Signal Knob Loop (George Washington National Forest, VA)

DSC09322

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.

DSC09310

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.

DSC09311

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.

DSC09314

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.)

SONY DSC

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.)

DSC09324

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.

DSC09327

View from Signal Knob

DSC09329

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.

DSC09332

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.

DSC09340

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.

DSC09344

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, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

DSC09264

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.”)

DSC09244

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.)

DSC09249

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.

DSC09264

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.

DSC09259

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.

SONY DSC

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.

DSC09277

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.

SONY DSC

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.

DSC09284

Stony Run Falls, Stony Run Trail, Douthat State Park

DSC09290

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.

DSC09292

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.

DSC09295

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, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Old Field Loop Trail (Greenbrier State Forest, WV)

DSC09236

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.

DSC09226

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.

DSC09229

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.

DSC09234

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.

Posted in Greenbrier State Forest, West Virginia | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Yellow Poplar Trail (Gambrill State Park, MD)

DSC09208

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.

DSC09194

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).

DSC09203

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.

DSC09205

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.)

DSC09220

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.

SONY DSC

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.

Posted in Gambrill State Park, Maryland | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pinehurst Branch Trail Loop (Rock Creek Park, DC)

DSC09157

Pinehurst Branch Trail, Rock Creek Park, June 2016

While firmly within the District of Columbia, Rock Creek Park’s “wild northern section” sees relatively sparse use due to its distance from the city center. All the better: not only is bigger and better than the park’s crowded southern reaches, but the area provides a sense of solitude almost unheard of in a major American metropolis. The 3.8-mile Pinehurst Branch Trail Loop described below offers a taste of this charming and densely-wooded area, beginning and ending at DC’s northwestern frontier with Maryland.

Pinehurst Branch Trail Rock Creek Park hike information Washington DC

Pinehurst Branch Trail Loop hike Rock Creek Park Washington DC map

Map of Pinehurst Branch Trail Loop, Rock Creek Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and Map My Hike track)

The hike

The loop hike takes off from the quiet and sleepy community of Hawthorne, nestled in the northwest corner of DC. Bounded by Pinehurst Parkway Park and Rock Creek Park to the south and east and Maryland to the west, Hawthorne is so isolated—by city standards—that many longtime DC residents have never heard of it.

All this, of course, makes the neighborhood an ideal starting point for a hike characterized by its quiet seclusion. The Pinehurst Branch Trail begins along Western Avenue NW between Beech Street and Aberfoyle Place, marked with a small wooden sign. Park anywhere along the shoulder (or take the E6 bus from the Friendship Heights Metro Station), and lace up your hiking boots for the dusty path ahead.

DSC09135

Start of Pinehurst Branch Trail

The narrow trail begins by dropping down four wooden steps and plunging into the woods, passing under a canopy of poplars, chestnuts, oaks, maples, and ubiquitous beech trees. The trail’s namesake stream is visible on the left after about 100 yards. Partly graveled, the trail widens slightly then climbs at a modest clip to meet the first trail junction at ¼ mile. Stay left, paralleling a densely-vegetated ravine on the right before traversing a short bridge over a Pinehurst Branch tributary.

For the next couple hundred yards, the trail parallels Pinehurst Branch, littered with gray-white stones that have washed downstream. At about 1/3 mile, pay close attention as the trail drops down to cross Pinehurst Branch for the first time; while the more obvious trail continues straight along the south bank, yellow blazes direct hikers across the stream. Barring adverse weather conditions, the traverse is short and straightforward.

Time along the left bank is fleeting; stay right at the route junction (a connecting trail leads left to Beech St.), then cross Pinehurst Branch a second time, returning to the south shore. This crossing is one of the more interesting: the high bank on the right has become the deposit point for a smattering of large boulders, which, at the time of writing, were further enveloped by a large, fallen tree.

DSC09142

Second crossing of Pinehurst Branch

By now, the right flank of the stream valley has developed into a relatively steep hillside largely devoid of undergrowth. The Pinehurst Branch Trail follows the south slope for 1/10 mile, then suddenly cuts right as it ascends partway up the hillside. Stay left at the junction with an unofficial spur trail, then cross a minor drainage. At 6/10 mile, the path crosses Pinehurst Branch a third time. Again, it lasts only a moment, as the trail curves right and, with Oregon Avenue now in sight ahead, crosses back to the right bank.

