Hiking Sky Meadows

It’s amazing what you can learn by hiking — about yourself, about the area in which you live, and about the history of people and place. Sky Meadows is not a difficult hike, but it’s a rich one.

HIKE INFO

hiked on 8 January 2017
Sky Meadows State Park, Near Paris, VA
Our Loop: North Ridge > Ambassador Whitehouse > AT > North Ridge (about 4 miles)
access information & trail guide:  Sky Meadows State Park Trail Guide

Sky Meadows State Park
There was a time when Hunter was shorter than his mother. That time is long past.
GETTING THERE

This was Hike 6 of our 2017 52 Hike Challenge. Though it was a beautiful day, it was also bitter cold and would be our first hike of 2017 to occur after a snowfall. So our criteria for selecting a hike were (A) picturesque, (B) not too terribly long, and (C) not too far away from home. We opted for an old favorite: Sky Meadows State Park. It takes us just a bit over an hour to get there from Fredericksburg, VA. Parking is plentiful near the visitor center. Entry fee is just $4 (bring cash), and there are a number of trails to choose from to create whatever hike you want, in terms of length and difficulty. And, of course, we knew the views would be gorgeous on this clear, cold day.

There were very few cars there and we only saw 3-4 people out on the trails all afternoon. When we were gearing up to head out, someone pulled into the visitor lot, looked at us, and quipped, “Boy, you’re brave!” What we heard: “Boy, you’re dumb!” The weather information below may explain his reaction to seeing us heading out to the trail.

Sky Meadows State Park

WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Paris, VA on 8 January 2017

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We hiked from 1PM to 3:30PM. The temperature as we set out from the parking area was reading at about 18° F, and we read reports later that the windchill made it feel somewhere between 1-5° F during those afternoon hours. To be honest, we were dressed well and so felt fairly comfortable for most of the afternoon, with the exception of a couple of times when we were exposed to full-on gusts of 25 MPH or more. There were moments we felt pretty silly being out there.

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In exposed areas, the cold wind was truly a force to be reckoned with.
OUR PREP/GEAR

Prep for this hike was mostly centered on making sure we’d have fun, which meant staying warm enough. Hunter was happy to rock the new fur-trimmed parka he had gotten from Santa a couple of weeks ago, as well as the new Timberland boots he’d gotten for himself. Henri happily sported her new Sierra Designs Elite Dridown Hoody (under a Patagonia shell that belongs to Fergus). For his part, Fergus was snug in his Eddie Bauer Cirrus Lite down jacket under another shell. Of course, everyone had on balaclavas, hats, gloves, and a good base layer.

This was also Henri’s first hike using new Paria ultralight trekking poles, a Christmas gift from Grandpa Frank. Her early assessment is that they are a terrific value for the price point (about $50). Tri-fold, collapsible to about 13″ (small enough to carry in even a modest day pack), weighing in at just 7 oz. apiece, and strong with a comfortable grip. Super easy to assemble and disassemble.

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Sure it was cold. But those views!
OUR HIKE NOTES

A quick look a the Trail Guide shows a variety of choices when it comes to hiking routes. On this day, we headed northwest from the visitor center on North Ridge Trail for about half a mile, headed back east a bit on the Piedmont Overlook to catch the pretty views there, then doubled back to the North Ridge where it meets the Ambassador Whitehouse Trail and took that for about a mile (that was the windiest portion of our trek….brrrr). Then we swung southwest on the Appalachian Trail for a short time before heading back east to the visitor center on the North Ridge trail. We didn’t use our GPS (mostly because our phones said it was too cold to come out and play…and none of us had thought to wear a Garmin), but we estimate that we did about a 3-4 mile hike, altogether.

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Terrain on this self-selected loop varied. The hike to Piedmont Overlook and through Ambassador Whitehouse trail could best be described as “open,” offering beautiful views of the surrounding farmland and scenery. The trail itself is mostly a dirt path through fields, with some forest hiking, until we got to the return arm of the North Ridge trail. This is where it gets much more rocky underfoot, and heavily wooded. The North Ridge trail is marked on the park’s map as “difficult,” but really it’s just “more difficult than a dirt path through a field,” not really all that tough. We were on a downward slope for most of it. If you were coming up the trail the other way, it might feel somewhat more taxing. It was both fun and a little scary to listen to some of those big ol’ trees creaking ominously in the cold as we hiked past.

