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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Two Hikes in Natural Bridge State Park

 Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Hi Blog!

It's our last day here in Natural Bridge, Virginia. We decided to visit the Natural Bridge State Park. When we lasted visited in 2015, the Natural Bridge was privately owned. The Commonwealth of Virginia took over and the state park was dedicated on September 24, 2016.  Now the park is more than just the bridge; beautiful forests and rolling meadows showcase the area’s karst terrain and vistas of surrounding mountains and the James River valley display nature’s splendor. 

Here we are at the trailhead to the Cedar Creek Trial:

The trail follows Cascade Creek down to Cedar Creek. We stopped to admire one of the ancient Arbor Vitae trees that line the trail.

The picturesque Cascade Falls make the perfect picnic spot.

The Natural Bridge is a geological formation in which Cedar Creek (a small tributary of the James River) has carved out a gorge in the mountainous limestone terrain, forming a natural arch 215 feet high with a span of 90 feet. It consists of horizontal limestone strata, and is the remains of the roof of a cave or tunnel through which the creek once flowed. Natural Bridge has been designated a Virginia Historic Landmark and a National Historic Landmark.  It has been depicted in many famous artworks and was cited by Thomas Jefferson as, "the most sublime of Nature's works...."

Even though we knew we had visited before, the sheer size of bridge is still impressive.

Natural Bridge was one of the tourist attractions of the new world that Europeans visited during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Vacationing guests from all over the world took day trips from Natural Bridge on horseback or horse-drawn carriages to explore the countryside. This Natural Wonder was a big deal back then. It was the Grand Canyon and Arches of its time. 

We continued along the trail to the Monacan Indian Living History Exhibit. Guests have the opportunity to step back in time over 300 years to visualize what life was like in a typical Monacan Indian settlement.

We made a short detour to explore an old cave that was used to collect potassium nitrate from bird and bat droppings. The guano was used to make saltpeter which is used in gunpowder.

Cedar Creek is a 12 mile-long tributary of the James River. 

From the Natural Arch to Lacy Falls is about a mile long hike along a well maintained trail.

The trail came to end at Lace Falls:

On our way back to the trailhead, we poked our heads inside the Lost River Cave. In 1812, workmen from the Saltpeter Cave heard the waters of the underground Lost River, and blasted the opening to it pictured below. A water main was attached to transport water to the hoppers and kettles used to extract the nitrate from the cave. Legend has it that, in later years, several unsuccessful attempts were made to locate the underground channels of the Lost River. Colored dyes and flotation devices of all types have failed to determine the source and final destination of this mysterious subterranean river.

There was still some Fall color along the trail.

When researching trails to hike in the park, Dave learned that a J.R.R. Tolkien quote could be found, etched in a slab along the Cedar Creek Trail. On our way back, we kept scanning the rock walls and eventually found the quote:

“Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

The excerpt is from a longer poem, "Roads Go Ever On," which is also known as "A Walking Song," fictionally written by Bilbo Baggins; verses of it are sung at various places in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  The verse is starting to be eroded by time, but with patient reading, you can make it out on the stone slab:

After our visit to the Natural Bridge, we drove over to the trailhead for the Buck Hill Trail. Buck Hill is home to The Caverns at Natural Bridge. Having toured several caverns recently, we were more interested in the two mile loop hike around Buck Hill. 

Below, Dave is ready to take on the trail. 

Kathy offers thanks to the Mid Week Crew of Roanoake for providing this comfy bench with a view.

From the summit of Buck Hill we could look across to the Blue Ridge where we hiked the other day.

What goes up, must come down! The loose limestone gravel made coming down a challenge.

The loop trail descended and we wrapped around the far side of the hill. There was plenty of evidence of prior development. The hill was criss-crossed with old farm roads. There was evidence of prior trails. This old bridge crossed over a dry drainage.

We discovered the remains of an old mansion, but were unable to learn any more on the history of this property.

We finished our hike and returned to camp. The weather was nice enough to cook over the campfire. 

