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

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!)

Hiking Hightop Mountain

A great short-to-moderate length day hike on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park with a ton of visual payoff at the top for very little work. If you’re looking to introduce friends to hiking, this would be a great starter trail!

HIKE INFO

hiked on 28 January 2017
Hightop Mountain, near Standardsville, VA
5.6 miles (moderate version), 2.5 miles (short version)
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

Hightop Mountain 2017
Henri taking in the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Hightop Mountain.
GETTING THERE

About an hour and a half from our Fredericksburg, Virginia home, this trail starts very close to the Shenandoah National Park Swift Run Gap entrance point.  As you enter the park on Skyline Drive, you just about immediately cross a bridge passing over Rte. 33. The parking area for where we started is a bump-out on the road that you see to your left just as you cross that bridge into the park. Do a U-turn and park in the bump-out, then cross Skyline Drive to the Appalachian Trail marker on the opposite side of the road, just at the bridge end point. (Don’t worry if you drive past the parking lot for a bit, the worst that will happen is that you will have to look at some spectacular views along Skyline Drive until you decide to double-back).

Another option, if you want a shorter hike, is to drive on past this first parking area, up Skyline Drive to another parking lot. It’s clearly designated with a sign that says, “Hightop Mountain Parking Area.” Once you park there, you can walk across Skyline Drive and pick up the AT there. This will abbreviate your hike by almost 3 miles, as it cuts off the 1.3 miles from the bridge parking area to the Hightop Mountain parking lot and back. We wanted a hike of 5-6 miles on this day, so we opted to pick up the AT near the park entrance rather than at the one closer to the trail end.

dscf3009
Henri getting ready to cross Skyline Drive to the AT marker on the opposite side, near the end of the overpass.
WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Standardsville, VA on 28 January 2017
standardsville-weather

While the temperature wasn’t all that low at about 45° F, the wind was whipping pretty strongly. Henri wished she had brought her balaclava, but alas had not. A bit of a sting to the cheeks and lots of needle ice crunching underfoot belied the lovely sunshine and reminded us that this was, after all, a late January hike in Virginia. The wind was particularly powerful once we stepped out onto the rocks at the top, overlooking the Shenandoah Valley.

Hightop Mountain 2017
Lots of “needle ice” along the trail on this day.
OUR PREP/GEAR

Standard day-hike preparation/gear. Fergus with his North Face day pack, Henri with her Osprey. Just some water, snacks, and basic first aid. Down shells. As noted above, Henri bemoaned having forgotten her balaclava for a bit until she got moving and warmed up some. Otherwise, this short hike and easy terrain didn’t require any special prep.

Hightop Mountain 2017
The first vista overlook you come to is lovely, if somewhat obscured compared to the 2nd one at the top.
OUR HIKE NOTES

The entire hike is on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail; there’s no getting lost because you have no “turn or not turn” decisions to make, no intersecting blazes. Hiking Upward rates this out-and-back hike as a 3 out of 6 in terms of difficulty. We’ll agree, in that it’s uphill a lot of the way out; however, we remarked that this would actually be a nice beginner trail to introduce friends to hiking (especially since it can be shortened to less than 2.5 miles if you choose to start at the higher parking lot). From the Rte. 33 overpass bridge, you immediately climb steeply, but that becomes a much more gentle climb after the first few yards. Total elevation gain is only 1,480 feet. There is a stream along the start of the trail, but it was moving along at little more than a trickle on this day.

Hightop Mountain 2017
Henri starting out on the AT, headed UP.

At about 1.5 miles, you’ll come across the parking lot at Skyline Drive and need to cross over to the clearly-visible AT marker, and keep going up. From there, the trail gets a bit more interesting. Big boulders line the trail and there’s a nice outcropping of boulders and rocks that we decided to stop and climb — just for the hell of it. You could certainly do this entire out-and-back trail without doing any rock scrambling at all, if you wanted to avoid it. We just like to climb stuff and see how things look from up top. The trail, itself, changes from soil to rock for a short stretch. It’s certainly a well maintained trail.

Hightop Mountain 2017
Climbing the boulder outcropping…just because it was there.

Despite Hiking Upward’s claim that this is “one of the lesser known summit hikes,” we saw plenty of fellow hikers this day — many with dogs — and both parking areas were quite full. It wasn’t quite squirming with people like Mary’s Rock or Old Rag can be, but it was absolutely less secluded that other hikes we’ve done, like Strickler Knob or Duncan Knob. We’d call it busy, but not annoyingly so. This was a pleasant hike for saying “How’s it goin’?” to a half dozen or so fellow hiking couples and a few gaggles of outdoorsy college kids.