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One of the most interesting points at Sky Meadows is the hilltop memorial you’ll find halfway through Ambassador Whitehouse trail. An article in the Piedmont Environmental Council’s newsletter for Summer 2012 explains the memorial:

On May 20, about 75 people gathered for the dedication of the Piedmont Memorial Overlook…The site overlooks the Crooked Run Valley—one of the best protected privately owned landscapes in America—and will be a memorial for those who were dedicated to protecting the health and beauty of the Piedmont…..Nestled in the rock, a bronze plaque reads “May the winds carry our ashes to the fields we fought to protect.” Across the meadow, another plaque honors those whose remains lie elsewhere but whose lives reflect a commitment to preserving this landscape. “Protectors of the Piedmont, we are here in spirit.”

Click on any of these photos to enlarge it.

The newsletter features a photograph of the PEC president at the time, Chris Miller, speaking at the memorial’s dedication alongside the “visionary and spearhead for the memorial project,” Mr. Bill Backer. On this hiking trip, we noted that Mr. Backer’s own plaque had been added to the memorial in 2016. Despite whatever Mad Men fans would like to believe about Don Draper and the invention of the iconic advert, it turns out that Mr. Backer was — in addition to being a tireless conservationist for the Piedmont — the actual advertising genius behind the famous 1971 “I’d like to teach the world to sing” Coca-cola advertising campaign.

Sadly, Mr. Backer passed away almost 4 years to the day after dedicating the beautiful Piedmont memorial that now bears his own name. He had eventually become the president of the PEC, himself. We have now decided that each time we visit Sky Meadows, we will come home and research a different name from the memorial until we know more about each conservationist represented there.

AFTER THE HIKE

Though we didn’t head there on this occasion, one of our favorite things to do after hiking Sky Meadows is head to Delaplane Cellars for a bottle of wine and some relaxing music.

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • The views are always lovely at Sky Meadows.
  • Being able to select whatever length hike we preferred.
  • North Ridge Trail portion offered some nice terrain variety.
  • The memorials atop the Ambassador Whitehouse trail

Hiking Duncan Knob

Sometimes hikes don’t go 100% according to plan. This was one of those times. Still, we recommend this hike to most of our outdoorsy friends who have enjoyed trails like Old Rag and are looking for similar experiences without the crowds. Despite the unplanned bits, this stands out as one of our favorite Virginia hikes and we’d like to pair it with Strickler Knob as an overnighter someday soon.

HIKE INFO

hiked on March 27, 2016
George Washington National Forest, near Luray, VA
14 miles-ish*
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

*Soooo…when you read our Hiking Notes below, you’ll discover that this is one of those hikes where we sort of deviated from the original plan. What started out in our mind as an 8-9 mile hike became closer to 14. So it goes, sometimes.

Henri stands atop Duncan Knob, checking out the view.
“Pensive Henri” stands atop Duncan Knob. That’s Fergus’ trusty North Face day pack (he’s had & used for something like 20 years).
GETTING THERE

It’s an easy 2 hour drive from our home in Fredericksburg, VA to Crisman Hollow Road between Luray and New Market, VA, which is the starting spot for several great Virginia Hikes in the George Washington Forest Park (a particularly easy drive for Henri, who almost always falls asleep on the way while Fergus drives).

PARKING NOTES: So, Crisman Hollow Road says it is “closed to vehicles from Feb. 1 to the Friday before Youth Spring Turkey Season in April.” Two things to note here: (1) We did not actually know these parameters before setting out to hike, we only vaguely knew that the road may or may not be fully open and simply hoped for the best as we started out, and (2) March 27 was actually earlier than “the Friday before Youth Spring Turkey Season” in Virginia — something neither of us even knew existed — which began April 9 in 2016 (meaning April 1 should have been the “Friday before.”) To be 100% honest, we had to figure out if “Youth Spring Turkey Season” referenced youth turkeys, youth hunters, or both. Turns out, it means youth hunters.

This is all to say that the road turned out to be closed when we got there, anyway. We had to park in the little parking area near Story Book Trail, then walk past the ‘no parking beyond this point’ cable and up the road a good three miles before reaching our trailhead at Scothorn Gap Trail. So, 8 miles became 14 right away with this added walking there and back.

