Crabtree Falls and The Priest (George Washington National Forest, VA)

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Crabtree Falls, Crabtree Falls Trail, George Washington National Forest, April 2019

Dropping more than 1,000 feet into the lush Tye River Valley, Virginia’s Crabtree Falls is often claimed to be the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi. This is a deceptive title, as the falls is actually a series of cascades, dropping in fits and starts over the course of more than a mile. But the drawn-out nature of the falls is ultimately what makes Crabtree magical: just as hikers on the Crabtree Falls Trail have a sense of completion, there is another, larger drop just around the corner. While the first 1.7 miles of the hike are extremely popular, ambitious hikers can shed the crowds and continue on, past the falls, to the high, sweeping vistas of The Priest, one of the highest peaks in the region. The below description captures the blow-by-blow of the hike but is no substitute for actually being there, where the roar and spray of the falls—as well as the valley views from The Priest—instill a sense of natural wonder that is hard to match. (Note: This hike should not be confused with another Crabtree Falls in nearby North Carolina.)

Crabtree Falls and The Priest hike information

Crabtree Falls and The Priest map

Map of Crabtree Falls and The Priest, George Washington National Forest; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The one downside, of course, is that the (arguably) tallest waterfall in the eastern United States attracts a throng of visitors: the Crabtree Falls parking area in George Washington National Forest is often swarming with hikers. If you arrive after 10am on a busy weekend, expect to park a good distance from the trailhead. (Note: All vehicle owners must pay $3 to park.)

The parking area is situated along the Tye River, which—at least in spring—is raging at a rapid clip. The trail begins on the south side of the river. Once parked, make your way toward the pit toilets, located on the second tier of the parking area (uphill from the river). Here a large information board marks the start of the Crabtree Falls Trail.

Crabtree Falls section (1.7 miles)

The path begins as a wide, paved, and wheelchair-accessible track, skirting a vegetated slope on the right. Near the start is a small graveyard, the final resting place for members of the Fitzgerald family, who lived at the base of Crabtree Falls in the 19th century.

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Start of Crabtree Falls Trail

As mentioned, Crabtree Falls drops in fits and starts, and the base of Lower Crabtree Falls can be reached in around just 150 yards from the trailhead. The multi-tiered cascade here is impressive in itself, although just a preview of what is to come.

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First falls along Crabtree Creek

From this initial viewpoint, the climb begins: a dirt track takes off from the paved path, leading into a lengthy bend that cuts away from Crabtree Creek. After rounding a sharp switchback, the trail edges back toward the stream, bounded by high greenstone cliffs on one side. At about ¼ mile, the footpath returns to the creek, where an overlook provides stunning views. Below, Crabtree Creek hurdles over a two-tiered drop, while a look upstream reveals a glimpse—through the trees and brush—of an even higher waterfall ahead.

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Looking upstream along Crabtree Falls

From here, the trail ascends a set of staircases, up a slippery escarpment abutting the creek. By 3/10 mile, hikers reach the base of an impressive torrent of water, dropping roughly 60 to 80 feet, the highest single drop yet.

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Highest drop of Lower Crabtree Falls

From here, the path repeats its tried-and-true formula: the trail draws away from the creek, with the sounds of the pounding falls gradually receding, before then switching back again toward the stream to a viewpoint of another falls. Flanked by rhododendrons, the stream plummets with great haste toward the earth, while the steep angle of the drop allows for views through the trees to Fork Mountain (3,240’) to the north. By now you have reached the ½ mile mark.

Once again, the trail pulls off to the right and ascends another short switchback. Returning to Crabtree Creek, a wooden platform marks what appears, at least at first, to be the top of the falls. However, a look upstream—past a short section of relative calm—reveals another torrenting flume in the distance.

At 6/10 mile, the trail levels off for a brief period, following the west bank of the relatively gentle stream. A dark, cave-like opening amid a jumble of greenstone on the right provides brief respite from the day’s sun and heat. At about the 8/10-mile marker, the trail approaches the base of another two-tiered waterfall.

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Cave along the Crabtree Falls Trail

Following lichen-covered walls, the Crabtree Falls Trail cuts right again and resumes its steady ascent. The trail follows a wide switchback to the top of the latest cataract, above which the creek is descending a series of smaller cascades. Looking upstream, one can catch initial glimpses of Upper Crabtree Falls, the highest and mightiest of them all.

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Cascades below Upper Crabtree Falls

It is still more than a quarter mile from here to the base of the upper falls, however, as the trail bends back and forth again to gain elevation. A short spur at around 1.1 miles leads to a view of the water as it plunges down the sun-soaked cliff. It is not until about 1.4 miles—about 800 feet higher than the elevation at the trailhead—that hikers approach the base of Upper Crabtree Falls. Relatively free of tree cover, this photogenic flume is the thunderous climax of the initial Crabtree Falls section.

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Upper Crabtree Falls

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Vaiant hikers at Upper Crabtree Falls

Of course, the trail continues onward, switchbacking again up the hillside to the top of the falls at 1.7 miles. But from the viewing area atop Upper Crabtree Falls, all but the lip of the flume is obscured from view. The overlook does offer unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains, however, with Fork Mountain again the most prominent. Down below is the Tye River Valley, where the hike began.

Crabtree Falls to Crabtree Meadows (1.1 miles)

The vast majority of visitors who make it this far, content with what has already been a fantastic hike, turn around here and head back down to the trailhead. Those seeking a serene vista to match the beauty of the falls, however, can continue onward to the summit of The Priest (4,063’). From the overlook atop Upper Crabtree Falls, retrace your steps over the wooden bridge above Crabtree Creek, then bear left on the fainter but still relatively well-trodden trail.

The creek above the falls is noticeably more peaceful, and a few minutes distant from the overlook, it’s hard to imagine from the quiet rippling of the creek that a mile-long torrent is just ahead. While hugging the creek for around 1/10 mile, the trail briefly diverts to the right to avoid a set of fallen trees. By the 2-mile mark, the trail is back to its original tread, and small cascades along Crabtree Creek have begun to return.

The trail for the next 8/10 mile is relatively level and uneventful, save for the remains of a stone structure on the right at about 2.5 miles. At 2.8 miles, the trail ends in an area called Crabtree Meadows, where hikers are greeted with an uninspiring, gravel parking lot with pit toilets. (Note: It is possible to drive up to this point on State Route 826, although four-wheel drive is recommended.) The information board, once evidently useful, is now stripped bare, leaving only the wooded structure, adding to the gloominess of the place.

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End of Crabtree Falls Trail at Crabtree Meadows parking area

Crabtree Meadows to The Priest (2.0 miles)

The approach to The Priest unfolds in several phases, with the first being a largely undistinguished meander along gravel roads. From the parking area, take a left on State Route 826, following it down to the banks of the creek. Cross the stream, then continue uphill past a group of rarely-used campsites. You are now on the Shoe Creek Trail, an obscure four-wheel drive route usually known only to 4×4 enthusiasts.

