Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Sky Meadows

Our hike on Sunday July 3rd at Sky Meadows in Fauquier County was probably seven of the easiest miles that I have ever walked but also seven of the most interesting in that we walked through so many varied habitats: fields and pastures, open woods, wet bottom, upland forest, and balds. The picture below shows why I love to visit Sky Meadows: the views and the wildflowers are spectacular.

Wonderful View from the Ambassador Whitehouse Trail
It was most fortunate that we were running behind (or rather not hurrying in drinking our coffee) and so arrived at the gate at 8:50, even though the gate opens at 8am, for a ranger had just arrived moments before us to find the gate locked. She was a bit bewildered why the gate wasn't open already, but she unlocked it and we were the third car to stick our payment in the slot and make our way to the main parking area. I guess we weren't the only ones running behind on the holiday weekend. Tens of other cars would arrive while we were getting dressed for the trail.

From the parking lot right next to the Mount Bleak house, the center of the large farm that would become Sky Meadows Park when Paul Mellon donated the land to the Commonwealth of Virginia, we walked due west about a hundred yards towards the Park Office where we picked up the trail. Since I hiked there last, all the trail signage has been redone both with excellent signposts and new blazes: you'd have to work really hard at getting lost here. Starting from the Park Office, we worked clockwise around the boundary of the park, racking up seven of the easiest miles ever by the time we completed the circuit and arrived back at the car.

Starting Signpost
The first part of the trail meandered around a few pastures and a pond before entering very open woodlands. As we walked by the pond, a couple of bullfrogs were calling back and forth in their amusing bellowing voices. The open woodlands clearly suit woodpeckers and are quite famous in this part of the world for a large colony of Red-Headed Woodpeckers of which I saw eleven, none of them close enough to photograph. We were able to hear one make its distinctive "queer" call.

Open Woodlands, Home to Red-Headed Woodpeckers

Massive Oak
Working into moister bottomland, we started seeing a lot of giant oaks, black walnuts, and paw paws. As we crossed the entrance road just by the guard house, we found ourselves in a few hundred yards to be walking along with a creek on the left and a pasture on the right. The moist ground was home to several wildflowers that we have not yet seen this year, most of our hiking being at elevation. As we crossed a small bridge and were admiring some green and not yet blooming teasel, I heard the unmistakable call of baby birds from the top of an old apple tree just feet away. We watched long enough to see a Mockingbird fly out, perch on a nearby wire, and fly back.

Now That's a Paw Paw Patch

Lots of Black Walnuts in the Lowlands

Squirrel Enjoying a Black Walnut
From here, the trail became a lot narrower and started to climb towards the AT. I need to get on my soapbox for a minute in the 40-year old issue of mountain bikers and hikers sharing the trail. I love hiking. I love mountain biking. I'm the guy that custom-built mountain bikes in 1980 from all kinds of tandem parts and became skilled at downhilling. I'm the guy who blew out his knees in his 20s road cycling in the mountains and who now in his 50s hikes each weekend for exercise and solitude. I get both sides of the issue.

Sky Meadows is a park that sees almost no bikers. Yet as we climbed the twisty single track up towards the AT, a mountain biker with an overloaded pack came charging downhill towards us, not so much aggressively as just in-over-his-head out-of-control, forcing us to jump off the trail.
Coming around the corner near us, he almost crashed, and I can truthfully say I was secretly rooting for that outcome. If you're a minimally skilled mountain biker, how about staying off trails where hikers are not expecting bicycle encounters and where the trail is not wide enough to share?

As we turned south and west on the South Ridge Trail, we started to climb pretty well through the woods. It was in this patch of woods that I found a big bunch of wild black raspberries to pick and Ann wandered on up ahead. And then I got distracted trying to photograph a hummingbird feeding on a patch of Touch-Me-Nots, Impatiens capensis. From there I double-timed it to catch up with Ann and soon enough, we were high enough to start having some views such as that below.

South Ridge Trail: Looking North at Paris VA
Finally up on the ridge line, we turned north on the AT after chatting for a moment with a couple sitting on the bench at the intersection of the two trails. The woman is a customer of mine at the restaurant and she was at the restaurant the evening before. She wanted to introduce her date to me at dinner but I was super busy and by the time I got to the dining room, they had moved on. How crazy and coincidental that we should meet them the following day in the middle of the woods?

After a brief walk through the woods on the AT, the trail opened up crossing a gas pipeline and then ran through a series of balds. A short while later, the AT forked left and we continued right on the Ambassador Whitehouse trail, heading back down the mountain.