The reward at the top of Duncan Knob is a great view!
The reward at the top of Duncan Knob is a great view! (including Fergus’ feet?)
WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Luray, VA on 27 March 2016
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This was our Easter hike for 2016, the first time in many years that we decided to break our annual Old Rag tradition and opt to try new trails each year on this holiday. Easter hikes can vary when it comes to Virginia weather. We’ve had some where it was close to 70° F and some where it was south of 30° F. The temp on this day hovered around 55°, with some chilly wind at the top of the Knob.

This hike rated super high on our "SOLITUDE" scale.
This hike rated super high on our “SOLITUDE” scale.
OUR PREP/GEAR

This was planned as a day-hike coupled with 1 night of car-camping at a Luray campground called Outlanders. So the hike itself wasn’t much additional prep than we’d do for an Old Rag hike or any 8-10 mile day-hike — day pack with snacks, lunch, water, basic first-aid stuff, and layered clothing in case of weather changes along the way. We only took 1 pack (Fergus’ old North Face) and traded off with it throughout the day (typical for us on a day-hike, really).

The weekend prep, however, included planning for & packing our camping stuff (including what we call the Big Tent, camp stove, camp chairs, etc.) in the back of Fergus’ MINI Countryman and making sure we had all the fun food and drink for a luxurious one-nighter at a campground filled with amenities (read: picnic tables, tent pads, toilets and showers). The Big Tent is an inexpensive 4-person tent we bought years ago from Bass Pro Shops when the kids were still living at home. It’s great for car-camping even when it’s just the two of us because it’s easy to put up and yet has plenty of room if we need to pull in the gear (or the dogs) due to weather.

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We forgot cups, but necessity is the mother of invention (and we hadn’t forgotten Rex Goliath ‘juice boxes’).
OUR HIKE NOTES

Here is where we tell you that this hike was super fun and offered a lot of beauty, but didn’t go exactly as planned. The first half was fine. We knew that we might have to hoof it from the parking area to the trailhead if Crisman Hollow Road wasn’t open, so we were mentally prepared for the added 6 miles that tacked on when we found it closed. When the hike immediately changed from 8 to 14 miles, we didn’t blink too much. The first three were just walking up a road to the trailhead, and the last three would just be walking back down it to the car.

The hike to Duncan Knob went without a hitch, also. The Hiking Upward route directions are perfect, and the trail is varied and interesting — with some good steep hiking, and several good campsites along the way that we noted for future reference. We really enjoyed the Class 3 rock scramble to get to the top, pretty akin in terms of difficulty with Old Rag’s rock scramble, but not the same type of experience/feel because Duncan Knob’s is more a big pile of rocks to surmount rather than boulders to get over and through.

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Henri heading up the big pile o’ rocks to reach the top of Duncan Knob.

We enjoyed the views and lunch at the top of Duncan Knob, despite some pretty chilly wind, then headed back down. The “fun” began when we reached the junction with Scothorn Gap Trail once again. Henri felt that it might be best to just hike back out the way we came in (walk back down Crisman Hollow Road to the parking area); however, Fergus noted the sign to “Massanutten Trail Connector” and figured it wouldn’t add any extra miles to go that way instead. Henri deferred to Fergus, who turned out to be right…BUT.

The return hike along the Massanutten Trail was beautiful and the terrain was varied and interesting, and well worth the time and effort. It included lovely views as it wound pretty steeply down to the creek. It was when we had to hike back up to Crisman Hollow Road that Henri realized the folly of listening to Fergus. What goes down, it turns out, must come up.

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This stream is a pretty feature of the Massanutten Trail hike.

The climb up the Massanutten Connector Trail to Rte 211 is steep. Had it been the end of an 8-9 mile hike, Henri may have been a bit less whiney about it, but facing that Unrelenting Up at the tail-end of 14 miles was just plain hard work. She says it felt like doing 30 minutes of lunges after running a half-marathon. Let’s just say that it’s very good that the trail offered so much solitude because some of the words coming out of Henri’s mouth weren’t meant for family-friendly hiking.

