Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Massanutten Trail 1, Ed 0

"How in the hell did that happen?" I wondered as I found myself lying on the rocks looking at the sky, a little more on my left side than flat on my back, my left palm scraped and my left ankle really hurting. After maybe 20 seconds of getting myself together and mentally assessing the damage, I started to pick myself up off the trail, blood on my left palm, blood dripping from my left ankle down into my shoe, and one of my hiking poles bent in an S like a ski pole.

Years of playing hockey have given me great balance: I just don't fall down willy nilly. The best I can figure—although Ann was very close to me, she was out of line of sight so we'll never know for certain—my left hiking pole got trapped in a crevice and as I stepped forward, the wrist strap anchored me to the pole and pulled me backwards off balance. When I stepped back to regain my balance, my left ankle most likely slipped between two rocks and there was no where to go but backwards on my ass. Massanutten Trail 1, Ed 0.

Massanutten Trail Just East of Camp Roosevelt
This is the story of two different days, really, the soggy, misty, drippy, gray morning and the glorious sunny fall afternoon. After three straight days of rain, the first Sunday in October dawned with more of the same, ground fog and a very fine mist accompanied leaden skies and kind of sapped our enthusiasm to get outside. It took a pot of coffee and a little pep talk to psych ourselves up to get out of the warm and dry house. I didn't sleep well after a busy night at the restaurant and Ann still isn't back up to 100% after fighting this latest cold.

We planned all week to hike to Kennedy Peak in the George Washington National Forest in a big loop via the Stephens Trail to the Massanutten Trail and back to the car. Kennedy Peak sits atop the eastern arm of the Massanuttens and with its 360-degree view looks east over the Page Valley and Luray to the Blue Ridge beyond as well as west over Fort Valley to the western arm of the Massanuttens.

Places to get down into Fort Valley are limited, hence George Washington's plan to make his last stand there in the Revolutionary War should things have gone south against him. We skirted the western side of the mountains coming south from Winchester on I-81 and crossed at Edinburg Gap (route 675), dropped down into the narrow valley, and then started to climb the eastern mountain range by Camp Roosevelt, the first Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the country during the Depression. Just up the hill from Camp Roosevelt, the yellow-blazed Stephens Trail and the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail converge at route 675 on the Page County and Shenandoah County border. I saw the orange dotted-I blazes along the road before I saw the actual sign for the Massanutten Trail.

Finding the parking lot and trailhead could have been tricky except that I really studied the aerial view on Google Maps and got my landmarks down. The parking lot is at 10.0 miles on the left on route 675 after leaving route 11, up a short driveway beyond a gate and not visible from the road. As soon as you pass Camp Roosevelt, you will see a little pull-out loop on the right. Continuing uphill beyond this loop, you will cross the Page-Shenandoah border and maybe 50 yards further, the driveway to the trailhead goes off to the left. I believe I saw a sign reading "Horse Parking" on 675 at this point. Anyway, there's not much to indicate to hikers that this is the place.

GWNF: Land of the 'i' Blazes
The morning started off cloudy and a bit chilly as you can see in the photo below. After months of seeing Ann hike in shorts and a sports bra, seeing her in a hoodie and long pants is quite a bit different. It didn't take her too long to lose the hoodie and she finally converted her long pants to shorts at the tower up top. At the bottom, we walked from 675 up past where the orange-blazed trail turns right and heads up the hill, through the trailhead parking lot, and out the back (north) side on the yellow-blazed Stephens Trail which skirts the mountain before rejoining the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail on the ridge some five miles hence.

Fall Truly is Here
Though there is not any real color to the leaves yet, the berries along the way are doing their best to make up for it. We could have picked bushels of rose hips along the trail and maybe we should have: they make great jelly. The trails are starting to become more and more covered in fallen brown leaves that obscure any obstacles and after all the recent rain, are very slippery.

Rose Hips Everywhere

False Solomon's Seal Berries
The incessant rains recently have no doubt been good for all manner of fungi and we certainly saw all different kinds. Finding them in enough light to photograph was a challenge. We saw 20 or more kinds of mushrooms, one huge shaggy white specimen was about 10" high and about 8" in diameter. Another group of tall, skinny yellow mushrooms caused us to pause and look at them.