We had the vistas (there are 2 good look-out points along the trail) pretty much to ourselves. No mob of swarming tourists competing for the best view or camera angles. This meant that, as long as we could endure the wind, we could look far out over the valley and into the Blue Ridge Mountains and contemplate the stunning beauty of Virginia.

Hightop Mountain 2017
This way to spectacular views! [turn off from main trail to ‘summit’ vista]
OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • VIEWS!
  • proximity to great Virginia barbecue and vineyards

Women’s March DC

Uncertain what exactly to expect of the Women’s March on DC, but knowing that we wanted to both witness it and be a part of it, we left Fredericksburg, VA at about 8AM on 2 January 2017 on one of two Rally buses carrying 100 or so of our neighbors up to DC. Many more had driven up the night before, or were taking the train or metro in that morning.  The Washington Post had warned that at least 1,200 charter buses were expected to park at RFK Stadium for the event but, by the looks of the lot as we arrived, they may have underestimated. Row after row after row of buses let us know that this thing was going to be, well, HUGE.

Women's March DC 2017
Irene, one of our enthusiastic volunteer Bus Leaders, did a great job…with a smile.

We didn’t wear “Pussy Hats.” We didn’t even wear pink. To be honest, we dressed pretty much as if this was another day-hike in cloudy 50° weather. Low key. Henri got a transparent backpack, as recommended by March organizers, and had adorned it with a couple of stickers. Other than that, we were probably two of the more demure marchers of the day. Not to worry. A virtual sea of pink washed over DC and there were more pink hats on both women and men than could have been counted successfully.

Women's March DC 2017
Henri brought some stickers like the ones on her backpack to share with fellow bus riders.
Women's March DC 2017
Meow.

The sheer number of people who showed up to march was breathtaking, but that wasn’t even the most impressive part. Here’s what impressed us the most: People’s attitudes. From the moment we stepped off the bus in DC, employees of the city were all smiles and encouragement. Every person we encountered who was working the event that day — police, Union Station employees, street security, DC Streetcar employees — ALL of them were smiling, welcoming, patient. They appeared genuinely happy about the day’s turnout despite the fact that it meant a lot of work and probably more than one headache for them.

Women's March DC 2017
Just one of the DC Streetcar employees that was all smiles…ALL DAY.

We spent several hours squished shoulder-to-shoulder on the National Mall waiting for the March to, well, march. People could not move. People could barely squeeze through the crowd to get to Don’s Johns. We were people from all different genders, ethnicities, socio-economic situations, ages, religions, and backgrounds. And yet. From start to finish, we saw people being kind, helpful, supportive, and encouraging to one another. We saw nobody succumb to being tired or hungry, or to the potentially claustrophobic conditions by lashing out at others or resorting to what could have been an ‘every man for himself’ mentality. People were proud to be here. They stayed mindful of the purpose of it and the reality that it was something bigger than any one of us. They looked out for each other, made room for one another, lifted each other up, and showed more patience, human decency, and love than one might have thought possible under the conditions.

Women's March DC 2017

As it turns out, this was much, much more than a women’s march. Yes, there were lots and lots of women and men there marching with signs expressing their fears for “women’s issues,” like continued reproductive rights and funding for Planned Parenthood (and their determination to fight for the protection of both).  And, yes, there were also lots of people there expressing outrage about Trump’s history of behavior and attitudes toward women. But this march was about way more than issues affecting women (which are issues that actually affect all people in one way or another). This march was about major, important issues of concern to America and the world.

In addition to the photo collage at the end of this post, you can see even more of Fergus’ photojournalistic shots of the day HERE.

We saw people from all walks of life marching…

…in favor of embracing diversity
…against the the denigration & vilification of religions, races, or ethnicities
…fed up with gun violence
…against Trump’s apparent dishonesty
…against Trump’s alleged connections to Russia & support of (and from) Putin
…against DeVos and in support of public education
…against Pruitt and in support of climate science
…asking for the government to protect public lands
…in favor of equal rights and respect for LGBTQIA+ Americans
…in support of Americans with disabilities
…against the lack of transparency and Trump’s potential financial conflicts of interest
…expressing the desire to steward Earth better, and fear that this administration will not

Womens March DC 2017
Witnessed so many mothers, sisters, brothers and fathers lifting up the next generation of activists and leaders today. That’s what the Women’s March was all about for me. ~ Fergus
Women's March DC 2017
She is watching. Intently.

