Twin Pinnacles Trail

The Twin Pinnacles trail is a gentle trail that takes you to the highest point in Grayson Highlands State Park.  The views from each of the Pinnacles are nothing short of spectacular.

View from Little Pinnacle
The view from Little Pinnacle.  Below: Although this blog post primarily covers the Twin Pinnacles trail, don’t miss hiking up through Massie Gap to where it meets the Appalachian Trail.  You’ll see ponies and spectacular scenery.

Ponies  Grayson Higlands Hiking Grayson highlands view

AT through Massie Gap More Ponies Grayson Highlands view

Christine Says…

When visiting the southwest region of Virginia, a visit to Grayson Highlands State Park is practically mandatory.  That park and the high country around Mount Rogers might be my favorite spot in the entire state of Virginia for many reasons.  The lovely boreal forest seen in much of that area is uncommon elsewhere in our state.  The bald, open high country is stunningly beautiful.  And, the kicker… there are WILD PONIES.  Honestly, if there was nothing besides the wild ponies to set Grayson Highlands apart, I would still love it best.  I grew up a horse crazy girl and that sentiment has never really abated in my adulthood.

Last time we visited Grayson Highlands, we hiked up Mount Rogers.  This time we wanted to try something new, so we decided to hike the Twin Pinnacles trail, which lies completely within the state park’s boundaries.  But before we set off on our new hike, I insisted that we hike far enough up the Appalachian Trail that I could see and photograph some of the ponies and their spring foals.  The wild ponies of Grayson Highlands are not everywhere in the park.  The best chances to see them are hiking through Massie Gap and then south along the Appalachian Trail.

As it turned out, the ponies were all tucked into the shade and relaxing at the higher elevations.  We ended up hiking a little over halfway up Mount Rogers before we found the herd.  We enjoyed watching a small family group of ponies – two mares, two foals and a stallion for about an hour before we headed back down to do our ‘real’ hike.

Foal along the AT
This foal looked so beautiful with the mountainous background.  Below: Adam walking along the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail; A couple shots of the Catawba Rhododendron in bloom.

Adam hiking across Massie Gap Catawba Rhodedendron Rhodedendron Along the AT

We also spent a little time headed slightly north on the Appalachian Trail so Adam could look for a geocache.  While he did that, I enjoyed the spectacular blooms of the Catawba Rhododendron.  They’re so colorful, and really set the mountainside awash in brilliant purple.

By the time we got to the trailhead for Twin Pinnacles, which is located behind the park’s Visitor Center, I was already sunburned, tired and hungry.  Thankfully, Twin Pinnacles is a very, very short hike.  At 1.6 miles, it barely makes my personal cut-off of one-mile for actually being considered a ‘hike’.  Anything shorter than a mile is just a walk in my book!

For such a short hike, Twin Pinnacles packs in a ton of majestic scenery!  The trail climbs very gradually to the highest point in the park – Little Pinnacle – at 5084 feet.  You would think Big Pinnacle would be the taller, but the name is a slight misrepresentation.

From the top of Little Pinnacle, we had views in every direction.  We could see Christmas Tree farms down in the valley.  We could see Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain off in the distance.  All through the forest, bands of red spruce were visible.  They really stand out among other conifers due to their richer, russet colors.

Trail Leaving Little Pinnacle
The trail leaving Little Pinnacle.

Walking across the rocky, bare top of the mountain was reminiscent of hiking in New England.  We quickly dipped back into the trees and walked through a small saddle over the Big Pinnacle.  After a short, very steep climb, we stepped out onto bare rock overlooking a gorgeous vista.  Of the two Pinnacles, I think Big Pinnacle has slightly nicer views of the park – especially looking down into Massie Gap.  We enjoyed the breeze atop the Pinnacle, and I spent some time daydreaming more about the ponies and what they might be up to.  (yes… really – I love those ponies!)

After leaving the second Pinnacle, we had a short walk back to the Visitor Center and a long ride back home.  I wish we had more time to spend in the area – I love Grayson Highlands!

Adam  Says…

The last time we had visited Grayson Highlands, we spent most of the day at Mount Rogers and had little time or energy left for anything else.  I thought it would be nice to see some other features of this wonderful state park.  Since the weather and views were lovely, we tried out the Twin Pinnacles Trail.

Storm Shelter
The 1.6 mile loop trail has several storm shelters built by a local boy scout troop.  Below: The trail starts behind the visitors center.

Twin Pinnacles trailhead

During our morning in Grayson Highlands, Christine was determined to see wild ponies.  She stated that she didn’t want to leave until she saw ponies and hopefully foals.  In my best Mr. T impression, I said “I pity the foals” and we started our search.  We ran into an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.  I wish we had stopped to get his trail name, because he was such a happy guy.  He was from Florida and just said that he is just amazed every day at what he is doing.  He said that he often goes blue-blazing (since all of the AT is white-blazed, trails off the AT are typically blue-blazed) to see other things that people recommend.  He wasn’t out to set any records for speed, he was just enjoying every moment.  I hope he makes the trip the whole way.  I kept thinking that he is adding on a lot of extra miles that I know many other hikers wouldn’t want to do.  I was asking if he had seen any ponies and he said he walked through about four herds getting to this spot today, so I knew we were on the right path.  Shortly after we parted ways, we ran into our first two ponies.  They were a little stand-offish, but they didn’t run away from us.   These ponies looked a little rough, like they needed some time with a grooming brush.  Christine wanted to continue to try and find some more groups of ponies.  Shortly after we continued to climb up the AT, I looked back to enjoy the view (and catch my breath) and I saw some ponies not far from where we were hiking.  We decided to climb back down and check them out and Christine saw there were two foals with them.  We spent about 45 minutes just watching their behavior from a safe distance before I nudged Christine away to continue on with our day.  I’m sure she could have stayed all day looking at this set of ponies.

