Last week I decided that I was going hiking today! It had been a really long time since I’d gotten out and it was the 1st thing I wanted to do over winter break! I was really excited when I realized it was a Thursday, in December no less, so I figured I’d be able to get a parking place at any trailhead I wanted! (so often I go out there on weekends and there’s no parking where I want to hike!).
I was thinking I’d park at Meadow Springs and hike up to Mary’s Rock – a great viewpoint. Well, my plan was foiled by the fact that Skyline Drive was closed. That severely limited my hiking options. I could still get to Mary’s Rock, but I’d have to go up the AT and it was potentially very icy. Another option was to hike part of the Dickey Ridge Trail up in Front Royal. Going to Thorton Gap would give me more options if one trail was too icy.
I headed out this morning, arriving in Thorton Gap, the spot that was formerly known as Panorama, at about 11 am. When I pulled into the parking area there were 2 other cars – I saw the occupant of one of them as he was heading out. I expected to see him again, but he must have gone north on the AT because I never saw him again and the car was gone when I got back! Just before I got out of the car a HUGE gust of wind blew up and shook the whole car! yikes. I hadn’t considered wind. If it was this windy down here, it was going to be extra windy at the summit which was 1,000 ft higher than I already was!
I donned all my layers and headed out! It was more than a bit brisk. And the wind was whipping something fierce. Once I got into the woods the trees blocked most of the wind, but it was still very loud! It was a sustained wind at about 20-30 MPH, with gusts topping 50 MPH (when I got home I discovered that the area was under a wind advisory!). The trail was in good shape! There was a dusting of snow, but there was no ice!
As I began to climb I started to get hot. Temps in the 20s with a 50 mph wind and I was hot. Go figure. Just goes to show that with the right gear there’s no such thing as bad conditions!
The trail wound around the mountain and soon there was no wind because the mountain was blocking it! YAY! It was a steady climb, but not hard and not very steep. I’d hiked this trail once before in 2001 and I remembered it being very steep and narrow. Today I didn’t notice any of those things – the trail felt very wide! Must have been my newbie hiker viewpoint! It might have seemed narrow before I climbed the 90 degree rock face hand over hand to get to the top of Penobscot Mt in Acadia!
I was happily hiking along enjoying the views, probably 3/4 of the way to the top, when I came to a HUGE stretch of solid ice. The trail was completely obscured by a solid sheet ice. hmmmm… There was a way around it, I could bushwhack a bit up the hill by the side of the trail and get around it, but I was worried about getting back, I was also concerned with what else I would encounter as I got closer to the summit. I’d considered doing a loop using Skyline Drive as my return route, but that was looking pretty unappealing since Skyline Drive was cleared of snow, just a road walk. Even if I’d decided to do a loop, there was still the possibility I’d encounter more impassable ice and have to come back over this section.
So, deciding to err on the side of caution I turned around and headed back to Thorton Gap. My plan was to eat my sandwich in the protection of my car and then head down to Buck Hollow to hike some more!
On the way down I saw some burned out trees from the big fire of 2000. That was the 1st year I was here and I was actually in the park the day it was burning! I’d been hiking near the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center and decided to drive to Thorton Gap and exit there. I knew there was a big fire and that the Central District of the park was closed, but I hadn’t expected to see the fire! The sun had just set as I was driving into Thorton Gap and it was pretty dark and the side of Mary’s Rock Mt was glowing red with flames! It was a pretty amazing sight! The rest of the hike back down was quick and easy and soon I was back at the car!
I quickly ate my sandwich, responded to a text I’d gotten (3G service at Thorton Gap is a blessing and a curse!), and then headed down the mountain to Buck Hollow.
Buck Ridge – Buck Hollow is an excellent hike that you can get to from the park boundary. It’s about 5 miles round trip – up to Skyline Drive and back. I hiked it a few years back with Daisy Mae! I’d considered hiking the whole loop today, but I’d read a trail report from a week or so ago and it said Buck Hollow (the return, downhill, trail) was icy in places, so I was hesitant to attempt the loop. I thought that the Buck Hollow trail went along a stream, so I decided I’d hike up that trail until I either ran out of time, or encountered too much ice.
I was the 4th car in the parking area, so I was anticipating seeing some other hikers.
The trail starts with 2 stream crossings. One that I wasn’t a huge fan of as the rocks were uneven and it was a little scary, but I made it over (and back later!). The other crossings were very easy thanks to the hard work of the PATC I’m sure! This trail started much lower on the mountain (although it’s the same mountain I had been hiking on earlier!), so there was less snow at 1st but as the trail gradually climbed there was more snow and more ice!
It was a lovely quiet walk. The wind was high in the trees and not bothering me way down in the valley! The sun was peeking over the mountain making it very warm (yep, I was hot again!).
I’d been hiking about an hour when I ran into the only people I’d see on the trail that day – a couple who told me that they’d just gotten engaged! He’d drug her into the woods and popped the question and I was the 1st know! His timing was pretty good – I encountered them only a few feet from where he proposed, I’m glad I didn’t walk up on “the act”. What is trail etiquette for walking to engagements in action? I congratulated them and offered to take their picture which they thought was a great idea! They posed and I snapped a shot with his iPhone look-alike phone and headed on up the trail.
Soon I came to a section of the trail was all iced up! It was easy to get around as the terrain is very flat and I could just go off trail a bit. Then I quickly came to another stream crossing. This one had some patchy ice on some of the rocks. I knew I could make it across, but I wasn’t sure about getting back, so I decided to call it a day and turn around. It was 2:00, only 30 minutes shy of my “turn around time”. I wasn’t done hiking yet though, so I walked back as slow as I could! By this time the sun had sunk below the mountain and it was getting chilly!
When I got back to the car the parking area was deserted! I knew that one of the cars had been the newly engaged couple and I guess the other 2 people had hiked down Buck Ridge (which is VERY steep – it’s better to go up that way so I was surprised!) and that’s why I hadn’t seen them.
I drove back up the mountain to use the facilities at Thorton Gap before heading home. The Pass Mountain Trail parking area on 211 was also empty (there had been 2 cars earlier), as was the Thorton Gap parking area. It was only 3 pm, but I guess the cold and wind had driven everyone away early!
Since Skyline Drive was closed I had no choice but to just drive home! I was amazed that I made it home before dark!