Our friend Jason joined us for the 8+ mile loop in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia’s beautiful Madison County. I’ve done this loop in the opposite direction before, but today, thinking White Oak Canyon would get more crowded as the day went on, we went up the Canyon trail first. Then at the top of the main falls took the horse trail/fire road a couple miles where it then meets the Cedar Run trail. This brings us down the mountain and back to where we started. I’m not sure I like this direction, the White Oak is moderately steep the entire way, then the horse trail is mildly uphill but the two together combine for five uphill miles without so much as a fifty yard stretch of level ground. Then the Cedar Run trail, about three miles, is extremely steep, giving back all the elevation it took five miles to gain. So it’s a knee-jarring, foot pounding adventure coming down that way. Jason and I both decided it’s better to climb the steeper Cedar Run, get all the elevation out of the way in the first three miles, then have a pleasant five mile return trip down the horse trail and White Oak. Next time.
Every time I spend a full day with my dogs like this, I’m just so proud of them. They are well behaved, polite on the trail, and I really do enjoy their company. This was a fun hike for them because there were pools of cool, clean water to drink from and cool off in. Finn did his trademark move, lying down in the water and drinking, at every pool we encountered. On a long hike it’s a huge bonus not to have to carry drinking water for the dogs, too.
Drinking water aside, for the last three miles or so, Jason and I were singularly focused on the prospect of an ice cold beer at the end of the hike. And as you can see by the look of affection on my face, that beer was everything I imagined it would be. We stopped here at my friend’s nearby farm to bask in the glow of accomplishment and good friends — both two- and four-legged.
The Appalachian Trail reaches from Maine to Georgia and takes 2,200 miles to do it. Like most things that go from Maine to Georgia, the historic trail passes through Virginia. Anyone who thinks Virginia isn’t a large state has never had to walk it, as 550 miles — a full 25% of the trail — falls within the Commonwealth.
At the northernmost point of that 550 mile stretch, the trail leaves the rich history of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and crosses the beautiful Shenandoah River (shown above), then slips unassuming into the Virginia mountains. I have hiked bits and pieces of the Appalachian Trail here in Virginia, but I think it would be a worthy goal to accumulate all that mileage at some point. Or at least the not insignificant portion that passes through the Shenandoah National Park (101 miles). But that’s a bit ambitious with winter and all the extra weight gained therein so close behind us, so let’s table that discussion for the time being.
This first two miles of the AT in Virginia is the beginning of one of my favorite local hikes. I like and always photograph the iconic white blaze that tells you that you’re traveling the way of countless hikers before you. Mostly day hikers like myself but plenty of through hikers too, who have done the entire 2,200 miles. I’ve run into several in my travels and they tell stories of terrifying thunderstorms in thin, summer tents, encounters with snakes and bears, and losing forty pounds along the way.
So two miles up a hill and we let the AT go on to Georgia while we take the blue trail along the ridge to the east. This is a very well maintained but lightly traveled trail, with plenty of scenery changes along the way. Even a few spots for dog posing.
There are two overlooks along the ridge that are worth checking out if you do this hike for the first time, but I find that I pass them by in favor of spending more time at this spot at the end of the ridge overlooking the Potomac River. This is looking downstream, toward our house (six miles maybe?). See the black object in the middle of the frame? That’s a black vulture, who shared the spot with Team Orange and I until I got too close with the camera. I snapped this just as he took off.
This is the same spot from the other direction. You can see the Shenandoah River coming in from the left to the confluence with the Potomac, and beyond it is the town of Harpers Ferry, WV. That’s Maryland across the river from us, so three states all come together right here. For those who aren’t already familiar, that’s Team Orange, my Wirehaired Vizslas. Winnie in front, Finn in back.
Coming back on the blue trail, there is a different route you can take, the orange trail. I mentioned earlier how well maintained it is, but this intersection of trails is much better marked than last time I did this hike! I’ve missed it before, but I like what they did here.
