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Church Rock

May 13, 2019

On this eight-mile adventure, we visited a beautiful outcropping on Church Mountain. The hike had some steady climbing, a little bit of rock scrambling, some unfortunate bushwhacking, and a beautiful view at the top!

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Church Mountain Summit

Adam takes in the view from the summit of Church Mountain. Below: The forest service road; Small stream crossing early in the hike; Hiking up the Church Mountain Trail – passing a neat rock with a tree growing out of it.

Forest Service Road Stream Crossing Tree on Rock

Christine Says:

We did this hike back in early April with our friends, Tony and Linda, of HikingUpward fame. (View their write-up for this hike) Tony noticed that this hike appeared for the first time on a recent edition of a PATC map and suggested we all go out and explore the relatively unknown area. He had heard rumor that there were two viewpoints to enjoy. We met them at a parking area along the forest service road (FR482). We could see the outcropping we were planning to hike to from the road below.  Adam was still getting over an awful chest cold, so the distant view of the cliff-face made me worry for him. It looked very faraway and pretty high above us.

The first mile of walking followed the mile of FR482 that lies beyond a locked gate. During hunting season, you might find this gate open and be able to shave a couple miles off the total distance of the hike.  At the end of a mile, you’ll find yourself at the start of the yellow-blazed Church Mountain Trail. There are no signs or trail markers – just blazes – so be careful to follow along.  The trail crosses one shallow stream near the beginning of the trail. It also crosses several old road cuts (apparently there used to be TV towers on this mountain, or so I’ve heard). The climbing is fairly steady and unrelenting as you climb Church Mountain. The use of ten switchbacks makes the grade feel manageable, though I can see this feeling like a really tough climb on a hot day. There were some decent views of the rocky summit of Church Mountain from the trail.

Church Rock from the Trail

A view of Church Rock from the trail below. Below: As we climbed, views opened from behind us; Ascending toward Church Rock; As we approached the ridge, the forest became more open.

Scenes from the Ascent Scenes from the Ascent Open Terrain

As you climb, the forest gets thinner and more open – almost meadow-like.  When you reach the ridgeline at three miles, the trail is just a faint footpath through the grass.  Look for a tree with a double set of white and yellow blazes. There should also be a small cairn slightly uphill of the two-blazed tree. This is the junction with the Talc Trail.  From here, take a left and follow the white blazed Talc trail as it meanders over gentle terrain toward the summit of Church Mountain. This part of the trail was sparsely blazed and there were a couple significant blow-downs across the trail. I have a feeling that the vegetation along this stretch may get taller and thicker as the growing season progresses. I had permethrin-treated clothes and Repel spray on my exposed skin, but I still managed to pick up a tick somewhere along the Talc Trail.  I noticed it already attached to my calf on the return leg of our hike. Gross!

The Talc Trail comes into a saddle about 3.6 miles into the hike. There is a large, very littered campsite in the saddle. There was an old tarp, several pots, old cans, shell casings, a satchel, and some other odds and ends laying around. It looked like hunters maybe used this spot as a base camp sometime in the last year or two. After passing the campsite, there’s a nice view of the valley off the left side of the trail.  Once you pass this view, it’s time to start scrambling. The way to the top had a couple hard-to-see blazes and was pretty overgrown with brambles and thorns. I had capri length pants on, so my lower legs got scraped up quite a bit.  Between the prickly vegetation and the ticks, I definitely suggest long pants for this hike.

Once at the top, there were lots of openings in the woods to explore different spots along the outcropping. There were several spots that offered beautiful, slightly obstructed views to the valley beyond. The slanted cliffside on the adjacent mountain was a unique feature to behold in the viewscape. I found two different geodetic markers on the outcropping – one with an arrow marking the direction of the true summit and another for the summit itself.  We spent a bit of time enjoying and photographing the view, but I wouldn’t say this is a outcropping that would be good for a crowd or a lunch break. The space on the rocks is limited and most of the larger rock surfaces lie at precipitous angles.  When I took photos of Adam standing on the pointy, blade-like rocks in the photo at the top of this post, my knees were knocking a bit. I don’t like looking through a camera lens when my feet are uneven ground – it gives me vertigo.

Ridge trail to Church Rock

The ridge trail was through open, grassy forest. Below: The trail junction at the ridge; Views from the ridge; A small, dry campsite in the saddle.

Trail Junction View along the Ridge Campsite

After scrambling down from the summit of Church Mountain, we headed back along the Talc Trail. On this particular day, we decided to pass the junction for the trail down and continue to explore the other side of the white-blazed Talc Trail.  It probably wasn’t a good idea. There was a tree with a mysterious blaze that sort of looked like it was trying to mark a campsite on a sidetrail, but we didn’t really find anything.  Passing there, the trail dipped steeply down into an area that was badly overgrown with thorns and blocked by many blowdowns. There was clearly a trail there, but it was not maintained to the point it was worth following.

During the extra bit of exploration, my GPS said that we had come almost five miles. We were running low on snacks and water, so we opted to end our quest for a second vista and make our way back down.  The return hike went by pretty quickly – all downhill, the same way we had hiked up.  The beer and pizza at Swover Creek Farm Brewery were calling loudly.  Refreshment was needed!

Adam Says: 

As Christine mentioned, I was just getting over being sick. This was the fourth time I had been sick over the last 2.5 months (cold, sinus infections,etc.), so my cardio and ability to breathe well was still getting back to normal. Exploring a “new to us” trail when there isn’t any information about it online makes us feel like we are conquering uncharted territory. We had no idea how long the hike would be and we could vaguely guess at what elevation we would be climbing.

