Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Shenandoah River State Park, Bentonville VA

We did another plan B hike on Sunday for our 12th hike of the year. We had to get a relatively quick hike in before attending the spring barrel tasting at Glen Manor Vineyards, so we intended to hike Big Devils Stairs in Shenandoah National Park beforehand. We tried this hike back in the fall before another event at Glen Manor only to encounter a busload of seniors with the same idea. Sunday, as we approached the entrance to Skyline Drive, we saw that the park rangers had it closed for a bicycle event. Who knew? What are the odds?

Big Devils Stairs is the closest hike to Glen Manor which is why we keep trying to do it before Glen Manor events. It's also a short hike, leaving us plenty of time for the event. It is apparently not to be. Our first stab at a plan B was to drive past Glen Manor into Browntown and try to find the Browntown trailhead so clearly marked on our NGS Appalachian Trail map. The Browntown Trail intersects the AT at Gravel Springs Gap right where the Big Devils Stairs hike commences. We could walk into the park and continue on our hike, if we could just find the trailhead. Despite spending a half an hour searching, we could not find it. If we had just had some cell signal, we could have found GPS coordinates and put them in the Garmin. No luck. No service.

On the side of the road, we evaluated other options and discarded each in favor of a return visit to Andy Guest State Park over on the Shenandoah River. Twenty minutes and one wrong turn later, we pulled up to the entrance gate, paid our fee, and got a trail map. Having been here before, I knew just where to go for a shortish hike of 7 miles.

Shenandoah River State Park: Hike 12
Before getting into the hike proper, I thought I'd throw in this quick snap of one of the robins from our yard. They, a pair of mockingbirds, and a pair of doves are nesting simultaneously at three corners of our pergola. The tomato cages just outside our sunroom window make great perches for the robins as they spy out bugs to eat. This robin entertained us while we packed and coffeed up for our hike.

Coffee with Robins
Our hike went thus: we started at the horse barn, walked Bear Bottom Loop to Big Oak Trail to the start of the Redtail Ridge Trail where we spent a few minutes at the observation point overlooking the river. Then along the ridge on the Redtail Ridge Trail to the Shale Barrens Trail which descends the bluff and dumps out on the gravel road named Culler's Trail. We followed that left to the start of the River Trail which we then followed right and back downstream and around the big bend before rejoining Culler's Trail and following that back to the horse barn where we parked.

Bear Bottom Loop starts in dry upland woods and then gets a bit darker and moister as it winds in and out of creek bottoms. There were no wildflowers to speak of until we got to the damper places and then the trailsides were littered with woodland flowers.

Annie Checking Out a Dogwood

Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida

Trails are Well-Marked

Wild Pink, Silene caroliniana

Star Chickweed, Stellaria pubera

New Fern Growth Unfurling
What looks like a fruit tree (Prunus) and kind of blooms like a Viburnum with waxy 5-petaled blooms? I now know that this very handsome shrub is a Black Haw, a Viburnum.

Black Haw, Viburnum prunifolium
Soon after we started hiking, we came upon an orange and white marker on the trail. No stranger to orienteering, I thought that there was perhaps some kind of orienteering contest happening. A mile or so down the trail, we saw and heard a bunch of people who told us that they were doing an adventure race, hiking/running, canoeing, and biking. We found six of their markers during our trek, but fortunately for our serenity, sometime after 11am, the competitors had moved on from our section of the woods. The last marker we encountered was at the observation point on the Redtail Ridge Trail as we stopped to eat a banana and take in the river vista.

Adventure Race Marker at Observation Point

Shenandoah River Panorama
The observation point is a shale outcropping atop the bluffs overlooking the river. The trees are thin, the locale is much more sunny, and the soil is dry, creating a microclimate for wildflowers dissimilar from all the other microclimates in the park. The buttercups aside, we saw the following flowers only on the shale barrens. And as for the buttercups, I think there are something on the order of 600 species and I am not going to even try to take a stab at which this is. Ours at home in the back yard just started blooming this week and I noticed that Ann had picked herself a bouquet and put them in a vase on the counter.

