Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Scenic Drive Along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive

The Skyline Drive - Blue Ridge Parkway together form an historic scenic drive that runs 574 miles through Virginia and North Carolina through the Blue Ridge Mountains and Appalachia. 

That time I almost lost my phone hanging out the window taking a photo along Skyline Drive.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a National Parkway and All-American Road in the United States, noted for its scenic beauty. 

A view from the Blue Ridge Parkway of Humpback Rocks.

The parkway, which is America's longest linear park, runs for 469 miles through the southern and central Appalachian Mountains (the Blue Ridge Mountains), linking Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

View from an overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

And that's fitting, because the Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park are national park sisters, so to speak, having been designated as national parks at the same time. 

When I almost lost my phone hanging out the window taking
photos of the passing scenery, along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The parkway has been the most visited unit of the National Park System every year since 1946 except four. Land on either side of the road is owned and maintained by the National Park Service, and in many places parkway land is bordered by United States Forest Service property. 

A 360-degree view of the Spy Mountain Overlook, along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Did you know that originally the road was called Appalachian Scenic Highway? 

Hickory Spring Overlook, along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

We only drove a few small portions of the Blue Ridge Parkway, on our way to a hike (White Rock Falls) or other places, and then we drove a portion of the Skyline Drive (the continuation of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Shenandoah National Park), also on our way to a hike (the popular Dark Hollow Falls), and then on our way home from our house rental in West Augusta, VA. 

The view from Crescent Rock Overlook, along the Skyline Drive.

Skyline Drive extends 105 miles north of the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, running the entire length of the Shenandoah National Park. Offering astounding views and some 81 overlooks, the aptly named Skyline Drive carries you along the mountain ridges. The northernmost point of the Skyline Drive is just 75 minutes from Washington DC.

The view at the Slacks Overlook, along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

As we drove through Shenandoah National Park, I pointed out the campgrounds where my parents had taken my sister and I camping when we were kids: Matthew's Arm and Big Meadows. I don't remember ever camping in Elkswallow. 

There was more autumn leaf color at the lower elevations along the Skyline Drive.

The memories of going to ranger talks and sitting around a campfire in the evening, when my uncle would put a piece of cut up rubber hose into a copper tube and throw it into the flames to make different colors to entertain us kids. 

A portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

We always had sticks which we'd poke into the fire, until the tips caught fire, then we'd mash it out against the rocks or the fire ring. Inevitably, on the camping trip, one of my parents would end up melting their sneaker sole against the fire-ring.

The Old Rag Overlook, along Skyline Drive. When the Skyline Drive was first built,
in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps installed the log barriers scene above.
As part of a 2009 historic preservation project, the log barriers were reconstructed along 11 miles of the roadway.

I shared the funny story of another uncle, who accidentally let a chipmonk steal his contacts. In the 1970s, that was no laughing matter! It was easier then to get a camping spot in Shenandoah!

Twenty-Minute Cliff Overlook, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, so named because the
cliffs served the people of White Rock, below, as a sort of clock. Once the sun hit
the cliffs in June and July, they had 20 minutes before dusk fell in the valley below.

Skyline Drive is a road meant NOT to be driven quickly. Developed in the euphoria of a newly mobile society, the whole point of it is not to get you from point a to point b, but to allow you to be able to enjoy the scenery of the park by presenting different vistas during what is meant to be a leisurely drive: the speed limit is posted at 35 mph, and that's not a joke. Park police are out in abundance, stationed around various curves awaiting speeding drivers.

The view from Spitler Knoll Overlook on the Skyline Drive.

Skyline Drive was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, became a National Scenic Byway in 2005, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008.

There's history in them thar hills. See the stone fence?
That's a reminder that enslaved individuals were forced to work in the winter months
building and repairing "pig fences" for the feral pigs that ranged in the mountains.

We vowed to come back next year, plan a week a bit earlier in the fall so we'd catch the full effect of the leaves, and in the middle of the week, to avoid the crowds. I have my work cut out for me over the next few months to plan it, find dog-friendly accommodations, figure out what hikes we want to go on, and other interesting things to do.

The view from Spy Mountain Overlook on the BLue Ridge Parkway. Kinda like the name!

Know before you go: Neither roadway is maintained in the winter, and sections that pass over especially high elevations and through tunnels are often impassable and frequently closed from late fall through early spring. Weather is extremely variable in the mountains, so conditions and closures often change rapidly. The speed limit is never higher than 45 mph and lower in some sections.

Websites: Blue Ridge Parkway -- https://www.blueridgeparkway.org/ Shenandoah National Park/Skyline Drive -- https://www.nps.gov/shen/index.htm

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Saturday, December 26, 2020

Table Rock Hike in Monongahela National Forest

What's a little mud when the view is this?

Table Rock is a massive rock outcropping on the western side of Canaan Mountain, overlooking the Dry Fork and Cheat River valleys. The hike out to it will carry you through a hardwood forest as well as rhododendron thickets; it's unlikely you'll encounter anyone else, so if it's solitude you're seeking, as well as a great view, this hike is for you!

