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

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

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

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billy-goat-trail-section-b-map

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


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


 

The hike

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

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

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

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First vista on the Billy Goat Trail – Section B

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

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

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Potomac River and Offutt Island

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

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

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Narrow ledge on Billy Goat Trail – Section B

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

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

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

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Blue heron on the C&O Canal

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

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Towpath Trail as the C&O Canal widens

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

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Final stretch back to Anglers Trailhead

Posted in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Maryland, Moderate Hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Appalachian Trail to Weverton Cliffs (South Mountain State Park, MD)

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Weverton Cliffs, South Mountain State Park, August 2016

Perched at the southern tip of South Mountain, more than 500 feet above the Potomac River, Weverton Cliffs in central Maryland is easily one of the state’s most scintillating viewpoints. It is also relatively easily accessible—less than a mile’s hike up the famed Appalachian Trail from the small community of Weverton, which in turn is a short drive from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Visitors to Harper’s Ferry should consider this hike as a less crowded—and arguably more scenic—alternative to Maryland Heights or Loudoun Heights upriver.

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at-to-weverton-cliffs-hike-map

Map of Appalachian Trail to Weverton Cliffs, South Mountain State Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, or MapMyHike track)


*Check out more hikes in Maryland, the Harper’s Ferry area, or South Mountain State Park.*

The hike

Situated along the 2,190-mile long Appalachian Trail (AT), there are effectively two avenues of approach to Weverton Cliffs. The first—and far longer—option is to start at Gathland State Park near Burkittsville, MD and take the AT southbound for nearly six miles each way, making for a long day trip. (Note: That is, unless you have a shuttle pick-up waiting at Weverton.) The quicker option is to start at the Park & Ride off Weverton Road (see map), roughly halfway between Harper’s Ferry and Brunswick, MD. (Note: other guides have the hike starting in Harper’s Ferry, tacking on an additional 3.3 miles each way.)

The trail begins at a white-blazed telephone pole adjacent to the parking lot; look for a narrowing clearing heading southeast into the woods. Within seconds, this small spur meets the AT; bear left (northbound) at the fork. Snaking through the woods below the roadway on the left, the AT crosses Weverton Road at 0.07 miles.

Rocky stairs at the other end of the road mark the beginning of the upward climb. Stop at the trail kiosk on the left for a map of Maryland’s 40 AT miles, then continue up the woody hillside. The incline picks up at around 2/10 mile, but gently sloping bends lessen the burden.

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Appalachian Trail to Weverton Cliffs

During a southbound straightaway, the trail levels out as it approaches a group of three short switchbacks at around ½ mile. Following a short climb, the AT tracks northbound to a pair of switchbacks at 6/10 mile, then climbs three more to reach the base of a rock wall on the left.

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Appalachian Trail to Weverton Cliffs

Four more switches get hikers to the top of the wall, but the trail leaves the rocks behind as hikers make a final push to the hike’s high point at around ¾ mile. Here the route forks. While the AT continues left, take a right on the spur to Weverton Cliffs to reach your destination. The trail effectively dissolves away shortly after the junction, but it is simple enough to descend the slope—dropping around 60 feet in elevation to the jagged edge of the cliffs.

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Approaching Weverton Cliffs

The views from Weverton Cliffs are truly fantastic. Ahead of you the mountain drops 500 feet to the Potomac River, while Buzzard Rock (1,183’) and Short Hill Mountain (1,424’) continue along the other side in neighboring Virginia. On a clear day, it is also easy to spot the gap in the heights to the west where Harper’s Ferry is situated. Abundant shade near the cliff’s edge offers a nice opportunity to have a seat and a snack and take in the scenery.

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Potomac River and Short Hill Mountain from Weverton Cliffs

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Peering west toward Harper’s Ferry from Weverton Cliffs

Return the way you came, enjoying the much-easier descent to the Park & Ride. Allot around 1.5-2 hours for the hike.

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Fox Hollow Trail (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

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Fox Hollow Trail, Shenandoah National Park, August 2016

Today, Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park is beloved by picnickers, nature-goers, and adventurers on America’s East Coast. While few dispute the merits of conservation to protect majestic lands like the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is important to recognize, however, the costs of seizing land for federal protection. Shenandoah’s Fox Hollow Trail—situated across Skyline Drive from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center—serves as a reminder of the park’s not-so-savory beginnings. The short hike traces a circuit around a long-abandoned farm, once the lifeblood of the namesake Fox family, who—like hundreds of other mountain dwellers in the area—were forced to leave in the 1930s to make way for the creation of Virginia’s first and only national park. What was once an open hillside pasture of bluegrass, corn, and wheat is now blanketed with oaks, spicebush, hickories, and poplars. But the park preserves traces of human history at Fox Hollow amid the forest, providing a glimpse of life in Shenandoah before the entrance fees and visitor centers—and to atone for the removal of more than 500 families from what is now Shenandoah National Park. (Note: See Washington City Paper for a great article on the resettlement process and its aftermath.)

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

The hike

Reaching the Fox Hollow Trail is easy, as it is situated just across Skyline Drive from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, about five miles south of Front Royal, Virginia (see map). Not far from Interstate 66, it’s the closest easy hike to Washington, DC and boasts a great, multi-page trail guide available at the Visitor Center and trailhead for $1.00. (Note: There is a $20 entrance fee for vehicles to enter Shenandoah National Park.)

Parking at the Visitor Center, head out the east-facing entrance, pass the flagpole, and carefully cross Skyline Drive. Here a trail kiosk offers a map and short trail descriptions of the Fox Hollow and Snead Farm Trails. There is also a small box here to purchase the Fox Hollow trail guides—highly recommended to get the full experience on this short but interesting hike.

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Fox Hollow Trailhead

Take a left at the trailhead, walking the circuit in a clockwise direction to correspond with the trail guide. (Note: Heading this way also avoids a steep climb up from the hollow.) Take a minute to peer out over the grassy meadow, once a sea of trees after the park’s establishment in 1935 but since cleared by park crews to restore the vista. Across the valley to the east, High Knob (2,388’)—situated outside the park boundary—dominates the landscape on a clear day.