We did have a bit of a road walk through to get to the trailhead since the gate was closed. We walked on an open road that looks like had been heavily forested before. The scenery was open which made it more enjoyable than most fire road walks we have done.   We eventually came to the upper parking lot and the trailhead.  Once we started on the trailhead, we noticed the trail split after a few feet.  There was an unblazed trail that went straight and then the yellow-blazed Church Mountain Trail took off to the right. Take this right and the trail starts a long gradual climb.  Eventually, the switchbacks start and this is where you really begin to gain some elevation. There were a few times where we spotted the Church Rock cliff face through the trees and we were excited to see that the trail would eventually guide us to that impressive cliffside.  The trail winds through several switchbacks until you eventually get to a part where the top of the hillside opens up into a grassy area and you follow sparse blazes up to the top of the hill.

Walk up the the Scramble

Heading toward the Church Rock summit. Below: Adam scrambles to the top; We liked this profile rock – reminded us of the Old Man of the Mountain that used to be in New Hampshire before it collapsed off the mountain; Adam and Tony on the rock scramble.

Scramble Profile Scramble

Eventually the trail comes to a junction with the white-blazed Talc trail.  Take a left here to get to Church Rock.  We paused at the junction for a bit to allow me to gain my breath and we ate some trail mix.  Soon, a turkey hunter came up along the trail in full camo. This was the only person that we saw the entire day.  Starting on the Talc Trail, we found the trail was very poorly blazed.   You stay walking on this ridge for a bit and can see some views along the way.  Eventually the Talc Trail descended and led us to an open meadow area where we saw the remains of a campsite with tarp and other items stowed here.  We weren’t sure if these are things someone has just left behind to use the next time they camp up here or just someone that was littering heavily.  Shortly after the campsite, the trail leads back up and you can see Church Rock sticking out.  If I were to rename this rock jutting out, I would call it Young Man of the Mountain.  It reminded me of Old Man of the Mountain that was a prominent rock feature in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that you may have seen prominently on New Hampshire license plates.  The Old Man rock face fell off in 2003 which we regret never seeing.  The profile of the rockface does look similar to it but it is much smaller.  We got to the rock scramble just below Church Rock.  Be very careful through here, because we commented how this would be a great place for snakes to hide in between all the cracks between the rocks or possibly sunning themselves on a warm day.  There weren’t any clear blazes that really guided you up to the top, but we were able to find our way through the boulders and then were able to climb up a steep section to get to the top.

Summit of Church Mountain

Summit of Church Mountain. Below: Taking in the view; Another view from the ridge on the hike back; Swover Creek Farm Brewery after the hike.

Taking in the View Ridge View Swover Creek

At the top, there were two areas where you could take in the view – and what an impressive view it was!  On a clear day, you can see for miles at mountain ranges all around you.  We found a couple of USGS markers at the top which named it Church Rock.  If you do take in the view, be careful!  There isn’t much space and the wind blowing at the top can make you feel uncomfortable.  Falling from here would be deadly.  When we left, I said that these may be some of the best views in Virginia and I will stick to that claim.  The climb wasn’t terribly tough and we felt this is something that is probably best done during the year with fewer leaves as it opens up other views along the way.  With this trail being fairly unknown (at least for now), the solitude made us feel like we had stumbled across a secret gem of Virginia.  We headed back the way we came and explored a bit down the other side from the junction with the Talc Trail.  That ended up being just a slog through the woods.  There may be some views to be had with some heavy bushwhacking, but we didn’t feel like exploring that too long with all the blowdowns and briars on the trail.

When we got back to the car, we drove to Swover Creek Brewery for some great pizzas and beer.  The owners have some dogs that roam around and beg a bit for pizza, but they were sweet companions.  One of the owners was prepping to do a chain saw sculpture for the early evening, but we needed to head home so we missed out.  The outdoor scenery at Swover Creek capped off a great day on the trail with friends.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 8 miles This hike could be shortened 7.5 miles if you skip exploring to the right after the junction on the ridge. It could also be shortened to 5.5-6 miles if the lower forest service gate it open.
  • Elevation Change – 1,800 – 2,100 ft (depending on how far you explore)
  • Difficulty –  4. This hike’s climbing is never terribly steep, but it’s still three miles of unrelenting climbing. The scramble at the end is a bit challenging.
  • Trail Conditions – 2. We hiked in early spring and found the first couple miles of the trail in relatively good shape. There was some overgrowth, but it was still easy going. On the ridge, the blazes are harder to follow and there isn’t much of a trail. Hikers will mostly meander blaze to blaze. I also think this area will become very overgrown as the growing season progresses.
  • Views  4.  These views were spectacular! They would warrant a five star rating, but there is no real place to sit and take in the view with a second person. The view rocks are narrow and precipitous. Adam and I were both nervous standing on them.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There is one small stream shortly after you come off the forest service road and start walking the actual Church Rock trail.
  • Wildlife – 3.  There was so much scat from various animals along the trail. We didn’t see anything, but animals are definitely out there.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.  Generally, blazes and trail were easy to follow. The yellow blazed trail was in great shape, the white blazed ridge trail was less clear.
  • Solitude – 5.  Until all the fine, adventurous readers of Hiking Upward and this site get out there, this trail is truly an unknown gem. 

Maps

Church Rock Map

Download a full size PDF trail map.

Church Rock Elevation

Download the full size PDF elevation profile

Directions to trailhead: Parking coordinates are 38.73325, -78.8732.  The parking area is along a gravel forest service road.  If you find the gate open, you can drive another mile closer to the actual trailhead. When we hiked in spring 2019, the lower gate was locked and the road beyond it was blocked by a large blowdown.

Hazeltop Mountain

May 4, 2019

If you’ve hiked the Laurel Prong-Mill Prong Loop, you’ve hiked over Hazeltop and past this viewpoint. But Hazeltop is fantastic on its own as an out-and-back. At 3.9 miles, this route is an easy stroll to a gorgeous vista.

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Hazeltop Summit

The pretty view from the summit of Hazeltop. Below: The Appalachian Trail at Milam Gap; The junction of the AT and the Mill Prong; Ferns unfurling.