We move back to Bull Run tomorrow, where we'll view the Festival of Lights with family and prepare for our trip to Philly for Thanksgiving weekend. 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Appalachian Trail - Hiking in the Thunder Ridge Wilderness

Old leaves cracking here, 
No thunder in the distance,
As we climb the ridge.

As we hiked the Appalachian Trail south from Petites Gap Road into the Thunder Ridge Wilderness today, we felt compelled to compose another haiku poem, like we did in our A.T. hike on Friday.  Unlike the first one, which took most of our return hike to compose, this one came quickly and we had it in maybe 10 minutes.

This section of the Appalachian Trail roughly follows the Blue Ridge Parkway through western Virginia.  At this time of year, the ridge is alive with color:

For today's hike, we selected a trailhead that was nearby, but a bit off the beaten track.  We followed Petites Gap Road up the shoulder of the ridge.  The road is a well-maintained gravel forest road, and it took us through some beautiful Autumn-shaded woods:

As it climbs to the ridge, Petites Gap Road separates the Thunder Gap Wilderness from the James River Face Wilderness, where we hiked a section of the A.T. this last Friday.  As we climbed, we navigated a number of sharp switchbacks, some of which gave us spectacular views, including this one where Dusty poses in front of Devil's Marble Yard, a giant rockfall in the opposite ridge marked by a grey-white scar on the otherwise forested mountain (more on that later):

We found our trailhead just below the Blue Ridge Parkway and layered up for the cloudy, 42F weather.  Orange was the color of the day because it is hunting season in this region:

The trail started innocently enough with a gentle climb to and beyond the Blue Ridge Parkway:

Soon, we reached the northern boundary for the Thunder Ridge Wilderness.  By this point, David had already collected a full complement of leafy hitchhikers on his trekking poles:

Thunder Ridge Wilderness stretches through three counties of Western Virginia in the Jefferson National Forest.  Established in 1984, the Wilderness is rugged and is located below the crest of its namesake Thunder Ridge.  It rises almost 3,000 feet from Arnolds Valley to Apple Orchard Mountain on the crest of the Blue Ridge.  Due to its steep terrain, much of the Thunder Ridge Wilderness is characterized by southern hardwoods and drier forest types.  Chestnut Oak and southern yellow pine dominate the landscape.  ​There are two trails in the Thunder Ridge Wilderness:  the Appalachian Trail, which we hiked the 2.4 miles from Petites Gap to the Blue Ridge Parkway and back (there are two other A.T. sections in the Wilderness) and the 1.5 mile Glenwood Horse Trail.  Thunder Ridge Wilderness trails are maintained by the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club, the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards and the Golden Horseshoe Backcountry Horsemen.

Soon after we entered the Wilderness, the trail grew steeper and we knew we were in for a climb --  a grade of 700 feet per mile.  About a half mile in, Kathy posed with one of the nearby peaks in the background:

We started our hike at 11:30 and knew that we would have to stop for lunch before we reached the far point of our hike.  We chose a point for our meal stop about a mile into the hike, at a viewpoint opposite and above the Devil's Marble Yard:

The 8 mile Belfast Trail leads to the Devil's Marble Yard, but it appears we won't be able to venture that trail on this stay, as we have only one more hiking day left, and we have reserved that for a hike on the Cedar Creek Trail to and beyond Natural Bridge (stay tuned for that adventure).  Nevertheless, we found Devil's Marble Yard impressive, even from a distance.

Here was the place to stop for lunch, and Kathy eagerly pulled out her veggie wrap to amp up that blood sugar.  David opted for his usual PB&J sandwich -- ever the traditional.

After lunch, we climbed onward; and it was a continuous onward climb, all the way to our endpoint, near where the Blue Ridge Parkway crosses the A.T. again.  We found the height of land, looked both directions off the top of the Blue Ridge (there were too many trees to allow decent photos of the view), and started our return descent.  It had been 2.25 miles up, and it would be 2.25 miles down.

We spent much of the downward trek composing today's haiku poem (only 10 minutes or so, as noted above), and then discussing our interpretations and impressions of Anthony Doerr's "Cloud Cuckoo Land," fascinating book set in three different eras -- past, present and future.