There are two different options for this trail.  You can start from the parking lot at Massie Gap and hike steeply uphill via the Big Pinnacle Trail.  We decided to go the easier way, since we had already spent a good time hiking before this.

Big Pinnacle overlooking Massie Gap
Big Pinnacle overlooking Massie Gap.

To get to the trailhead, just continue on the park road, Grayson Highland Lane, until you reach the parking lot to the Visitor’s Center.  Once you park the car, you will have to climb up several stairs until you reach the Visitor’s Center.  As you are looking directly at the Visitor’s Center, the red-blazed trail begins behind and to the left of the Center.  After a short distance, you will reach a larger bulletin board with a map of the trail where the trail forks.  Take the left fork.  You will soon come across the first of four storm shelters along the trail that were created as an Eagle Scout project.  You will reach the first rocky outcrop, Little Pinnacle around .7 miles.  The Little Pinnacle is actually higher than the Big Pinnacle in elevation.  The trail continues on for a few tenths of a mile until you reach the sign for the Big Pinnacle overlook.  The trail up to the Big Pinnacle consists of steep stairs leading to the top, but it isn’t too far of a climb to the top.  Once there, you should be able to see the Massie Gap parking lot below.  Go back to the sign and continue to follow the signs leading back to the Visitor’s Center.  You should finish your trip at 1.6 miles.

I did do a little geocaching on the trail while I was there.  In one of the geocaches, I found a toy Pinnochio from the Shrek movies.  I decided to grab it (in geocaching, you typically take something and leave something in the container).  As we continued to hike, I kept thinking that I heard something barking or voices that were in the distance.  I asked Christine a couple of times if she heard anything and she said she didn’t.  After thinking that I was going crazy, I finally realized that this Pinnochio was making noises.  He makes some grunts and occasionally says, “I’ll never become a real boy”.   We had a good laugh at my expense over that.  If you would like to find the geocaches on the trail, they are:

For a hiker in Virginia, it really doesn’t get any better than a visit to Grayson Highlands State Park.  This is truly a magical place!

Trail Notes

  • Distance 1.6 miles
  • Elevation Change – 250 feet
  • Difficulty – 2.  The trail is mostly flat and easy with the exception of one short, steep climb up Little Pinnacle.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail is heavily-traveled and in great shape.
  • Views – 5.  Spectacular views from one of Virginia’s highest spots.
  • Wildlife – 1.  We saw some birds. There might be bears and deer in the area, but we didn’t see anything.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.5. There are a couple turns, but if you follow the signs you’ll easily be able to stay on the loop.
  • Solitude – 2.  The short length and excellent views make this trail very popular.

Directions to trailhead: From Abingdon, take 58 East until you reach Grayson Highlands State Park on the left through SR 362. Continue on Grayson Highland Lane until you reach the parking lot for the Visitor’s Center.  The trailhead is behind and to the left of the Visitor’s Center.

New River Trail – Fries to Foster Falls

The New River Trail is a 57-mile rails-to-trails bike path.  It starts in Galax or Fries and runs to Pulaski, following the New River closely for most of the way.  We biked a 20+ mile section from Fries to Foster Falls.

A Look Down the New River Trail
The trail was shady and lush! Below: One of the many bridges along the trail – this one crossed the New River;  A view of the New River at Foster Falls; Adam looks at some small rapids.

Bridge Near Shot Tower New River at Foster Falls Adam Looking at River

Adam Says…

When we were originally planning our trip down near the Grayson Highlands area, we were planning to incorporate a bike ride on the Virginia Creeper Trail.  We had previously done the Virginia Creeper Trail from Whitetop to Damascas, but we wanted to do the entire trail.  After doing some research, we found out that due to recent tornado activity, only 8 miles of trail is still available to bike south of Damascas.  There are plans to restore it soon, but it kept us from going with our original plan.

We were disappointed, but I had remembered hearing good things about the New River Trail.  After discovering that we could still stay near Grayson Highlands and do this trail, we had a solution.  The next challenge was trying to find a shuttle service to bike.  After doing some internet research, I found a place called New River Trail Outfitters that offers the service.  However, when I tried to call the numbers were disconnected.  I’m not sure if they are out of business, but I couldn’t find any current information for them.

Bike and Canoe Livery
The livery at Foster Falls rents bikes, canoes, kayaks and tubes. They also handle the bike shuttle service.  Below:  The stable at Foster Falls, A caboose on display; Foster Falls has an old depot building now used as a shop.

Stable Caboose Foster Falls Depot

I then called the New River Trail State Park and found out that they offer a shuttle service.  The park headquarters is located in Foster Falls.  The cost per person to shuttle from Foster Falls to Fries or Galax is $25/person.  When I called in for information, I found out they opened at 9AM.  When I asked if we needed to make a reservation, I was told “No.  You can  just show up.” It’s definitely much more laid back than making shuttle reservations for the Virginia Creeper. Along the Creeper, shuttles fill up days in advance, so you usually have to make a reservation with a credit card well ahead of your trip.