DSC09145

4th crossing on Pinehurst Branch Trail as it approaches Oregon Avenue

At 7/10 mile, carefully cross Oregon Avenue, leaving Pinehurst Parkway Park behind and entering Rock Creek Park proper. Within a minute of reentering the woods, the trail bisects the paved Rock Creek Trail (which you will return to later). Stay straight on the Pinehurst Branch Trail.

After a brief absence, the stream reappears at around 8/10 mile, and the path forks again at 9/10 mile. Stay straight again on the roughly east-west Pinehurst Branch Trail as it crosses the north-south bearing Western Ridge Trail. The sandy trail crosses Pinehurst Branch a fifth time at about the one-mile mark, where the stream drops leisurely over a small shelf, forming a pretty mini-cascade of sorts. After 2/10 mile on the left bank, the trail crosses the stream again at 1.2 miles; this time, the creek is more than 20 feet wide before it funnels into a manmade, partly concrete channel. From here, the trail widens and is partly graveled as it approaches Beach Drive in the heart of Rock Creek Park.

DSC09148

Small cascade on Pinehurst Branch in Rock Creek Park

Just before reaching the road, however—at 1.3 miles—it’s time to leave the Pinehurst Branch Trail behind. Bear left at the four-way trail junction, then immediately cross the creek for a seventh and final time. Ascend the steps along the north bank, then turn right at the next junction, embarking on an unnamed trail bearing east.

More so than any other part of the hike, this section offers the best workout as it climbs steadily while rounding a left-hand bend. Beach Drive and Rock Creek Park’s picnic area #8 appear down through the trees on the right. Now bearing northward through dense thicket, the narrow trail drops into a ravine, climbs again, then clears a second gully. Spur trails bearing right and left are ubiquitous—stay straight as the main path heads northwest, passing behind some restrooms at picnic area #10 at around 1.75 miles.

DSC09162

Unnamed trail above Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park

Minutes later, the trail climbs steadily to a point offering a partly-obscured view of Rock Creek (situated across Beach Drive) from above, then cuts west and descends to a real trail junction. Faced with the binary choice of left or right, bear left at the fork, ascending gradually through a fern-covered gulch.

This trail—effectively a dusty and weathered former road—climbs up the ravine, passing a subtle spur on the right at 2.0 miles and terminating at the Western Ridge Trail at 2.2 miles. Bear right on this prominent hiking thoroughfare through Rock Creek Park, which, true to its name, follows high ground as it snakes north and west toward Wise Road.

Cross the road at 2.5 miles, entering the hike’s most confusing section: many maps show the Western Ridge Trail intersecting with a southwest-bearing path shortly past Wise Road…but for all intents and purposes, this path does not exist. An alternative is to head up the trail for about 1/10 mile, then bear left on a subtle, social trail that also bears southwest but gradually fades as it approaches the edge of the park. Nonetheless, the path offers a route up and out of a fingered ravine and within sight of Oregon Avenue on the right, effectively ending at the junction of Oregon and Dogwood Street. From here, follow the left-hand side of Oregon down to the intersection with Wise Road, where you can pick up the paved Rock Creek Trail. (Note: It is also possible to skip this section altogether by bearing left on Wise Road at 2.5 miles, but, with blind curves and the lack of a clear shoulder, this is discouraged.)

Now around 2.75 miles into the hike, follow the Rock Creek Trail as it snakes around a small ravine, then bounds southward. At 3.0 miles, the paved path crosses a bridge over Pinehurst Branch then completes the loop as it joins again with the Pinehurst Branch Trail. Bear right at the junction, retracing your steps—over Oregon Avenue and across the first four crossings of Pinehurst Branch—back to the trailhead at Western Avenue in Hawthorne. (Note: As shown in my Map My Hike track, there are a couple of possible deviations along the way.)

DSC09168

View from bridge over Pinehurst Branch on Rock Creek Trail

All told, this loop—at a leisurely space but with minimal stops—should take around 1.5-2 hours. While not exactly action-packed, the 3.8-mile stem-and-loop offers solitude nearly unparalleled in one of America’s largest urban parks.

Posted in District of Columbia, Rock Creek Park | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lost Mountain Trail Loop (Sky Meadows State Park, VA)

DSC09088

Lost Mountain Trail Loop, Sky Meadows State Park, June 2016

The eastern sector of Virginia’s Sky Meadows State Park—situated across Highway 17—is certainly less popular than the much larger western tract. It is frequented, however, by horseback riders, as all the trails on this side are equestrian-friendly. Of course, it’s possible to hike as well, and the Lost Mountain Loop—which summits a 1,041-foot, tree-covered peak—offers the best workout east of Highway 17. The 3.8-mile circuit described below also includes much of the Rolling Meadows Trail, a gently sloping double-track that cuts across farmland once owned by none other than George Washington. (Note: Wear long pants and bug spray! The abundance of vegetation and high grasses along the trail makes Lost Mountain a haven for ticks.)