At about 3 miles from the trailhead, the gravel road steepens significantly, making for a tough but short slog up to the ridgeline. You are climbing through the Religious Range, not a proper mountain range but rather a group of religion-themed peaks, named The Priest, The Friar, and The Cardinal. At roughly 3,300 feet above sea level—and 3.4 miles from the trailhead—the Shoe Creek road crests a high gap and reaches a junction with the Appalachian Trail (AT), the famed 2,200-mile track that spans from Maine to Georgia. (Note: It is possible to miss the AT because of a lack of signage; however, look for the AT’s typical white blazes, which are clearly visible.)

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Entering The Priest Wilderness along the Appalachian Trail

From here, take a left (east) on the AT, which leaves the road behind and enters The Priest Wilderness, a nearly 6,000-acre tract of land, free of the blemishes of development. As the AT gradually climbs, one can spot through the trees a higher peak ahead—do not be fooled, as this is not The Priest, but rather a lower point called Pinnacle Ridge (3,707’). As hikers pass through a gap in the ridgeline, however, the trail cuts sharply right and the towering hulk of The Priest finally comes into view (barely, through the thick tree cover) across Cox’s Creek Valley.

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View toward The Priest (right)

As the trail climbs southward, it follows a narrowing spine with some limited views on either side before turning east again and flattening out considerably. At 4.25 miles, the AT passes a peculiar rock outcropping (a plump boulder appears to stand upright atop another) and then reaches a four-way junction. While AT thru-hikers may seek a night’s rest at The Priest shelter (straight ahead), day hikers to The Priest should head left toward the summit.

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Peculiar boulder structure

The final stretch requires a gradual climb through increasingly windswept terrain. Views are largely obscured until around 4.4 miles, when a set of spur trails lead out to decent vistas. But the best viewpoint comes at around 4.6 miles—a group of granodiorite (I think) ledges offer one of the finest perches in the state: a blissful view to the north and east, with Cox’s Creek Valley unfolding more than 2,000 feet below.

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View northwest from The Priest toward Pinnacle Ridge, Spy Rock, and Maintop Mountain

To the northwest, on a clear day, one can clearly see across Pinnacle Ridge to Maintop Mountain, Spy Rock, and even the Great North Mountain area in the distance. Straight north, beyond Pinnacle Ridge is Fork Mountain, Round Mountain (3,440’), and the Saint Mary’s Wilderness. The Three Ridges and Chimney Rock dominate the scene to the northeast, while the continuation of the Blue Ridge Mountains stretches onward to the horizon. Though not visible from the overlook, the gap between the Three Ridges and The Priest leads to the abrupt eastern flank of the mountains and unfolding Piedmont.

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View north across Cox’s River Valley and Pinnacle Ridge

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View northeast from The Priest

While not the true summit of The Priest, this is by far the best viewpoint on the mountain. Determined hikers can venture 2/10 mile further to the real high point, but—aside from some limited views through the trees—the area is largely obscured.

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Obscured views from near The Priest summit

The summit is roughly 4.8 miles from the trailhead, meaning a lengthy and winding return journey that brings the total hike to about 9.6 miles round-trip. While not a loop, most hikers will be pleased to retrace their steps through the action-packed Crabtree Falls section, one of the most stunning natural beauties in Virginia. For most, the out-and-back trip will take much of the day. (Note: It took us about 5 ½ hours on our April 2019 trip.)

Posted in George Washington National Forest, Moderate Hikes, Strenuous Hikes, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mount Falcon (Mount Falcon Park, CO)

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Eagle Eye Shelter, Tower Trail, Mount Falcon Park, May 2019

Mount Falcon, rising to 7,841 feet above sea level, guards the eastern gateway to the Front Range outside Denver, Colorado. A short drive from the city, Mount Falcon Park is a popular destination for local residents, attractive hikers, mountain bikers, dog walkers, and horse riders to its grassy meadows and rocky outcrops. While the Mount Falcon East Trailhead in Morrison, Colorado is closest to Denver, the climb to the summit of Mount Falcon requires a grueling climb of more than 2,000 feet. Fortunately, an easier approach lies on the other side of the park at Mount Falcon West Trailhead. From here, it’s a little over a mile and a half to the summit and back, with relatively little elevation gain.

Mount Falcon hike information Tower Trail

Mount Falcon Tower Trail map

Map of Mount Falcon hike, Mount Falcon Park; https://www.jeffco.us/1332/Mount-Falcon-Park

The hike

Reaching Mount Falcon West Trailhead requires driving up a series of winding (but paved) roads to the inner flanks of Mount Falcon. The closest town is the dispersed, slopeside community of Indian Hills, situated off U.S. Route 285. Even at the trailhead in Mount Falcon Park, you have already crested about 7,200 feet, making for a relatively level approach to the summit of Mount Falcon.

Sweeping vistas are already available from the parking area, especially from a small veranda and picnic area to the southwest. Here you can peer out over Parmalee Gulch, with additional foothills of the Front Range beyond.

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View from the picnic area at Mount Falcon West Trailhead

The main route to the summit of Mount Falcon lies across the parking area to the northeast. Follow the wide path that marks the start of the Castle Trail, the principal thoroughfare into the heart of the park. Starting amid ponderosa pines, the trail descends slightly to pass picnic areas to the left and right, then reaches an information kiosk within around 100 yards. Here there is a large map of Mount Falcon Park and its set of interlocking trails. Just beyond, the path approaches a fence line, passing through it at the junction with the single-track Parmalee Trail. Stay straight on the broad dirt road.

 

By now the views have reappeared, with the route traversing an open ridgeline west of the summit. At ¼ mile, hikers reach the lowest point on the hike, effectively the neck between two higher knolls. From here the path climbs gradually and approaches a high, wispy meadow that unfolds on the left. Here the route splits, with the Castle Trail continuing left while the Meadow Trail heads off to the right into the woods again. Bear right on the Meadow Trail for the most direct access to Mount Falcon.

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Meadow near the junction of the Castle Trail and Meadow Trail

At the next junction, roughly ½ mile from the trailhead, take a right on the Tower Trail, a moderately difficult track that leads eventually to the namesake lookout tower on the summit. Take another right at 6/10 mile to explore the Eagle Eye Shelter, which offers even better views than the lookout tower. This picnic shelter used to be a summer cabin owned by members of the local Kirchhof family from 1933-1972.

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Eagle Eye Shelter and the view to the northwest

What a view the Kirchhofs enjoyed! The aperture extends from Mount Lindo and the Turkey Creek area to the south to the Mount Evans area to the north and west.

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Turkey Creek Valley from the Eagle Eye Shelter

Returning back to the Tower Trail, bear right to continue east, gradually climbing uphill amid the rock outcrops toward the summit. The path divides again at 7/10 mile; bear right to begin the final stretch, a short loop that includes the summit. A couple steep and rocky sections require careful footing, but before you know it, the squat tower is within reach. At about 8/10 mile, climb the staircase into the covered tower.

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Approaching the tower atop Mount Falcon

Additional views unfold from the summit, including a look to the north, although they are partly obscured by the tall pines that dot Mount Falcon’s slopes. Denver is visible on clear days to the east.

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Obscured views toward Denver

Once ready to move on, return to the foot of the tower and then follow the continuation of the Tower Trail as it descends the north slope of the peak. This section is relatively steep, punctuated by a sharp switchback, but very quickly returns to the junction reached at 7/10 mile. From here, return the way you came, back down to the meadow, ridgeline, and parking area. (Note: Visitors can also continue east on the Tower Trail to reach the east flank of the meadow, as well as the Old Ute Trail and the Summer White House area. See here for a hike description.)

