Monday, October 12, 2009

Catoctin Mountain Park

Date: October 11, 2009
Place: Catoctin Mountain Park, Maryland
Trails: Falls Nature, Hog Rock Nature, Blue Ridge Summit, Thurmont Vista, Wolf Rock, Chimney Rock
Distance: 8.5 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate

More fall season hiking, this time at the Catoctin Mountain Park managed by the National Park Service. It's a beautiful drive of about 50 miles from DC leading to the park. The mountains here are part of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the ancient Appalachian Mountains. The park itself is forested thickly with hardwood trees like oaks and maples and also has some interesting rock formations wrought over hundreds of millions of years of geological evolution.

Shankar and I chose the longest round-trip trail, listed as being 8.5 miles with a few strenuous climbing sections. This loop skirts around the edges of the park, from the Cunningham falls in the west to the Chimney Rock in the east.

Falls Nature Trail to the Cunningham Falls
Around 1.5 miles from the visitor center trailhead, and along the Falls Nature Trail, lies the Cunningham Falls viewing point. The hike up is moderate, and the falls are set in a beautiful wooded area.

Hog Rock, Blue Ridge Summit and Thurmont Vista
From the Cunningham Falls, it's a strenuous hike up of around 1.25 miles to the Hog Rock. The Hog Rock is at the center of the park, and is made of metabasalt, a dark greenish-gray igneous rock. It's also called the Catoctin Greenstone. After sunbathing here for a while and taking in the beautiful views, we resumed our hike up to the Blue Ridge Summit about half a mile away.

The view here opens out to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the far west, hence the name. Another half a mile away on the trail led us to the Thurmont Vista overlook. You can see the town of Thurmont in the valley below, the valley itself a geological attraction made by erosion over millions of years.

Wolf Rock
Another moderate hike of 1.5 miles took us to the Wolf Rock formations. The quartzite rocks and the erosion by wind and rain water (through frost wedging) creating spectacular shapes were a treat. We spent considerable time here jumping from rock to rock.

Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock, another 0.6 miles away, was the highlight of the entire hike. This is again quartzite rock formed in the shape of chimney. In order to get on the chimney rock though, we had to jump across very deep wedges that had formed cliffs along the rock walls. Dangerous and exciting as the jump was, we were rewarded with the best panoramic views yet. After spending half an hour here, we jumped back onto the main trail and headed back.
A couple of miles more of hiking brought us back to the visitor center just as the sun was setting. The hikes made for a good workout among beautiful wooded and forested sections for the most part, and there are viewing spots all along the trail every mile or so. It is an enjoyable and rewarding hike through some of the best scenery in Maryland.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Shenandoah NP: Overall Run Falls

Date: October 4, 2009
Place: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Trails: Overall Run, Beecher Ridge, Trace Trail
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

Shenandoah! (Just love saying that word aloud!)

The day was nice for a hike/run - sunny, in the 50s and 60s, fall season. The Shenandoah National Park is about 90 miles from DC, and consists of breathtaking scenery of forested Blue Ridge mountains and meadows. The plan was to hike/run the 11.5 mile round-trip connecting the Overall Run and Beecher Ridge trails. The trails are listed on hiking websites as being strenuous and having an elevation gain of 4000'. Despite all that, Shankar and I started the hike, for various excuses, at 4.45pm. Even as we started, we knew that it was miserably late and that we would finish when the fullish moon was overhead.

We started at the Traces Trail trailhead, and the trail started climbing steeply immediately for a mile or so. On the way we passed a few trail intersections, randomly chose what we took to be the "main" trail, wondering why these extremely well maintained trails were not marked at all. After hiking a mile, we came across another intersection, and we finally figured out then that the funny looking stone pillars had tiny metal plates on the sides that gave out the information on trail directions that we could have used 0.5 miles earlier. This intersection was with the famous Appalachian trail, which we had definitely not planned to meet.

Backtrack. Back to the previous intersection then, a fast downhill run on trails nice, rocky in parts but mostly soft. We finally got back to the Overall Run trail, our initially intended itinerary. We then hiked up steeply and then down steeply for a couple of miles through thickly wooded forests. There are no scenic views here, but the trail itself is colorful with the red, pink, yellow and green leaves from oak and maple trees that herald the arrived fall season. This part of the hike ends at a clearing with fantastic views of mountains and the nearby 93' Overall Run Falls. All the prior steep climbing was forgotten in this vista of meditative beauty. The setting sun added a picturesque background to the valleys of the Blue Ridge mountains.

We continued hiking steeply downward along the trail for some more, though Shankar by this time was plodding on bravely despite ITB issues and foot blisters. It was soon 7pm and darkening rapidly, and we decided to turn back to conquer the trail another day. A surreal night hike in the forest ensued, navigated safely with the help of a flashlight and a headlamp. The trails were empty of any people other than us two, quite reasonably, and that added it's own charm in the night with birds tweeting and creatures strange rustling the leaves on the ground. We got a little lost though and ended up at the Mathews Arms Campground instead of the trailhead, but we knew the way down to the trailhead through the campsites. We finished finally at around 8pm.

If the 7 miles or so that we did on the trail is any indication, this is a strenuous hike with rather steep uphill and downhill sections but well worth the effort for all the beauty there is along the way. Among the wildlife we saw today were white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, vultures and white caterpillars.

The little we saw of the trail and the park was enchanting. Enough to make me want to go there again. Soon.