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High Knob from Fox Hollow, Shenandoah National Park

Less than 100 yards from the start, the trail forks at the northern fringe of the meadow. Take a left, where the Fox Hollow Trail merges briefly with the much longer Dickey Ridge Trail and darts into the woods. Now clogged with foliage, this area was once a sun-soaked field, part of the Fox family’s 77-year-old property. (Note: In fact, more than 1/3 of the land that makes up present-day Shenandoah National Park was clear of trees before the Park Service began reforesting the area in 1935.)

At ¼ mile, take a right at the next junction, leaving the Dickey Ridge Trail behind as the Fox Hollow loop begins to descend the rocky slopes of the ridge. Dropping rather sharply, the path passes a series of rock piles at around 1/3 mile. (Note: I counted seven in total in the course of 1/10 mile.) As Thomas Fox and his descendants cleared fields to make way for farming, they carefully built these neatly-stacked heaps of greenstone, a volcanic rock ubiquitous in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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Rock pile along the Fox Hollow Trail

Past the rock piles, the trail bears left and briefly climbs a minor slope to reach the Fox family cemetery at ½ mile. Here generations of Foxes are buried, though only a handful of headstones remain, including that of Lemuel F. Fox, who died in 1916, and Lemuel’s daughter Gertrude, who passed away at a mere 21 years old in 1904.

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Fox family cemetery, Fox Hollow Trail, Shenandoah National Park

Just beyond the cemetery, the trail makes a left turn and heads downhill again, passing an old cement springbox at 0.55 miles. This was once used to supply water for the former dining room in the nearby Dickey Ridge Lodge-turned-Visitor Center. Immediately after the springbox, the path passes under a bundle of wily vines, then descends steeply again. Look for an old millstone hidden in the brush aside the trail.

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Fox Hollow Trail

At 0.65 miles, the path crosses a little sliver of a stream, then climbs to what was once an old road on the property, reinforced by a wall of greenstone. Just past the ¾ mile mark, the trail takes a hard left and at about 0.83 miles passes an old sycamore tree that Lemuel Fox, Jr. identified as “the only tree on this hill” in the 1920s. Now the area around it has been filled with black locusts, walnuts, sassafras, tulip trees, and others.

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Old sycamore tree, Fox Hollow Trail

After several minutes of casual uphill, the trail turns abruptly right and ascends steeply to meet the Dickey Ridge Trail again at 1.2 miles. Stay straight, following the southern edge of the original meadow back to the trailhead and Visitor Center.

Allot around an hour for this 1.2-mile loop, a pleasant blend of old and new and a testament to the original settlers of Shenandoah, whose stories live on despite a tragic past.

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

Dickey Ridge Trail – Section 1 (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

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Dickey Ridge Trail, Shenandoah National Park, August 2016

Beginning on the outskirts of Front Royal, Virginia, the Dickey Ridge Trail holds the distinction of being the northernmost hike in Shenandoah National Park—and, by association, the closest to I-66 and Washington, DC. While perhaps not the most awe-inspiring ramble, the Dickey Ridge Trail offers at least a sense of accomplishment: climbing from the base of the mountain to the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center and beyond when the vast majority of visitors drive. Covering more than 10 miles and 1,900 feet in elevation gain, the Dickey Ridge hike is best completed on two separate days: a 4.6-mile one-way climb from the base of the ridge at Front Royal to the junction with the Snead Farm Trail near the Visitor Center; and a second, up-and-down stretch of 5.7 miles from Snead Farm to Compton Gap and the Appalachian Trail. This post covers the first—and admittedly less interesting—section as a 9.2-mile out-and-back. (Note: Visitors with the luxury of a shuttle pick-up can do the entire 10.3 miles in a day.)

Dickey Ridge Trail hike information Shenandoah National Park Part 1

Dickey Ridge Trail Shenandoah National Park map Section 1

Map of Dickey Ridge Trail – Section 1, Shenandoah National Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Reaching the start of the Dickey Ridge Trail can be surprisingly confusing. While Mile 0.0 starts at the intersection of US Route 340 and Criser Road in Front Royal, there is no parking at the trailhead. Alternatively, most hikers will drive partway up Skyline Drive—around 2/10 miles—to catch the trail at Mile 0.2, where there is room on the shoulder for a handful of vehicles (see map). (Note: This is the second parking area on Skyline Drive. Pass the first (the Shenandoah National Park sign), parking instead a few seconds up the road at the sign reading “You are Southbound on the Skyline Drive.” If you reach the Park Entrance Station, you have gone too far.)

Having parked—and relished in the fact that you get to avoid paying the park entrance fee—you now have a choice: begin heading up the Dickey Ridge Trail on the right-hand side of Skyline Drive (marked with a cement post) or cross the road and backtrack 2/10 mile through the woods to the proper start at Mile 0.0. If you are obsessive like me, you’ll opt for the latter—determined to complete the hike in full.

And so it goes, on to Mile 0.0. Despite being the northernmost trail in Shenandoah, Dickey Ridge Trail begins with little fanfare. Overshadowed by the exultant 7-Eleven across the street, the trailhead at US 340 involves only a small clearing and one of Shenandoah’s ubiquitous cement trail markers, carrying trail distance information so maddeningly small that it takes some desperate squinting to read.

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Modest start of the Dickey Ridge Trail in Front Royal

Leaving the traffic of US 340 behind, the trail immediately enters dense woods in an area that was once a broad pasture. The new growth forest recedes briefly at 1/10 mile, where a sunny patch wrestles with waist-high grasses and thorns. Having gained virtually no elevation so far, the trail emerges onto Skyline Drive at 0.2 mile, where more than likely your vehicle is still sitting, baking in the sun.

Continuing across the street, the flat and wide trail begins to climb ever-so-gently as it follows a dry streambed on the right. By ½ mile, the creek is most likely bearing water, and after more gradual ascent, the narrowing footpath crosses a simple wooden bridge at 2/3 mile. The sound of Skyline Drive never quite goes away as the trail follows the left-hand bank of the creekbed. The scenery around is enough to distract, however: a peaceful ravine filled with a diversity of deciduous trees that are surely marvelous in the fall.

