Ramble On

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Camp Hoover: A Moderate SNP Day Hike

My hiking group decided that this hike, the Camp Rapidan/Camp Hoover hike, would be a goal for us this weekend, offering an alternative from the GWNF routes we’ve been doing the last few years. Also, this hike would become the first of my “75 @ 75 Project” hikes. In the end, only Chris could join me, but we’re looking forward to several more outings to come.

For the last year or so, we’ve gradually become aware that 2011 is the 75th anniversary of the founding of Shenandoah National Park. After completing those “Easy Day Hikes” last year I’ve been looking for a new project in the Park, I’ve decided to take inspiration from the anniversary and set a goal of hiking 75 miles in the Park this year – thus, the 75 @ 75 Project.

To start out the spring hiking season we were looking for an alternative to our normal GWNF hikes, since Crissman Hollow Road over there is closed until April. We chose the Camp Hoover Hike from Hiking Upward (URL below*), which the site describes as 7.6 miles with 1,320 feet of elevation gain. The Heatwole guide lists the trail version we took as 7.4 miles with 1,520 feet of elevation gain, so take your pick unless you’re measuring it yourself – in either case, I consider this a moderate outing…and a pleasant one.

Heatwole** also lists a shorter, slightly steeper hike of 4.1 miles and 870 feet of elevation gain; this one is in the Easy Day Hikes book and Mary and I had taken it before. Both of these hikes begin at the Milam Gap Parking area, mile 52.8 on Skyline Drive, just a few miles south of Big Meadows. If your group is short on time, or if there are children in the group, this second route offers a pleasant hiking adventure.

After driving along Skyline Drive from Thornton Gap, and encountering the remnants of the ice falls on Stonyman, this hiking adventure begins at the parking area. There are quite a few old apple trees and a split rail fence here, reminders that the area was settled before the Park was established in 1936. There’s a book about Camp Hoover available at Big Meadows, it provides a lot of detail about this area before the president took an interest in setting up his getaway.

Our route took us along the Laurel Prong route, so we started with a 2-mile section of the Appalachian Trail. It gently climbs along a ridge, gradually becoming steeper as you approach the summit of Hazeltop Mountain, the third highest peak in the Park at 3,812 feet or so. After enjoying the views along a straight stretch of the AT, shown in the photo, there is an overlook close to the summit, but it was obscured by fog on our hike.

Since there were no views to be had, I took a couple of photos of the rocks along the ridge, and one of a fir tree. I’ve read that the firs at these altitudes are at the far southern reach of their natural range – that’s some research I need to get back to. In any case we had a fine specimen here.

Soon after the summit, you’ll reach a concrete post where the blue blazed Laurel Prong trail intersects the AT. For the next two miles or so, you’ll gradually descend along the east side of Hazeltop before an intersection with a yellow blazed fire road and horse trail that leads to Camp Hoover. There are stands of rhododendron here if you are lucky enough to catch them in bloom, and the area includes several minor stream crossings and second growth woods from past clearings – either settlements, or areas that supported the presidential retreat.

Finally you arrive at the Camp Hoover area, where there are still three buildings left from its heyday. There is an historic marker and plenty of interpretive signage and the Prime Minister’s Cabin is set up with a museum that is seasonally open. You can check at the Big Meadows Visitor Center for ranger programs here – our friend Sally is one of the rangers that guides those visits from time to time. The other two buildings left are The President, where Hoover and his wife Lou stayed when they were at the camp, and the Creel, which is where his aides stayed (it is now used by in residence docents, who stay the season in the building).

Chris and I had lunch on one of the terraces and explored the site. There were a couple of trout fisherman hanging around – well geared up, but doing catch and release. It is one of the features of this area that the Laurel Prong and Mill Prong confluence, just below The President, becomes the Rapidan River here and joins the Rappahannock downstream. You can imagine the cheerful sound of these streams providing a restful backdrop to the pressures of Washington in the throes of the Great Depression.

For our route, we decided to climb out of the hollow via the Mill Prong route, another 2 miles or so uphill. A final treat was there to greet us: Big Rock Falls, which was going strong in late winter. The stream itself had a good flow going, so the cascades and eddies were good accompaniment to the climb.

After leaving the White House, Hoover donated the camp to the effort to form the Park. It has been used as a scout camp, and there are some photos of that era around, but I think those activities ended in the 1960’s. Today it is still used for some official functions, but mainly it is a reminder of the 1930’s era and the history of Hoover’s presidency.

I remembered my Pathfinder watch this time, and kept a simple record of the hike, as follows:

  • Trail head: 865 meters/2,682 feet
  • Hazeltop Summit: 1,050 meters/3,255 feet
  • Camp Hoover: 655 meters/2,031 feet
I recorded a total elevation gain of approximately 1,224 feet, since I didn’t calibrate the watch on the route, the difference in my records from the other sources is typical.

* http://www.hikingupward.com/SNP/CampHoover    
** Guide to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive, 4th edition, by Henry Heatwole – now also available as a web resource

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