Hiking to Loudon Heights

It was finally, finally time to get out of the city and into the woods. I’d been biking and baseballing and graduating and concerting for weeks and my brain needed a long solo hike in the woods.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Alas, the Shenandoah gives it up and from here to the Chesapeake Bay the river is known as the Potomac. Just southeast of Harpers Ferry the Potomac passes through mountains. On the northern side of the river there are two overlooks. I hiked 19 miles in one day to check them out. Today I explored the overlook on the southern side of the river on a ridge known as Loudon Heights. I got the idea for this hike from a fellow blogger who did a shorter, steeper version of this hike in January 2016. Her hike began in Harpers Ferry, crossed the Shenandoah and climbed up to the ridge about 1 1/2 miles from the overlook.

It was my intent to do this same hike but then I found another hike that was longer and more gradual. This hike begins at Keys Pass 5 1/2 miles to the south of the overlook. It follows the Appalachian Trail for about 4 miles along the ridge line then switches to the Loudon Heights Trail to get to the overlook.

The skies were overcast. Temperatures were in high 50Fs when I set out. There was so much green. The path was somewhat muddy. Then it became rocky. Then smooth. Then rockier. Then smooth. Then ludicrously rocky. Then not so much. Did I mention that it was rocky.

The AT is rocky. How anybody with a full pack gets through the Virginia portion of the trail without breaking an ankle is beyond me. I am a tenderfoot. Literally. I hate rocky trails. I came to a kind of truce with this one out of necessity. There are so many rocks that you have to look down nearly the entire time you are hiking. You lose track of time. I couldn’t believe that 90 minutes had passed since the start. Focusing on the rocks is meditative, annoyingly so. It had a rather interesting benefit for me. I noticed that my tenderfootedness was caused by me tensing my feet up as I walked among the rocks. Walking on them instead and focusing on keeping my feet relaxed made for much easier walking. I didn’t exactly end the hike with happy feet but I managed to enjoy what would otherwise have been a miserable experience.

Since I was spending so much time looking down, I had to consciously stop and take in the scenery. Most of the hike is through a forest on a ridge line. And I looked up at the through the canopy to the clouds above. Ahh.

Being at the top of things also meant that many old trees succumbed to winds. The trail is obstructed by a few dozen downed giants. They are easy enough to get past though.

For the first 3 1/2 miles I didn’t see or hear a single person. Not one. For the next 2 miles I did encounter a few people here and there but, thankfully, none of them were loud.

Getting to the overlook actually involves hiking down from the ridge. When I got there I had it all to myself for about 3 minutes. I was all set to just park my butt on a rock for a half hour. Then another hiker showed up. Yeah, well….

After taking some pictures of Harpers Ferry (the view of town is much better from Maryland Heights, by the way) I started back. Good thing I left. More and more people were heading my way. I group of young men came by. The last of them was actually talking business. I resisted the urge to dope slap him.

When I got back on the AT, I started encountering serious backpackers heading north. These dudes were in tip top hiking shape. A solo hiker and I stopped to chat. He was a large human, 6 foot 4 or so and easily 250 pounds. He was hiking 20 miles or so today on his way to Harpers Ferry.  His pack looked hefty. He was all smiles. Nice guy.

The last three miles were a bit of a slog. I really need to learn to ease into these things; 11 miles was a bit much. I stopped to stretch my hamstrings from time to time. The last half mile was mercifully light on rocks and was nearly flat. I needed that.

Unlike most hikes I’ve done, I had very good cell service on this one so I instagrammed my ass off. I posted all the pictures on my Flickr page.

Finishing What I Started

The Potomac Heritage Trail is the closest hiking trail of any decent length near my house. It’s about a 20-30 minute drive. I lucked out. The parking area at Chain Bridge was full but a pickup pulled out and I pulled in.

The goal of the day was to hike the trail upriver to the point where I turned around last weekend. The good news is that this section of the trail involves very little rocky stuff. The bad news is the turn around point was about 1 mile less distant that I thought.

The first half mile or so follows Pimmit Run. In Virginia creeks and streams are called runs. (There are no hits or errors.) Perhaps the most well known run in Virginia is Bull Run.

At a half mile I needed to cross the run and, after studying the rocks in the stream, I made it across without getting wet.

The next section climbs up to Fort Marcy. It wasn’t a particularly difficult climb.

After crossing the parking lot, the trail winds through some more woods within sight of the GW Parkway.  The cars wizzing by really messed with the vibe. Near the end of the hike, I crossed the Chain Bridge Road exit ramps. Not exactly a zen experience.