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A break in the clouds reveals more…snowy peaks

For just the 1.5 mile stem-and-loop, allot around 1-1.5 hours, building in time to take in the scenic vistas.

Posted in Colorado, Jefferson County Parks, Moderate Hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Interpretive Trail (Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park, VA)

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Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Interpretive Trail, Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park, February 2019

– Civil War Series –

1861 was a rough year on the battlefield for Union forces in the Eastern Theater. After the Civil War commenced at Fort Sumter in April, the young Federal Army suffered a significant setback at the First Battle of Bull Run in July. Although the Confederate Army failed to push the offensive, the two capitals—Washington and Richmond—settled in for what would become a long and bloody chess game. The rest of 1861 was relatively quiet, at least on the Eastern Front, save for an avoidable mistake by Federal forces at Ball’s Bluff on October 21, resulting in another Confederate victory that humiliated Washington.

Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park in Leesburg, Virginia commemorates this early battle of the Civil War. While the park is crisscrossed by a dizzying array of hiking trails, the Battlefield Interpretive Trail Loop provides the most complete tour of the battle grounds and includes a decent overlook of the Potomac River, which Federal forces fatefully crossed on the morning of October 21, setting off an engagement that ended in a Confederate rout.

Balls Bluff Battlefield Interpretive Trail hike information

Balls Bluff Battlefield Interpretive Trail map

Map of Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Interpretive Trail, Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the interactive map and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The roughly hour-long hike around the battlefield begins at the main parking area in Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park, a short drive from downtown Leesburg, Virginia. An impressive array of signage and maps helps orient the visitor, putting them in the shoes of Northern and Southern soldiers as the battle approached…

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Battle of Ball’s Bluff battle map

The story from the Union side is centered around the brigade of General Charles Pomeroy Stone, a prominent commander in General George McClellan’s fledgling Union Army. Stone, a veteran of the Mexican American War, was given the role in early 1861 of securing President Abraham’s Lincoln Inauguration, making him a key player in Washington’s defenses on the eve of the Civil War. After commanding a brigade during the Battle of Bull Run in July, he took the reins of a full division tasked with guarding the Potomac River above Washington in the fall.

On October 20, with Stone’s force situated across the Potomac in Maryland, McClellan directed Stone’s division to send a small scouting party to the Virginia side to make a “slight demonstration”—a feint intended to uncover Confederate soldiers operating in the area. The scouting party reported back that they had discovered an enemy camp that appeared to be deserted—news that persuaded Stone to plan a raid on the camp for the next morning.

Early on the 21st, Colonel Charles Devens led five companies of the 15th Massachusetts across the river from Harrison’s Island, landing around dawn. After they scaled Ball’s Bluff, however, the truth was revealed: the scouting party the night prior had mistook a line of trees for a Confederate encampment. As Devens’ 15th Massachusetts waited for reinforcements, they managed to encounter real Confederates after all, although not what they expected: a portion of Nathan “Shanks” Evans’ Confederate force—Company K of the 17th Mississippi—was on picket duty and ran across and briefly engaged the Federals at around 8:00am near the Jackson house, the opening salvo of what would become a bloody, day-long affair.

The former site of the Jackson house is situated in the woods to the west, outside the park on private property. But heading up the gravel road from the parking area north from the parking area leads hikers to the main battleground. To follow the directions in the “walking tour” handout (found at the entry kiosk), take the first right on the leaf-strewn Burt Trail, the first of several short sections comprising the overall Battlefield Interpretive Trail Loop.

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First right, onto the Burt Trail

The Burt Trail leads uphill to a vista point with a view of the relatively intimate battle grounds: a 10- to 12-acre meadow enclosed by woods with difficult terrain. The bluff and Potomac River lie just beyond to the east. While the loop hike technically bears right before the viewpoint—bearing right on the Featherston Trail—it is worth the extra few paces to climb up to the lookout in order to gain a lay of the land. A pair of battle maps provide a description of the engagement as it shapes up on the afternoon of October 21.

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View of the Ball’s Bluff Battlefield

After engaging in two more skirmishes with the Confederates, the 15th Massachusetts withdrew to the bluff (passing through the area presently occupied by the parking lot). As the 8th Virginia pursued, the Federals were reinforced by a much larger force under the command of Colonel Edward Baker. Baker was notable for also being a US Senator at the time of the battle; while “political” generals were common in the Civil War, Baker would become the first—and, to date, only—sitting US Senator in history to perish on the battlefield.

As the map in front of you indicates, Baker arrayed his forces around the meadow in a formation that resembled a backwards “L.” The 15th Massachusetts pulled back to the north, reinforced by a second regiment from the Bay State, in addition to troops from California, Pennsylvania, and New York.

From the vista, complete an about-face and retrace your steps back down the Burt Trail, then turn left on the thin Featherston Trail, which is marked but easy to miss. This path bears southeast through the woods; within around 70 yards, the trail passes a sign for the 17th Mississippi. Although the first Southern contingent to engage the Federals at the Jackson house, the 17th Mississippi Infantry was the last to arrive at the battlefield on the evening of October 21.

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At the junction of the Featherston and Markoe Trails

It was around this wooded area—open and exposed at the time of the battle—that Baker sent the Union forces on the offensive at around 3:00pm on October 21. Two companies from the 1st California, led by Captain John Markoe, fought a skirmish with the 8th Virginia, leading to Markoe’s capture. Both sides pulled back to resupply and reorganize.

Now on the Markoe Trail (there is no junction, just a name change), the path descends to a sign for the 18th Mississippi Infantry—commanded by Col. Erasmus Burt—which was the second Confederate regiment to arrive for the afternoon battle. The force took position atop the hill behind you before descending, running into a hail of Union bullets that mortally wounded Burt. As Lt. Col. Thomas Griffin took command, the regiment regrouped and split in two, aiming to outflank the Californians. Half of the force dropped down into Deep Ravine to your right to initiate further attacks on the Union left.

Just ahead, the Markoe Trail passes a junction with the Griffin Trail (stay right) and then descends to cross a wooden bridge over a minor ravine. Roughly 2/10 mile from the trailhead, another sign recounts the role of the 42nd New York Infantry, skipping ahead in the story to discuss Col. Milton Cogswell—the regiment commander—who took command of the Federal force after Baker’s death around 4:30-5:00pm. Cogswell’s forces attempted a breakout against the creeping Confederate force but was unable to turn the tide.

After passing a junction with a green-blazed path on the left, hikers continuing on what is now the Markoe Trail will approach a sign for the 1st California Regiment. The 1st California, commanded by Col. Baker, was in fact composed of mostly Pennsylvanians.

The trail junction at ¼ mile (the River Trail heads north, while the Cogswell Trail bears south) offers a good place to briefly diverge from the main loop and head up into the open field, where there is a small cemetery and a flurry of informational signs.

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Marker for Col. Baker’s death, likely 75-100 yards off from the actual site where he was shot

A marker outside the cemetery offers an approximation of where Col. Baker was mortally shot, and a broad wayside with two maps offers an update of where the battle stood in the late afternoon of October 21. What began as a meager Confederate force had grown into an enveloping army, fanned out across the high ground around the meadow. After Cogswell’s brief offensive action failed, the Federal force stumbled back toward the bluff in retreat.

