Climbing 101

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Finally! It took us the better part of 2 years to schedule and follow-through on the gift Hunter gave us for Christmas in 2016. Yeah, we know. LAME. Weekends just didn’t match up for both of us on the dates the class was offered until now. But man-oh-man are we glad the stars finally aligned so we could do this!

Keith Peterson of River Rock Outfitter in Fredericksburg, VA made this day an exceptional value. Though it was given to us as a present, we believe the other classmates each paid about $100 — an incredible bargain for what Keith provides in the Climbing 101 course. All equipment was provided, including helmet and climbing shoes. We were on-site from 8 AM to about 3 PM, during which we learned the basics of safety, how to tie necessary knots, how to communicate during a climb, and how to belay using an ATC.* We practiced knots and belaying, then got right into climbing — belaying for each other under Keith’s watchful eye. We tried out 3 different climbs, and then finished the day with rappelling and a mini-lesson on how to climb up a rope using a grigri device. There were 5 of us in the course, which made for lots of personal attention.

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Audrey, Brent, Henri, Fergus, and Ray. [photo by Keith Peterson]
No one felt rushed and everyone got multiple opportunities to practice. Keith was an impressively patient and knowledgeable instructor — reassuring, coaching, and encouraging all day long without the slightest hint of impatience. Frankly, given Henri’s disposition, we’re not sure how he pulled it off. He seemed to be enjoying the day as much as all of us in the course did, clearly passionate about the sport and clearly excited to see people pushing themselves to learn and develop this new skill.

After learning the basics and climbing/belaying all day last Saturday, we’re both stoked to continue practicing, growing in confidence, learning more, and developing skills. (Henri already ordered hand/finger strengtheners on Amazon…because of course she did). The plan for now is to do some indoor climbing at a gym in Richmond called Triangle Rock Club later this month. Alongside that, we’d like to do more outdoors climbing with River Rock Outfitter, including the Climbing 102 course.

With luck, we won’t need to wait 2 years to make another class work for our schedules!

 

*Henri kept annoying poor Keith with questions about why things are called what they are called (because she’s a huge nerd), then came home and looked up the etymology of “belay” and why ATC stands for “Air Traffic Controller.” Turns out that is a brand name of a belay device created by Black Diamond, but the term ATC is now used for belay devices of that kind, sort of like people say “Kleenex” for any brand of facial tissue.

Spruce Knob Plane Wreckage: What Happened

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On 31 October 1973, two people perished when their plane crashed into the side of Spruce Knob, near Riverton, WV. The site of the wreckage, which persists to this day, is easily accessible just a few miles from the trailhead of Lumberjack Trail. The crash site is documented on many hiking maps/routes, including those featured on Hiking Upward; however, most don’t say anything about the event that resulted in the debris. Often, you’ll just see a tiny red plane shape marking the spot on a trail map. Those that do provide some information note little more than the year of the crash and perhaps the type of plane. Hiking Upward does mention that two people died in the crash and encourages hikers to be appropriately reverential when they visit the site.

When we went hiking near the site of the crash in early April of this year, we had noted it on the trail map and expected to see a few pieces of rusting metal, probably partially embedded in the earth as it reclaimed them. After all, it had been 45 years since the crash occurred. Upon arriving at the site, we were taken aback by how much of the plane, including its fuselage, severed wings, engines, and interior seating, were strewn along the mountainside — most of it still brightly painted. We were surprised by how much detritus was still there. We were struck by how far-flung it was. Most of all, we were overtaken by a deep sadness for the people who experienced the trauma of this event, who lost their lives. The site is devastating, even now.

We asked locals near Seneca Rock & Spruce Knob about the wreckage; they didn’t know what we were talking about. There appears to be little, if any, local lore about the site. Upon our return, we went online to read the story, but found that information about the pilot and passenger, and what they had endured, was difficult to find. The crash predates the Internet, which means much of the information about it is archived in ways that most people wouldn’t find. We couldn’t locate any other hikers’ blogs that discussed it. Though it came up on the sites of serial plane-crash chasers (a thing we didn’t know existed), nothing gets mentioned about who was affected in the accident.

Hiking Upward put a video of their encounter with the wreckage on Youtube:

 

And then there are disrespectful people like these two, who thought it was funny and cute to play with the wreckage (minute 1:55), treating the site as just a fun tourist spot to amuse themselves:

 

We were affected deeply by our encounter with the site. Henri, in particular, couldn’t stop thinking about the two people who had lost their lives. She wanted to know who they were and wanted others to know, too. It took a lot of online sleuthing to piece together some of the human story of what happened here in 1973. But it’s not just twisted scrap metal up there on that mountainside. It’s the history of two people who mattered then and should continue to matter now.

It’s not just twisted scrap metal up there on that mountainside. It’s the history of two people who mattered then and should continue to matter now.

There is evidence at the site, for those who take the time to look, that family and other loved ones care profoundly about those tho perished. There is a makeshift memorial set up near the crash, with two handmade crosses juxtaposed aside two conjoined seats from the fuselage. It is likely difficult to see during the summer (overgrowth) and winter (snow). In the spring and fall, it is visible and deeply touching.

For those others who encounter the site along the trail, we wanted to do the research and write this post in memoriam. Our hope is that all those who read this post and then visit the site will show it the reverence it deserves.

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A makeshift memorial at the crash site. The two seats near the markers serve to remind us of the two young men who died here.
WHAT HAPPENED

1973 — On October 30, two young men set out on a flight from Flint, Michigan at 11:30 PM. They were returning to Cumberland, MD after completing a cargo trip for their employer, Nicholson Air Service, based at the Cumberland Regional Airport. During a pre-flight briefing, the pilot was advised about potential icing. The Piper Aztec PA-23 he was flying did not feature wing deicing equipment. We have been unable to determine why the pilot was taking off so late at night in potentially icy conditions; the Aviation Safety Network report of the incident indicates that this was an “unscheduled” flight. Near Bellaire, Ohio (just east of Columbus), the pilot made contact with aviation officials, stating that the plane’s wings were icing at 9000 feet and requesting to drop to 7000 feet. Permission was granted, but this was the last anyone heard from the flight. News reports state that the plane disappeared from the Cleveland air route traffic control radar screen at 12:30 AM on October 31. The plane never landed at Cumberland Regional Airport.

