up Inferno Cone is straightforward, covering 160 feet in elevation gain over the course of 2/10 mile. Hikers will crest an initial hump about halfway up, followed by a brief pause and then another steep incline. There are no switchbacks to ease the climb, but the ascent is over soon enough, requiring about 10-15 minutes to reach the summit.

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Heading up Inferno Cone

While the ascent traverses only black soil, it comes as a surprise to find vegetation at the top of Inferno Cone. A healthy juniper offers shade in an otherwise exposed area, while patches of sagebrush and low grasses dot the high slopes.

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Lonely juniper on Inferno Cone, with Big Southern Butte and the Snake River Plain beyond

Beyond these hearty plants, there are few obstructions at the summit, facilitating 360-degree views of the area. The northward vista covers Paisley Cone (6,107’), Sunset Cone (6,410’), and the towering Pioneer Mountains beyond. To the northeast is the Lost River Range, which includes the highest peak in Idaho (Borah Peak, 12,662’), as well as Arco, the nearest town and first in the world to be lit by nuclear power. Beyond the juniper, to the east, the Big Southern Butte (7,550’) (outside the park) and a couple of kipukas—islands of sagebrush amid the lava fields—are visible in the distance.

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Looking northeast toward Arco, the Pioneer Mountains, and the Lost River Range

Big Cinder Butte (6,515’) dominates the landscape to the south—this is the highest volcanic peak and largest cinder cone in Craters of the Moon. Beyond Big Cinder Butte, miles and miles of lava flows stretch to the horizon. (Note: This rarely-visited section of the park is reachable by way of the lengthy Wilderness Trail.)

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The author at Inferno Cone, with Big Cinder Butte beyond

Finally, looking west, one can peer over a collection of small but historically potent spatter cones, lava-spewing vents that were responsible for much of the lava protrusions covering the basin today. These cones are set against the backdrop of the much larger Silent Cone (6,357’), another cinder cone in the park.

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View of the spatter cones from Inferno Cone

Take a half hour or so to soak in the excellent views and admire the various volcanic features at one of the park’s best viewpoints. Then head back the way you came, descending sharply to the parking area for Inferno Cone. Most visitors from here will continue on to Stop #5, the Spatter Cones and Big Crater Area.

Posted in Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, Moderate Hikes | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bradley Lake, Taggart Lake, and Beaver Creek Trail Loop (Grand Teton National Park, WY)

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Taggart Lake, Valley Trail, Grand Teton National Park, August 2019

As glaciers carved the various canyons of Grand Teton National Park, they pushed enormous heaps of rocky debris down to the base of the sharp peaks, forming what geologists and climatologists today call moraines. In the centuries—millennia—that passed, the retreating glaciers left behind still, blue lakes, and vibrant evergreen forests and meadows blanketed the moraines, creating the picturesque setting of today. The 5.8-mile hike to Bradley and Taggart Lakes—with a foray down the Beaver Creek Trail thrown in for good measure—traverses this moraine landscape, with excellent views of the Cathedral Group, including Grand Teton. The moderately difficult circuit, with some minor elevation gain, provides an easier alternative to other nearby day hikes that lead sharply uphill into the Teton Range.

Bradley Lake Taggart Lake Beaver Creek Trail hike information Grand Teton

Bradley and Taggart Lakes trail map Grand Teton

Map of Bradley and Taggart Lakes Loop, Grand Teton National Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

For hikers with the luxury of two cars—or a drop-off and pick-up—the ideal way to see Bradley and Taggart Lakes is via a one-way trek, starting at Lupine Meadows Trailhead and ending at Taggart Lake Trailhead. Most visitors will not have such a luxury, however, and should instead make a loop out of it, starting at Taggart Lake Trailhead, a popular parking area in the heart of Grand Teton National Park. Arrive early or late to minimize the crowds and maximize the likelihood of grabbing a parking spot.

From the Taggart Lake Trailhead (confusingly, also known as the Bradley Lake Trailhead), head straight on the gravel path that leads westward across a sagebrush plain. With few obstructions in the way, the opening section offers excellent views right away: ahead, on a clear day, the Cathedral Group—including Grand Teton (13,770’), Mount Owen (12,928’), Middle Teton (12,804’), Teewinot Mountain (12,325’), and Nez Perce Peak (11,901’)—dominates the skyline. These jagged peaks of the Teton Range are some of the youngest in North America, uplifting for less than 10 million years, at the same time that the bedrock that forms Jackson Hole has continued to drop.

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Stunning view of the Cathedral Group (Nez Perce Peak, Grand Teton, Mount Owen, and Teewinot Mountain) from the Taggart Lake Trail

The beauty is marred briefly by an unattractive string of power lines, which hikers pass under after about 200 yards. Here the route splits in four directions: a single-track continues straight, the wide path bears right, while a less visible, rutted double-track veers off to the left. Head north (right) on the broad path toward Taggart and Bradley Lakes. Follow this track for about 2/10 mile as the tree cover gets denser. The route splits again at 3/10 mile, with the old road heading left while the Taggart Lake Trail bears right. Stay right on this narrower path, which climbs gently through an aspen grove and crosses rumbling Taggart Creek. Look up to the left, where Grand Teton peeks above the trees, framed nicely with the tumbling cascades in the foreground.

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Crossing Taggart Lake, with Grand Teton (13,770′) framed in the background

Continuing northward, the trail passes under power lines again and skirts the western fringes of a horse ranch on the right. As the well-trodden path edges westward, the incline steepens and, after crossing another stream at about 6/10 mile, follows the flowing creek uphill through the moraine. By 9/10 mile, the trail pulls away from the stream valley and the views of the Tetons return. In the lovely open meadow, the Taggart Lake Trail descends slightly and then reaches a junction at 1.1 miles. While most crowds will head left to Taggart Lake, instead bear right on the Bradley Lake Cutoff Trail to head toward Bradley first. This relatively underutilized trail is breathtaking, featuring some of the best vantage points on the hike.

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Teton Range from the Bradley Lake Cutoff Trail

After cutting through another small aspen grove, the cutoff trail again stretches across lush meadows with stunning views of the Cathedral Group. Various canyons cut deep incisions in the mountains, including (from left to right) Avalanche Canyon, Garnet Canyon, and Glacier Gulch. High up Avalanche Canyon, one can make out the outlines of Shoshoko Falls, a cascade that drops more than 200 feet. (Note: Avalanche Canyon is not accessible by official trail, but an occasionally used route leads up to the hike, one of the most strenuous but rewarding in the park.)