To my surprise the turnaround point was only a couple hundred yards beyond the exit.

On the way back the hills seemed easier. I tuned out the cars and made it a point to focus my attention on the smooth track, a little beetle and the blue sky above.

It seemed liked someone had moved the rocks around in Pimmit Run. I could not figure out how I made it across. So I worked my way downstream looking for a better option. I stopped three times and found myself in mid-stream with no chance of leaping to a far rock to finish the crossing.  The banks of the creek were piled high with flood debris. I put my foot on top of it and my foot went in like it was a snow drift. A few minutes later I started to sink in again and reached out with my left hand making contact with the debris. I ended up with several splinters and cuts. There was blood. Just enough to make a mess of my pants when I wiped my hand on them.

After 15 minutes I found a spot with a downed tree sticking across the creek at a height of four feet. I jumped from one rock to another grabbing the tree. Thankfully it took the weight of my left side without breaking (which would have caused me to fall into the creek.)

I made it across and found myself back at the car in short order.

My next hike will likely take me out to Shenandoah National Park.

Great Falls Saves My Day

After running errands and reading this morning, I had nothing to do. My to do list for my staycation was done. I decided to drive up to Great Falls Park in Maryland for a quick hike. It seemed appropriate since I started the year with a hike there.

My hike took me on a four mile (give or take) loop. I started on the Berma Road which is a bit muddy. Next I took a right onto the leaf covered Valley Trail. I love the sound of leaves swishing under my feet.

The Valley Trail intersected with the Gold Mine Loop. (Yes, there was a gold mine here long ago.) More leaves. More swishing. Very few people. The sun angled through the barren trees to add a bit of visual novelty to the proceedings.

After about a half a loop I took a spur trail that lead me to the Overlook Trail. This trail runs along a ridge above the C&O Canal and the Potomac River as it cuts through Mather Gorge. I climbed to a view point and it seemed that the flurries were casting a haze over the gorge. Or maybe it was just the angle of the sun and the thousands of grey tree trunks and rock faces.

I dropped back down to the Berma Road and took a bridge across the canal. It was then a half mile walk to the Great Falls overlook trail. I was a little disappointed that there was no ice, but if there had been I’d have been seriously underdressed and freezing my ass off. Be careful what you wish for. Still the sound of rushing water, the mist, the churn of foam in the rapids made for a soothing break from walking.

The hike ended with a 1 1/2 mile walk down the towpath past Widewater, my favorite section of the canal near DC.

Normally, this park is filled with people, often noisy kids. Today my solitude was interrupted only a handful of times, and briefly at that.

Not a bad way to salvage an afternoon.

 

 

Dumbo in Trumbo Hollow

Reading on the deck just wasn’t happening this morning. It was beautiful out. You know, puffy white clouds, gentle breezes, low humidity. So I decided to go for a hike.

I chose Trumbo Hollow because I was getting started late and wanted to make sure I could find a place to park my car.

The highways were all but deserted and there was ample parking. So an hour after I left home I was on the Appalachian Trail heading south.

IMG_0122.JPG
Think you can find the AT?

After a half mile of gently flat trail, I started up. And up. Switchback after switchback. Rocky footing. Eventually the hill and rocks  gave way to a grassy meadow. This was a first for me. Mostly woods lead to more woods. After the meadow came a downhill to a street. Then across the street and uphill again. You’d think they’d designed these trails so that they don’t go up and down and up and down. Just for me because I am the only important person in the universe.

IMG_0130.JPG
Rocks
IMG_0123.JPG
Meadow

There were quite a few other people hiking today. This included a group of about 14 hikers who were getting their social fix where introverts like me go to get away from people like them. I am grateful that they were heading in the opposite direction.

There were some couples here and there out on a date hike. It’s apparently like a bike date except you leave the bikes at home. You know you’re getting somewhere with your date when she tells you to bring a tent. Hike dates are not at all subtle that way.

The hike took me a little over 3 miles to a shelter that served as a landmark for the turnaround. One of the date couples I saw earlier had passed me and were hanging out there. She was on the phone. In my book she is not tentworthy.

I turned around and headed back. About a mile later, on a mostly smooth part of the trail and a rock reached up and tripped me. I swear it moved. I went down HARD on my forearm. Thankfully I landed on a rock-free part of the trail. My forearm just missed landing across a basketball size rock. This would have been ugly. Snap. Scream. Blood. Pain.