AT AT Fiddleheads

Christine Says…

The day was supposed to be rainy and stormy, but I woke up to sunshine (and a dog with too much energy). I decided to hike Hazeltop Mountain in Shenandoah’s central section. It’s a beautiful, easy route with a nice viewpoint at the summit.

Park at Milam Gap on the western side of Skyline Drive.  Follow the crosswalk across the Drive and pick up the Appalachian Trail headed south.  At .1 mile, you’ll come to a cement marker. If you turn left, you’ll be on the Mill Prong Trail headed toward Hoover’s Rapidan Camp. Today, stay straight and continue on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail.

Apple Blossoms

Pretty sure this is a blooming apple tree. Below: Rose-breasted Grosbeak; Appalachian Trail; Cool blazed rock along the trail.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak AT Cool Rocks

The trail goes very gently uphill through an area that once was used as an orchard. Apple trees are mixed in with the rest of the typical forest.  There’s really nothing terribly noteworthy about the trail – it’s a pretty dirt ribbon through forest.

There are tons of wildflowers in the spring and lush ferns in the summer. On this particular day, I had really great luck with birds – I saw a rose-breasted grosbeak, an American restart, and (briefly) a turkey puffed up and showing his plumage. Indy scared the turkey away – and in case you didn’t know… turkeys can fly. They look very awkward doing so.

Indy on the Spur Trail

Indy on the spur trail to the viewpoint. Below: Appalachian Trail Scenery; Ridgeline of Hazeltop; Trillium.

AT AT Trillium

At 1.9 miles, look for an unmarked spur trail on the right side of the trail. Follow the spur for about 50 yards through a grassy area with a rocky outcrop overlooking the western valley. It’s really a lovely spot! It can be easy to miss the spur if you’re not paying attention. The summit is not marked in any way. If you start descending, you’ve gone too far and will need to turn around and find the spur trail.

After you’ve enjoyed the view, return the way you came, arriving back at Milam Gap at 3.9 miles.

Hazeltop Summit

Another summit view.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 3.9 miles roundtrip
  • Elevation Change – 597 ft.
  • Difficulty –  1.5. I think this hike feels mostly flat, but the profile says it’s a gradual uphill.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail is smooth and well-maintained. There were a few blowdowns blocking the trail in spring 2019.
  • Views  4.  The view from the summit is excellent. There is a nice outcropping to sit on and plenty of space to enjoy lunch or a snack.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 0.  The trail is dry.
  • Wildlife – 5. I saw lots of bird species and a flock of turkeys. On other hikes along the same stretch, I’ve seen lots of deer and a few bears.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3. The Appalachian Trail is well marked and easy to follow, but don’t miss the unmarked spur trail to the viewpoint.
  • Solitude – 3. I usually see people, but never many.

Maps

Download a full size map.

Download a full elevation profile

Directions to trailhead: Located in Shenandoah National Park (fees apply). Parking is at Milam Gap. There is a large lot with space for about 12-15 cars. GPS Coordinates for parking: 38.501969, -78.445705.

Lewis Mountain

May 2, 2019

This 4.75 mile hike is probably one of the best places in the park to experience the spring trillium bloom. It’s nothing short of spectacular along this section of Appalachian Trail. This route also features two views – both are obstructed – so it’s best to hike this route before trees at higher elevations leaf out.

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Trillium

Abundant trillium along the Appalachian Trail. Below: Parking on the Pocosin Road; There thousands of blooming trillium along the trail; A view of the valley from the spring.

Parking on Pocosin Road Abundant Trillium Pocosin Spring

Christine Says…

When the days get longer, I find myself skipping the gym and hitting the trail instead. I like having an arsenal of short 3-5 mile hikes I can do on weeknights after I get off work. This route is one of my favorites, especially in the spring when the trillium are blooming in Shenandoah National Park. The flowers are so abundant along this stretch that they practically carpet the forest floor.  It’s beautiful, but it’s also ephemeral. The trillium only last a couple of weeks each April into early May.

Last night, I loaded Indy the Hiker Pug into his crate and headed up to the park. Down in the valley, it was sunny and 87 degrees.  When I parked along the Pocosin Fire Road – where the hike starts – it was a full 17 degrees cooler and delightfully breezy. We followed the fire road for .2 of a mile to its junction with the Appalachian Trail. If you continue straight down the road, you’ll pass the PATC’s Pocosin Cabin and eventually reach the old mission ruins.  It’s a nice hike for another day. But for this route, take a left at the cement marker and head north on the Appalachian Trail. The trail meanders downhill for a couple tenths of a mile where you’ll cross a spring and get a pretty view of the valley to the east.

Appalachian Trail

I like when the trail looks like a ribbon through the woods. Below: The slanted rock is visible from Skyline Drive as well – at this point of the hike, you’re very close to the road; The early part of Lewis Mountain Trail follows a utility road; Stairs on Lewis Mountain Trail.

Appalachian Trail Lewis Mountain Trail Lewis Mountain Trail

From there, the trail levels out, allowing you to saunter along for about a mile. At about a mile and a half, the trail runs closely parallel to Skyline Drive. You’ll see cars passing – sometimes people wave. As the trail moves away from the road, you’ll begin to ascend gently but steadily uphill for about half a mile. At close to the two mile mark, you will reach a road and another cement marker at the southern end of Lewis Mountain Campground.  If you need a snack or bathroom break, Lewis Mountain Campground has a camp store and restrooms open seasonally. Take a right, and follow the Lewis Mountain Trail. For the first tenth of a mile, the trail follows a utility road, but then it turns back into single track through the woods for the remaining few tenths of a mile. The forest around here is open and grassy. You’ll then climb some wooden stairs built into a hillside and pass through a small tunnel of mountain laurel. The trail hooks to the right and leads to the summit of Lewis Mountain – a small rocky spot with obstructed views to the east.