By the time we got to the Outlanders campground for our overnight car-camping, Henri was thrilled with our spot (literally right next to the Shenandoah River), but somewhat less than excited to find that we were required to park on a hill above the river and hand-carry our gear down (and then back up the next day) rather than being able to pull right up, unload, and start relaxing.

These are the moments when you know your relationship is solid. No matter how tired and grimy we were (and we were), no matter that the sun had set already…we sucked it up and helped each other take the Big Tent and all our comfy-camping accoutrements down that hill and cooperated to set up camp without a single fight. That’s love, people.

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In the morning, rested, we were happy to have tromped down the hill with our stuff the night before. What a great spot.

As it turned out, being “off season,” the tent camping sites by the river were ALL vacant except for ours. Henri noted that she probably wouldn’t love camping here during busy season because the pads are very close to one another. Unless we decided to group camp, we might not enjoy having neighbors just a few feet away. As it turned out, though, we had the riverside to ourselves. We woke up early and enjoyed coffee in our make-shift wine-box coffee cups (even when car camping, we sometimes forget stuff) and enjoyed the views, breakfast, and each other’s company for a few hours before tearing down the Big Tent, hauling all our stuff back up the hill, and heading homeward.

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Relaxing next to the Shenandoah on a beautiful spring morning.

It should be noted that we have learned a lot about hiking and about this area, in particular, in the months following this hike. There are half a dozen things we would do differently if we were to hike Duncan Knob again. Having said that, we both had a really good time and remember this as a terrific Easter hike.

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • Rock scramble: always a favorite on a hike
  • SOLITUDE: we saw only 2 other people on the trail all day long (a couple of mountain bikers who were even less pleased than Henri when they discovered the steep climb back to Rte. 211)
  • Views!
  • Camping by the riverside and making plans to backpack & camp along the trail soon

TBT: “Smiling Lisa”

Today’s TBT post remembers that one time several years ago when Fergus actually caught Henri on film SMILING during a 10-mile run (a rare event, trust us)…and then her friend Slam Duncan got ahold of the photo and generated more than 120 “Smiling Lisa Memes” over the next couple of years. Here’s the original photo…and 40 of Henri’s favorite Smiling Lisas.

The original photo (Hartwood 10 Miler).
The original photo.

You can click on any image below to see a bigger version of it or to switch to slideshow/gallery mode:

[Henri would like everyone to know that she didn’t bandit the race. Her bib is in her hand; she had not yet finished moving it from rain jacket to shirt when Fergus took the photo.]

Fishing Passage Creek

One of Northern Virginia’s premier fly fishing destinations for anglers looking to escape the city without a lengthy drive. This is a great stream to teach a buddy how to fly fish for trout!

CREEK INFO

Fished on January 2nd, 2017
Near Front Royal, VA Passage Creek is maintained by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Passage Creek is a 38 mile stream that runs down the Fort Valley between Massanutten and Green Mountains (This area is widely known as the Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area). There are three sections of the stream that are stocked by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Paul and I chose to fish the upper reaches of the stream in Warren County that the state manages as a delayed harvest stream. Delayed harvest streams are stocked by the state and designated as a catch and release only stream from October-June 15. Check the state’s website to learn more about how fisheries are managed throughout the state.

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Paul casting to a picky trout.
GETTING THERE

From Fredericksburg, it’s a quick run up 17 to 66 that will take you about an hour and a half from door to stream. You’ll park on the shoulder of Mountain Road shortly after crossing Passage Creek. You’ll know you’re there when you see the fish hatchery.

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Gorgeous creek beds provide ample hiding places for trout.
WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Strasburg, VA on January 2nd, 2017

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OUR PREP/GEAR

Paul and I both fished 9′ 4wt outfits. Paul spent the day switching rigs to find the perfect fly, everything from the Golden Retriever to a soft hackle wet fly. I stuck to a dry fly-dropper setup that involved a Stimulator trailed by a Hare’s Ear nymph size 18 for most of the day, switching later to a Copper John Size 20.