We decided to get there right at 9AM.  The day was calling for temperatures in the high 90s, so we wanted to get most of the bike ride over before the hottest part of the day.  We had to wait for a little while for a second employee to show up, but we were able to get our bikes loaded and we were off by about 9:20.  It took about 35 minutes to get to Fries.  We were thinking that it was going to be a very long bike ride, but the bike path is actually quite a bit shorter than the distance by car.

The New River Trail State Park is the longest state park, measuring a total of 57 miles, but only averages about 80 feet wide.  This is a state park with the purpose of biking, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, or tubing.  The guys operating the shuttle service says that most people choose to rent kayaks and float the river along the trail.

Biking Across the Fries Junction Bridge
Biking Across the Fries Junction Bridge.  Below: A variety of scenery along the trail.

Cliffsides New River Old Barn

I would recommend getting a copy of the bike map to take along with you. This path that we chose mostly takes place in the south section, but you will be 1.2 miles in the north section.

We decided to go for the section from Fries to Foster Falls because we thought it would be a little more manageable in the heat than the Galax to Foster Falls section.  The Galax to Fries Junction section would have meant another 8 miles of biking and doesn’t parallel the New River until it reaches Fries Junction.

The bike path at Fries immediately starts by the New River.  Right from the parking lot, we were able to see gorgeous views of the river.  The trail takes about 5.5 miles to reach Fries Junction (which intersects with the trail from Galax).  At Fries Junction, we did run into about 10 camp counselors that were biking the trail and talking about which colleges they were admitted to.  I tried to keep quiet for a while, since I work in the JMU Admissions Office, but I did talk to one girl that was going to JMU next year as a freshman.  We pressed on after a short break, following the signs to Pulaski (the terminus of the trail).  We passed by Byllesby Dam (at mile 8.0) and Buck Dam (at mile 10.6).  We stopped to eat a snack at Ivanhoe (at mile 13.7).  Shortly after Austinville (at mile 16.5), we went through a short tunnel.  This tunnel wasn’t that dark, so you most likely would not need a headlamp to go through.  At mile 20.1, we reached Shot Tower.  We parked our bikes and hiked up the steep stairs (which is tough after biking a while) to explore the tower.  After we were done, we finished our ride back at the Foster Falls state park headquarters where we had started our trip.

There are a few geocaches to find along the way for this bike ride.

I definitely would like to come back and do some other sections of the trail.  The section from Galax to Foster Falls is about 28 miles and the section from Foster Falls to Pulaski is about 22 miles.  When we were reflecting back on the rails-to-trails bike rides we have done, we would put this only second to the Virginia Creeper trail.

Christine Says…

The New River Trail wasn’t our first choice for this mini vacation.  Initially, we had planned to head down to Abingdon and make a second attempt to bike the entire Virginia Creeper.  Let’s just say we don’t have good luck when it comes to the Creeper.  In 2009, it rained on us for 17 miles before we bailed out and caught a van ride back to Abingdon from Damascus, in 2010 I got bronchitis and was too sick to go when we planned, and in 2011 the section of the trail between Damascus and Abingdon was closed due to tornado damage.  Apparently, some mythical force is keeping us from finishing that trail!

Tunnel
This was the only tunnel we passed through on the section we biked.  Below: Geese and goslings; Pretty wildflowers along the trail; Rocks and rapids in the new river.

Geese Wildflowers Rapids

Luckily, Adam was able to do some last minute research and plan an alternate getaway for us that included biking along the New River Trail.  The trail is 57 miles long and passes through Grayson, Carroll, Wythe, and Pulaski Counties, linking the towns of Pulaski and Galax with a side spur of the trail linking to Fries.  It hasn’t been around as long as the Virginia Creeper, so it’s not as well-known and the area doesn’t have quite as many bike-friendly amenities (shuttle services, bike shops, trailside cafes).  But what it lacks in amenities, it makes up for with its beauty and solitude.   We saw fewer than two dozen people along the New River Trail over a 20+ mile span and greatly enjoyed the pristine river scenery.

The trail was in great shape – smooth and flat, covered with fine crushed stone.  There were lots of pretty wildflowers along the path – snapdragons, mountain laurel and others I didn’t know.  Every now and then, I’d catch a deer watching us quietly from the woods.  We saw a pair of geese and their goslings hanging out at one of the primitive trailside campsites.  The river was fed by many small streams cascading down the hillside above the trail.  There were even a few small waterfalls flowing.  The New River was spectacular!  All the spring rain had water levels higher than average, so there were many rapids and cascades that probably aren’t there when the water is lower.  The driver of our shuttle even mentioned that they had to cancel canoe/kayak/tube trips due to high water on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.

It was close to 100 degrees outside on the day we biked, so that made it a bit uncomfortable.  Although, once we got going, the breeze from pedaling along made the heat bearable.  Thankfully, much of the trail passes through a shady tunnel of woods, so we were able to stay out of the direct sunlight most of the way.