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Federal cemetery at Ball’s Bluff

After checking out the cemetery, return to the loop trail and bear left, quickly approaching a sign for the 20th Massachusetts Infantry. This regiment spent much of the day in the rear, boxed between the approaching Confederates and the sheer cliffs leading down to the river. Among the infantrymen in this unit was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would go on to become a gifted lawyer and Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. Company I of the 20th Massachusetts, led by Captain William Bartlett, led the final Union charge of the battle, a short and ill-fated move that was repulsed by members of the 18th Virginia and 13th Mississippi.

From here, the trail climbs uphill as the river comes into view to the right. At about the 1/3-mile mark, the circuit hike reaches Ball’s Bluff Overlook, a partly obscured lookout high above the Potomac and Harrison’s Island, from where the Federals launched their initial approach. The land beyond the island is mainland Maryland, controlled by the Union but often breached by Confederate attackers during the war.

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View of Potomac River from Ball’s Bluff Overlook

There is another junction at Ball’s Bluff Overlook. Bear straight on the Devens Trail, which wraps around to the west, back toward the meadow. At 4/10 mile, a spur to the left leads to a pair of Union artillery pieces. (Note: As of February 2019, these pieces were conspicuously missing.) The Federals lugged three pieces of artillery in all to Ball’s Bluff—all of them were overrun by the Confederates. The two mountain howitzers at this position were seized by the 8th Virginia in a bayonet charge at around 5:00pm on the afternoon of the battle.

The Devens Trail hugs the edge of the woods for the next 1/10 mile before approaching a junction with the short Battlefield Restoration Trail on the left. A sign at the end of this spur path discusses the restoration process for returning the battleground to its appearance as it was in 1861.

A minute further down, now following the Hunton Trail, take a right on the Jenifer Trail, which plunges into the forest. Confederate Lieutenant Colonel Walter Jenifer commanded a 300-man cavalry force, a portion of which participated in the early stages of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Jenifer’s cavalry was later posted in these woods, playing a largely secondary role during the climax of the battle in the late afternoon.

The Jenifer Trail runs for roughly 150 yards into the woods before reaching a sign for Jenifer’s cavalry, after which the trail abruptly doubles back to the left. Following a deep ravine on the right, the path ends back at the Hinton Trail, completing the minor detour.

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Jenifer Trail in the deep woods at Ball’s Bluff

Head right on the Hinton Trail, continuing to skirt the fringe of the meadow. The trail reaches a gravel road at about 7/10 mile, where there is a sign and privately-funded monument to the 8th Virginia. This group fought on its native soil during the initial clashes of the afternoon around 3:00pm and then returned to the battlefield for a bayonet charge around 5:00pm that crumpled the Union right.

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8th Virginia marker and service road to the cemetery at Ball’s Bluff

It was also around this area that the 17th Mississippi arrived around 6:00pm. The addition of these 600-700 fresh troops tipped the balance decisively in the Confederates’ favor, allowing them to drive the Federals to abandon their positions on the cliff. Many of the retreating Northerners were captured or drowned while trying to re-cross the Potomac, while the rest escaped to Maryland with the heavy embarrassment of a staunch defeat in a battle that, with proper intelligence, should have never occurred.

Follow the Burt Trail as it climbs up a hillside, returning to the initial vista with the two maps of the battlefield. Bear right here, dropping back downhill on the Burt Trail to the gravel road and parking area.

All told, the hike clocks in at a mere 9/10 mile, although hikers will want to take their time reading the ubiquitous signage and viewing the many historic markers along the way. Expect to take at least an hour touring the battlefield; there are also a number of other trails in the area, although they generally cover terrain that was relatively inconsequential to the 1861 engagement.

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff had limited strategic consequence, but it had a corrosive impact on Union morale and led to the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a political instrument of Congress used to investigate Union military losses. General Stone was arrested as a result of the embarrassing loss at Ball’s Bluff, which did irreparable damage to his status before the battle as a rising star in the Union Army.

Posted in Civil War, Easy Hikes, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Millers Head Trail (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

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Millers Head, Shenandoah National Park, April 2019

The short but steep hike to Millers Head in Shenandoah National Park’s Skyland area, while otherwise unspectacular, has one terrific payoff: excellent views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley, a particular treat around sunset. The out-and-back trail follows a snaking ridge out to a series of viewpoints, culminating in a partial panorama that is one of the best in Shenandoah’s Central District.

Millers Head Trail hike information Shenandoah Skyland

Millers Head Trail map Shenandoah Skyland

Map of Millers Head Trail, Shenandoah National Park

The hike

Catch the start of the ¾-mile path from the Skyland Amphitheater, situated roughly 11 miles south on Skyline Drive from the Thornton Gap Entrance Station in Shenandoah’s Central District. (Note: There is parking at the amphitheater or just outside the “Franklin” cabins, which are part of the Skyland Resort.) The trail begins just north of the amphitheater, cutting across a grassy lawn before entering Shenandoah’s ubiquitous woods.

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Near the start of the Millers Head trail

The narrow single-track begins as a gently meandering path, cutting close to a lightly-used gravel road and passing under a set of power lines. At around 200 yards, the trail crests a ridgeline dotted with shady hemlocks and then levels off. The gravel road enters from the left, and the path approaches a small communications tower at 2/10 mile.

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Approaching the Bushytop overlook

Passing to the right of the tower, the route descends to a trail fork, where a very short spur leads 40 feet to the right. Take this detour to the first of three fine viewpoints on the hike: the Bushytop observation point. This lookout offers expansive views to the northwest, peering out over the Shenandoah Valley, itself a patchwork of open farms and dense woods. The small pond visible nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains is Lake Arrowhead, while the largest town in the valley is Luray, Virginia. On clear days, one can easily spot Massanutten Mountain in the distance, with Great North Mountain beyond.

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View of Shenandoah Valley from Bushytop

From the overlook, work your way back to the main trail and turn right, beginning a sharp descent from Bushytop down to Millers Head. The next 2/10 mile are very rocky, with several steep and abrupt bends. The switchbacks ease at around 4/10 mile, when the trail briefly levels off and the ridgeline narrows considerably. Steps later, the route passes to the left of a tall rock outcrop.

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Winding trail down to Millers Head

At 6/10 mile, look to your left for a short spur to another fine viewpoint. This one showcases views to the south; the dominant feature is mighty Hawksbill (4,050’), the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park. Beyond Hawksbill, the next high ridge includes the Big Meadows area and Blackrock, which leads westward into Tanners Ridge.

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View of Hawksbill (4,050′) from Millers Head Trail

Back on the trail to Millers Head, the terrain drops again, snaking around a set of choppy bends. Cresting a small gap between outcrops, the trail cuts to the right flank of the ridgeline, marking the final stretch of the hike. At about ¾ mile, hikers must make a short climb, finally ending at a well-manicured viewing platform: Millers Head observation point.

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Millers Head observation platform

The view from Millers Head puts the previous vistas to shame: there are few to no obstructions to a 270-degree panorama, from Hawksbill to the south to the North District of Shenandoah to the north. Shenandoah Valley unfolds in beautiful splendor below, with Massanutten and Great North Mountains beyond. The scene is particularly spectacular around sunset, as the day’s last light nestles behind the ridges to the west.