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This is what an intact Piper Aztec PA-23 looked like circa 1973. [photo by Peter Davis]

A four-day, four-state search was launched, though it was hampered/delayed some by weather conditions that inhibited flying. On November 4 or 5, the wreckage was discovered by a person unassociated with the search who was hiking Spruce Knob in the Monongahela National Forest. We have not been able to obtain information on the identity of the hiker who first encountered the wreckage. Both the pilot and the passenger had perished when the plane went down.

Flight

Who Perished Here

The plane was piloted by 24-year-old James Thompson (J.T.) Watson, Jr. of Keyser, WV. The passenger was 17-year-old Jonathan Randolph (Randy) Johnson, of Cumberland, MD. Both young men worked for the Nicholson Air Service.

Watson had been an engineering student at Potomac State College prior to spending the year preceding the plane crash (1971-1972) serving in the U.S. Army. We have not been able to verify whether Watson served in Vietnam during that year, but it seems plausible. He was survived by his parents and one sister.

Johnson, a member of the Cumberland Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, had fulfilled all requirements to earn his solo flight certificate at the time of the accident. In the months after his passing, his squadron set up and collected funds for a memorial scholarship in his name, with the aim of helping other young men and women pay for flying lessons and other costs. At least 4 cadets benefitted from the generosity of this fund in 1974 (see news clippings below). He was survived by his parents and two sisters.

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J.T. Watson 1969

J.T. Watson, Jr. (17 Feb 1949 – 31 Oct 1973) is laid to rest in Keyser, WV.

Randy Johnson (29 May 1956- 31 Oct 1973) is interred in Cumberland, MD. [No photo available]

SOURCES

Aviation Safety Network Incident Report, from NTSB

Ancestry.com

Various News Clippings, including:

 

 

 

Hiking Hawksbill Summit

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The college kids sure do like their cairns.

If you’re looking for a fun, easy hike to see the sunset over spectacular views of the hills and valleys of Shenandoah National Park, this is the ticket. If you’re looking for privacy, seclusion, and solitude…search elsewhere. This hike is easy and short, with BIG pay-off. That means that lots of people do it, year-round.

HIKE INFO

hiked on 8 July 2017
Near Syria, VA
1.7 miles
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Alltrails Link

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Hunter-the-Gatherer leading the way at the start of the trail.
GETTING THERE

This is one of the easiest short hikes to access. We entered Shenandoah National Park at the Thornton Gap entrance and drove to the parking area at around MP 45.6 on Skyline Drive. The drive itself is very pretty!

WEATHER/CONDITIONS

It was a really moderate evening for July in Virginia, which is one of the reasons we headed out for a hike. Temp at the start of the hike was about 70° F. It was pretty darned windy at the summit, however, and it got much cooler as the sun went down.

 

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Wind playing with Henri’s ponytail at the summit.

 

SIDE NOTE

Our actual motive in choosing this short hike was to get to Sperryville to try the new Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen at Thornton River Grille. What a gem! We heartily recommend stopping there if you do any of the hikes that begin and end near Sperryville (there’s a cute little bar/pub attached to the store now, too…though we didn’t stop in there on this visit).

OUR HIKE NOTES

This was intended to be, and met the expectation of, a short and easy hike. We came with the goal of doing no more than 2 miles in search of a beautiful sunset…and Hawksbill delivers on both.

If you want a secluded summit experience, this is not the one for you. Lots of people head here to take in the views each evening because there is such huge pay-off for such little effort. We marveled at one young college woman who arrived in a sundress and sandals. So, you know, this isn’t exactly a difficult hike.

From the parking lot, it goes up at quite an incline immediately. There’s some climb to it. The trail is pretty and well marked. No fear of getting lost in the short distance from car to sunset. There’s a little shelter just before the summit with a place for a fire and no small amount of graffiti (thankfully, most of it is done with charcoal and not permanent).

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There is a stone “observation deck” at the summit, but also some rocks to scramble around on or nestle into as you watch. Kind of a perfect place to take a date, actually. Expect lots of sunset photographers to show up, vying for the best spot. Perhaps you can see why:

Hiking Dolly Sods/Lions Head

Dolly Sods Wilderness WV

Three days and two nights in the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area over spring break turned out to be a fantastic WV mini-vacation! The incredible thing about Dolly Sods is how varied the terrain becomes over the course of a 20 mile loop — meadows, forests, rock scrambles, crashing waterfalls, jungle-like greenery, marshy bogs. We walked through just about everything but desert in just 3 days.

HIKE INFO

hiked on 16-18 April 2017
Dolly Sods Wilderness Area
24ish  miles (with some back-tracking)
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

dolly sods map
522 > 521 > 524 > 513 > 554 > 514 > 511 > 509 > 526 > 521 > 522
WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Seneca Rocks, WV (predicted) 16-18 April 2017:

Actual:

Day 1: WIND! But otherwise, lovely.
Night 1: RAIN! (20% precipitation prediction became 100%)
Day 2: Rain in AM (played cards in tent until it passed), LOVELY in PM for continued hike
Night 2: Clear but very cold in the wee hours
Day 3: Gorgeous.

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Day 2: View into Canaan Valley — Look at that sky!
OUR GEAR

Fergus has a 70 liter REI pack. Henri has a 50 liter Kelty. We didn’t exactly plan to be “ultralight” overall, but we own several key lightweight pieces of gear (notably: tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats). These items helped us stay comfy and easily divide our total pack weight so that neither of us carried more than 18% of our respective body weight. Henri’s pack came in at about 11.5 kg (25 lbs) with 3 liters of water in a Camelbak. Fergus’ pack, also with water and with tent strapped to it, weighed about 15.4 kg (34 lbs).

