Saturday, April 7, 2018

Annapolis Rocks, MD (1700')

About two weeks ago, on the recommendation of SummitPost's Eastern States Climber's Peak List, I ventured north to central Maryland to hike Annapolis Rocks. I had never heard of the Rocks before, but if they'd made it onto that list--in the company of Katahdin, the Presidential Range, and Old Rag Mountain, among others--I figured they must be worth seeing. Even if they were in Maryland.

Maryland Congressional Districts
Remember this map? The Supreme Court just heard a case over whether these districts are unconstitutionally gerrymandered... for reals. I'll keep you posted on their decision.

But what the Rocks lack in elevation, at a measly 1700', they make up for in accessibility. They lie just off the Appalachian Trail on the slopes of South Mountain (a long, flat-topped ridge much like the Massanuttens in Virginia), about two and a half miles north of I-70. East of the mountain, farm country descends to the growing exurb of Frederick, MD; to the west, steep slopes look out upon the Cumberland Valley, northern neighbor to the Shenandoah. In other words, the country seemed fairly familiar to me, right down to the white-haired farmer waving at my car as it passed through the village of Wolfsville.

My original plan had been to approach the Rocks from the north, starting about six miles up the AT at the next road crossing, and make a full-day hike of them. However, I wound up starting late (though not late enough to avoid the tail end of the Beltway's morning rush hour) and arrived around 11 at the trailhead--well, at the mountain gap where Google Maps had claimed there was a trailhead. I didn't see a thing as I drove by.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Savage Gulf, TN (~1800-2000')

Later that week, once my feet had recovered, the Chattanoogan and I drove up to a place on the Cumberland Plateau called Savage Gulf State Natural Area. Not a gulch or a gully, mind you, but a "gulf." Guess that's the local word for them.

But hey--sounds like our kind of place, lar!

The main attraction on the eastern end of the Natural Area (why they don't just call it a park, I have no idea) is a ~4-mile loop trail that wanders through the woods for a bit, then takes you right along the edge of those bluffs.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Southern Sixers: Mt. Collins (6188'), Mt. Love (6400'), Clingman's Dome (6643'), Mt. Buckley (6560')

On the way down to visit that Chattanoogan fellow I've mentioned in previous posts, I thought I'd stop by the Smokies for a bit of February mountaineering. I hadn't hiked through snow since my winter ascent of Mt. Washington in 2016, and the ice axe I'd bought after that trip was long overdue for actual use. Plus, what better time to snag the handful of Southern Sixers along the main drag of the Smokies than in the dead of winter? I'd have the mountains to myself, I figured--my own little ice-encrusted wonderland at the crown of the southern Appalachians.

Now, if you've noticed any trends while following this blog for the past two years, you're probably wondering what's about to go wrong. And the answer, my friends, is...

...absolutely nothing.

The weather on the high ridge of the Smokies that weekend was perfect for hiking: warm, sunny, and snowless. And I looked like a fool schlepping an ice axe all the way to Clingman's Dome.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Tar Tales, Part I: Beware, Beware the Monster Fair

A year after I graduated from college—having both free time and disposable income for the first time in my life—I decided to get a new Pokémon. The income, part-time bookstore wages, wasn’t terribly high, so rather than hit up the fancy shops at Tysons Corner or pay the exorbitant fee to capture one from Shenandoah National Park (the nearest patch of public land where interesting ‘mons could be found), I turned to Craigslist first. Surely someone on there had a recently laid Egg they’d part with for a smile and the assurance of a good home.

Nope. Even those sellers knew their stuff—the pickings were either Pidgeys for a pittance or purebred Piplups for not much less than what the Tysons dealers were charging. With Pokémon, as with anything else, there’s no such thing as a free lunch—especially in Northern Virginia.

I did, however, find an advertisement for a breeder’s fair out in Manassas. Kind of a haul, but there might be some deals there. I’d at least come away with a better sense of the market, of how much those Piplups were really worth.

And so, one hot August afternoon, I found myself inching down I-66 among the weekend traffic, headed for that huge park beside Bull Run.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Urushiol, Scourge of the Forests

But first, a public service announcement about a certain substance found on three-leafed plants throughout North America--urushiol.

If you've done much in the way of hiking, camping, bushwhacking, orienteering, or any other activity that involves tromping around wooded areas, you've probably come across this plant:


If you're one of the 80% of humans who react on contact with it, it has made your life a living hell for weeks after the fact. And if not, then just you wait--one of these days, you will be.

This three-leafed, hairy vine causes millions of rashes and blisters each year. It grows in an impressive range of climates and soil types: from the Caribbean to the Arctic, and from flood-prone bayous to thin-soiled mountainsides up to 5000' in altitude. It and its sister species account for 10% of all lost-time injuries in the United States Forest Service. And as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase, it's only growing larger and more potent.

I speak, of course, of Toxicodendron radicans, known to most folks as poison ivy.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

VA County Highpoint: Comers Rock, Wythe County (4080')

A couple of weeks after that, I found myself in Wytheville for the weekend with a friend. We had some time to kill, so I suggested we hike the high point of the county, Comers Rock.

I'd tagged a couple of Virginia county highpoints while chasing other goals (Mt. Rogers, naturally, is the high point of Grayson and Smyth Counties, and Hawksbill Mountain tops off Page and Madison), but this was the first one I'd done intentionally.

We took US-21 south into the easternmost arm of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and pulled off at the forest road to the summit:

Not suitable for passenger cars, but we saw several ATV'ers on our way up.

The road took us up through a valley, around a peak:

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Signal Knob, VA (2106')

In the early autumn, I headed out to the Massanutten Mountains for a bit of weekend backpacking.

If you've never heard of them, the Massanuttens are a fifty-mile-long range (or a single fifty-mile-long mountain, depending on who you ask) smack-dab in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley. They're the easternmost in Virginia's slice of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians, a family of long, steep-sided, flat-topped ridges that pop up between the Blue Ridge and the Appalachian Plateau from southeastern New York to Alabama. Their shape is quite distinctive, as you'll see in this aerial photo (not my work):

...which contrasts them with the Blue Ridge to the east (right).

But I grew up attending a summer camp in the Massanuttens, so until I was much older than I'd care to admit, I thought all mountains looked like that.

The range tops out at 2922', a thousand feet lower than its eastern neighbors. That altitude disparity, and the lack of roads and developed campgrounds atop the ridges, spare them the crowds that flock to Shenandoah National Park. But there's still plenty to see in the Massanuttens: the range is full of trails and gullies and scrambles and weird little microbiomes that range from quasi-krummholz to cacti.

After considering a couple of spots, I settled on Signal Knob, the northernmost tip of the range and a five-mile, ~1000' hike from the valley floor. I'd driven past the peak dozens of times (it's clearly visible from the single-digit miles of I-66), but I'd never stood on top of it.