Gaines’ Mill Trail (Richmond National Battlefield Park, VA)

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Gaines’ Mill Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park, March 2018

– Civil War Series –

Following General Robert E. Lee’s defeat the day prior at Beaver Dam Creek, the Confederate Army won a decisive but costly victory on June 27, 1862 in the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. Attempting to catch the Federal Army as it was retreating south to the James River, Lee sent the brunt of his force against Union General John Fitz Porter’s 5th Corps at a point outside Cold Harbor, Virginia. Although eventually succeeding in dislodging Porter’s troops, the Union’s strong position along the banks of Boatswain’s Creek produced scores of Confederate casualties, making the battle the Civil War’s second-bloodiest engagement to that point (behind only the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862). The battle was the third of the Seven Days’ Battles, which resulted in Lee’s successful defense of Richmond from General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.

A section of the battlefield today is protected as part of Richmond National Battlefield Park, situated in the Cold Harbor area northeast of Virginia’s capital city. An excellent 1-mile loop hike provides a tour of the grounds, now mostly covered in dense woods. Spur trails offer access to a monument for fallen soldiers, as well as an overlook of the area where Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s division delivered the decisive blow that won the day for the Confederacy.

Gaines Mill Trail hike information Richmond Battlefield

The hike

The Gaines’ Mill Trail is located a short drive southwest of the Cold Harbor Visitor Center in Richmond National Battlefield Park. Follow Watt House Road south as it crosses wood-laced Boatswain’s Creek and then climbs up Turkey Hill to an open field where the road ends. Next to the parking area and trailhead is the Watt House, once the centerpiece of a small plantation and a makeshift field hospital during the battle.

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Watt House

It was here at Turkey Hill that Porter positioned his forces to protect against a potential attack on the rear of McClellan’s army. In the early morning hours of June 27, McClellan decided to begin withdrawing the entire Army of the Potomac southward to the James River. To his commanders, this was billed as a “change of base”—but in reality, this was simply cover for what amounted to a retreat. According to historian Stephen Sears, McClellan decided that day that he was “quitting his grand campaign, surrendering the initiative, and giving up all hope of laying siege of Richmond from the line of the Chickahominy.”[1]

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Near the parking area

As day broke on June 27, however, Porter believed that his orders were to hold off a Confederate assault at any cost. Retreating east a few miles from Beaver Dam Creek, Porter’s 5th Corps set up a strong defensive position along Boatswain’s Creek. At the Watt House, Capt. William Weeden set up two guns aimed northwest across the woody ravine. (Note: This position is marked by two cannons today, within sight of the parking area.)

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Trail map

From the parking area, a dirt trail heads downhill off to the right, while a gravel road continues west across the grassy pasture. Bear right on the trail, beginning a counterclockwise loop around the Gaines’ Mill Trail (or Gaines’ Mill Breakthrough Trail, as it is officially called). The path makes haste for the edge of the woods, where an interpretive sign offers an overview of the battle. Beyond, the trail drops into the woody ravine, snaking down the north-facing slope at the heart of the action during the battle.

After a second sign, hikers will get their first views of Boatswain’s Creek, the boggy obstacle that separated the Union and Confederate forces for much of the day. At about 2/10 mile, the path flattens out and approaches the edge of the stream.

 

Following a minor skirmish at around noon, major fighting did not occur until around 2:30 pm, when Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg’s Confederate brigade attacked Union forces at a point roughly ½ mile east of your present location. Despite assaults all along the Federal line, Confederates largely failed to gain a foothold across the creek until very late in the day—when at last, at around 7pm, when Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood’s brigade pierced the Union defenses. (Note: Like at Beaver Dam Creek the day prior, famed General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was late to the fight at Gaines’ Mill.)

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Boatswain’s Creek, where John Bell Hood’s brigade pierced the Union line

After following the gentle stream for around 150 yards, the Gaines’ Mill Trail reaches the decisive point where Hood’s brigade charged across Boatswain’s Creek. With the sun setting on the battlefield, Lee reportedly asked Hood: “This must be done. Can you break the line?” Hood’s response: “I will try.”[2] Try he did, eventually succeeding where dozens of other units had failed during the day.