A Buttercup, Ranunculus spp.

Black Raspberry, Rubus occidentalis
Up on the observation point where the soil is very dry, the ground was covered in blooming penstemons, spiderworts, buttercups, and ragworts.

Gray Beard-tongue, Penstemon canescens

Virginia Spiderwort, Tradescantia virginiana
This is the very same Prickly-pear that I photographed back in July. You know the ground is pretty dry when you find these cacti. Compare the photo with that in July.

Eastern Prickly-pear, Opuntia humifusa
In my post last week, I mentioned that ragworts like to have wet feet. So here I am today eating crow with a photo of a ragwort growing happily on a shale barren in a sunny, dry location. My experience with ragworts until Sunday was that they grew on stream banks. The Shale-barren Ragwort is here to make me look a fool.

Shale-barren Ragwort, Packera antennariifolia
From the ridge above the river, we walked the aptly named Shale Barrens trail down to the sunny flats beside the river where the flora is entirely different from up in the woods.

Common Star-of-Bethlehem, Ornithogalum umbellatum

Juvenal's Duskywing, Erynnis juvenalis on Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata

Dame's Rocket, Hesperis matronalis
Quite sadly, we came upon a dead weasel along the river. I have seen far too few of these voracious predators (and other mustelids) in my life. Even dead, this guy is amazingly beautiful. Quite sad that it is dead.

Long-tailed Weasel, Mustela frenata noveboracensis
While we were looking for Red-headed Woodpeckers (of which we saw a few, but none in close enough range to photograph), Ann heard this Eastern Kingbird call. I expect to see them further downstream as the trail moves into the fields, rather than riverside, but riverside they were.

Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus
This Red-winged Blackbird. Would. Not. Shut. Up. Nor would any of the dozens of others building nests down in the grasses and weeds alongside the river, but this one in particular kept circling and yapping at us. He never would give us the full throttle demo of his red epaulets, though.

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

Celandine Poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum

Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica

Dame's Rocket on the Shenandoah

Beautiful Composition

Floodplain Along the Shenandoah
As we walked further back toward the car, we came across a place where clearly people lived before. The non-native escaped flowers include paperwhite narcissus, Vinca minor, Ajuga reptans (an invasive pain in the butt as far as I am concerned), and an unloved wisteria.

Escaped Narcissus

Escaped Ajuga reptans and Vinca minor

Escaped Wisteria
Further on, the road/trail is lined with fences, cedars, and birdhouses. Although I imagine the houses were set out for bluebirds, the swallows have claimed them. We did see a female bluebird sitting on an owl box a bit later on, but none in this half-mile stretch of nesting boxes. Just about every other fencepost was topped with a swallow as you see in the photo below.

Great Swallow Habitat

Resplendent Tree Swallows, Tachycineta bicolor

The Massanuttens Across the River
Taking leave of the floodplain, we climbed up through the woods back to the car, passing through some dry woods where I finally found a rattlesnake weed in full bloom and in enough sun to photograph. This is a flower that eluded my camera all last summer. Elusive today were pink wood sorrels: I saw them infrequently, but none of the blooms were open yet.

Rattlesnake Weed, Hieracium venosum
Just as we popped out of the woods, an Eastern Phoebe made a fleeting appearance on a branch above the trail. I really like these quiet little flycatchers.

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe
We finished our hike around 2pm and headed to Glen Manor for our 3pm tasting, winding along Bentonville and Browntown roads, arriving about 2:25. We both got glasses of the fantastic 2016 Sauvignon Blanc and settled into the two armchairs to wait for our cellar tasting.

Relaxing at Glen Manor
Down in the cellar we tasted two wines at each of three stations, each wine paired with a bite of food. The first station featured two distinct barrels of Merlot and the second two, two barrels each of Cabernet Sauvignon. Each pair of barrels was different only by the yeast used in fermentation. One barrel was fermented with commercial yeast and the other was a natural fermentation of the yeasts on the grape skins and floating about the winery. It was a great opportunity to taste the difference yeast makes on a wine.