The orange spur seems to be the least used of the trails I’m talking about here. Which may explain why this old, chewed up antler shed went unnoticed alongside the trail for so long! It’s actually the first antler shed I’ve ever found that wasn’t still attached to a skull, so it’s pretty special to me even if it is all chewed up.
If you’d like to try this hike, which ends up around 6.5 miles from the parking lot just across the river from the trailhead, this map will help. And if you see Team Orange out on the trail, please say hello!
Sandy and I and all the dogs met up with our friends Anna (of AKG Inspiration) and Chris and their two dogs to run around the woods, get some exercise and hunt for antler sheds. This is not the type of activity that Sandy and her dogs would normally join us for, and while it was nice to have them along, I did get the distinct feeling that things would get interesting. So come along on a photo tour of our day…
The recent snow and quick melt made for muddy conditions, but Finn and all the other dogs had a blast running around in the muck.
Finn: “Is this an antler?? I think I found an antler!” (He found several deer parts portable enough to bring back to me in varying stages of decay. I praised him for this, as I felt it was a short leap from finding and fetching leg bones to finding and fetching antler sheds.)
Okay this happened. Luna and Winnie are watching a scene unfold.
Here is that scene: We were walking along the margin of a wooded area and a dead cornfield, and we stopped to watch many, many deer in an adjacent field. They were running back and forth and one of them darted into the field we were in. She was maybe 150 yards away when some of the dogs saw her and took off. Finn was in the lead with Wyatt and Monkey not far behind. I had the e-collar on Finn but a firm “Here!” caused him to break off his chase and circle back. Wyatt also broke off his chase and came back. While I was congratulating myself for what a good boy Finn was, we realized – if a little slowly – that Monkey was not coming back without a deer. He had visions of himself, like a lion dragging a gazelle into a tree, just hauling that deer back to us as everyone would cheer and hold him up in the air and celebrate his bravery and prowess.
Perhaps he was imagining the cheering as he ran through the dried corn and dimly heard people shouting his name. These “cheers” only propelled him faster. Two hundred yards. The deer spots him. Three hundred. The deer is hauling ass now. Four hundred. Yelling is fruitless at this point (even more fruitless than it was when he was within ear shot). At one point, the white dot moving in the distance changed course, and Sandy said, “he’s coming back.” But I knew better. He had taken a bad line on the deer, not realizing that when things are a thousand yards away moving at forty miles an hour, you can’t run to where they are, you have to run to where they’re going to be. A quick thirty degree course correction and he was off again. Easily half a mile away now, a small dot in an enormous plot of land, it was hard to get a perception of the speed involved. I once watched the International Space Station make an arc across the night sky. A dim, white spot lazily crossing from horizon to horizon in a couple of minutes. This was like that. It doesn’t look like it’s going 17,000 miles an hour, but you know in your heart there’s no way you can catch it.
Still, Mommies do what Mommies do, so Mommie dropped some extra baggage and took off in a jog after the International Monkey Station. As he neared the treeline maybe three quarters of a mile away, several other deer spooked at the frenzy of activity and took off after the lead deer. To us in the distance, it just played out in surreal slow motion. The other deer, five or six, were trampling through the corn in a panic, basically right where Monkey was. I thought, well if he doesn’t get killed right here, he’ll have to be scared enough to turn back. Nope. He now had a half dozen new targets ahead of him, and he slipped into the treeline and vanished.
By this time Sandy had reached the general area and, I presume, was calling him. I can only imagine what I would have been yelling at that point, but we couldn’t tell what she was yelling, what with the vast distance involved. When she stopped running, I knew she had spotted him and he was on his way to her, and we all could relax enough to really laugh quite hard at the entire incident. So we waited, oh I don’t know, a half hour or so for Sandy and Monkey to return. Perhaps this photo gives an idea of how far that distant treeline is. Actually the treeline here is the short way across the field. To the left, where Monkey ran, the edge of the field is probably four times as distant.