After hours of waiting to march, we literally couldn’t. The planned route for the Women’s March was completely filled with people — there was no way to march on the route. Word eventually came down through the crowds to march peacefully where we could, and the mass of people began to break up and move through the city. As we filtered out past the Mall, we passed a small band of about 20 “Bikers for Trump” trying to hold a counter-rally in the midst of an enclave of port-a-potties. It was a striking contrast to the roaring swell of pink marching directly past them. Still, some Women’s March folks stopped to listen — without altercation — for a bit before marching on. [EDIT/UPDATE 22 Jan 2017: Apparently, some of the Women’s March participants did eventually disrupt the Bikers for Trump rally. We’re  not exactly sure from this Youtube video who really can be blamed for the violence — looks an awful lot to us like a big angry biker getting physical with a skinny older man based on very little provocation — but it seems to have been short lived. Nothing like this was happening when we were there, and the police report no arrests or major incidents during the day.]

Women's March DC 2017
“Bikers for Trump” drew a somewhat smaller crowd.

Hiking Buck Hollow/Mary’s Rock

A really pretty day-hike in Shenandoah National Park, with lots of varied terrain and killer views at the top of Mary’s Rock. Popular (read: crowds) at the top, but combining the Buck Hollow loop along with it makes up for the lack of solitude at Mary’s Rock itself.

HIKE INFO

hiked on 15 January 2017
Shenandoah National Park, Near Sperryville, VA
10 miles (with our improvisational detour…see our Hike Notes, below)
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

Henri atop Mary's Rock
Henri perches atop Mary’s Rock and enjoys the view.
GETTING THERE

Sperryville has been one of our favorite hiking destinations for years, starting when Old Rag used to be our go-to hike. It’s near the beginning points for several great trails in or near the Shenandoah National Park system, an easy hour and 15 minute drive from our base camp in Fredericksburg, VA (though we usually tack on 15 more minutes to stop at a Wawa on the way for coffee, breakfast and hiking snacks).

Parking for the Buck Hollow loop is a bump-out off Rte 211 that accommodates probably up to a dozen cars (depending on how economically people park). There were 7-8 cars there when we arrived at 10AM this Sunday, though we didn’t see very many of their drivers on the Buck Hollow portion of the trail.

Parking Area at Buck Hollow trailhead
The parking area at Buck Hollow trailhead was busy…the trail wasn’t. Where’d they all go?!
WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Sperryville, VA on 15 January 2017
sperryville-weather

As we drove out to Sperryville, we noted a pervasive haze and began to despair that we wouldn’t get great views (or photos) on this hike. We should have realized that it would dissipate by the time we were on trail. But it’s good that we worried for a bit, because that was how we discovered SNP’s Air Quality Webcam and Air Quality Information Page on our smart phones. What a great real-time weather/visibility tool! As it happened, we were concerned for no good reason. By the time we had parked and were hitting the trail, the haze had cleared and the sun came though. It turned out to be a gorgeous day to hike, with great visibility at the top of Mary’s Rock.

View from Mary's Rock
Every time we hike in Virginia, we feel lucky to live near these views!
OUR PREP/GEAR

The usual day-hike prep: Henri’s orange Osprey Daylite pack and Fergus’ trusty North Face, filled with a few snacks, water in Nalgenes, basic first-aid supplies, and space to pack layers if we needed to shed them. We figured on a 5.5 hour hike (with half an hour stop for snacks and photos at the top).

We think it’s inevitable that we’ll have to do a detailed “our gear” informational post soon, because hikers like to hear what other hikers wear and use. In brief, for now: Henri’s go-to hiking pants are REI Sahara (over leggings when it’s colder out), a Smart Wool base layer top, and a Sierra Designs Elite Drydown hoody. Her hiking shoes are Merrell Moab. Her ultralight trekking poles are from Paria Outdoors. Fergus wears an Eddie Bauer Cirruslite jacket.

On this hike, we played the Layers Game, wherein it started off cool, but then we found ourselves quickly warming up and stripping off down jackets and beanies in favor of sweatshirts and ball caps…then putting the warmer layers back on again as the wind picked up and the temperature went down toward the top.

Buck Hollow trail Shenandoah National Park
Henri’s William & Mary sweatshirt got a couple of positive comments from fellow hikers (sadly, no one mentioned her Detroit Tigers ball cap).
OUR HIKE NOTES

There are a couple of much shorter routes to get to Mary’s Rock, if that is a visitor’s main focus. Mary’s Rock is quite popular and rates pretty low in our “solitude” category. Though not quite as crowded as Old Rag can be, Mary’s Rock tends to be crawling with people on weekends. That’s not typically something we love, but we’d never checked it out before, so figured it would be OK to do a busier hike, if we coupled it with Buck Hollow loop — known to be somewhat less popular.

