Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Paine Run/Blackrock/Trayfoot Mountain, SNP

Alone Atop Blackrock Summit
Saturday morning, Ann got up to have coffee with me before I headed off for the final work day of the week at the restaurant. Thinking about our 6th hike of our 2017 52-Hike Challenge just before I left, I said, "We need to get up early tomorrow and get on the road." After pausing a couple of beats, she said, "Ugh!" You might think that she was reacting to getting up early on a Sunday, but I was on the same mental wavelength with her and I said, "We have Thermoses, don't we?" I just knew she was thinking about the miserable coffee and breakfast experience we had at Sheetz last weekend. I think it's time to face that fact that we are, if not coffee snobs, at least hardcore coffee aficionados. "We can brew a pot while we are packing the car and take it with us," I offered, "And I can make us some breakfast today at work."

Lox and Smoked Bluefish Cream Cheese Sandwiches
And so it was that we started thinking about our hike a day early, a hike that would be our first foray into the southern district of Shenandoah National Park. We set off down I-81 about 8:30am for the long ride armed with coffee and sandwiches of lox and smoked bluefish cream cheese. At Weyer's Cave just south of Harrisonburg, we would leave the interstate and head east to Grottoes and thence to the western boundary of the park a few miles south and east of Grottoes, a straight shot to the dead end on Horsetail Rd. We weren't exactly sure where the trailhead was but it turned out that when the dirt road ended in a little cul-de-sac, the trail was the continuation of the road. It could not have been easier to find.

Most hikes in SNP start on Skyline Drive. I'm not a fan. Invariably, you head downhill (at the top, there's nowhere to go but down, unless you are ridgewalking the AT or a parallel trail) when you are fresh only to have to climb back to your vehicle at the end of your hike. Much better in my opinion to start at a park boundary, climb to Skyline Drive while you are fresh, and then be left with a downhill walk at the end of your day.

Our hike would take us northeast up Paine's Run to Skyline Drive and the Appalachian Trail. After following the AT north to Blackrock Summit, we would head west towards Furnace Mountain but turn off before getting there to walk along the ridge of Trayfoot Mountain southwest back towards the car. This is not a common hike and so finding maps and trail descriptions was a bit of a struggle.

The weather this winter has been nuts. It is still February; it hit 75 degrees this week; and the daffodils have started blooming. Fortunately for us, a cold front blew through about 1pm on Saturday bringing a little thunder, some gusty winds, black clouds, a few spatters of rain, and thankfully, cooler temperatures. We walked Sunday under bright blue skies with slightly gusty winds with temperatures in the 40s; all in all, a great day to be on the trail.

Fording Paine's Run
Paine's Run is a beautiful gurgling little creek that apparently runs along the border between Rockingham County and Augusta County as it falls down from the mountains. The trail up from the end of the road to Skyline Drive and the Appalachian Trail is constantly uphill, but very gentle. It was a harbinger of what would be a very easy 10-mile walk on the day. This yellow-blazed trail allows horses and it was clear from the hoof prints and the horse apples that it is well-used by equestrians, though none were about on Sunday.

Paine's Run is a Beautiful Stream
As we climbed up the hill, we could see several rock formations on the hillside opposite, on Trayfoot Mountain. We would return through these rock formations at the end of our hike.

Rock Formations on Trayfoot Mountain
As we walked up the gentle grade towards Skyline Drive, Ann said to me that she thought we ought to change the name of this blog, an idea that had been percolating in the back of my mind for some time. Originally conceived to document our forays into food and drink, the name Mangia e Beve, while perfect for that, no longer seems to encompass our lives, especially our life on the trail. For many minutes we debated new names and themes, not really getting to a resolution.

We might have come to some idea about rebranding the blog, but that will have to wait. As we climbed to about 3000 feet up on the mountain, just below Skyline Drive, our phones got signal and they both started blowing up simultaneously with message after message and voicemail after voicemail. My mother had died suddenly in her sleep.

I suppose if you must get such terrible news, it isn't so bad to get it on a gorgeous day, out on the side of a mountain, all alone except for your best hiking buddy/friend/wife. After a bit of a daze and a phone call to my sister, there was nothing for it except to push on up the hill. Nothing we could do would change what had happened and I needed to walk.

Blackrock Gap, 700 Feet Below the Summit
Not two or three minutes after restarting our hike, we came upon the parking lot at Blackrock Gap on the western side of Skyline Drive. It was pretty easy to spot the white blaze across the road for the Appalachian Trail, which we took north in an easy walk, climbing gently all the way, just over a mile to Blackrock Summit. The AT started following Skyline Drive as you see in the photo, but stayed west of the pavement as Skyline Drive turned eastward. There was no car traffic so road noise wasn't an issue on this hike as it typically is on the AT in Shenandoah National Park.

On the AT Headed to Blackrock Summit
Just before reaching the summit, you will come to a four-way intersection. If you are northbound on the AT, the Trayfoot trail heads left down the hill and right up to the Blackrock parking lot. Even though you are headed to Trayfoot and ought to be heading left, you really want to stay straight on the AT here. Very quickly you will come to the summit and you will see the Trayfoot Spur trail heading west off the mountain. This is the trail you will take to Trayfoot. But first, keep going around the corner to your right to see all the vistas Blackrock has to offer, before backtracking to the spur.