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My 9′ 4wt Orvis Clearwater Rod

FISHING NOTES

The day started off slow for us both. The first pool that we approached, upstream of the hatchery, was filled with trout. I counted at least three dozen trout schooled up, waiting for the perfect bug to float by. Paul gave me first go, and after 15 minutes of perfect drifts with no takers, it seemed like it might be a long day. We followed the stream North, looking for pools holding fish, and came up empty handed despite seeing fish throughout the stream. After that, we split up, and I made my way back to the first pool, where I finally managed to land three gorgeous trout (two browns, and one lovely rainbow). Two of my fish took the dropper, but to my delight, the brown trout pictured below was eager to take a dry fly. Unfortunately, that was the extent of our success for the remainder of the day.

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A healthy Brown Trout after release.

Most fly-fisherman will tell you that regardless of what you bring to the net, any day on the river is a good day, and that was certainly true of our first trout hike of 2017. Paul had been to Passage Creek before, but I had not, and I enjoyed exploring the gorgeous scenery, and even some of the oddities.

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Great patterns in the shale formations that surround Passage Creek.
OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • Ringing in the New Year on the water with a good friend.
  • Water levels and quality conducive to great fishing.
  • Remembering to stash hand warmers in my shirt pockets.
  • Finding a preserved snake in the window of the fish hatchery.

~Fergus

Rage, Rage.

 

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My mom died this past July. She was 86 years old (would have been 87 a bit later this month), and had chain-smoked most of her life from adolescence on, so her passing was not so much a surprise to us as was the fact that she had managed to live as long as she did. Fergus took this photo of me paddleboarding on the little lake near my mother’s retirement community while we were ‘back home’ in Michigan with my 4 sisters, awaiting the inevitable and filling the long summer days out on that water whenever possible.

When I first saw this shot, I thought of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” And I thought about how uncharacteristic it would have been for mom to “rage rage” against anything at all, least of all the dying of the light. It was not in her nature to fight or strive. Though I loved her, I have lived most of my own existence in purposeful opposition to my mother’s. We may ask ourselves what makes us seek adventure and want to push ourselves to try new things, learn new skills, grow to new proportions. In my case, a big part of the answer is that my mother never sought to do any of those things, and that fact has bothered me my entire life. I have never understood it.

The world’s big and I want to have good look at it before it gets dark.

When I read those words by John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, I thought, “Ah yes. That’s how I feel exactly.” The world is vast and amazing and there’s only so much time. I want to see and do as much as I can, and then some, before the dying of the light.

~ Henri

Hiking Wildcat Mountain

A terrific little hike for hanging out with family and exploring the history of the hills of Virginia. This would be a great first hike if you wanted to introduce a friend to it. Lots to see and talk about, and not too taxing.

HIKE INFO

hiked on 30 December 2016
Near Warrenton, VA ~ protected & maintained by the VA Nature Conservatory
3 miles
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

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Hunter leading the hike while his silly parents take photos of a wall.
GETTING THERE

It took about an hour to drive to the parking area/trailhead from Fredericksburg, VA.
IMPORTANT PARKING NOTE: Pay attention to the parking information on the Hiking Upward site. The road to get to the parking area (England Mountain Road) is labeled “PRIVATE,” which could easily throw you off. The directions on the Hiking Upward link about finding the hike and parking are perfect. Follow those and you’ll be A-OK.

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Henri and Hunter, our poorly-named son who opts to eat no red meat.
WEATHER/CONDITIONS + PREP/GEAR

Warrenton, VA on 30 December 2016

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Our 21 year old son Hunter-the-Gatherer joined us on this hike. We did the usual brief day-hike prep, with the addition of extra food and Fergus’ Jetboil to make coffee. The plan was to make the most of the short hike by stopping to hammock and picnic for awhile. Colder weather meant more clothing layers than we’ve been needing so far this month. It was a bit windy and felt pretty chilly, until we got moving. Even got some minuscule snow flurries while we hiked. Almost as if it were the end of December or something…weird.

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Never too chilly to hammock for a bit?!
OUR HIKE NOTES

Finding the parking area is easy (once you get over the uneasy feeling of turning down a road marked “PRIVATE”), and there’s plenty of room to park. The site includes a big information board and some printed maps, placed there by the Nature Conservancy. The trailhead and trail are marked really well, somewhat obnoxiously so. Hiking Upward warns (in red even) of disoriented hikers wandering off trail and requiring emergency rescue…but it’s more-or-less impossible to imagine that ever happening, the way the trail is marked. In addition to prolific trail markers and Nature Conservancy signage, several large “END OF TRAIL” signs and chains contrive to prevent any unintentional deviations from the prescribed course.