On a clear day, you can see forever!

To get there, though, you'll have to travel 9.5 miles on a gravel dirt road to the trailhead -- not undoable, but there were scary portions.

The ride is as much of the daytrip as the hike itself -- Forest Service Road 13/Canaan Loop Road travels through the Monongahela National Forest and through the backcountry of the Canaan Mountain, and along Red Run creek (or it might have been Lindy Run) -- or maybe both -- and these are lovely and enjoyable. The water is dark with tanin from leaves and pine needles and tumbles over the stones and boulders down the side of the mountain.

While you're driving along the forest road, be on the lookout for hawks and peregrine falcons -- we enjoyed seeing several during the drive to the trail head. 

You'll spend almost as much time getting there as you do hiking. Plan an hour to travel the almost 10 miles on FR 13, because you'll be traveling between 10 to 15 mph. Although we wouldn't attempt this during winter months when there's snow and ice on the ground, during the warmer months, this is easily doable in most cars -- our Toyata RAV 4 made it easily.

You'll notice numerous trailheads along the way, offering up future hiking adventures to explore.

The trail is fairly short, just 2.4 miles there and back, but it's hard going because the trail is either rocky, and you have to pick your way through the rocks on the trail, or exceptionally muddy, and you have to navigate the various mud pits. 

It took us an hour to get to the end because we took our time and because I also spend a lot of time taking photos for this article. On the way back, we were more careless about the mud, and walked right through it. 

As you start hiking on the trail, you're in a hardwood forest of primarily beech, black cherry, maple and yellow birch -- making this a a great option for fall color! Although the trail lacks significant elevation gains, there are a few ups and downs to get the blood circulating. 

You'll notice the thick ferns and moss on the rocks and logs.

After a half mile, give or take a tenth of a mile or two, the trail carries you into a thicket of rhododendrons, and the trail gets muddy and hard to navigate if you're trying to avoid getting mud on your hiking boots. 

We avoided the mud on the way in, but it took a lot of time and on the way back out, gave up entirely. In a lot of spots, tree branches and rocks had been thrown into the mud pits to provide some footing out of the mud; in a few areas, new trails had been blazed to carry you around the worst of the slippery mud.

I was struck by the massive boulders, presumably from the Table Rock outcropping itself, that had tumbled down the slope, either last year or decades ago (who knows?). 

For the adventure-loving campers, there's a campsite close to the Table Rock itself. I imagine it would be pretty amazing to spend the night there, and capture sunrise and sunset from the rocks. 

Because I'm a mom, I can't help but caution you as you climb on to the rock outcropping -- some of the crevices are wide enough for a human body, especially a child, or a dog, and go down for 30 feet in at least a couple of cases and one of them at least 100 feet, so exercise caution. We tied up our dog safely on a tree well away from the crevices. He wasn't thrilled with it, but since we were interested in bringing him home with us again, that's what we believed we had to do.

This is the second time we have hiked this trail -- the first time was with small kids, and we hadn't paid much attention to weather reports, and so when we finally got out there, it was foggy and rainy. You need to go on a clear day to really appreciate the magnificent view!

Across the valley from Table Rock is Green Mountain. As you look down, you're overlooking the Cheat River Valley; to the left is the Dry Fork River Valley.

Know before you go: There are several camp sites along FR 13 / Canaan Loop Road, as well as one near Table Rocks itself, offering a more adventurous get away. Also, the only way to get to the trail head is via Canaan Loop Road; just beyond the trail head FR 13 is closed to passenger vehicles. 

Getting there: From Davis, WV, travel south on WV Route 32 for just over 3 miles to Canaan Loop Road. Turn right onto Canaan Loop Road. Within a few feet, the road becomes gravel and narrows even further once past the few houses. Travel about 9.5 miles along Canaan Loop Road to the trail head on the left, which is marked. There's room for parking. Unlikely to have any difficulty parking there.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Overlook Mountain Trail Hike

Overlook Mountain is located just north of Woodstock, NY. In fact, if you walk down the main thoroughfare of Woodstock, you can see it clearly. It's a popular trail -- one of the most popular in the Catskills, in fact. You won't get any solitude but that's because the payoff is amazing. 

Three payoffs, actually. There's an abandoned hotel about 15 minutes from the summit -- more on that later in the article, but it's cool. Very cool. Then there's the overlook itself, a rock outcropping that provides a broad view eastward over the Ashokan Resevoir and the central Catskills and over and beyond the Hudson River itself. Then, there's the firetower, which with another 60 feet of climbing up the stairs, provides a pretty amazing 360-degree view. No, I didn't climb it -- a fear of heights AND a pretty stiff wind dissuaded me from even trying.