When he returned from running the scale-adjusted equivalent of me sprinting from our house in Virginia to Dayton, Ohio, the other dogs were quite interested in what happened. “Did you catch it? How close did you get?? Were you just FREAKING when those other deer almost ran you over??? You’re so BRAVE!!”
While Monkey had his sights set on live deer, we still hadn’t found an antler shed. Despite covering, depending on which of our party you were talking about, between six and forty-five miles. Sandy finally kept us from getting skunked when she found this nice little one! Being a great steward of the environment, she returned it to the earth to let nature take its natural course. And by “being a great steward of the environment,” I mean, “Having shallow pockets and not really paying attention to stuff falling out of them.” But at least we got this photo of today’s find.
Here is our team of shed hunters: Luna, Wyatt, Winnie, Finn and Petey. On the end there, doing things his own way as he always does, is Monkey, the dog with the biggest heart of all. He’ll sleep for two days, and deserve every minute. And as I watch his feet twitching in his sleep, and his mouth quivering just a bit, I’d like to think that in his dream, he gets that gazelle all the way up the tree.
From left to right: I met Matt many years ago when he showed up at a party at my house with a mutual acquaintance. He spotted a picture on our fridge of me with a Steelhead and we got to talking fly fishing. A few weeks later we were on a road trip together to upstate New York to fish for salmon and we remain great friends and fishing buddies. Harold, who runs the guide service Spring Creek Outfitters out of Western Maryland, was the first guide I ever fished with when I started fly fishing. Since then we have become friends through his generous work with Project Healing Waters. I first met Joel when a mutual online friend introduced us because Joel needed a fly fishing related logo design. We became fast friends, and his Missoula, Montana-based guide business Montana Troutaholics is an absolute must if you are planning a trip to that area to fish.
So myself and three friends I met because of fly fishing but who have never met each other, came together because of that shared passion for fly fishing at one of the best places for it, Rose River Farm.
But I was fishing with two of the best trout guides I know, so I was positive it was just a matter of time.
In the afternoon, with just a hint of sun to warm the water a couple of degrees, things turned on and the fish became a lot more active.
There was a little beer drinking going on as well, of course.
Matt and Joel warming up by the grill before lunch.
A hot lunch hit the spot after spending the cold morning in the water.
Here’s Harold putting the bamboo to the test on a nice rainbow.
And back you go into the Rose River.
My biggest fish of the day.
I think it’s safe to say the Rose was pretty clear!
Joel always looks like he’s in a Simm’s ad or catalog cover.
A full day of fishing behind us and more weekend adventures ahead for Joel and I, we all headed back to the wonderful luxury yurt-style cabin at Rose River Farm. More beer and many laughs went great with a few thick rib-eye steaks on the grill. A perfect end to a great day.
Hanging around the fire pit was so much fun. There was weather coming in, but luckily it held off long enough.
We were surprised the next morning to find a couple inches of fresh, wet snow on the ground!
An unhurried, hearty breakfast started our day off right.
I don’t drink coffee, but on this morning I could have used a cup or two!
After breakfast, Joel and I headed into the Shenandoah National Park for some brook trout fishing and a vigorous hike. We stopped at a few pools along the way, but the fishing was pretty tough, quite possibly the result of the weather front that had just moved through.
But Joel would not be discouraged! We tried many different flies to get the attention of these stubborn fish.
Finally patience and skill paid off as Joel brought this little beauty to hand. Joel’s first native brookie, and also by far his farthest easterly fish caught in the U.S. So while not big, it was memorable.
When we let this little guy go, we told him to tell all his friends that he was treated with care and respect and that the fly was delicious. But they didn’t get the message, this was the only fish of the day. I was psyched Joel got it though, and the company and great hike made for a fantastic day despite the fishing.
This is my favorite photo of the day, and I encourage you to click on it to see it larger. Joel stepped off the path to try one more spot on the hike back, and I captured this cool panorama with my iPhone. Winter has its own brand of beauty, and while at first glance it can look pretty brown and dull outside, nature reveals wonderful, subtle colors in the winter. Sometimes we have to just remember to open our eyes and maybe look a little harder.