Stile on the AT

A Bald on the Ambassador Whitehouse Trail
In the photo below, you can just start to see some of the vast fields of wildflowers that dot the landscape at Sky Meadows. The flowers are a mix of Brown-Eyed Susans, Sunflowers/Jerusalem Artichokes, Wild Bergamot, Butterfly Weed, and Purple Coneflowers. The weather was perfect for walking through all these fields being overcast and unusually comfortable for the third of July. Before the hike, I was worried about being exposed to the sun for long periods in July, but it turns out that I needn't have worried.

Crossing Another Bald Just off the AT
The big payoff aside from the fields of wildflowers is the views of the valley from Paris to Delaplane from the Piedmont Overlook. From the overlook, it is a straight shot down the hill to the parking lot to complete the circuit.

Piedmont Overlook: Cobbler Mountains Looking Southeast

Piedmont Overlook: Looking East
Mints. I saw more mints on this hike than I can remember seeing on any other hike. I shouldn't be surprised though. I can recall bushwhacking through Sky Meadows and smelling crushed spearmint underfoot, no doubt a remnant of past farm life here.

Looks Like Catnip, Nepeta cataria

Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca

Wild Basil, Clinopodium vulgare

Common Self-Heal, Prunella vulgaris

Common Germander, Teucrium canadense

Another Mint, Probably a Wild Basil
Pasture Flowers. The abundant pastures from the old farm and the wide open balds are home to dozens of flowers that require full sun. I know from past experience here that in the fall, the fields will be golden with all manner of sunflowers. For now, I can see that they are about 18" high but for the most part, there are no blooms.

St. John's Wort, Hypericum spp.

Horse Nettle, Solanum carolinense

White Campion, Silene latifolia

Common Sow Thistle, Sonchus oleraceus

Bull Thistle (Note White Crab Spider)

Stunning Bull Thistle Bud

Viper's Bugloss, Echium vulgare

Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca in Full Splendor

A Hawkweed

A Teasel, Dipsacus spp.

Moth Mullein, Verbascum blattaria

Butter-and-Eggs, Linaria vulgaris

Deptford Pink, Dianthus armeria

A Brassica of the Sort We Call Field Cress

Persicaria perfoliata, A Much Despised Invasive Vine

Geranium dissectum, Cut Leaf Geranium

Indian Hemp, Apocynum cannabinum
Berries. The berry crop is huge this year and ripe berries are starting to become abundant. The pastures are loaded with masses of unripe blackberries, but we were able to pick many wineberries and black raspberries. Ann got to taste her first wineberry. I used to grow them. They're prickly for sure but they ripen even in the shade and they're delicious.

Ann Tasted Her First Wineberry

The Black Raspberries Taste Wonderful
Wildflower Fields. Sky Meadows is known for its vast fields of wildflowers, no doubt seeded at one point and not necessarily totally wild, witness the Echinacea purpurea, the Purple Coneflower, a native of the western plains.

Echinacea, Rudbeckia, and Common Mullein

A Sunflower of Some Sort

Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa

Chicory, Cichorium intybus

Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa

Black-Eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirsuta

Another Sunflower
Woodland Flowers. I'm still impressed by the number of flowers blooming under the trees. They can be difficult to photograph in the dim light without a tripod. In many places the trail was lined with Enchanter's Nightshade, Circaea lutetiana, and I even saw a few Longleaf Summer Bluets, Houstonia longifolia, in bloom.

Thimbleweed, Anemone virginiana

Elderberry, Sambucus Canadensis, Blooming on Wood Edges

Black Cohosh, Actaea racemosa

Fringed Loosestrife, Lysimachia ciliate
Wetland Flowers. The damp areas along the creeks are home to several flowers that we haven't seen elsewhere on our hikes.

Seedbox Seed Pods, Ludwigia alternifolia

Square-Stemmed Monkey Flower, Mimulus ringens

Touch-Me-Not, Impatiens capensis
Miscellaneous Creatures. As we were coming back down the mountain on the Piedmont Overlook Trail, we came across this lethargic Black Rat Snake which kindly posed for lots of pictures.

Black Rat Snake
Not so easy to photograph was this baby Cedar Waxwing whose face was being stuffed by an adult. I managed to rip off six frames in about two seconds and this is the best of them.

Baby Cedar Waxwing
The fields are perfect Goldfinch habitat and now that the thistle seeds are ripening and the finches all have lots of babies to feed, there were hundreds of finches all over.

Male Goldfinch Feeding on Thistle
Sky Meadows is always a delight. The walking is easy and the habitats are varied, leading to interesting encounters with both flora and fauna. I could only wish that it were a less popular park. By the afternoon, the place was crawling with lots of families with kids and animals. Such is the downside of a readily accessible park with easy trails.

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