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Grouse on the Bradley Lake Cutoff Trail

After 1/3 mile of slight dips and climbs, the Bradley Lake Cutoff Trail embarks on a sharper ascent at around 1.5 miles. Tree cover blocks views during this section as the path weaves up a set of bends and switchbacks. Along the way, the first views of Taggart Lake appear—from a distance—on the left. After briefing leveling off, the trail amid the aspens and mixed conifers climbs again. At 1.9 miles, the trail finally tops the ridgeline—but Bradley Lake remains hidden behind two additional crests.

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View of Taggart Lake from the Bradley Lake Cutoff Trail

The narrow single-track now descends briefly before picking up the ascent again, clearing a second ridgeline. Switchbacks lead down again, then finally the path climbs to a third ridgeline, this one with obscured views of Bradley Lake. While the loop continues left, head right for a couple minutes to get down to the eastern shores of Bradley Lake. A series of social trails lead to the lake, where wading and swimming are allowed…if you can brave the chilly waters.

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Excellent vista from Bradley Lake

From Bradley Lake, the Teton Range rises more than 6,000 feet—one of the most picturesque spots in Grand Teton National Park. Here hikers have a good view of Garnet Canyon and the steep hillside that provides passage for hikers on the strenuous Amphitheater Lake Trail. Stop for lunch, a snack, or a dip at Bradley Lake before heading back the way you came to the nearby junction.

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Bradley Lake

From this junction, bear west (right) on the Valley Trail, a lengthy track that connects most of the park’s main lakes at the base of the Tetons. After a mild meander, the incline increases at about 2.25 miles, and the trail switchbacks up to crest the main ridgeline between Taggart and Bradley Lakes. The other side has fewer obstructions, allowing for frequent views of Taggart Lake as you approach. After a set of switchbacks to ease the descent, the Valley Trail levels off at around 2.9 miles amid thick tree cover.

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Heading toward Taggart Lake from Bradley Lake area

Finally, at about 3.1 miles, spur trails provide the first access to the shores of Taggart Lake. Like Bradley, Taggart Lake is also nestled in the shadow of the Cathedral Group, but with the added bonus of excellent views of Avalanche Canyon and Shoshoko Falls in the distance. Taggart is considerably more crowded, detracting slightly from the otherwise spectacular scenery.

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Avalanche Canyon and Nez Perce Peak from Taggart Lake

Follow the Valley Trail south as it hugs the eastern shores of Taggart Lake, then reach another junction at 3.5 miles. Heading left takes the quickest—and most popular—route back to Taggart Lake Trailhead. But those looking to extend the hike with a slightly longer loop should continue right toward the Beaver Creek area.

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Grand Tetons from Taggart Lake

This route continues to follow Taggart Lake toward its southern terminus. A wooden bridge provides passage over an inlet, followed by a moderately steep ascent that clears yet another ridgeline in the moraine. The Valley Trail crests the ridgetop at 3.9 miles, and the views of Taggart Lake and the Cathedral Group are replaced by sweeping vistas over meadows and Jackson Hole to the Gros Ventre Mountains beyond. The winding descent from here combines views both northward to the main Tetons and south to Jackson in one of the hike’s most memorable stretches.

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Meadows along the Valley Trail

At 4.25 miles, the Valley Trail drops back into the woods and finds relatively level ground, approaching Beaver Creek on the right. Take a left at the next junction, following the gentle stream in a southwesterly direction toward Taggart Lake Trailhead. The Beaver Creek Trail descends at a modest clip before the creek suddenly disappears for a short stretch before reappearing amid broad meadows a half-mile later. The willow-choked stream and open expanses provide excellent opportunities to spot moose and other creatures.

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Valley Trail heading toward Beaver Creek, with Jackson Hole and Gros Ventre Mountains in the background

At 5.1 miles, the Beaver Creek Trail begins to cut away from the stream valley and climbs northward. As the smooth hillsides give way to jagged rock outcrops, there are nice views of Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Mountains. By 5.5 miles, the trail approaches the opening meadow, within striking distance of the trailhead and Teton Park Road. Bear right at the junction at 5.6 miles, then stay straight as you return to the initial, four-way junction below the power lines. From here it is a short, level walk back to the parking area.

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Meadows along the Beaver Creek Trail

The entire, 5.8-mile circuit is moderately difficult, with only brief and relatively mild ascents. Yet to take in the full beauty of the place, it is recommended to allot 4-5 hours for the round-trip hike.

Extra credit

For a tougher hike that heads into the Teton Range, try nearby Death Canyon, Cascade Canyon, or Paintbrush Canyon. Or take a walk along the easier lakeshore trails at Leigh, String, Jenny, or Phelps Lake.

Posted in Grand Teton National Park, Moderate Hikes, Wyoming | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Death Canyon Trail to Patrol Cabin (Grand Teton National Park, WY)

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Death Canyon Trail, Grand Teton National Park, August 2019

It’s not too often that one can say that they overcame death. But conquering the Death Canyon Trail in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park offers such an opportunity. The beauty of the canyon—with its rushing cascades, inviting meadows, and cool forests—belies the ominous name, making this one of the finest hikes in Grand Teton. While the Death Canyon Trail ventures deep into the Teton Range, a patrol cabin—roughly 3.9 miles from the trailhead—serves as a reasonable turnaround point for a day hike. Along the way, hikers will encounter fields of wildflowers, excellent views of Phelps Lake and Jackson Hole, and thundering cascades. While one of the easier canyons in the parks to enter, the trail through Death gains more than 1,000 feet in elevation, and the up-and-down section between the canyon and Phelps Lake Overlook can be particularly brutal on the return journey, especially in the midday sun.

Death Canyon Trail hike information Grand Teton

Death Canyon Trail map Grand Teton

Map of Death Canyon hike to the patrol cabin, Grand Teton National Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

One would think that the extremely rough, rock-studded road leading to the Death Canyon Trailhead in southern Grand Teton National Park would deter visitors to the area. But the allure of the canyon’s name, location close to Jackson, and development of the newly-opened Laurence S. Rockefeller Preserve have made Death Canyon surprisingly crowded. Granted, the crowds pale in comparison to the throngs of visitors at nearby Jenny Lake or Colter Bay and tend to thin out after the first 1.5 miles of hiking, where the Death Canyon Trail diverts from the popular Valley Trail. Nonetheless, it is unexpectedly difficult to find a parking spot at the end of the Death Canyon Road. (Note: Vehicles with low clearance or poor tread tend to be parked partway down the road, requiring a short walk to the trailhead. Also note that the Death Canyon Trailhead is sometimes called the Whitegrass Trailhead.)