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Near the start of the Dickey Ridge Trail

At 1.4 miles, the trail is bounded on the left side by a short but apparent rock wall, a timeworn testament to the residents who once called this area home, before the creation of the park in 1935 pushed them off their land. At 1.45 miles, while the rock wall continues straight, the Dickey Ridge Trail takes an abrupt right, bearing north as the gradient increases. This switchback too is reinforced with greenstone (perhaps this time the handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps?).

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Old stone wall along the Dickey Ridge Trail

At around 1.7 miles, the path rounds a steep, left-hand bend, followed by a sharp, right-hand bend a minute later. More stony rubble is visible on the left as the trail climbs to meet Skyline Drive again at 1.9 miles. Be careful crossing the street: the trail resumes about 30 yards up the road, requiring hikers to remain alert as they briefly work their way up the shoulder.

Beyond the crossing at around 2 miles, look for the stony remains of what was potentially an old house on the left. By now, the trail is downright steep, climbing at a steady incline for around ¼ mile. There is a brief respite at 2.2 miles as the path levels out during a lengthy straightaway. At 2.35 miles, Skyline Drive appears again on the right, though the trail does not approach it.

At 2.4 miles, the trail climbs again, beginning to resemble a stair-step routine that defines the next mile. At 2.8 miles, the footpath cuts through an old stone wall and continues to climb.

Around 3.5 miles from the start, the trail finally settles on a gradient close to level, an incline that will mostly hold for the rest of the hike. Amid a forest of tall tulip trees and ubiquitous spicebush, the Dickey Ridge Trail meets the first of three junctions with the Fox Hollow Trail at 3.75 miles. Stay right and follow the well-trodden path (at this point sharing a track with the Fox Hollow Trail) to a second fork at around mile 4.

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Meadow along the Dickey Ridge Trail, near the Visitor Center

Here hikers will encounter a sudden and jarring sight: an open meadow, free of trees, a rare occurrence in a park that is 95% forested. At the fork, take a right to reach the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, situated about 500 feet to the southwest, across Skyline Drive. Stay left to complete the walk on the Dickey Ridge Trail, skirting the east flank of the meadow. Visible across the valley in the distance, High Knob (2,388’) lies outside the park but remains part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which form the backbone of Shenandoah. Within 150 yards, the path meets a four-way junction as the Fox Hollow Trail intersects with the Dickey Ridge Trail a third time. Stay straight.

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View from the meadow

With just over ½ mile remaining, the trail darts back into the woods and more or less remains level as it hugs the east-facing flank of Dickey Ridge. At around 4.6 miles, the path makes a final sharp climb to reach Snead Farm Road, the turnaround point for this hike. (Note: The Dickey Ridge Trail continues straight, while hikers seeking to tack on the 3.2-mile Snead Farm Loop should head left.) Take a short break, then return the way you came—or take a left, quickly reaching the end of the road, and cross Skyline Drive to the Dickey Ridge Picnic Area, where you can loop back to mile 4 of Dickey Ridge after passing the Visitor Center. (Note: it’s a bit bizarre to meander about at the Visitor Center—probably swarming with other visitors on a nice day—knowing that you worked a whole lot harder to get here than they did.)

Of course, those with the luxury of a shuttle pick-up can continue on the Dickey Ridge Trail to its end at Compton Gap (Skyline Drive Mile 10.4). Others are best-suited splitting the trail in two, completing this slightly shorter but harder section first while leaving the second half for another day. Allot around 4-6 hours for this out-and-back hike, which takes far longer coming up than heading back down.

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

The Crossing Trail (Prince William Forest Park, VA)

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The Crossing Trail, Prince William Forest Park, August 2016

The Crossing Trail in Virginia’s Prince William Forest Park is effectively a walk in the woods with a historic twist: the highlight of this short, easy circuit is where it crosses the old Telegraph Road, which served as the main artery for north-south travelers in the area for centuries. It also provided passage for General George Washington and Rochambeau’s troops as they marched to Yorktown for what proved to be the pivotal battle of the Revolutionary War in 1781.

The Crossing Trail hike information Prince William Forest Park

The Crossing Trail map Prince William Forest Park

Map of The Crossing Trail, Prince William Forest Park; adapted from https://www.nps.gov/prwi/planyourvisit/maps.htm

The hike

To reach The Crossing Trail, drive (or walk) east along the modern-day Telegraph Road from the Visitor Center for about 1/3 mile. Park in the first of two parking areas, where the start of the trail is visible on the left. (Note: If you round a bend and reach the Telegraph Picnic Pavilion, you have gone too far.)

The Crossing Trail, marked with a large informational wayside, begins as a wide path that gradually climbs to merge with what appears to be an old roadbed. (Note: This is not yet the old Telegraph Road of George Washington lore.) Within a couple minutes, the path ascends a low pass between woody knolls, then more or less levels out as it approaches the old Telegraph Road.

Also known as the “Potomac Path,” this abandoned north-south thoroughfare dates to the precolonial era, when Native Americans used the thruway, and is billed (on the informational sign at the junction) as a “forerunner to today’s interstate highways.” It was abandoned in the 1930s, but not until after seeing heavy use during the Revolutionary War and Civil War.

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Old Telegraph Road, used by George Washington’s troops as they marched on Yorktown in 1781

 

Continuing on, bear left as the trail merges with the old road, then take a left onto the much fainter continuation of The Crossing Trail at the junction at 2/10 mile. From here the footpath skirts a ravine and ascends through a woody hollow, reemerging onto (modern) Telegraph Road at around ½ mile. The exit is about 70 yards down the road from the start, so take a left to return to the trailhead and parking area.

Easy and short, allot around 15-30 minutes for the entire walk.

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Continuation of the old Telegraph Road and The Crossing Trail

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Birch Bluff Trail Loop (Prince William Forest Park, VA)

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Birch Bluff Trail, Prince William Forest Park, August 2016

Prince William Forest Park spans 17,000 acres of peaceful woods, hills, and rolling streams on the edge of the Tidewater region of eastern Virginia, roughly 30 miles southwest of Washington, DC. The Birch Bluff Trail Loop offers a short but pleasant stroll that takes off just behind the Visitor Center near the park entrance.

