Sunday, May 14, 2017

Laurel Run, Orkney Springs VA

After a week off hiking in North Carolina and southwest Virginia, it was good to be back on our home turf in the George Washington National Forest, west of Woodstock on the VA-WV border, nominally in Orkney Springs, VA. This hike that Ann chose for Mother's Day is number 19 for 2017, the year in which we have committed to 52 hikes, an average of one per week. After a slow start in which we were behind by as many as 5 hikes due to horrible weather and illness, we are back to hike number 19 in week number 19, thanks to all the hikes we crammed in last week.

Thanks to my not paying attention while busy enjoying a conversation with Ann, what was planned to be a shorter hike of about 9 miles ended up being almost 12 (11.8) thanks to a wrong turn. I just don't make navigation mistakes, but I have to own this one. More on this later.

The Payoff on North Mountain
We were hiking just south of Tibbet Knob, starting on a dirt road variously called Farm Road 252, Logging Road 252, or Forest Service Road 252, but not signposted as anything. You see it coming in from the right on the map below, labelled Laurel Run Road. We stopped at the first gate that you see across the road, right where the rightmost edge of the tape is, walked up the road until we saw the trail heading slightly right through the woods. We climbed the mountain to the junction of the trail, the dirt Judge Rye Road (route 691), and the orange-blazed North Mountain Trail. Although the map makes it appear that you might have to road walk 691 for a little, in truth, you never have to get to 691 to turn left on North Mountain Trail.

The North Mountain Trail is a very pleasant ridgewalk at first with great views to the east and then it opens up into more grassy areas and bald-like areas before reaching the purple-blazed Stack Rock Trail which you follow left and down the mountain to the intersection with the dirt road. Don't make the mistake I did and turn right on the dirt road thinking that you are on Laurel Run Road. Turn left and follow the dirt road back to your vehicle. Although it looks like you have to make a hard right turn at the northern end of the Laurel Run Spur Trail to get onto the yellow-blazed Laurel Run Road, no such turn exists. The two trails are the same dirt road and they meet just where you took the yellow-blazed trail slightly right and off into the woods.

After making the wrong turn on the blue-blazed road, we were busy chitchatting away, all the while I was thinking that the landmarks were unfamiliar. I ignored the warning in the pit of my stomach until we got to a place where the blue-blazed Laurel Run Spur Trail started to climb, after about 35 minutes of walking. The trail back to the car should not have climbed at all. After a 35-minute walk, we should have been close to the car. Dumb me. Don't be like me.

Our Hike
Sunday was the first sunny day after three days of a lot of rain. When I made the decision to wear trail runners instead of boots on Sunday morning, I knew I was risking wet feet. And wet feet I had. In the photo below, we had to cross a creek that is clearly much wider than normal. The stones leading across it stopped just over halfway across. I dropped another big rock in the deep water and that foothold let me vault across the remaining water on my trekking poles. Ann just plowed through in her waterproof boots.

Heading up the mountain, the trail masqueraded as a creek or was it a creek masquerading as a trail? I could only avoid the water for so long until the inevitable happened: water in the shoes. Good thing my trail runners dry quickly. One other consequence of all this water was pretty unbearable humidity, especially in the sunnier areas. The trees trapped the evaporating rainwater and at times, it was like walking through a sauna. All this went away once we climbed the hill.

Trail Masquerading as a Creek

Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes
This is a hike of varied habitats. It starts through the woods on a dirt road, seemingly used mostly to give loggers access to various tracts of woodlands. We passed several areas that had been cut in the last five years and some more recently. Each patch was studded with standing trees marked with orange spray paint. And in the thicker trees, some as old as 30-40 years, we could see stumps from old logging operations. It seems to be a well-managed forestry operation. As much as I hate to see wildlife habitat disrupted, we need wood for everything from paper to housing.

The Laurel Run Trail follows the creek of the same name up North Mountain, passing through a couple of fields managed for wildlife. I noticed in the yards leading up to the first field a few Goldstars and then once I got into the field, I found it carpeted in Goldstar blooms. There is something incredibly attractive about both the golden shade of yellow and the six-pointed blooms.

First Wildlife Field

Field Covered in Common Goldstars, Hypoxis hirsuta
I had read in other accounts of this hike about the numbers of pink lady's-slippers to be seen. I only saw one the length of the Laurel Run Trail on the edge of the first wildlife field, but we did see dozens at an equivalent elevation coming back down the mountain on the purple-blazed Stack Rock Trail. These orchids are incredibly beautiful.

First of Many Pink Lady's-slippers, Cypripedium acaule

Group of Four Lady's-slippers

Second Wildlife Field; North Mountain
Azaleas are a pretty common thing in our area, where the soil is acidic enough to support them. With a dozen or more species in Virginia, I have stopped trying to figure out which is which and am just enjoying them. Despite being common in areas around here, we saw only three of them in bloom all day and each of the three was discernably different from the others.