Lost Mountain Trail hike Sky Meadows State Park information

Lost Mountain Trail map Sky Meadows State Park

Map of Lost Mountain Trail Loop, Sky Meadows State Park; adapted from Sky Meadows Trail Guide, http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/sky-meadows#park_trail_guide

The hike

This loop hike starts and ends at the Lost Mountain Trailhead, located off Highway 17 about a mile south of Paris, Virginia. Though not as busy as the rest of the park, expect to see other cars at the trailhead, situated at the end of a short spur drive. (Note: The larger lot on the left is reserved for horse trailers.)

Off to the left is an abandoned barn and silo, a silent reminder that this was active farmland since at least the 18th century, when famed British landowner Lord Fairfax acquired much of what is now northern Virginia. George Washington, who worked as a surveyor for Fairfax, then briefly owned the property, which he purchased from Lord Fairfax, for whom he worked as a surveyor prior to the French and Indian War. Since then, it has passed through several families before being endowed to Sky Meadows State Park in 1991.

Fast forwarding to today…two paths take off from the Lost Mountain Trailhead, including the 1-mile Shearman’s Mill Trail and the 2.5-mile Rolling Meadows Trail. Take the latter, which begins just to the right of the wooden trail kiosk. One hundred yards down the gravel track, the trail splits; bear right, covering the subsequent loop in a counter-clockwise direction.

From here, the Rolling Meadows Trail edges southeast, following an old, overgrown road bed. Thick shrubs and leafy trees flank the right side, while fencing separates the trail from the old farmland on the left.

DSC09068

Rolling Meadows Trail, Sky Meadows State Park

Around ½ mile from the start, the trail cuts diagonally left across the grassy pasture, climbing around 40 feet, then passes through an open gate. Look for bluebirds, which abound in these meadows. Back at the tree line, stay right at the trail fork, remaining on the blue-blazed Rolling Meadows Trail as the Hayfield Trail bears left. Steps later, traverse the creek bed, the first of two crossings on the hike.

DSC09070

Rolling Meadows Trail

From here the trail climbs gently and traces a right-hand bend across a field of shrubs and thorns—overgrowth that suggests this former farmland was abandoned long ago. At one mile, the trail reaches another fork; bear right again, turning onto the yellow-blazed Lost Mountain Trail.

DSC09077

Lost Mountain Trail, Sky Meadows State Park

Dashing into the woods, the footpath thins to a singletrack and begins to climb the western flank of Lost Mountain. Gradual at first, the incline steepens after passing yet another junction (Washington’s Ridge Trail bears off to the left). After climbing for 1/3 mile, the trail tops out at about 870 feet, bears north, and begins to gradually descend the ridgeline atop Lost Mountain.

DSC09083

Lost Mountain Trail, Sky Meadows State Park

The highest point is still ahead, however, as the trail begins to climb to a second peak at 1.9 miles. Not that the height makes much of a difference…Lost Mountain is blanketed in trees, severely limiting views in the summer. At 2.2 miles, the hike reaches 1,036 feet, a stone’s throw away from the summit, and then begins to drop. Suddenly, there is sun ahead: a tree cut to facilitate the passage of power lines allows for some limited vistas to the west.

The power lines also form the northern bound for the hike, meaning the trail quickly doubles back, reenters the woods, and heads southwest. The trail drops around 275 feet in around a half-mile, reaching a four-way trail junction at 2.8 miles. This point is also the highlight of the hike, as a break in the trees offers a fine view of Crooked Run Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west (toward the rest of Sky Meadows State Park). A wooden bench offers the chance to sit and take a break after the moderately strenuous traverse of Lost Mountain.

DSC09087

Nice view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the 4-way trail junction

With the Lost Mountain Trail ending here, head right at the fork on the blue-blazed Rolling Meadows Trail, which gradually descends another 150 feet as it skirts the edge of the shrublands on the left. Stay right at the trail fork at 3.1 miles (the northern end of the Old Pasture Trail), then cross the open field. At 3.3 miles, the wide path crosses the creek a second time.