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Sweeping view of Shenandoah Valley from Millers Head

Once you have soaked in the view, head back the way you came. The return journey should take longer than your arrival because hikers will have to negotiate 450 feet in elevation gain. Pack water for this deceptively short but tiring hike, and allot perhaps 1-1.5 hours for the round-trip journey.

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Sun’s last rays shine through the clouds as dusk approaches

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Lewis Falls Trail Loop (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

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Lewis Falls, Shenandoah National Park, April 2019

Although not the best waterfall hike in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park (see here and here for better ones), the Lewis Falls Trail offers a fine view of one of the park’s highest cascades, while a short jaunt on the Appalachian Trail (AT) completes the circuit and features fantastic views of the Shenandoah Valley. The loop hike is moderately difficult, with some steep and rocky stretches; the AT section, which is considerably smoother, passes below the towering Blackrock Cliffs and dives behind Big Meadows Lodge on the way back to the trailhead.

Lewis Falls Trail hike information Shenandoah

Lewis Falls Trail map Shenandoah

Map of Lewis Falls Trail Loop, Shenandoah National Park

The hike

There are several places in the Big Meadows area of Shenandoah’s Central District to begin the roughly 2-hour loop journey, but the most logical place to start is at the Big Meadows Amphitheater, situated along the far curve of a one-way loop drive, next to the Big Meadows Campground. There is relatively limited parking at the site, but it should not be overly crowded.

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Start of hike to Lewis Falls, from the Big Meadows amphitheater

To the left of the small outdoor amphitheater, look for a sign marking the way to the Lewis Falls and Appalachian Trails. Start down the graveled path as it descends 50 yards to the first of several trail junctions. At the cement post, bear left on the Appalachian Trail (AT) for a brief moment. Within a minute, you will reach another fork; this time bear right on the blue-blazed Lewis Falls Trail.

This winding path begins within a pleasant, gradual decline along the northern slopes of the mountain, weaving amid trees with some obstructed views of the Shenandoah Valley below. At ¼ mile, a rocky perch on the right offers a limited vista; another stony outcrop minutes later also provides a similar view. By now the incline drops in fits and starts, with occasional steep sections. As the path bends southward, the track becomes rockier and more difficult to navigate, requiring careful attention. Around 2/3 mile into the hike, a 30- to 40-foot cliff towers over hikers on the left, ushering in a steep but brief descent. Outcrops and rock slides become more frequent as you continue to shed elevation.

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Greenstone cliffs along the Lewis Falls Trail

At around one mile, the path turns eastward and enters a broad gully; this is the ravine carved by Hawksbill Creek, which can now be faintly heard down below. After passing a group of Virginia pines, the trail embarks on a rocky traverse, requiring cautious footing to negotiate. Although the falls are still not quite visible, one can sense by this time that they are very near.

A set of outcrops brings better views of the gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley to the west. Lengthy Tanners Ridge dominates the landscape to the south, with some minor ridges and bumpy peaks beyond. After a short climb, the trail drops again, reaching a cement post and trail fork at 1.25 miles. This is the start of the short spur to the falls.

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View westward toward Shenandoah Valley

Bear right on the spur trail, heading out to an overlook above Lewis Falls (or Lewis Spring Falls), which drops 81 feet down a single chute to the valley below. The water flow is not always as impressive as other waterfalls in Shenandoah, but the sheer drop makes Lewis Falls appear mighty and intimidating.

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Atop 81-foot Lewis Falls

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View from the top of Lewis Falls, out toward the Shenandoah Valley

Some stop here and continue onward, but the best views of the falls lie further down the spur trail. From the overlook, head right down to the banks of Hawksbill Creek, just above the top of the falls. Take care as you rock-hop across the moss-laden stream, then follow the well-worn path as it approaches an overlook on the south side of the falls. The descent to the viewpoint can be steep and slippery, making the guardrail a nice addition. From the overlook, around 1.3 miles from the trailhead, most of Lewis Falls comes into view.

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Lewis Falls

The waterfall divides into two threads as it free-falls down the cliff. The falls are situated at the fault line between rock belonging to the hard Catoctin Formation above and more eroded monzodiorite below, with loose, unconsolidated colluvium deposits scattered at the base of the falls. It is this transition that makes the high cliffs—and thus the vertical drop of the falls—possible.

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Lewis Falls and the viewpoint

From this overlook of Lewis Falls, make your way back to the start of the spur path. This time take a right at the cement post, beginning a section of steep climbing. From here the path crosses a minor tributary, and the main gully opens into a wide, tree-laced bowl. At 1.5 miles, the route abruptly switchbacks to the left, followed quickly by a right-hand bend amid a patch of mountain laurel. The switchbacks continue for another 2/10 mile, quickly gaining elevation and leaving the falls area behind. Atop a ridgeline, the Lewis Spring Falls Trail passes a large rock outcrop on the right at 1.8 miles, and one can hear and view the stream again for a brief period.

At 1.9 miles, the trail spills out onto a gravel road. Take a right and follow the track for 80 yards, passing a storage bunker on the left. Instead of following the road back to Skyline Drive, however, take a left on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, initiating the final leg of the hike.

The one-mile stretch along the AT begins as a gradual and generally unassuming ascent through endless stands of trees. One can spot a park-owned house on the right at about 2.2 miles. Minutes later, the rock outcrops reappear, and boulders are scattered across the rising slopes.

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Appalachian Trail near Blackrock

As the trail briefly levels off, a set of outcrops on the left offer excellent views to the west, spanning Shenandoah Valley and extending to the miles-long ridges of Massanutten Mountain and Great North Mountain beyond. The break in Massanutten Mountain to the west, beyond the towns of Stanley and Marksville, is New Market Gap, with Strickler Knob (2,780’) visible. As the eye follows Massanutten north, the mountain splits into two ridges, with Fort Valley in between. The town in the foreground to the northwest is Luray, Virginia.

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Shenandoah Valley from the outcrop

 

To the southwest, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah extend out into a westward arm, with a set of north-south ridges. The hump at the foot of Tanners Ridge is Roundhead Mountain, followed behind it by Dog Slaughter Ridge, Cubbage Mountain, and Dovel Mountain.

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Blue Ridge Mountains extend westward into Shenandoah Valley

After the vista point, the trail hugs the base of sheer cliffs on the right, with the jagged peak of Blackrock above. (Note: Maps show a connector trail to Blackrock from the AT, but I was unable to find it.) The AT passes the rear of several buildings belonging to Big Meadows Lodge, a popular summer destination. From here it is a gradual uphill along the AT back to the original pair of trail junctions. Stay straight at the first, five-way junction; then bear right at the initial fork, climbing back to the amphitheater parking area, clocking in at just under three miles in total.

Allot at least 1.5-2 hours for this moderately-difficult hike in the Big Meadows area.

