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

Hunter
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).