Thursday, February 21, 2013

Trail Report: Massanutten North

It's always a successful weekend when you are sore on Monday morning!

I pulled this trail together from a map I happened to have. The Massanutten range isn't widely advertised, what with Shenandoah within sight with it's easily accessible day hikes. Flip and I were looking for backpacking though! After tossing around the idea of Dolly Sods in West Virginia  or the Black Forest in Pennsylvania, we wanted something closer. I looked at the map for Great North Mountain and on the other side was the Massanutten Mountain range. After perusing the map for a bit I put together a point-to-point hike. This range is comparatively very close to both of our houses, and it feels like wilderness as well.

Friday January 11, 2013

Flip and I met after work in Front Royal for dinner before heading out. It only took 15 minutes to get to Bear Wallow parking area to drop off the 1st car. From there we drove back north out of the park and turned east and then south on to Panhandle Road. The road skirts the eastern flank of the mountain range and we quickly came to the Veach Gap parking area. We began hiking at 8pm into the darkness. The history for the forest road we started on was that it was created at the direction of George Washington in case the Continental Army lost they would have a place to retreat into. The 'Fort Valley' in front of us is a range of mountains that creates a natural fort that has limited access without a hard climb over mountains.
Some trail maintainer had placed small reflectors on some of the blazes going up Veach Gap so the trail was easy to find. The rain that had been falling earlier had stopped and the clouds were breaking up. As we climbed across the hillside we began to have views of the valley below and the stars above. The rock under our feet was still a bit slick, and there were puddles we had to dodge around but the trail conditions were not too steep or too jumbled.
We crested the mountain after two miles, having shed layers long ago, and being comfortably warm in the ambient weather we continued after a short water and map break. We were still on the Tuscarora Trail, as we had been going up Veach Gap trail, but now we were also on the Massanutten Trail. The Massanutten Trail loops the entire range and is 71 miles long, a trail that I would like to see every mile. We began losing altitude again going between two high ridges and down into Veach Gap itself, under Little Crease Mountain. Soon enough we arrived at Little Crease Shelter, the only shelter on the Massanutten Loop, but a good spot to stay after dark on a damp-grounded night. The log book indicated that the shelter is rather not heavily used, the last over-nighter to sign was before Christmas. The shelter was very clean and well cared for, and the history of it's care-taker was given at the front of the log book: Ed Pickens has been the care-taker for 26 years. After retiring from the Air Force he went on a hike and found this shelter, in poor run-down condition. The following year he saw that the PATC was looking for a maintainer and he signed up. The shelter is in excellent condition and obviously Mr. Pickens has done a wonderful job throughout the years.

We arraigned our sleeping bags and pads and went to sleep, anticipating a great hiking weekend! The temperature was in the forties but warm in my sleeping bag. I didn't sleep too well as the ground pad I have doesn't protect well against the hard wooden platform. We had opted to not bring the hammocks and just sleep under the Big Top tent and this shelter, and I didn't sleep as deeply as I could've, but I was dry and warm - and that's the two most important things!

Saturday January 12, 2013

We woke to a beautiful sunny morning. We leisurely made coffee and packed our gear, sorting out the food we would eat this day and looking at the map to confirm our route.
We refilled our water bottles from the spring close by and headed out from Little Crease Shelter. This will not be our last encounter with this charming out-of-the-way shelter. I like this side so much more than the crowds and hustle of Shenandoah, just across the valley.
We soon crossed Mill Run and turned up valley. The sun was warming us already and we were down to T-shirts in minutes, the climb was steady up this high lonesome valley. The forest had seen a fire recently, maybe a couple years ago? The rocky ground had under-growth coming back but the charred ground was still evident. We followed Mill Run to it's source, a trickle coming out of the ground before ascending to the top of Little Crease Mountain on the Tuscarora/Massanutten Trail. The view from the top is amazing!