But it wasn’t. A stabbing pain went up my arm into my shoulder nonetheless. Ow. F-word. This HURTS. I stayed down for a minute as the pain subsided and came to realize that I didn’t break or dislocate anything. In all the arm fun, I missed the part about my left knee whacking the ground. It was bloody and aching. Both my palms hurt too. Suffice it to say a bruised knee and two bruised palms is a less than idea condition to ride 100 miles with. So tomorrow’s century ride will be interesting indeed.

IMG_0127
Albino caterpillars have been known to trip hikers

I dusted myself off. Poured water over the bleeding bits and continued on. But for the limp and the icky blood I was having a pretty good time. About a mile from my car a through-hiker came barreling toward me, aided by his adept use of two hiking poles. These hikers are in phenomenal shape. He had earbuds in. This kind of ruined my mental picture of through-hikers, but maybe he could hook up with phone girl at the shelter.

I made it back to the car in one piece but my knee was stiffening up. After stopping for some nutritious food (an M&M cookie ice cream sandwich counts, doesn’t it?…Oh, shut up. Don’t judge. I had a boo boo.),  I drove home. After a shower and some real food (involving a bagel, cheese, and a tomato) I came out on the deck and made good use of some frozen veggies. And a beer.

IMG_0132

 

Hiking Hogback

I haven’t done a hike since forever, so it was time to get my butt out to Shenandoah National Park. Thankfully, the weatherman delivered a picture perfect day.

I left at 7 am on a Saturday and the traffic gods were kind. I drove US 211 through Sperryville Va to the Thornton Gap entrance to Skyline Drive. US 211 is a beautiful drive. It reminds me of drives in West Virginia. The road climbs gradually until it gets to the Park then it twists and turns as it climbs over the Blue Ridge.

I have to make a confession at this point. I’ve lived in DC since 1984 and, until today, I’ve never driven on Skyline Drive. It’s a work of art. Easily one of the best roads I’ve ever driven on. Every couple of miles is a pull off where you can take in a breathtaking view of mountains and valleys.

I parked the car and headed into the woods, eager to take on the Hogback Mountain hike from HikingUpward.com. The undergrowth was lusher (more lush?) than I am used to which added a bit of mystery to the location of the start. I guessed right and was soon working my way to the Piney Branch Trail. The trail headed gradually downhill. After all the walking I did in Scandinavia, my legs were having no troubles negotiating the path. Piney Branch lead to a small stream which I managed to cross without immersing myself.  I turned onto the Pole Bridge trail which led to a fire road that took me back up to Skyline Drive. The warm, dry air, the gentle breeze and the green everywhere was floating my boat.

After crossing Skyline Drive I picked up the Appalachian Trail and started going up. The climb to Little Hogback overlook raised my heart rate but was not overly strenuous. The views were just fabulous. Somebody take a picture! Oh, yeah. I did.

IMG_0059

I ate an apple and drank some water and thank the gods for coming up with the colors green and blue.

Then I hiked over to Hogback Mountain. Over is a term of art. I hiked down a bit then started hauling my ass up. And up. And up. Switchbacks and stone steps and up. My breathing became labored but, after a few minutes, my lungs caught up and I cruised (slowly) my way to the top. The view was pretty much the same. Green, blue, rocks, farms, puffy white clouds. Ahhhh.

DSCN5462.JPG

After overdosing on scenery, I made my way through a stand of mountain laurel and another stand of ferns. When I die, cremate me and spread my ashes among these ferns. It was so peaceful walking through them.

The trail made its way down. Who am I to argue. I walked down with it. Soon I was back at the car with 7 1/2 miles of hiking in heaven behind me.

My pictures from today are on my Flickr page.

My only complaint about this hike is the fact that the second half of the hike takes place very close to Skyline Drive. It’s hard to lose yourself in the moment when your contemplation is interrupted by a motorcycle engine. This is a quibble though. .

Also, my co-worker Kelly asked me how difficult this hike was. Except for the climb up Hogback this one is a breeze. Most of the other hikes I’ve done in this area start low and climb to Skyline Drive. This one mostly just winds back and forth Skyline Drive so you really don’t have to work all that hard.

All Is Quiet (nearly) on New Years Day

New Years Eve was a mellow affair. My wife, daughter and I went out to dinner then our daughter went to a party and we went to see Unbroken. As my wife put it, “It’s a mediocre movie about a great story.” I agree. The book was intense.

Nothing says ringing out the old year like watching a man dessicate in a life raft on the pen sea for weeks followed by getting beaten to a pulp over and over again by a sadist in a prison camp.

