Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Little Crease Mountain to High Peak, GWNF

With the rain forecast for early in the day on Sunday, we decided that we would do an afternoon hike for our fourth hike of the 2017 52 Hike Challenge. And because we had dinner plans with Jeff and Kelly in Front Royal after our hike and after the winery closed for the day, we decided to hike George Washington National Forest between Strasburg and Front Royal.

After a late awakening and a leisurely pot of coffee, we drove in the rain into Winchester to Steamy's to have a breakfast bagel of egg, bacon, and cheese with proprietor Lenny Sweet. I had on my chef shoes over my hiking socks and quite apparently there is a hole in the sole of my chef shoes. Predictably, my sock was soaked walking to and from breakfast and I had to change it out when we arrived at the Elizabeth Furnace day use area in Fort Valley, my right foot cold and miserable.

The very real threat of rain (though we only had sprinkles for about 10 minutes twice during the hike) was enough for me to leave the big Nikon at home and only bring the iPhone. Many was the time I was wishing for a big lens during the day.

Ann on the Peak of Little Crease Mountain
When we arrive at the trailhead in the George Washington National Forest, there is often a kiosk that has a map of the surrounding area which I always photograph with my phone as a useful reference during our hike, without having to pull the topo map out. I didn't notice until much later (we didn't need the map at all) that this particular map is useless for most of the hikes departing from the Elizabeth Furnace area, those to the east. As an aside, we have hiked pretty much all of the trails shown on this map in the last year. You can see that our route for the day, up to Sherman Gap and back along the ridge to Shawl Gap is way off the map to the right. Good job USFS!

Non-Helpful Map
The Elizabeth Furnace day use/picnic area is situated on the banks of Passage Creek, with a short entrance road leading east off Fort Valley Road over Passage Creek to a main parking area on the far side of the creek. In the winter, the bridge is gated and there is no automobile access to the main parking area so you have to park in the spaces before the bridge and walk in.

On a really crappy rainy day, we saw a lot of cars in the parking lot before the bridge, a lot more than we would have expected. As we were gearing up, a couple walked up to a nearby vehicle wearing waders and bearing fly rods. Then I started figuring out why all the vehicles were there, especially when we walked by the signs below on our way to the creek.

Passage Creek is a Favorite Trout Stream
The photo below is one of those for which I wish I had my big Nikon. There is something really nice about the symmetry of the horizontal lines of the fallen tree, its reflection, the fly rod, and Fort Valley Road above.

Fly Fisherman, Passage Creek
The start of our day was in mist with the threat of rain, though the bulk of the rain had fallen and stopped 20 minutes before our arrival. It was tough to figure out how to dress for such a day. We started cool and rainy with temperatures expected in the mid-50s coupled with thundershowers and late in the day, very gusty winds.

Rainy and Muddy Start to the Day
We left from the southeast corner of the main parking lot on a white-blazed trail (which may be called the Botts trail). The walk south along Passage Creek from Elizabeth Furnace was beautiful and peaceful despite the weather and the inherent sloppiness of the trail. I had expected to see beaver sign along the creek and remarked to Ann as we stopped to take this photo that I was surprised that we had not.

Peaceful Passage Creek
 Not two minutes later, we came across abundant beaver sign, just to make a fool of me.

No Sign of Beavers Here
From the creek, the white-blazed trail starts to climb gently and merges with the pink-blazed Sherman Gap Trail at the site of the monument shown below. The monument indicates that the Old Dominion 100-Mile Endurance Run cares for this section of trail and it is very well maintained indeed. This trail heads south and upwards but gently for a good long stretch before turning due east and heading straight up the mountain in a very steep climb.

Ann and I found it to be all the climb we wanted to take on. From the Old Dominion web site: "The next three miles are best left undescribed but are summed up in the phrase “Sherman Gap”. Rumor has it that the gap was not named for any great explorer but rather for the first (and possibly the last) endurance race runner to try to run up it. It is said that you can see his grave ten feet from the top, especially if you are one of the masses trying to do this part of the course in the dark."

Monument Marking Start of Sherman Gap Trail
About halfway up, we climbed through the clouds and into some vicious sun. You can see that Ann is down to a T-shirt and shorts.

Hot Climb Above the Clouds

Old Dominion 100-Miler Blaze
After the bitchy climb, we crested the ridgeline at Sherman Gap where the Sherman Gap trail we were following intersects the Tuscarora Trail (blue blazes) and the Massanutten Trail (orange blazes).