The next day brought another opportunity to share with Joel, who has never been out this way, something that’s very special to me: A hike with Team Orange (my two Wirehaired Vizslas). I chose the more difficult trail at Maryland Heights, which has some neat Civil War history along the way.
Another iPhone panorama from the summit, showing the historic town of Harper’s Ferry, WV, and the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.
A mellow evening after a fun filled weekend was in order, beginning with a final beverage on the Platform.
The sun sets on the last day of Joel’s visit. I’m so grateful to have my friends together for some fishing down at Rose River Farm, and for the chance to spend some more time with Joel, he and his wife Debbie have been such gracious hosts to me when I’ve visited out west.
Everyone was a bit tired after three days of fishing, hiking and drinking. So some couch time was what we were in the mood for, and Finn wasn’t going to let his new hiking buddy get too far away.
Today the dogs and I went for a nice hike at Sugarloaf Mountain. The hike is this one from Hiking Upward, about a seven mile loop. I love a loop hike, because it makes me do the whole thing. No shortcuts! Despite being the first car in the parking lot (almost a full hour after the gate opened at 8), by the time we got back to the car there were probably a hundred cars parked in the two lots and along the road. The trail started getting crowded toward the end, but if I had gotten there when the gates open (or on a weekday), I probably would have only seen a handful of fellow hikers.
It was extremely foggy early, and didn’t clear up much all day. But it was nice and unseasonably warm, and the diffused light helped me get a couple photos I’m really happy with. Even though I brought my little Olympus point and shoot, my go-to hiking/fishing/travel/whatever camera, these two shots were actually taken with my iPhone 4S. The photo above is one of my favorite pictures of ‘Team Orange.’ Boy do they love a hike! I predict all three of us will sleep well tonight.
REVISED…I wanted to get one of those canvas photo prints done of that top photo, but decided to Photoshop out the leashes first. Here is the updated photo…
I spent a couple of days fishing in beautiful Madison County, VA with my friends Andrew, shown here on the left, who set up the trip as a birthday celebration, and Josh. I met Josh several years ago through Project Healing Waters, and while I always look forward to seeing him at PHW events, he is very much in demand at those events, so it was nice to spend some quality fishing time with him.
We started out with a day of fishing at Rose River Farm, a wonderful private stretch of water that holds some big, strong rainbows, with a few beautiful browns mixed in. Here Andrew targets some trout that were still sluggish in the cold morning water.
William from Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing was also fishing the Rose that day. I know William from his volunteer work with PHW and was glad he was there. He not only took this photo of me with a beautiful rainbow, he provided the fly I caught it on. Thanks William!
The day wound down, and we said goodbye to the Rose River. After a slow morning, the fish got pretty active in the afternoon and the late day dry fly fishing was incredibly fun. A great day on the river.
Andrew had arranged to rent one of the three luxury cabins at Rose River Farm.
I have never tied a fly before. But Josh, an accomplished fly tier who sells his flies on his Dead Drift Flies web site, offered to teach me how to tie one. The wooly bugger is a common beginner fly design, and is also something I could fish the next day as we headed into the Shenandoah National Park in search of brook trout. So this is what I tied. It is far from perfect, but Josh insisted it wasn’t awful for a first attempt.
The next morning brought temperatures at least 20 degrees colder than the previous day, a change that can sometimes turn off fishing altogether. But we decided to head into the park and give it a try. After a vigorous uphill hike to reach some nice pools, it wasn’t long before my first ever fly tricked this beautiful brookie.
The brook trout are typically small here in the park, with some exceptions, but if there is a more beautiful fish you can catch on a fly rod in the eastern part of the United States, I do not know what it is.
It was a wonderful day of hiking, scrambling on rocks to access hard to reach pools, and catching stunningly beautiful trout. A fantastic couple of days in a beautiful part of the state with great company and cooperative fish. Can you ask for anything more?