Birch Bluff Trail Loop hike information Prince William Forest Park

Birch Bluff Trail Loop Prince William Forest Park map

Birch Bluff Trail Loop, Prince William Forest Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and Map My Hike track)

The hike

Getting from Washington, DC to Prince William Forest Park along traffic-clogged I-95 can take about as long as the hour-long hike, so it’s best to pair the Birch Bluff Trail with some of the many other hikes in the park to make a day of it. Take the first right after entering the park, then a left, to reach the Visitor Center.

The trailhead for this hike is not necessarily obvious. Departing the Visitor Center, walk toward the restrooms (in a separate building), then look for a trail sign off to the right, about 30-40 yards away at the edge of the woods. This is your starting point.

The first 1/3 mile actually requires walking on the Laurel Loop Trail, which quickly enters the deciduous forest. The sandy path leads downhill to the first trail junction at 0.15 miles; stay left. After another slightly downhill section, take a right at the next fork to begin the Birch Bluff Trail. Follow the red blazes as the trail briefly climbs a set of four stairs, then reaches a third junction at 0.35 miles.

Take a short detour by heading right to see the Cannon Reid Cemetery (lovingly misspelled as “cemetary” on the sign), the resting place for a one Euriel Reed (1884-1918) and M. Cannon (1976-1873), among others. (Note: Presumably former residents of the area?) The first gravestone is situated about 200 feet down the narrow footpath on the right, while M. Cannon’s grave marks the end of the short spur trail along a woody ridge. Retrace your steps, return to the main trail, and continue right.

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“M. Cannon” grave at Cannon Reid Cemetery

Around ½ mile further, the rate of descent steepens as the sound of running water finally comes within earshot. Nearing the confluence of the North Fork and South Fork of Quantico Creek, the trail bears left at around one mile and reaches the banks of the South Fork. From here the trail follows the creek upstream; there is a nice swimming hole at roughly 1.2 miles. Across the creek, it is easy to spot hikers along the longer and more popular South Valley Trail, which hugs the west bank.

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South Fork Quantico Creek, Birch Bluff Trail, Prince William Forest Park

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South Fork Quantico Creek, Birch Bluff Trail

As the scenery becomes notably rockier on both sides, hikers will approach the highlight of the hike—a small cascade spanned by a group of fallen trees—on the right at about 1.3 miles. Just beyond, the creek is calm, still, and shallow.

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Small cascade along Birch Bluff Trail

At 1.5 miles, take a right to follow the Laurel Loop Trail back to the start, or—as yours truly did—continue along the creek, now on the Laurel Loop heading west, for another 300 yards to reach a lovely suspension bridge on the right.

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Suspension bridge over South Fork of Quantico Creek

The route also forks here; take a left, heading uphill away from the creek, then stay straight at the next junction to head back up toward the Visitor Center. After a relatively sharp climb of 4/10 mile, the path emerges from the woods into a sunny meadow. The northern fringe of the Pine Grove Picnic Area parking area is visible ahead.

Stay along the left fringe of the meadow, then cut across the picnic area—to the right of a modest playground—back to the starting point and the Visitor Center. Allot around an hour for the round-trip hike, or a little more if you stop for a snack or a swim.

Posted in Moderate Hikes, Prince William Forest Park, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Signal Knob Loop (George Washington National Forest, VA)

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Signal Knob, George Washington National Forest, July 2016

The northernmost promontory on lengthy Massanutten Mountain, Signal Knob provides sweeping views of Strasburg, Virginia and Shenandoah Valley. Climbing to the overlook, however, is a haul: hikers starting in the Elizabeth Furnace area of George Washington National Forest must conquer more than four miles one-way and 1,500 feet in elevation gain to reach the viewpoint—and those wishing to complete the counterclockwise loop back to the trailhead must endure a grueling, up-and-down 10.3 miles round-trip. Bring your hiking boots, as the trail crosses a number of thorny rock fields.

Signal Knob Loop trail Massanutten information hike

Signal Knob Loop trail map Massanutten

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

The hike

At the northeast end of Massanutten Mountain, Passage Creek slices the mountain in two, forming a short but scenic canyon that quickly opens up to Fort Valley. Hikers driving from Interstate 66 and Washington, DC will pass through this narrow gorge on Route 678 (a.k.a. Fort Valley Road), passing a handful of nice fishing and swimming holes. About 3.5 miles down Fort Valley Road from VA 55—beyond a set of hairpin bends—turn right at the sign marked “Massanutten Trail Signal Knob Parking.” (Note: If you reach the Elizabeth Furnace Campground and Picnic Area, you have gone too far.) The gravel turnoff leads immediately to a pair of parking lots; the hike begins at the far end of the north lot and will emerge from the trees 10.3 miles later at the far end of the south lot.

Heading north on the Massanutten Trail, stop at the small information board for a basic map and description of the loop ahead. From here, the trail, under dense forest cover, bends westward and gradually climbs up a woody ravine, with the rocky terrain revealing itself right away. At 2/10 mile, the minor creek below comes into view, while the singletrack path passes behind a stone cabin on the left at ¼ mile. A few minutes later, cross the creek as the trail doubles back to the east and begins a steady climb up the mountainside. The Massanutten Trail crosses the first of several rock fields at ½ mile as the deciduous forest is gradually replaced with mountain laurel and Virginia pines. Always climbing, the path offers occasional but mostly obstructed views of the landscape to the east, but one of the first photo-worthy vistas comes at around 1.3 miles. Here a break in the trees offers a look at Buzzard Rock across the wooded valley.

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View of Massanutten Mountain and Fort Valley from the Massanutten Trail

In fact, this spot offers a better view than the official Buzzard Rock Overlook 2/10 miles farther, where tree growth stands in the way of an unadulterated vista. Still it is possible from the overlook to see past Buzzard Rock to Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park beyond.

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Buzzard Rock Overlook

Buzzard Rock Overlook is situated at the end of a hairpin curve, and the trail beyond bears southwest. Pass a brushy ravine at 1.75 miles, then take a short break at Fort Valley Overlook at 2.1 miles. By now you have climbed around 1,000 feet, and your reward is a partly-obscured but beautiful view of Fort Valley to the southwest. Views extend all the way to Duncan Knob and Strickler Knob, situated near the center of the Massanutten Mountain behemoth.