One Tree, Four Blazes
We headed south on the ridge trail to climb Little Crease Mountain and to go see if we could see the Shenandoah River (doubtful with all the cloud cover). The trail up Little Crease is fairly rocky as you see in the photo below and as you can see from Ann's rain jacket, it had started raining again. All along the creek and at various places, we would see entire hillsides of lichen-covered rocks such as the ones that Ann is traversing below.

Climbing Little Crease

Lichen Detail
Once up at the summit of Little Crease, we could look north back along the ridgeline on which we were hiking. Because we were above the clouds, we could see High Peak and Buzzard Rocks well to our north. Later in the afternoon, we would be walking the ridgeline to the gap (Shawl Gap) between the two peaks before dropping left and west down the mountain and back to the car.

High Peak and Buzzard Rocks above the Clouds
At Little Crease, the trail heads due east along the ridge line before turning once again south. After about a half a mile hike, we came to a set of rocks adjacent to a large camp site, the halfway and turn-around point for our hike. These rocks overlook the Page Valley and the Shenandoah River below. Alas, the valley was all fogged in, but the views of the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah National Park across the Valley were all the more stunning for poking up through the clouds.

Lunch Spot Overlooking Page Valley

The Shenandoah River, Not So Visible
While we were getting breakfast at Steamy's, we asked Lenny to make us a couple of bagels for lunch because with all the preparation for the huge Valentine's Day weekend, I simply did not have any time at work on Saturday to make us anything for lunch. These bagels had smoky ham, cheese, avocado, and red onion and were quite possibly the finest lunch I had all day! It is amazing how much better any food tastes after a long haul up a mountain!

Bagel in Paradise
By the time we finished lunch, it was already 3:15 in the afternoon and with about three hours left to get back to the car, I was starting to worry about daylight, not to mention that we had planned to meet Jeff and Kelly at PaveMint in Front Royal at 6:00. We started hoofing it back as quickly as the rocks would let us, but there were long stretches along the ridge where we just couldn't make any time for all the extremely slippery rocks.

The closer we got to the northern end of our ridge hike, the more the rocks started encroaching on the trail and the more and more it reminded me of walking a little further north near Buzzard Rocks. Beautiful, but hard to make time on a trail like this. Ultimately, we skirted around the eastern flank of High Peak on the combined Massanutten/Tuscarora trail and reached the gap or saddle at Shawl Gap where a white-blazed trail continues north on up to Buzzard Rocks, while the combined trail dives down the hillside back to Elizabeth Furnace where we left our car.

The large rocks and the endless switchbacks coming down the hill were a pain in the ass. We stuck to the orange-blue trail but I think if I were to do it again, rather than making huge and seemingly pointless switchbacks on that trail, I would take the old and unmaintained jeep trail straight down to the picnic ground at Elizabeth Furnace to save at least a half an hour of frustration.

This being our first trip to the Elizabeth Furnace day-use area, we did not know that there was an actual furnace here, a large stone furnace for smelting pig iron. Apparently, the Union did not take too kindly to the Rebs making ordnance here during the Civil War and trashed it. I would have liked to have spent a minute or two looking about, but it was dark and we had a dinner date for which we were already late.

There is a Pig-Iron Furnace at Elizabeth Furnace

Taken in Near Darkness
It was nearly 5pm when we hit Shawl Gap and we texted Kelly to let her know that we were going to be late to dinner, there still being a two-mile hike down the mountain to go. As it turns out, she texted us back that the winery got slammed and she and Jeff were running equally late. Coming down, most of our walk was in twilight with sunset officially at 5:47, though the sun had long been behind the western ridges. We arrived at the car at 6:07 and started off on the 20-minute drive in to Front Royal. We and Jeff and Kelly would arrive within minutes of each other about 6:30.

Ahh! Schlafly Grapefruit IPA

It wasn't too much of a party at PaveMint. We were all very happy to see each other, but Jeff was clearly exhausted and Kelly was done after a long week at the winery. I was whipped after a huge Saturday night at the restaurant and hiking all afternoon. And Ann and I were both beat and beat up after our hike, our legs and joints aching despite our best effort at anesthetizing them with beer. We left at 8:30 to get home just at hiker midnight, 9pm, and after a quick shower and a little light reading, were passed out by 10pm. A good day, but neither of us are in a hurry to tackle Sherman Gap again in the near future.

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