Once a parking spot is secured, however, make your way to the start of the hike, where an information board provides a map and limited information on the area. In addition to the hike up Death Canyon, this is a popular starting point for shorter walks around Phelps Lake and long, multi-day backpacking trips up to the Teton Crest, Alaska Basin, Open Canyon, and beyond.

The trail that starts from here is actually a short connector, a brief 125-yard jaunt along a wide path to a junction with the Valley Trail. This lengthy single-track runs largely for miles through the forest moraines at the base of the Teton Range, connecting Death Canyon to Bradley, Taggart, and Jenny Lakes to the north and Open Canyon, Granite Canyon, and Jackson Hole Resort to the south.

Bear left at the junction, following the Valley Trail as it bears westward through thick woods. Climbing at a mild clip, the trail thins and crosses two gentle streams before breaking out into a series of sloping meadows, dotted with a panoply of wildflowers. Look for scarlet Indian paintbrush, harebell, showy fleabane, and various types of asters, among others. Views back east to Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Mountains gradually improve, while the ascent noticeably steepens.

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Meadow along the Valley Trail, approaching Phelps Lake Overlook

A huge pine tree on the left at around 9/10 mile ushers in the final approach to Phelps Lake Overlook, which is at around 7,200 feet in elevation, a 400-foot gain from the trail’s start. Better views lie beyond, but the overlook offers the hike’s first look at the crystal blue waters of Phelps Lake, the product of glacial melt after the most recent Ice Age. Phelps Lake Overlook is a popular endpoint in itself—hikers looking for a short hike, perhaps with children, are likely to turn around here and return to the trailhead. But those eyeing Death Canyon should continue onward.

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Phelps Lake Overlook

Instead of heading straight toward the dramatic entrance to the canyon, the Valley Trail from here actually drops sharply, shedding more than 400 feet in elevation in around a half-mile. As the trail switchbacks down the hillside, visitors are rewarded with standout vistas: unobstructed views of Phelps Lake to the south, with an open meadow blanketing the slopes to the north and west. A seasonal waterfall, visible at around the 1.6-mile mark, drips off a wall on the right. Meanwhile, one begins to make out the dramatic entrance to Death Canyon to the west—where sheer cliffs of granite and gneiss, rising to more than 2,000 feet, appear to narrow to a near-convergence. Death Canyon is calling…

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Another terrific view of Phelps Lake, with Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Mountains beyond

Finally, at around 1.7 miles, the trail bottoms out and splits: many hikers will head left, continuing on the Valley Trail as it wraps around the north flanks of Phelps Lake. But the Death Canyon Trail charts its own course to the right. Another short descent leads westward back into the forest, where hikers can hear—and eventually see—the cascading creek that carved the deep gorge. Towering pines are interspersed with granite slopes, small meadows, and rock slides.

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Heading toward Death Canyon

At about the two-mile mark, the trail begins a lengthy ascent, which covers around 1,100 feet in elevation gain in the next 1.6 miles. A flat rock outcrop on the left offers a place to stop for a snack and short rest before the steady climb. As the trail gains height, the rumble of the cascades grows louder—although, for now, hikers will keep their distance from the creek. At 2.25 miles, the route abruptly cuts east, away from the stream and traversing another rock slide. A quarter mile further, a left-hand switchback returns hikers to their westward trace. Additional boulder slides break up the wooded sections, offering increasingly distant views of Phelps Lake.

At about 2.7 miles, a side canyon enters from the right, and the woods become increasingly sparse. Minutes later, the path traverses a ledge section with relatively steep drop-offs to the left. At 3.1 miles, the Death Canyon Trail passes a wide alcove coated with strips of black varnish (reminiscent of similar features in Utah’s canyon country).

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Rushing creek along Death Canyon Trail

At last, the trail meets the banks of the creek at 3.2 miles—another fine place to stop for a short break. Here the sun shines brightly on the iron-coated creek, with roaring torrents of water cutting down through the canyon.

By now, hikers can begin to make out the end to the ascent above—a line of trees where the incline levels off. But this is still several hundred feet above your present location—and thus the switchbacks return, starting with a right-hand cut that clears another level of climbing. Minutes later, a right-hand switchback offers views again of the varnished alcove.

 

At 3.3 miles, the trail returns to the creek side, with even more impressive cascades. There is a third opportunity to get close to the creek after another pair of switchbacks, followed by the final ascent.

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Switchbacks leading up Death Canyon

At 3.6 miles, hikers can breathe a sigh of relief when the relentless climb suddenly stops, and the water upstream is quiet and peaceful, gathering in small pools with occasional but minor dips. Upper Death Canyon is largely flat and serene, a popular hangout for moose and other critters. Breaks in the woods offer views of the craggy peaks of the Alaska Basin area to the north, as well as Prospectors Mountain (11,241’) to the south.

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Quieter section of Death Canyon, beyond the cascades

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View toward Alaska Basin from Death Canyon

At last, at 3.9 miles, hikers will reach the patrol cabin and trail junction—an underwhelming site, but at least a decent turnaround point. Of course, backpackers and endurance day hikers can continue onward, either further up Death Canyon or up the steep ascent on the Alaska Basin Trail to Static Peak Divide. But most visitors will head back from here, returning the way they came.

 

With this, hikers can claim they have cheated death—at least after returning to the trailhead, by way of the unwelcome 400-foot slog back uphill from the Death Canyon Trail junction to Phelps Lake Overlook. While the entire out-and-back clocks in at around 7.8 miles, trekkers should expect to take longer than the rule-of-thumb, 2-miles-per-hour pace. A comfortable bet is to allot between 5-7 hours for the round-trip, making Death Canyon almost a full-day walk.

Posted in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Abraham Lincoln Driving Tour

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Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, July 2019

– Civil War Series –

Before becoming the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln spent most of his life in what was then considered the “Northwest Territory” of the United States: the relatively unpopulated states north of the Ohio River Valley. From his boyhood in Kentucky and Indiana to his rise to prominence as a lawyer and politician in the state of Illinois, it was here that Lincoln honed his persistent determination, skillful oratory, charming wit, and political genius. Today, especially in Illinois, local pride for Lincoln runs deep, and hundreds of historic sites tell the story of Lincoln’s remarkable transformation from poor “rail splitter” to the country’s most revered leader. History buffs and curious travelers can retrace the steps of Lincoln—from his birthplace in central Kentucky to a collection of landmarks and museums in Springfield, the Illinois capital—on a multi-day driving tour. A handful of hiking opportunities dot the route, especially at the sites in Kentucky and Indiana. It is difficult to choose from the dizzying array of Lincoln sites in a region with a mild obsession with the former president—but the following proposal strings together some of the most prominent and interesting sites to form a 4-day driving tour. Additional sites of interest—off the main route but Lincoln-related—are listed at the end.

