Taking a Hike – Shenandoah National Park

Old Rag Boulders

Old Rag Boulders

My newspaper column – Taking a Hike – was published last week. This month it is about Shenandoah National Park, and in particular a wonderful hike-scramble up Old Rag Mountain. You can find the column at Hersam Acorn (A hike in Shenandoah National Park) and The Hour (Taking on our closest national park).

I started the column by saying we don’t have many national parks near where I live (southwest Connecticut). Even as I wrote, I imagined a particular acquaintance of mine firing back, “Now wait a minute, you have one 7.5 miles up the road, in your own town”. My defense was that Weir Farm is a national historic site, not the same thing as a park even if it is run by the National Park Service and even if it does have a trail or two. My acquaintance, by the way, works for the NPS at Weir Farm.

This little dialog with myself set me to checking what else the NPS has in Connecticut. I found five “parks” on its website, of which I had heard of two (Weir Farm and the Appalachian Trail). What might the others hold for hikers?

The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail (wow!), to judge from the website, is more an idea than a park, a road route at most for the time being. What about the Quinebaug & Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage Corridor then? Any good hiking there? There probably is, but since this “special kind of park” appears to consist of the northeast of Connecticut in its entirety, I doubt the trails have the customary NPS “look & feel”. In fact, the NPS website directs you to a third-party (The Last Green Valley) to find out what to do in this heritage corridor.

This left the New England National Scenic Trail – “From the Sound to the Summits: the New England Trail covers 215 miles from Long Island Sound across long ridges to scenic mountain summits in Connecticut and Massachusetts”. This sounded promising, a whole new mega-trail to explore! But then its route looked strangely familiar, little more than the established Metacomet and Mattabesett “blue-blazed” trails; and indeed the NPS site sends you to the stewards of the Blue-Blazed Trails if you click “Learn About the Park”.

Talcott Mountain on the Metacomet Trail — courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and “Jehochman”

Talcott Mountain on the Metacomet Trail — courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and “Jehochman”

So what does all this mean? (1) The NPS brands projects that it does not really manage (the A.T. itself is a case in point). I am sure this serves a purpose, and the NPS is still probably my favorite government agency. (2) I stick by my opinion that Shenandoah NP is the nearest true national park to home. And (3) I hope to post here soon about hiking the New England National Scenic Trail, although I doubt I will call it that.

Evening Hike, Devil’s Den, Weston CT – May 20th

AMC-logoJoin me if you can on Wednesday for an Appalachian Mountain Club CT Chapter hike in the Devil’s Den. Details from the AMC announcement below.

C2C means <5 miles, fast pace, average terrain. There is no need to be an AMC member. Bugs likely.

Sunset on HiltebeitelWed., May 20. “Sunset on Hiltebeitel” (C2C) , Devil’s Den, Weston CT. Good forecast, let’s take an evening hike in the Devil’s Den Preserve with a view to enjoying the sinking sun on the ridge traversed by the Hiltebeitel Trail. We’ll cover 3.5-4.0 miles of mostly gentle grades in about 1.5 hrs, stopping at vistas along the way. Meet Pent Road parking area 6:00 p.m. for 6:15 sharp departure. NOTE THAT GODFREY ROAD BRIDGE IS OUT. YOU WILL NEED TO APPROACH PENT ROAD FROM THE EAST (NEWTOWN TURNPIKE / RTE 53). Lead Rob McWilliams (203-434-0297, robert.c.mcwilliams@gmail.com). Co-Lead welcome. Call Rob to car-pool from Rte 7 commuter parking lot next to Orem’s Diner, Wilton. Heavy rain cancels.


Day Hike Notes – Shenandoah A.T.

Looking north from Hawksbill Summit

Looking north from Hawksbill Summit

I posted a week ago about hiking Old Rag Mountain with Mike and Lou. Mike is a friend from schooldays who I had not seen in 37 years. The next day, Lou – Mike’s partner – decided to take a horseback ride out of Skyland Resort, but before doing so she drove Mike and I to a point on the Appalachian Trail near Big Meadows. From there we hiked back to the resort, leaving the A.T. for a mile or two to take in Hawksbill Summit on a side trail. Lou rejoined us for an evening walk up Stony Man Mountain.