From here the path leaves the creek and winds left up through a minor gap in the wooded hills. At about 0.3 miles, stay right at the trail fork. (Note: Heading left offers a shortcut back to the trailhead and passes a marker dedicated to Hood’s breakthrough in the Federal line.) The narrowing trail beyond ascends a minor slope amid a sea of beech trees.

At 0.35 miles, a spur trail to the right offers a short detour for curious hikers. After crossing Boatswain’s Creek, the path climbs sharply uphill—effectively going behind the Confederate lines—and ends at a grassy patch with a granite monument to Hood’s “Texas Brigade.”

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Texas Monument at Gaines’ Mill

Beyond lies the gravel Watt House Road; while private property lies to the right, continue left to enter the vast, largely tree-less tract of land that was acquired and transferred to the National Park Service in 2014. The tract has no official trails, but it is possible to follow a faded gravel road across the fields, which were effectively a staging area for Confederate forces during the latter hours of the battle.

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New tract at Gaines’ Mill

Returning back to the main trail, bear right as the path enters an area flooded by Longstreet’s division around dusk on June 27, 1862. While Hood’s brigade (part of Brig. Gen. W. H. C. Whiting) first breached the Union lines, it was Longstreet’s division—which trudged through thick swamp from the west—that delivered the final blow to Porter’s forces, forcing a Federal retreat.

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Gaines’ Mill Trail

At 0.75 miles, the trail approaches a monument dedicated to Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade, which led Longstreet’s charge and seized this hill—but at great cost: Wilcox’s four regiments lost nearly a third of all their men in the battle.

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Wilcox monument

From the Wilcox monument, the Gaines’ Mill Trail bears southeast, leaving views of the creek behind and heading back toward the trailhead. At about 0.9 miles, the path abruptly reemerges from the woods, returning to the open fields of Turkey Hill. The hike is not over, however: at the next fork, bear right and follow the grassy path—between two sets of snake rail fence—to the Battlefield Overlook.

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Gaines’ Mill Trail spur to the Battlefield Overlook

The overlook is somewhat underwhelming, with scattered foliage partly obscuring views across the fields to the west. (Note: The extreme right of Longstreet’s division barreled up this hillside during the evening assault.) There is an interesting panel, however, on the use of survey balloons during the battle, the only time during the Civil War that the two sides used aerial reconnaissance at the same time.

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Battlefield Overlook

Heading back east on the trail, follow the grassy tread back toward the Watt House, staying straight at both trail forks. At the second junction, two artillery pieces mark the location of two guns operated by Union Capt. Stephen H. Weed’s artillery batteries during the battle.

Weed’s men would be forced to abandon the artillery as they—and the rest of Porter’s forces—retreated during the evening of June 27. Even in defeat, however, Porter’s 5th Corps achieved its purpose: covering the retreat of the Union Army as it moved south toward the James River. The Battle of Gaines’ Mill was celebrated as a Confederate victory in the South, but it came at a steep price of around 9,000 men killed and wounded.

The trail ends shortly after merging with a gravel road that cuts across Turkey Hill. The loop clocks in at about 1.3 miles (including the two spurs), roughly a 1-1 ½ hour hike across one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battlefields.

 

[1] Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 211.

[2] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 240.

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Beaver Dam Creek Trail (Richmond National Battlefield Park, VA)

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Beaver Dam Creek Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park, March 2018

– Civil War Series –

The Battle of Beaver Dam Creek—also known as the Battle of Mechanicsville or Ellerson’s Mill—is widely remembered today for being General Robert E. Lee’s debut as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. With the Union Army on the doorstep of Richmond in June 1862, Lee embarked on a series of offensive maneuvers to fend off the numerically superior Federal forces. The first of these attacks, at Beaver Dam Creek, was a tactical defeat for the Southerners but a strategic victory; the engagement on June 26, 1862 was enough to persuade Union General George McClellan to withdraw his forces to the east, taking up a new position near Cold Harbor. The battle was second in a series of bloody engagements known as the Seven Days’ Battles and an important point in McClellan’s broader Peninsula Campaign (March-July 1862).