On this particular day, the weather was odd. Along the trail and to the west, skies were clear and sunny. But to the east, a dense bank of fog was lying against the side of the mountains. So, instead of an obstructed view, I got NO view. It was fine though, I think fog is pretty and I had some older photos of the view spot to share for this post. I gave Indy some water and rested for a few minutes before heading back. On the return hike, I chatted with a few section-hikers making their way to camp at Bearfence Hut.  One of them was thrilled to see Indy on the trail. She also has a hiking pug named ‘Bronx’. She showed me a cute photo of Bronx hiking in Colorado. He wasn’t on this trip with her, but she was delighted to meet another pug that hikes.

I got back to the car pretty quickly – the return trip is mostly downhill or flat.  When I got home, I had to remove THIRTEEN ticks from the dog. This is despite him being treated with Frontline regularly. I also spray his bed with permethrin.  I think I got all the ticks off him, but if any were left hopefully the Frontline and permethrin will take care of killing them before they transmit any diseases.  I know every year the media says ‘this is going to be a bad year for ticks’, but this year it’s the truth. In my four decades of hiking, I have never seen such issues with ticks. I want to remind everyone to take precautions. Tickborne diseases are nothing to mess with.

Lewis Mountain View

The view from Lewis Mountain on a clear day. Below: I got views of a fog bank this time; Passing through the mountain laurels; More ribbon trail.

Lewis Mountain View Mountain Laurel Appalachian Trail

One final note – starting at Pocosin is also a great way to hike Bearfence Mountain. I always feel like the Bearfence hike is too short, so I like parking at Pocosin and hiking north for about 3.5 miles to the Bearfence summit.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4.75 miles roundtrip
  • Elevation Change – 820 ft.
  • Difficulty –  2. This is an easy hike with gradual uphills.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail is smooth and well-maintained.
  • Views  2.  There is a view of the valley along the trail early in the hike. There is also a view at the summit of Lewis Mountain, but it is quite grown in by larger trees.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  You’ll cross one small spring.
  • Wildlife – 5. I’ve seen all kinds of birds, a bobcat, deer, and bears along this stretch.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail is well marked and easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 4. I guess because there are no grand vistas, you really don’t see many people dayhiking in this area. I usually only see backpackers making their way to Bearfence Hut.

Maps

Download a full size map.

Download a full elevation profile.

Directions to trailhead: Located in Shenandoah National Park (fees apply).  Parking is located in several spots along the Pocosin Fire Road in the Central Section on Skyline Drive.  The turn onto the road comes up quickly and is not marked, so pay attention. It’s near mile 59.5 on the Drive.  GPS Coordinates for parking: 38.413585, -78.488959

Halfmoon Mountain Loop

April 28, 2019

This 10-mile loop could easily be a day hike, but we chose to do it as a short overnight backpacking trip. The route has some fairly nice vistas and there are a couple campsites near the summit.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Halfmoon Mountain Summit

Adam takes in the view from Halfmoon Mountain. Below: The trail started from the Bucktail Trail parking area – pass the locked forest service gate to begin; We hiked the loop counterclockwise – starting on the pinkish-purple blazed Bucktail Cutoff Trail; Walking along the Bucktail Cutoff.

Halfmoon Mountain Halfmoon Mountain Halfmoon Mountain

Adam Says: Day One  (4.7 miles)

This past year was not a good year for our backpacking hobby. The rain seemed endless and the amount of exceedingly heavy rain did a lot of damage to trails. We also got a new puppy in March. He needed a lot of training and we weren’t quite ready to trust him to someone else for long periods of time.

We did manage to get out for this one trip in August 2018. Halfmoon Mountain had been a trail we had looked at doing for many years.  We heard there were great views and a sweet campsite with a view at the top. One thing that hurts this as a backpacking loop is the nearest water source to the top is about 1-1.5 miles away from the camp areas, so you have to haul what water you need to the top.

Campsite

There is a nice campsite at the junction of the Halfmoon Mountain Trail and the Bucktail Cutoff Trail. Below: After the campsite, we followed the yellow-blazed Halfmoon Mountain Trail; The trail was steep and had some obstructed views; Junction of the Halfmoon Mountain Trail and the Halfmoon Lookout Trail.

Halfmoon Mountain Trail Halfmoon Mountain Trail Halfmoon Mountain Trail

We started the trip by parking along Trout Run Road (see GPS coordinates below).  We started off on the Bucktail Trail and shortly walked through a gate blocking off the fire road.  After a short distance, we came to a junction where the Bucktail Connector Trail branched off to the right while the Bucktail Trail takes a left (this is your return trip for the loop). We took the right Bucktail Connector Trail which has pinkish-purple blazes to follow this loop counter-clockwise.  The trail began to climb up through forested terrain.  Overall, this trail was well-maintained as it is a visible, narrow footpath cutting through the forest.  There isn’t a ton to say about this section since there wasn’t a lot to see other than forest around you.  The trail climbs for about the first 1.25 miles before descending slightly for about .5 miles and then there is another up and down until you reach another junction at 2.5 miles. There is a very nice campsite along the stream near this junction.

At the junction take a left on to the Halfmoon Trail (going right would take you to the Halfmoon parking area – where many hikers originate on a shorter out-and-back route to the summit).  From here, the trail gets steeper and at the 3.5 mile mark, you reach the junction with the Halfmoon Lookout Trail, which takes off from the left.  Take that left on to the Halfmoon Lookout Trail to reach the summit after another .8 miles.  On our way up to the Halfmoon Lookout, we noticed a small footpath that branched off to the left which led to a larger camp area where we ultimately camped for the night.  The last tenth of a mile is a steep rock scramble to the top.  With crumbling rock underfoot, you really have to watch your step.  At the top, there are two great viewpoints. The first you come across on the lefthand side of the trail and there is room for a few people at the top. There are remains of an old firetower at this lookout spot.

To visit second viewpoint, you descend through a campsite in a saddle and then over another rock scramble to to the view.  This view spot will typically only work for about two people. It’s tight quarters.