Finn, shown here earlier on the walk very curious about the critters inhabiting this hollow tree, was bounding ahead of me down a steep grade of thick brush. I was weaving my way through a thicket of thorns and vines when I heard him cry out ahead of me, maybe fifty feet. I know Finn, and I know he cries out for two reasons: pain, or fear. This was fear. I made my way clear enough to see his predicament — he had jumped down a steep embankment through a loop of vine about the diameter of a nickel and plenty strong. His back legs didn’t make it through and caught him at the hips, suspending his back legs off the ground. He tried to get away using his front feet, but this just twisted him around. He was powerless to get free and even more powerless to understand the nature of the pickle he had gotten himself into.
I called out to him, “Whoa…whoa…” Not yelling, but loud enough for him to hear over the racket he was making. He stopped struggling and watched me. I gently repeated the command over and over as I freed myself from my own nest of vines, reached him and lifted his rear legs through the vine loop. He was very happy to have all fours on the ground again, but I think I was even happier that in a situation where panic was beginning to set in, he trusted me to get him out of the jam, and obeyed the command I gave him from a distance.
“Whoa” is, I think, primarily a bird dog thing, but my dogs don’t even hunt and I find all sorts of useful applications for this command. Bath time, posing for photos, waiting at the door before walking through it or greeting guests, etc. But those are all conveniences for me. It was special to be able to use something he had learned like this to calm him and buy me some time to reach him, and I feel like this little episode put us at a new level of trust.
I am normally very content to remain in my beloved Virginia. But every now and then, something in my brain clicks and I need to go west. It’s as if some sort of internal GPS needs to be reset and I can only do it in Montana. I am happy to accommodate this particular quirk of my brain every couple years, and am blessed to have a loving wife who is happy to support my pilgrimage.
On this trip, I wanted to dip south into Wyoming and explore Yellowstone National Park for a couple days. I had heard about Slough Creek, a special creek that takes a good hike to reach and holds some beautiful Yellowstone Cutthroat trout. So I decided that’s where I was headed.
I recruited some company for the journey, my good friend and Missoula-based fishing guide extraordinaire Joel Thompson for three very good reasons: One, he knows western water and bugs and trout like nobody else; Two, I very much enjoy his company; and Three, Slough Creek is firmly located in an area where it’s not wise to hike alone, an area teeming with wildlife such as elk, moose, wolves, bison and there’s one more, what was it? Oh yeah. Grizzly bears.
I’ll be honest here, I consider myself relatively ‘outdoorsy.’ But I admit that my particular brand of outdoorsy is a far cry from Yellowstone bear country outdoorsy. Joel, on the other hand, has spent a lot of time backcountry hiking and camping in truly remote, potentially perilous locations and conditions. So when he gave me a lesson in bear encounter body language, I listened intently.
I also made the mistake of reading the booklet that came with the bear spray I bought for the hike. This ‘helpful’ guide is loaded with things like a list of ways to avoid a bear encounter, and then a disclaimer saying that might not work. Or a list of bear behaviors that may indicate aggression, and then, “or, a bear may not exhibit any of these signs and attack without notice.”
So while the pep talk at the trailhead was not a big confidence booster, I felt a little better with the bear spray on my belt and the knowledge that encounters are rare, even in areas thick with bears. Backpacks were packed, and I felt anxious and excited and ready to go. We toasted our adventure (and settled my nerves) with a Moose Drool Brown Ale, an excellent choice in a Montana breakfast beer, and hit the trail.
Within 300 yards of the truck we encountered our first sign of bear activity. A huge, steaming (okay, not actually steaming, but unmistakably fresh) pile of bear scat. Soon after that we saw tracks, thankfully headed in the opposite direction we were hiking. But Joel’s relaxed conversation put me at ease and soon I was focused on the hike and scenery.
