Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Stony Man

After a week-long hiatus for Ann to make a trip to Oregon (part of which time she spent in the hospital with a nasty virus) and for me to try to recover our gardens from the weeds, we're back in the mountains this week where we visited Little Stony Man, Stony Man, Bushy Top, and Miller's Head in an 11-mile hike.

I could feel it from the second I walked out the door to walk the dogs at 6:30 in the morning: the damned humidity was gone! It was like a breath of fresh air stepping out of the house to find it cooler and drier outside than inside. After weeks of suffocating heat and humidity, what a wonderful surprise! We were out of the house by 7am and after gas and coffee (which I spilled on myself) at the local Sheetz, we were on our way south.

Once up into the park at Thornton Gap, we drove along Skyline Drive to the parking area at mile marker 37.8 where the Corbin Cabin Cutoff Trail intersects the AT. All along the drive from the gap, I saw large stands of Joe Pye Weed along the road. Two weeks before when we had been at Big Meadows, there was no blooming Joe Pye Weed to be seen along the way. Now it is everywhere in shades of mauve and white. There are several species of Joe Pye Weed that grow in this area and those who do taxonomic things with them argue about which is which. All I can say is that they are highly variable but all add really pretty color to the August landscape. You guys argue; I will just look at them.

Joe Pye Weed, Eutrochium spp.
We headed west on the short access trail from the parking lot to the AT and then turned left and south on the AT. From there, the trail headed downhill passing through a hedge of azalea and mountain laurel and, if you look closely, some very young American chestnut trees not four feet high. I don't imagine the chestnuts will survive to maturity, but it sure was wonderful to see them.The flora along this section of trail really appeals to me.

Climbing up the next ridge south, the trail opens up along the western side of Skyline Drive beneath the Stony Man Overlook. Although we had the trail to ourselves in the early morning, the sound of cars passing very near us (at places not 20 paces away) was incessant. The opening in the forest canopy gave me ample opportunity to photograph a lot of flowers, many with the heavy morning dew still clinging to them.

Aster Covered in Dew Drops

Another Group of Asters, Stony Man Overlook

A Lot of Starry Campion Along the AT Here
We see a lot of Touch-Me-Not impatiens on our hikes. The vast majority of them are the yellow Pale impatiens. We did see a small patch of the orange Spotted impatiens near the Furnace Spring springhouse right at Skyland, but they were in too much shade to photograph and they were mostly bloomed out.

Pale Touch-Me-Not Covered in Dew
Before reaching the split in the trail around Little Stony Man, we came upon this beautiful flower. I am guessing from habit, location, and flowers that this is a White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata) whose buds have not opened. I could be wrong, but I'm going with that.

Unidentified Milkweed, Perhaps A. variegata

White Snakeroot, Ageratina altissima
When I think of sunflowers, I think of plants that grow in fields, so it always surprises me when I come across a patch blooming in the shade, such as the one below. What a stellar flower!

A Stunning Sunflower
The views at the Stony Man Overlook were fantastic, especially for trailside AT views. In a land where the AT is a long green tunnel, this was some outstanding scenery and an inkling of what was to come later in the day. Best of all, in the early morning, we had it all to ourselves. In the afternoon on our return trek to the car, we had to share it with a lot of people in the paved pull-out just above our heads. We could rarely see them, but we could hear them. The worst were the motorcycles blaring out music.

Shenandoah Valley From the AT at Stony Man Overlook

White Bergamot, Not Very Common Here
On the south side of the overlook, I came across a few Staghorn Sumacs already starting to change color. With the lower humidity, the lower temperatures from being at 3600 feet and above, and a wonderful westerly breeze, I could almost convince myself that fall was on the way. As we neared Skyland, we would see many more people in long pants and jackets. We surely didn't need any extra clothing and it wasn't too terribly long before Ann stripped down to her baselayer. But still, how awesome it was to feel like it was fall even if only for an hour! As a bonus, the cold front that came through in the late afternoon and early evening of Saturday cleared out the sky and left us with awesome views, which we noted very early on in our drive. We could see Signal Knob clear as day from Winchester and it is not every day that you can do this.

Staghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina, Showing Color Already
The open canopy along the trail let in enough light for a pretty good stand of Purple Raspberries and afforded us the chance to sample them and assess them for ourselves. Most references say that they aren't that good. They do have really great raspberry flavor, but the fruit tends to be a bit dry and full of seeds. If you could pick enough of them, I think they would make a killer raspberry jelly (you'd have to strain out the seeds). For eating out of hand, they're pretty so-so but they are tasty.

