Hiking Hawksbill Summit

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The college kids sure do like their cairns.

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

HIKE INFO

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

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

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

WEATHER/CONDITIONS

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

 

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Wind playing with Henri’s ponytail at the summit.

 

SIDE NOTE

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

OUR HIKE NOTES

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

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

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

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

Hiking 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!)

BBQ Exchange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barboursville Vineyards

Barboursville Vineyards

Located northeast of Charlottesville and just a bit west of Gordonsville (home of our beloved BBQ Exchange), Barboursville Vineyards is a natural stopping point on Rte 33 for folks looking to pair a hike in Shenandoah National Park (SNP) with a wine tasting. It’s a quick drive from the Swift Run Gap SNP entrance point. This was our second visit to Barboursville. The first was a mid-week summer visit several years ago. This one was a Saturday visit, and the timing seems to have made all the difference in the experience.

Barboursville Vineyards location on map

On our first (mid-week) visit, we were almost the only guests in the tasting room. We were invited up to the middle of the long tasting bar that runs the length of the room and stayed in that spot with one wine docent1 for the entire sampling, chatting with her for quite some time as we moved through the many wines offered. (We found that we needed to walk around the grounds for a while after that tasting rather than getting on the road right away, if you know what we mean. Twenty is a lot of wines to taste at one vineyard!).

Barboursville Vineyards
from our first visit (June 2012)

On this more recent visit, we got a look at Barboursville in action when things aren’t quite that slow. This Saturday, it was packed.

They certainly have their tasting system down, that’s for sure. We were greeted at the door by a hostess who directed us to someone else to take our tasting fee, hand us a souvenir tasting glass, and show us to the first of a series of tasting stations. We were pointed to the brut tasting bar just to the left of the centrally-located fireplace. There, a wine docent poured the brut and then the brut rosé for us. This heavily accented young man (French?) was not one to chat. He informed us of pretty much the same information we could read on the tasting sheet and provided some additional insight about the varietals & wine making process, inquired whether we had any questions, summoned the will to look supremely bored with both our presence and the drudgery of his job, then moved us along to the station around the corner to sample the vineyard’s whites. While the brut offerings were very nice, this wasn’t a great start to the experience.

Things got better from there. At the next station, we were happy to find a young woman pouring for us who was amicable and excited to chat about wine, the history of the vineyard, and why Barboursville’s Riesling is worth giving a chance…even if you don’t usually like Rieslings (she was not wrong, by the way). From that point on, it still felt like moving from station-to-station as quickly as possible to get the crowds through; however, all but that first pourer managed to come across as friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable. We passed – with four others who had arrived when we did — from the brut station to the white station to the first half of the reds station to the second half of the reds station, and would have then gone on to the dessert wine station, but opted to skip that since neither of us is a fan of sweet wine.

Barboursville Vineyards
Ian poured the 2nd half of the reds on the tasting list, before passing tasters off to the dessert wine station.

On both of our visits, we made a point of checking out the grounds. In addition to the tasting room with the requisite gift and wine accessory shop, Barboursville also offers a wine library, a large indoor event space, a full-service restaurant, and a sizable herb garden. What makes it really stand out is the history of the land. Either before or after tasting, guests are encouraged to walk down the drive to the carefully preserved “Historic Ruins.” This turns out to be the remains of the mansion built in 1814 for James Barbour (then VA Governor), as designed by Thomas Jefferson. Yes, really. Most of the mansion was destroyed in a fire on Christmas day in 1884, though the exterior walls, interior brick walls, and columns still stand (with some assistance). The vineyard’s flagship wine, Octagon, is named in honor of the octagonal drawing room of the mansion. It is surrounded by a garden of large boxwood bushes, so tall and convoluted that they practically beg for a game of hide-and-seek in them. In 1969, Barboursville was added to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.

Barboursville Vineyards
The “ruins” have been stabilized with iron bars so that visitors can see the historic architecture.
THE WINES

By anyone’s standards, Barboursville offers a lot of wines to taste for a small fee; however, we did find that the tasting list on the vineyard’s website for January 2017 did not exactly match what we were offered (but we’re not complaining).

