Thursday, July 28, 2016

Big Meadows

Sunday our travels took us to mile marker 51 on Skyline Drive, Big Meadows, where we walked the meadow and then made a big 8.5-mile clockwise loop visiting Lewis Falls, Rose River Falls, Hogcamp Branch, and Dark Hollow Falls before returning to Skyline Drive and the car.

Even though we went to Big Meadows to visit the three waterfalls in the area, I was very interested to wander the big meadow on the east side of Skyline Drive. I am sure that Ann thought I was crazy, but at least she puts up with me most of the time. Given that the trip there was nearly two hours, I figured we would not be back any time soon and so I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see birds and flora that we wouldn't have seen once in the forest. The meadow, that NPS burns off each year to keep it renewed, is full of spectacular wildflowers and quite a lot of birds, including meadowlarks that I heard singing. I wish we could have spent more time there, but under the broiling end-of-July sun, it's not possible now. The 20 minutes we spent walking the meadow will have to do.

The Big Meadow at Big Meadows

More of Same, Unusual Habitat at This Elevation
I noticed on the long drive on Skyline Drive that the margins of the road are covered in more wildflowers than I have seen at any other time of year. As soon as we got out of the car at the Lewis Falls trailhead just south of the entrance to the Big Meadows complex, I could see that same vast array of wildflowers right next to me including a really large stand of Black Cohosh, some with bloom spikes reaching 8 feet in height. Down near the ground, looking from a distance like Crown Vetch, were gorgeous Nodding Onions. As we walked east across Skyline Drive, the meadow proved to be jammed wall-to-wall with them. They certainly are spectacular flowers and not one that I have ever noticed before.

The Meadow is Full of Nodding Onion, Allium cernuum

Black Cohosh
About halfway into our trek of the meadow, as we reached the treeline, a hen turkey scared Ann half to death, launching up out of the 3-foot high grass right at her feet! From my vantage about ten feet behind Ann, the turkey's wingspan appeared to be as wide as Ann is tall. Ann said she could feel the air from the wings on her face. No doubt! The turkey lumbered about twenty yards into the nearby thicket, hopped up in a tree, and clucked at us for several minutes. I don't think she was nesting and I didn't see any sign of poults in the grass; that seems to be an early spring thing.

Columbine at Big Meadows
Turk's Cap lilies were not all that common in the meadow, but we saw several small ones, and what gorgeous flowers they are! I generally think of Fly Poison, another lily, as an open woodland flower, but they were blooming in profusion in the sun of the meadow. I still have much to learn.

Turk's Cap Lily, Lilium superbum

Fly Poison

Yellow Star Grass, Hypoxis hirsuta
The more I learn about identifying wildflowers, the less certain I am of anything. The following three photos are perfect examples of specimens of wildflower families that are represented by dozens of species, sometimes very confusing ones at that, in our area. Take the St. John's Wort below for example. There are something like 28 species here in Virginia alone. This one was notable for being very tall and having very large (3cm) blooms, larger than I have ever seen before.

A Mystery Aster
I think that's an aster above; in any case, I've given up on trying to ID asters as an amateur; it's damn near impossible. Same for the wide, wide variety of sunflowers which were the predominant flower at Big Meadows which was resplendently carpeted in sunflower gold with an underlayer of pink and purple nodding onions.

A Handsome Sunflower

A Very Tall, Very Large-Flowered Hypericum
As we exited the meadow on the Rapidan Fire Road, at the intersection of the fire road with Skyline Drive, we came across this cute sign. If you have ever dealt with having your dog sprayed by a skunk, you will most certainly appreciate this. Over the years, I think just about all my dogs have been anointed by skunks. Terrible, terrible stench.

Cute Sign at Rapidan Fire Road Car Park
Slightly diagonally across Skyline Drive, on the Lewis Falls trail, we started down the gravel road that seems to be the access road for Lewis Spring which is apparently the water source for Big Meadows. This road left a bit of opening in the canopy and let in enough light to photograph some nice flowers, including this very unusual milkweed below which I think is Tall Milkweed, Asclepias exaltata. There are at least 16 milkweeds listed in the Virginia Plant Atlas. I'm starting to come to grips with only being able to identify wildflowers to the genus level.

An Unusual Milkweed, Likely Asclepias exaltata

White Bergamot, Monarda clinopodia

One of the Harebells, Probably Campanula divaricata

A Different Harebell, Also Probably Campanula divaricata

Yellow False Foxglove, Aureolaria spp.

Another Woodland Aster

Another, More Purple Aster
Although our goldenrods aren't blooming at home yet, it's just about time. The sides of Skyline Drive were carpeted in big yellow masses of blooms. How fortunate to come across this one in front of a rock coated in black lichen for an awesome backdrop.

First Goldenrod of the Season, Solidago spp.
After an easy walk down the road, we picked up a trail and after descending for a few minutes, crossed over Hawksbill Creek which rises at Lewis Spring and then after a few switchbacks, ended up where the creek tumbles over the a cliff at Lewis Falls. Though the view looking out over the Shenandoah Valley is pretty decent sitting on top of the falls, the falls themselves are not visible below your feet. The trail continues back across the creek and around the hillside a few yards until it opens in a semicircular clearing edged in rock wall where you can see the falls clearly.