Occasionally, the landscape thrust a subject in front of us that was suitable for a photo.  In one case, it was a granite boulder wrapped in lichen and moss and littered dry leaves --

-- and in another case it was an old fallen tree (sawed by trail maintenance crews to let us pass through) that was mysteriously perched on a boulder (Did the trail crew do that?  Doubtful.)  The greater mystery was why its inside, seen through this hole, was charred as if by fire:

We think we solved that mystery as we hiked further, noticing that many of the older trees bore evidence of severe fire damage.  So, however, it happened, this tree lived through (or died in) that long-ago fire.  The mystery of the fallen tree balancing on the boulder may never be solved.

Never mind.  Life is full of mysteries.  On to the next adventure.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Hiking the A.T. Along Matts Creek

Friday, November 11, 2021

Hi Blog!

We made our way to Natural Bridge, Virginia. We had last visited this area in 2015. At that time, we only had one day to explore. We divided our single day between the Appalachian Trail and Natural Bridge State Park. This stay, we hope to have several days to explore.

Our first outing took us back to the Appalachian Trail where it crossed the James River. Our hike will take us to great heights in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.

From the trailhead, we hiked under the new CSX Railroad bridge. The Foot Bridge is to the right of the railroad bridge.

The Foot Bridge spans a dammed section of the James River known as the Cushaw Reservoir. The 138 acre reservoir powers the Cushaw Hydroelectric Project, a 7.5 megawatt dam and powerhouse facility owned and operated by Virginia Electric Power Company.

The bridge was built on the piers of a demolished CSX bridge that had been replaced with a longer trestle just east of the original bridge, providing a straighter course for freight traffic. When opened in 2000, the James River Foot Bridge eliminated a dangerous crossing of the James River that mixed hikers with vehicular traffic on US 501. While this is indeed a footbridge, it was named after Bill Foot, an Appalachian Trail enthusiast who spearheaded the conversion of the bridge into its present use.

Our hike took us upstream along the far shore of the reservoir.

This area of the AT is maintained by the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club. 

A storm front came through last night and this area received some heavy rain. We passed a number of tiny waterfalls as we hiked up. However, by the time we hiked back down, the waterfalls were dry.

The recent rains also turned the normally burbling Matt's Creek into a series of thundering falls.

Click on the link to see how Matt's Creek was running high and merrily after the recent heavy rains. 

In the photo below, Kathy straddles an example of the various waterfalls that crossed our trail.

All that moisture feeds the mossy hillside. Kathy just couldn't resist giving it a good pet. She reports that it was cool, soft and springy.

The Matt's Creek Shelter was empty when we arrived. We stopped at the picnic table for a quick snack before heading up to the viewpoints. This was the turnaround point on our 2015 hike. 

In order to reach the viewpoints along the trail, we had to cross Matt's Creek. With all the extra water the storm brought, it was a little tricky.

We soon found our way hiking above the creek valley. The fallen leaves crunch with each foot fall.

As we reached the top of the ridge, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the James River Valley.

We continued along the ridge for another mile with the James River to one side and Piney Ridge to the other. 

After reaching the highest point along this part of the trail, we decided to find a sunny spot for lunch before heading back down to the trailhead. 

About a third of the way back on the trail, we encountered a throughhiker who told us he is Southbound and hppe to get to Springer Mountain, Georgia in time to see family for Christmas.  We thought, "Wow, that's 422 miles in 42 days."  Ten miles a day is not that difficult for a throughhiker, but it wouldn't allow any down days.  We wished him well and he continued on his way.

Just as we reached the reservoir, we heard a train coming. We tried to reach the footbridge, but the train was faster than we were.  Still, we got a photo of it as it passed:

After a beautiful fall hike, we leaf you with this haiku:

Crunch leaves under foot,

Higher, higher, both sides steep --

Summit reached, shadows grow.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Paddling Fort Patrick Henry Lake in Eastern Tennessee

Suddenly we had unseasonably warm and sunny weather here in Eastern Tennessee on Tuesday, November 9, 2021!  The afternoon temperatures reached 70F.  We took the opportunity to pack up the kayaks and drive them over to nearby Fort Patrick Henry Lake in Warriors Path State Park.  While there were a number of people in the park, there was no one else in the water as we launched into a riot of Autumn color:

Fort Patrick Henry Lake is named for a Revolutionary War-era fort once located at nearby Long Island of the Holston River.  The Long Island of the Holston River was an important site for the Cherokee and their ancestors, as their homelands for thousands of years. Their territory extended into present-day western North and South Carolina, and northeast Georgia. It was a sacred council and treaty site among the Cherokee.  European colonial pioneers and early settlers of the region also used the island for its strategic location. Daniel Boone, in 1775, began from the Long Island to clear the Wilderness Road, which extended through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.  During the Revolution, the Cherokee allied with the British, in the hope of expelling colonists from their territory. European-American settlers built Fort Patrick Henry on the north bank of the South Fork of the Holston River. Colonel William Christian commanded 2,000 men in a punitive expedition against the Cherokee towns, suppressing their resistance. The 1777 Treaty of Long Island (Avery Treaty) stated that the Cherokee still owned the land of Long Island, but they relinquished all claims to other land occupied by whites in east Tennessee. 

We could see why the Cherokee and the Europeans prized these waters.  Even today, they nourish many species of wildlife, including this gaggle of geese, who swam by us with almost no concern for our presence:

The South Fork of the Holston River travels, in this area, past grey limestone and grey, fine-grained dolomite.  These blocky rock cliffs peeked out from under colorful deciduous trees along the shoreline of the lake everywhere we paddled:

Soon after we set out, Kathy spotted this river otter, who was playfully rolling and diving in the water, even as we neared:

Gaps in the limestone cliffs made friendly homes for ferns and other hanging-garden-type plants:

The stony cliffs were imposing when viewed from their base in the water:

Sometimes, the rocks formed basalt-like columns with squared-off sides:

As we paddled upstream, opposite the State Park, we spotted this Great Blue Heron, who, uncharacteristically, soared over to a tree next to our position on the water.  These birds are notoriously shy; but we think this fellow was more wary of a motorboat roaring along the opposite bank of the lake than it was of our quiet paddles.

However, we have to give the heron credit for discretion.  He landed on a perch where he was difficult to see, even from our position nearby below:

While David was photographing nature, Kathy was protecting it by scooping up all the trash she could find.  As you can see from the photo below, she was having great success:

As we paddled further upstream, we reached a marker for boaters that noted that this was the confluence with Fall Creek and has been designated as Mile 11.7 on Fort Patrick Henry Lake:

We have no idea why this "Fish Attractor" sign was posted on the water's edge at the confluence of the river with Fall Creek.  We've never seen such a sign before.  However, a little research confirmed that fish attractors provide habitat and cover for fish, and we assumed that local fish conservation groups had installed dead tree trunks and other materials to attract game fish to this spot:

As we paddled further up Fall Creek, it wasn't long before we encountered the reason for its name -- small falls!

We were able to paddle almost to the base of the falls, which was surprising.  Here, Kathy turns back downstream after inspecting the falls:

It is hard to appreciate the falls without a little video, so we offer it here.  The Falls Creek falls burbled merrily as it fed its current into the lake. 

By the time we were paddling back out into the main section of the lake and river from Fall Creek, the sun was lowering in the sky and the temperatures were beginning to fall.  We decided it was time to return to our put-in spot and head home for dinner.

Our boat ramp was near the causeway for Duck Island.  As we turned our little boats toward the boat ramp, we were treated to a view of trees along the causeway, denuded of leaves as a warning of the approach of winter --

-- and a view of (paraphrasing Wallace Stevens) casual flocks of geese making ambiguous undulations as they sink, downward, to the water on extended wings:

As we pulled our kayaks out of the water, Kathy signaled her satisfaction with our short afternoon outing on the flat waters:

We couldn't have asked for a prettier, nor a balmier, day.