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“Things Organized Neatly”

We used just about everything we packed, given the changes in weather and temperature over the 3 days. Really, in reflecting, we couldn’t come up with much that we would have left behind if we did this trip again (except Fergus’ stupid Javadrip…but that didn’t really add weight). What we would add: One more pair of dry socks, each.

Stand-Out Pieces of Gear — Stuff We LOVED:

  • REI Half Dome 2 Plus tent — Super easy to put up/take down and kept us dry even in a major prolonged downpour the first night.
  • GravityWorks Platypus 2 liter water filter system — We each packed in 3 liters in our Camelbaks, but then relied on the Platypus to filter stream water for cooking and drinking after that was gone. This thing was FAST and effective. We can’t say enough good things about it. Literally life-sustaining, easy-to-use, and easy to pack in and out.
  • JetBoil Minimo Cooking System — This has been a favorite of ours for a long time. Light & fassssst.
  • Backpacker’s Pantry freeze-dried foods. Light to pack several meals, easy to rehydrate, packaging keeps food piping hot. Plenty of food: when they say “2 servings” in a package, they mean it. Flavors & consistency very good on all the meals we brought. No ill effects in terms of tummy/intestinal trouble. Fergus is particularly a fan of the crème brûlée (yes, you read that right).

OUR HIKE NOTES

We pretty  much followed the Hiking Upward 3-Day hike plan, with only minor deviations related to user error. We’ve re-published those hike directions here (somewhat abbreviated and with Henri’s punctuation editing). Our notes are added in GREEN, plus our photos.

DAY 1

From the parking area on FR75, pass the trailhead sign and start down the Bear Rocks Trail (TR522). Note that none of the trails in the Dolly Sods area are blazed, however they are well marked with signage.

“Well-marked” is half true. There’s a lot of trail markings up to mile 7 of this hike, and then again after mile 15. Between 7-15, the trail is only marked at intersections. There are no blazes to let you know you’re on the right trail. Most of the time, this is not a problem.

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The Adventure Begins…

Mile 1.0The Bear Rocks Trail becomes narrow, passing through a boggy section and over a wooden walkway before arriving at the crossing for Red Creek. The trail continues on the left and climbs steeply for 0.2 miles then makes a sharp turn right into a fern field. Walk over another wooden footpath, entering a wooded area where the trail climbs towards the first meadow. Exit the woods and pass over the first open meadow. The Bear Rocks Trail will descend through a hollow and climb over another rise, then end at the intersection of the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521).

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Crossing Red Creek

Mile 2.3Continue straight uphill on the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521) then, in 0.2 miles, reach the intersection of the Beaver View Trail (TR523).

Mile 2.5Continue straight on the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521) as it leaves the meadows, then makes a sharp left hand turn into a wooded area. Exit the wooded area and shortly arrive at the intersection of the Rocky Ridge Trail (TR524).

Mile 3.8Turn left on the Rocky Ridge Trail (TR524) then, in 0.3 miles, reach one of the best overlooks of the hike into Canaan Valley. The next 1.4 miles on the Rocky Ridge Trail passes the area where most of the windswept boulders are located.

SUPER crazy windy the first 4 miles, and — at mile 3.5 — some brief rain. We found the perfect little protected spot nestled in some trees to wait it out and have a snack, then continued on our way. The “windswept boulders” and view of Canaan Valley are spectacular!

Mile 5.5Reach the intersection of the Dobbin Grade Trail (TR526). Stay right on the Rocky Ridge Trail (TR524), climbing over Harman Mountain, then arrive at the intersection of the Harman Trail (TR525).

Mile 6.4Continue on the Rocky Ridge Trail (TR524) for another 0.5 miles to the intersection of the Blackbird Knob Trail (TR511).

Mile 6.9Continue downward for 0.2 miles to the 4 way intersection of the Breathed Mountain Trail (TR553), Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513), and Forestry Road that leads down to Canaan Valley.

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Throughout the hike, intersections are well marked.

Mile 7.1There are 2 information boards at this intersection with maps of the area. Take the narrower Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513) directly ahead as it descends into the woods. This section of Dolly Sods is more wooded, with heath and sphagnum bogs. Pass several good campsites as you descend gradually along Stonecoal Run.

OK. So. At about mile 8, we deviated from the Hiking Upward plan (unintentionally). We sort of missed the part about “pass several good campsites” and made camp at what we thought was mile 9.4 (where directions say “on the opposite bank is a small campsite in a sandy area”when Fergus saw a “campsite on the opposite bank” with a sort of sandy-ish area. [We were actually about a mile and a half north of where we thought we were. But we were tired and it looked so inviting!] No complaints, even though the early stop made Day 2 a bit confusing (see below). They really ARE good campsites! We turned in somewhere between 8:30-9 PM, and the rain started shortly after…came down hard throughout the night and didn’t let up until mid-day on Day 2.

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Our campsite on night #1. At about mile 8-ish.

DAY 2

We waited out the rain until late morning, then packed camp just as it was letting up. We were prepared to hike in the drizzle, but the timing was remarkable. By the time we set off, the sun was coming out and the day stayed beautiful.

Because we had camped earlier on the trail than we thought, there was some confusion at the start of Day 2. We had crossed a little stream, thinking it was Stonecoal Run (see mile 9.4 below), but it was really just some little tributary. Not knowing this, it took a mile or so of hiking and back-tracking before we figured out that we hadn’t been where we thought we were and got ourselves re-oriented.

“This section of Dolly Sods is more wooded, with heath and sphagnum bogs.”

Yeah, true. It is filled with those things. What it is NOT filled with is any kind of blaze or trail marking. Between the “several good campsites” we were supposed to pass at mile 8ish and the campsite noted at mile 9.4, there is a turn in the woods that isn’t marked and is difficult to see. If you continue straight on the most visibly obvious path, you’ll walk right into a bog. (The worn footpath through the bog leads us to believe we are not the only hikers to have made this mistake).