Tasting in the Cellar with Jeff
For the food pairings, I did three and David Gedney of Apartment 2G in Front Royal did three. The two below, I did for the Merlot: a smoked mushroom pâté with pickled blueberries for the naturally fermented wine and chicken rillettes with blueberry compote for the wine fermented with commercial yeast.

Smoked Mushroom Pate; Chicken Rillettes

After our tasting, the winery cleared out very quickly, letting them close at their posted 5pm closing time. When does that ever happen? Our friend Karen and her friend Linda did the tasting before us and met us upstairs afterwards and Kelly introduced us to Leo and Ann, B&B owners from Berkeley Springs where we hiked last weekend. I'm a little hazy on how it all came together, but we all ended up at Pavemint in Front Royal for burgers and beer before heading home.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Cacapon State Park, Berkeley Springs WV

Ever have a day that just doesn't turn out as planned? For us, Easter Sunday, April 16th and the day of our 11th hike of 2017 was just such a day: very little went according to plan. The plan started to fall apart immediately and just kept falling apart during the day. That doesn't mean it wasn't a successful day; it just means that we were executing plan B a lot during the day.

Our main plan for the day was to drive from Winchester the short 26 miles to Cacapon State Park just over the VA-WV border in Morgan County WV, with the closest town being Berkeley Springs WV another 10 miles up US-522. First things first. I had to ask when I first arrived in this area 25 years ago. It is kuh-KAY-pun. We did arrive at the park, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the mid-1930s, without incident, but after having executed plan B for breakfast.

This is a Gem of a State Park
Saturday, as are all spring Saturdays, was busy at the restaurant and found me hopping from task to task all day, without time to consider food for Sunday. I usually make us something for breakfast and/or lunch, but that just wasn't in the cards this weekend. So I thought on Sunday that we could hit Steamy's Café on the way out of town, have a cup of coffee, a breakfast bagel, and get Lenny to make us a couple of bagels for lunch. The only concern was that it was Easter Sunday, so I checked his web site and Facebook page to see if he mentioned being closed for the holiday. No mention.

Sunday morning, we got the dogs walked (the brown dog hopped in the bed at 6:30 just to make sure we were going to get up and feed her) and packed up in short order and arrived in downtown Winchester about 8:15. Sure enough, Steamy's was dark with a small CLOSED note on the front door. No worries: I had actually formulated a plan B in advance for just this case. We walked two blocks down Piccadilly Street to Lloyd's Tropical Island Coffee where Lloyd was just opening up and welcomed us with his trademark warm smile.

Hanging at Lloyd's Tropical Island

Jamaican-Owned Business Much?
Ann got the full treatment for her coffee, both maple syrup and sweetened condensed milk. As a black coffee drinker, I cannot abide any sweetener in my coffee, but clearly she enjoyed hers. We decided to grab some patties for lunch and for breakfast. What else to do in a Jamaican joint? After a couple cups of coffee waiting for the patties to cook, we bought two vegetable patties and two beef ones and took our leave. I ate my vegetable patty in the car on the way; Ann took a couple of bites and I could tell she didn't really like it. To be fair, it wasn't fully baked (I suspect they rushed them for us) and the filling was really gloppy. We both ate our beef patties, with the trademark saffron yellow crust and a much tastier beef filling, for lunch on top of Cacapon Mountain.

Not Fully Baked Jamaican Veggie Patty
Clearly, luck smiled on us and we hit peak Redbud bloom for our hike and the drive up to Morgan County. For miles, the sides of the road were swathed in a flaming pink hedge, a glorious sight to behold. This is one of the things we are going to miss when we relocate to the West Coast. As we turned off 522 onto the park entrance road, we changed from rolling valley to shady woods and lichen-covered boulders. This park, with its Robert Trent Jones golf course, swimming lake with white sand beach, rental cabins, and 20+ miles of hiking trails, is a gem.

As we pulled into the parking lot at the Lodge, just shy of the golf clubhouse, the day was turning warm in a hurry and we had all the windows in the Jeep down. We were wearing just shorts and t-shirts, a big departure from what we have been wearing this spring. I made sure to put on sun block before I left, but I got distracted and failed to do my arms. I would come to regret that later. We were both really warm standing around in the sunshine getting geared up, a harbinger of things to come.

