Cat Rock (Cunningham Falls State Park)

The Cat Rock Trail on Rote 77, across from Catoctin Mountain Park headquarters

The Cat Rock Trail on Route 77, across from Catoctin Mountain Park headquarters

It was kind of ironic that the first opportunity to take advantage of Daylight Savings Time came on a rainy day.  At times, it poured pretty hard, and the temperature hit a less-than-balmy 48 degrees as we reached Catoctin Mountain Park’s visitor center.  After talking to the ranger and consulting a map, the most interesting possibility for a quick walk in the woods seemed to be an out-and-back to the Cat Rock Overlook in nearby Cunningham Falls State Park.

Yellow, green, and gray!

Yellow, green, and gray!

The roughly 1.2 mile trip to the top began along Route 77–directly across from Catoctin Mountain’s headquarters (not the visitor center).  As we headed there, we could see that we had a fairly significant climb ahead of us, but nothing comparable to the ascents we faced in the past in Shenandoah National Park or on the AT.  Nevertheless, Candee and I are still shaking off the winter blues, and as a result of our recent “easy” hikes, we’re inclined (pun intended) to refer to any molehill as a mountain.

This is a really big tree--or should I say was a really big tree?  It's always disappointing to see such a magnificent tree lying on its side.

This is a really big tree–or should I say was a really big tree? It’s always disappointing to see such a magnificent tree lying on its side.

From the beginning, there really aren’t too many surprises.  The trail immediately heads uphill, and a couple of flat spots are the only reprieves.  However, 570′ of elevation gain isn’t that intimidating, even through mud and over slippery rocks.

The Old Misery Trail went off to the right a bit over halfway up.  We continued to Cat Rock, so I'm not sure how miserable this trail really is.

The Old Misery Trail went off to the right a bit over halfway up. We continued to Cat Rock, so I’m not sure how miserable this trail really is.

We did pass a few other hikers along the way, and one told us that Cat Rock was worth our trip up the mountain.  I agree!  The large pile of boulders at the top is a fine piece of Mother Nature’s artistry.  The only disappointment is that the well-worn soles of my ancient New Balance Country Walkers didn’t allow me to make it to the top of the highest rock.  The rain, the moss, and other things were just a bit too much of an obstacle.

Getting closer!

Getting closer!

There are a few longer hikes that include Cat Rock as part of the scenery, and any of those would be great on a pleasant day.  This part of Maryland is one of our favorite hiking destinations.  The mountains are challenging, but they’re not too much of a back breaker for those who are trying to get back into shape.

Closer...

Closer…

But not quite there!

But not quite there!

Caledonia/Quarry Gap Circuit (Caledonia State Park and Michaux State Forest)

Early in the day on the Ramble Trail

Early in the day on the Ramble Trail

The Caledonia/Quarry Gap hike is a double loop connected by the Appalachian Trail in Caledonia State Park and Michaux State Forest.  The journey begins innocently enough along the banks of Conococheague Creek in the parking area beyond Caledonia’s visitors center.  As noise goes, the fast moving stream seems to be competing with the traffic on nearby US 30.  The scenery along the Ramble Trail is good and the walking is easy, but the early stages of this jaunt were not indicative of what we would be getting ourselves into.

Conococheague Creek crossing

Conococheague Creek crossing

More Conococheague

More Conococheague

At about the 1.2 mile mark, the flat terrain gives way to a half-mile climb up a steep ravine on the Three Valley Trail.  The climb leads to a relatively easy stretch of the Appalachian Trail at the 1.9 mile mark, and 2.6 miles into the hike the AT joins the blue-blazed Locust Grove Trail, which you’ll follow approximately one mile before turning left onto the Hosack Run Trail.

Three Valley trailhead

Three Valley trailhead

Locust Grove/AT with a combination of blue and white blazes

Locust Grove/AT with a combination of blue and white blazes

Hosack Run Trail is roughly 1.2 miles in length, and the highlights are two stream crossings before heading uphill on a series of steep switchbacks.  At the end of this half-mile ascent, nearly all of the uphill walking on this circuit is complete, and after topping out, the Hosack Run Trail meets the southbound AT (turn left), which covers the final 2.8 miles back to the parking area in Caledonia State Park.