Nonetheless, I drank almost three liters of water and a 20-ounce bottle of lemonade over the course of the ride.  I also ended up with a huge, salty sweat ring on the front of my shirt (GROSS!) and my legs were crusted with sweat mixed with gravel and grit (DIRTY!).  I was not a pretty site at the end of the trail, but I had such a good time I didn’t care!

Shot Tower
The Shot Tower.

Two things I liked best along this bike path were the Fries Junction Bridge and the Shot Tower.  The bridge was neat just because it was so long and curvy.  Shot Tower was interesting for its history.  The tower itself sits above the trail.  So you have to take a short, steep climb up a hill and several flights of steps to visit the tower – but it’s definitely worth the effort.  Another little tidbit of history from the area is that Stephen F. Austin, ‘The Father of Texas’, was actually born in Wythe County, in a small town that now bears his name (Austinville).  The trail passes right through that area.

Horses
Park employees enjoy a shady spot on horseback.

I would definitely make a return trip to bike more of the New River Trail!  The state park shuttle service makes it so convenient.  I also might want to go back and ride horses along the trail.  Seeing all the horses at the Foster Falls stable really made me miss having a horse and going for long rides.

After finishing up with our bike ride, we got cleaned up and headed into Galax for a movie and pizza.  I was shocked that movies in Galax were only $4.00 for a matinee (as of 2011)!  After the movie, pizza at RJ’s Pizza and Subs was delicious!  They had really good and inexpensive food.

Trail Notes

  • Distance 21.3 miles
  • Elevation Change – negligible
  • Difficulty – 1.5  The terrain is extremely flat, so if you can do the mileage, you shouldn’t have a problem.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.5.  The trail is either very small gravel or dirt.  It doesn’t get better unless you find paved trails.
  • Views1.5  You don’t get views from high points, but there are a few nice unobstructed views of the river and some of the mountains around you.
  • Waterfalls/Streams – 5.  Most of the trail, you are biking along the New River.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We saw a couple of deer and a black snake on our ride.
  • Ease to Navigate –4.5.  The trail is very easy to follow and well-marked.
  • Solitude – 2.5.  This trail does get busy on nice weekend days, but it is not as popular as the Virginia Creeper trail.

Directions to trailhead: For the headquarters of New River Trail State Park for the shuttle service, take exit 24 (69 East) off of Interstate 77.  Take a left on to US-52 North.  Go 1.5 miles and take a right on to Foster Falls Road/State Route 608.  There should be signs directing you to the New River Trail State Park.  There is a fee of $2 to visit the park.

For the trailhead in Fries, VA, Fries is located off of  highway 94.   From Main Street in Fries, turn on Firehouse Drive.  You should see the small parking lot and bulletin board shelter for the start of the trail at the curve on Firehouse Drive.

Sky Meadows Loop

This 5.5 mile loop through Sky Meadows State Park offers spectacular valley views and the opportunity to hike in high, open meadows.

Adam Takes in the View from the Piedmont Overlook
Adam takes in the view from the Piedmont Overlook.  Below: Mt. Bleak House was built in 1843 and is open for tours; An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker makes his way down the trail (he is in the far left of the photo, beyond the dogwood trees); A cute village in the valley below.

Mt. Bleak House AT Thruhiker Cute Town in the Valley Below

Adam Says…

This hike was amazing!  I can’t believe that we had never been to Sky Meadows State Park until now.  Each year, Christine and I pull a list of hikes together that we want to try and cover.  When I was looking through the Falcon Guide Hiking Virginia book, they mentioned under “other hikes” to try the Sky Meadows State Park.  I am shocked that the authors didn’t feature a trail through this area rather than leaving it as a footnote.  I think this is one of the best hikes in Virginia for views.  I would liken the scenery and open views to those you would find at Cole Mountain or Grayson Highlands/Mount Rogers.  Put this on your list of “must hikes” – you won’t regret it!

Across from the Visitor Center, you will see the Park Office on the hillside.  Walk past the large board showing the map of hiking trails and walk up the gravel path that leads into the woods.  Once you reach the fork, take a left and continue down the gravel Boston Mill road.  Continue on this road, passing by the junction with the Gap Run trail, until you come to the junction with the South Ridge trail at .45 miles.

The Chimney at the Snowden Ruins
The Snowden House ruins. Below: We crossed this small stream early in the hike.  It’s probably dry most of the year;  Adam makes his way up the South Ridge Trail; Adam reads information about Snowden; Dogwoods were at their peak.

Stream South Ridge Trail Snowden Ruins Sign Big Dogwood

Take a right on to the yellow-blazed South Ridge Trail.  The trail begins to quickly climb up the steep hillside.  At .5 miles, there is a short spur trail to a nice view.  At .58 miles, you will come to the Snowden Ruins.  You’ll see the foundation of the old homestead along with what is left of a stone chimney.  Further up the trail, you will come to the South Ridge overlook which sits under a dogwood tree.  Continue along the trail which tends to ascend most of the way.  At 2.2 miles, you will reach a junction with the North Ridge trail.  Take a left up the blue-blazed North Ridge Trail.  At 2.6 miles, you will reach a junction with the white-blazed Appalachian trail.  Take a right, heading north on the Appalachian Trail.  At 3.5 miles, you will come to a fork.

Take a right at the fork to go on to the light blue-blazed Ambassador Whitehouse trail.  At 3.9 miles, you will come to the Paris overlook viewpoint, which also provides gorgeous panoramic views.  After this viewpoint, the trail descends back through the woods.  At 4.53 take a left back on to the North Ridge trail, but in just a few feet you will take a left up the red Piedmont Overlook trail.

Adam under the Dogwoods
Adam under the Dogwoods. Below: Hepatica; Tiger Swallowtail; Mayapple Flower

Hepatica Tiger Swallowtail Mayapple

The trail ascends through a steep section here, but you will climb up a few stairs and then reach a wider trail that leads to a few benches and the Upper Piedmont Overlook.  Enjoy the views here and as you climb down to the Lower Piedmont Overlook.  After passing by an old farm building, you will climb over a few stairs and then down until you come back to the Boston Mill Road at mile 5.1.   Take a left on the road and you should be making your way back to your vehicle and the Visitor Center.

The land that became Sky Meadows State Park was donated by Paul Mellon (son of Andrew Mellon – U.S. Secretary of State from 1921-1932), a famous philanthropist, art collector, and Kentucky Derby-winning horse owner.   He donated 1132 acres of the land in 1975 and later more donations (including the land for the Appalachian Trail) have taken it up to the current 1862 acres.  The history of the land also dates back to Lord Fairfax and previous owners had ties to Belle Grove.

This really was a perfect day to do this hike!  We started off the day with a trip through Shenandoah National Park to view some early morning wildlife and to take in some breakfast at Skyland.  We then made our way to Front Royal and headed to Sky Meadows State Park.  The weather was perfect for hiking with highs in the 70s and a breeze throughout.  The sky was very clear with a few clouds, but no threat of rain.  The views were extraordinary and I can’t wait to come back some time.

Adam find the Hiking Upward Cache
Adam find the Hiking Upward Cache.  Below:  Lunch on the trail; Turning onto the AT; Making our way across the high meadows.

Lunch High Meadows

If you are interested in geocaching, there are several geocaches to find on this loop:

Christine Says…

Last Saturday was a perfect spring day.  We got up before sunrise and drove through the central and north districts of Shenandoah National park en route to Sky Meadows State Park for a day of hiking. (Passing through Shenandoah, we saw a bear and had a good breakfast at Skyland!)

Sky Meadows was established in the early 1980s and is home to a beautiful restored Civil-war era farm and twelve miles of hiking trails – including a little snip of the Appalachian Trail.  Sky Meadows is unique in that its campground has no car access.  Anyone wishing to stay overnight has to hike in to their campsite.

We parked at Mt. Bleak House.  From there, we hiked down a gravel path leading to the park’s network of trails.  Finding the trail we wanted to start on was a little tricky, because park maps were not to scale.  After a little fumbling around, we were on our way up the South Ridge Trail.  The trail climbed slowly and steadily uphill, past the ruins of Snowden – another old farm within the park’s boundary.  All that’s left standing of Snowden is a crumbling chimney and a number of foundations from outbuildings.  The site has a plaque describing the house and the people that lived there many years ago.

From Snowden, the path ascended continually passing through open meadows and pretty forest.  The dogwoods and redbuds were all near their peak of spring glory.  The flowers on the trees were truly spectacular against the perfect blue sky.  The breeze kept bugs (and sweating) at bay!  It really was ideal weather to be outdoors.

Leaning Redbud
A Beautiful Redbud along the trail. Below: A view into the valley from the Piedmont Overlook;  More Views; A spectacular dogwood.

Piedmont Overlooks Piedmont Overlook Beautiful Dogwood

For a while, the trail was pretty level as it passed through thicker woods.  We startled a turkey and watched it fly off, chortling and gobbling in dismay at being disturbed.  I must say… turkeys look really funny in flight.  The trail in this area was lined with lots of tiny wildflowers – mostly violets and hepatica.

Eventually, we started climbing again and came to the junction of the North Ridge and South Ridge trails.  We contemplated stopping for lunch at this point, but decided to press on, following the North Ridge trail to where it meets Appalachian Trail.  Another nice thing about Sky Meadows… there are benches at most trail junctions and overlooks.  It’s nice to have a comfortable place to sit and eat lunch – away from ticks, poison ivy and other crawly things.  We ended up using the bench along the Appalachian Trail for our picnic spot.

For lunch, we feasted on sandwiches, brownies, grapes and cheese.   Adam was eating his cheese and looking especially contemplative, when he turned and asked me “What kind of cheese is this?”  I responded “It’s mozzarella and cheddar twisted together.  You don’t like it?”  He said “No, it’s really GOOD… it sort of tastes like lobster dipped in melted butter!”  It’s weird, but he was actually kind of right – something about the texture of warmish mozzarella blended with the flavor of sharper cheddar ended up tasting remarkably like lobster. We’ve taken to calling this particular cheese snack ‘Lobster Cheese’.

While we ate lunch, we watched several other groups of hikers pass by.  No one really seemed to know where they were going.  Someone asked us if Harper’s Ferry was where the Appalachian Trail began.  Someone asked if they were already in Shenandoah National Park.  Two guys with cigarettes, sodas and no hiking gear contemplated aloud to one another “Should we go to Shenandoah or Harper’s Ferry?” (they were 20+ miles from either destination.)

After lunch, we headed north along the Appalachian Trail for a short while.  Along the ridge, the forest completely opened up to high meadows with amazing views into the valley below.  We were walking along the trail, chatting, when a fast hiker snuck up and passed us from behind.  He turned out to be the first AT thru-hiker we’ve seen in Virginia this year.   He’s definitely ahead of the pack!