DSC09091

Looking back at Lost Mountain on the Rolling Meadows Trail, Sky Meadows State Park

Stay right again at the next trail junction (with the Hayfield Trail) and bound up the knoll as the trail enters the final stretch. Follow a straightaway for 300 yards, then take a left at the penultimate trail fork, passing an old shed on the right. One hundred yards from the end, take a right at the original trail junction and retrace your steps back to the trailhead.

Allot 2-3 hours for this moderately difficult circuit hike.

DSC09094

Bluebird on the trail

Posted in Sky Meadows State Park, Uncategorized, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tunnel Trail (New River Gorge National River, WV)

DSC09009

Tunnel Trail, New River Gorge National River, May 2016

Admittedly, the Tunnel Trail at New River Gorge National River in south-central West Virginia is a bit of a letdown sans its namesake attraction: a cave-like passage now closed to visitors. Barring deep structural fixes to the poorly-supported tunnel—historically a favorite among locals—the rock maze is likely to remain inaccessible for months or years to come. However, it is still possible to complete the ½-mile Tunnel Trail loop, a casual stroll through dense woods and past towering rock faces.

Tunnel Trail Grandview New River Gorge hike information

Tunnel Trail New River Gorge Grandview map West Virginia

Map of Tunnel Trail, Grandview area, New River Gorge National River; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and Map My Hike track.)

The hike

Begin the hike from the parking area at the Grandview Visitor Center, the primary information station in the Grandview section of New River Gorge National River. Situated just 20 minutes from Beckley—a former coal mining town of 17,000—Grandview is a popular picnicking, climbing, and hiking spot for locals and tourists alike. The highlights of the area are the stunning viewpoints overlooking New River Gorge—namely Main Overlook and North Overlook (see my previous post here); lacking open vistas, the Tunnel Trail is more of an afterthought.

Nonetheless, hikers looking for a cool, shady walk can reach the Tunnel Trail by heading east from the Visitor Center, crossing the road, and following the wheelchair-accessible path to the Main Overlook. Just before the viewpoint, take a right onto the Tunnel Trail, which is well-marked. Almost immediately, the neatly-laid stone path drops down a double staircase, then squeezes through a rock cut.

DSC09001

Start of the Tunnel Trail, Grandview area, New River Gorge National River

Paralleling a vertical wall of sandstone on the right, the trail splits at 1/10 mile. Bear right, covering the high ground first. After climbing a short but steep staircase, look for the unmarked tunnel entrance on the left: boarded up and impassable. (Note: As of May 2016, it was apparent that part of the ceiling had collapsed.)

Continue climbing, resigning yourself to admiring the tunnel from above. As you climb a wooded hillcrest, look to the left, where it is possible (through the caution tape) to make out the passage running roughly north-south.

At ¼ mile, the Tunnel Trail approaches the top of a cliff and proceeds down a multi-tiered wooden staircase. Thereafter the trail bears left and follows the base of the cliffs, with occasional—though very obscured—views down into the gorge on the right. At 1/3 mile, the stony footpath passes under an impressive overhang. A couple minutes later, another wooden staircase on the left marks the end of the closed tunnel; alas, this too is impassable—as a fire has left it blackened, charred, and, in some parts, disintegrated.

DSC09011

Impressive overhang along the Tunnel Trail, New River Gorge National River

Continue straight, eventually rounding the corner and gradually climbing back northeast toward the trail junction. In summer, the vegetation in this section is dense and vibrant green, with moss-laden sandstone adding to the allure. At 4/10 mile, return to the trail junction and bear right. From here, it is a short climb up familiar territory back to the Main Overlook and parking area.

DSC09013

Verdant landscape along the Tunnel Trail

Allot at least a half hour for this moderately strenuous hike.

Posted in New River Gorge National River, West Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Castle Rock Trail Loop (New River Gorge National River, WV)

DSC08990

Castle Rock Trail, New River Gorge National River, May 2016

Lacking the most creative nomenclature, the Grandview area at West Virginia’s New River Gorge National River nonetheless lives up to its name, boasting spectacular vistas and craggy cliffs. With New River some 1,400 feet below, the Castle Rock/Grandview Rim Trail loop leads hikers to some of the best viewpoints in the park. At least the Castle Rock Trail, however, requires some work: the rock-adorned path dips and dives through stony ravines and climbs steep fingers for 6/10 mile before merging again into the much smoother Grandview Rim Trail. Hiking boots are a must, but the circuit is short and sweet, probably taking no more than 1 ½ hours for most hikers.