All of our route was within a mile of Skyline Drive. I had assumed the tourist road would impinge on the trail. It didn’t. Maybe this was because Mike and I were mostly distracted by nostalgia, or because it was mid-week in April. I have certainly read about grousing from thru-hikers who hit this section of A.T. in early summer.

DATE: Wednesday, April 22nd.
START: A.T. just south of Big Meadows.
FINISH: Stony Man Mountain, immediately north of Skyland Resort.
ROUTE: Straight up the A.T. (south to north), with “longcut” over Hawksbill Summit.
DISTANCE: 9-10 miles to Skyland Resort, plus 1.6-mile loop of Stony Man.
TIME: 5 hours to Skyland Resort, 1 hour on Stony Man.
TERRAIN: Up and down between 2,900 feet and 4,050 feet (Hawksbill Summit).
MAP: Appalachian Trail map for SNP Central District.

WEATHER: Sunny, then sunny with showers. Very breezy on summits.
WILDLIFE: I am sure there were deer.


Evening light in Shenandoah Valley from Stony Man Mountain

Evening light in Shenandoah Valley from Stony Man Mountain

BREAKFAST: Muesli and coffee at Big Meadows Campground before meeting Mike and Lou at the resort.
LUNCH: Hunkering in the shelter beneath Hawksbill.
UPS: Reveling in schooldays reminiscence with Mike.
DOWNS: Can’t think of any.
KIT: Hike was a case in point for layers; mostly mild but numbingly cold when caught by the strong wind. I did not carry gloves, but would have welcomed them on Hawksbill.
COMPANY: Mike, Lou, plus a few other hikers.

Radio Arts & Leisure, May 1st

HAN RadioOn Friday, I took part in a radio show for the first time, nattering for a while about hiking. The show was Radio Arts & Leisure, on HAN Radio, a local (southwest Connecticut) online station. It is part of Hersam Acorn Newspapers which, along with The Hour of Norwalk, publishes my Taking a Hike column each month.

Click here if you would like to listen to the podcast of the show (my segment starts at minute 29:00). If HAN Radio is on air, better to pause the broadcast before starting the podcast unless you are good at listening to two soundtracks at once.

I talked a little about hike preparation and trail etiquette, before suggesting three hikes in western Connecticut. If you are interested in the hikes, there are articles for each as follows:

EASY – Aspetuck Valley Trail, September 2014
MODERATE – Devil’s Den Great Ledge, December 2012
TOUGH – Bear Mountain and Lions Head, April 2013

My thanks to Sally and Steve for having me on the show. I’m looking forward to the next time!

Day Hike Notes – Old Rag Mountain

Old Rag Mountain, Virginia

Old Rag Mountain seen from Skyline Drive.

Until two weeks ago, I had visited Shenandoah National Park twice. The first time, in March 1994, my wife and I drove the length of Skyline Drive with a six-month-old baby for company. Baby had a cold. The second time, in May 2014, I drove the length of Skyline Drive with my 20-year-old daughter for company, the snuffely baby all grown up. On neither occasion did we stop to hike. And in all the intervening years I had never thought of SNP as a hiking destination. In my mind, the park was Skyline Drive, and any hikes it might offer would be within sight and sound of the tourist road.

Then, last year, a friend from schooldays in England who I had recently reconnected with online, said he hoped to make a first visit to the US in April 2015 to see his son graduate from a Virginia college. Over the course of 12 months, this became a plan to meet in SNP and start the work of catching up on 37 years. Mike and his partner Lou liked to hike, so we set about the work on the trails.