The higher we climbed the more we could see what looked to be rockslides on the sides of Trayfoot Mountain. These are in truth scree fields made of very large boulders, though that is impossible to tell from a distance. It was only as we climbed to Blackrock Summit, itself a rock scramble of a scree field, that we could gauge the size of the rocks. These appear to be a form of sandstone (NPS says it is quartzite from highly compressed quartz sand) from an old seabed that tends to fracture into blocks. From the rusty color of a lot of blocks, I surmise that there is a fair amount of iron lurking in this stone. As you can see in the photo below, some blocks are nearly as tall as Ann.

Approaching Blackrock Summit

Looking Southwest Down Paine Run; Trayfoot Right
Given Blackrock Summit's very close proximity to Skyline Drive, we were fortunate to have it almost to ourselves. We met a young family just leaving as we were approaching and three other hikers came south down the AT, but did not linger (Why people? It's gorgeous here!), as we were scrambling to the very top.

Northwest from Blackrock

Summit Marker at AT-Trayfoot Spur Junction

On the Rockpile

Annie Bundled Against the Wind
After winding around the summit on the AT, we backtracked a few yards to a decent enough looking spot, just opposite the junction of the Trayfoot Spur and started scrambling to the top. The huge rocks were a good bit tougher for Ann to climb than for my huge self. I climbed all the way to the top for the incredible 360-degree views.

After 20 minutes or so on the summit, it was time to get down out of the wind and find a more sheltered spot for lunch. Taking the Trayfoot spur trail west down from the summit through the boulder field, we found a small north-facing cliff face on which to sit and enjoy our lunch of baked orzo with ricotta and salsa bolognese, finished with an almond-fudge cookie. Who says we don't eat well?

Funny story about the pasta. On the way up, just before we got into the thick of our discussion about renaming the blog, we were talking about pasta and when we last had real pasta. Although we love it dearly, we're both still some pounds too heavy (but lots lighter than at this time last year) and it's not on the diet. We both had a good laugh when I asked what the odds were that I brought pasta for lunch: Ann because she knew it was impossible and I because I knew I had small containers of pasta hidden in my pack. With all the calories we are burning, we can eat a bit of pasta now and again. Who would have thought that cold pasta could taste so good?

Trayfoot Ahead, Taking the Spur
After lunch, we continued on west around the northern shoulder of Trayfoot, which you see in the photo above. Although it looks pretty high, it is only 300 feet above us with most of that elevation gain coming in the last tenth of a mile to the summit. That was the only steep gradient of the day and it was very, very short. Once at the summit, which you reach almost immediately at the northern end of Trayfoot, it is a long slow descent over about three miles back to the car along the ridgeline. Out east are decent enough views to see how high we are above Skyline drive off in the distance. I imagine that this ridgeline trail becomes a long green tunnel when the leaves are out, so it is another trail best hiked in winter.

Skyline Drive Below in the Distance

A White Polypore?
Once we neared the southern end of the mountain, the trail started weaving in and out of the rock formations, making for a very interesting ridgeline hike, before dropping off the end of the hill and quickly back down to the creek. We encountered five hikers on this part of the trail, coming up from where we parked the car; otherwise, we had the trail all to ourselves. It was a beautiful day for a hike and though ours was the lone car at the trailhead when we left, there were 7-8 others there when we finished around 2:30pm.

Trayfoot Trail Weaves Among the Rocks
We had decided to stop for a beer in Harrisonburg on the way back to Winchester. The original plan was to stop at Three Notch'd Brewing's Harrisonburg outpost and see what their beer was all about with a potential stop later at Brothers Brewing. We ended up liking Three Notch'd so much that we stayed for a second beer and decided to forego Brothers, whose beers we have had on numerous occasions.

Three Notch'd Brewing's Industrial Vibe

Minute Man New England Style IPA

Jack's Java Espresso Stout
Annie got Jack's Java Espresso Stout which was pretty amazing. We've poured both Troeg's Java Head and Monocacy's Brewtus Coffee Imperial Stout at the restaurant and both are excellent beers. Jack's is both creamier and more coffee-flavored. No secret that I'm a big hops guy. The bartender said he had just the beer for me and brought me a taste of Minute Man IPA. I was dubious because the chalkboard description for this beer read "20 IBU" and most of the beers I have been drinking recently are in the 100+ category.

I was so confused by the fresh citrus hop nose and the fresh hops on the palate that I actually went back up to the bartender to ask him how a beer that is less bitter than their stout can have so much hop character and such a wonderful hop nose. The beer is dry hopped after the wort is cooled, giving it a lot of aromatics without the bitterness from boiling the hops. I'm a believer. This beer was awesome.

Awesome Post Hike Beer Drinking Recliners!
How cool was it that they have recliners for us to relax in après hike? Two beers, a decent hike, and some crushing news and I was spent. Ann drove us home up I-81. We spent a half an hour mired in ten miles of stop-and-go traffic because of an accident near Maurertown. I didn't bank on that and with two beers on board, we had to make a screaming emergency restroom exit in Stephens City. Whew!


  1. Looked like another great hike but such sad news. I am so sorry to learn of your mother's passing. My deepest condolences.

  2. Thank you very much. We are just back from the funeral.


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