It was beautiful, no question, and I could have easily spent the entire day there. But we were both looking forward to a longer hike, and had our sights set on the second meadow, about five miles from the trailhead.
These were, as it turned out, easy miles. As we encountered more open country, my bear anxiety lessened. And my fitness efforts over the summer paid off as I felt comfortable hiking at a quick pace with a considerable pack on my back.
When we arrived at the second meadow, the trail had taken us well wide of the creek. A smaller path led a half-mile or so north to the water, and we quickened our steps in anticipation. As we reached the creek and shed the backpacks we spotted a large trout holding in a huge, deep pool below us and our excitement grew. We assembled our fly rods while discussing strategy. Joel was going after the big cuttie in the pool we were watching, and I headed upstream to explore.
Here, a half mile from my friend, I had a clear view in every direction, thousands of acres of grassland spotted with sagebrush surrounded by rugged mountains along the entire horizon. I stopped walking, stopped looking for rising trout, stopped thinking about catching them, and said to myself, “Look at where I am.”
A lone bison grazed in the quiet across the creek from me, and I sat on the bank and watched him. On our drive to the trailhead we saw hundreds of Yellowstone’s bison, but this solitary beast, so peaceful in this spectacular setting, triggered something in me. I was overwhelmed with the grandeur of it all.
It was more than the beauty of the place. It was working hard all year to save for the trip. It was sweating all summer to shed 25 extra pounds so if I got to a place like this I wouldn’t be worried about the hike back out. It was that rewarding burn in the legs from the walk. It was the easy comfort of a good friend nearby and the pleasant mix of adrenaline and Moose Drool in my stomach. It was the sandhill cranes above, the bison in the meadow and the trout below the creek’s surface. It was the aroma of sage with a distant hint of wildfire smoke in the air. It was a landscape unchanged for thousands of years, yet somehow utterly American. It was everything I ever could have imagined in a place, and it was more. It was emotional, spiritual and physical. It was timeless.
I could have wept. And, truthfully, that bison across the way did go blurry for a moment or two.
But there was fishing to be done, and only two of us as far as the eye could see to do it. So I took a few photos of this powerful place, knowing full well that even if I could somehow capture the beauty of it, the images would only tell a fraction of the story. But if nothing else, the pictures would serve as a reminder to me that special places and moments are out there, and that the ones you work hard to reach are made more special by the effort.
He was, predictably, having more success than I was. He had found a tight series of turns in the creek, with gravelly little beaches and rock formations forming a stunningly beautiful collection of promising fishing spots where both of us could fish on our own but still be nearby if one of us needed a hand landing a fish or taking a photo.
Joel loves to fish, but he also loves to help others catch fish. He spotted a feeding trout in a pool and carefully waded across to climb the rock face on the other side so he could look down and direct me where to cast. It worked, and in a few casts I had my very first Yellowstone cutthroat on the line. Joel hurried back across to make sure we got a photo of me with my fish. This is special to me not just as my first fish of this species in the most special place I have ever stood, but because Joel worked hard to help me get it.
But we were five miles from the truck and wanted plenty of daylight to get there. Animals move at dusk and if bears were going to return to the path, it was my preference to be sitting safely somewhere enjoying dinner and a beer or nine by then.
The trail going back seemed different, partly because I was pointed in the opposite direction of course, but partly because I was more relaxed. I was still alert for big things, but able to look around and enjoy the little things we encountered along the way. A grouse tried to startle us from the trailside brush. We watched a Clark’s Nutcracker (named for explorer William Clark) hunt for grasshoppers just a few feet away. Odd insects caught our attention like the bizarre and repugnant Mormon Cricket. And conversations abut these encounters and everything else under the sun were not only enjoyable, but also served to make a little extra noise on the trail so we didn’t surprise any Grizzlies.