Annie Looking at Lewis Falls

Lewis Falls
Of the three waterfalls we visited on the day, this first one, Lewis Falls was the most rewarding for us. Most people think Dark Hollow falls on the east side of the mountain across Skyline Drive is the best of the three, but there were so damned many people there, it was more like a circus exhibit and definitely not our cup of tea. By contrast, we were almost all alone at Lewis Falls, though we were never all alone anywhere on this circuit hike save for a short stretch of the AT, so popular is the Big Meadows area.

After visiting Lewis Falls, we headed north uphill on the blue-blazed trail to Big Meadows Lodge. This trail had a decent grade and was fairly steep in places, with some excellent patches of wildflowers. Given the heat and humidity of the day, this was not the easiest of hikes. It intersects the AT just at the ampitheatre on the north side of the lodge. We continued north on the AT to Fisher's Gap.  By contrast, the AT along the ridge was nice and flat and we were thankful for it after the long climb up from the falls.

White Snakeroot, Eupatorium rugosum

Longleaf Summer Bluet

Starry Campion, Silene stellata
The section of the AT from the campground to Fisher's Gap has some nice open woodlands perfect for deer grazing and we certainly saw our share of deer there and elsewhere on our hike. We came upon a threesome of deer quite close to the trail: a small 6- or 8-point velvet buck with a doe and a fawn of the year. The fawn proved to be very curious and came really near to me, ten feet or less. Nearby we saw other does, one laying down on the job in a bed of dry leaves not twenty yards off the trail. Chipmunks scurried here and there.

Small Buck Grazing in the Ferns

The Doe and Her Fawn

Junior was Quite Curious About Us

On the AT, Looking NNW in the Vicinity of Fisher's Gap

Wild Basil at Fisher's Gap

Annie and a Common Mullein
We walked the ridgeline on the AT to Fisher's Gap where we crossed Skyline Drive on the Red Gate/Rose River Fire Road and then turned off the fire road onto the Skyland/Big Meadows Horse Trail and then down the hill on the Rose River Loop Trail. Along the way down to the creek, each person or group coming up the hill told us about a bear on the uphill side of the trail, said bear for which we looked in vain for a long way.

Suddenly we saw a bit of black fur sticking up from behind a log not ten yards off the trail. About the time Ann said, "Is that a bear?" it got up off the ground where it was grubbing for food, put its front paws up on the log, puffed itself up, and gave us a good chuffing growl. Now I realize that park regulations require us to be 50 yards away from the bears, but it's not like we had a choice in the matter. After the bear got over its little startle and its grandstanding display, it went back to doing what bears do and rather nonchalantly at that: turning over rocks and downed logs looking for food, even laying down to eat at times. As we moved down the hill, it moved with us for a good five minutes before the trail turned away towards the creek.

Bear Busy Foraging on the Rose River Loop Trail
As soon as we hit the Rose River (actually a little creek at this point) we stopped briefly for lunch and then continued on downhill. The falls shown below were not much to look at but there were a few decent swimming holes, most of them populated with kids.

Rose River Falls: Underwhelming
We continued down the hill along the Rose River until the intersection with Hogcamp Branch where we turned right uphill and continued our hike up that creek to Dark Hollow Falls. By this time, it was midafternoon and Dark Hollow Falls was jammed with tourists, many wearing the most inappropriate shoes and almost none with water. Meanwhile, it was humid and very hot, a recipe for someone passing out on the hike back up the steep trail to Skyline Drive.

Hogcamp Branch

Minor Fall Below Dark Hollow Falls

Dark Hollow Falls
I even ran out of water on the hike back to the top and I was carrying 2.5 liters. I was drinking constantly because I was sweating buckets all day. Annie was really losing steam coming back up the hill and by the time we reached the Dark Hollow parking area, she was done. She stayed in the shade while I sprinted the 3/4 mile to the Lewis Fall trailhead where we left the car. That run back to the car in the blazing 3pm sun was no fun at all.

But all in all, I really enjoyed the day, especially the morning, the meadow, Lewis Falls, the deer, and the bear. I didn't really enjoy all the people at the Rose River or Dark Hollow falls and I wasn't crazy about the hike back up to and the jog along Skyline Drive to the car in the high heat and miserable humidity. I cannot wait for fall hiking. In the late fall or winter, this hike would have been nothing.


  1. I enjoyed reading about your trip to Big Meadows very much and loved the photos. We were there today, loved all the wildflowers (you have helped me identify some and thank you for that as I am still learning) and the butterflies, and actually saw a bear as we were heading down the hill (via car) about to cross the road. We were going slowly of course and we were about 10 feet from the bear. Our eyes locked and as we passed we saw him amble across the road in the rear view mirror. There was no way to turn around and so no photo. He would have been in the trees by the time we could get back. The highlight of today's trip. We live about an hour-and-a-half from Big Meadows and come here in every season.

  2. We are out hiking in the area each weekend that we do not have another commitment. It is an unusual day that we do not see a bear; we saw two on our trip to Big Meadows. I worry about bear-human conflict. We all know who wins.

    This was my first trip to Big Meadows; Ann has been there before. It is nearly two hours from our house so we have to be really motivated to drive that long to start our hike.

    I'm glad the wildflower pictures helped you; they are mainly to amuse me. The more I learn about identifying wildflowers, the less I think I know.

    Good rambles to you.


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