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Fort Valley Overlook, Massanutten Trail

Rounding the corner, the trail crosses another rock slide with open exposure to the sun and views of Meneka Peak rising to the left. It is during this leg that the incline gradually ceases, offering a nice—if temporary—relief. Rounding a wide left-hand bend, the trail passes a number of nice camp sites and resumes the ascent, climbing another 100 feet amid relatively new tree growth to the junction with the Meneka Peak Trail at 3.3 miles. Bear right at the signed junction. (Note: turning left shaves off a couple miles before meeting the loop again but leaves out the best views from Signal Knob.)

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Rocky terrain on Massanutten Trail en route to Meneka Peak

About 6-7 minutes beyond the junction, look off to the right for views of Signal Knob, easy to spot with its conspicuous radio tower. The viewpoint is actually about 100 feet lower at 2,106 feet, which makes for a nice, gradual downhill lasting about 6/10 mile. At 4.2 mile, the trail merges with a service road and passes the WVPT radio tower on the right. While there is a nice view east from here, do not be fooled: the real viewpoint lies 1/10 mile farther. Follow the service road for less than a minute, then look for the continuation of the trail on the right (orange blazes). (Note: The junction is located right before the road bears sharply left.)

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Views east from the radio tower on Signal Knob

Following the footpath, you will reach the Signal Knob Overlook within a couple minutes. Small and surrounded by trees, the vantage point is partly obscured but nevertheless provides a nice view of Strasburg and Shenandoah Valley to the north, as well as views to Front Royal and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east. Beyond Strasburg, Great North Mountain stretches off into the horizon, and on a clear day you can see as far as the panhandle of West Virginia.

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View from Signal Knob

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Strasburg, Virginia from Signal Knob

While having reached Signal Knob, the loop is not yet halfway done—a daunting thought that leads some to simply return the way they came for an 8.6-mile out-and-back (two miles shorter than the full circuit). But hearty hikers can continue on from Signal Knob by following a thin singletrack as it skirts the north flank of the mountain. At 4.4 miles, emerge onto the gravel fire road again—this time take a right and follow the wide track down the hillside. The section that follows is exceedingly dull, following the road downhill into Little Fort Valley for 1.2 miles.

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Boring section of the Massanutten Trail

Eventually Little Passage Creek emerges on the left, and the turnoff for the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail emerges at 5.6 miles. Turn left onto Tuscarora, immediately crossing the stream, then begin arguably the hike’s toughest climb. Not only does this grueling ascent of around 550 feet come more than halfway into the hike, it has some of the steepest inclines.

After a short switchback, the trail offers some solace at around six miles, where looking back over a patch of mountain laurel offers views over Three Top Mountain to the Great North Mountain range to the west. The trail clears another pair of switchbacks at 6.2 miles, then finally crests the top of the ridge—between Meneka Peak and Green Mountain—at 6.3 miles. Here the Tuscarora Trail meets the southern terminus of the Meneka Peak Trail; bear right at the fork.

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Tuscarora Trail with views of Great North Mountain

With four miles to go, the Tuscarora Trail begins its long and gradual descent to the trailhead. Hugging the ridgeline as it bears northeast, the now-faint path descends through a gnat-infested meadow with occasional views of Fort Valley. At 6.5 miles, the woods close in and the route—clear again, and well-trodden—rounds a switchback. For the next 1.1 miles, the trail makes its way southwest, cresting a small ridge at 7.25 miles, then cuts sharply east at 7.6 miles amid sporadic views of Fort Valley below.

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Fort Valley from the Tuscarora Trail

Everything this side of the high ridgetop is considered part of Bearwallow, a mostly shady expanse dominated by deciduous growth. Rocks also abound, nowhere more obvious than with the appearance of a giant boulder just before a short switchback at 7.8 miles. At 8.1 miles, the footpath reaches an unmarked junction with the pink-blazed Sidewinder Trail, which drops down a woody ravine on the right.

Crossing a finger to the next ravine, the Tuscarora Trail turns south and gradually descends to about 1,100 feet, after which the route bends left abruptly and charts a course heading east toward the trailhead. At nine miles, the route passes a junction with a white-blazed spur trail and crosses a creek bed. Minutes later, you can now hear vehicle traffic on Fort Valley Road, but the trail is not yet done.

Instead, the path stays relatively level, crossing another ravine at 9.5 miles, then climbs steeply uphill for a brief period. Gradually descending again, the Tuscarora Trail enters a bizarre section where the trail has obviously been rerouted; the path zigs and zags, repeatedly crossing what must have been the old track. (Note: This winding path is likely a concession to mountain bike riders.) At 9.8 miles, the trail reaches its penultimate fork—take a left, leaving the Tuscarora behind and returning to the Massanutten Trail. From here it’s an easy half-mile—stay left at the final junction at 10.1 miles—back to the Signal Knob parking area.

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

Blue Suck Falls Loop and Tuscarora Overlook (Douthat State Park, VA)

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Blue Suck Falls, Douthat State Park, July 2016

Often cited as one of Virginia’s best day hikes, the long but rewarding Blue Suck Falls Loop in Douthat State Park features tumbling cascades, dense rhododendron thickets, and a series of fine viewpoints in an oft-forgotten corner of the state. It’s no easy walk in the park, however, covering nearly 10 miles and 1,700 feet in elevation gain that is likely to consume much of a day. Visit in the spring or early summer for the best flow at the hike’s namesake falls, and save this one for a clear and sunny day to take advantage of the multiple overlooks (unlike yours truly, who saw only a sea of fog at Tuscarora Overlook).

Blue Suck Falls Loop and Tuscarora Overlook hike Douthat State Park information

Blue Suck Falls Loop and Tuscarora Overlook hike Douthat State Park trail map

Map of Blue Suck Falls Loop and Tuscarora Overlook Trail, Douthat State Park; adapted from http://www/dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/douthat#park_trail_guide

The hike

The entrance to Douthat State Park is situated about two miles north of Interstate 64 in the heart of an area billed as the “Alleghany Highlands”—a quiet and often overlooked hiking destination between Lexington, VA and the West Virginia border. (Note: Take Exit 27 and turn north onto State Route 629). The trailhead for this hike is situated around four miles past the entrance; pass the Park Office and take a left at sign for Camp Carson Picnic Area, just before Douthat Lake. Drive to the end of the road, where the well-marked trail begins. Check out the trail kiosk for a map of the route.