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In case you were to forget…you’ll see these on every other tree.

The first mile of the trail is Up, through a series of switchbacks, but the entire elevation gain on the hike is only about 800-850 feet, so it’s not too daunting. Because the leaves were off the trees this time of year, we got some nice views of the surrounding hills as we climbed upward. The Wildcat Mountain hillside is super pretty, with lots of rocks and entwined roots, as well as many vestiges of its former human inhabitants — namely a series of stone walls in various states of disrepair.

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Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…. (“Mending Wall“)

The hike itself is easy, and not very long at 3 miles. Would be a great beginners’ hike and it was the perfect one for this day when we really wanted to spend some time together hanging out more than we wanted to take on a big physical challenge. Having not really researched the spot much before heading out, we were pleasantly surprised by how interesting it is!

The history of this hiking area is pretty damn fascinating, and makes us want to learn even more. This website does a nice job of concisely summing it up while also revealing quite a bit of information. A good starter site for learning the basic history. It mentions a “pond,” and we could clearly see where it had been at about 1.5 miles along the trail…but it was absolutely bone dry. It sits next to a deserted mountain home.

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What remained of the pond was a large dry depression, clearly once a body of water.

There’s not much creepier than happening upon a weathered, gray, decrepit house with broken windows and foreboding “NO TRESPASSING” and “DO NOT ENTER” signs around it, unless it’s the single black buzzard that was hunched ominously atop a crumbling chimney stack, its head cocked to the side as it warily considered our approach. Horror films have featured more cheerful settings. Movies with dueling banjos leap to mind.

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Winter is coming.

Turns out, this was the abandoned homestead of Enoch Smith (1832-1915) and his family.

“…a few farmers and loggers remained on Wildcat Mountain into the 20th century including the family of Enoch “Nuck” Smith who, still spry in 1902 at age 70, would ride his horse each week down the rocky trail to the Enon Baptist Church at the foot of Rappahannock Mountain….The Enoch Smith house was built around 1900….The remains of the original cabin built by Enoch Smith’s parents in 1830 sit behind the house, consisting of a clay-mortared chimney.” ~ from Fauquier Trails Coalition

[Henri, our resident English teacher geek, would like to point out that Enoch Smith and Robert Frost — author of the famed “Mending Wall” poem referenced earlier in this post — overlapped in terms of the era they were alive. That poem was first published just 1 year after Mr. Smith’s demise.]

We agreed that we were OK with the idea of ignoring the signs to check it out, but not OK with vandalizing. Though the back door had fallen off its hinges, leaving the gutted property open to exploration, it looked as if merely stepping into the home might leave it worse off than when we found it. Henri was envisioning falling through the rotting floorboards…and Henri has seen enough thrillers to know that when there’s a large black vulture and ominous “STAY OUT” signs, smart people don’t run into the basement or attic when there’s no power just to see what the strange noise was. Henri, it should be noted, can wax a bit dramatic.

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Henri contemplates entering to check it out, but thinks better of it.

We opted to peek inside, but not enter. A little over a year ago, an intrepid young Youtuber apparently shared none of our reservations, and so ventured into the abandoned home & spring house to shoot some video and stills:

We’re sharing this video here in the hopes that future hikers will just watch it to see what’s in the house, noting that there’s nothing in there worth risking your safety or trespassing in it (potentially damaging it) to see.

 

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • The history and evidence of human occupation made it fun to explore.
  • Easy, but interesting terrain.
  • SOLITUDE: We saw only 1 other family hiking (a mom with 2 young kids, entering the trail as we left it).

52 Hike Challenge

So, we just signed up for the “Adventure Series” of the 52 Hike Challenge. We’re starting with the first hike we posted on this blog, which is also the first hike of Henri’s 48th year on the planet (having turned 47 on November 20). Seems like a fitting starting place.