The Day That the Redbuds Were in Full Bloom

Redbud Close Up, Cercis canadensis
A quick walk down the paved road found us at the Laurel Trail trailhead between two of the rental cabins. We quickly entered fairly sterile woods with nothing in bloom except for random red buds and cherry trees. On the ground were just a few purple violets and a few random bluets. Other than that, it was just brown leaves, still dormant trees, and blazing sun.

This Was our Hike: Brown Woods and No Views
It was an easy walk to the Central Trail and then south to Ziler Loop trail, the trail that climbs up and along the ridge of Cacapon Mountain before descending and coming back down by the reservoir. Even before we started to truly climb, I could tell that Annie was not doing well in the heat. Even though it was only about 80 degrees (with very high humidity from the thunderstorms the night before), you have to put that in perspective. The very hottest day this year that we have hiked has had highs almost 20 degrees cooler; to say that we have not yet had time to become habituated to higher temperatures would be an understatement.

First Dogwood, Cornus florida, of the Spring!

Beautiful Cherries in Full Bloom

Baby Cherries
I could feel the heat of the sun scorching me as we walked through the largely leafless canopy. Once we had climbed a few hundred feet, there were no leaves at all. This did make for some good opportunities to watch birds, including this little chickadee that flew right up and started giving us what for.

Chatty Cathy Carolina Chickadee, Poecile carolinensis
In a surprise, as we started to really climb (and the Ziler Trail is pretty steep in parts), we started hearing the first Eastern Towhees of the year (dinosaur that I am, I still call them Rufous-sided Towhees, though scientists have moved on from that nomenclature). They are the bird that we most frequently encounter on our hikes, but which we never see. I went all last year without being able to get a usable photo of these colorful birds who love to skulk in the leaves on the ground. I finally was able to get two males to hold still for me long enough to snap a few frames. I had help with this first guy though: his interest was firmly held by a nearby female to whom he was singing.

Eastern Towhee, Pipilo erythrophthalmus

Another Male Towhee
Thankfully, part of the time there was stiff breeze blowing that helped cool us off. It was hellish warm when that breeze stopped though. But the breeze was just right for a lot of Turkey Vultures that were cruising the hillside.

Lots of Vultures Cruising Cacapon Mountain
On our way back down from the top, a little Chipping Sparrow was busy proclaiming his turf. This was the first one of the year for me, so I guess they're starting to migrate back through. Each year, we seem to have a pair that nests in the crape myrtle in our front yard. I was lucky enough to get a frame of this tiny sparrow singing away.

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

Chipper in Full Voice
The views from the trail were scant and not very good as a rule and when the leaves get on the trees, there really won't be any views at all, so it is hard for me to recommend anyone going out of their way to come hike this trail. If you're in the area, of course, by all means hike it. But honestly, I'd rather walk the golf course: it's a lot more beautiful and you have a chance to see red and flying squirrels along the course. Alas, you'd need clubs in hand and have paid greens fees to do that.

Sleepy Creek Mountain from Trail
From time to time, we got glimpses of the wonderful Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course in the valley below. About fifteen years ago, this was my quasi-home course and I have played many a round here. It's a thoughtfully designed course with its share of quirks, including the vast double green shared by holes 4 and 8, the par 3 number 15 that is two clubs downhill and the site of my best par rescue ever, and the long par 5 number 18 that often plays straight into the wind, necessitating hitting a 2-iron off the tee rather than driver. Geese are a problem here and I actually hit one once with a drive on number 18.

Fifteenth Green?
Enough reminiscing and back to the hike. Climbing the steep hill in the heat really got to Annie. The heat really plays havoc with her health and I could see that her finishing the hike was seriously in question. By the time I pushed on ahead of her to see how far we were from a bailout trail back to the Lodge, I was pretty certain she couldn't climb any further and she even posted such to Facebook while I was gone. It turned out that we were only about 500 yards from the bailout trail with only 200 yards of climb left.

