Ramble On

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Strickler Knob: A Moderate (and incomplete) Day Hike

Our hiking group set out on the enterprise that is Strickler Knob a few weeks back. We had just heard too many good things about the trail from the gang at Appalachian Outdoors Adventures, and the reviews of the hike on Hiking Upward were very tempting. Never mind that we chose possibly the very coldest day of the January to make a go of it – the temperature was 20 degrees at the trailhead – or that I was still a bit jetlagged from my trip to Japan. I can never resist a mountaintop view of Page Valley, so it was easily decided.

With Tom and Andy coming down from Leesburg, and Chris and I setting off from Hawksbill Cabin, we set up a 9 am rendezvous at the Southern Kitchen. On the way to the meeting point, Chris and I drove by the trailhead parking area to make sure that Chrisman hollow was open – it was; we also continued on down to Scotthorn Gap to make sure that we could park there, since I thought we might reconsider the main route for the day.

Our plan was to use the Massanutten trailhead and hike down Waterfall Mountain to the gap between it and Strickler, head to the crossroads where Scotthorn Gap trail comes in, and then up the spine of Strickler Knob to the summit. Hiking Upward (no link today because their site won’t open, I’ll correct this later) has the total distance of 9.5 miles for this hike – very aggressive for our first hike of the season, but Strickler has been looming over us for a couple of years now and the gang was chomping at the bit to complete it.

This hike also has pretty significant altitude change, so I was prepared with a Plan B and Plan C when we met the guys at Southern Kitchen:

  • Plan A – the whole shebang, 9.5 miles, from Hiking Upward;
  • Plan B – the shorter, 5.5 mile trail from the trailhead at Scotthorn Gap; or
  • Plan C – a car shuttle, starting from either trailhead after leaving cars at both, shortening the trip to 7.5 miles.

Over a hearty breakfast, we chose Plan C…we’ve come down from Duncan Knob and Old Rag in the dark before(in fact Chris and I did the last 3 miles of Half Dome in the dark in 2005), something we didn’t want to repeat, and we decided that 9.5 miles would guarantee that same result again. (FYI, a link to Southern Kitchen is here: http://www.roadfood.com/Reviews/Overview.aspx?RefID=427 )

I’ve already mentioned how cold it was starting out. I had prepared with long underwear and flannel lined jeans, I knew I had to be careful of getting them wet, but the streams were hard frozen and that wasn’t going to be a problem. The other guys chose technical hiking pants over long underwear – I think everyone was okay for the cold, but as we warmed up from hiking it was challenging to stay comfortable.

From the Massanutten Trailhead, Strickler is a hike that doesn’t cut any slack. About a quarter of a mile in, there is a half mile long descent that plunges 800 feet in a series of switchbacks on a rocky trail – challenging footing with winter leaf litter still covering the trail and with icy spots here and there in the shade. Andy and I synchronized our Casio Pathfinders and both got good readings on the altitude change, I’m glad to say. Chris didn’t fire up this feature of the Suunto, so we didn’t compare Tech Watch results.

From the bottom of that descent to the next waypoint, the crossroads with the Scotthorn Gap trail, is about 2 miles. There is a gentle climb over this distance, and the path more or less follows a stream, which you cross twice in this valley. It was very pretty in this hollow, given the cold and the fact that the leaves were down. But you could hear the happy little stream under the ice, and nobody was complaining about the trail difficulty at all.

From our past experience, our worries about running out of daylight were driving us. Our usual pace is about a mile per hour on these hikes, and we knew that wouldn’t be good enough – it’s why we made alternate plans. Still, at one point, we did one of these miles in a half hour. I think it was part of one of the old furnace roads, and footing was tough, but we really covered that distance.

At last we reached the way point, slung off our packs for snacks, and reconnoitered our situation. We were at the start of the ridge trek for this trail, with about an hour to 90 minutes of daylight left, with 3 miles of rock scramble to look forward to before getting back here, only a mile to a mile and a half on an easy fire road trail from the car. The math wasn’t working, so we had to bag it.

Still, all in all, a good workout of about 5.5 miles, and now we are more familiar with this trail’s logistics. We’re going to take it on again at some point this winter, maybe early spring (we prefer not to do the rock scrambles in the summer due to snakes sunning themselves on the rocks).

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