Although AllTrails.com, which I often use as my guide, lists the trail as "moderate," I'd say it's pretty strenuous for an average hiker. It's straight up -- and I do mean UP -- for 2.5 miles, and for 1397 feet. It took me more than an hour and fifteen minutes to get to the top; my companion, who's in better shape overall than me, made it up in about an hour flat. I was passed by three individuals; my companion wasn't passed by anyone. I think anyone can do the hike -- just take your time, go at the pace that allows you to breathe, take frequent rest stops if necessary. 

For the first third of the hike, you follow a former carriage road, now graveled and lined with electrical poles, up the side of the mountain; there are frequent switchbacks, and just when you think, "omg, this has got to be it," it goes on for another five switchbacks. Some of the switchbacks are pretty steep and then it levels out ever so slightly, allowing hikers to catch their breaths and gird up their loins for more of the same. 

The forest on the way up is dense, but at the peak of autumn foliage color, it was gorgeous, with a dominating yellow leaf that made the forest glow. There's enough noise from the other hikers (although frequently I was solitary on whichever switchback I was walking up at the time) that getting to see wildlife is probably pretty rare, although signs warn of bears and rattlesnakes.

Soon though, as you climb up the mountain, you notice that you can see sky through the trees and forest along the road, first on the left, and then a switchback brings you around the mountain and the view through the trees is on the right. 

Another few switchbacks, and at 1.6 miles and having accomplished an astounding 1157 feet of elevation gain, you encounter the ruins of the hotel, the windows and doorways gaping at you like a the head of a corpse-like monster, with empty eyes and a screaming mouth.

 The forest is reclaiming the hotel -- only four outer walls and main staircases of the hotel and the nearby lodge are visible. Trees are growing inside the building, and the bright yellow leaves made it seem as if the light of chandaliers and electric lights were glowing through the empty windows. 

People really want the Overlook Mountain Hotel ruins to be haunted. Someone even conducted (and put it up on YouTube) a ghost hunt that was boring enough that I didn't watch very much of it. There are no ghost stories about the hotel; it doesn't seem as if anyone has died up here. But it should be haunted. It would be so fitting.

Honestly, I think someone ought to make a movie about the ruins -- oh wait, someone did. Stephen King called his haunted hotel "The Overlook" in The Shining. Yeah, I know King's haunted hotel is in Colorado, but I wonder whether the real Overlook Mountain Hotel might have somehow inspired him.

The Overlook Mountain Hotel was damned from the start. The ruins are of the third building, never fully completed, to be built on the site. The first, a cozy luxury lodge, opened in 1833 to entertain the fashionable elite, mostly from New York City, who were lured by the writings of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper and the stunning Catskill landscapes by Thomas Cole. But the railroad service to Woodstock, was poor and made the hotel pretty inaccessible, and with few visitors, within a few years, the lodge closed.  

But still, someone thought it was a great location and decided to expand the hotel and it re-opened in 1871; the new hotel offered 300 rooms. It had just enough time to entertain former President Ulysses Grant in 1873 before it burned down completely in 1875. Grant and other notables, made the place popular. New entreprenuers rebuilt the hotel in 1878 and President Chester Arthur visited. It was sold to new owners prior to the start of WWI, but the hotel burned down again in 1921 or 1923. The owner decided to rebuild in concrete, but with the decline of the popularity of the Catskill resorts, financial problems, as well as WWII, the new -- and fourth version of the hotel -- never was completed. The state of New York gained the property in the 1940s. A final fire in 1970 destroyed what was completed of the new hotel, leaving the concrete shell we see today.

You're not supposed to explore the ruins -- there are dangerous drops, and the walls are not stablized -- eventually they're going to collapse, and eventually someone is going to get themselves pretty badly hurt, if they already haven't been. But I couldn't resist, nor, it seems, can anyone else. But if you do get hurt, you've been warned and you only have yourself to blame.

After you finish exploring the ruins you're not supposed to go into, you only have another 240 feet and six-tenths of a mile to climb to get to the summit. 

During the exploration and selfie-taking of the hotel ruins, you've regained your wind and energy, and so this part of the hike, which is spectacular by the way, doesn't feel hard at all and suddenly you're at the summit. Keep your eyes peeled -- you'll pass more ruins, which looks like a small house.

At the summit you encounter a cabin; a sign indicates a spur trail to the right of the ground cabin takes you to the rock outcropping overlook. Go there first, you won't be disappointed. 

Notice the graffiti, that dates as early as 1910.

Then head over to the fire tower. The cab is open most weekends between Memorial Day and early October, as is the ground cabin. From the top, on a clear day you can see six states: New York, of course, but also Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Know before you go: Although parking is plentiful, the hike is one of the most popular and so you may have to wait for a space. Be respectful and DO NOT park or block in the Tibetan Monastery opposite the trail head.

Getting there: 353 Meads Mountain Road, Woodstock, NY 

Hours: Dawn through dusk

Website: https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/73982.html

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A photo taken by my hiking companion from the fire tower, about four flights up.