The mountains in the distance are Shenandoah, and the valley below us shrouded in mist. To those valley dwellers the day was foggy and cloudy without the brilliance we experienced from the top! The trail began following the ridge line, with views to our east and west, it would rise and we were able to see how far we'd already come and where the trail was about to take us next.
We quickly passed by the split to Sherman Gap, a way down to Fort Valley and where we had parked, but we were taking the much longer route continuing north to see as much of these mountains as we could this weekend.
A few more miles later, the same stunning views buoying us along, we came to High Peak after a brief lunch stop. The circuit trails heading west off the ridgeline, and us along with them. The other trails that diverged here are one that goes east back down to Panhandle Rd and one that continues north to Buzzard Rock before descending to another parking lot.
Snow on the cool sides of the valley

We took the Shawl Gap route following the Tuscarora as we had been all day. The trail dove off the ridgeline towards Fort Valley Rd, north of where we parked. We saw a couple other back-packers and a mountain biker carrying his bike up the hill. After a couple miles we came to Passage Creek and followed it south to the Elizabeth Furnace Day use area, and a bridge over the rather substantial creek. This would be a good place to stop in the summer and cool off in the river. The day use area also has water spigots, though Flip and I had refilled our water from a stream on the way down. We crossed over Fort Valley Road and followed the Massanutten Trail that finally diverged from the Tuscarora. We followed signs for Signal Knob, first up the valley then up a step mountain-side. We figured we would need to start looking for a campsite as we crested the ridge as day-light quickly runs out this time of year and it was already going on 3pm.
As we followed a brook up a steep-sided valley we passed an amazing looking log cabin/rock structure. It had the look of something the PATC might own and rent out - I have since looked it up and it is the Glass House cabin. Great location and so close to a good array of trails.
On our way up we passed a bunch of day-hikers coming down and several scouting troops. The trail gets real rocky towards the top, and the footing treacherous, especially after ascending over 1000 feet in a couple miles. My legs were burning from exertion, my breathing coming in gasps. WOW, I am out of shape! I was an iron man just a few months ago. Now I'm back to my old self. I pushed through and the juice was worth the squeeze though, as it always is!

Flip and I spied a good campsite a ways off the trail and went about making it home. I set up the Big Top tent and he gathered firewood and remade the fire-ring. The day was warm and there was virtually no breeze, we could've brought the hammocks and been completely comfortable hanging in this weather. Our chores done, and the fire started we prepared dinner. Flip made polenta with bacon and I made just-add-water chili mac with beef jerky added. We ate every last bit of both meals, stuffed and satisfied we drank a glass of wine and watched the fire. Talking about prior trips, and future trips the time slipped by as it does around a campfire. Flip checked the Ravens score and put on audio for the last quarter and into over-time. He's a huge football fan, and I'll admit the game was harrowing and I was hanging on every play and was elated when they won.
I slept much better on the softer ground. Under the Big Top there was plenty of room for the two of us and our gear with little worry about critters coming to visit us in the floor-less shelter.

Sunday January 13, 2013

I woke to a slight wind ruffling the fabric of the tent, and the sun-light peaking through. The temperature was very mild and I crawled out after Flip. We broke camp slowly, talking and eating breakfast while enjoying the morning. We had no rush to get anywhere and nothing to look forward to but more views and good hiking before heading home.
We made plans and remarked on other camping spots as we left the camping spot and went on down the ridge towards Signal Knob. This is a place we will be back to. We passed Maneka Peak Trail and knew that would be a shorter way to go but opted for the longer route and continued on to Signal Knob.
The views from below the TV tower there were sweeping.
The trail down the back side of this most northern of the Massanutten Range was the road that leads to the TV tower. Had I to do this again I would probably back-track and go down the Maneka Peak Trail to stay on trails for as long as possible! We jogged down the road to the valley below and proceeded to where the Tuscarora crosses the Massanutten Trail. We turned back east on the Tuscaorora and reclimbed the mountain we just descended. The trail was very nice though, with just the right amount of switch-backs and steepness to make it blood-pumping but not too hard. We paused where Maneka re-joined the Tuscarora admiring the views and the sun and the breeze before heading out on the last 4.6 mile leg of our journey.
We quickly descended the mountains back towards Fort Valley, making great time and arriving at the Bear Wallow Spur. We took that and then over-shot the forest road walk to the car and ended up at Sherman Gap and walked back up Fort Valley Rd to the Bear Wallow parking area and the car. We spoke with a PATC trail maintainer and a mountain biker briefly before hopping in the car and heading to my car.

The journey over, we headed home after eating in Front Royal. As soon as we got out of the mountains the fog took over and a sprinkle of rain began falling. The area east, where we live, experienced cloudy weather all weekend. We experienced warm sun-light! That alone would have made this trip! This is an area that I hope continues to be under-utilized and that I plan on visiting many times in the future!

Flip is part squirrel - actually he was fixing a flag that was tangled on Signal Knob

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