The route we took followed Hiking Upward’s trail notes almost exactly, except for a one-mile detour that we took when Henri was in the lead and not really paying attention to signage or blazes (it happens). All-in-all, we hiked about 10 miles this day. The hike is usually about 9 miles, split more-or-less evenly: 3 miles on Buck Hollow Trail up to Skyline Drive, 3 miles up to Mary’s Rock and back down to Skyline (includes a short stretch on the Appalachian Trail), and 3 miles down on Buck Ridge Trail to the parking area.

marys-rock
From Hiking Upwards’ website.

The Buck Hollow trail up to Skyline Drive is gorgeous, and we don’t mean just the scenery and views (though they are). The actual trail is just…well, pretty. Often a trail is merely dirt and rocks, but the Buck Hollow trail can be described as idyllic, kind of lovely with moss, rocks, and roots conspiring to create the sort of underfoot pathway usually reserved for Disney films. It doesn’t hurt the ambiance that you spend a good deal of the first 3 miles following a stream with burbling cascades.

Buck Hollow trail Shenandoah National Park

As you turn away from the stream on Buck Hollow trail, things go up steeply. The first three miles of this loop are definitely UP. You’ll reach a parking area on Skyline Drive at the top of the trail, which is one place a lot of people park and hike up to Mary’s Rock. The trail gets more populated from here on. We saw maybe 3-4 hikers on Buck Hollow. By the time we were at the top of Mary’s Rock, we had lost count of our trail mates.

It’s more UP from Skyline Drive to Mary’s Rock, including a portion of the Appalachian Trail, which is rewarded with some gorgeous views along the way. Altogether, the elevation gain for this hike is about 2,600 feet. We stopped along the way to take a photo for two young women hiking together, and they returned the favor. It’s sort of rare to get a couple shot of Fergus & Henri to share in a post!

Fergus &  Henri at Mary's Rock
By the time we were approaching Mary’s Rock, we’d begun to put back on the outer layers. Brrr.

Mary’s Rock, itself, offers some stellar views. There’s a ridge of boulders that you can climb to see the valley and hills from various angles and heights. The top was pretty busy with visitors on this Sunday, reminding us quite a bit of climbing Old Rag, but it’s easy to see why it’s popular. Shorter hikes with closer parking areas can bring you to these vistas with little effort, the pay off is just stunning, and the boulder climbing is comparably easy.

Hikers at the top of Mary's Rock
Lots of folks in VA find Mary’s Rock a great introductory hike/climb, with amazing views.

Leaving Mary’s Rock, Henri took the lead and — not paying careful attention — followed the crowd headed along the AT connector trail steeply down toward the Thornton Gap parking area for about half a mile before Fergus noted the discrepancy. Whoops! Back up we went to the AT itself, and back on true trail the rest of the way. We tacked on about a mile and maybe 30 minutes to our hike, but it was still pretty and the views were great, so no complaints.

Old Homestead near Mary's Rock
An old homestead about halfway between Skyline Drive and Mary’s Rock is obviously a favorite picnicking site for the many hikers who visit.

Back at the Skyline Drive parking area, you’re faced with a decision about how you’d prefer to return to the Buck Hollow trailhead. You can go left and follow the same trail you took up to this point, or you can go right and follow the Buck Ridge trail to the trailhead. Because this was our first time on the loop, we opted to see what Buck Ridge had to offer.

This 3-mile portion of the hike is mostly down, quite steeply so in the last half mile, and features some cool boulder formations and pretty trail flora. We noted quite a bit of scat that was unmistakably bear…but also unmistakably several days old. No fresh scat and no bear sightings for us on this trip. As with Buck Hollow, the ridge trail had only a couple of other hikers on it, returning us to relative solitude. You miss out on the pretty stream going back this way, but the variety of terrain and vegetation makes it worthwhile, along with the views from the ridge.

Stairs cut into trail at Buck Ridge
A seemingly interminable winding stairway cut into the hill returns you down to the parking area (or up to Buck Ridge if you’re headed the other direction).

Hiking Upward says “the last 0.5 miles of the Buck Ridge Trail is very steep on loose rock,” but we’re not sure when that was written. The last half mile IS steep, but rather than loose rock, we found it to be made up of a well-maintained winding stairway that had been meticulously cut into the hillside. It’s quite something to see and we marveled when thinking of the process it must have taken to construct it. The stairs wind down in a series of tiny “switchbacks” from the ridge to the hollow, where we crossed back over Thornton River to the parking lot at the trailhead.

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • Varied terrain that both held our interest & provided some challenge.
  • Views, stream, scenery!
AFTER THE HIKE

We planned this day’s hike to end at Sharp Rock Vineyards in Sperryville.

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.

Sky Meadows State Park
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.

Sky Meadows State Park
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 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.