First Views

One of the viewpoints from summit of Halfmoon Mountain. Below: The Halfmoon Lookout Trail is pretty flat until the last bit before the summit; The last hundred yards to the summit is a minor rock scramble (it’s steeper than it looks in the photos); Somebody chopped down numerous living trees at the summit to make the saddle campsite larger (jerks!); We thought about camping in the saddle at the summit, but didn’t like the tightness of the campsite.

Halfmoon Mountain Trail Halfmoon Mountain Trail
Tree Damage Summit Site

We initially were going to camp at the top – we heard it was a great campsite. Some jerks had chopped down some live trees to build the frame of a lean-to (so much for Leave No Trace principles) on the campsite. We deconstructed the lean-to and tried to clear out the area a bit, but felt the campsite would have been a bit tight and we would have had people walking through our campsite all day to get to the second viewpoint.  We decided to enjoy the views up here and then make our way back down.  Investigating that side trail, we found a great spot to set up camp. Even better, the campsite below the saddle had its own little viewpoint for us to enjoy.  We found a nice grassy spot to set up our tent on some flat ground.  The bugs were a little hard to deal with at camp, but we made the best of it.  We were later joined by another couple that shared our camping area.

Sunset on Halfmoon

We had a beautiful sunset on Halfmoon Mountain. Below: We chose this spacious, grassy site right below the summit; Our campsite had its own little viewpoint; There are remains of an old fire tower at the summit; Another camping part hung a hammock on the summit for sunset.

Our Campsite View at camp
 Hammock

After we set up camp, we made our way back to the top to enjoy some late afternoon/sunset views.  At the second view, another couple had set up a hammock somewhat precariously over the edge – a nice spot, but it did obstruct the views for anyone else. We had a nice dinner back at our campsite and settled down for the evening enjoying the sounds of the forest.

Christine Says: Day Two (5.3 miles)

I woke up early on the second day, so I could watch the sunrise. There were a couple decent places to catch the sun coming up – the small outcropping at our campsite and a spot about halfway up the scramble to the summit of Halfmoon. Both vistas were a bit obstructed, but I was still able to capture some pretty morning color in the sky. The day was already warming, so we ate breakfast and packed up quickly.

Halfmoon Sunrise

Sunrise on Halfmoon Mountain. Below:  Our camp kitchen; Leaving camp in the morning along the German Wilson Trail; The German Wilson Trail is exceedingly rocky and steep in places.

Bucktail Trail Bucktail Trail

We made our way back down the Halfmoon Lookout Trail for several tenths of a mile to its junction with the German Wilson Trail. I don’t know what color I’d call the blazes on German Wilson Trail – purplish? fuchsia? magenta?  Something like that, I suppose. The German Wilson Trail descended very steeply over loose, rocky terrain. It wasn’t fun and I was very glad we had decided to hike the loop counter-clockwise and didn’t have to ascend this tough section of trail with full packs. The trail drops steadily for about a mile before coming to a grassy area with a shallow stream.

Look for a forest service gate to the left.  You should see the orange blazes of the Bucktail Trail.  The trail that continues toward the right is the Old Mine Trail – do not take this trail. Follow the Bucktail Trail, crossing the stream multiple times over the next .8 mile. When we hiked in August 2018, this section of the trail was in terrible shape. Big sections were washed out and we had to navigate by following sparse orange blazes.  Lots of sections of footbed were completely disappeared by debris and erosion. Hopefully some trail maintenance has been done over the last eight months.

Stream Crossings

There were many stream crossings on Day 2. Below: Arriving at the junction of the German Wilson Trail with the Old Mine Trail and the Bucktail Trail; Following the Bucktail Trail; There were numerous stream crossings on the Bucktail Trail.

 Bucktail
 Stream Crossing

At 2.2 miles, you’ll come to a junction with the Cacapon Trail. That trail follows a small footbridge over the stream on the right.  Stay to the left and continue following the orange blazed Bucktail Trail. At this point, the trail becomes wide and grassy. It also begins to ascend again. This climb wasn’t difficult, but the grass was pretty overgrown and there was a lot of direct sun/heat. I also saw a ton of poison ivy mixing in with the grass. The climb felt worse than the numbers make it look.

Erosion Along the Trail

The trail was eroded and hard to follow in places. Below: Cliffs along the Bucktail Trail; This bridge takes you onto the Cacapon Trail; More scenes along the Bucktail Trail.  Much of the Bucktail Trail was a grassy, overgrown road.

Cliffs Bridge Near Cacapon Trail Overgrown
 Bucktail Bucktail

The last three miles on the Bucktail Trail were pretty dull. It was basically a trudge along a grassy roadbed back to the parking area. All in all, this hike didn’t really live up to my expectations. It was nice to get out after such a long backpacking drought, but this trail definitely is not destined to become a favorite. If I were to hike it again, I think I’d park at the Halfmoon Mountain parking area and just do this as a seven mile, out-and-back dayhike.

We got back to the car by late morning, so we decided to get some lunch and a cold beer before heading home.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 10 miles
  • Elevation Change – Day One: 1545 feet, Day Two: 477 feet
  • Difficulty –  3.  This was a fairly easy backpacking route.  The first day has about a mile of serious climbing, but the rest is very gradual. The second day has a steep, rocky mile of downhill, followed by a bunch of stream crossings, and then a moderate climb along a forest road before gently descending back to the parking area.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  The trail was in decent condition for national forest. The first day along the Bucktail Cutoff and Halfmoon Mountain Trail was excellent.  The second day had rougher trail conditions: the steep descent when you first turn onto the German Wilson trail had lots of loose softball to football sized rocks and was a bit challenging to walk on, there was a trail washout near the final stream crossing on the Bucktail Trail, and the road portion of the Bucktail Trail had loads of tall grass and poison ivy.
  • Views  3.  There are several vistas at and near the summit of Halfmoon Mountain, however they are all small and partially obstructed.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.  There are nice streams on both day one and two, but the closest water source to the summit campsites is about 1 – 1.5 miles downtrail.  In drier times, I expect campers might have to walk up to 2.5 miles down from the summit for water.
  • Wildlife – 3.  We saw several deer and had a whippoorwill at camp.
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.5.  The trail has spotty blazing and intermittent trail signs.  Blazes are not equally distributed for hikers headed in both directions, sometimes we had to look back to check for blazes to make sure we were on the same trail.  There are some trail washouts on the Bucktail Trail that make navigating the stream crossings a little tricky.  Also, many blazes are faded and painted in inconsistent colors (for example – the orange Bucktail Trail blazes were often closer to red).
  • Solitude – 2.  There is one small campsite and one large campsite near the summit. We had to share the large campsite with another hiking party.  There was also a steady stream of dayhikers visiting this peak.  

