Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Signal Knob/Meneka Peak/Passage Creek

The plan since last week had been to hike the Signal Knob trail in Shenandoah County, but there was a last-minute hitch. We had failed to realize that Carter would be away and that we needed someone to take the dogs out in the early afternoon. We put out some feelers late Saturday night, but went to bed thinking we were going to do a short hike on the AT close to home so we could take care of the dogs ourselves. It was a wonderful surprise to find a text the next morning from someone agreeing to come walk the dogs while we were out. So, last second, we re-switched gears and headed for Signal Knob.

Signal Knob is at the far northern end of the western arm of Massanutten Mountain and is where WVPT maintains its transmitter. Just south of Signal Knob stands the 300-foot higher Meneka Peak. We had planned to skirt around the shoulder of Meneka Peak in our loop over Signal Knob, but Ann read that the whole back side of the loop on the Massanutten Trail before it intersects the Tuscarora Trail (our way back to the car) is on fire road and hiking fire road has never been my idea of a good time. She found a reference that suggested that we forego the fire road and back track from Signal Knob to the Meneka Peak Trail and walk the ridgeline south to join the Tuscarora Trail and from there head back down the mountain to the car. So that was our plan and it proved a good one.

I am finding that these long hikes are requiring me to eat a substantial breakfast. The whole idea of jamming breakfast in my face first thing in the morning, while a really good idea when we're heading out for a big day on the trail, is not my thing. I'm not really a breakfast guy in that I need to be up for at least two hours before I can countenance the idea of eating. On a normal day, I'm up around six and breakfast will be around nine. Up at 6:45, breakfast at 7:15, just sucks. Your mileage may vary.

Trail Head at Signal Knob Parking
We found the trailhead just off Fort Valley road without incident and went to the far right (northern) end of the parking lot where the Massanutten Trail joins. The Tuscarora Trail comes back into the far left (southern) end of the big parking lot. In retrospect, I should have parked at the southern end of the parking lot: the weary trudge with aching feet the length of the parking lot in the blazing sun was not what I wanted after coming down from a day on the mountain. And yes, the sign is correct. To get to Signal Knob, it is a good 5-mile hike and of course, you have to get back to the car, another 5 miles. The trail is long, so it is not for rookies, but other than the length and some rocky sections, it is not a very difficult trail.

The parking lot was ringed with all kinds of wildflowers just begging to be photographed in the warm morning sunlight. We saw many of the usual roadside suspects: Queen Anne's Lace, Fleabane, Common Mullein (not photographed), Moth Mullein, Chicory, and one of the Knapweeds. There are so many kinds of Knapweed that I am not even going to begin to try to guess which one this is.

Queen Anne's Lace


Moth Mullein


From the parking lot, we started a gradual ascent on a nicely wooded trail, skirting along a beautiful sounding creek before climbing north along the higher and drier hillsides. In the moist woods we saw a lot of Indian Pipe and Striped Wintergreen, not to mention being serenaded by several Wood Thrushes. Viburnums were blooming all throughout the woods. I know I saw at least three different and distinct leaf forms but with the exception of Arrowwood Viburnum, I'm not sure what I'm looking at.

Greenbrier Berries

Indian Pipe


Striped Wintergreen
As we climbed higher, the hillsides got drier, rockier, and we found ourselves with glimpses of views across Fort Valley to Buzzard's Rock where we hiked last weekend. The flora definitely changed as we ascended. This part of the trail, lined on both sides with bloomed out Mountain Laurel, must have been spectacular about three weeks ago. Also lining the trail were hundreds of graceful Yellow False Indigo plants with their cascades of yellow pea-like blooms, just a fabulous sight to see.

Yellow False Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) Detail

Parts of the Trail Were Draped by Yellow False Indigo

Narrow-leaved White-topped Aster, Sericocarpus linifolius

Random Aster
All along this section of trail, we got tantalizing glimpses out over Fort Valley to the eastern arm of Massanutten Mountain across the creek and valley. We were not high enough at this point to see over Massanutten Mountain and Page Valley to the Blue Ridge, but we would get those views after lunch as we climbed to 2400 feet.

Looking Southeast, Eastern Arm Massanutten Mountain
OK, so we don't pick hikes randomly out of the ether. We do a little research on the net and see what those who have gone before us have to say and we pick those that sound interesting. A lot of commenters on this hike moaned about the rocks and the difficulty of the trail. And yes, there were a lot of rocks, but people made it out as if they were walking barefooted on dragonglass shards. In reality, it was rocky and by the end of the day, our feet ached from walking on rocks, but the climbs were gentle and it wasn't the big rocks that were the problem. It was easy enough to walk from big rock to big rock. It was the places, especially on the back side of the loop, with the tiny rocks that were unavoidable that were the most annoying.

There are Rocky Sections
As we finished our northern traverse of the hill and made the sharp turn climbing to the west, the hill became a lot rockier and a bit more open in places where the rock was abundant. This afforded us views of Goat's Rue, St. John's Wort, and some Mountain Laurel still in bloom. I also saw a few patches of a tall plant with bright yellow tubular blooms running up the stalk in the manner of Digitalis/Foxglove. Wouldn't you know that it turned out to be Yellow False Foxglove?