Website Tasting List
for January 2017
Actual Tasting List
on 28 January 2017
  • Brut Cuvée 1814 Non-Vintage
  • Brut Cuvée 1814 Vintage 2000
  • Brut Rosé Cuvée 1814 Non-Vintage
  • Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2014
  • Vermentino Reserve 2015
  • Viognier Reserve 2015
  • Vintage Rosé 2015
  • Philéo and Paxxito 2010
  • Cabernet Franc Reserve 2014
  • Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2013
  • Barbera Reserve 2015
  • Barbera Reserve 2010
  • Barbera Reserve 1994
  • Petit Verdot Reserve 2013

Octagon 2004/ 2007/ 2010/ 2012 /2013
These 5 vintages can be compared in 1 flight for $35

  • Brut Cuvée 1814 Non-Vintage
  • Brut Rosé Cuvée 1814 Non-Vintage
  • Pinot Grigio 2015
  • Chardonnay 2015
  • Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2014
  • Vermentino Reserve 2015
  • Viognier Reserve 2015
  • Chardonnay Reserve 2015
  • Vintage Rosé 2015
  • Cabernet Blanc Non-Vintage
  • Rosato Non-Vintage
  • Philéo and Paxxito 2010
  • Cabernet Franc Reserve 2014
  • Barbera Reserve 2015
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
  • Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2013
  • Barbera Reserve 2015
  • Sangiovese Reserve 2015
  • Merlot 2014
  • Merlot Reserve 2013
  • Petit Verdot Reserve 2013

When we asked, we were told that Octagon was not available as a tasting, but was available for purchase by the glass, half-glass, or bottle.

Octagon has been one of our all-time favorite Virginia red wines since we first tasted it back in 2012. Since then, it has won numerous prestigious awards and also, mysteriously, increased in price and disappeared from the vineyard’s standard tasting list. Back in 2012, we got to taste it along with the others for our $7 tasting fee. On this visit, a half-glass tasting of Octagon 2013 was advertised on a chalk board at $7.50. A full-glass could be had for $15 (for comparison’s sake, several Barboursville wines are priced by the bottle at $14.99). A full bottle of Octagon 2013 will set you back $54.99, and Octagon 2012 runs $69.99. It should be noted that we’ve seen (and purchased) Octagon at various wine shops in the past for far less than this per bottle, but neither of us can remember which vintage…so, that should be taken into consideration.

We truly enjoy most of Barboursville’s wines a great deal and most are priced incredibly reasonably for the quality — something not always true at Virginia wineries (perhaps because Barboursville is such a big winery, comparative to others, and has its wines in lots of shops and restaurants). We came home, on this day, with a mixed case that included the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2015 Sangiovese Reserve, 2014 Merlot, and 2015 Vintage Rosé (can you tell that we’re mostly red fans?).

The bruts were both very nice, and the docent was quite right that the Riesling was not your typical sweet Riesling. Even Henri approved of it (and she vows that she hates Riesling). Fergus particularly liked the Chardonnay Reserve, of the whites.

HOURS

The tasting room is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 AM- 5:00 PM and on Sunday from 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Tours are available on weekends from noon to 4:00 PM.

WINE TASTING/FOOD

At $7 to taste over 20 wines (plus souvenir tasting glass), this is a bargain — particularly considering the quality of Barboursville’s wines. Snacks are available for purchase, but no outside food is permitted (leave the picnic at home). A full service on-site restaurant is also an option (reservations recommended)….though we don’t typically try to go there after hiking all afternoon.

BEST FOR…

A weekday visit, if you can. Wine docents have more time to chat and the atmosphere, in general, is more relaxed.

A solid vineyard for sampling high quality Virginia wine, taking in some Virginia history and landscape, and perhaps having a gourmet meal at Barboursville’s Palladio Restaurant.