The only help we can offer is (A) note the turns on the map even if they aren’t marked on the trail, and (B) before you get to the bog you will see a really big, twisted, dead tree in the forest that looks sort of either magical or maybe even sinister…like it really doesn’t belong there. The trail turns left just past that weird dead tree and continues up a hill through the woods for about a mile and a half. Do not go straight into the bog, no matter how much clearer that trail seems than the one going uphill through the trees (trust us).

The other bit of helpful advice we can offer: You will be traveling south with Stonecoal Run on your left (you’re on its right bank). The Hiking Upward directions don’t mention that you must cross Stonecoal Run to its left bank at about mile 8.5 — an easy crossing, for the most part — to continue on TR513. It’s on the map, but not the written directions. When they say “cross Stonecoal Run” at mile 9.4…that’s a second and more significant crossing from the left bank back to the right bank.

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Mile 9.4 – Cross Stonecoal Run. On the opposite bank is a small campsite in a sandy area. Continue downstream on the Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513) [on the right bank!] and in 0.2 miles pass the intersection of the Dunkenbarger Trail (TR558).

When we hiked it, there was NO good place to “cross Stonecoal Run” from the left to the right bank where the campsite is located. And, Stonecoal Run turned out to be a couple of feet deep. Maybe the previous night’s rain had something to do with that, and perhaps other times it’s much easier to cross. There were some downed logs that Henri crossed with moderate success (read: only one foot got soaked). Fergus just forged the stream.

We will say this: We discovered that you really MUST cross Stonecoal Run to find the trail and move forward. It’s not optional. You can try to follow a trail on the left bank, but it will quickly dead-end into the brush. Unless you want to bushwhack (we suppose you could), you need to cross Stonecoal Run near that campsite and turn left to follow the right-bank trail (clear and easy) for about a quarter mile. 

Mile 9.6Continue on the Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513) for 0.6 miles crossing Stonecoal Run…

“Crossing Stonecoal Run” again to regain TR513 on the left bank is not as easy as just stepping across some rocks or downed limbs, and you should prepare to get wet feet. We looked up and down the bank, but found no way to cross without wading through the water. It’s not deep, but it’s not dry either. (Note that this is the third time you cross Stonecoal Run to stay on TR513. The crossings are R to L bank at about mile 8.5, L to R bank at about mile 9.5, R to L bank again just before mile 10).

then entering a section of dense Rhododendron, pass a waterfall, and arrive at the intersection of the Rocky Point Trail (TR554).

This section of the hike is just GORGEOUS. It feels as if you’re hiking through a dense jungle. The waterfall is breathtaking. The views are amazing. It’s a great section.

Mile 10.4Stay left on the Rocky Point Trail (TR554), arriving at a vista to the south. At the point where the trail heads back to the north, look closely for an unsigned trail with no blazes and marked with occasional rock cairns, that leads left uphill. This is a rock scramble that leads to the Lion’s Head rock formation. After exploring, return to the Rocky Point Trail (TR554) and continue north towards Red Creek.

It was easy to find the rock scramble to Lion’s Head. Previous hikers had marked it by tying orange flags to a couple of trees. We figured it was either a warning to stay away or a hint that this was the right place. Luckily, it turned out to be the latter.

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The view from Lion’s Head rock formation.

Rocky Point Trail is aptly named. It’s not so much a trail as…rocks. Just lots and lots of ankle-twisting, foot-pummeling rocks with no real soil to be seen. For about 2 miles, the views are gorgeous…but those rocks are punishing. The trail then becomes a mix of rocks and soil and tree roots, which provides some relief but you’ll want to stay alert to keep from tripping, stubbing a toe, or twisting an ankle too badly. Note: Good hiking shoes or boots are pretty much required unless you want super sore feet.

It was along this section that Fergus discovered lots of WV ramps growing in the wild. A crazed ramp-lover, he was thrilled! Ramps are a type of wild leek with an onion-y, peppery kick. He picked several for us to enjoy at camp – raw, cooked in the JetBoil, and roasted on the fire. Turns out, ramp festivals or ramp dinners are a huge thing in WV in April and May. We’ll do a separate blog post to tell you more about it! 

Mile 13.2The Rocky Point Trail (TR554) ends at the intersection with the Red Creek Trail (TR514). Continue straight on the Red Creek Trail (TR514)…

This part goes UP. Not the steepest up we’ve ever upped….but worth mentioning.

…for 1.4 miles to the intersection with the Breathed Mountain Trail (TR553). Continue straight on TR514 and shortly arrive at the Forks of Red CreekThere are numerous campsites at ‘The Forks.’

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Night #2 campsite at “The Forks.”

DAY 3

Mile 14.6Cross the Left Fork of Red Creek and stay to your left as the Red Creek Trail (TR514) passes through a camping area then re-enters the woods on the left.

This crossing is much easier than the Stonecoal Run crossings from the previous day. Depending on how high the water is, you should be able to step across rocks to get to the other side. On this day, one or two of the rocks were underwater. Waterproof boots help. Fergus just took off his shoes & socks and forged the water. Henri rock-hopped with little trouble.

From this point the Red Creek Trail (TR514) becomes steeper… 

This is probably the steepest sustained climbing you do during the entire loop. It’s also very rocky…but also very pretty!

…until it enters the first of two large meadows. After passing through the second meadow the trail re-enters the woods and ends at the intersection of the Blackbird Knob Trail (TR511).

Mile 15.5Turn right on the Blackbird Knob Trail (TR511) passing through several boggy sections, then enter a small meadow and arrive at the intersection of the Upper Red Creek Trail (TR509).

Mile 15.9Turn left on the Upper Red Creek Trail (TR509), passing through several large meadows and gently climb towards the north. The trail will cross another tributary of Red Creek then end at the intersection of the Dobbin Grade Trail (TR526).