We debated, but ultimately, it was three-quarters of a mile shorter back to the car by finishing the climb rather than turning around. So, yeah, her day was definitely not going as planned and we were planning to execute the plan B bailout trail. Fortunately, clouds were starting to form in the sky and she got about 15 minutes of cloud cover that let her sit, rest, eat a little, get hydrated, and then push on with me to the top. I left my gear at the top and slack-packed it back to her and back to the top again.

A Great Place to Rest
Up at elevation, we saw a few more flowers than down below, but still, not many. My favorite of the day had to be the all blue Birdfoot Violet that reminded me of a Dwarf Crested Iris.

Dwarf Cinquefoil, Potentilla canadensis

Trailing Arbutus, Epigaea repens

Birdfoot Violet, Viola pedata

A Crested Iris-Like Birdfoot Violet, Viola pedata

Common Violets (Viola sororia)

Rue Anemone, Thalictrum thalictroides

Pussytoes in Pine Straw, Antennaria spp.
There is a bench at the intersection of the Ziler Loop Trail (the one we were hiking) and the Ziler Trail that bails out straight down the mountain. Our original plan was to finish the loop but with the overheating, we were looking at bailing down the Ziler Trail. But, sitting on the bench and looking at the topo map, bailing out would mean giving up 8-900 feet of elevation in a half a mile or so and that is wicked steep. Continuing on would mean a little longer walk, but more a more gentle descent (though it would prove to be steep in some sections). Having rested, eaten lunch, and cooled off, we decided not to bail out and to finish the loop as planned. My knees are thankful.

Down the hill, we started to lose the breeze and it was starting to get warm again. We needed to find water for Annie to cool off in and we quickly came to the reservoir and the creeks feeding into it.

The Reservoir at Cacapon
While I was shooting this photo, Ann asked, "Isn't that a goose over there?" meaning the very far right of the frame below. And sure enough, it was a goose sitting on her nest. The gander seemed uncharacteristically far away at the far end of the reservoir, but I imagine he could still get to the nest in a hurry if she were threatened in any way. If you have never had the pleasure of encountering a pissed off goose/gander protecting goslings, may you never have that particular pleasure.

Cattails and Pines

Eagle Eye Annie Spotted This Goose

Ecstatic to Have Found Water
Once our hike was over, I wanted to drive to the top of Cacapon Mountain to the overlook from which you can see Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and of course, West Virginia. The road is gated in the winter, keeping vehicles from making the nearly 5-mile drive to the top. However, we found out from a couple in the parking lot that the gate had been unlocked since the first of April and we were in luck. This is one part of our day that didn't involve plan B (driving up to Panorama Peak would have been plan B). The view, by mid-afternoon with it mostly cloudy and spitting rain drops, wasn't as fabulous as it could have been, but how many other times and places can you stand in a single location and view four states?

Sleepy Creek Mountain

Sign Shows the Four States in View
From the park, we drove north to Berkeley Springs to have a post-hike beer at Berkeley Springs Brewing, but we found them dark, in spite of wording on their web site that lead us to believe that they were indeed open on Easter Sunday. Plan B, once again. We headed back to Winchester to have nachos, share a burger, and try some beers at 50/50 Taphouse. The nachos sucked so never again for us, but the Gouda burger was one of the best we've had there.

Ann is still branching out trying to discover what she likes in beer. I had two pints of Blue Mountain (Afton, VA) A Hopwork Orange, an orange-infused IPA. Ann had two different beers: Derrig the Giant, an Irish red ale from Chaos Mountain Brewing in Callaway, VA, and a Scotch ale from Brothers Brewing in Harrisonburg, VA. I'm not a fan of big malty beers, but Annie sure seems to like them.

Annie Goofing with the Nachos
And there you have the tale of our Easter Sunday that didn't go as planned but was still a great day. Any day on the trail is a great day!

Our 52-Hike Challenge 2017

On January 1, 2017 as Ann and I were headed to Harper's Ferry WV for our first hike of 2017, Ann told me of something she read about on ...