Castle Rock Trail Grandview Rim hike information New River Gorge West Virginia

Castle Rock Trail Grandview Rim Trail loop hike New River Gorge Grandview Map

Map of Castle Rock Trail Loop, New River Gorge National River; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and Map My Hike track.)

The hike

The Grandview area is one of the park’s closest sections to Beckley, a surprisingly crowded former mining town in south-central West Virginia. Only 13 miles from the heart of town, Grandview is a popular spot for picnicking, climbing, and, of course, hiking. The Castle Rock/Grandview Rim combination loop covers 1.2 of the area’s 8+ miles of trails and includes some of the best views of New River Gorge.

To reach the trailhead, drive east on I-64 from Beckley, leaving the highway at Exit 129B. Head north on Grandview Road for five miles to the park entrance, then follow the signs to the Grandview Visitor Center. Park on either side of the Visitor Center, a modest, sun-soaked building situated at the grassy center of the circuitous parking area. The well-marked trailhead is located across the street to the east.

Neatly tiled and wheelchair-accessible, the checkered rock path takes off across a grassy pitch, with other trails almost immediately bearing off to the left and right. Stay straight for about 1/10 mile to the Main Overlook, the most popular viewpoint in the area. Here the wooded plateau suddenly gives way to a precipitous cliffside, and a break in the trees offers a stunning view of a hairpin bend in New River Gorge. Rapids dot the winding river—thought to be one of America’s oldest waterways—located 1,400 feet below, paralleled by an active railroad.

DSC08982

View from Main Overlook, Grandview area, New River Gorge National River

 

To reach the Castle Rock Trail, backtrack around 50 yards from the overlook and turn left on the signed route, which immediately heads into the woods. Dusty and narrow, the Castle Rock Trail quickly descends to a point situated at the foot of a blocky wall of sandstone. Rhododendrons abound as the trail bobs and weaves amid rocks and tree roots, obstacles that require sure footing to maneuver.

DSC08987

Castle Rock Trail, New River Gorge National River

After about 10 minutes, the footpath approaches the first of three tall, weathered overhangs on the left, the most interesting feature of the Castle Rock Trail. (Note: Alas, protective wooden fences block the best viewpoints of the gorge on the right.) The concave walls are composed primarily of various forms of sandstone, formed of sediment laid more than 300 million years ago. A conspicuous layer of exposed black coal forms the base of the second wall, however—a reminder of West Virginia’s most famous industry. (Note: The second wall also offers one of the trail’s few relatively unobstructed views of the river to the east.)

DSC08988

Gargantuan wall of sandstone along Castle Rock Trail

From the second wall, the Castle Rock Trail rounds another bend and enters denser brush, which clogs the steep gully leading up to the third overhang amphitheater. After clearing this ravine, the trail cuts west and begins to climb in earnest: the final push back to the canyon rim. After gaining around 130 feet, the trail ends at a junction with the Grandview Rim Trail, about 7/10 mile from the start.

Bear left on the Grandview Rim Trail, which travels across mostly level ground as it makes its way south back to the Visitor Center. After a couple minutes, look for a spur trail to the left. This path, a worthy detour, treads downhill to three established viewpoints, together forming the North Overlook. The view here is very similar to that of Main Overlook…but has far fewer visitors.

DSC08994

View from North Overlook, Grandview area, New River Gorge National River

DSC08996

Northeast view from North Overlook, Grandview area, New River Gorge National River

Working your way back to the Grandview Rim Trail, take a left and continue southward through dense greenery. At 9/10 mile, stay straight at the trail junction. (Note: There is also a water fountain here.) Then continue along the occasionally-graveled path as it bears southeast, skirting the edge of the gorge—100-150 feet above the Castle Rock Trail below. At 1.2 miles, the trail reemerges from the thick woods, returning to the initial grassy patch adjacent to the parking area. Bear right, following the short path back to the road and Visitor Center.

DSC08998

Grandview Rim Trail weaves through a grove of rhododendrons

Allot around an hour to 1 ½ hours for this moderately strenuous hike. Use caution on the Castle Rock Trail—it’s literally more than a 1,000-foot tumble off to the right!

DSC08981

View from Main Overlook, Grandview area, New River Gorge National River

Posted in New River Gorge National River, West Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Natural Arch Trail (Babcock State Park, WV)

DSC08970

Natural Arch, Babcock State Park, May 2016

In addition to sporting picturesque cascades, majestic views, and a serene lake, Babcock State Park in south-central West Virginia also contains a small natural arch, a rarity in the area. Here weathering in the Nuttall Sandstone gives way to a shady and moss-covered span that is both easy to climb and pass through.