But the packs were getting heavy, and we were parched and hungry. We had plenty of water, but it was packed away so we decided to just push on. We got to the truck without incident, and as I shed my backpack I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I had traveled a greater distance on foot than on any other single day in my life. I had stood in a place I will never forget, with a fly rod in my hand, and fooled a new species of fish to my fly. And I had not been mauled by a Grizzly bear. Pretty good day. One of the very best days, in fact.
In the uniquely charming town of Gardiner, Montana, just outside the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park, where elk walk the streets and graze on lawns between swing sets and recycle bins, there is a bar called the Iron Horse. We spotted it the previous day and declared when we returned from Slough Creek we would sit outside on their deck overlooking the mighty Yellowstone River, toast to our day with fine Montana brews, and shovel absurd quantities of food into our faces. It was another in a long list of excellent decisions we made all week long.
We refueled our depleted bodies with bison burgers topped with bacon, kielbasa sausage, caramelized onions and cheese. I washed mine down with several Bozone Amber Ales, Joel went with his beer of choice, an IPA.
And then it was over. Days just like it happen one after the other in this special place. The elk bugle, the bison graze and the cutthroat feed whether I’m there or not. But I am humbled, honored and privileged to have been able to stand in that meadow, to reach into that cool, clear water and touch those beautiful trout first described to science by Lewis and Clark, to be a part of this place for a day. And I’m not overstating it to say that all my days from now on will be a little bit different, a little bit better, for having been there.
If you are looking for a fly fishing guide in western Montana, look no further than Joel Thompson at Montana Troutaholics.
Note: All the above photos were taken with the Olympus Tough Series TG-1, many with the optional Olympus FCON-T01 Fish eye converter lens.
The white blaze of the Appalachian Trail is more than a directional marker. It is an icon for an American resource steeped in history. I can’t say I’m one of those who feels the calling to hike the trail’s entire reach from Georgia to Maine, but every time I hike a short stretch of it, I gain a little more respect for those thru-hikers who make the entire trek. Today Team Orange and I did the 5.5 mile out and back Raven Rocks hike not far from where we live.
It had been a while since I hiked this stretch, and I had forgotten how strenuous it was. After a span of regular exercise and some notable weight loss I thought it would be a breeze compared to my last visit. So I think I started off with a brisk and unsustainable pace that tired me out early. But it was a beautiful day, and the dogs and I all needed the exercise, so we pressed on.
Unlike my regular hiking routes which typically are uphill at the beginning and downhill at the end, this hike goes up and down several times. This makes it a challenge to ration both water and energy. The trail itself is very rocky, which feels like a lot more exercise than a flat dirt path. The payoff, just across the West Virginia border, is a spectacular view of the Shenandoah Valley.
I brought a lot of water for the dogs and it’s a good thing. They worked hard. For much of the year this hike has two beautiful little stream crossings, but the current drought has dried both of them up. I love this new collapsible water bowl from REI, by the way.
I felt like I had used up 75% of my energy on the first half of an out and back hike. Which isn’t a problem if it’s all downhill on the way back, but it is most certainly not that. So after a little stalling and a few photos, we all had some more water and then we headed back.
About half way back to the car, Winnie came within inches of stepping on this snake with all four of her feet. For a dog who will lock up and point a stationary chipmunk at thirty paces, she was curiously oblivious to this snake. I could not immediately identify it. We have three poisonous snakes in Virginia: the Northern Copperhead, the Eastern Cottonmouth and the Timber Rattler. None of which I’ve ever seen in person. It didn’t have a rattle, but beyond that I had no idea what it was. It had markings I had never seen, and displayed some intimidating behavior when threatened by my camera. He flattened his head out like a hood and became very agitated. I sent a picture to my wife, waited for the family hiking behind me to arrive at the scene to warn them just in case, and continued on. Before long, Sandy had accurately identified it – behavior and all – as a harmless Eastern Hognose snake. But the incident made me think about a blind spot of sorts when I’m hiking a rocky trail. I had to watch where every foot landed on the uneven path, so my concentration didn’t extend more than four feet in front of me much of the time. And the dogs are on six foot leashes. I actually encountered a few people on the trail, noticing them for the first time when they were only 20 feet away. If this were a dangerous snake, Winnie could have gotten bitten and I would be right on it before I knew what happened. If it were a snake, as the saying goes, it would have bitten me.