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South River Falls Loop (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

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South River Falls, Shenandoah National Park, April 2019

At its peak flow in spring, South River Falls in Shenandoah National Park is easily one of Virginia’s most spectacular waterfalls. Here the South River, barely a trickle a mile upstream, catapults 83 feet down a two-tiered drop, forming a thundering sound that reverberates throughout the rocky gorge. Most hikers turn around at the first overlook of the falls, 1.3 miles from the trailhead at the South River Picnic Area. This is a mistake: while the views are partly obscured from this vista, it is worth adding an hour of hiking time to trek down to the base of the falls—a blissful cove that is one of the most idyllic spots in Shenandoah. Make the hike into a circuit by taking the South River Fire Road and Appalachian Trail back to the start, forming a 4.7-mile stem-and-loop. Note: Hike in spring or after recent rain/snowfall for the best flow.

South River Falls Trail Shenandoah hike information

South River Falls trail loop Shenandoah map

Map of South River Falls Loop, Shenandoah National Park

The hike

The moderately difficult hike to Shenandoah’s third-tallest waterfall starts and ends at the South River Picnic Area, situated in the park’s Central District roughly three miles north of the park entrance at Swift Run Gap. Note: Parking is relatively ubiquitous; just keep driving around the one-way circle until you find a spot. The marked trailhead is situated in the southeast corner of the picnic area, next to the pit toilets.

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Start of the South River Falls Trail

The blue-blazed South River Falls Trail quickly plunges into the woods, dropping to a junction with the Appalachian Trail (AT) within about 150 yards. For now, stay straight—you will return to the AT later. Continuing downhill, the incline steepens. As you descend more than 50 wooden steps, the faint sounds of the South River gradually come within earshot, and peeks through the trees reveal mighty Saddleback Mountain (3,081’) to the south.

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Descent along the South River Falls Trail

After a brief respite from the rapid descent, the trail enters a series of winding bends at around 4/10 mile. Moss-laden outcrops become increasingly common, while the noise of the river becomes clearer. By 6/10 mile, hikers can spot the flowing water below on the left; a left-hand bend and short descent brings you to the edge of the South River—here merely a small and relatively calm stream.

It’s hard to believe that this small brook will soon become a rushing waterfall, but sure enough, as the South River Falls Trail follows the water eastward, the creek gradually picks up steam. The relatively level route traverses a boulder-choked tributary at around the ¾-mile mark, then the path cuts away from the water, briefly putting the stream out of view. As the stream returns trailside, it has more oomph than before, and minor cascades become increasingly frequent.

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Following the South River

Cross another tributary at 1.2 miles, then climb uphill, passing a rock outcrop on the right. At last, the sounds of the waterfall become unmistakable and the trail reaches the falls observation point at 1.3 miles. This often-crowded viewpoint offers a decent view of South River Falls, although only a teaser for what it is to come. Take a picture or two and move on.

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South River Falls from the falls observation point

After the overlook, the trail climbs uphill and rounds a left-hand bend, revealing obscured views of the mountain gap below. Hugging the southern slopes of Bald Face Mountain, the South River Falls Trail intersects with the South River Falls Road, an old fire road (closed to vehicles), at about 1.5 miles.

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South River Falls Road

To reach the base of South River Falls, head right on the fire road to begin a roughly 1.3-mile out-and-back detour. The wide road descends steadily into a side gully with views of a terrific, cascading tributary that would be a worthy destination in itself. After 350 yards, the path rounds a sharp bend, coming parallel with the stream, now on the left. From here the road continues to shed elevation, finally reaching the bottom of the main canyon—carved by the South River—at around the two miles from the trailhead.

The road ends abruptly at this point, giving way instead to a narrow and strenuous single-track trail that climbs sharply upward. With the rushing stream on your left, follow the path as it mounts a series of stony steps—use caution as they can be very slippery. Around a couple minutes in, hikers approach a beautiful, multi-tiered cascade that slides down the greenstone into a picturesque pool.

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Cascades along the way to South River Falls

From here, the blue-blazed trail climbs a steep staircase, approaching the foot of the gray canyon walls. Around 2.1 miles from the trailhead, the path finally ends at the base of majestic South River Falls. Here the stream drops 83 feet, initially in one free-falling drop, then split between two gushing chutes. In summer, it is possible to wade in the pool at the base of the falls or—for those preferring dry land—an abundance of rocks offers the chance to sit down for a snack with a view.

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South River Falls

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South River Falls

Leaving one of the best waterfalls in the park can be difficult, but when you are ready, head back the way you came up South River Falls Road. Returning to the junction with the South River Falls Trail, you can bear left and retrace your steps back to the trailhead or stay right on the fire road as it winds uphill along the wooded slopes of Bald Face Mountain. This circuit option entails a largely uneventful climb but at least offers some variety from the pure out-and-back. At 3.25 miles, the wide track merges with the South River Upper Fire Road; bear left at the fork. Pass over a minor tributary a minute later, then continue the steady slog westward for another ¾ mile. At 4.1 miles, just as the road crosses a wooded gully, cut left on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. This south-bound path gains more elevation, then briefly drops to clear a low dip before climbing mildly again. By now you can hear the cars on Skyline Drive to the right.

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Appalachian Trail

At last, the AT reaches the initial junction with the South River Falls Trail. Bear right, following the path uphill back to the South River Picnic Area. All told, the stem-and-loop hike, including the climb down to the base of the falls, comes out to about 4.7 miles. Hikers should allot at least 2 ½ hours for this journey.

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Marys Rock via Panorama (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

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Marys Rock, Shenandoah National Park, April 2019

Towering more than 1,000 feet above Thornton Gap, Marys Rock is one of the most popular summits in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. Sitting atop the rock’s highest fins offers true 360-degree panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah Valley, and beyond. Yet the approach is not for the faint of heart: while there are easier and longer ways to the summit, the most dramatic route ascends 1,200 feet from the Panorama parking area at Thornton Gap. Window views through the trees offer picturesque views along the way, helping one to forget the challenging uphill slog.

Marys Rock via Panorama hike information Shenandoah

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Map of hike to Marys Rock, Shenandoah National Park

The hike

There are three main ways to reach the summit at Marys Rock in central Shenandoah: The first, and longest, option is a very pleasant, 7-mile out-and-back from the Pinnacles parking area. (Note: See the trail description here.) The second route—a 2.6-mile round-trip jaunt from the Meadow Spring Trailhead—is the shortest, albeit with one sharp ascent. Finally, the steepest option is the most dramatic and most easily accessible from Washington, DC: a 3.5-mile out-and-back from the Panorama parking area, situated just south of the Thornton Gap Entrance Station. This is the hike described below.

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Marys Rock Trailhead at Panorama

From Panorama, look for the start of the trail to Marys Rock at the far southern end of the parking lot: a tall informational sign provides a brief description and map of the hike, as well as others in the area. The summary calls for 2 ¾ hours to complete the round trip, but many fit hikers can complete the out-and-back in less than two hours, while others who want to take their time climbing—or relaxing at the top—may want to allot at least three hours in total.

The wide and well-trodden route begins as a simple connector path, meeting up with the famed Appalachian Trail (AT) after just seconds of walking. Bear left on the AT as it briefly parallels a set of power lines and climbs a dozen wooden stairs—a warm-up for the climbing to come. As hikers round the first switchback, they can catch a brief view of distant peaks through the tree cut for the power lines. A minute later, the trail switches back again, to the right. Passing under the power lines, the views improve further.