Note: In this age of GPS, I have included addresses for each site (rough approximations—for example, the nearest house) in lieu of specific directions.

DAY 1: LINCOLN’S BOYHOOD (1809-1830)

Stop 1: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park (2995 Lincoln Farm Rd., Hodgenville, KY)

Billed as the “first Lincoln Memorial,” the beaux-arts Memorial Building at Sinking Springs Farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky is a grand commemoration to the 16th president. At the time of Lincoln’s birth in 1809, however, this rural homestead was modest at best: on the hardscrabble land Thomas and Nancy Lincoln built a petite, one-room log cabin. While the original log cabin is long gone, a replica—thought for many years to be the actual structure—remains, preserved inside the memorial by the National Park Service. Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park has a small visitor center with exhibits on Lincoln’s early life at Sinking Springs Farm, while a pair of hiking trails meander gently along the wooded hillsides. The namesake spring continues to drip into a dim cave near the memorial site.

Note: Abraham Lincoln National Historical Park is easily accessible from Louisville (1 hour) and Lexington, Kentucky (1 ½ hours) and a manageable drive from Nashville (2 hours) or Cincinnati (2.5 hours). I recommend staying in the Hodgenville area the night before starting the tour to get an early start the next morning. There is not a lot to do and see at Abraham Lincoln National Historical Park, but visitors should allot around 2-2.5 hours to explore the grounds, exhibits, and hiking trails.

Stop 2: Lincoln Museum (66 Lincoln Square, Hodgenville, KY)

It is less than a 10-minute drive from Lincoln’s birthplace to central Hodgenville, where the small Lincoln Museum includes an eclectic collection of wax figures and Lincoln memorabilia. Outside is a large statue of the town’s favorite son, who, despite being born at Sinking Springs, had no memory of his time spent living there.

Note: Allot around 1-1.5 hours for the museum. Admission costs $3 for adults.

Stop 3: Lincoln Boyhood Home at Knob Creek (7210 Bardstown Rd., Hodgenville, KY)

It’s another 10-minute drive from Hodgenville to Lincoln’s Boyhood Home at Knob Creek, where young Abe spent years 2-7 and developed his first lasting memories. Later in life, Lincoln recalled living in a splendid valley between wooded hills, as well as a near-death experience where he almost drowned in Knob Creek during a flash flood. The Lincolns moved here from Sinking Springs Farm due to a dispute over the land title, and it was the threat of eviction from Knob Creek that compelled the family to move again in 1816 across the Ohio River to Indiana. Today, the Knob Creek has no remaining artifacts (there is a recreated cabin and garden), but there is a steep, 1.5-mile hiking trail that leads to an underwhelming overlook. The site is administered by Abraham Lincoln National Historical Park.

Note: Skip the hiking trail, but spend at least 20-30 minutes wandering through part of the picturesque valley, imagining a young Abraham frolicking through the fields and forest. By now, it will be roughly lunch time on Day 1 of your journey.

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Lincoln’s Boyhood Home at Knob Creek

Stop 4: Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial (3027 E. S St., Lincoln City, IN)

From Knob Creek, head west through Elizabethtown and across the Ohio River to southern Indiana, a roughly 2-hour drive to Lincoln’s third boyhood home and one of the highlights of the entire trip. Situated in a lovely, densely wooded area, Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial preserves the site where young Abe spent his teenage years. Later in life, Lincoln described his time living in the small pioneer community of Little Pigeon Creek as rather harrowing, where “the panther’s scream filled the night with fear, and bears preyed on the swine.” Southern Indiana, in the 1820s, remained largely wilderness, but it was here that young Abe developed his knack for storytelling, held his first paying jobs, and buried his mother and sister (who died of sudden illness).

Today, there is a large memorial to Lincoln at the site, and a Living Historical Farm offers a glimpse of pioneer life at the time that Lincoln grew up here. A terrific loop trail provides a circuit around the main grounds and includes a series of twelve stones, each taken from prominent sites in Lincoln’s life and career, such as Hodgenville, Springfield, Gettysburg, and Washington, DC.

Note: Allot the rest of the afternoon for this site, which includes a visitor center with a film on Lincoln’s boyhood. Explore the trails and Living Historical Farm, then settle for the night in the Lincoln City or Santa Claus area. Nearby Lincoln State Park, just south of the memorial, offers good camping options. See my post on August 11, 2019 for a trail description of a loop hike around Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.

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Visitor Center at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

DAY 2: FROM BOYHOOD TO YOUNG PROFESSIONAL (1816-1830)

Stop 5: Lincoln State Park (15476 County Rd. 300 E, Lincoln City, IN)

Although now principally a recreation area—a popular destination for swimmers and boaters—Lincoln State Park in southern Indiana also retains historic value as the old stomping grounds of young Abe and the Lincoln family. After a visit to Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, head into the park to walk the same routes frequented by young Lincoln, visit the site of the old Gentry store (where Abe worked as a teen), and view the cemetery where Abraham’s sister Sarah Lincoln Grigsby was buried after her tragic death in 1928. Pristine forest also invites visitors to squeeze in a hike or two before moving onward.

Note: Spend at least 1-2 hours exploring the park before heading onward toward Illinois.

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Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Plaza in Lincoln State Park

Stop 6: Lincoln Trail State Memorial (MFM7+7F Westport, Allison Township, IL)

It’s a relatively long trek from Lincoln City, Indiana to the Springfield area of Illinois, but one can break up the trip by heading northwest to the Lincoln Trail State Memorial, just across the Wabash River from Vincennes, Indiana. The site itself is just a stone monument, denoting the path by which Abraham, now 21, entered Illinois for the first time. After more than a decade in Indiana, the Lincoln family again set out further west in search of a new home.

Note: The memorial itself requires no more than 5 minutes, but curious visitors should also check out the charming town of Vincennes, Indiana, which is home to the Harrison Mansion and George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.

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Lincoln Trail State Memorial

Stop 7: Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site (402 S. Lincoln Hwy., Lerna, IL)

From here the driving tour briefly deviates from chronological order. It’s roughly 1 ½ hours from the Indiana border to Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site in Lerna, Illinois, where Abraham’s father Thomas and step-mother Sarah Bush Lincoln settled in the 1840s while Lincoln pursued his law and political career in Springfield. Abraham likely had a strained relationship with his father and is thought to have expressed little remorse when Thomas Lincoln died in 1861. He had a much fonder relationship with Sarah Bush, however, who embraced raising Abraham after his mother’s death while living in Indiana. Thomas Lincoln’s original log cabin is no more—it was destroyed after being displayed at the 1893 World Expo in Chicago. However, like the boyhood home in Indiana, there is a living historical farm at the site, as well as a handful of trails and a brief park film.