Maps

Download a full size map for DAY ONE.

Download a full size elevation profile for DAY ONE.

Download a full size map for DAY TWO.

Download a full size elevation profile for DAY TWO.

Directions to trailhead: Parking coordinates are 39.01431, -78.66388.  The parking area is at the top of a gravel loop right off Trout Run Rd.  The sign along the road will be for the Bucktail Trail.  Do not park at the lot labeled Halfmoon Trail – that is the 7-mile out-and-back route, rather than the loop outlined here.

Mt. Israel (NH)

April 7, 2019

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

This four mile hike is included among New Hampshires ‘52 with a View‘ – this list is composed of ‘view hikes’ with summits under 4,000 feet.  They’re generally considered milder hikes compared to the above-treeline 4,000-footers.  Mt. Israel is still a steep climb – ascending close to 2,000 feet in two miles. The view at the top wasn’t as nice as many other hikes we’ve done in the area, but it was still a good choice for a beautiful summer day.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Mt. Israel

A few of Mt. Israel from the valley floor. Below: The Mead Base Conservation Center; The trailhead; Stone stairs.

  

Christine Says…

Our last day of vacation was the only day we had low-humidity, cool breezes, and bluebird skies!  We had packing to do, so we needed a final hike that was relatively short and located close to my parent’s home. Mt. Israel was another hike we had passed over in our hiking guide several times. The route outlined in the book was an 8-mile loop with quite a bit of road walking. Generally, I prefer to avoid road walks, so we had always opted for other hikes. Then, I happened to stumble across a four-mile, no-road-walking route on the ‘52 with a View‘ list, and decided that Mt. Israel might fit the bill after all.

Parking for this hike was at the Mead Base Conservation Center. The center has programming, concerts, community events, camping, and plenty of parking for day hikers.  Our route to the top, the Wentworth Trail, starts just to the left of the building (as you’re facing it).  The hike gets off to a quick ascent and is relentlessly uphill all the way up to the ridgeline.  Like most New Hamsphire trails, there are lots of roots and rocks. There are a few places with slick slab granite, but they’re not terribly steep or extensive. The terrain is generally simple and non-technical.

Views of Squam Lake

On the climb, you get an obstructed view of Squam Lake. Below: More scenes along the trail.

 Views from the Climb of Mt. Israel Views from the Climb of Mt. Israel

The first view comes from a little rocky outcropping about a mile and a half up the mountain.  It’s obstructed, but if you peek over the trees, you’ll get a nice look at Squam Lake.  You can’t see the lake from the actual summit, so this is a good spot to get a different vista.  Shortly after the lake view, the trail levels out and goes through a mossy, piney, boggy area. Right before the ledges, you’ll pass the junction with the Mead Trail.  The Mead Trail and Guinea Pond Trails are part of the loop I mentioned earlier in the post.

After the junction, you walk a short distance out onto a series of rock ledges.  From the first ledge, bear to the right and continue following the trail through the trees.  There is a little bit of very mild rock scrambling through a little saddle before you come out on more ledges.  These ledges are more open and provide a nice mountain view. The actual summit of Mt. Israel supposedly is marked by a large cairn – however, it appeared to be mostly toppled when we hiked.  The rock pile had once clearly been a cairn, but it was reduced to a gathering of football sized rocks.

We sat on the summit for a while, enjoying the picture-perfect day.  We always love the time we spend in New Hampshire and appreciate the endless options for trails the area provides.  We eventually made our way down, following the Wentworth Trail again. On our way home, we stopped one more time for lobster rolls at our favorite little lakeside shack. Until next time, New Hampshire!

Views from the climb of Mt. Israel.

Views from the Climb of Mt. Israel Views from the Climb of Mt. Israel Views from the Climb of Mt. Israel

Adam Says…

As Christine said, this was our last day before heading back to Virginia.  We had trouble picking a hike for the last day.  We love it when we can get an amazing hike to remember, but this wasn’t one of the best up here.

I would say that this is a great trail for trail runners.  From my experience with trail runners, they tend to look more out for where their feet are stepping and less on the scenery around them.  A trail like this one would give plenty of challenge with terrain and elevation gained, but the summit is less than ideal.

Christine enjoying the summit views from Mt. Israel. Below: The junction of the Wentworth Trail and the Mead Trail; Summit scenery.