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Power line cut near the start of the hike

For the next 2/10 mile, the trail traverses a long straightaway but climbs laboriously through one of the hike’s steepest sections. Eventually the trail curves left again around another switchback amid a large rock field, then wraps around a north-facing hillside, offering obscured but lovely views of Thornton Gap and US Route 211 below. The sloping mounds just across the gap are Pass Mountain (3,052’) and Oventop Mountain (2,468’), situated within the North District of Shenandoah National Park.

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Appalachian Trail as it climbs toward Marys Rock

By now the incline has lessened significantly, and the AT turns southward, with east-facing views into the Thornton River Valley. On the horizon, behind Pass and Oventop Mountains, lie the highest peaks of the North District, including Hogback Mountain (3,474), South and North Marshall (3,212’; 3,368’), and The Peak (3,255’).

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Views to the north

At ½ mile, the trail passes a slope with moss-laden boulders on the right, followed soon by a lovely pine-laced corridor situated on a perch above a steady drop-off to the left. By now the width of trail has narrowed significantly, and there are few barriers that would halt a tumble off the side—although the path is flat and easy to traverse.

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Gargantuan boulders along the AT

Just beyond this section, hikers approach a collection of mammoth-sized rock monoliths on the right. While much of the Blue Ridge Mountains is composed of Catoctin greenstone, a metamorphic rock, the tops of Marys Rock include patches of igneous granite formations.

At about 7/10 mile, the incline steepens again. After rounding a corner, one can spot southbound Skyline Drive as it snakes around Marys Rock to the east. At 8/10 mile, the trail abruptly rounds a switchback, followed by another within a couple minutes. Just before the 1-mile mark, a window view through the trees provides another great look toward the Piedmont to the east.

Passing more boulder protrusions on the right, the route edges south, bearing ever closer to the top of Marys Rock. After cresting a slope dotted with mountain laurel, the hill reveals itself to be a false summit. At 1.4 miles, the trail switchbacks to the north, although the ascent is not particularly steep. Moments later, the AT bends back southward, and a “camping prohibited” sign indicates that the end is near. After a final switchback at 1.6 miles, hikers reach a trail junction—the AT continues left (toward Meadow Spring and Pinnacles), while a spur path leaves to the right. This spur is the way to Marys Rock summit.

After a final stretch of rocky steps, the trail ends at a spectacular lookout. To the north, Thornton Gap and Pass Mountain appear dwarfish from the high overlook, while the Blue Ridge Mountains stretch for miles off into the horizon.

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View north from Marys Rock, overlooking Thornton Gap and Pass Mountain

Climb the fin at the viewpoint for views to the south: here an even higher point on Marys Rock reveals itself—a short walk, but difficult climb, away. This is the true summit. Beyond, one can see a stretch of peaks in Shenandoah’s Central District, from The Pinnacle (3,730’) to Stony Man Mountain (4,011’) to Hawksbill (4,050’). The shadowy, rugged peak to the left of Stony Man is the famed Old Rag Mountain (3,268’).

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View north from the highest point on Marys Rock

The views to the west and east reveal foothills that give way to a patchwork of farms and fields. The westward vista covers Shenandoah Valley (more precisely, Page Valley), with Massanutten Mountain and Great North Mountain beyond. To the east, the Appalachians come to a gradual end as a long plain leads toward the Potomac and Washington, DC.

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View west across Shenandoah Valley

In short, Marys Rock offers one of Shenandoah’s best panoramas, best enjoyed on a relatively cloudless day in the off-season, when the summit’s visitation is lower. Once complete, return the way you came to the Panorama parking area at Thornton Gap.

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Falls Nature Trail (Catoctin Mountain Park, MD)

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Falls Nature Trail, Cunningham Falls State Park, March 2019

Cunningham Falls in northern Maryland tumbles 78 feet down a set of cascades, making it the tallest waterfall in the state and a popular getaway destination for residents of the DC/Baltimore area. Most visitors hike to the falls by way of Cunningham Falls State Park—but it is also possible to reach from neighboring Catoctin Mountain Park, a lovely National Park Service unit outside Thurmont, Maryland. The Falls Nature Trail provides a moderately challenging, up-and-down walk to the base of the cascades.

Falls Nature Trail Catoctin Mountain Park hike information

Falls Nature Trail map

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

The hike

Begin this relatively short but steep hike from the overflow parking area across Park Central Road from the Visitor Center in Catoctin Mountain Park. (Note: As of March 2019, this parking lot was closed for construction, but there was other parking available at the Visitor Center.) From the parking area, walk north on a wide trail before reaching a fork; a short trail to the Blue Blazes Whiskey Still heads right, while the orange blazes lead left to Cunningham Falls.

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Trail fork near the parking area

The Falls Nature Trail starts relatively level, quickly crossing over a minor stream within the first 100 yards. Thereafter, however, the path climbs steadily, cresting the first of many ridgelines at about the 250-yard mark. With Foxville Road (Maryland Route 77) visible down to the left, the trail levels off briefly, then climbs again. By now, it is clear that the short distance of the hike—1.25 miles one way—and seemingly straightforward westerly direction are deceptive: the Falls Nature Trail ascends rugged and rocky terrain, with a surprising number of uphill slogs.

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Falls Nature Trail as it cuts through the Catoctin Mountain range

Cutting through the heart of the Catoctin Mountain Range, the trail crests another hill at 4/10 miles, then descends for a brief moment. Soon enough, it is up again, treading southwest with occasional views of the valley and road below. The terrain gets rockier as you progress, with one particularly steep section at around 7/10 mile. Within a few minutes, a rock outcrop emerges on the right, leading to another mild ascent. By now, the trail has gained around 300 feet in elevation to roughly 1,250 feet in total, about 100 feet above the elevation at the base of the falls.

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Rock outcrop along the route

The much-anticipated descent comes just before the 1-mile mark, with the trail dropping sharply to cross Foxville Road. (Note: Just before the road, the trail splits—stay left; the right fork heads steeply uphill toward Hog Rock.) After carefully traversing the road, hikers leave Catoctin Mountain Park and enter Cunningham Falls State Park. An information kiosk provides information on the park, with a wooden boardwalk beyond that takes hikers to the base of the falls. The roar of Cunningham Falls becomes audible as hikers following the boardwalk over a fork of Hunting Creek. The hike ends abruptly at about 1.25 miles, with views of the tumbling falls.

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Cunningham Falls from the boardwalk

While not quite as good as the vista from the adjacent boardwalk on the state park side, it is still possible to see the cascading waters as they leap down the grey greenstone. Warning signs discourage visitors from approaching the falls, but a couple of benches at the end of the boardwalk offer a place to sit and admire the waterfall.

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Cunningham Falls and the other (better but inaccessible) boardwalk)

Unfortunately, there is no connector to the other boardwalk (and associated Lower Trail), so hikes must trek back the way they came, this time enjoying considerably more downhill than the incoming journey. Adventurous hikers can continue northward to Hog Rock and beyond, but most will return straight to the Visitor Center. Visitors can expect to take 1.5-2 hours for the 2.5-mile out-and-back hike.

Extra credit

Experience the area’s history as a regional hub for moonshine on the Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail, or drive to Cunningham Falls State Park to see the falls from the superior viewpoint.

