Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Buzzard Rock/Christina's Café

Of all the places we have hiked this spring including the Smokies, the Buzzard Rock trail very near to us between Strasburg and Front Royal is so far my favorite. I think it was a combination of a spectacularly clear day, the awesome rock formations of Buzzard Rock, and the phenomenal views of Fort Valley, Passage Creek, and Signal Knob.

Statuesque Dwarfed Pine; Looking at Signal Knob Across Fort Valley
To put things in perspective, the Shenandoah Valley is not one big broad valley as is commonly supposed. Between the outer boundaries of the Blue Ridge (where Skyline Drive is) and the Alleghenies (Great North Mountain along the Virginia-West Virginia border) you will find Massanutten Mountain which runs north-south right down the valley and parallel to the larger flanking ranges. It runs from about Harrisonburg in the south to Strasburg/Front Royal in the north, where we hiked. Massanutten Mountain forks into two arms on the northern end; the phenomenally gorgeous and very narrow Fort Valley sits between the two northern arms, over which Buzzard Rock looms on the eastern arm and Signal Knob reigns on the western arm. Passage Creek winds down the middle of Fort Valley, flowing south to north as do all waters in the Shenandoah Valley, trying to make their escape to the Atlantic at Harper's Ferry, WV.

We left Winchester about 7:55 and arrived at the trailhead about 8:30, turning east out of Strasburg on route 55, then south on Fort Valley Road, and then east again on Mountain Road and just past the Front Royal Fish Hatchery. The trailhead is not super well marked, but I expected this and we had no problem finding it. We were about the fourth car in the small parking area that had about 15 cars when we came back down off the mountain.

Tiny Trailhead Sign Hidden Behind Tree
The trailhead is on the very northern edge of the George Washington National Forest and so there are houses around the trailhead. It was fairly surreal in the afternoon coming back down the mountain after just having seen a black bear to hear the sounds of a lawnmower in action. But in the early morning, all was calm and serene as we loaded up and headed into the woods. Along the trail near the parking lot, I saw the first yarrow of the season in bloom. There will be lots of other opportunities to photograph it as the summer goes on.

Fleabane All Around Parking Lot

Ditto Oxeye Daisy

We Climbed About Halfway to Shawl Gap
Into the deeper woods, we came across a single Wild Blue Indigo plant and thickets of Enchanter's Nighshade. More frequent however were vast patches of Longleaf Summer Bluets (all blooms white and not blue) on both sides of the trail at the lower elevations. The blooms are so tiny that I'm having difficulty photographing them. iPhone next time.

Small Blue Indigo

Enchanter's Nightshade
After a mile and a half or so, the trail started to climb and the trees started to change over from the beech-oak forest through which we had been walking to a higher elevation mixed oak and pine scrub forest with azalea, rhododendron, blueberries, and mountain laurel. As we rounded the northern flank of the mountain, we came upon a spectacular view looking north over the fish hatchery towards Winchester.

Front Royal Fish Hatchery 400 Feet Below

Yoga Warrior in Action

Strike a Pose
Climbing south up the spine of the ridge was fun. There is something I like about hiking the spine of a mountain where everything drops away from me on both sides, a feeling of being on top of the world. Soon enough, we emerged through the trees onto the really rocky spine of the mountain. We found in some places the trail wasn't really a trail but a scramble through rocks with no clearly demarcated trail. As we headed south, our right feet were in Shenandoah County and our left feet were in Warren County.

Trail? What Trail?

Trekking Poles No Good Here
The views at the top were spectacular as we emerged into full sun to find several formations of nearly upright sandstone. I cannot even begin to imagine the force required to take this rock and shove it nearly vertical. We could see 180 degrees from the town of Fort Valley in the south to Winchester in the north, across Fort Valley to Signal Knob to our west, with Passage Creek and Fort Valley Road 650 feet below us. In places the cliffs dropped away for hundreds of feet below us. No doubt this is a popular spot with rock climbers.

Signal Knob

Looking South Down Fort Valley

North Towards Winchester

Again, North Towards Winchester

Passage Creek and Fort Valley Road 650 Feet Below
We reached the top by 10am and were not ready to call it a day, so we continued along the ridgeline perhaps a mile further south towards Shawl Gap. We saw a lot more birds along the ridgeline than I might have imagined, including a Turkey Vulture gliding below us red head gleaming in the sun, Indigo Buntings calling from lookouts, a brilliant male Scarlet Tanager serenading us, and lots of Barn Swallows following the mountains looking for bugs.

Wild Blueberries Nearing Ripeness
At one point along the ridge, we came to a sunny opening that contained pink flowers that I could see for several yards ahead. I thought they were Wood Vetch until closer inspection. They turned out to be Goat's Rue, which is a fairly uncommon wildflower in much of its range in the Eastern US. The blueberry crop is heavy and is starting to ripen. The bears are going to be very happy over the next few weeks with so much easy forage.

Goat's Rue
About a mile down the trail, we decided that because of time constraints, we needed to head back to the car, after first stopping back at Buzzard's Rock to eat lunch. We found our first and only view looking east at this point in the direction of the Warren County Airport with the Page Valley expanding to the south below Front Royal. While looking out at the Blue Ridge in the distance, we saw a small plane towing a sail plane aloft from the airport. Eagle eye that Ann is, she also spotted a Zebra Swallowtail which landed at our feet. These butterflies use Pawpaws as their host plants. I didn't see any Pawpaws on our walk.

Photographing the Photographer

Zebra Swallowtail
Heading back down the mountain towards the car, we came upon patches of Rattlesnake Weed that we missed in the morning with their highly variegated green and purple basal leaves and golden yellow blooms suspended high above those leaves. This flower has evaded me in the past. It has always been too dark, too windy, or both to get a decent photograph. I also saw three or four clumps of Striped Wintergreen in full bloom, but again, it was too dark to get a reasonable photo.

Rattlesnake Weed

Sulfur Cinquefoil
We got off the trail around 2:30pm with a couple hours to spare before we had to be back in Winchester to deliver Carter to Shenandoah University for a week-long leadership program, and as Ann said, we had a "thirst that needed to be quenched" and the place to do that was Christina's Café in Strasburg, about 10 minutes from the trailhead.

Bell's Two-Hearted Ale and Port City Optimal Wit
I started with a draft Bell's Two-Hearted Ale, an old standby if I can't find something more interesting, and Ann tried a Port City Optimal Wit from Alexandria. For round two, our server recommended that I try the Southern Tier 2xIPA double IPA also on draft. Ann chose a cider from California that she found a bit too dry for her liking. The double IPA was really out of balance with a skunky hop flavor that was not at all balanced by the malt.

Southern Tier 2xIPA and Sonoma Cider "The Hatchet"
I hear that we are hiking the other side of Fort Valley next weekend, up to Signal Knob. I'm really looking forward to that climb and if it is anything nearly as spectacular as this walk was, it will be a wonderful day.

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