Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Mary's Rock, Appalachian Trail

6:30 Sunday morning before Memorial Day found me up and walking dogs and by 7:00 I was getting our lunch together while Ann brewed us some coffee. Because of the forecast 90-degree highs, we wanted to get up and out on our hike from Thornton Gap to Mary's Rock back to Pass Mountain Hut and back.

After heading south down US-340 to Luray, we climbed us US-211 east up into the gap. Actually, the Garmin had us cut through a back road from 340 to 211 and thus avoid Luray altogether. Once we turned north off 211 in the gap to enter the Skyline Drive, we found ourselves 20 cars back in the line at the entrance station. Thanks Memorial Day weekend! I was hoping for a line exclusively for season passholders, but only one line was open. I can't really blame the Park Service for this: who wants to work on the big pre-summer holiday weekend?

While waiting our turn, we amused ourselves watching the myriad Barn Swallows that are nesting under the eaves of the entrance station. They were performing their aerobatic maneuvers within mere feet of the car. They are splendidly-colored and highly entertaining to spend a few minutes with. Once through the gate, we headed south on Skyline Drive and a minute later were pulling into the Panorama parking lot, where we hit the head, put on our hiking shoes, and saddled up for the day.

I got to try out my new camera rig, straps that attach directly to the shoulder straps of my backpack. It seems to work great, but I think I need to try some extenders so that I have enough room to twist the camera to portrait orientation. It's a promising $9 start to carrying my camera, rather than a $100 or $150 investment in a harness.

Mary's Rock Trailhead at Panorama Visitor's Center
From the parking lot to the AT is about 30 yards on an access trail. We turned left and uphill, heading south on the AT to Mary's Rock. Given the busy nature of the weekend at this popular location, we were seldom alone on the trail for more than five minutes. This would change on our afternoon hike as we headed north towards Pass Mountain Hut. On this stretch, admittedly less scenic and therefore less popular, we rarely saw anyone and those that we saw tended to be thru-hikers moving on in the mid-afternoon to reach their overnight campsites.

Halfway Up, Looking East
From the gap, we quickly gained altitude and as you can see in the photo below of Ann walking under a really crazy branch of a tree, the trail is relentlessly uphill. It's just under a two-mile hike with just over 1000-feet of elevation gain. The AT runs up the east side of the ridge here and so we were in the fairly strong morning sun all the way up. It was a hot climb.

Two-Mile Climb
The views at the top looking west into the Shenandoah Valley and north up the Skyline Drive are definitely worth the climb.

Mary's Rock, Looking Northwest

On Top of This Part of the World
While Ann dawdled a bit at the top doing her thing working the crowd and playing with all available dogs, I decided to poke around to see what I could see. I found a tiny shrub growing up between the rocks with a decidedly cherry-like blossom, which I am now guessing is Black Chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa. Near that were blueberries in full bloom. And flitting in and out of the shrubs were nesting Juncos. Now I can add Virginia to the list of places where I have seen nesting Juncos.

Atop Mary's Rock, Black Chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa?

Blueberries in Bloom

Juncos are Nesting Atop Mary's Rock
On the way back down, we were entertained by a very agile at least seven-foot black rat snake climbing easily through the trees. In my experience, it is the rare rat snake that grows to be this big. The grace with which it moved through the trees was astonishing. The rat snake pattern is visible in the original image but not really in this dumbed down version.

Seven-Foot Black Rat Snake
This handsome bloom belongs to a plant called Bowman's Root, a plant that I have never encountered before.

Bowman's Root

Silene caroliniana, Wild Pink

Blackberries in Abundance

Tiny Raspberry Growing up Through Bloodroot

Tall White Violet, Viola canadensis

Wild Geranium, Geranium maculatum, and Ferns

Robin's Plaintain

Puffballs
I thought, erroneously as it turns out, that the wild azaleas were done blooming for the year and so they are in the lower parts of the AT that we have been frequenting of late. As we approached 3200 feet they became more and more prolific, and about 3400 feet, both sides of the trail were lined in gorgeous blossoms head height and well above.

Wild Azalea

The AT above 3200-Feet Was Lined in Head-Height Azaleas

Michaux's Saxifrage at 3500 Feet

Solomon's Seal with Blooms Below Stalk

False Solomon's Seal

Viburnum (Arrowwood)
I was hoping to see Mountain Laurel in full regalia this weekend, but we're obviously still too early. We did see a very few flowers open at lower elevations (2500-2600 feet), but no showy masses yet.

Mountain Laurel Beginning to Bloom Below 2500 Feet

A Blue Groundcover, Likely a Creeping Veronica

Creekside Golden Ragwort, a Beautiful Sight
Here's a great example of a cinquefoil, Potentilla simplex, from Latin quinque folium (perhaps via French cinq feuilles) meaning five leaves. It's kind of neat that all the Potentillas (at least the ones I know) have five petals on their flowers as well.

Common Cinquefoil

Maple-Leaf Viburnum

Blue-Eyed Grass
I snapped a picture of this striking green and gold plant thinking that it was Green-and-Gold, Chrysogonum virginianum, but on closer inspection, I've never seen this plant before. It turns out to be Greater Celandine, Chelidonium majus.

Greater Celandine, Chelidonium majus
Once back down from Mary's Rock, it was just about noon when we hit the Panorama parking lot where we wolfed a quick lunch, used the restrooms, and refilled our water bottles. Then it was back to the AT north, crossing first 211 and then Skyline Drive in quick succession, heading for Pass Mountain Hut. The AT on this side of the gap runs through a lot of relatively open glades edged in blooming blackberries. The Rufous-Sided Towhees really like this kind of habitat: they were everywhere and several of them entertained us, scratching away at the leaf litter looking for food like miniature chickens.

Mostly Glades North of Thornton Gap, Deer Heaven

Admiring the Ubiquitous Blackberries
I remarked to Ann that this was perfect habitat for deer, knowing that they love to browse areas like this. It wasn't too much later that she spied large deer tracks on the trail and then a really big doe who was most unconcerned about our presence. Bears apparently like this habitat too. A group of dayhikers a couple of minutes behind us showed us photos of a bear that we just missed. Bummer.

A Really Big Doe
What we didn't miss was an annoying pair of thru-hikers who were blaring electronica while walking through the woods. It was our unfortunate luck to have four encounters with them during our day. If you don't want to listen to nature around you, at least have the decency to put in your earphones. We ended our northward hike at the Pass Mountain Hut (nothing to see there) where we encountered a couple more thru-hikers knocking off for the day. The annoying pair of hikers was well known to them and they counted themselves fortunate that the annoying duo decided to push on further north for the day, rather than spending the night at this shelter. Though it was the girl who was blaring the music, the guy, in particular, has a rep on the trail for being really loud and noisy in camp, just the kind of fellow hiker that others come to hate. Don't be this guy on the trail!

Our afternoon had clouded over and the relief in the heat was palpable. It started to spit rain on our return trip and we spent the last 30 minutes of the hike in a little bit of rain, but not enough to warrant getting out the raincoats. About 10 minutes away from the car, I did grab a plastic bag out of my pack to cover up the camera, but that was about it for rain. It had pretty much stopped by the time we packed up and headed back home.

Paso Robles Syrah
Back at home, we enjoyed this bottle from Epoch Estate Winery, the 2012 Authenticity, a Syrah blend that was a gift from Neil and Katy, made by Katy's cousin. It really was delicious and not a big fruit bomb like I have come to expect from Paso. We were pretty beat after a long walk and so dinner was really simple: turkey, lettuce, and goat cheese on toasted baguette. We both crashed super early after the wine and all the exercise.

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