Posted in Catoctin Mountain Park, Cunningham Falls State Park, Maryland, Moderate Hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail (Catoctin Mountain Park, MD)

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Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail, Catoctin Mountain Park, March 2019

In 1919, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment, ushering in the Prohibition era and forcing distilleries to move their business underground. Hidden up in the mountains—but close to large markets in Baltimore and Washington, DC—many so-called “moonshiners” turned to the Catoctin Mountain region of northern Maryland to reestablish their business. The most famous whiskey operation was Blue Blazes Still, site of one of the area’s most profitable enterprises during the Prohibition era until it was raided by police on July 31, 1929.

Nestled in the rugged landscape of today’s Catoctin Mountain Park, a short, 0.6-mile out-and-back trail provides passage along Blue Blazes Run to the former site of the still. While the structure at the site is a reconstruction, regular interpretive waysides tell the story of the rise—and dramatic fall—of the moonshine operation.

Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail Catoctin Mountain Park Maryland hike information

The hike

In Catoctin Mountain Park, hikers can start the short walk from either the overflow parking lot, just across the street from the park Visitor Center, or just up the paved Park Central Road on the left. This description follows the latter, as a marked path bears west from a spot across the road, just past the Visitor Center.

Follow the wide path as it descends ever so gradually to a trail junction after about 50 yards. The longer Falls Trail continues straight to Cunningham Falls and beyond; the Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail heads right. Stroll along the relatively level trail as it hugs the right bank of Blue Blazes Run, situated amid thick woods at the base of a rocky ravine. The path climbs up and out of the gully at about 1/10 mile, meeting a paved maintenance road. Bear left on the road, crossing the stream, then look for a sign marking the continuation of the trail to the right.

From here, the Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail pivots north again, this time along the left flank of Blue Blazes Run. Logs obstruct passage for wheelchairs, but the trail is otherwise level and easy to follow.

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Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail along Blue Blazes Run

At 3/10 mile, the trail ends at a stream crossing and the reconstructed Blue Blazes Whiskey Still. Today, the distillery appears modest—effectively just a wood fire, kettle, and some barrels—much smaller than the large-scale commercial enterprise present here in the 1920s. The distilling business ended abruptly in July 1929 when a raiding party—led by Frederick sheriff Clyde Hauver—descended on the site. Although Hauver himself was shot dead during the raid, the local authorities got their revenge, eventually arresting the intrepid moonshiners and destroying the once-thriving whiskey still.

From here, return the way you came, a short 3/10 mile walk back to the Visitor Center and parking area.

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Reconstruction of a small whiskey still at the site of Blue Blazes Still

Posted in Easy Hikes, Maryland | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Accokeek Creek Marsh Boardwalk & Mockley Point Trail (Piscataway Park, MD)

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Marsh Boardwalk and Mockley Point Trail, Piscataway Park, February 2019

Piscataway Park in southwest Maryland features a mix of riparian forests, grasslands, and marshes within an hour’s drive of Washington, DC. While most visitors will flock to the National Colonial Farm (which itself boasts several hiking trails), the Accokeek Creek area offers a more natural experience, with ample opportunities to spot birds—eagles, herons, and ospreys among them. A short, 2-mile out-and-back hike covers the length of a scenic boardwalk over the tidal marsh, as well as an easy stroll around Mockley Point, situated at the confluence of Piscataway Creek and the Potomac River.

Accokeek Creek Marsh Boardwalk Mockley Point trail hike informatiion

Accokeek Creek Marsh Boardwalk Mockley Point trail Piscataway Park map

Map of Accokeek Creek Marsh Boardwalk and Mockley Point Trail, Piscataway Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

To reach the trail, pull into the Accokeek Creek parking area in Piscataway Park, situated off Bryan Point Road about ½ mile before the entrance to National Colonial Farm. In winter, visitors will have to park here and walk ¼ mile down the gravel road to the start of the hike. From spring to fall, however, the gate is likely to be open, allowing for passage straight to the parking area at the Accokeek Creek Trailhead.

The walk begins just beyond this second parking area, bearing to the left of the interpretive panel at the trailhead. The partly asphalted path quickly gives way to dirt, but it remains smooth and wheelchair-accessible. Follow this route through a clearing for 75-100 yards, after which the path bends sharply left and the Marsh Boardwalk comes into view. Bear right on the wooden walkway, following it for the next ¼ mile.

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Accokeek Boardwalk in Piscataway Park

The boardwalk begins by traversing Accokeek Creek, a tidal tributary of the Potomac River. The wider Potomac is visible to the left, with the mouth of Accokeek protected in part by a vegetated spit. Further down the boardwalk, as it passes over reed-filled marsh, interpretive panels on the left tell the story of man-assisted preservation: in 2010, local naturalists developed a “living shoreline”—complete with rock sills and pocket beaches—to help protect the marsh. The result is a more sustainable habitat for birds, fish, and land animals who depend on the swamp for survival. Whether the sills and beaches are visible depends on the tides—these moon-driven forces also control whether Accokeek Creek is full of water or reduced to a largely mud-choked drainage.

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Accokeek Creek from the Marsh Boardwalk

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Potomac River from the boardwalk

Continue along the boardwalk as it reaches a junction at about the ¼-mile mark. Stay straight at the fork, bearing northeast. (Note: The right fork leads back to land, where a faint trail connects back to Bryan Point Road.) Within a minute, the boardwalk comes to an end, giving way to an open field that is firmly onshore. There are picnic tables scattered across the grass.

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Picnic area beyond the boardwalk

Some may elect to turn around here, but it is possible to continue onward, following the well-worn dirt road as it parallels the Potomac. The rutted track passes a monument (and grave) for Chief Turkey Tayac of the Piscataway Indian Nation. This area was the approximate location of the Accokeek Creek site, a large settlement for the Piscataway Indians that may have existed at the time of Captain John Smith’s expedition to the area in 1608. Today the area is still used by remaining members of the Piscataway Indian Nation.

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Old road continues northeast toward Mockley Point

Beyond the gravesite, the road continues straight for around 4/10 mile in the open sun, with occasional peeks at the Potomac through gaps in the trees on the left. (Note: Stay left at the junction; heading right leads to the Hard Bargain Farm.) At about 2/3 mile, the track bends to the right and reenters the woods.

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Potomac River from Mockley Point Trail

In winter, when foliage is limited, one can make out Mockley Point—a haven for riverine birds—on the left, but there is no trail access to the end of the small peninsula. Hikers can also spot the Fort Washington Lighthouse, situated across Piscataway Creek inside Fort Washington Park. (Note: See here and here for more on historic Fort Washington.)

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Mockley Point and Piscataway Creek

As the road bends east and then south, it runs away from the Potomac, but views of Piscataway Creek improve. Compared to the often-windswept Potomac, this lovely waterway is relatively still and peaceful. At about 1.05 miles, the road comes to and end at an anticlimactic cul-de-sac, but spurs off to the left offer access to small beaches along the creek.

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Piscataway Creek from the end of the trail

Stop for a snack at this peaceful hideaway, then return the way you came. Expect to take around 1-1.5 hours for the easy, out-and-back hike.

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Small beach at Piscataway Creek

Extra credit

Consider also visiting the National Colonial Farm to complete the 2.4-mile Accokeek Farm Loop, or head north to Fort Washington for the scenic Fort Washington Loop.

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