For the first three miles, hikers will stay on the blue-blazed Blue Suck Falls Trail, which begins as a wide, gravel path with benches and a fire pit on the left. After less than a 1/10 mile, the trail forks—stay left as the YCC Trail heads right over a bridge and across a green meadow to Douthat Lake. Following Blue Suck Hollow, stay left again a minute later as the Heron Run Trail takes off to the right. At around 2/10 mile, stay right at the junction with the Tobacco House Ridge Trail, then cross the creek to the north bank. Yet another fork awaits—stay left at the junction with the gold-blazed Huff’s Trail. (Note: Virginia State Parks have quite good signage – simply follow the regular markers for “Blue Suck Falls Trail.”)

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Blue Suck Falls Trail, Douthat State Park

After four junctions in quick succession, the trail strikes out on its own for a bit, climbs gradually through a forested gully, then reaches a fifth fork at ½ mile—a four-way junction with a pair of benches covered by a decaying wooden canopy. Here the Blue Suck Falls Trail intersects with the yellow-blazed Laurel View Trail; take a left. (Note: The path heading straight is a shortcut to Blue Suck Falls, cutting off maybe 2/10 mile, but it is not marked on most maps, suggesting it may be a social trail. Better to stay on the established path.)

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Small tributary along the Blue Suck Falls Trail

After the junction, the trail almost immediately crosses the stream, then climbs to a sixth junction at 0.85 miles; take a hard right, bearing north through one of the hike’s prettiest sections. Here the route follows the stream for around 1/3 mile, climbing—sometimes steeply—through rocky terrain to the base of Blue Suck Falls, a multi-tiered chute tucked away in a narrowing gulch.

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Blue Suck Falls

The peculiarly-named waterfall is named for the multitude of small springs containing sulphur water in the area—so-called “suck licks” frequented by a slew of salt-slurping animals. The falls’ intensity ebbs and flows, carrying a heavy volume after rains or snowmelt while at other times reduced to a mere trickle. Whatever the season, Blue Suck Falls is situated in a pretty cove that is cozy and inviting, and a stone bench directly in front of the chute offers a nice place to sit down for a snack.

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Blue Suck Falls

Beyond the falls, the trail skirts the north flank of the ravine, briefly heads downhill, then rounds a corner and begins to climb with a vengeance. While not overly steep, the next 1.5 miles are persistently uphill as the route ascends to the top of Middle Mountain. Around 1.4 miles from the trailhead, the Pine Tree Trail bears off to the right, and the Blue Suck Falls Trail doubles back to the west in the first of several long switchbacks.

With greater elevation comes a different mix of flora, as deciduous trees and green undergrowth are gradually displaced by Virginia pines and mountain laurel. At the next switchback, it is possible to peer through the trees for a partial view of the valley below; the vistas at the two west-facing bends that follow are better but still obscured.

Around 8/10 mile from Blue Suck Falls—and 500 feet higher—the trail reaches a short, well-marked spur to Lookout Rock, a popular turnaround point for some hikers. This large hunk of upright stone offers (in theory, when the weather is cooperating) terrific views of the Wilson Creek valley, Douthat Lake, and Beards Mountain beyond.

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Lookout Rock on a cloudy day, Blue Suck Falls Trail, Douthat State Park

Better, sweeping vistas lie ahead, but the climb is not yet done; beyond Lookout Rock, the Blue Suck Falls Trail climbs another 500 feet before reaching a junction with the Tuscarora Overlook Trail at 2.9 miles, flirting with the boundary of Douthat State Park and neighboring George Washington National Forest.

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Fog on Middle Mountain, Blue Suck Falls Trail, Douthat State Park

By now the route has leveled off, having effectively reached the top of the long ridgeline that forms Middle Mountain. Bearing left at the fork, the Tuscarora Overlook Trail begins a gradual descent partway down the east-facing flank of the mountain and reaches a short spur trail to the viewpoint at 3.2 miles (on the left).

Follow the spur for 1/10 mile, terminating abruptly at an old wooden cabin perched atop a hillside with a magnificent 180 degree view. (Again, in theory – if it’s not all clouds like the day I visited in July 2016.) Take a break at one of the benches or on the front porch of the shuttered cabin.

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Err…stunning view from Tuscarora Overlook?

When ready, turn back the way you came for 1/10 mile, then take a left as the Tuscarora Overlook Trail continues south. The route climbs briefly, then descends southeast to meet the Stony Run Trail at 3.8 miles. Take a left, continuing gradually downhill for the next half-mile, after which the pace of descent accelerates. Boulder fields abound as the trail makes its way south toward the Stony Run drainage.

Over the course of 1.5 miles, the Stony Run Trail loses 500 feet in seven long switchbacks. By the sixth sharp bend, hikers will probably be able to hear the rushing water below; after the seventh, the trail plunges into a sea of rhododendron bushes and approaches the creek at 6.2 miles. Here a minor off-trail excursion is required to reach Stony Run Falls, a small but fantastic cascade concealed under a canopy of gnarly rhododendrons. At the first sight of water (look hard through the undergrowth!), leave the trail on the right and carefully descend the bank to Stony Run; look upstream at the multi-tiered falls. Here the dense and wily vegetation contributes to a uniquely spooky but beautiful setting.

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Stony Run Falls, Stony Run Trail, Douthat State Park

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Stony Run Falls and under a thicket of rhododendrons

Return to the trail and head right as the trail levels out and follows Stony Run downstream. Cross the creek, then take your time as you stroll through a splendid hollow, rife with rhododendrons and the sound—if not always the sight—of gently falling water. Peering off to the left at 6.45 miles, the creek bed is virtually dark, with barely a beam of light penetrating the dense rhododendron thicket.