Trail split Summit of Israel Summit of Israel

The hike started off in thick forest and had some areas of rocky areas and narrow trail.  There wasn’t anything dynamic to talk about much during the hike until we reached the view for Squam Lake.  The view of Squam Lake in the distance was nice, but was probably nicer 10-15 years ago before the trees obstructed the view.  About half a mile past this viewpoint, you reach the summit.  The summit is actually just a larger boulder that you can climb to take in the view.  Again, the trees growing up here has obstructed a lot of the view.  We spent a while walking around from the summit boulder to try and see if there was a nicer spot for a viewpoint, but after investigating for quite some time, we found things were obstructed in every direction around here.  We enjoyed a snack at the top before heading back.  It is always nice to take in some New Hampshire mountain views, I just wish it had been more dynamic for our last hike of our visit.  This may be in the ’52 with a view’ list, but there isn’t much of a view keeping this on the list.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4 miles
  • Elevation Change – 1808 feet
  • Difficulty –  4.  The climbing is quite steady, but there is nothing tricky or technical.
  • Trail Conditions – 4. Trail clubs in the area have taken very nice care of this trail.  There are some obvious improvements with stairs, waterbars, and grading along the route.
  • Views –  3.5. They weren’t as nice as we hoped for.  Trees have grown taller, obscuring a lot of the view.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 0. None of noteworthiness.
  • Wildlife – 3.  Normal squirrels, birds, and chipmunks.
  • Ease to Navigate –  4.5. The Wentworth Trail is a straight shot to the summit.  There is one place that seems like it’s the top, but is actually a false summit. If you look out toward the view, the trail actually continues through the woods to the right. The actual summit is a few hundred yards past this point.
  • Solitude – 3.  It’s a fairly popular trail with locals. We started early and saw a small handful of people, all on our way down the mountain.

Trail Map:

Click to download full size map.

Elevation Profile:

Click to download full size elevation profile.

Directions to trailhead:

Our Most Popular Trails – 2019 Edition

March 28, 2019

These are Virginia Trail Guide’s TOP TWENTY most searched and most viewed Virginia hikes as of March 2019!

1) Great Channels

Why it’s so popular: You descend into a sandstone labyrinth!  Read More

Great Channels

2) Mount Rogers

Why it’s so popular: Wild ponies and wide open views as you hike to Virginia’s tallest peak!  Read More

Mount Rogers

3) Cascade Falls

Why it’s so popular: An easy hike to one of Virginia most impressive waterfalls!  Read More

Cascade Falls

4) Sharp Top

Why it’s so popular: Beautiful views from a distinctly shaped summit. There’s a bus that goes almost all the way to the top.  Read More

5) Hawksbill Summit Loop

Why it’s so popular: Shenandoah National Park’s tallest mountain has almost 360 degree views.  Read More

Hawksbill

6) Rose River Loop

Why it’s so popular: Two significant waterfalls and beautiful stream footage on a moderate loop.  Read More

Rose River

7) Crabtree Falls

Why it’s so popular: The longest continuous waterfall in Virginia.  Read More

8) Devils Bathtub

Why it’s so popular: The crystal clear blue-green sandstone bathtub.  Read More

9) Dark Hollow Falls

Why it’s so popular: A short Shenandoah classic located right next to Big Meadows, the park’s biggest lodging/camping complex.  Read More

10) Cole/Cold Mountain

Why it’s so popular: Beautiful, open, grassy bald.  Read More

11) Marys Rock

Why it’s so popular: Another classic Shenandoah vista that is easily accessible.  Read More

12) Dragons Tooth

Why it’s so popular: A fun rock scramble and a cool monolithic rock with views from the top. Read More

13) Spy Rock

Why it’s so popular: 360 degree views from an impressive dome-shaped rock. Read More

14) Three Ridges

Why it’s so popular: Fantastic views and one of Virginia’s toughest hikes. Read More

15) Appalachian Trail – Ashby Gap to Bears Den (The Roller Coaster)

Why it’s so popular: The roller coaster is a fun way to suffer and there’s a view at the end. Read More

16) Moorman’s River and Big Branch Falls

Why it’s so popular: It’s kind of a mystery why this landed in the top 20. I guess people like waterfalls and it’s close to Charlottesville? Sorry the photo is awful – our camera died that day and we only have phone photos. Read More

17) Humpback Rocks

Why it’s so popular: Super views and it’s just one of those hikes everyone does. Not one of our favorites though! Read More

18) The Priest

Why it’s so popular: Great view and a very popular training hike with lots of elevation gain! We hiked it the easy way for our blog post. Read More

19) Big Schloss

Why it’s so popular: One of the best view hikes that’s located close to 81 and NoVa. Read More

20) Appalachian Trail – Catawba to Daleville

Why it’s so popular: It has McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs – say no more. Read More

The Boulder Loop (NH)

February 3, 2019

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

This three mile hike takes you through cool boulder field up to a ridge with a couple spectacular viewpoints!  It’s an easy hike with a big pay-off!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Albany Covered Bridge

The Albany Covered Bridge. Below: Parking for the loop; Trail signage; Boulders on the route.

Parking for the Boulder Loop  Boulder Loop

Adam Says…

One challenge we face often with hiking in New Hampshire is trying to pick a hike that will work for that day.  Typically, weeks before traveling there we are stockpiling a bunch of hike ideas knowing that we will likely adjust to what the day gives us.  The night before, we are consulting weather sources (what type of cloud coverage is in the high peaks, when showers may start, etc.), looking at how long a drive we have for the next day, and determining how the day will all fit together with meals and plans for other activities.  When you’re on vacation you want to make the most of the time you have.  The weather was telling us there would be some cloud coverage in the high peaks of the White Mountains, so we tried to look at some lower elevation plans.  Knowing we were going out to eat for a long breakfast and showers that were likely coming in the afternoon, we felt we needed to pick something shorter.  So, we decided to give this Boulder Loop a try.  A few books we had read didn’t make us feel overly excited to try it, but once we were done with this one, we would highly recommend it.

Massive Boulders on the Boulder Loop

Massive boulders on the route.  Below: Rocks to climb; Pretty evergreen forest with lots of rocks; A nice view before reaching the ledges.

 Roots and Pines The first view

We started off with a mostly empty parking lot.  We are always early morning hikers to beat the crowds and we were glad that we did.  We crossed the road and started on the trail.  The beginning starts with a slight incline.  At .2 miles, you come to a junction sign; either way leads to the ledges, but we headed to the left as our books had mostly done.  The boulders on this lower elevation section are quite impressive, and you can just imagine the power of glaciers dropping off these large masses of rock before melting away.  The yellow-blazed trail steepens through sections of rocks and roots, quite common for well-traveled trails in New Hampshire.