Anyway, I recommend the hike. We pushed as hard as I could and made the round trip in exactly three hours. And with good visibility like we had today, you can see forever from the summit. I mean, if you bother to look up.
I’ve seen “Loudoun Heights” on hiking trail maps online before, but never could find a clear map that showed me enough to commit to trying it. For some reason, it is not on my favorite hiking web site, Hiking Upward. But part of the Loudoun Heights hike is on the Appalachian Trail, and I finally got this great map from the AT Trail Conservancy. Team Orange and I tried it today and it is an instant favorite. I hope you enjoy the images and memories of a fantastic day…(All photos were taken with the Olympus TG-1, with the exception of the very last one, which is an iPhone 4S photo.)
The best place to park for this hike is across the Shenandoah River on the West Virginia side. The sidewalk along the highway is entirely appropriate and safe, but I’ll be honest, it’s not very fun to be on it. The guardrail seems low, and the jersey wall between you and traffic even lower. It’s all more than a little unnerving to me. But it is a great view of a beautiful stretch of river.
The white blaze on the trees is known up and down the entire east coast: The Appalachian Trail.
Winnie stops and stares at nothing often when we’re hiking. But today she really locked onto something I couldn’t see, and wouldn’t move past it. As I finally noticed, it was a chipmunk.
Turns out Winnie wasn’t the only one watching ol’ Alvin. This black snake had been watching him too, and when he struck, I was reminded of one of the biggest reasons to keep dogs on leash on hiking trails. It’s not just for their safety, but for the safety of the wildlife too. Winnie very much wanted to be involved in the black snake/chipmunk discussion. But I snapped a quick picture and let him be to feed.
I was extremely impressed with the macro setting on this Olympus TG-1. This is not a large flower. That is a very small sweat bee!
One more macro shot, with Winnie’s coat in the background, before we get back to the action.
One of the things I love about this hike is that the hard work is done in about the first two miles. It’s very steep, but once you get to the top of the ridge, you leave the AT and take the blue trail in a comfortable walk along the ridge line. There are three overlooks, this is the first.
This second overlook is pretty uncomfortable, in my opinion. I don’t like looking down 600 feet, and for some reason the wires going all the way down and across the river make it worse. We did not linger at this spot, and I’ll happily skip it next time. But the overlooks are very near the trail.
This rock formation is a pretty imposing landmark, so we stopped for water and a photo here.
The blue trail ends at the last overlook, Split Rock. Between Maryland Heights, Weaverton Cliffs and this, this is my favorite view of the Potomac River and the town of Harpers Ferry. Spectacular, even on a very overcast morning.
Team Orange waiting for me. This photo was actually a mistake, I forgot to set the timer so I could go over and join them for this one. But I love it.
We had some water and snacks and then I was just messing around with the camera. I really love this setting. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s designed to make the photo look like it’s a miniature. And it does! This totally looks like a model for a train set or something. Weird.
On the way back, we took a little detour. What kind of Team Orange would we be if we didn’t take the Orange Trail?
Round trip back to the car was about seven miles, but we felt pretty good so we continued past the car and headed into the town of Harpers Ferry. Along the way, for some reason I felt like this photo had to be staged and taken.
A well earned cool down in the waters of the Shenandoah River.
A well earned cool down on the porch of the Secret Six Tavern! These dogs were so fantastic today, walking politely on leash for nearly nine total miles, passing scores of tourists in town and never once being nosey or rude, just walking in a polite heel. I really feel like I can take them anywhere.
By the time we got to the tavern they were pretty tired, but after a sip of beer and a few french fries each, they were toast. I think all three of us felt like the toughest mile of the day was that last one back to the car after sitting down and relaxing for a bit. But I’m real proud of them today.