Mile 17.2Turn right on the Dobbin Grade Trail (TR526) for 0.1 miles to the intersection with the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521).

We read the directions carefully, but got caught up in the moment and missed this little jag to the right on Dobbin Grade Trail. We had read the warning in the next directions (below) and knew to steer clear of the Dobbin Grade to Bear Rocks trail segment…and in our eagerness to avoid that, got a little ahead of ourselves and accidentally turned left on Dobbin Grade instead of going right on it for a minute before turning left on Raven Ridge like we were supposed to.

It turned out to be a mushy, swampy, boggy mistake…but one that we figured out within .25 mile thanks to some industrious beavers. About a quarter mile along the wrong route, the clear trail turned marshy until we ran right into a beaver-created pond in the middle of the Dobbin Grade Trail. We could see the trail continuing on the other side of the two dams some beavers had built, but there was no way to get to it without literally going through the pond they had created. This made us pause and reconsider where we had gone wrong.

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2 dams blocked the trail with a beaver-created pond

If we hadn’t made that brief error, we would’ve missed seeing this even more spectacular dam nearby:

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Beavers. Dam!

At any rate, we quickly realized that we had been premature in turning left, backtracked, and found Raven Ridge Trail. Had those stupid beavers not blocked Dobbins Grade Trail, we may have hiked quite a ways in the wrong direction before figuring it out.

Mile 17.3Turn left uphill on the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521). WARNING: People look at the map and notice that following the Dobbin Grade Trail back to the Bear Rocks Trail is a shorter route. Don’t do it! The Dobbin Grade Trail is a boggy mess anytime of the year, and offers little scenery. Taking the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521) has much nicer views and is completely dry. So, after turning left uphill onto he Raven Ridge Trail (TR521), pass through several nice meadows and wooded areas for 1.5 miles back to the intersection with the Bear Rocks Trail (TR522) terminus you passed earlier in the hike.

OK, well, “completely dry” is a lie. Because of the rain the night before, lots of sections of TR521 were a muddy, mushy, swampy mess. Having said that, we’re pretty sure it was still much better than the Dobbin Grade Trail after the rain!

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“Completely dry” …

Mile 18.8Turn right on the Bear Rocks Trail (TR522)…

This is a  nice spot for a little rest before completing the last 2 miles or so!

…retracing your earlier steps through the meadows, crossing Red Creek, passing the Dobbin Grade Trail terminus, and climbing back to the parking area.

Mile 21.1Arrive back at the Bear Rocks Trailhead and parking area.

For us, it was more like 24 miles because of the couple of user error issues that included not only the map- and direction-following snafus but also…ahem…Henri losing the map at the big waterfall and again on the rock scramble to Lion’s Head…both on Day 2…and having to go back to find it. But who wants a hike that goes 100% according to plan, has no rain, and poses no challenge? 

Three Notch’d Brewery

Three Notch'd Brewery

According to the story of the brewery, it was named after Three Notch’d Road, a colonial era travel way famous for 3 notches cut or burned in trees along the way to mark the trail. Started in Charlottesville in 2013, it now has locations in C’ville, Harrisonburg (2014), and Richmond (2016).

For a relatively new brewery, it’s pretty amazing to see not only the number and quality of beers on offer, but also the impressive level of concept and marketing going on. This is not a fly-by-night thing; it has been carefully conceived and cleverly marketed. They’ve tapped into (pun intended) the rich Virginia history of each area in which they have established themselves, but have also not neglected the fact that each is located near a major public university. In terms of the taproom experience, they’ve done a nice job balancing the needs of their college-town presence (UVA in Charlottesville, JMU in Harrisonburg, and VCU in Richmond) with the needs of a larger community of beer drinkers.

Three Notch'd Brewery

The C’ville taproom is a great stop after a hike. It has a welcoming, casual vibe that could easily appeal to the college set wanting to hang out — including board and card games on the tables and a large chalkboard wall inviting folks to “Make Your Mark” — but has none of the hallmarks of a typical college bar that can be so off-putting to anyone older than 24. It is unassuming, but clean, well-lit, friendly, and focused on the beers. Decor is branding-focused, pretty cool and well-done, without being either fussy or trite. Pourers are knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful. There’s ample seating outside, and lots of space indoors as well. You can order a pint of your favorite, or put together your own flight of 4 or 6 to taste.

THE BEERS

Three Notch’d has a fun website that provides lots of information on most of the beers they have available. On this visit, Henri picked a flight of 6 while Fergus (the driver) opted for 4, so between the two of us we sipped and sampled quite a few of their offerings:

The Ghost (American Pale Ale)
Hydraulion (Irish Red)
No Veto (English Brown Ale)
Jack’s Java (Espresso Stout)
Minute Man (New England IPA)
40 Mile (IPA)
Blackwall (London Porter)
Peach Ghost (American Pale Ale)
Would You Be (Red IPA)

Three Notch'd Brewery

We thought they were all pretty good, really. Not surprisingly, Henri most appreciated the stout, porter, brown ale, and Irish red…while Fergus was more of a fan of the IPAs. Henri tried The Ghost because she’d read good things about it online as one of Three Notch’d flagship brews, and it was fine; however, it did not convince her to start liking pale ales as much as the darker, heavier stuff.

Three Notch'd Brewery

HOURS

M-Th          4-10 PM
Friday        3-10 PM
Saturday   12-11 PM
Sunday      12-8 PM
Free brewery tours on Saturday at 2 PM.

FOOD

There is no food available through the brewery; however, Cho’s next door will deliver wings, nachos or other menu items to your table at Three Notch’d. You can call in an order, use an ordering app on your phone (didn’t work for us), or just head next door to place an order…they’ll bring it over when its ready. You can also bring in your own outside food.

VA TRAIL PAIRINGS

Hiking Moorman’s River

Fun, pretty, easy, water-feature hike near Charlottesville that offers big pay off for low effort. Excellent low-key hike for when you want some pretty Virginia scenery and fresh air, without all that pesky UP.