At the 1.2 mile marker, we came to a crest of the hill we had climbed.  I noticed a rocky path off to the right leading up and decided to take it.  Sure enough, this was the way we should have gone.   There is a sign marked “View .2 miles”, but it is placed on a tree facing the other direction of the trail, so be sure not to miss this.  We feel that many people could miss it if they weren’t paying attention and then miss all the glory of this hike.  We climbed up and stayed on a yellow-blazed path that led first to a rock outcropping for some amazing views and then to a larger cliffside.   Be careful up at the top of these cliffs.  There is a large sharp dropoff from the viewpoint and something you don’t want to do with reckless children.  While the views aren’t as high up as some of the 4000+ nearby White Mountains, they are quite impressive.  We could look over to Mount Chocorua and Mount Passaconaway on clear days.  We stayed up here a while until we could see clouds moving in.  We then went back the way we came off the spur trail until we reached the junction again with the boulder loop.

From here, we went down to the right to continue the loop.  We began to see more people coming up so we knew we beat the crowds for this hike.  Based on the exhausted looks on the faces of those coming up the other side, we knew we picked the best route to ascend.  The way down did seem to be steeper and rockier than the way we had come up.  On the way down, you really can enjoy the openness of the forest and when you descend low enough walking through the large boulder field is impressive.  The return trip from the junction was 1.2 miles back to the initial junction of the loop trail and we made it back very quickly with the descent.

We took a left at the junction and had a short .2miles back to our car.  We were impressed with how the combination of the boulder field with the expansive views from the top make this a wonderful hike when you are trying to fit in a short hike into your day.

Climbing the Roots

New Hampshire’s rocks and roots. Below: The spur trail out to the view; Rocks to negotiate.

 

Christine Says…

We’ve flipped past the Boulder Loop in our New Hampshire hiking guide, year after year, for many years now.  The hike just didn’t look fun or pretty. The only photo the book included was one of a middle-schooled aged boy looking at a shelf fungus growing on the side of a tree.  Sorry, but I don’t hike for fungus! However, this year – upon closer inspection – I noticed that the long text description of the hike mentioned ‘views from a ledge’.  After that, I Googled ‘views Boulder Loop hike’ and found some amazing photos in the results.

We knew bad storms were on deck for the afternoon, so we decided the short Boulder Loop would be a great choice for a quick hike. We started the morning with a big breakfast with my parents at Polly’s Pancake Parlor.  The restaurant is a family tradition and we always try to eat there at least once on every visit. After breakfast, we made our way back to Lincoln and hopped on the Kancamagus Highway. The highway is a scenic drive through White Mountains National Forest.  There are sweeping vistas and pull-off viewpoints along the road – it’s kind of like Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park (but free.)  We found our trailhead right along the highway, next to the Albany Covered Bridge.

Views from the Ledges

Views from the ledges on the Boulder Loop. Below: More views from the Boulder Loop ledges.

Boulder Loop Views Boulder Loop Views Boulder Loop Views

We found the lot nearly empty, and paid the day-use fee for parking. I took a few photos of the bridge and the river before hitting the trail. The Boulder Loop is an interpretive trail with numbered stops and descriptions. It would probably be fun for a family who wanted to take lots of breaks along the route. We skipped that aspect of the hike and just focused on reaching the views.

We hiked the loop clockwise, passing enormous lichen-covered boulders. The trail climbed steadily uphill over lots of roots and rocks. Eventually, we reached the ridgeline and came to our first viewpoint. We could see the road and the river below, a plunging cliffside lower in the valley, and mountains as far as the eye could see.  It was GORGEOUS!

After the first view, we continued along until we found the sign for the spur.  The sign says ‘viewpoint’ on a small wooden plaque. It’s kind of small and blends in to the forest, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled. To follow the spur, look for faint blazes on the rocks.  The spur goes for about .15 mile over rocks and ledges with several places to stop and take in the views.  We could see lots of mountains in every direction, but Chocorua was especially recognizable with it’s stone dome.  We both remarked to each other that the ‘kid with the fungus’ was such a disservice to this beautiful hike.

More Boulders on the Descent

More Boulders on the descent.

After soaking in the scenery and watching clouds roll in from the distance, we followed the spur back to the main junction.  We continued clockwise on the loop.  At first, the trail dropped quite steeply over loose dirt and rocks.  Eventually it leveled back out, passed through another cool boulder field, and returned us to the parking lot near the covered bridge. The hike was such a pleasant surprise – relatively easy terrain with excellent views at the top.

After packing up, we made our way into North Conway to get lunch at Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery.  It’s one of our favorite lunch stops – they make great nachos.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 3 miles
  • Elevation Change – 1161 feet
  • Difficulty –  3.  Some of the sections are quite steep, but the shortness of the overall trail makes this one a popular family hike.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was in good shape, but the rocks and roots can make this a challenge in some parts.
  • Views –  4.  Nice 180 degree views from the cliff summit. 
  • Waterfalls/streams – .5  We passed a small stream through the mountains on the way back, but nothing impressive. 
  • Wildlife – 2.  Evidently, bears can be spotted here in the fall.  May be a good place for birdwatching at the low and high elevations.
  • Ease to Navigate –  4.  It is a self-contained loop.  It loses a point since the trail to the view isn’t clearly marked on both sides.  Be watching when you crest the high point on the trail.
  • Solitude – 2.5.  As mentioned above, this is popular with families, so you will likely see people along the way.  Time this for early morning or late in the afternoon to maximize your solitude.

Trail Map:

Click to download full size map

Elevation Profile:

Click to download full size elevation profile.

Directions to trailhead: Parking coordinates are 44.005395, -71.239270.  There is a day fee for parking in this area.  You will cross the Albany Covered Bridge and park in the lot labeled Boulder Loop Parking.