VA TRAIL PAIRINGS
  • We came here right after hiking Hightop Mountain
  • South River Falls Hike
  • Rocky  Mount Hike
  • Big Run Hike
  • Jones Run/Doyle River Hike
  • Ivy Creek Hike
  • Patricia Ann Byrom Forest Preserve Hike

  1. After combing the Internet for some sort of industry standard title for the folks who pour wines for guests at vineyards, we’ve come to the conclusion that there simply isn’t one. Most vineyards in VA do not hire trained and certified sommeliers for this role. Sometimes, but rarely, the wine maker pours your tastes (always a treat!). To say “Wine Steward” seems out of place in the context of a single vineyard…more suited to a restaurant offering wines from many different makers. Sometimes the taste-pouring role is a paid position, sometimes vineyards rely on volunteers (paid in wine, perhaps). Each vineyard seems to come up with its own term for the role. We’ve seen ‘wine educator,’ ‘tasting host,’ ‘wine concierge,’ among others. We’re not sure what Barboursville calls theirs, but we’ve settled on a preference for the term ‘wine docent,’ mostly because the term docent has the connotation of being a guide. We’ve often found that the person filling this role not only pours the various wines, but also offers information about each one, about the history of the vineyard and the wine maker, and — when you get a really good one — about wine and grape varieties in general. The worst (or perhaps just newest) ones simply pour and repeat what’s on the printed tasting notes, the best truly guide each guest through the experience and leave you feeling more educated. (Now that we’ve written this gigantic footnote, we sense that an entire blog post about this topic may not be far in the future. Stay tuned). 

TBT: Old Rag Mountain

Anyone who hikes in Virginia has likely hiked Old Rag Mountain. It is one of the most popular hikes (if not the most popular) in the Commonwealth. For many Virginians — ourselves included — Old Rag is the “gateway hike,” an accessible but moderately challenging 9 mile trail with a fun rock/boulder scramble and a cool stream on the way back down. It’s no wonder Old Rag gets folks interested in doing more hikes in the Shenandoah area and beyond.

Starting in 2010, Old Rag was our annual go-to Easter morning hike. We liked getting up there in the morning when it wasn’t as crowded and went each year, faithfully, for a few years. We also took friends and the kids a couple of times in between. We’ve since branched out in search of more varied and less crowded hikes, but there’s a soft spot in our hearts for Old Rag still, even if we don’t head that way much anymore. For this TBT post, we offer a montage of photos from various trips over the last few years.

Delaplane Cellars

 

Henri enjoying a glass of Duet on the deck at Delaplane Cellars
Delaplane Cellars is perfect for an afternoon date. [Henri’s date is…taking the photo].
Over the years, we have stopped at a number of vineyards on the way home from day hikes at Sky Meadows. Two of our favorites are Delaplane Cellars and Barrel Oak Winery, for very different reasons. Barrel Oak, which we’ll save for another post on another day, has some great wines and is a large, fun atmosphere if you’re with a group of folks, or if you have your dogs or children along. Delaplane features a much different vibe.

The somewhat austere house rules at Delaplane set it apart from most other Virginia wineries: ALL guests must be 21 years old or over (no children permitted) and no large groups. There is a moratorium on limousines or buses. This means, among other things, that you can enjoy your experience at Delaplane without a nearby gaggle of squealing half-drunk (or fully drunk) bridesmaids toasting a girl wearing a sash and tiara. Delaplane is not a stop on any of the popular Virginia wine bus tours, so there are no troupes of tippling tourists crammed at the tasting bar, either. Dogs are permitted, but only in designated outdoor areas (not in the tasting room or on the deck). Delaplane frequently features live music and it’s quite lovely to be able to hear the musicians or singer(s) without loud groups of people talking above it.

The “no children” rule had us curious when we first came. Clear signage on the way into the tasting room warns patrons of the 21-and-over-only policy, yet on our inaugural visit we sat outside on the deck and watched a family with kids & stroller approach — stop to read the sign — and then open the door and come on in anyway. Curious about how this was going to go down, Henri went inside on some pretense…but really to eavesdrop (don’t judge!). A friendly staff member met the group as they entered and explained the no-children policy politely, then offered the family free tasting certificates for nearby Barrel Oak Winery, which has different policies. The family thanked them, took the free tastings, and headed out. No fuss. No muss. We were impressed with how diplomatically and respectfully Delaplane’s staff protected the experience of their patrons and honored their own decisions about how they want to present their wines. (We were also impressed by the apparent cooperative relationship between the two neighboring vineyards).