Purple-Flowering Raspberry
At the foot of Little Stony Man, the trail forked with the AT going left and the blue-blazed Passamaquoddy going right. The AT climbs up and over the top of the Little Stony Man cliffs and the Passamaquoddy goes along the base of the cliffs. We followed the Passamaquoddy towards Skyland and returned later on in the afternoon on the AT.

Just after we turned west on the Passamaquoddy, we started seeing Sedum growing amongst the rocks, some starting to flower. This is the first large sedum that I have really noted growing in the wild. I've seen a lot of the smaller forms here and there, but none in bloom. A few yards further along, we could see brilliant blue sky through the trees, beckoning us on to see the view. Ann was thirty paces ahead of me as I photographed the sedum and I heard her exclaim as she stepped out into the sunlight.

A Wild Stonecrop, Sedum spp.
I soon joined her in the bright sun on one of the lower rock outcroppings of Little Stony Man. The main cliffs of Little Stony Man were above us and just to the south. The main Stony Man Peak at over 4000 feet was just south of that. From our vantage point on the rocks, we had a great and unobstructed 180-degree view of Luray and the Shenandoah Valley and could see for 30 miles or more. All day, there was a single line of puffy clouds on the horizon to our west. By late afternoon, they were making their way closer to us and it was fascinating to watch the cloud shadows romping on the hillsides.

Brilliant Blue Sky

Great Views of Luray and the Valley

Little Stony Man Left, Stony Man Right
Before leaving the rock outcropping to head south along the cliff face, I noticed a small patch of harebells growing right on the cliff and another small shrub that reminds me of a Hawthorn right by the trail. I could definitely be totally wrong about the Hawthorn.

Harebells Growing on the Cliff

A Hawthorn, Perhaps?
As we skirted along the cliffs of Little Stony Man, we met several rock climbers unloading their gear for a day on the cliff face. We would see some of the same climbers at the top later that afternoon as we walked along the clifftops on the AT on our return hike. For the morning, though, we kept heading south on the Passamaquoddy in the direction of Skyland. Traffic along this trail was noticeably heavier than on the AT approaching the popular Stony Man loop.

When we got to Skyland proper, there wasn't any really well marked trail. We knew we need to get to the amphitheater/horse stables on the south side of the property, so we just kind of winged it and headed along any trail that seemed to be heading south. In no time at all, we popped out on a nice mowed lawn 75 yards distant from the amphitheater and started looking for the Miller's Head trailhead. We never did find it, but we found an access road that ran parallel to the trail and we cut from there through the woods to the trail proper.

Glorious Sunflowers at Skyland

More Sunflowers at Skyland
The Miller's Head trail heads first gently up Bushy Top and then from there, it starts descending and heading westerly along the ridgeline jutting out perpendicular to the main Appalachian ridgeline. The trail runs about 8/10s of a mile from the amphitheater and is worth every step of the trip. We saw some of the nicest wildflowers along this trail and the view from the observation point at Miller's Head is well worth the trek.

Harebells on the Miller's Head Trail

Harebell Detail

Many, Many False Foxgloves on Miller's Trail
The Miller's Head trail ends with a short climb up onto a square, stonewalled observation point which gives a wonderful nearly 270-degree view of the Shenandoah Valley, the Massanuttens in the middle of the valley, and the Appalachians behind. Unfortunately, the drain holes in the observation deck are clogged and with all the recent rain, there is standing water on the floor of the observation point. Besides the nasty smell, it has attracted a lot of bugs and especially a lot of horseflies. We stayed just long enough for pictures and abandoned our plan to eat lunch there, opting to backtrack to a nice stone outcropping we spied on the walk down.

Ann Ascending to the Miller's Head Overlook

Turkey Vulture at Miller's Head

Looking South from Miller's Head
We remarked on the line of puffy clouds above the Massanuttens all day. You can see them particularly well in the following photos. Both photos are looking west towards the New Market wind gap in the Massanutten range.

Looking West from Miller's Head

Also West; Ann's iPhone Camera
Right up at the Miller's Head observation point, there were quite a lot of flowers growing in the shade of the trees, including this Bouncing Bett/Soapwort and some really nice Columbine.

Soapwort at Miller's Head

Columbine at Miller's Head
Because of the standing water at Miller's Head, we backed off to a nice south-facing rock outcropping about 200 yards from the point. We decided to take our lunch here; you can see how beautiful this spot was in the photo below. It was a wonderful people-free 15 minutes. Earlier in the week, Ann asked if I was making something yummy for lunch and then started talking about artichoke pesto. So I made a small batch of artichoke pesto and made us wraps of the pesto, a grilled chicken breast between the two of us, and some arugula. As a surprise, I also brought a container of figs because I know how much Ann loves them.