HIKE INFO

hiked on 5 March 2017
Moorman’s River Hike, Near Charlottesville, VA
5 miles
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

Henri crossing Moorman's River
Lots of river crossing to do on this hike!
GETTING THERE

The start of this hike is located just outside of Charlottesville, by the Sugar Hollow Reservoir. The parking directions provided by Hiking Upward are pretty good, but they don’t mention the gate at the start of the trail.

This is said to be a really popular hike (read: low on solitude) because of its river, waterfalls, and swimming holes; however, on this early March day the parking area was only partially full when we started out (though a bit more crowded as we were leaving). We didn’t see more than a dozen other hikers on the trail mid-winter…but we can imagine the trail is bustling in the spring, summer, and fall.

Moorman's River Hike

WEATHER/CONDITIONS

White Hall, VA on 5 March 2017

 

 

We’ve had such a crazy warm winter in Virginia that we worried about this hike being cold by comparison. It was actually pretty perfect — sunny, not too much wind, and temperatures that allowed us to take off our jackets when we got warmed up.

OUR HIKE NOTES

We were looking for a short hike today because our ulterior motive was to head into Charlottesville to check things out there when we finished. This hike was selected because of its shortness, its proximity to C’ville, but also because it promised lots of water along the way. Henri is a sucker for river hikes and waterfalls. She knows you’re not supposed to go chasing them, but she does anyway. And she’s gonna have it her way, or nothin’ at all.

Hiking Upward mentions “the yellow-blazed North Fork Moorman’s River trail” as you start out, but the first blazes you actually see will be orange. The yellow blazes pick up after you’ve walked north a bit.

We’d had some storms in the week preceding our hike and they appear to have affected trail access quite a bit! Soon after we started out, we came upon a perplexed family of hikers (with a wee little one in back carrier) trying to figure out whether it was worth it to scramble their way through the downed trees that were blocking the trail. Henri forged ahead to do some recon, and convinced them that it cleared up soon and wasn’t too hard to pass. The storm had evidently hit this small area hard. We counted 7 trees across the trail, ripped out of the earth at the roots, and many more downed in the same space, but not inhibiting the trail.

Moorman's River Hike
“None Shall Pass!” We counted 7 trees uprooted and downed over the trail!

This is an out-and-back hike that leads to Big Branch Falls, though you could easily extended it to a longer hike if you (unlike us) weren’t already hearing the call of a brewery in Charlottesville. It’s one of those “lots of reward for just a little effort” hikes that make it popular and also make it a good hike if you’re taking friends who don’t hike often. There’s virtually no UP, at just 500 feet elevation gain. It’s just lots of fun and pretty…hard to beat when you want a low-key hiking day.

The trail winds next to and over Moorman’s River, allowing plenty of access to play/climb on some boulders, check out the clear trout-stocked river waters, and appreciate the prettiness of the cascades. The waterfalls weren’t in full-flow on the day we visited, but still very pretty! It’s easy to see why people head here during hot summer days to dip in the many easily-accessed swimming holes and play at the base of the falls.

Because it was winter, we got to experience the magic of ice. Check out this short video Henri took on the way up to the top of the second (bigger) falls — it’s water seeping under a sheet of ice, though it almost looks sinister (in a beautiful way):

 

When our hike was over, we stopped for a bit at the Sugar Hollow Reservoir, which is just beautiful and got Fergus all worked up about coming back to do some trout fishing. Not only is the reservoir stocked with brook and rainbow trout as part of the VDGIF’s “put and take” trout program, but a section just below the dam is a special regulation area stocked by the Thomas Jefferson chapter of Trout Unlimited for fly fishing only.

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • water
  • boulders to climb on
  • pretty views
  • proximity to Charlottesville
  • solitude level…on THIS day…we may not be so pleased with the crowd in peak season

Early Mountain Vineyards

Early Mountain Vineyards

Early Mountain Vineyards is owned by Jean and Steve Case, a somewhat famous billionaire couple who started a little company you may have heard of called America Online (AOL). Located in rural Madison, Virginia, it’s one of the newer wineries on the block; they hosted a grand opening as recently as September, 2012. The Cases had purchased the bankrupt Sweely Estate Winery just 8 months earlier for $10.2 million and renovated the property to accommodate their vision. This was our first visit to Early Mountain, an impromptu excursion after hiking Bear Church Rock.

The first thing we noticed is that this is not a small establishment. The vineyards themselves are extensive, and the 3-level building sprawls out quite a bit, to include an ample tasting area and plenty of event hosting spaces. This is clearly a winery that seeks to capitalize on events such as weddings and galas, and it’s easy to see why they’re successful at it. The property is lovely and has been appointed with an eye to offering a very comfortable guest experience. The tasting room features a central fireplace and leads out to a terrace and lawn. When we took a seat for a moment near the welcoming fire, a server quickly stopped by to ask if we’d like a glass of wine or if we wanted to sample some local fare.

Early Mountain Vineyards

The tasting bar was large, but pretty much filled when we arrived. Our wine docent commented to us that it had actually been quiet and sparse most of the day until that point. He was gracious and friendly, but seemed a bit harried during our tasting. Each time he poured for us he walked away…then returned and asked us, “What wine were we on?” The only real description he provided of each pour was the exact wording on the tasting menu printed in front of us. During this busier moment in their day, it would have been nice if an employee or two had stepped in to give him a hand. We think the guest experience may have been enhanced quite a bit on this visit if one poor guy hadn’t been trying to pour and have wine conversations with 10-12 people — each starting a tasting at different times — all by himself.

Early Mountain Vineyards

One of our favorite features of the tasting bar is the chalkboard-look description of the vineyards of Early Mountain as well as the surrounding Virginia wine country. We truly appreciate that the Cases have made supporting and promoting Virginia wine one of their pet projects.