We’ve already knocked off several of the Adventure Series Objectives:

  • 5 Waterfalls (even if they are dry) — 2 DOWN in Hike #2
  • 1 Forest (if not possible, go to National Park/ Site) — All 3 to date have been in Shenandoah National Park, but we’re likely to get a few hikes in at Prince William Forest Park too.
  • 1 National Parks, Monuments, Preserves, Recreation Area or Historic Trail — see note above
  • 2 Hikes to bodies of water: Lakes, Rivers, or Ocean
  • 1 Stewardship hike (pick up trash or join group to help with a restoration project)
  • 1 Group hike (if you are regular to one group, visit a new group to meet new people)
  • 1 Introduce someone new to hiking (on an easy trail)
  • 1 Hike from your Bucket list (somewhere you have always wanted to go) — we hiked Sedona a few years ago, but we’ll look for a new BL one for this year!
  • 3 Reflection hikes (journal at the beginning, middle, and towards the end of your challenge). — all the hikes we put in the blog count, we think

Hiking Strickler Knob

This quickly became our new favorite hike in Virginia, to date. Although not a loop hike, this one had all of the features we both love: water, cool camping areas, rock scrambling/climbing, varied terrain, solitude, and enough distance & difficulty to feel like a physical challenge. If you enjoy hiking Old Rag, we think you’d enjoy this one.

HIKE INFO

hiked on 27 December 2016
George Washington National Forest, Near New Market Gap & Luray Valley
10 miles
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

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view of New Market Gap from the summit stack
GETTING THERE

It took about 2 hours to drive to the parking area/trailhead from Fredericksburg, VA.
IMPORTANT PARKING NOTE: We were glad that the Crisman Hollow Road was open for us to get to the parking area at the trailhead. That’s not true year-round; it was closed when we went to hike Duncan Knob last Easter, adding a 3 mile walk up the road to our trailhead [“Crisman Hollow Road is closed to vehicles from Feb. 1 to the Friday before Youth Spring Turkey Season in April” …now we know!]

Strickler Knob Hike
Fergus got to park right by Massanutten trailhead.
WEATHER/CONDITIONS

New Market, VA on 27 December 2016
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Absolutely GORGEOUS, unseasonably warm day (the reason we decided to venture out on this hike, really). Our iPhone weather apps were telling us it was about 62-65° F during most of our hike. Nearby Luray, VA weather reports suggest that temps topped out there at 70° F for the day, so it’s possible that once the sun was beating down on us, we may have moved higher than 65°. Both of us ended up stripping off layers and hiked in short sleeves most of the day (until the windy summit). Unbelievable that it was 2 days after Christmas.

Had to add the wind speed information here because once we got to the summit, we’re pretty sure we were feeling some of those 32 mph gusts. Henri was legitimately afraid to climb to the unprotected summit because the wind seemed strong enough to blow her right off!

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“THAT is where we’re headed.”
OUR PREP/GEAR

The usual day-hike prep, although each time we head out we get a little smarter about adding safety and “what if” items. Because the description of this hike included mention of possible bushwhacking towards the summit, Fergus sharpened his machete and we carried it in with us…didn’t end up needing it, but were glad to have it just in case. Henri also packed her headlamp this time. Didn’t use it, but if we’d been even 30 minutes slower or lingered 30 minutes longer at the vistas, we would have.

As usual, Henri carried in her Go Girl, but this is the first hike where she actually used it in the wild. She says, “Ladies, let me just tell you that stand-up peeing is a REVELATION on the trail. Aside from the views, it was the most magnificent part of the hike. Took a little finessing to make sure there wouldn’t be any mess, but once I got it figured out…I was sold. I will never squat again.”

This was Henri’s first hike in brand new Merrell Moab hiking shoes (Christmas present from Fergus) and she was very happy not to have accidentally peed on them. She’s been hiking in Merrell’s Azura Carex mid boots for the past few years and has loved them, but wanted a low hiking shoe instead of a boot. Really pleased with the Moab’s performance on the trail, and comfort.

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Henri’s new Merrell kicks!
OUR HIKE NOTES

This is not a loop. It’s an out-and-back. Usually, that would deter us (boring), but the terrain on this hike is so varied and interesting that we actually wanted to hike back the way we came just to see/experience it again. There is a way to exit to Crisman Hollow Road along Scothorn Gap Trail which would have made for an easy trek back down the road to the parking area, and we thought about it, but opted for the tougher Massanutten Trail hike out instead. This is our 2nd time on this stretch of the Massanutten Trail. Last time was at Easter 2016, when we took an un-planned detour along this stretch after hiking up to Duncan Knob. You could do a loop that includes both Knobs, but we don’t think we’d want to do that unless we were planning an overnighter.