Beautiful Spot for Lunch; Ann Attacks a Fig

Artichoke Pesto, Grilled Chicken, and Arugula Wraps
After lunch, we backtracked to the amphitheater at Skyland, where the butterflies were busily feasting on the flowers growing all around. On the day, we saw hundreds and hundreds, mostly Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, with a few Black Swallowtails. Curiously, we didn't see any Monarchs, which should be starting migration at any time.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Knapweed

Black Swallowtail on Common Milkweed

A Tiger on a Sunflower/Jerusalem Artichoke
From the amphitheater, we walked back down the southern Skyland entrance road to the point where the AT crossed it and then turned left and north on the AT. While we were walking on the shoulder of the road, we came across this spectacular Turk's Cap Lily.

Turk's Cap Lily (with Bindweed) at Skyland
Only a few yards down the AT, we came upon a vast patch of chanterelle mushrooms. The photo below doesn't do the scene justice as we could have picked a bushel of mushrooms in just one place; the woods were practically glowing gold. Alas for the chef in me, leaving no trace means leaving things where you found them as well as taking everything you brought with you. With the incredible amount of rain that we received the week before, there are mushrooms and other fungi popping up everywhere. I really don't know anything about mushrooms (except for a handful of edibles), but I know that I saw 50-60 distinct types of mushrooms and fungi of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

Chanterelle Mushrooms Everywhere

Cool Shelf Fungus
As we made our way on the short walk north to the Stony Man parking area, we saw several (and the only) Fly Poison lilies. I associate them with these open woodlands more than growing in full sun like we saw at Big Meadows two weeks ago. I expected to see them here; I did not out in the fields at Big Meadows.

Fly Poison, AT, Stony Man Parking Area
Just as soon as we neared the Stony Man parking area, all semblance of solitude evaporated. Not only were there cars everywhere, but there were big groups of people all over, many making a tremendous racket. Not everybody appreciates that the woods are a place for some of us to get away and to enjoy the quiet. Some people have to bring the noise with them. But I would put up with the noise all over again just to see the views that we saw from the top of Stony Man, a short walk north on the AT from the parking area and a short walk up a side loop trail to the summit. There is a great reason for the popularity of this hike.

Looking South at Skyland

Looking Northwest from Stony Man

Looking West from Stony Man
The summit was packed with people, including a whole gang of shriekers who had spotted a timber rattler. Most of the people at the top were in large groups or were families of day hikers so the chatter was incessant. I could imagine spending a lot more time taking in the phenomenal scenery from the summit of Stony Man if it were not so crowded. From the top, one of two summits above 4000 feet in the park and second only to nearby Hawksbill in height, we could see probably 270 degrees of gorgeous panorama. It was great fun to see Little Stony Man on our right to the north and all the people standing on the lower rocks along the Passamaquoddy where we were in the morning and on the upper rocks along the AT where we would be in about 20 minutes.

Looking North at Little Stony Man
Coming back down Stony Man, we continued north on the AT across the cliff top at Little Stony Man where we saw some of the same rock climbers we had seen in the morning at the base of the cliff, getting ready to climb. Sadly, there were a lot of loud young adults on top of the cliffs talking quite loudly and enthusiastically in a Slavic language. The views are essentially the same as we had seen below in the morning and above on top of Stony Man, so I didn't feel that any more photos of the same vistas were in order. We were also getting tired and tired of noise, so we were eager to push on to the car.

Alas for us that we got behind a threesome of inconsiderate hikers who would not yield the right of way as we worked down the switchbacks to the intersection of the AT and the Passamaquoddy, where we were earlier in the day. In the confusion at the junction, we managed to slip around the slower threesome, only to get behind another large group of young adults and children talking quite loudly in another Eastern European language that I did not recognize, all while swilling beer and creating quite the stink of cigarette smoke.

We lost them at the Little Stony Man parking lot where they left the trail and that left us in peace for the couple mile walk back to the car along the AT. Ann was still feeling the effects of her nasty encounter with a virus the week before and was quickly running out of steam. I could tell that the last couple of miles were no fun for her. I goofed and planned a hike that was just too long considering her state of recovery. Oops.

All in all, we had a wonderful hike with just amazing views. I would love to do this hike again sometime in the winter when all the crowds are gone. After our hike, we made the 50-minute drive into Front Royal for beers at PaveMint where Ann enjoyed Allagash White and I drained a few Green Flash Tangerine Soul IPAs, one of the better beers I have had this summer. I leave you with a shot of one of my favorite flowers, taken on the way back to the car.

Rose Along the AT, Vicinity of Stony Man Overlook

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