Friday, February 24, 2012

I Saw Below Me That Golden Valley


After a week of delays, my Great Dixie Adventure culminated with a visit to Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, which was once again open for business. Well, at least the road was open for business. From what I could tell, I seemed to be the only person who knew about that, because I only saw 7 other people during my day in the park. This helped to provide an added measure of privacy and seclusion, because those are two things that Shenandoah, through an unfortunate accident of geography – doesn’t really have going for itself, most of the time.
Shenandoah doesn’t feel like any other national park I’ve been to, mostly because you never feel completely off the grid there. In just about all of the western parks, as well as  in Great Smoky Mountains, you can look out to the horizon and see nothing but what nature put there. You get the sense that aside from you and the other few visitors around you, there isn’t another human for tens of miles. In Shenandoah, just about every viewpoint includes a town, a farm, or some other sign of current human habitation. Nevertheless, Shenandoah still has the potential to be just as spectacular as some of its grander colleagues.

My day in Shenandoah involved a trip up most of Skyline Drive and 3 hikes – Blackrock Summit, Dark Hollow Falls, and Little Stony Man. On each of these, I spent half the trip reveling in how easy a walk this was, and I spent the other half cursing how long and steep the trail was and wondering why I had ever decided to do this. In every case, though, I had the same reaction as I turned around to leave the trail’s destination – that this had been a good idea and I was glad I had done it.

The first hike of the day, which I had originally planned to be my sunset hike back before the Snowtacular, was to the summit of Blackrock Mountain. Aside from having the OAR song of the same name stuck in my head all morning, this one was pretty easy. Part of the route uses the Appalachian Trail, which I hadn’t been on for probably close to a decade, and which has a very different connotation than it did back then (thank you South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford). The summit is literally a huge pile of rocks. I’m not quite sure how a talus slope ends up on the top of a mountain, but there it was.
The trail looped around it, but that wasn’t giving me the promised 360-degree views I had come for, so I decided to do some talus-scrambling. I just wish the sign at the trailhead hadn’t mentioned that rattlesnakes live in the crevices between the rocks, because that just made each step incrementally more stressful, even though I know that snakes are cold-blooded and would therefore have no interest in me on a 40-degree morning. But I braved the reptilian threat and got my 360-degree views.

Of course, the benefit of climbing a mountain is that the return trip is a piece of cake. In fact, in less than an hour I felt ready for my next challenge: Dark Hollow Falls.

Unfortunately, that trail was 30 miles from Blackrock and the speed limit on Skyline Drive is 35, so I wasn’t going to be there in an hour. It was just as well, because weather decided to interlope (for a change). At one of the western-looking viewpoints, I noticed that the visibility was getting poorer and poorer and it didn’t seem like that was being caused by pollution. Once the 50-mile-long mountain 10 miles away in the valley began to disappear, I realized it was about to rain.

Fortunately, the MyRadar app (told you I wasn’t off the grid) confirmed that this should just be a line of thunderstorms that would pass quickly. They did, but they left behind a thick blanket of that famous Shenandoah fog.

But I knew this was definitely a good thing, When fog clears you get patches of low clouds that make for very interesting pictures, and sometimes you even get rainbows. So I was going to be ready when either of those things happened. For the better part of 2 hours, I danced with the storm, moving between easterly and westerly overlooks as the rain and fog waxed and waned alternately. At one point, when it looked as if I had about 5 minutes before the skies would clear, I decided to make a quick stop at the nearest closed visitor center to use the bathroom while I had time. I was so wrapped up in the thunderstorm tango that as I pulled into a parking spot, I nearly ran over the deer that was standing in it. But it wasn’t just that one deer, there were 11 others feasting on the grass in the traffic islands around the building. Since they hadn’t been put off by my near-miss, I decided that if I could get out of the car, close the door, walk to the bathroom, return to the car, and get my camera, all without them running away, they were telling me it was OK to get as close as I could to take some deery pictures.

I was able to walk among them for almost 20 minutes, getting within 10 feet of them a few times. It was long enough to see that some of the adults had no patience for one particular fawn, as they kept whacking him with their heads when he got too close.