Though Delaplane may sound dull or sterile due to their tasting-room rules, we have never found it to be either. Our pourers are always friendly, chatty (but not to a fault), helpful, and knowledgeable. The music is always a perfect volume to be able to listen, but also to have a normal-voice conversation as you do. It’s not a silent “listening room” any more than it is a raucous bar. It’s pretty perfect for a date or a small group of friends. We’ve noticed that some folks on Yelp and other review sites have not appreciated Delaplane’s efforts to establish a relaxing grown-up oasis that focuses on the wine and the views, but we love it for those very reasons.

View from the deck at Delaplane Cellars
Henri, the youngest of 5 daughters, has nicknamed these hills as “Five Sisters.”
THE WINES

Oh, did you want to hear about the wines?! Glad you’ve kept reading, because the other thing we really like about Delaplane Cellars is just that. They feature several wines we enjoy, and one that stands out as a favorite for us among Virginia wines.

[At Delaplane] I found a consistency of adroitly fine winemaking with nicely original touches throughout the product line. ~ Richard Leahy

If you know us at all, you know that we are red wine fans first and foremost (though Fergus has developed a freakish passion for rosés of late.) We typically like bold, deep, full red wines.

The wine we come back for over and over again — and recommend to our friends — is Delaplane’s Duet. We suppose that the name is appropriate since we’ve been raving about what a great date place this is for couples, but the name came about because the grapes in it were grown in two Northern Virginia counties: Loudoun and Fauquier. It is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. In the vernacular of winos, Duet is “fruit-forward” and full, but we find the balance with its notable oakiness to be really nice. (Is “oakiness” an actual word?)

Fergus bought a bottle of Delaplane’s rosé (simply called Rosé ) on our most recent visit, and proclaims it an all-time favorite, as well. The other wine that we enjoy the most here is a red blend they call the Cinq series. They are on Cinq5 at the moment, which may seem a bit redundant until you realize that its forebearers were Cinq4, Cinq3, etc. In the white category, we prefer Delaplane’s Traminette, though we don’t dislike their Chardonnay.

Some wine & light fare at Delaplane Cellars

HOURS

Friday-Sunday from 11AM to 5PM and also some holidays

WINE TASTING/FOOD

Tasting menu ranges in price from $8-$12; “light fare” also available for purchase.

BEST FOR…

Hands-down, this is our absolute favorite Virginia “date” winery. It’s just a great place to go as a couple to enjoy some wine, gorgeous views, music, and one another’s company in a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere. Not romantic in the hackneyed Valentines Day way, its romance is derived from the beauty and simple elegance of both the surrounding view and the tasting room/deck.

Views. We have to agree with Richard Leahy‘s assessment that Delaplane offers “one of the nicest tasting room views in Northern Virginia.” The tasting room, itself, is also tastefully elegant in a minimalist way, and features none of the gaudy, overwrought decor you find in many VA wineries.

  • The water cups are made from corn.
  • The napkins, paper towels and restroom paper are made of recycled paper.
  • Our hand soap is scent free and is environmentally friendly.
  • The Light Fare we offer is from local farmers and bakers.
  • The tasting bar, doors, front steps, flooring, future fireplace and retaining walls come from trees, wood and stone walls that were on the property during the development of the vineyards and the winery.

Concern for the environment. Though their website proclaims that it’s “not easy being green,” Delaplane is dedicated to just that. Janine Finnell, Founder and Clean Energy Ambassador of Leaders in Energy, writes about it here.

VA TRAIL PAIRINGS
  • Any of the trails at Sky Meadows State Park
  • Other Hikes Quite Nearby:
    • Manassas Gap
    • Ashby Gap
    • GRT Wildlife Management Area

map of vineyards near Sky Meadows State Park

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.

Sky Meadows State ParkSky Meadows State Park

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
luray-weather

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.]