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

Posted in Moderate Hikes, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Moderate Hikes, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Moderate Hikes, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

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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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Accokeek Farm Loop (Piscataway Park, MD)

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Pumpkin Ash Trail, National Colonial Farm, Piscataway Park, February 2019

Situated inside Maryland’s Piscataway Park, the Accokeek Foundation, an education non-profit, runs the 200-acre National Colonial Farm along the banks of the Potomac River. In addition to live barnyard animals, the farm features a series of interlocking nature trails, several of which can be combined to form a roughly 2.5-mile circuit around the riverside tract. This post describes a counter-clockwise loop around the area, featuring stretches of dense woods, open fields, wetlands, and views of the Potomac River. If you are lucky, hikers will spot a bald eagle or two among the riparian ecosystem, as well as beavers, foxes, or ospreys.

Accokeek Farm Loop hike information

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Map of National Colonial Farm at Piscataway Park (Also check out the MapMyHike track)

The hike

Begin the walk from the main parking area at National Colonial Farm in Piscataway Park, roughly a 40-minute drive south of central Washington, DC. (Note: Piscataway Park is often coupled with a visit to nearby Fort Washington Park. See here and here for more information.) Here you will find the Visitor Center and Education Center (open seasonally), as well as restrooms and the access route to a fishing pier.

The circuit starts behind the Visitor Center to the northwest, just before the gravel road enters a pine-studded straightaway. Look to the right, following the sign indicating the start of the Riverview Trail. This blue-blazed path cuts across the grass, skirting the edge of a long field on the left, then enters the riparian woods along the southern banks of the Potomac River. (Note: As of February 2019, the trail had a peculiar feature: an electric fence on the left—don’t touch!)

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Start of the hike: Riverview Trail behind the Visitor Center

The river comes in and out of view as the flat and easy trail bears westward. Occasional spurs offer access down to the water itself. From here hikers can see across the Potomac River to the Virginia side: the hilltop mansion visible across the way is no less than Mount Vernon, the 18th century home of President George Washington.

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Mount Vernon from Piscataway Park

Off to the east is a fishing pier, and the narrowing Potomac upstream in the direction of Washington, DC. To the west, the lower Potomac gradually broadens, eventually winding its way to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.

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Potomac River from a spur off the Riverview Trail

After about 250 yards of hiking, the single-track trail cuts west, away from the river, and bursts out of the woods. Follow the blue blazes as the route skirts a plant garden and then bears south to meet up with the original gravel road. Bear right on the wide drive, following it for a mere 50 yards to the Caretaker’s House, where the Riverview Trail continues straight, next to the edge of the riparian woods.

For the next 300 yards, the trail follows the edge of a fenced field on the left, with dense thicket obscuring views of the river to the right. At 4/10 mile, the Riverview Trail bears left and returns to the forest, then reaches a grassy ridgeline, where the red-blazed Persimmon Trail comes in from the left. Stay straight, then continue to the end of the grassy patch, where the path connects again with the Persimmon Trail. (Note: Before continuing right on the blue-blazed path, take a short detour left to view the modest Conservation Pond, which features a wooden bird blind.)

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Conservation Pond off the Persimmon Trail

The Riverview Trail continues right and descends briefly to cross a wooden bridge, followed by a gradual climb back to the top of a small escarpment. The path ends suddenly at 6/10 mile, spilling into the much broader Bluebird Trail. Follow the baby blue blazes straight, following the wide and grassy straightaway. With the river on your right, the trail passes a trail fork within about 125 yards; stay straight. At the next intersection, the Bluebird Trail bears left at a 90-degree angle, while a spur path leads to a picnic table along the river ahead.

Follow the left-hand turn and walk the path through the chestnut grove as it bears southward. At about 8/10 mile, an unmarked path comes in from the right, and hikers will now realize that they are on the brink of a relatively sharp drop-off to the right. Continue straight for 30 seconds to another trail junction. Take a left, leaving the Bluebird Trail in favor of the white-blazed Pawpaw Trail.

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Near the start of the Pawpaw Trail

The Pawpaw Trail is a small single-track and one of the more interesting of the circuit, as it gains some elevation in the hills around National Colonial Farm. After the initial junction, stay right at a subsequent junction, climbing the wooden stairs up Cactus Hill. The path tops off at around 9/10 mile, in view of a private residence on the right. From here the trail dips slightly as it bears east, then climbs again as it pulls out of a gully with a seasonal stream. The descent back to the farm begins at around 1.1 miles, ending at a small weathered shack and a trail fork.

 

Bear right at the junction, skirting the eastern flank of the Native Tree Arboretum, which contains over 125 different species of trees and shrubs that grew in the Chesapeake Bay area in the 17th and 18th centuries. At 1.25 miles, the Pawpaw Trail ends; stay straight on the gravel road, heading back in the direction of the river and Visitor Center.

The next 1/3 mile requires tracing the wide road as it bears north and then east. At 1.4 miles, pass the barnyard—chock full of cows—on the left. Follow the long straightaway between fields to the 1.6-mile mark, where the road cuts sharply right, within striking distance of the Education Center. Here the road returns to pavement and treads southward toward the farm entrance.

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Residents of the barnyard

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Long straightaway at National Colonial Farm

After passing the turnoff to the main parking area on the left, catch the start of the purple-blazed Blackberry Trail on the left. Within steps, this trail drops back into the woods and descends gradually to cross a seasonal stream. While the main track continues right to the Ecosystem Farm, continue left on the blazed path, which stays in the wooded floodplain. As the muddy trail weaves east, it passes a junction with the Accokeek Connector Trail at about Mile 2 (this provides access to the Accokeek Creek area), then brushes up against the edge of a fenced field near the eastern fringe of the farm area of Piscataway. The next 1/10 mile follows the fence northward, ending at 2.2 miles.

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Fenceline along the Blackberry Trail

With the Potomac River again within reach, the Blackberry Trail ends and becomes the yellow-blazed Pumpkin Ash Trail. Bear left here, following what is arguably the finest section of the hike. After hugging the banks of the Potomac River with sweeping views, the Pumpkin Ash track crosses a wooded boardwalk at 2.3 miles, which offers clearance over a wet marshland.

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Views of the Potomac River from the Pumpkin Ash Trail

Eventually the wetland gives way to forest again, and the boardwalk ends. This marks the final stretch back to the Visitor Center and parking area, featuring a gradual climb. At 2.4 miles, bear left as the path emerges from the woods to return to the parking lot.

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Boardwalk across the marsh on the Pumpkin Ash Trail

Allot between 1.5-2 hours for this round-trip hike. With the exception of the Pawpaw Trail, there is very little elevation gain, although some attentive route-finding is required in places.

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