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Rhododendron in bloom, Stony Run Trail

Stay left at the junction with the Douthat Connector Trail at 6.5 miles, after which the stream valley begins to open up and the rhododendrons recede. A quarter mile later, Stony Run weaves through a natural depository of hundreds of hefty boulders. At 6.9 miles, rock-hop across the creek just before arriving at another trail fork.

Take a left onto the Locust Gap Trail, leaving the rest of Stony Run for another day. This yellow-blazed path serves as a connector back to the Blue Suck Falls area. Alas, it is not exactly a straightaway, as it bends and weaves to skirt a series of low hills and leafy ravines. At 7.5 miles, it crosses a relatively flat basin, then approaches another steep ravine, which it crosses at 7.7 miles. Steps later, stay left at the well-marked junction with the Beard’s Gap Hollow Trail.

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Locust Gap Trail, Douthat State Park

From here it is 6/10 miles back to the junction mentioned 0.85 miles into the hike. Turn right on the Blue Suck Falls Trail, passing the four-way junction with the wooden canopy after another 4/10 mile.

Follow the blue signs back to the trailhead to complete the arduous but scenic 9.4 miles. Allot most of a day for this hike—all but the hardiest trekkers will probably need at least 5-7 hours to complete the circuit.

Posted in Douthat State Park, George Washington National Forest, Strenuous Hikes, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Old Field Loop Trail (Greenbrier State Forest, WV)

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Old Field Loop Trail, Greenbrier State Forest, July 2016

Excepting the noisy ATV riders who frequently transit the area, Greenbrier State Forest in southeastern West Virginia is a largely quiet and peaceful destination for hikers and mountain bikers. Spanning the flanks of tree-covered Kates Mountain, Greenbrier is not known for its spectacular vistas; however, it does offer 13 miles of hiking trails that crisscross the preserve. The Old Field Loop—by no means the park’s longest or most scenic—nonetheless offers a pleasant, 1-hour jaunt, a nice destination for an early morning stretch or an after-dinner walk for those staying in the park’s cabins or camping area.

Old Field Loop Trail Greenbrier State Forest hike information

Old Field Loop Trail Greenbrier State Forest hike map

Map of Old Field Loop Trail, Greenbrier State Forest; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and Map My Hike track)

The hike

Greenbrier State Forest is situated just off Interstate 64 in southeast West Virginia and is best accessed from highway exit 175 in Caldwell, West Virginia. (Note: The Kates Mountain Road offers access from White Sulphur Springs and the famed Greenbrier Resort to the upper reaches of the park, but it is rocky, rugged, and borderline unsuitable for a two-wheel drive sedan with low clearance.) From exit 175, bear south on Harts Run Road (Route 60/14), entering the park after one mile and reaching the picnic area on the left at about 2.8 miles. Park in the back parking lot, following the signs for picnic shelter #2. (Note: The trailhead is also easily reached from the cabin or camping area, but a few minutes of road walking is required.)

Two different trails take off from the parking area: the Holler Trail follows an old road northeast to the picnic shelter while the neighboring Old Field Loop Trail dives into the woods to the right. Taking the latter route, the trail immediately forks, the start of the 1.8-mile loop; take a right for a gentler climb.

The bulk of the infrastructure in the park is situated in a valley between Kates Mountain and White Rock Mountain, but the Old Field Loop after 1/10 mile begins to gradually ascend partway up the western flank of Kates. The climb is a bit unusual, comprising six seemingly unnecessary switchbacks—slowly meandering up the mountain when blazing straight up the hillside would probably not be an insurmountable task. The advantage is that hikers can tirelessly enjoy the scenery: relatively young woods with a paucity of undergrowth. Towering oaks form the top of the canopy, while rhododendrons, chestnuts, and Virginia pines fill the space in between.

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Old Field Loop Trail, Greenbrier State Forest

As the trail climbs, the evergreen pines become more prevalent, and the trail crosses the grassy Old Field Road at around ¾ mile. (Note: At about 7/10 mile, just before the road, stay right at an unmarked fork; the social trail bearing left is—probably intentionally—blocked by fallen logs.) The trail beyond, sporadically marked with turquoise blazes, becomes more interesting as it thrice approaches a deep and relatively narrow ravine often bearing trickling water. Those with a careful eye may spot tan-brown American toads.

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Minor cascades in a steep ravine, probably the highlight of the hike

One mile from the start, the trail finally turns away from the ravine, leaving it behind as it bears northwest along the hillside. At 1.1 miles, the trail crosses another old road, now overgrown with green grasses. Minutes later, the trail crests a high point, then drops again to skirt a minor ravine, followed 1/10 mile later by a second. Now bearing north, the footpath gradually descends to another trail fork. Again the route bisects the Old Field Road; stay straight.

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Old Field Loop Trail, Greenbrier State Forest

After the junction, the declivity becomes more acute, but it is far from knee-buckling. Weaving back toward the trailhead, the route enters a fern-covered ravine at about 1.4 miles and passes picnic shelter #2 on the right. From here it’s a short jaunt back to the initial trail fork and parking area, completing a short but pleasant loop in an oft-forgotten corner of an oft-forgotten state.

Allow around an hour for this moderately difficult hike.

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Yellow Poplar Trail (Gambrill State Park, MD)

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Yellow Poplar Trail, Gambrill State Park, June 2016

Although named for the tall, wily trees populating the area, the real highlight of the Yellow Poplar Trail in Maryland’s Gambrill State Park is the ubiquitous, yellow-green ferns seemingly present at every turn. Straddling Catoctin Mountain—the easternmost ridge of the Appalachian Mountains in Maryland—the Yellow Poplar Trail offers some limited vistas but, sparsely traveled even on a busy summer day, is more notable for its peaceful serenity. At 7.1 miles, the circuitous trail is also Gambrill’s longest.

Yellow Poplar Trail Gambrill State Park Maryland information hike

Yellow Poplar Trail Gambrill State Park Maryland hike map

Map of Yellow Poplar Trail, Gambrill State Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and Map My Hike track)

The hike

The Yellow Poplar Trail intersects with Gambrill Park Road at a number of places, but there is probably no place better to start than the parking area at the High Knob Nature Center, situated just off Gambrill Park Road about one mile from the entrance. (Note: A stone’s throw from Frederick, Maryland, Gambrill State Park is about an hour’s drive from both Baltimore and Washington, DC.) While the nature center is only open by appointment, the parking area across the street has around 10-12 spots. (Note: Additional parking is available farther south at South Frederick Overlook in the High Knob Area.)