Early Mountain Vineyards

THE WINES

There were 6 wines featured for our tasting, all of which were nice. There wasn’t a single one that either of us disliked (and that’s not always true).  The tasting started with a crisp 2015 Viognier, followed by their 2015 “Five Forks” white blend, a nice 2015 Chardonnay, a 2015 red blend they call “Foothills,” and two really nice 2013 reds: “Eluvium” and “Novum.”

The last two were Henri’s clear favorites, and Fergus enjoyed them too. We took home a bottle of Novum and a bottle of Five Forks.

Novum is 61% Cabernet Franc, 36% Merlot, and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is aged 22 months in oak barrels after undergoing “malolactic fermentation.” The Internet has some things to say about that process, but we decided it just means “makes smooth, bold wines you will want to share with your friends.” We’ll leave the science to the winemakers.

Like many Virginia wineries, we thought most of the wines were nice but overpriced. Bottles range from $25 to 38. There are definitely less expensive wines we have liked just as much.

We were neither blown away nor underwhelmed by our visit. Perhaps we left wishing the experience had felt more personal or had touched more on the region’s history…and been a bit less…hmmm…corporate feeling (?). Not sure how to explain it exactly. Despite the warm fireplace and the nice people, Early Mountain felt “new,” and felt geared toward making money and hosting a lot of people. It didn’t come across as particularly personal or grounded in the history of the land on which it sits.

Having said that, we won’t rule this vineyard or its wines out for recommending to friends or for repeat visits. It’s a very nice winery with very nice wines.

Early Mountain Vineyards

HOURS

Open 11 AM to 5 PM on all days of the week except Tuesday. Closed on Tuesdays.

WINE TASTING/FOOD

Tasting is $10 for six very generous pours (definitely a much larger tasting pour than we’re accustomed to receiving at most Virginia vineyards) and a souvenir glass. We were bemused to note that the stemmed wine glass used for the tasting is not the glass given to guests to take home; a clean, wrapped stemless souvenir glass is proffered to each guest at the end of the tasting instead. There are small plates of local foods available for purchase in the tasting room.

BEST FOR…

Events.

Stopping for a tasting and some local fare after a hike in nearby Shenandoah National Park.

VA TRAIL PAIRINGS

Hiking Bear Church Rock

Bear Church Rock
Between the Rapidan River & the Staunton River, this hike features burbling water for 3 miles out and 3 miles back.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a new favorite day-hike in Shenandoah National Park! This little gem has all the things: cascading rivers, waterfalls, swimming holes, boulders to climb, places to fish, cabins to visit, and gorgeous views — all with lots of solitude. We saw maybe 4 people on the trail all day long, and had the top completely to ourselves.

HIKE INFO

hiked on 5 February 2017
Bear Church Rock, Near Syria, VA
8.5 miles (out and back), with a 1-mile side jaunt to Jones Mountain Cabin
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

Graves Mill trailhead
Trailhead by Graves Mill parking area (along the Rapidan River)
GETTING THERE

About an hour and 15 minutes from our home in Fredericksburg, VA, this hike starts at Graves Mill trailhead. It’s easy to find. The parking area is right next to the clearly marked trailhead where VA662 (Graves Road) dead-ends next to the lower Rapidan River. Once you park, just walk through the boulders that keep the trailhead free of motor vehicles. There were about half a dozen cars there the morning we hiked, but we didn’t see very many people on the trail. It could be that some folks were fishing rather than hiking.

Graves Mill Trailhead
Parking is just about where you see the tree symbol marked on this Google map.
WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Graves Mill, VA on 5 February 2017
Graves Mill Weather

 

 

What a beautiful day to hike! We simply couldn’t believe this was February in Virginia. Mid 50s (F), sunny, clear. We kept marveling at what a perfect day it was to be outdoors. Though we’d both love some snow, we’re taking advantage of the temperate days to get out and explore Virginia as much as possible. We got warm enough on this hike to pack away the jackets pretty quickly…until nearing the top, where cold wind forced us back into colder weather layers and nearly blew us off Bear Church Rock.

Bear Church Rock
Henri’s favorite hikes feature streams or rivers & boulders to play on. This one was perfect!
OUR PREP/GEAR

This was a leisurely hiking day. We got up, had coffee and breakfast and putzed around the house until almost 9:30 AM before heading out. The usual day-hike prep: throw snacks, water, and basic first aid in our day packs and head out the door. Made sure there was plenty of space in our packs to shed layers because temperature was predicted to be over 50° F.

OUR HIKE NOTES

Henri loves any hike that has a good ‘water feature,’ and this one certainly fits that description. You start out at the lower Rapidan River and then pick up the Staunton River. There’s all sorts of cascades and waterfalls, including some great trout fishing pools and at least one swimming hole we want to come back to visit when it’s warmer out. On this weekend, there was a bit too much ice to make it seem quite friendly enough for a dip! The presence of the rivers enhances the hike quite a bit, but beware — we found ourselves playing around on the boulders and checking out the cascades a lot on the way up, slowing our hike considerably. If you’re in a hurry to put in mileage, this is a hard trail because there’s so much to check out!

Bear Church Rock

Fergus found a UVA water monitoring station along the Staunton River that begged for investigation:

The Hiking Upward notes mention that the trail becomes steeper when you reach Jones Mountain Trail. What it fails to mention is that the half-mile trek from the Jones Mountain Trail junction up to the top of Bear Church Rock is MUCH steeper. It’s quite a good climb (though beautiful and worth it) to get to the top. The first 3 miles of the hike lulled us into a bit of complacency, but there’s definitely some “up” to this hike, after all.