The battlefield today has been mostly overtaken by modern development. There is a narrow sliver, however, that is protected as part of Richmond National Battlefield Park: it is a boggy lowland surrounded by dense woods, appearing much like it did during the battle. Here visitors can walk a 2/10-mile out-and-back trail that crosses Beaver Dam Creek at a spot that saw intense action during the battle.

Beaver Dam Creek Trail hike information Richmond National Battlefield Park

The hike

Driving on Cold Harbor Road in Mechanicsville, Virginia, turn onto the signed road that heads south for 2/10 mile to the Beaver Dam Creek Battlefield parking area. The parking lot lies just to the east of Beaver Dam Creek, today a calm but swampy waterway flowing north to south into the Chickahominy River.

As soon as the Federals took this position in June 1862, the Confederates knew their assault would be challenging. One Southern military engineer would later remark that “the enemy took the beautiful Beaver Dam position for his own right.”[1] Moreover, the attack was a risky endeavor: massing the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia north of the Chickahominy River,  Lee risked leaving Richmond exposed to attack by Union forces south of the river.

Nonetheless, Lee intended to move forward with the attack on the Federal right on the morning of June 26. The plan called for sending three Confederate divisions—those of D.H. Hill, A.P. Hill, and James Longstreet—east across the Chickahominy to meet the Federals, followed quickly by the approach of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s men from the north. The success of the assault would depend on the timely arrival of Jackson’s men, who were fresh off a lengthy campaign in the Shenandoah Valley.

Belying his reputation as an invincible commander, however, Jackson was delayed by lethargy, indecision, and poor navigation. It was not until late in the day on the 26th that his forces arrived at their necessary position on the Union right; they would effectively miss the battle entirely.

Meanwhile, impatiently awaiting the start of battle, Confederate division commander A.P. Hill ordered his forces to cross the Chickahominy at around 3 pm, without the go-ahead from Lee. Thus Hill’s division kicked off the day’s battle before the Confederates were ready and met resistance north of the river from Union General John Fitz Porter’s 5th Corps.[2] Yankee pickets fell back to their strong defensive position behind Beaver Dam Creek, and Porter’s corps prepared to confront the approaching Confederates.

As Hill’s division ran into intense artillery fire, Lee decided that he “was obliged to do something” now that the battle was underway.[3] He ordered the three Confederate divisions to press ahead with a frontal attack, spreading out across the small town of Mechanicsville. At least four brigades ran right up against Union positions along the creek, failing to puncture the Federal line.

One such position was here, at the former site of Ellerson’s Mill, now within the boundary of Richmond National Battlefield Park. Facing the creek, A.P. Hill’s fourth brigade, commanded by Dorsey Pender, streamed down the hillside behind you, running straight into the fire of Truman Seymour’s third brigade of Pennsylvania reserves.[4] Pender’s brigade suffered heavy casualties, as did the Confederate forces of Roswell Ripley that followed them.

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Beaver Dam Creek Trailhead

Much of the Confederate losses stemmed from the strength of the Union forces amid the eastern bluffs overlooking the boggy floodplain surrounding Beaver Dam Creek. Visitors can view the difficulty of the terrain from the parking area: a muddy stream followed to the east by tall grasses and thick brush.

From the parking area, the trail begins by crossing a quaint footbridge, where you can straddle the front lines of the battle. The bridge replaces an old crossing that was destroyed by Union forces ahead of the engagement.

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View of the battle grounds from the bridge (Union positions were on the right; Confederates on the left)

Beyond the bridge, follow the wide, partly-graveled path as it follows the remnants of the Old Cold Harbor Road to the old site of Ellerson’s Mill. Although the millhouse is long gone, one can still see the old millrace as it runs through the woods. The trail ends abruptly thereafter, connecting with a paved drive that enters a residential neighborhood.