As usual, the Hiking Upward description of the hike was pretty spot on and super useful….except…distance. Our GPS showed that we reached the summit in about 5 miles, making the entire out-and-back hike a good 10 miler (as opposed to the 8.6 miles listed in the description). We did not deviate from the trail outlined in the description, follow any tangents, or get lost. It was legit 10 miles out and back.

The blazes on the Massanutten and Strickler Knob trails appeared really fresh/recent. Although the Hiking Upward description stated that the pink blaze at the Knob trail might be gone or hard to see, we found the opposite. Trail markings were bright, frequent, and easy-to-spot. We did not need to bushwhack to get to the summit at all.

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Henri trying not to get blown off the rocks, climbing to the summit.

There is a shorter version of the hike coming in from Scothorn Gap trail, but we wanted a challenging hike on this day…and we got it! Having read descriptions of the hike a couple of places online and having hiked the Massanutten Trail in the past, we knew this one was going to be grueling in places (most notably, climbing steeply back out the last mile to the trailhead).

Saw (very nearly stepped in) LOTS of scat on the trail. Fergus was convinced much of it was bear. Henri was equally convinced it was not. Some of it was definitely big cat or coyote. Horse hoof prints and horse scat definitely present on the orange-blazed Massanutten, before we turned off for Strickler Knob itself. Impressive because the trail along the ridge was super narrow. The only wildlife we ran across was a toad trying desperately to pretend to be some dry leaves, and a couple of buzzards in a dead tree at the very summit (our welcoming committee, as it were).

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“Nothing to see here, folks. Just some leaves.”

The first mile heads dowwwwwn, very steeply so. As you enter the trail, you just know that hiking back up that ridge is going to absolutely suck, but it’s beautiful and so you tell yourself it will all be worth it.

The Massanutten Trail to Strickler Knob turn off is a nice mix of up and down (mostly up) and levels off in enough places that you get a respite from the climb. Beautiful stream and light rock scrambling along the way. The trail is nicely varied in terms of terrain. Once you reach the turn off to the pink-blazed Strickler Knob trail, there’s a lovely view, and from there to the summit it’s pretty much view-after-view-after-view.

The rock/boulder climb to the summit is no joke. If you enjoy Old Rag, you should also enjoy this, although this seemed even more challenging (maybe just because we’ve done Old Rag so many times now). It may have also seemed more difficult simply due to the wind. As we neared the summit, the gusts were really, really formidable on the New Market Gap side. It was pretty protected from the wind on the Luray Valley side, where someone had built a fire pit perfect for hanging out and having a snack before heading back down.

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Fergus getting some shots of the Luray Valley.

 

Some ass-clowns had decided it would be a good idea to spray-paint the rocks at the very summit. We couldn’t really read what it said, and we hope the elements take care of erasing it soon.

The camping sites along the path beckon. Someone had stacked firewood near the one about a mile from the trailhead. So inviting! We really want to pack in our hammocks and/or ultralight tent and spend a night down by that stream.

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Great campsite about 1 mile into the hike.

The hike back up the ridge to the trailhead/parking area from the stream…whew. Steep. We knew it would be, but Henri underestimated how tired her legs would be at mile 9. Not for the faint of heart nor the out-of-shape. We stopped quite a few times to catch our breath. The good news is that it was, by this time, sunset. Each time we paused, we looked back out at the pink-orange light illuminating the ridge and the valley and felt glad to stop and see it. We could see the Knob we had just climbed, illuminated in pink, purple, orange sky…just gorgeous…and it was all good.

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Henri & her favorite Osprey day pack.

 

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • The vistas. Holy wow, the views!!
  • SOLITUDE: We literally saw no other people all day long (had the same experience on Duncan Knob hike at Easter).
  • Interesting and challenging terrain, with lots of variation.
  • Climbing. The summit has a fun, challenging rock scramble with some near-vertical climbs.
  • Some great hiking along (and crossing) streams, too.
  • We want to go back and camp at the campsite near the stream. Maybe hammock-camp.