Goat's Rue

Yellow False Foxglove, Aureolaria flava

Still Some Mountain Laurel at Elevation
The more open trail let in a lot more sunlight and as a result we started to see more and more ripe blueberries and even some black raspberries which we greedily gobbled. They were all so delicious! Ann said that eating a sun-warmed blueberry was like eating a slice of warm blueberry pie. We're not the only ones to enjoy the fruitful bounty of the trail. Bear sign was everywhere and at one point backtracking from Signal Knob to the Meneka Peak Trail, we came around a corner and scared a poor young bear coming down the trail towards us perhaps 20 yards distant. It bolted off the trail crashing through the bushes until it was about 30 yards away in the underbrush where we could still hear it but not see it. And that describes to a T the vast majority of my bear encounters: a great view of their butts as they run away from me!

Free Snacks!
As we climbed to the peak and the oaks started to dominate the forest, we started hearing Scarlet Tanagers calling from the tree tops. I was fortunate enough to get one to hold still long enough to snap a quick photo.

Lots of Calling Scarlet Tanagers on Signal Knob
Up at the top of Signal Knob, WVPT has their transmitter and antenna. The fans cooling the transmission equipment are really noisy, but they blow a steady stream of cool air on hikers who have hiked nearly five miles to get there. There is a small view from behind the antenna complex, but the better view is a couple minutes further down the trail (which branches right off the fire road almost immediately after the antenna complex: look for the orange blazes) at the Signal Knob Overlook.

View North from the WVPT Transmitter

View of Strasburg from the Signal Knob Overlook

Ann Eating Lunch While I was Looking Around
We stopped at the overlook to eat lunch and refuel for the afternoon hike back to the car. I took advantage of the break to snap photos of a few of the many butterflies flitting about. A Red-Spotted Purple landed at my feet as I was eating my lunch and we saw several others in the vicinity. There were also a couple of Zebra Swallowtails making laps around me. One finally landed for two seconds: long enough to focus and shoot. On the Meneka Peak trail, I came across a Luna Moth clinging to a grass stem. I picked this moth out of the surrounding leaves because it was the wrong shade of green for where it was located.

Seeing creatures like this and having the time to stop and appreciate them is one of the reasons I hike. When I was a kid, it was about being the fastest to the peak or the one with the longest distance. Ann and I talked about this along the trail and agree that we are in it for the journey. Or at least that is how we rationalize being nearly the slowest group on any trail. In any case, I think about the thousands of miles that I hiked as a kid and all the things I missed in my youthful haste.

Zebra Swallowtail: Awesome Twin Tails Intact

Red-Spotted Purple

Luna Moth
We backtracked a mile or so of trail from Signal Knob to the Meneka Peak Trail, opting not to follow the fire road that winds up the back (western) side of the mountain to the transmitter complex. Fire roads are intrinsically boring to me and I am so glad that we opted to skip it. The Meneka Peak Trail, following the ridgeline south, was really a nice and infrequently used trail. The peak itself is really just a jumble of rock and we had to scramble a tiny bit getting up, but it sure was so much more interesting than a fire road.

Up on the ridgeline, the trees thin out and hickories dominate. The more open spaces let us watch many Turkey Vultures cruising the hillside, sometimes just mere feet above our heads. These patches of sun also brought us a lot of wildflowers in bloom including Crown Vetch, Knotweeds, New Jersey Tea, Hawkweed, Venus' Looking Glass, and St. John's Wort.

Crown Vetch

One of the Knotweeds

New Jersey Tea


Venus' Looking Glass

A Hypericum, St. John's Wort
The ridgeline at 2400 feet also let us see over the eastern arm of Massanutten Mountain to the Blue Ridge beyond. I never get tired of seeing this. At one point, we were weaving in and out of the hickory trees and came upon a series of flat rocks laid out like pavers and in the cracks where the mortar should be was filled in with Virginia Creeper vines. It was kind of a surreal experience, like crossing a river of green water hopping from rock to rock. Because it was so sunny, a lot of the trail was grassed over in this area and the grass hid the rocks in the trail. Not a big deal, but we did have to be careful of our foot placement.

Massanutten and Blue Ridge Mountains from Meneka Peak

Stepping Stones in a Sea of Virginia Creeper
After about a mile of ridgeline on the Meneka Peak Trail, we intersected the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail and headed east downhill on it to the valley far, far below. Once we got into the woods, there wasn't a lot to see, but the trail was easy enough and not super rocky which is a good thing because our feet were really sore from all the rocks earlier in the day. Ann liked this return leg better than the approach leg; I liked the approach leg better than the return leg.

Finally back in the parking lot, we had to make the longish trudge the length of the parking lot in the blazing sun to the car where we had ice cold beers waiting on us in a small cooler. On our way to Christina's last week after our hike to grab a cold one, Ann and I looked at each other and said, "Next week we should bring beer in a cooler." Always good to be on the same wavelength.

The plan was to go sit in or by Passage Creek which runs through the middle of Fort Valley and cool off while enjoying our beer, but the Signal Knob parking lot is about a hundred yards off the creek at this point and not very accessible. So, we drove back north up Fort Valley Road to one of the parking areas on the side of the road where the creek was visible and accessible via a path.

Making our way down the path to the creek and along the creek to the rocks where we would ultimately sit and enjoy our brews, we spotted several wildflowers that we had not seen elsewhere on the hike. It makes sense as sunny riparian habitat is scarce up on the mountain! Here we saw Yarrow, Sundrops, Green and Gold, and Ox-Eye daisies in full glory.



Green and Gold

Ox-Eye Daisy

Cooling Off in Passage Creek

Dead Soldiers
All in all, a wonderful day out on the mountain. The choice not to take the fire road was brilliant. The hike was long but not steep. The rocks were less than they were made out to be. We got to see about four different microclimates without a lot of company. We saw perhaps 8 other people all day. And the chance to relax by the creek at the end was a fitting way to cap off a great day in the woods with Ann.

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