By the time I had gotten all I could out of the deer, the rain had stopped and the clouds and fog were in a state of equilibrium, so I gave up the dance and headed to my next destination. I didn’t remember why I put Dark Hollow Falls on my itinerary, but I knew I must have had a good reason. Turns out, it’s 70 feet high and it’s the closest of any waterfall in the park to the road. What I neglected to write down was that it was a 440-foot descent to the falls, which meant a 440-foot climb back up to the parking lot. So I made sure to enjoy the walk down as much as possible, because I knew the walk back wouldn’t be so much fun.

This was a tricky waterfall to get a good picture of. It’s continually carving out the rocks below it, which moves the water deeper and deeper into a channel within the rock. So if you’re not standing directly in front of it, part of the fall is obscured by the rocks. Unfortunately there’s water right in front of it, as is so often the case with a waterfall. I wasn’t about to risk slipping and falling into the stream so I had to settle for these:

As I had predicted, the hike back up was arduous. Sometimes you can’t tell you’re going down until it’s time to start climbing back up. At least it didn’t start raining until I was at the car, though. However, I was so tired at this point that I thought I might just skip the last hike – Little Stony Man Mountain. So I took my time driving up to the trailhead. When I got there, I was too lazy to get out of the car to read the sign, so I took a picture of it, zoomed in, and read it that way. the sign-picture called the hike “easy,” claimed it let to a “spectacular view,” and that it was “a fine spot to watch a sunset.” At only a half mile, and because it was already 4:30 and I didn’t anticipate finding a better sunset spot, I decided to go for broke and do it.

As I started out, I realized I didn’t remember ever climbing 2 mountains in a single day. I quickly realized why: mountains are tall and require climbing to get to the top of them. The advertised half mile trail involved a series of switchbacks (why do switchbacks always have to come in series? I’d much prefer some rogue switchbacks), and some climbing up over boulders. But when I reached the summit and looked out, I knew immediately that it had been more than worth it:

What the pictures don’t capture is that just beyond those rocks is a sheer cliff – one where I was never able to find the bottom. The wind was also ferocious. Despite being 50 degrees, my fingers were soon numb and on one occasion I was sure my adventure hat had blown off and was now sailing towards Luray. Luckily it was stuck against one of the rocks.

Little Stony Man boasts 180-degree views with rows of mountain ridges on either end, and the Shenandoah Valley and distant Alleghany Mountains in between. But what makes this spot truly unique are the rock formations on the tops of the cliffs. Jutting up and out randomly, one even sheltered a small pool, which I’m pretty sure is permanent, since ever picture I’ve ever seen of it has water in the pool. Actually, though, shelter is the wrong word, because every time the wind kicked up, it picked up some of the water and hurled it at me, regardless of where I was standing.
A few minutes after my arrival, the sunset show began. Between the moment-by-moment changes in colors and lighting, the random gusts of gale-force winds, and the three distinct types of vistas from this site (plus the rocks), I had more than enough to keep me busy for the next half hour.

In many ways, each of these hikes was a microcosm of my entire 2,500 mile trip. I started out excited, thinking that I knew what was in store and that things would go according to my plans. Then I was hit with a cold bucket of reality and had to adjust the plan, if not my expectations, accordingly. In the end, though, I got what I had come for and was glad I had done it.  Sure, there was the occasional bump along the way – be it an unexpected 440-foot climb back up from a waterfall or an unexpected 8-inch snowstorm – but these didn’t actually prevent me from accomplishing everything on my itinerary.

In the end, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect ending to this tumultuous adventure than standing at the edge of a hundred-foot cliff at the end of a day of turbulent weather, seeing the sun finally emerge from the day’s final band of clouds just minutes before sunset, and then watching it light up the Shenandoah Valley and all the mountains within a hundred miles, before finally dipping below the horizon. Once it was over, all that was left was to turn off the camera, walk down the mountain, and drive home. So if what they say at camp is true, and all we really remember from an experience are its last fleeting moments, I’ll have nothing buy perfect memories from this week. 

Until next time.

1 comment:

  1. Those 3 deer pictures had me giggling. Too perfect.