DATE: Tuesday, April 21st.
START & FINISH: Parking area on Virginia SR 600, eastern edge of SNP.
ROUTE: Clockwise loop using SR 600, Ridge Trail, Saddle Trail, then Weakley Hollow Fire Road back to SR 600.
DISTANCE: 9 miles.
TIME: About 6 hours.
TERRAIN: The summit of Old Rag is 2,300 feet above the parking area, but both ascent and descent are mostly quite gradual, and on good trails. BUT, in the words of the National Park Service, there is “a strenuous rock scramble that requires good upper body strength”. Too true! On the approach to the summit, there is in fact a lengthy stretch involving multiple scrambles that require all kinds of body contortions. It is the only tough part of the hike, but it is tough. Check out what Ranger Bob has to say about Preparing to Hike Old Rag Mountain.
MAP: We used the Appalachian Trail map for SNP Central District. Old Rag is not on the A.T. but the map covers other SNP trails.

“In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, On the trail of the lonesome pine …”

“In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, On the trail of the lonesome pine …”

WEATHER: Perfect.
WILDLIFE: Turkey vultures and unidentified raptors.

BREAKFAST: For me, muesli and coffee before driving to the trailhead.
LUNCH: Assorted trail food on the summit, looking toward the ridge 4-5 miles west that carries (mostly invisible) Skyline Drive.
UPS: Mike and Lou’s obvious enjoyment of the hike and scene.
DOWNS: If I have to find something, feeling my knees a bit and wondering if they might one day become the first part of my body to need replacement.
KIT: Fleece needed at the summit. Poles a hindrance on the scrambles (mine no longer collapse properly).
COMPANY: Mike and Lou, of course, plus a quantity of other hikers that was less than a crowd but more than a smattering.

Taking a Hike – Spring Survey Hikes

The CT Appalachian Trail near Falls Village in late March

The CT Appalachian Trail near Falls Village in late March

When I took the hikes that I later wrote about for my “Taking a Hike” column, winter was retreating ever so slowly. Up on the Connecticut Appalachian Trail on March 28th, there was plenty of snow on the ground and more coming down. At the Devil’s Den in Weston – 40 miles farther south and 1,000 feet lower in elevation – things were better a few days later, but the signs of spring were still tentative.

I knew that everyone around here was sick of winter, and tried to look forward in the article to warmer outings. Indeed, the hikes I took were to check out the trails for the peak hiking season. The newspapers that publish the column must have known too that their readers would skip anything wintery, as they gave the column upbeat, forward-looking titles. It was published last week in The Hour as The sounds of spring on the trail, and by Hersam Acorn as Looking ahead to snow-less days. Enjoy.

Saugatuck Trail in early April, Devil's Den, Weston CT

Saugatuck Trail in early April, Devil’s Den, Weston CT

January’s “Taking a Hike” – Bennett’s Pond State Park and Saugatuck Falls Natural Area in Ridgefield and Redding CT respectively – is now available in full on this site (via the Taking a Hike tab – 2015: “Jan – Bennett’s Pond” – or by clicking here).

Evening Hike, Bennett’s Pond and Pine Mountain, Ridgefield CT – April 15th

AMC-logoJoin me if you can tomorrow for an Appalachian Mountain Club Connecticut Chapter hike in Bennett’s Pond State Park and Pine Mountain open space. Details from the AMC announcement below.

B2B means 5-8 miles, fast pace, strenuous terrain, although we will be very close to C3C (<5 miles, moderate pace, average terrain). There is no need to be an AMC member.

Wed., Apr. 15. Bennett’s Pond and Pine Mountain, Ridgefield (B2B), Connecticut, West of River, CT. Make the most of forecast sunny skies with an evening hike to a scenic overlook (Ives Site). We will hike through Bennett’s Pond State Park into Pine Mountain open space, covering approximately 5.0 miles of mostly gentle grades in about 2.5 hrs (including break at overlook). There is one steep ascent, and one steep descent. Short muddy sections possible. Meet Bennett’s Pond SP parking on Bennetts Farm Road, Ridgefield, 4:30 p.m. for 4:45 sharp departure (sunset is 7:33 p.m.) Co-Lead welcome. Call Rob if interested to car-pool from Rte 7 commuter parking lot near Orem’s Diner, Wilton. Heavy rain cancels. L Rob McWilliams (203-434-0297, robert.c.mcwilliams@gmail.com)

Bennett Ponds from Pine Mountain, Ridgefield CT

Bennett Ponds from Pine Mountain, Ridgefield CT