Note: Allot around one hour for this site before moving on. Be sure to leave before 3 in the afternoon to head to the Lincoln Douglas Debate Museum, which closes at 4pm.

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Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site

Stop 8: Lincoln Douglas Debate Museum (126 E St., Charleston, IL)

A small museum in Charleston, Illinois is dedicated to a key turning point in Lincoln’s political career: a series of public debates that pitted an upstart Lincoln against Senator Stephen Douglas ahead of the 1858 election for one of Illinois’ two Senate seats. While Lincoln went on to lose the election, the highly-publicized debates raised his national profile and sharpened his anti-slavery stane that he would carry into the White House two years later. Lincoln had arguably a mediocre performance at the debate in Charleston on September 18, but the museum (with limited hours) tells the story of all seven electric political showdowns with Douglas in 1858 that helped shaped Lincoln’s political career.

Note: Allot around an hour for this site. By now, it should be approaching evening on your second day.

Stop 9: Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park & Memorial (RV3W+M7 Harristown, Harristown Township, IL)

The last stop for the day is Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park & Memorial, a small patch of land near present-day Decatur, Illinois. It was here that the Lincolns built their first home in Illinois, a modest 16×16-foot cabin above the banks of the Sangamon River. The Lincolns did not last long here, however: the brutal “Winter of Deep Snow” in 1830-31 brought unusually frigid temperatures and howling winds that convinced the Lincoln family to abandon the site after less than a year. Meanwhile, Abraham turned 21 and was determined to strike out on his own: he purchased a canoe and set off down the Sangamon River toward New Salem, where he would live for much of his twenties. Today, the site near Decatur features a few modest landmarks and heavily wooded nature trails, with some limited access to the Sangamon River.

Note: Allot around 30 minutes to an hour to walk around this site. From here, make your way west to Springfield and New Salem, which will be covered in the final two days of the 4-day driving tour.

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Sangamon River at Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park

DAY 3: LINCOLN IN SPRINGFIELD I (1830-1861)

Stop 10: Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site (15588 History Ln., Petersburg, IL)

After tracing Lincoln’s journey to Illinois for the past two days, spend the next two days in the Springfield area, the heart of the Land of Lincoln and the locus of Lincoln’s political and law career for much of his professional life. After moving away from his parents’ home in 1831, Lincoln settled for six years in New Salem, northwest of Springfield. Here Lincoln held several jobs, including store clerk, rail splitter, postmaster, and surveyor, and fostered friendships that he would maintain throughout his life. It was from here that he also launched his political career, running twice for the state legislature—losing his first attempt but succeeding in 1834. Today, Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site features a reconstruction of the pioneer community at New Salem, as well as hiking trails along the Sangamon River.

Note: Plan to spend at least a couple hours at New Salem before heading back into Springfield for the rest of the day.

Stop 11: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library (212 N. 6th St., Springfield, IL)

The remainder of the tour covers a flurry of sites in Springfield, which became the capital of Illinois in 1839. Lincoln himself, who moved to Springfield in 1836, played a key role in moving the state capital here, and he spent much of the next decade serving as a lawyer in the city. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum offer a good introduction to Lincoln’s presidency and life in Springfield. While exhibits at the library itself are limited, it is worth ducking in for a half-hour to sneak a peek at the massive collection of Illinois historical records at the site, including 12 million books, documents, and other artifacts.

Note: Spend around 30 minutes at this site, which has rotating exhibits, before making your way to the museum across the street.

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Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield

Stop 12: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum (212 N. 6th St., Springfield, IL)

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, just across the street from the presidential library, has an impressive set of exhibits, particularly in covering Lincoln’s time in the White House. While less comprehensive than some other presidential library museums, life-size reproductions of key events—such as the Lincoln Douglas debates, cabinet meetings, and the president’s murder—immerse visitors in the life of the 16th president. Reproductions of Lincoln’s log cabin and funeral site are particularly impressive, while the unique “Ghosts of the Library” uses Holavision technology to mix the performance of a live actor with a series of holograms.

Note: Allot the rest of the day to explore the museum, then spend the night in Springfield.

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Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

DAY 4: LINCOLN IN SPRINGFIELD (1836-1861)

Stop 13: Lincoln Home National Historic Site (413 S 8th St., Springfield, IL)

Start off the final day of the tour with a visit to Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the only National Park Service unit in Springfield. The site, in addition to offering brief tours of Lincoln’s Springfield home, also includes recreations of Lincoln’s neighborhood when he lived in the Illinois capital from the 1930s to 1960s. Being arguably the city’s most prominent lawyer, Lincoln—with his wife Mary Todd, and his children—lived in a well-to-do home and turned many of his neighbors into key political supporters, who would go on to support his bids for senate and the presidency.

Note: Allot at least 2.5-3 hours to explore the visitor center, take the half-hour tour of the Lincoln home, and jaunt around Lincoln’s neighborhood. A couple of the surrounding houses have further exhibits on Lincoln and Springfield during the mid-19th century. There is parking available at the site for $2 per hour.

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Lincoln Home National Historic Site

Stop 14: Lincoln Law Office/Springfield Visitors Center (1 S. Old Capitol Plaza, Springfield, IL)

The Springfield Visitors Center, situated on the first floor of the building that housed Lincoln’s Springfield law practice, is the epicenter for tourism in the city. In addition to viewing Lincoln’s law office (closed for reconstruction at the time of my visit in July 2019), visitors in the summer can get information here on “History Comes Alive,” a fantastic set of events by local reenactors with a deep knowledge of Lincoln and town history.

Note: Depending on whether there is programming at the visitors’ center, plan to spend either 20 minutes viewing the law office and gaining information—or up to 2 hours when the reenactors are on site. Most of the programming is held across the street at the Old State Capitol, the next site on the tour.

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Lincoln Law Office and Springfield Visitors Center

Stop 15: Old State Capitol (S 6th St. & E. Adams St., Springfield, IL)

For most of the time that Lincoln lived in Springfield, the state capitol building was situated here at 6th and Adams Streets in downtown Springfield. Although the capitol moved to a larger facility in the 1870s, the Greek revival structure here remains impressive today, and each room is affiliated with Lincoln in some way: here Lincoln borrowed books from the state library, served several terms in the state house of representatives, tried cases before the Illinois Supreme Court, and delivered his famed “House Divided” speech. In summer, several “History Comes Alive” events are held here in the Old State Capitol, which, in more recent history, also served as the location where President Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign in 2007.

Note: If there are events being held at the state capitol, plan to spend at least 1-2 hours here. If not, a brief, 30-minute walk-through will do, or one of the regularly-offered walking tours of the building.

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Old State Capitol in Springfield

Stop 16: Lincoln Depot (930 E. Monroe St., Springfield, IL)

Fast-forwarding in time, Lincoln’s final experience in Springfield came here at the Lincoln Depot on February 11, 1961, when he boarded a slow train bound for Washington, DC to begin his first term as president. To the throngs of visitors who came to see him off, he said farewell: “To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century and have passed from a young to an old man…I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” Lincoln would never return again, except in death, when his body was put to rest back in his hometown.

Note: Allot around 30 minutes for this site, which has a lengthy movie that plays on a loop.

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Lincoln Depot in Springfield

Stop 17: Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site (1500 Monument Ave., Springfield, IL)

The final stop on the 4-day driving tour is the Lincoln Tomb, situated in Oak Ridge Cemetery, the second-most-visited cemetery in the country. (Note: See here for the first, where Lincoln’s eldest son happens to be buried.) Under an impressive obelisk lie the graves of Abraham and his wife Mary Todd, as well as his three youngest sons (Eddie, Willie, and Tad), all three of whom did not survive to adulthood. Circling around the crypt, miniature versions of famous Lincoln statues trace his life from boy and young lawyer to president. After four days of the driving tour, starting with Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky, Lincoln’s final burial place serves as a fitting end to the story.

Extra credit

Of course, this was just a small selection of the hundreds of Lincoln-related sites in the region, and visitors can pick and choose from a broader set to lengthen the journey. Some of the more prominent of these “second-tier” sites are listed below (and included on the above map):

 

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Lincoln Boyhood Loop (Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, IN)

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Lincoln Boyhood Loop, Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, July 2019

– Civil War Series –

Well before he rose to prominence as an Illinois politician and 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln spent much of his boyhood on a modest farmstead at Little Pigeon Creek in southern Indiana. It was here that young Abe, from 1816 to 1830, came of age: he worked the fields, attended school (briefly), held his first paying job rowing customers out to steamboats on the Ohio River, probably had his first encounters with slavery, buried his mother and sister (who died of sudden illness), and developed his gift of oratory and storytelling. Lincoln’s knack for splitting logs—a necessity in this heavily wooded, frontier wilderness—also laid the seeds for his future moniker as the “rail splitter” president.

Today, Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial—a peaceful, largely forested park in present-day Lincoln City, Indiana—preserves this site of young Abraham’s upbringing. There are about two miles of hiking trails, a few of which can be strung together for a short circuit around the park. Following the Lincoln Boyhood Trail north from the Visitor Center leads to the site of the former Lincoln home and the Living Historical Farm, while a spur trail leads to an underwhelming site called Lincoln Spring. The hike then loops back to the start via the Trail of Twelve Stones, a highlight of the park that traces Lincoln’s life from birth to death.

Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Loop hike information Indiana trails

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Map of Lincoln Boyhood loop hike, Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

The hike

Most visits to Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial begin at the Memorial Visitor Center, which forms a semi-circle, ringed by the president’s most famous quotes etched in stone. There is parking at this forested site, and the walk begins across the street at the Allée, a neatly manicured lawn leading up a modest hill to a large flagpole. Start the hike by walking up to the flagpole and looking back at the lawn, which is symmetrical with the Memorial Visitor Center below. The beautiful setting is lined by towering sycamores and neatly-placed cedar trees. (Note: If you are walking up the right flank of the Allée toward the flagpole, you will notice a wide trail veering off to the right. Ignore this (for now – as this is your return path) and continue straight to the flagpole and beyond.)

Once under the American flag, continue straight into the rear woods, staying left at the first fork as the trail approaches the Pioneer Cemetery. Abraham’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, is buried here – she died of “milk sickness” when Abe was just nine years old. Young Abraham helped his father Thomas Lincoln build Nancy’s coffin; Thomas would go on to remarry two years later to Sarah Bush Johnston, who would quickly embrace the task of helping to raise Abraham and earned a level of affection from Abe that his father—who had a strained relationship with the future president—could not match.

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Grave of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham’s mother who died here at Little Pigeon Creek

From the Pioneer Cemetery, another trail veers off to the left. Stay straight, following the path leading north beyond the graves. This wide, well-maintained track–the Lincoln Boyhood Trail–descends gradually through the peaceful forest. At 1/3 mile, the trail forks and reaches an upper parking area, this one for the Living Historical Farm. Continue straight, passing the shelter and restrooms on the right.

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Lincoln Boyhood Trail past the Pioneer Cemetery

Less than a minute later, the hiking trail crosses an active railroad—the Southern Railway Cannelton Spurline—requiring hikers to be cautious when traversing. Just beyond, there is an interpretive wayside for “Thomas Lincoln’s Farm,” with some open acreage just beyond. Here the park staff have planted corn, squash, and other vegetables to try to simulate what Abe’s father did with the land while living here in the early 1800s.

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Recreated farm at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

After crossing the cropland, the trail reenters the woods and splits. Stay left, heading first toward the Cabin Site Memorial, a recreation of the foundation where Lincoln’s boyhood home once stood. Continue on the path that leads past the Living Historical Farm on the right. This is a slight diversion from the loop, leading past the farm to Lincoln Spring.

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Cabin Site Memorial at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

After observing time-period reenactors at the farm, continue straight as the trail to Lincoln Spring crosses the main park road and ends, somewhat anticlimactically, at a turn-around on the edge of the railroad tracks, with modern residential homes beyond. (Note: Somewhere around here is the spring, the main source of water for Thomas Lincoln’s farm, but it is not obvious where it is amid the dense tree cover.)

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View of railroad from Lincoln Spring

From Lincoln Spring, double back the way you came, crossing the road again, until you return to the trail junction at the Cabin Site Memorial. This time head left to the Trail of Twelve Stones, perhaps the most interesting part of the hike. Scattered along the trail are the namesake stones, obtained and placed by the Indiana Lincoln Union in the 1930s to highlight significant events in Abraham Lincoln’s life.

After remaining straight at a four-way junction, the Trail of Twelve Stones leads to the first of such stones on the left: a small chunk of rock from the site of Lincoln’s birthplace near Hodgenville, Kentucky. Next up, on the right, a tall stone monument commemorates Lincoln’s boyhood home here in southern Indiana. These markers continue for the length of the trail, tracing events in Lincoln’s life from his time as a young professional in New Salem, Illinois and presidency in Washington, DC to his famous Gettysburg Address in 1863 and sudden death two years later.

Along the way, the route passes a junction with the Boyhood Nature Trail (stay right), crosses the railroad again, and gradually climbs to the final marker: a hulking mass of stone—taken from Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois—to commemorate Abraham’s mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln. By now, you are back near the Pioneer Cemetery; the Trail of Twelve Stones continues beyond the Nancy Lincoln stone to the Allée. Turn left here and follow the lawn back down to the visitor center and parking area.

The entire round-trip, including the spur to Lincoln Spring, clocks in at about 1.4 miles. With stops to admire the twelve stones and Living Historical Farm, allot at least 1-1.5 hours for this easy and historic hike.

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The Channels via Brumley Mountain Trail (Jefferson National Forest, VA)

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The Channels, Jefferson National Forest, July 2019

Conventional wisdom suggests that slot canyons—narrow, slithering cuts in the sandstone—are relatively confined to the American West: Arizona, California, and Utah. Yet this is not precisely true. While different in character from its western counterparts, The Channels—also known as “The Great Channels”—in southwest Virginia meet the same usual definition of a slot: a sluice in the rock so narrow that it is possible to touch both walls with your hands. Once a largely well-kept secret, newly-constructed trails now offer visitors the chance to more easily access a unique landscape, a rare labyrinth of slots east of the Mississippi. But hikers must work to get here: the sandstone cuts are more than three miles—with 1,200 feet in elevation gain—from the nearest road.

The Channels via Brumley Mountain Trail Great Channels hike information

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Map of The Channels hike via Brumley Mountain Trail, Jefferson National Forest

The hike

Tucked away in a remote section of southwest Virginia, The Channels are out of striking distance from any major city—but travelers along Interstate 81 between Roanoke and Bristol can reach the area by way of a winding detour of about 30-45 minutes. There are two main routes that lead to the slots: the namesake Channels Trail is quite long and arduous, requiring a steep, 5.5-mile slog to reach the slots. A better option is the Brumley Mountain Trail, which can be reached from Route 80 just as it crests Hayters Gap, a half-hour drive from I-81. This shorter approach—3.25 miles each way with 1,200 feet of elevation gain—turns the hike into a manageable half-day walk.

The road up Clinch Mountain to Hayters Gap is narrow and winding but paved and accessible for two-wheel drive vehicles. (Note: Set Google Maps to “Brumley Mountain Trail Trailhead.”) The parking area at the gap is likely to be crowded on weekends and holidays but relatively empty on other days. The hike begins by following a gravel track heading west from the parking area. Pass through the gate—barring all but foot traffic—and pass a marker indicating that you are at Mile 13.5 of the Brumley Mountain Trail (which begins far to the west, past The Channels).

The ascent at this point is very mild, with the trail gently snaking around a set of woody ravines. Some ups and downs lead to a relatively large gully at 1/3 mile, followed again by a gradual climb. Rhododendrons and mountain laurel are the highlights of the undergrowth, while a variety of deciduous trees form a towering canopy above. At ½ mile, the path passes under power lines, forming a narrow window with a view to the south.

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Brumley Mountain Trail

After 2/3 mile on the gravel track, the road bends uphill to the right while the marked footpath to The Channels continues left. Take this turn and follow the dirt trail as it cuts westward. After traversing a particularly lush gully, the trail briefly climbs at a steeper incline before levelling off again at the sight of some privately-owned cabins on the right. Stay on the path as it continues north, crossing officially into The Channels Natural Area Preserve at the one-mile mark. (Note: An information board provides a map of the area.)

Just beyond, pass through another gate, traversing the northwesterly path as it resumes a mild ascent. At 1.4 miles, hikers will reach Shallow Gap, which—at least in winter—offers some obscured views in both directions. This saddle on Raven Ridge is just shy of the halfway point of the hike…although the second half is considerably steeper and more difficult. With a little over 300 feet in elevation gain behind you, it is rather daunting to learn that, from this point, there is about 900 feet left to climb.

As the trail past Shallow Gap rounds a left-hand turn, the steep ascent begins. After about 100 feet in gain, the path crests a ridgeline and bears right—with the remnants of an old road bearing left down the slope. The next section is steeper still, followed by a brief pause when the trail bends westward again. Rock walls become more ubiquitous on the right, and the trail rounds a left-hand bend (with the 11.5-mile marker) at about the two-mile mark.

At 2.25 miles, the trail cuts up a set of switchbacks and then enters one of the steepest sections of the hike that is made enjoyable, however, by low-hanging rhododendrons. After bearing north again, the trail ascends a chunk of slippery slickrock—ensure careful footing in this section. Now firmly up near the summit knobs of Clinch Mountain, the trail swings around to the north side of the ridge, offering more heavily obscured views on the right.

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Spur to The Channels

At 2.9 miles, hikers will reach a trail junction—be sure to stay left on the Channels Spur Trail. (Note: The Brumley Mountain Trail bears right, continuing for another ten miles.) The spur trail narrows to a thin but well-worn single-track, enveloped by a canopy of shady rhododendrons. After a left-hand switchback, a tunnel of vegetation suddenly gives way to an opening to sunny skies. Look right to spot the fire tower atop Middle Knob (4,208’), the highest point on Clinch Mountain.

 

Before heading right, however, take a short detour on the spur heading left, following it to its end: step out onto the tops of a cluster of rock outcrops. The sweeping vistas from this point are the best of the hike: looking east, follow the ridgeline from which you came before it disappears into a drop to Hayters Gap, with Rich Mountain—a continuation of lengthy Clinch Mountain—beyond. The flattop peak that dominates the landscape is Beartown Mountain (4,689’), followed in the distance by Brushy Mountain (3,834’). To the right (east/south), smaller mountain ridges give way to Rich Valley and Great Appalachian Valley (where Abingdon and I-81 are located). Peering around to the southwest, it’s possible to glimpse part of Brumley Mountain (4,221’)—although the best views in this direction are yet to come.

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Atop the “Little Channels” on Middle Knob

Be extremely careful at this overlook, however: large incisions cut through the rock, creating crevices 30-40 feet deep. The same weathering—permafrost and ice wedging during the last ice age—that created the Great Channels ahead also formed these fissures. Due to its similarities, although on a smaller scale, it makes sense to label these the “Little Channels.” (Note: Adventurous travelers can work their way down to the ground level, but it requires a level of effort perhaps best reserved for the Great Channels.)

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View east, across Raven Ridge to Beartown Mountain, from the “Little Channels”

To reach the main attraction of the hike, return to the principal trail and then stay straight as the route climbs—maneuvering some minor rock scrambling—to the summit of Middle Knob, mounted by the now-inaccessible fire tower (the ladders have been gutted in order to deter climbing). (Note: There used to be a wooden structure here as well, but it has since been torn down.) Walk to the base of the tower and continue straight, catching the trail continuation as it dives back into the woods beyond.