Bear Church Rock
Henri contemplates a marker along Jones Mountain Trail (Up goes to Bear Church Rock; Down goes to Jones Mountain Cabin)

Before you head to the top, you may want to visit the primitive Jones Mountain Cabin by turning down the Jones Mountain Trail about 3 miles into the hike (at the junction mentioned above). This is a deviation from your route, and you’ll have to double-back after visiting the cabin, but Hiking Upward‘s notes are totally correct in saying that the side trail to visit the cabin is “well worth the extra distance.” At the same time, there were a couple of things about that deviation we would add: We were delighted to find an unanticipated boulder outcropping to our left, very shortly after starting down Jones Mountain Trail toward the cabin. Stepping out onto those boulders provided a spectacular view.

Bear Church Rock
An easily accessible boulder outcropping on Jones Mountain Trail provides a great vista!

It’s worth the trip down the trail for that alone. The other thing Hiking Upward neglects to mention is that the trail goes pretty steeply downward to the cabin, which of course means that returning from it is a fairly steep climb up. Hiking Upward does mention that Jones Mountain Cabin is available for rent; however, they don’t note that the cabin may be rented out on the day you want to go see it…and that the people renting it might like their privacy. We got close to the cabin to find a handwritten note politely asking hikers not to continue further. So, we didn’t get to check out the cabin very closely — which was a disappointment. We’d recommend that you check the cabin’s reservation status at this link before heading to it, just so you know what to expect.

Bear Church Rock
The Jones Mountain Trail is canopied by lovely Mountain Laurel.

Our hike back down went very quickly, partially because we didn’t stop to play as much as we did on the way up and partially because of, well, gravity. All-in-all, the hike took us about 4.5 hours, including fooling around a lot on the way up, some time climbing around the boulders at the top, time gaping and marveling at the gorgeous views, and even time to make a cup of coffee with our Jetboil and have a snack before heading back down.

Bear Church Rock
Though there’s no requisite rock scramble, the boulders at the top of Bear Church Rock beg for some climbing!

We’ve agreed that this became one of our favorite day-hikes in the Shenandoah National Park. We want to come back to hammock and do some fly-fishing along the rivers…and maybe rent out Jones Mountain Cabin!

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • Rivers
  • Solitude
  • Views
  • Mountain Laurel (pretty!)

BBQ Exchange

BBQ Exchange
Henri’s 2-meats plate: chicken, brisket (chopped), collards, and mac…with a big hunk o’ cornbread.

OK, we’ll admit it. Sometimes we plan our hikes based on places we want to eat and drink afterward. Last weekend, we reallllly wanted some good southern BBQ. We have two favorite places for that in Virginia: Jordan Springs Market, near Winchester (just a bit northwest of DC) and the BBQ Exchange in Gordonsville (northeast of Charlottesville). On this occasion, we opted to plan a short hike in Shenandoah National Park near the Swift Run Gap entrance specifically so that we could swing by the BBQ Exchange soon after we were done. (It just so happened that we somehow also managed to find time to visit Barboursville Vineyards between the hike and our BBQ dinner).

BBQ Exchange
Not fancy, but fantastic. Feels like home.

The BBQ Exchange does not, in fact, exchange any barbecue. (Its name is related to the fascinating history of Gordonsville and to its proximity to the railway exchange in town.) What they do is amazing food — lots of it — served with casual Southern hospitality. There’s very minimal table service here. They describe their service style as “quick-counter,” and they also do a brisk take-out business. The counter is manned by a brigade of 3-4 servers who are knowledgeable about the menu and friendly. Pop in line, check the menu board, choose your meat (or meats) plus sides, decide if you want cornbread, pumpkin muffin, or roll with your meal. We usually go with the 2-meat + sides or 3-meat + sides platters. It’s a great way to sample several of their smoked offerings.

The order-taker will mark your sturdy paper plate with shorthand that designates your choices and pass it off to the meat server. If you’ve ordered chicken or brisket (“chopped or sliced?“), they’ll plate it right there. If you’ve ordered something like pork belly or ribs, you’ll likely get a number and they’ll bring your meat to the table when it’s ready. The meat server will pass your plate to the sides server, who will then pass you on to someone to ring you up. You’ll have to pass the gourmet cupcakes in the dessert case to get to the register. Be strong. If by some miracle you have room after eating your meal, you can always come back for one. You can opt for sweet tea or lemonade (of course), or bottled beer, soda, or water from a case near the counter.

BBQ Exchange
Fergus’ 3-meats plate (you can’t see the separate serving of pork belly that didn’t fit on the plate).

Butter, honey, plastic cutlery, and other niceties are on a station just around the corner from the service counter. Once you have your food, find a table — inside or out. Either place, you’ll find picnic tables covered with plain white paper and adorned with six-packs of various house-made sauces and a roll of paper towels. You will want to use both. This is old-school, slow-cooked barbecue (you’ll have noticed the smoking shed behind the restaurant when you parked and came in). They offer pork shoulder, ribs, brisket, pork belly, and chicken. Sides include collard greens (Henri’s favorite), mac & cheese, Brunswick stew, baked beans, pepper cabbage, spicy cole slaw, homestyle cole slaw, potato salad, macaroni salad, house-made pickles, and more.

BBQ Exchange
Try Hogfire, Colonel Bacon, Craig’s Carolina (Henri’s favorite), QX Sweet or VA Sweet.

While the owners, Craig and Donna Hartman, encourage you to “save room for dessert,” we’ve never successfully done so. Portions are generous. The cornbread — amazing with some butter and honey drizzled on top — is a big ol’ chunk. Everything we’ve sampled here (on more than one occasion) is flavorful and tender, with that incredibly satisfying BBQ “bark” on the outside. The sauces and sides are homemade and just as worthy of praise as the meats. The BBQ Exchange also does family dinner meals (designed for 2 adults and 2 children) on a “to go only” basis, as well as meats by the pound.

BBQ Exchange
Fergus’ portion of pork belly. You  may want to do a LONG hike if you want to balance the calories you’ve eaten and spent. Jus’ sayin’.

The restaurant is housed in a whitewashed building with tin siding and sits at the southern end of Main Street in downtown Gordonsville, Virginia. Be sure to check their Facebook page for information on Porkapalooza!