Monday, September 10, 2012
I have a new mistress, and her name is Virginia. My heart will always lie with my first love, the West Coast (take, for example, the drive along Highway 1 from north of Los Angeles up to Washington's Olympic Peninsula, or the glorious mountain ranges that are the Sierra Nevadas and the Cascades), but we separated more than 20 years ago. Next followed a lengthy, torrid love affair with the Japanese archipelago. When that relationship ended, I plunged into a long, self-destructive affair with the Beautiful Island, Formosa. Now it appears that I have a new land to love, the rolling hills and beautiful countryside or rural Virginia that I encountered this morning as I drove away from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and headed east on Interstate 66.
I was introduced to the charms of the commonwealth by AMC's 50 Best Day Hikes Near Washington, D.C., a hiking guide by Stephen Mauro and Beth Homicz that I've been using to explore the outdoor possibilities near our temporary home in Falls Church. A one-hour drive on I-66 brought me to Sky Meadows State Park, which, according to the above guide, offers "an incredible blend of pastures and woodlands on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains." For once, the hype was believable.
The hike began from the parking lot, watched over by the historic Mount Bleak House, standing next to the park's visitor center and gift shop (where I later bought a butterfly net for my daughter):
The first trail I took was called the Piedmont Overlook Trail. A short huff and a puff uphill led to some benches which offered fine views of the pastures and farm fields below. According to the guidebook:
George Washington mapped this area in the 1740s, and in 1861, the valley served as the jumping-off point for Confederate soldiers en route to the Battle of Bull Run.
Alas, the photos I took at Piedmont Overlook illustrated the limitations of both my camera (which couldn't handle the glare from the bright blue sky above) and of the clueless photographer taking the pictures:
The path from here went into the woods, eventually leading to a junction with the Ambassador Whitehorse Trail, the next leg of my hike. In the distance was a curious notch in the treeline, which I later realized was part of the Appalachian Trail:
The Ambassador Whitehouse Trail was my favorite part of the walk today. Much of it traversed open ground filled with beautiful yellow-flowered plants of some sort:
Soon after taking the above photo, I came across another overlook with a stunning view. And again my camera couldn't do the scene justice:
Portraiture turned out better, not only done by yours truly, but by a friendly couple that came along while I was admiring the view:
The Ambassador Whitehouse Trail eventually joined up with the Appalachian Trail. Covering 2184 miles (3515 kilometers) from Maine to Georgia, the Appalachian is one of the world's great hiking courses. I was only intending to cover a mile (1.6 kilometers) of it. At the point where the photo below was taken, I caught sight of two large deer crashing through the woods to my left:
As it turned out, I covered significantly more than a mile of the Appalachian Trail. I was supposed to go right at a bench, but I mistook the first bench I came across for the one mentioned in the guidebook, and ended up making the wrong right turn. I knew something was amiss when, instead of the "wide, soft-packed stretch" of trail referred to in the guidebook, the path started looking like this:
If that wasn't warning enough, this sign should have set off some alarm bells. The entry for Sky Meadows State Park said nothing about venturing into a hunting area, though the book does talk about taking care during hunting season. When fall comes, I'm going to have to hope that Billy Bob and his inbred cousin, their judgements impaired by a twelve-pack of Bud Lite, don't mistake me for a tall, upright-walking Bambi. At least I was wearing bright orange today:
A trio of hikers came along and confirmed my suspicions that I was still on the Appalachian Trail. The misstep added a total of about 90 minutes to my time today, but I didn't mind. Eventually, I found my way to that "wide, soft-packed stretch", aka the South Ridge Trail. Clearly signposted, of course:
Back on course, the trail eventually came out of the woods and provided more eye candy in the form of scenic vistas:
At one point during the descent, I came across the ruins of Snowden Manor, "a Federal-style house built in the 1860s and consumed by fire in 1913". Today, all that stands are some piles of rubble and the remains of a chimney:
Soon after Snowden Manor, a short side trip led up a grassy hill to what was probably the best of all the scenic overlooks today. Behold the glory that is the Crooked Run Valley:
Shortly afterward, I found myself back at the parking lot in front of the visitor center, feeling great after a walk (mostly) successfully completed:
I stopped by the gift shop, where I picked up the aforementioned butterfly net for Amber (who tried it out this evening, and promptly caught a firefly). The park ranger working there had a great view from the shop window. Before going back to my car, I checked out the kitchen of an 19th century home. It was in a separate building from the main house (the also aforementioned Mount Bleak House). According to a sign outside, the advantages of having a detached kitchen included knowing that if the kitchen should catch fire and burn down, the owners would still have a house to sleep in:
The numbers for today: at least 5.8 miles (9.3 kilometers) covered, but a lot more, thanks to the unintended detour; 4½ hours in duration (including the extra hour and a half); and a gain in elevation of 1000 feet (305 meters). All that, plus a new-found appreciation for the charms of the Virginia countryside. My heart is true...until that tramp New England shows up.