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Historic Old Harbor Road

The battle came to end on the evening of June 26 as darkness fell over Mechanicsville. Lee’s Army was firmly repulsed, owing in large part of Jackson’s tardiness, and the Union suffered less than a quarter of the casualties of the attacking Confederates.[5] However, even as Lee’s debut resulted in failure, he succeeded in persuading McClellan to pull back Porter’s 5th Corps to a defensive position three miles to the east at Boatswain’s Swamp. Here a bigger and deadlier battle would occur the next day.

Return the way you came, completing the 2/10-mile hike, a short and easy jaunt that should take no more than 15-20 minutes.

[1] Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary Gallagher (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 77.

[2] Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 200-201.

[3] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 203.

[4] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 206-207.

[5] Michael Weeks, Civil War Road Trip Volume I: A Guide to Northern Virginia, Maryland & Pennsylvania 1861-1863 (Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 2011), 162-163.

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

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

– Civil War Series –

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

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

Drewrys Bluff Trail hike information Richmond National Battlefield Park

 

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

The hike

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

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

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Initial trail

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

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

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Fort Darling earthworks at Drewry’s Bluff

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

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

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

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

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View north over the James River

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

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View southeast

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

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

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Columbiad cannon

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

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Drewry’s Bluff Trail

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

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

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

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

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Big Devils Stairs (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

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Big Devils Stairs Trail, Shenandoah National Park, March 2018

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

Big Devils Stairs Trail hike information Shenandoah

Big Devils Stairs Trail map Shenandoah

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

The hike

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

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

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Heading east on the Bluff Trail

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

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

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

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Mountain laurel and pines on the Big Devils Stairs Trail

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

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At the Big Devils Stairs Overlook

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Along the trail past the overlook

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

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

Extra credit

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

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Near the start of the bushwhacking route

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

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Small cascades along Big Devils Stairs Creek

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

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Cave

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

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Dripping waterfall

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

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Cascades

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Beautiful waterfall

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Close-up view

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

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Approaching the final falls

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Tallest waterfall in the gorge

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

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

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

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San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, TX

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

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

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

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Mission San José

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Mission San José

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Espada Aqueduct

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Mission Espada

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Mission San Juan

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Mission Concepción

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Remember the Alamo!

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Weir Farm National Historic Site, CT

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Weir Farm National Historic Site, October 2017

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

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Weir House

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Weir Studio

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Secret Garden at Weir Farm

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Weir Farm sign

 

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Nature Trail (George Washington Birthplace National Monument, VA)

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Nature Trail, George Washington Birthplace National Monument, December 2017

– Revolutionary War Series –

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

Nature Trail hike information George Washington Birthplace NM

The hike

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

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

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Footbridge connecting historic area to Nature Trail

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

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Nature Trail along Pope’s Creek

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

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Nature Trail

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

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

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

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Footbridge to the Nature Trail

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George Washington Birthplace National Monument, VA

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George Washington Birthplace National Monument, December 2017

– Revolutionary War Series –

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

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

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Pope’s Creek

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Approaching the Memorial House and grounds

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Foundation of what was possibly Washington’s birthplace

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Pigs!

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Oxen

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Thomas Stone National Historic Site, MD

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Thomas Stone National Historical Site, December 2017

– Revolutionary War Series –

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

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Stone family home at Haberdeventure

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Cemetery at Haberdeventure

 

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

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

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

Coastal Trail Lands End GGNRA hike information

Coastal Trail Lands End GGNRA map

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

The hike

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

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

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

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Cypress forest

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

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Golden Gate Bridge from Coastal Trail Overlook

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

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Sleeping Man Rock and Lobos Rock

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

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

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Mile Rock Lookout Trail

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Mile Rock Beach

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

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Mile Rock Beach from near the Labyrinth

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Labyrinth

 

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

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Painted Rock

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

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Coastal Trail en route to Eagle’s Point

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

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Eagle’s Point Overlook

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

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