Old Barn
We passed this old farm building on the hike down the Piedmont Overlook Trail. Below: A pretty lone tree; Adam stands in the middle of a huge four-trunked tree.

Lone Tree  Giant Four Trunk Tree

We really enjoyed walking across the open meadow terrain.  Most hikes we do are through thick forest, so this was a welcome change of pace.

At the junction of the Ambassador House Trail, the Appalachian Trail continued north and we turned right to make our way across more meadows and downhill to the Piedmont Overlook Trail.  We dipped back into forested area and passed a really cool four-trunked tree.  It was big enough for Adam to stand inside between all the trunks.

We took the optional arm of the trail uphill to get to the actual Piedmont Overlook, which was beautiful!  I loved seeing all the little houses and farms below in the valley.  From the overlook, the remainder of the hike was steeply downhill across open meadow.

Mt. Bleak House Grounds
Mt. Bleak House Grounds.  Below: A couple other shots from the Mt. Bleak grounds.

Summer Kitchen Barn on Mt. Bleak Farm

We arrived back on the gravel road and made our way back to the Mt. Bleak House area.  We stopped in the gift shop and chatted with the ranger.  We overheard her asking everyone walking in “Did you hike today?” and pretty much everyone answered “No – we’re just here to picnic!”  So, I made a point to tell her that we had hiked, had a great time and thought the park’s trail system was fantastic and very nicely maintained.  Adam got his passport book stamped and got credit for finding the state park’s official geocache.  We took a few minutes to poke around the farm and talk to two historical interpreters – one of them in a wonderful Zouave uniform.

We enjoyed our day in Sky Meadows very much.  It’s definitely a park we’ll visit again.

On our way home, we stopped briefly in Linden, Va to buy apple butter-cinnamon donuts from the Apple House.  If you’re in the area – you should do the same – they’re delicious!

Trail Notes

  • Distance5.5 miles.
  • Elevation Change – 1100 feet with one large climb in the beginning of the hike.  It’s mostly downhill or flat afterwards.
  • Difficulty –2.5. The beginning section is the toughest and is not for every person, but if you take it slow most people will be fine.
  • Trail Conditions – 4. It is very well-maintained.  The only rocky section was the .3 mile section on the North Ridge Trail.  The trail is wide in most places for two people to walk side-by-side.  Some sections you are even walking on soft grass.
  • Views5. You have lots of views along this hike of the valley and farm below.  On a clear day, you can see for miles!
  • Waterfalls/streams – 1. You cross one small stream in the beginning. It’s probably dry most of the year.
  • Wildlife – 2. We only saw one wild turkey and some other birds (there are bluebird boxes along the road).  They have spotted golden eagles in the area recently.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3. There are many options and junctions with other trails and the trails are not that well marked along the way.  While I don’t think a lot of people get lost up here, I do think some people take wrong turns before deciding they may have not gone the best way.
  • Solitude – 2. You will likely see people along the trail.  However, I think most of these people will be within a mile of the visitor’s center.  While we did see several people, you should be able to find your peace along the trail to soak in the views.

Directions to trailhead: From Route 17, turn on to Edmonds Lane as you see the sign for Sky Meadows State Park.  Follow this road until you reach the parking lot in front of Mt. Bleak House.  Park your car here and then walk past the large billboard with hiking trails on the small gravel path near the Park Office House.  All of the hiking trails start once you reach the junction on the edge of the woods.  Take a left to start your hike.

Beaver Lake Trail

The Beaver Lake trail is a 2.5 mile loop around a 24 acre (and shrinking) lake in Pocahontas State Park.

Reflections on Beaver Lake
Reflections on Beaver Lake.  Below: Some of the trail around the lake is traversed by boardwalks; Two docks overlook the lake; a shallow stream feeds the lake.

Boardwalk Around Beaver Lake Dock Shallow Stream

Christine Says…

We happened to be in Richmond for the CAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (JMU lost in the first round – Boooooooo!) last weekend.  Since we had some free time on Saturday morning, we headed over to Pocahontas State Park for a short leg-stretcher hike.  It was a warm, but cloudy, day – spring is definitely in the air.  On our way to the park, we even saw some cherry trees starting to flower.

I was surprised by how big Pocahontas State Park is – especially so close to Richmond.  As it turns out, Pocahontas is actually Virginia’s largest state park.  After paying our $5.00 parking fee, we headed over to the CCC Museum and Nature Center area, where our trail began.

The hike traces the perimeter of Beaver Lake, using a series of gentle paths and boardwalks.  We followed the trail counterclockwise.  The near side of the path was relatively flat, while the far side climbed up a small ridge and followed a series of easy ups and downs.

Adam finds a geocache
Adam finds a geocache.  Below: Trails in the park are clearly marked; Fallen trees have been carved into chairs; An abandoned beaver dam.

Trail Marker Tree Chair old beaver dam

Beaver Lake is slowly being consumed by the landscape around.  Erosion and plants are reclaiming the water, and turning the area into a freshwater marsh.  There wasn’t much growing when we visited, but in the spring and summer, the area is covered with water lilies, cattails, and other aquatic plants.  We saw a few buffleheads on the water, but they were too far off to get a decent photo.  We also saw evidence of beavers – an old dam and lots of gnawed trees.  Though, I doubt any beavers still live in the lake.  It’s probably too shallow.

One of the things I really liked along the trail were the tree stumps that had been sawed into chairs.  What a clever way to make use of a fallen tree!

The hike was short and easy, so we were done within the hour.  I’m really looking forward to nicer weather, longer hikes and hopefully several overnight backpacking trips.  On the way back to the hotel, we even got the chance to stop by REI!  That was a real treat for us because we only have one very small outdoor store in our area.  We were able to pick up some new backpacking gadgets and I got a new pair of hiking shoes.  I can’t wait to try them out!

Adam Says…

When we were thinking about checking out the CAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, I suggested that we try to find a hike in the area.  I had been a few years ago to Pocahontas State Park and thought it would be a great place to start.

It is great that Richmond has a nice park just about 20 minutes away in Chester, VA.  This park is quite popular with people trying to get outdoors without having to drive too far.  This park is definitely a multi-use area.  We saw lots of mountain bikers through the park and we saw several trail runners on the Beaver Lake Trail.  The footing is perfect for trail running and only has a few hills, making it great exercise or cross-country training.

Buffleheads
Buffleheads on the lake. Below: The park has a lot of holly growing; The first buds of spring; The trails are popular with bikers.

holly tree bud Bikes

We parked at the nature center and found the signs for the blue-blazed Beaver Lake trail. The trail passed by an old furnace and then descended until you reach the lake.  At the lake, there is a nice pier to view the water and do some birdwatching.  We then took the trail counter-clockwise, which went around the lake.  During most of the beginning of the trail, the lake was in view.  We were serenaded by frogs in the lake, which reminded us both of the sounds of didgeridoos.  Along this northern part of the lake, there are a couple of places to get close-up views of the lake.  After about .75 miles, the lake shows evidence of being shrunk from what it once was as a boardwalk leads you across the swampy, marshy remains of the lake.  I can only imagine the mosquitoes along the marsh during the summer.

After reaching the halfway point, the trail begins to climb up the hillside, being rather steep in some sections.  The trail winds around and crosses a small stream at 1.5 miles.  The trail then climbs up the hillside until views of the lake are seen again around 1.75 miles.  You will then descend for a short distance and continue the trail walking along the southern side of the lake.  Around 2.1 miles, you will come to a nice view of a dam at the lake.  After crossing the bridge at the bottom of the dam, you will take a short ascent.  You can either make your way back to the pier at this point or take the orange-blazed spillway trail back up, passing by the CCC museum, before reaching your vehicle.

Dam and Spillway
There is a dam and spillway at the end of the lake.

For any geocachers, there were two geocaches to find along this trail:

I enjoyed our trip to Pocahontas State Park.  If you’re ever in the area and want a decent leg-stretcher, try out the Beaver Lake Trail.

Trail Notes

  • Distance2.5 miles
  • Elevation Change – Maybe 150-200 feet
  • Difficulty – 1.5. There are several easy climbs on the ridge side of the lake.
  • Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is very well-maintained and easy to walk on.
  • Views3 The lake views were lovely.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 3. The stream through the woods was pretty and the dam creates a nice waterfall at the end of the lake.
  • Wildlife – 3. This seems to be a good place to see water birds.
  • Ease to Navigate –5. The trail is a well-marked loop.
  • Solitude –1. This park is located next to densely populated Richmond. We saw lots of trail runners, hikers, bikers and dog-walkers.

Directions to trailhead: From Route 10/Iron Bridge Road in Chester, VA turn on to Beach Road/State Route 655 (near shopping center).   Continue on this road following the signs for Pocahontas State Park.  Enter the main entrance on State Park Road.  Pay the parking fee ($5 on weekends) and park at the nature center.  You should be able to start seeing signs from the parking lot to the Beaver Lake Trail.

Snowshoe Trek on the Middle Ridge Trail (WV)

With all its snow, Canaan Valley provides wonderful opportunities for southerners to try out snowshoeing.  The 2.5 mile Middle Ridge trail in Canaan Valley State Park is a pleasant trek through the woods.

Doe in the Woods
A whitetail doe watches us in the woods.  Below: Adam walks along the trail, being careful not to ruin the cross country ski tracks; The Blackwater River is covered with snow and ice; A sign cautions cross country skiers to take care on the steep hill.

Walking Along Along the Blackwater River Steep Hill Caution

Adam Says…

We wanted to go snowshoeing at least once this winter.  We enjoyed going to Canaan Valley last year, so we decided to take another trip to the high country of West Virginia.  There are several short trails throughout Canaan Valley State Park that are suitable for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.

Snowshoes can be rented for a day behind the Canaan Valley Lodge near the ice rink for $20/adult.  You can also pick up a map and trail guide of the Canaan Valley Resort area at the lodge.  The last two times we had rented more modern, aluminum snowshoes; this time, they had the traditional snowshoes with rawhide webbing.  While we felt the traditional snowshoes seemed a little heavier initially, I actually found they were a little easier to use.  The snow tends to not get piled on the top as often as with the modern snowshoes, making them feel a little lighter while on the trails.

Tubbs Snowshoes
We rented snowshoes from Canaan Valley State Park.

We left the rental center and drove to the Balsam Swamp Overlook.  From here, the trail starts cutting down across the meadow.  At .2 miles, take a right on the green-blazed Middle Ridge Trail.  This trail starts off with a short, steep uphill before easing to a gentle incline for the first mile.  You then go down a steep hill until you reach the view of the Blackwater River at 1.2 miles.   This area along the river has the best views of the meadow and the mountain ridges in front of us were covered with rime ice.

The trail takes a sharp left at this point and you follow the river for about .1 mile.  At 1.3 miles, you reach a junction with a spur trail to the Railroad Grade Trail.  Ignore this spur and continue on the green-blazed Middle Ridge Trail.  You will begin your ascent.  The trail ascends about 150 feet over the next .7 miles.  While the map made it look quite tough, I felt that the elevation was not too bad.  Near the crest, the trail tends to wind through the forest.  You will then start your descent.  At 2.1 miles, you will reach another junction leading to the Ridge Top Trail.  Ignore this trail also and just stay on the Middle Ridge Trail.  You will then steeply descend the Middle Ridge Trail.  Stay straight on the trail until you reach your vehicle at the Balsam Swamp Overlook.

Rest Stop at the Trail Junction
Adam takes a rest stop at the trail junction.

This snowshoe trip was more challenging than the Deer Run-Mill Run trails that we did last year, but it was worth it.  The snow tends to keep people away from many of the hiking trails, so I really find it quite peaceful when all you can hear is your breath and the light crunching of the snow below you.

We finished up our trip with a short drive to Sirianni’s Cafe in Davis, WV.  It is probably our favorite pizza place on the planet and you shouldn’t miss it.  If you have the option, try to get a seat near the back left of the restaurant and read the notes/business cards placed under the glass-covered tables.

Christine Says…

I love making a quick trip over to West Virginia for a day of snowshoeing.  It’s become one of my favorite winter traditions!  We chose to go on a weekend right after the area received a little over a foot of new snow.  The conditions were great – the snow was a bit heavy and soft, but it was still fresh and pristine – a real winter wonderland.

I liked the traditional showshoes we rented.  They were made by Tubbs and looked like snowshoes that explorers or fur trappers in the 1800’s might have used.  The trail we chose didn’t offer any grand views or spectacular scenery, but it was a beautiful walk through the woods.  The few trails we’ve showshoed on before were completely flat, but the Middle Ridge trail has a couple “easy” climbs.    I say easy in quotes because climbing in showshoes is always harder work than walking on a dirt trail.  It’s also tough to snowshoe across deep, unbroken snow.  Even though the snowshoes hold you aloft and prevent you from having to go post-holing through deep snow, you’ll still sink a little bit if the snow is deep and soft.

Trees and Snow
The trees and fresh snow made a beautiful and stark landscape. Below: Adam looks down on the trail from the Balsam Swamp parking area; Walking uphill across the open meadow; The snow was heavy and deep.

Adam looks at the trail Walking Uphill Deep snow

We really tried our best to stay off the cross-country tracks, but in some places the trail was too narrow or the tracks were already trashed by other walkers.  I have to admit, I was thankful whenever we got a chance to walk on already-broken snow!

The lowest point on the trail is along the Blackwater River.  We couldn’t see the river at all under all of the ice and snow.  It looked more like an open field than a river basin.  After leaving the river, we had a slow and steady uphill back to the top of the ridge.

I enjoyed coming across a lone doe making her way through the deep snow.  Deer in the Canaan area are very accustomed to humans, so she made no effort to run when she saw us.  It gave me the opportunity to get a couple photos.

The rest of the hike along the ridge and back down to the parking area was easy and quick.  After changing clothes and turning our snowshoes in, we headed over to Davis, WV for our pizza lunch.  Sirianni’s was recently named West Virginia’s best pizza by USA Today.  In addition to great food, I love the atmosphere in their little restaurant.  It’s such a warm and cozy place!

Sirianni's pizza
We got to sit in our favorite little corner booth at Sirianni’s – best pizza in West Virginia.  Below:  People from all over have written notes to tuck under the glass tabletops in the back corner of Sirianni’s – such fun to read!;  Sirianni’s is right on the main street through Davis, WV.

Table notes at Sirianni's Davis WV

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 2.5 miles
  • Elevation Change – about 300 feet total.
  • Difficulty – 2. The snow makes this easy trail a little more challenging. Take some breaks when you’re tired, but overall, this trail is quite manageable for most people.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  While there were cross-country ski tracks, we tried to avoid those at all times for other people.  Walking on snowshoes and establishing new tracks can be challenging, so it is best if going with others to alternate who is breaking the trail.
  • Views –2. The only views are of the meadow and mountains near the Blackwater River.
  • Waterfalls/streams 2. You have views of the Blackwater River, but you won’t be getting too close to the river from the trail.
  • Wildlife –3. You are likely to see some deer on this trail any time of year.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3. Without any previous tracks, this could be challenging, but look for the green blazes on the trees.
  • Solitude –5. We were the only ones on the trail, but this trail is used somewhat often by cross-country skiiers.  If you’re going when it is not snow-covered, I would lower the solitude rating, since it is a popular, short hiking trail.

Directions to trailhead: The Canaan Valley State Park is located off Route 32.  For snowshoe rentals, follow the signs from the entrance to the Canaan Valley lodge.  This trail takes off from the Balsam Swamp Overlook.