Natural Arch Trail Babcock State Park West Virginia information hike

The hike

To reach the arch, enter Babcock State Park through the main entrance, and take the first right. Look for a small sign marked “Natural Arch” on the right, and park on the shoulder. (Note: Directly across the road is the start of the Mountain Heath Trail.) Climb four short, stone steps, then follow the tread south as it parallels the paved drive. Within minutes, the Natural Arch becomes obvious—in fact, the trail passes right through it.

DSC08969

Natural Arch, Babcock State Park

Feel free to venture a little farther to climb to the top of the arch, then return the way you came. (Note: The official state park map shows a circuit option that continues past the arch and loops back to the trailhead, but the route was, as of May 2016, not obvious.)

DSC08971

Natural Arch from the backside

Posted in Babcock State Park, West Virginia | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Lake View Trail Loop (Babcock State Park, WV)

DSC08961

Lake View Trail, Babcock State Park, May 2016

It seems like every state park in America has a man-made reservoir, and Babcock State Park in south-central West Virginia is no exception. After checking out the area’s historic grist mill, beautiful waterfalls, and sweeping views, finish off your day with an easy-to-moderate loop hike around Boley Lake, stocked with trout between February and May and lined with a nice variety of flora, including the area’s famous rhododendrons. Park at the boat dock off Park Forest Road 801 to complete the 1.2-mile circuit around the reservoir, or trek an extra 1/3 mile each way on the Lake View Trail from the Park Office.

Lake View Trail Boley Lake Babcock State Park information hike

Lake View Trail loop hike map Babcock State Park Boley Lake

Map of Lake View Trail, Babcock State Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version or interactive map)

The hike

For the longer version, park at the Park Office—situated on the banks of Glade Creek—and cross the bridge, passing the Glade Creek Grist Mill on the right. Take a left at the intersection, then another left onto the paved road heading uphill and away from the creek. Look for a sign on the left indicating the start of the Lake View Trail.

DSC08938

Lake View Trailhead, Babcock State Park

The hike immediately climbs into a grove of rhododendrons, following orange blazes through the leafy ravine. The 1/3-mile ascent to Boley Lake gains roughly 100 feet in elevation, making this the toughest—and rockiest—section of the walk. After a few minutes, the trail crosses a small bridge over Camp No. 15 Branch, carrying rushing waters obscured by dense thicket. After about 10-15 minutes, the trail suddenly leaves the woods behind, climbing a grassy hillside to the banks of Boley Lake.

DSC08945

Boley Lake from Lake View Trail

Except maybe during the busy summer months, Boley Lake is quiet and serene. Trees of diverse color line the reservoir in spring and fall, while dense thickets of rhododendrons adorn the left bank. Head either left or right once reaching the lake—this description takes the latter option, circumnavigating the lake in a counterclockwise direction.

DSC08950

Boley Lake

From here the trail skirts a rock slope and then winds gently around a minor inlet to the boat dock, where it is possible to rent rowboats and paddle boats in the summer. Beyond, a network of trails head in a few different directions—while technically the Lake View Trail climbs a minor slope away from the water, a well-trodden social trail follows the lake’s banks. Eventually, the two routes merge again—follow the orange blazes as the singletrack bears southwest along the reservoir’s north flank.

DSC08948

Boat dock at Boley Lake, Babcock State Park

Make your way along the mostly flat trail—past a mildly rocky section and through a patch of rhododendrons—to the far side bridge over Camp No. 15 Branch, situated around 9/10 mile from the start. Shortly thereafter, the trail leaves the lake’s edge to clear a massive lakeside boulder and climbs sharply uphill, though only for a fleeting moment.

DSC08957

Lake View Trail

Maintaining some distance from Boley Lake, the Lake View Trail drops down into a minor ravine, then runs through more rhododendrons, tangled undergrowth, and some uplands—as well as a group of Virginia pines. At about 1.4 miles, the trail works its way back to the edge of the lake at the end of another minor inlet. From here, it’s a short walk back to end of the loop, reconnecting with the spur trail heading back toward the Park Office.

Take a left here, retracing your steps for 1/3 mile back to the trailhead and, a few minutes later, the Grist Mill and park headquarters. Allot at least an hour for this stem-and-loop hike, maybe in the evening—a nice complement to a longer and more strenuous hike in Babcock State Park in the morning.

Posted in Babcock State Park, West Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment