Ramble On

Friday, September 23, 2011

Wildcat Ridge/RipRap Hollow: A "75 at 75" Hike

The famous swimming hole.
 For the sixth hike in my “75 at 75” project (check that label below for more details on the project), I chose the big loop at RipRap Hollow and Wildcat Ridge. In the introductory post on the project, I summarized the trail, drawing from Henry Heatwole’s guide, as follows:

Rocky formations in the hollow.
 “Riprap Hollow and Wildcat Ridge: mile post 90.0, 9.8 miles and 2,400 feet; includes the two Civil War lookout points Chimney Rock and Cavalry Rock, 3 miles of AT section, cascades and a falls.”

Early on, as I began thinking about the project itself, I mentioned it to my neighbors Dan and Sally, who both thought it was a great idea. They both work at the Park, and they’ve been generous with insights and inspiration about the place over the years. When I mentioned this trail, Dan was particularly interested and he ended up joining me.

Apparently, in his job as a GIS specialist, there were some details of the trail he wanted to check out better on his own – he’d done the one-way trail from the RipRap trailhead to Wildcat before, without the AT section; some colleagues had subsequently done the whole thing and given him some hints on things to look for. In any case, Dan being the only person I know who has walked every foot of Skyline Drive, I knew I was in for some interesting insights on this trail, and I hope that he (and Sally too) might be able to join me again on another of the hikes.

Here's a Google Earth view of the trail, with a fine blue line marking our GPS trace.
 We left our neighborhood at 8am and made our way via the Elkton entry to the Park, arriving at the trailhead at around 9am. This was something new for me…even though the Heatwole guide lists the route as taking 8.5 hours, it was very likely that we would complete the trail before darkness (for my regular hiking buddies, I kid because I love). We began the steady descent on Wildcat Ridge by 9:15.

Neighbor Dan down in the hollow.
I’d hypothesized that the name of this trail section had something to do with earlier residents seeing bobcats, or even pumas, here; or else, it was a reference to mining activities that had taken place nearby at Crimora (there are a couple of lakes there that were associated with manganese mining in the late 1800s). Shortly we came upon a series of small pits just off the trail, about 10 feet by 10 feet each, and up to six feet deep. The holes were enough to convince me that name’s origin referenced the mining industry, that the “wildcats” were people doing exploratory digs up here hoping to strike it rich; Dan has subsequently confirmed that there are some records of this type of activity in the area.

We went onward, finally reaching the hollow, where our destination was the swimming hole down here. Heatwole calls this the largest in the Park. The swimming hole is 50 feet or so in diameter, and during our visit, it probably reached depths of six feet. The water is crystal clear and spring fed, so too cold for a dip in mid-September. Instead we settled in for lunch.

While a couple of other hiking parties came and went, we broke out our lunches…Dan’s was much better than mine: moose sausage snack sticks and smoked salmon that he had acquired from an Alaskan friend during a recent trip out west. He invited me to share, supplementing my Clif Bar and raisins; I did pass along a Honey Stinger Waffle in exchange for his generosity.

There are a couple of mentions of an old picnic shelter near the pool. It’s been taken down, but the areas around the pool show a lot of wear and tear – this is a popular place during the summer, and it is near the Park boundary, so there is a convenient hike-in route.

Old beams in the stream.

Old masonry and more beams.
Making our way through the hollow, Dan finally gave me a little more insight as to why he was so interested in this trail. While the popular references I had drawn from for the hike have very limited information about the cultural aspects of the area, mainly because of few indications of post-Columbian activity here (the exploratory pits on Wildcat Ridge aren’t even well documented), a colleague of his had identified a trace in the stream where there are remnants of what appears to be an old sawmill.

We found the spot and made a short detour down to the stream edge. I have some photos of old beams in the streambed, and some masonry joined to the rocky cliffs that line the stream. As we looked, I tried to imagine what the work here would have been like, a few miles into the woods, a long track to the nearby mining activities. Not much of a challenge to hardworking mountain people, but pretty difficult for my “chairborne” lifestyle!

Me at a less crowded view point.
As we got back to the trail we headed next for Calvary and Chimney Rocks, two quartzite outcroppings that offer wonderful views of the Shenandoah Valley. The walk along this section of our route was interesting; Dan told me that during the summer of his arrival at Shenandoah National Park, this area had been in a fire and it was his first ever support of that kind of an effort. The hillside is still recovering with low, scrubby vegetation and numerous young pines (the variety in this area produces serotinous cones, which release the seeds after a fire).

Upon reaching the two viewpoints we found them crowded with visitors sitting on ledges and enjoying the look out over Paine Run Hollow and Horsehead Mountain, so we didn’t stay long. We continued on to the AT connection and did that 3 mile stretch back to our parking area; we were passed on the way by a south bound thru hiker, who’d been held up in the rains and tropical storms of late. “Beautiful day, much better than last week!” he offered as he passed us by.

We finished the route in about 7.5 hours, making better time than Heatwole’s estimate. After a quick chat with the ranger at the Elkton gateway, we headed on to Mamma Mia’s in Shenandoah for dinner, before heading home.

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