Azalea #1: Blooming Before Leaves

Azalea #2: Blooming with Leaves

Azalea #3: Looking Like Fuchsia
Similar to the azaleas, there are 18 species of Vaccinium listed as native to Virginia and I haven't a clue how to separate them. Vaccinium comprises the blueberries, huckleberries, cranberries, and other such berries. I thought that the pink to almost red blooms on this one and many alongside the trail were beautiful. And as to species, I don't think I really care as long as the fruit is tasty. I can't wait for the crop to ripen.

A Blueberry/Huckleberry, Vaccinium spp.
Just before the yellow-blazed Laurel Run Trail ends at the mountain top, there is a little pond off to the left as you head up the hill. I scared a frog or two and an American Redstart hollered at me from the brush, but there was nothing much doing at this pond. Visit it or not as you see fit.

Pond Just Before Joining North Mountain Trail

North Mountain Trail on VA-WV Border

Wood Anemone, Anemone quinquefolia
The orange-blazed North Mountain trail starts as a classic ridgewalk of the sort that is very common all along the North Mountain range and of the sort that Ann and I really like. There is something fundamentally neat about walking upon the spine of a mountain and having the land fall away on both sides of you. In our case on Sunday, away to Virginia on the left and West Virginia on the right.

Great Place to Take a Break
Soon after starting the ridgewalk, you will see a side trail over to a rock outcropping. The view, looking over at Devils Hole Mountain to the east, was beautiful. As you can see, we could not have asked for clearer skies.

The Money Shot: Looking at Devils Hole Mountain

Coming Back From an Overlook

Eastern Tent Caterpillar, Malacosoma americanum

Queen of Her Domain
Further along, the ridge broadens and seems more like a classic saddle than a ridge. First the trees thin out and are undergrown with lush spring grasses and then the trees fall away, leaving almost a classic bald effect, a field up on a mountain.

Parts of the Ridge are Wide and Grassy

A Bellwort, Uvularia spp.

Wild Pink, Silene caroliniana

Large, Almost Bald Areas Along the Mountain
The open areas are home to a lot of different, less woodland, species of flowers including large mats of dwarf cinquefoils and dove's-foot geraniums.

Field Pennycress, Thlaspi arvense

Plaintain-leaved Pussytoes, Antennaria plantaginifolia

Dove's-foot Geranium, Geranium molle

Mats of Dwarf Cinquefoil, Potentilla canadensis

Early Saxifrage, Micranthes virginiensis
Turning down the mountain onto the Stack Rock trail, we quickly descended and as we gave up elevation, we saw more and more buds on the mountain laurels and the further down we went, the closer and closer to opening they seemed to be. Finally, we came upon a cluster with a single open bloom and then a few yards further along, a single cluster that was about two-thirds open. The coming two weeks should see laurels in all their glory, depending on elevation.

Single Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia, Blossom

About a Week Early for Mountain Laurel
Down where the Stack Rock Trail meets the blue-blazed dirt trail, I've already recounted how we stupidly went right when we should have gone left. The roadwalk is a cakewalk, yet we walked for 35 minutes jabbering away before we knew, with a sinking feeling in our guts, that we had absolutely gone the wrong way. How far can you walk in 35 minutes on a dirt road? At least a mile and a half and maybe more as it turns out.

It was a beautiful day and what the hell, we had to make the most out of it, though I know Ann would have liked to have gotten off her hurt knee earlier. The roadsides were home to great swaths of glowing Golden Ragworts, equally golden buttercups, the odd Goat's Rue, and masses upon masses of blackberries. The berries in the Rubus genus are legion in Virginia, counting about 15 species, and while I can rule out a lot of them, it is hard for me to categorically identify what we saw alongside the road. That said, though, I think many of them were Rubus flagellaris, Common Dewberries.

Roadside and Creekside Packera aurea

Mats of Roadside Blackberries Perhaps Rubus flagellaris

Tall Buttercup, Ranunculus acris
Part of the reason we were so distracted and took the wrong turn is that we were thinking ahead to beer at Woodstock Brew House, a short drive away in downtown Woodstock, near the courthouse. After an extra three miles of walking more than planned, we were extra thirsty when we arrived and fairly hungry too. Because of the graduation and Mother's Day traffic, my restaurant was bombed all weekend and there was no time to think, let alone make lunch for our hike. We subsisted on Clif bars, granola bars, and Lance crackers from our packs until we could get to food. We ended up getting a plate of nachos that sounded awesome on paper, with pulled pork and so forth. In the end, there were a couple of shreds of pulled pork but not enough to sneeze at. Still, as starved as we were, those nachos were not long for this world.

Post Game Location


Casey Jones Vanilla Porter

And that is our saga of the Laurel Run loop. This time of year, with the leaf cover still kind of scant up on the mountain, we had great views. We really enjoyed the wide variety of scenery. Later in the season, this trail would definitely have more of a green tunnel quality and if it hadn't been for the recent rains, all the roadwalking would have been a pain in the butt, with cars kicking up tons of dust. But on Mother's Day, and despite the extra mileage, it was a really enjoyable hike.

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