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Fire tower atop Middle Knob

At roughly 3.1 miles from the start, the winding trail reaches the tops of the Great Channels. Begin by following the social trail on the left, which climbs to a good viewpoint of the sandstone outcrops and Brumley Mountain (4,221’) beyond. The actual tops are fenced off, however, to protect a rare plant community called the Southern Appalachian Mixed Heath Bald.

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Atop the Great Channels, looking west to Brumley Mountain

From the tops of the channels, the final approach involves descending a steep ravine, shaded by rhododendron, into the maze of slots. The main thoroughfare is relatively wide but impressive, with walls—dotted with lichen—rising up to 40 feet on either side.

Follow the incision into the inner sanctum of the channels, where a four-way junction offers hikers several choices. The narrow cut to the left leads to a 90-degree turn and, eventually, a dead-end. The path heading straight leads into a dark passage that drops to a spooky, rock-choked room. Taking a right leads into a dizzying labyrinth of rock, with each junction leading to additional options for exploration. Be sure to keep track of your surroundings, as it is easy to get lost.

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Green lichen color the rock in The Channels

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Secret room in The Channels

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Shady passageways in the maze of rock

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Hidden natural arch at The Great Channels

Once you’ve had your fix of dark, sinuous passageways, secret natural arches, and verdant sandstone walls, return the way you came – climbing back up and out of the Channels, across Middle Knob, and down Raven Ridge to the parking area. With stops along the way—including the “Little Channels” vista—expect to take around 4-6 hours for the round-trip hike.

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Fallingwater Cascades Trail (Jefferson National Forest, VA)

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Fallingwater Cascades Trail, Jefferson National Forest, July 2019

Of the many hikes in the Peaks of Otter Recreation Area—part of Jefferson National Forest in central Virginia—the most popular is the Sharp Top Trail for its stunning views of the area. A second walk to consider, however, is the nearby Fallingwater Cascades Trail, which explores a shaded stream valley just off the northbound Blue Ridge Parkway. To call the tumbling waters along the trail “waterfalls” may be giving them too much credit, but the perennial drops do make for a pleasant destination, especially to cool off on a warm summer day.

Fallingwater Cascades Trail hike information Peaks of Otter

The hike

Driving north on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway from the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center, you will pass two trailheads on the left in quick succession. While the first provides a staging point for a nearby hike to Flat Top Mountain, the second is the main trailhead for Fallingwater Cascades—about 2.8 miles from the Visitor Center. There is room for around a dozen vehicles in the parking area.

The sign at the trailhead indicates that hiking routes head off in two directions: left to Flat Top Mountain, right to Fallingwater Cascades. While you will return via the path to the left, start the 1.4-mile circuit hike by heading right at the fork. Here the pavement immediately gives way to a gravel surface, with the easy-to-follow path heading downhill at a mild incline. Mountain laurel, maples, Virginia pines, and oaks dot the hillside, with rhododendrons becoming increasingly frequent as you approach the streambed.

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Descent along the Fallingwater Cascades Trail

About 150 yards from the start, there is a bench and large rock jumble on the right, followed by a set of stone steps. As the path gets rockier, you can begin to hear the creek below. At 3/10 mile, the trail hangs a sharp left, then drops down a wooden staircase to the banks of Fallingwater Creek. Cross a wooden bridge over the creek, which drops precipitously over a bluff on the left—the top of the highest cascade.

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Primary waterfall at Fallingwater Cascades

From the west bank of the stream, the trail curves left and begins a relatively steep downhill, using man-made steps and switchbacks to ease the descent. It is possible to view the cascade from about halfway down, but a spur trail at the base at 0.45 miles provides the easiest access. Head left on this spur for an up-close view of the main waterfall. Here Fallingwater Creek tumbles over a two-tiered slide perhaps 40 feet tall, creating a perennial cascade that soothes travelers on a hot summer day.

While this is the highest drop visible on the trail, the cascades continue downstream. About 75 yards from the initial waterfall, the creek spills over a three-tiered cascade and iron-tinged rock, giving the stream an orange-hued sheen. There are a number of spurs leading to the streamside, including one where the water rushes through a stony channel.

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Minor drops along Fallingwater Creek

Finally, at 0.55 miles, the trail descends to cross the creek, requiring careful footing as you traverse the rocky stream. Leaving the creek behind, the route begins its relatively lengthy ascent back toward the trailhead. After an initial set of stone steps, the trail levels off briefly. But a steeper uphill kicks in at about 2/3-mile. In winter, when there is limited foliage, there are likely to be decent views westward, down into the Jennings Creek Valley.

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Millipede along the trail

The Fallingwater Cascades Trail continues to climb to a left-hand bend at 9/10 mile, while the Blue Ridge Parkway comes back within earshot. At 1.05 miles, take a left at the junction onto the Fallingwater – Flat Top National Recreation Trail. From here the path narrows, climbing mildly to the hike’s highest point at about 1.2 miles. From here it is a gentle downhill back to the Fallingwater Cascades parking area.

This moderately difficult hike gains 360 feet in elevation and should take most hikers between 1-1.5 hours to enjoy.

Extra credit

Lace up your boots for the rocky and strenuous climb to the summit of Sharp Top, which offers panoramic views of the Peaks of Otter area. The combination of Fallingwater Cascades and Sharp Top makes for a nice day in this particularly scenic part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Posted in Jefferson National Forest, Moderate Hikes, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sharp Top Trail (Jefferson National Forest, VA)

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

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

Sharp Top Trail Peaks of Otter hike information

The hike

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

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

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

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

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Mountain laurel along the Sharp Top Trail

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

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First views above the trees along the Sharp Top Trail

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

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

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View south from Buzzard’s Roost

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Sharp Top from the viewpoint at Buzzard’s Roost

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

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

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

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

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

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Views south from the Sharp Top summit

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

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Sun beginning to set on the Peaks of Otter area

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

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Sharp Top Mountain from Abbott Lake

Posted in Jefferson National Forest, Strenuous Hikes, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

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

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

Jonathan Run Trail Sugar Run Falls hike information Ohiopyle

Jonathan Run Trail Ohiopyle State Park map

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

The hike

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

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

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

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

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

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Rhododendrons along the Jonathan Run Trail

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

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

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

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Upper Jonathan Run Falls

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

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Swimming hole at Upper Jonathan Run Falls

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

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Lower Jonathan Run Falls

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

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Lower Jonathan Run Falls

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

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Great Allegheny Passage, heading west toward Sugar Run Falls

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

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Sugar Run Falls along Mitchell Trail

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

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Sugar Run Falls

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

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

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