Ramble On

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Piney Branch - Piney Ridge Trail: a 75@75 Hike (part 1)

For the third hike in the 75@75 project, we chose the Piney Branch-Piney Ridge trail, which is described in the Heatwole guide as 8.3 miles. I’ll split this review into two parts.  For a complete list of planned hikes, see the list at the bottom of this post. 

For technical information, the hike includes an estimated total climb of 1,725 feet, again, according to Heatwole; and the guide provides an estimated time of about 7 and a half hours. By my measurement, I calculated 1,410 feet of absolute elevation change, from approximately the highest point on the trail to the lowest. We completed the hike in about 6 and a half hours, with a half hour lunch break, and a couple of other stops along the way at a stream crossing and at the Dwyer cemetery along the route.

Besides the notation that this is a strenuous trail, Heatwole advises a counter-clockwise loop; also there is the information we had that the four stream crossings could be difficult (or dangerous!) during high water (we didn’t experience that, luckily). But I missed all of that, and I led the group clockwise. And none of my erstwhile hiking partners remembered this either, until we were well underway, and we started encountering people coming towards us on the Piney Branch portion of the hike, that’s when the friendly grumbling began.

Only when we arrived at the Piney Ridge trail at the end did I realize we’d done it in reverse. The relaxed and steady climb through the old goat pasture was a sharp relief from the steep climb – 700 feet in a mile – that we had pulled coming out of the stream bed.  Complicating the matter was the 95 degree heat.  I drank all 2.5 liters of water I carried on this hike.

I included this route on the 75@75 list because of the moderate distance and the (underestimated) climb, but also because it featured several objectives, such as the cemetery, and four stream crossings. But the trail also includes views of two waterfalls, somewhat obscured now that the trees are leafed out, but still visible and definitely audible from the trail.

Heatwole lists 16 waterfalls in his book, with the shortest one noted as 28 feet tall. These two are left off the list, although Heatwole estimated that the taller of these two was unmeasured but around 25 feet. Some recent rains had them running strong, but they were obscured by leaves so I couldn’t get a good photo. It was too strenuous to get down to them for close up, but we agreed that they were dramatic and beautiful.

The trailhead for this hike is near an old CCC camp called Piney River. One of the old lodges still stands, and there are a few other buildings nearby (including residences for NPS employees). Then a short way down the AT here, there is PATC’s Range View Cabin, built in 1933 by PATC, but given to the Park at its establishment and now managed as a concession by PATC.

For photos today, I have a view of one of the cascades along Piney Branch – as you can imagine, with the elevation changes on this trail, they are plentiful. Also, a shot of a serious blowdown we encountered – this one completely blocking the trail so that we had to bushwhack around it (to the uphill side, of course). And finally, an area of the Piney Ridge trail where the chestnuts fell so long ago, and have been cut through to allow passage.

This kind of an area is one of the “ghost forests” you find in Shenandoah National Park, areas where significant tree stands have fallen victim over time to development and other impacts, such as the emerald ash borer problem we are seeing just now. It’s a phenomenon I need to look into more, but there were so many fallen chestnuts through here, all in various stages of decay. They last a long time on the ground, but made a strangely beautiful passage.

A partial list of the hikes on the 75@75 project is here:  http://hawksbillcabin.blogspot.com/2011/05/about-7575-project.html

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