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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Hiking, Part 5

Crooked Run Valley from Sky Meadows State Park

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Words and images

Today's sojourn took me to Sky Meadows State Park near Delaplane, Virginia.  The Park, located south of the intersection of US 50 and US 17, was established when Paul Mellon, heir to the Mellon banking empire, donated 1,132 acres to the state of Virginia in 1975.  The park was expanded twice, once to encompass the section of the Appalachian Trail nearby, and again when Mellon donated an additional 248 acres.  The park now encompasses 1,862 acres beginning in Crooked Run Valley and ending along a ridge to the west.  The park property also includes an area on the east side of US 17, where you can find the challenging Lost Mountain Trail.  The park is wonderfully diverse in its ecology.  You hike through meadows, forests, and across streams, each section a visual treat.  In addition, the precipitous uplift from east to west provides wonderful views of the surrounding countryside.

I had known of this park for some time, as it lay alongside one of my regular motorcycle ride routes.  I actually rode in there once, but my untrained eye didn't see much of interest.  But since picking up this hiking bug, I look at places like this with an entirely different perspective.

Sky Meadows has about 19 miles of trails and after conferring with the Ranger, I decided on a route which more or less circled the park, including about 2.5 miles of the AT.

It was a hot day with humidity to match.  Thunderstorms were forecast for later in the afternoon, but I figured to be done by then.  My route would take me from the Visitors Center, up the Piedmont Overlook trail, the Ambassador Whitehouse Trail, the AT segment, and the North and South Ridge Trails, ending up on Boston Mill Road back to the start point.  The morning having been taken up with a doctor's appointment, I didn't actually hit the trails until 12:30.  The sun had come out and was definitely open for business, somewhat ameliorated by a persistent north breeze.  I started out on a flat grass-covered section that took me into the woods, onto Boston Mill Road.  A bit further on, a sign directed me onto the Piedmont Overlook trail.  The transition was actually a set of stone stairs, an indicator of what was to come.

At that point, the trail turned uphill -- steeply uphill.  This part of the trail was out in the open through a field which we hikers shared with grazing cattle.  Looking at the task before me, I almost faltered.  The way forward sloped upward at a 30 to 40 degree slope.  I tackled this the way I usually tackle hills, putting my head down and concentrating on the ground immediately in front of me.  This usually works, but it seemed that no matter how far or how hard I climbed, I couldn't run out of mountain.  At about 0.7 miles, the good folks managing the park had installed a couple of well-placed reclined benches from which you could gaze down into the valley.  I took a few minutes, letting my heart rate sink back to something more normal.  The trail then made a left turn and headed into some woods.  Once under the canopy, the heat subsided as did the incline.  But this was a false indicator, as another sign pointing to the Ambassador Whitehouse Trail. Uphill.  The way grew steep again, although not quite as bad.  Still, it was a rigorous ascent.  

At one point, the scenery changed from forest to high meadow.  When I finally reached the top, I was rewarded with yet another wonderful vista, looking northeast towards Paris, Virginia.

The path took a left hairpin turn at this point and eventually joined up with the Appalachian Trail segment.  

It was an interesting kind of moment.  It's just a path through woods and meadow, but it does give one pause to realize that this path is more than 2,200 miles long.

Finally, the long climb was over, and it wasn't until I had returned home and looked up the topo map for the area that I realized what a climb it had been.  According to the contour lines, from the Visitors Center to the Paris overlook, I had climbed nearly 900 feet, 650 of that in the first mile.

After a couple of miles, I began looking for the turn promised by the map.  Coasting downhill, I suddenly came face-to-face with a blue 5-barred steel gate with two padlocks.  I was a bit nonplussed, but after some thoughtful examination of the map, I suddenly remembered that I had passed what appeared to be a pass-through in the fenceline a ways back.  I turned around and headed back to that point to discover a small sign indicating that the AT trail turned at that point.  The problem is that coming from the north, the sign is all but invisible.  Shaking my head, I dodged through the angular gap and headed into the treeline.  I passed another sign, pointing towards the Old Trail, one of the original AT segments.  Due to my late start, I had to bypass this opportunity.  I really didn't want to be on that ridge when the lightning started.

Reaching the North Ridge Trail, I stopped for a few minutes to dump some gravel out of my boots.  While I was so engaged, the silence was broken by a crashing sound issuing from further up the slope.  My first thought was that one of the trees had lost its grip on the rain-soaked ground and fallen.  But the crashing continued.  I looked towards the sound, but whatever created it was too far into the trees to be identified.  I was pretty sure what it was, but for my sanity's sake, I decided not to investigate.  After a few minutes, I was able to re-swallow my heart.  I then started down.  And down it was.  The trail was steep, and liberally pitted with rocks and roots.  Thanks to a tropical system that had firehosed the entire Northern Virginia area two days before, there was still water running amongst those rocks.  I slowed down, being very careful with the footing.  It was at that moment that I remembered the hiking poles I had bought but forgotten to bring.  Doh!

Turning onto the South Ridge Trail, the way eased considerably.  The path widened and the footing changed to grass and drying mud.  There were still patches of rocks, but I was making much better time.  Strolling along, I saw what appeared to be a black stick lying athwart the trail.  Suddenly, I realized that this "stick" was really a snake, a meter-long representative of the Black Snake variety.  
Not the one I saw, but the same breed.

I stopped dead in my tracks and just waited.  After a short time, the snake slithered off the trail and into the bush.  I waited another minute or so to make sure it was truly gone, and then continued on.  I don't care that it wasn't venomous.  I don't like snakes.

The South Ridge Trail continued downhill, happily gentle in its character.  Coming out of the treeline, I was presented with yet another cool vista.

Continuing down, I came upon the ruins of a home.  According to the informational placard, the place had been called "Snowden."  The house had been built around 1864 by George Ayre, who had moved here from his farm near Upperville, Virginia.  At its height, it was quite a stately home, until it was abandoned around 1913 with the death of the last remaining descendant.  The house burned a few years ago, and all that remains are the stones of the foundation and chimney.  I always feel a bit sad when seeing this kind of thing.  This was a home, a place where life happened in all it's joys and sorrows.  And now, its all gone; the house, and the life that once made it a home.

From here, the trail diverged, one fork heading for the campground, the other, following the old manor's driveway, curved gently downhill.  At the bottom, I hit a pressed gravel road, Boston Mill Road.  Crossing Gap Run, I followed the roadway back to the Visitor's Center.  Entering the gift shop, I confirmed with the Ranger that the crashing in the forest that I heard was likely one of the black bears that populate the area.  According to the Ranger, the sightings, or encounters, are a rare occurrence, since these animals tend to stay far away from people.

Unfortunately for me, not rare enough.

Still, it was a good day.  The trees kept the worst of the heat at bay and despite the humidity, I was able to complete the hike without the light-headedness that heat and humidity usually inflict.  According to my Map My Run phone app, I had trekked 5.57 miles.  Adding the Old Trail section would have stretched it out to around 8 miles, but perhaps another day.

Obviously, the worst part of this hike was the first part, that steep 700-foot climb right out of the box.  Still, who doesn't like a challenge?
Sky Meadows trail map from National Geographic

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