Bull Run Mountain
Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Photos and written content
It couldn't have been a more perfect day. Clear sky, low humidity, temperatures in the low 70's, and a day off to boot. If Amazon sold days like this, their site would crash and burn. The first hint of fall weather has arrived after summer threw one last high hard one at us last week.
Following Cheryl's instructions, I picked a place we hadn't gone yet. About 15 minutes west of Manassas right off I-66 is a real treasure. The Bull Run Mountains are a 15-mile stretch of peaks which form the easternmost range of the Blue Ridge. The two are separated by the beautiful Loudoun Valley, an Eden of streams, hills, forests, and fields that stretch gently across the landscape. The mountains connect with the Catoctin range in Maryland (home of Camp David) and the Pond Mountains south of I-66.
Like many similar areas of Virginia, there is a great deal of interest in preserving it as much as possible in it's natural state. To that end, the Bull Run Mountain Conservancy was formed in 1995, and took custodial care of a 15,000 acre tract starting just north of I-66 in Thoroughfare Gap and running north along and either side of the three parallel ridges. Today, the "headquarters" sits at the end of Beverly Mill Road which is where the trail head is located. The area was an important part of local history, starting with the establishment of a mill along Broad Run in 1750. The mill operated, under several families, until 1951. The shell of the original mill building still stands, an impressive 7-story structure with walls made of native stone. This was a remarkable feat of engineering, since rock walls tended to fall over if built too high.
The location of the mill, sitting in a convenient gap in the mountain range, became an important location during the Civil War. The South used the mill as a place to store beef for the Army of Northern Virginia. In August 1862, opposing forces were gathering for the Second Battle of Manassas. The Union sent two brigades to block the gap and keep Southern General James Longstreet's corps on the west side of the mountains. Longstreet eventually came up with a plan to take possession of the heights on either side of the gap and forced the Union forces to retreat. This opened up the way for Longstreet to march for Manassas where he was able to land the crucial blow that gave the South the victory. Later on, when it became apparent that the North would take possession of Thoroughfare Gap, the Confederates burned the mill and the enormous supply of beef before departing.
We pulled in this morning and found a place among the ample parking provided. After some searching, we found a signboard next to the railroad tracks where we deposited our waiver forms (required before you can hike here), picked up a trail guide, and set out.
Most of the trails start on the north side of the railroad. Close attention to navigation is required for first-timers since none of the trails are marked and it can be easy to take a wrong turn at the many intersections. We headed west, then north along the Fern Hollow Trail, passing the ruins of the Chapman home and the shell of the mill.
What remains of the Chapman home.
The mill building. You can just see the steel beams that hold the walls upright.
One of the remarkable architectural details is how the stones were stacked together
without any mortar. Only gravity held these walls together.
The Deep Freeze.
This is where ice was stored during the summer.
The was was pretty easy. I had been prepared for a strenuous climb, as the topo map showed an ascent of almost 1,000 feet. But again, my yardstick for strenuous climbs is the steep test at Sky Meadows, so this in comparison was not bad. We picked up the Chestnut Ridge Trail and began to encounter the upward grade. Some of the path was loamy or sandy, while other stretches were strewn with rocks and roots.
One of the easier stretches.
The further up we climbed, the trees began to thin out and we could catch glimpses of the awesome view of the valley below the ridge.
Oh, it was such a perfect day!
Pausing to evict a stowaway.
Just wait. It gets better.
In a way, it was a misleading climb. We could see patches of sky and the trail would begin to level out, and we would be fooled into thinking we were nearing the top. Not. Like Sky Meadows, this was a climb that seemed destined to never end.
Finally, we reached the overlook at the top. Here, the trees were thinned out, and we found ourselves on several flat pieces of granite, and in the presence of a view that took the ragged remains of our breath away.
No guard rails here. That's a sheer drop of about 300 feet.
And beyond lies the Shenandoah.
We stopped and ate our lunch, finding the rocks a convenient place to sit. And to take the obligatory selfie...
We then headed back down, picking our way carefully among the rocks. We took the first fork and swung onto the Ridge Loop Trail. Although this was going downhill, it was steep and required a certain amount of care in order to avoid the dangerous face plant. The trail was actually cut into the hillside and followed the contour back towards the gap.
This humble streamlet actually had a name, Catlett's Branch.
Once at the bottom of the ridge, the trail widened out and became a perfect joy, walking along enjoying the soothing sound of the gurgling of Broad Run as it paralleled the path. The big hills were behind us and except for a few places, the trail was an easy trek. We took Quarry Trail to Mountain Road, which eventually deposited us back at our starting point, after having footed some 5.2 miles.
We were right on pace, taking about 2.5 hours of walking time for the hike.
This is one that will sit in the memory for quite some time. The BRMC is a beautiful place to hike, with an astonishing overlook to reward your hard work to climb the mountain. The trails were a nice mix of soft n' easy and rough n' rocky, all framed by the soul-filling perfection of one of those late summer days that will never have an equal.