A Bracket Fungus (Turkey Tail, I Think)

Brilliant Orange Jack O'Lantern Mushrooms
And without a lot of blooming wildflowers to distract me, I saw a lot of lichens and mosses that I might not have otherwise focused on. As we climbed out of the sassafras and maple bottom, we climbed through a zone of oaks with the floor littered with mountain laurel and blueberries. Here in the more open oak zone was where we saw the preponderance of lichens, including some vast patches.

Pixie Cup Lichens

Yellow Green Lichen
There were just about exactly three kinds of flowers in bloom: the ever-present white snakeroot with its heart-shaped leaves, gorgeous purple fall-blooming asters, and a couple different kinds of goldenrods. All day, I saw only three other blooming plants: a white aster, an unknown pale lemon yellow bloom looking awfully like a snakeroot bloom, and the odd patch of knotweed, up top on the ridge in the sun.

Asters with Rain Drops

Goldenrod with Bumblebee
The walk along Stephens Trail was fairly flat (though constantly headed up in a gentle climb) and fairly straight through open woods, becoming steep only as it turned east from north and climbed up the mountain to meet with the Massanutten Trail. As we headed up the spur trail to the Kennedy Peak tower, it got fairly rocky and Ann slipped a couple of times, but nothing compared to my big crash later on. The rocks are only an issue up on the ridge.

Rocky Path to Kennedy Peak
The Massanutten Trail is largely a ridgeline trail in these parts and as the day wore on and the weather started to clear, we started to get views of Page Valley and the Blue Ridge to our east. I just love walking along a ridge with the land dropping away on both sides of me. There's a top of the world feeling that I cannot really describe. While the whole of Page Valley started out covered in clouds, as we worked south and up we could start to see the spine of the Blue Ridge sticking out above the tops of the clouds.

Clouds Over Page Valley
By the time we reached the top of Kennedy Peak and the short tower there, built by the CCC in the 1930s, the day had become sunny and the skies a brilliant blue. It was time for lunch and time for Ann to convert her pants into shorts for the afternoon hike back to the car.

Glorious Sky at Kennedy Peak

S. Fork Shenandoah River

Page Valley from Kennedy Peak
A large and vocal group of people were already on the tower eating lunch when we arrived, so we sat below and ate our lunch. As we ate and rested from our hike, we watched scores and scores of hawks soar past us on their way south for the winter. The vast majority of them were broad-winged hawks, but I also saw at least one osprey and a bunch of accipiters, probably sharp-shins. Without binoculars, identifying these raptors on the wing is a bit challenging. Not challenging at all to identify though were the local turkey vultures who almost seemed to be playing, wheeling within feet of our heads, showing why they are the king of all fliers in this part of the world.

Scores of Broad-winged Hawks on Migration

TVs Playing at Kennedy Peak
After lunch, we started back down from the peak towards route 675 and Edith Gap. Soon after, I took my tumble where I skinned my ankle pretty badly. After a mile or so of trail, the singletrack became a jeep trail which we followed out to the road where we had incredible views at the hang glider launch point at Edith Gap. From here, it was a 3/4-mile descent through the woods to the car.

Page Valley from Edith Gap

Notice the 'S' Curve in Right Pole
Back at the Jeep, I couldn't collapse one of my poles because of the damage done when I fell on it. Ann wanted to head straight home after hiking (she's still not 100%) and so we did. I grabbed a beer before heading into the shower to clean my leg up. The beer may have helped a little with the pain but not that much. It's going to be a couple of painful weeks before my road rash heals. The trail may have won this skirmish, but I'll prevail in the end.

Shower Beer-esthesia


  1. Sorry to hear about your fall. I can empathize as I have had several bad ankle sprains in the past and before I get into hiking again, will be shopping for a couple of good walking sticks. Speedy healing!

  2. Thanks for your kind wishes. I highly recommend trekking poles. I am a latecomer to them, but they are really great for taking the pressure off my knees when going downhill.


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