We walked out of the theater at 11:58 and drove home as fireworks filled the midnight sky over Old Town Alexandria.

The New Year dawned with me sleeping in (sort of, 7:15 is as good as it gets these days). I did about 45 minutes of yoga. Okay, probably closer to 35 because I just don’t have the patience for doing it properly.

After breakfast and some chores I took off for Great Falls Park in Maryland. I had hiked the Billy Goat B and C trails last summer in my old hiking boots. I ached afterwards. I was really looking forward to how my back and legs held up with my new hiking shoes and orthotics. It was clear right away that this was going to be a much better experience. 20150101_121529

IMG_20150101_131743 20150101_115040

I started on the C trail in a counterclockwise direction. This took me to the C&O Canal towpath. I could not believe how much faster I was walking than last summer. A great blue heron stalked something in the water. Some kids played along the edge of the canal. The sun beamed down on me and the canal glistened with just the thinnest layer of ice possible. I kept hearing an exotic birds sound, almost like the sounds of a ray gun in a science fiction movie. Where was it coming from? I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me.

I walked about three miles on the canal and picked up the B trail. It was a bit muddy. I slipped and thought that my back would seize up. But it didn’t. It felt incredibly, wonderfully normal.

The trail had plenty of people on it. We wished each other a happy new year as we passed. I was lost in thought for most of the hike. Turning over events of the past year. Trying to figure out the unfathonable. The B trail took me back to the towpath. I figured out what that exotic sound was. People were skipping stones on the ice and it was vibrating in an eerie pitch. I tossed a couple of stones. Tweek. Tweek. Bizarre.

Back on the C trail, I encountered more people. Some were obnoxiously loud. Once I got past them, I went into a meditative trance. It was so relaxing. Just the sound of the river and my breathing. It’s a wonder I found the path back to the parking lot.

So the year begins. Not a bad start.

Sugarloaf with Ninja Lady and Dog

The day dawned crisp with a blustery wind. The leaves had begun to turn. And I was itching to go for a day hike. Lucky for me, my friend Florencia and I had planned exactly that. Florencia is always full of surprises so today would be no different: we were bring a dog.

I picked up Flor and Sundance, a golden retriever guide dog, at Flor’s place in McLean and headed out to Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. We took our time to allow for conversation and maximum leaf peeping. Once we were off the interstate, we drove down country roads through farmer’s fields stripped of their summer bounty.

We parked on the uphill on the road up Sugarloaf. I didn’t realize how far from the top we were but it barely mattered. Walking up the road was a good warm up. After listening to a family bitching and kvetching at an overlook near the road, we headed for the nearest trail to escape. We chose the blue trail in what we later learned was a counter clockwise direction. Flor, dressed in ninja black, and Sundance led the way. Sundance was a pretty methodical  hiker dog. Since he is a guide dog, he tended to stay very close to Flor and got tangled up in his leash quite a bit. Other than that quibble, he was a mighty fine companiion making friends with people and other dogs throughout the day.

IMG_0296

The trail goes up and down the sides of the mountain, with occassional overlooks of the surrounding countryside. The clear air made for great views of the valley below and the foliage all around. At one overlook we were treated to the aerial acrobatics of two hawks riding the updrafts. Top of the food chain, Ma!

IMG_0298

The hiking trail itself was a bit rocky. I had to keep my eyes on the ground so as not to turn an ankle, trip, or slide down and land on my posterior assets. (I seriously need to get some proper footwear for these hikes.) Whenever I looked up it seemed that the woods around us seem to go on forever. Just as she does in cycling and rock climbing, Flor moved uphill without the slightest regard for gravity. I, being somewhat more Newtonian, had to put my butt in gear to keep up.

The blue trail ended with a steep section straight up to where we started. I have to say the length of the hike was just right for me. I was plenty tired but not really wanting more. We hoofed it downhill to the car which seemed suspiciously farther down than where I recalled parking it.

We drove home, stopping for some munchies and a pumpkin at a country store. Once back on the road, Sundance fell sound alseep. It was a good thing Flor and I had each other to talk to because I am pretty sure that the both of us could have used a good snooze as well.

Many thanks to Flor’s American mom Tracie for lending us Sundance and the use of her car, a little Subaru station wagon that I really enjoyed driving.

And, of course, thanks to the ninja lady, Florencia, for another excellent day moving through the outdoors. Who knows what surprise our next adventure will hold.

To see some pix from our outing today, check out this set on my Flickr page.