Head north along the road to reach the start of the Yellow Poplar Trail, situated just past the intersection with Gambrill Park Road on the left. Several paths take off from here, including the Black Poplar Trail and Green Ash Trail; follow the yellow blazes north, as Yellow Poplar shares a track with Green Ash while paralleling the road on the right. Occasional pines and hemlocks dot the path amid a sea of otherwise deciduous trees.

At 2/10 mile, the trail passes in front of a building labeled on the maps as the “visitor center”—but looks rather like a maintenance shed. (Note: I think the real visitor center is across the street?) The footpath continues north for another 200-300 yards before it crosses over to the east side of Gambrill Park Road, where it finally plunges into the woods and out of sight of cars.

At 4/10 mile, Yellow Poplar—briefly sharing a track with the Black Locust Trail—breaks with its trail brethren after passing under a set of power lines. Shortly after the split, hikers pass again under the power lines, then again a third time within minutes. The third crossing reveals a sea of bracken ferns, the first good look at the hike’s most striking flora.

Aside from the ferns, the most conspicuous other plant along the hike is mountain laurel, widely found in the Appalachians. This evergreen shrub blooms in May and June, producing bunches of pink or white flowers. Mountain laurel is particularly noticeable throughout the next section, as the Yellow Poplar Trail rounds a corner at 7/10 mile and follows an old road toward a junction with the blue-blazed Catoctin Trail.

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Mountain laurel

The Catoctin National Recreation Trail runs north from Gambrill State Park for roughly 27 miles, terminating in Catoctin Mountain Park near Camp David and the Pennsylvania border. It shares a track with the Yellow Poplar for only 2/10 miles as it bears north, before the two split again at the sight of a gravel road. Take a left to continue on the Yellow Poplar loop.

After 1/10 mile, the trail leaves the road and darts back into the woods on the right. At 1.4 miles, the ever-present power lines show up again, and the path crosses another utility road. As the path winds northwest, coming within a stone’s throw of Gambrill Park Road, the foliage grows denser, enveloping the trail in a haven of green. Up to this point, the trail has more or less covered rather level terrain, but the downward slope becomes more noticeable as it approaches the same old power lines again at around two miles.

Take a left, briefly following the power lines up the sun-soaked slope, then bear right on the Upper Yellow Loop, marked on a nearby sign as adding an additional 2.5 miles to the hike. (Note: My GPS denotes it as only 2.3 miles.)

Putting the clearing behind you, the woods become denser and darker, leaving hikers with a sense that civilization is farther and farther behind. The trail descends around 250 feet down the right flank of Catoctin Mountain and crosses a fern-laden, bowl-shaped ravine before beginning to ascend again at around 2.6 miles. At 2.7 miles, the trail cuts sharply left and starts to climb the spine of a ridgeline. At this point, the trail has left Gambrill State Park for a brief foray into neighboring Frederick Municipal Forest.

At three miles, near the top of the 350-foot ascent, stay left at the trail fork, reentering Gambrill State Park. Within minutes, the trail approaches a stunning pocket of ferns, which blanket the ground in nearly all directions (at least in summer).

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Ferns along the Yellow Poplar Trail

Eventually the ferns are replaced with crowded clusters of mountain laurel, and the trail starts on a strangely circuitous route across flat terrain—which only makes sense when you realize that this section was apparently built for mountain bikers. At 3.4 miles, the trail comes within striking distance of an official weather station, and traffic can be heard on Gambrill Park Road. After a short downhill, the trail crosses under the power lines for a sixth time (stay straight), then meanders uphill again to cross Gambrill Park Road.

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Fern people

Four miles into the hike, the Yellow Poplar Trail reenters the woods and follows the left flank of Catoctin Mountain as it winds south back toward the trailhead. The ferns return again in full force, and protruding chunks of stone break up the otherwise featureless terrain. At 4.3 miles, stay right at the trail junction, then cross again over an old road. As the trail snakes southeast, it comes close—but never quite reaches—the rim of a steep drop-off into Middletown Valley; dense vegetation obscures nearly all views to the west.

 

Not until 5.5 miles does the trail split again; this time, the Black Locust Trail enters from the left, merging with Yellow Poplar for the next ½ mile. With the road tantalizingly close on the left, the trail instead bears right, sheds around 100 feet in elevation, and approaches a spur trail leading to a “scenic view.” Turn right on the spur, following the well-trodden path under dense canopy to the overlook: a singular rock perched along the west-facing hillside. The spot provides an obscured and underwhelming view of the valley—but nonetheless the best that Yellow Poplar has to offer. (Note: Better views can be had at North and South Frederick Overlooks situated off Gambrill Park Road.)

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Obscured vista from the “scenic view” of Yellow Poplar Trail

After stopping at the viewpoint, continue south down the spur trail, which reconnects with the main path after 100 yards. Around the 6-mile mark, hikers will reach a junction that is within earshot of the starting place—and bearing left at the fork will return you to the nature center and parking area. But those determined to finish the entire loop should hang a hard right, where the Yellow Poplar Trail separates from Black Locust and continues southward around the southern cone of High Knob. The trail gradually descends as it bounds east and reaches a 4-way junction at 6.6 miles. Stay straight on the multi-blazed trail—Yellow Poplar, Black Locust, Green Ash, and Red Maple all share the same path.

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Multi-blazed trail in Gambrill State Park

From here, the trail climbs for 1/10 mile to meet Gambrill Park Road once again. Cross the street to the parking area on the east side, then look for the continuation of Yellow Poplar at the end of the parking lot to the left. Beyond, the trail makes up for lost elevation in a final, 150-foot climb back to the trailhead, roughly following the omnipresent power lines until the trail ends, at last, where it began: at the road junction just north of High Knob Nature Center.

While not overly strenuous, this 7.1-mile jaunt feels like a full day’s hike. Allot at least 3.5 hours, or 4-5 to be safe.

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