This is a small pond a little over three miles into the hike.  There were too many very dedicated mating frogs to count.  The water was freezing cold!

This is a small pond a little over three miles into the hike. There were too many very dedicated mating frogs to count. The water was freezing cold!

I was just as surprised by this snake as I was the plethora of love-starved frogs!

I was just as surprised by this snake as I was the plethora of love-starved frogs!

As stated, the final stretch on the AT is mostly downhill, minus a few level spots and some slight uphill grades, and at the 5.5 mile mark the trail passes the Quarry Gap Shelter.  We’ve seen a number of shelters on various trails, but this is probably the most inviting one to date.  It’s a nice piece of work to be sure, as is a flight of natural stone steps a little ways down the trail.  This section of the AT is monitored by Jim Stauch of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.  We were fortunate enough to have a chat with him, and he jokingly reminded us that the rest of our walk would be downhill.  He wasn’t lying!

Quarry Gap Shelter--the pride and joy of Jim Stauch, a very dedicated AT volunteer

Quarry Gap Shelter–the pride and joy of Jim Stauch, a very dedicated AT volunteer

The last mile or so into Caledonia is very steep, and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the people heading up the mountain.  Nevertheless, our own descent proved that we had done a considerable amount of climbing ourselves.  We have done far more difficult hikes than this one, but we typically take it easier during the winter months.  With that said, this walk is a great way to head into spring.

An amazing set of stone steps near Quarry Gap

An amazing set of stone steps near Quarry Gap

The final stats were roughly eight miles of walking with 1250′ of cumulative elevation gain.  This trek is considerably more difficult than Pole Steeple, Sunset Rocks, and Chimney Rocks–our other three hikes in and around Michaux State Forest.  In spite of the lack of an overlook, this may be the most scenic of the four hikes as well.  My final thought on this circuit is that the double loop with an AT “tether” is kind of hard to follow, so I would recommend a good local trail map and a game plan.  Once you know where you’re going, enjoying this walk will be easy!

Through the rhododendron tunnel!

Through the rhododendron tunnel!

Old Forge/Chimney Rocks (Michaux State Forest)

The white AT blaze showed the way

The white AT blaze showed the way

The church at Old Forge.  It's covered in creosote or something similar.  It's a unique, but good looking building.

The church at Old Forge. It’s covered in creosote or something similar. It’s a unique, but good looking building.

The Old Forge/Chimney Rocks hike we embarked upon today has a few different possible starting points.  Originally, we intended to start at the Old Forge Picnic Area across from Camp Penn in Michaux State Forest; however, because of our lack of familiarity with the location of the Appalachian Trail, we opted to park where the AT crosses Rattlesnake Run Road.  Due to the lingering snow in the woods, there was little danger of encountering a rattlesnake.  Instead, slippery footing and 8″ deep snow on the “cold” side of the mountain caused sporadic problems during what was otherwise a great day of hiking.

A bit of humor in the privy at Tumbling Run Shelters

A bit of humor in the privy at Tumbling Run Shelters

There isn't any electricity in the outhouse, but because of the skylight you can choose between solar and lunar light

There isn’t any electricity in the outhouse, but because of the skylight you can choose between solar and lunar light

From our tiny parking area, we headed north on the AT, and in .4 miles we met up with Old Forge Road and crossed Tumbling Run before heading back into the woods.  In a few more tenths of a mile, we came to the Tumbling Run Shelters.  These are relatively typical Adirondack-style structures, but they make up the best overnight facility that we’ve seen on the trail to date.

Overnighters can sleep in the snoring shelter...

Overnighters can sleep in the snoring shelter…

...or the non-snoring shelter!  I would have to use the snoring shelter.

or the non-snoring shelter! I would have to use the snoring shelter.

A quick tour of the shelters gave us a handful of laughs.  There is a light switch in the privy that is marked “solar” and “lunar.”  Of course there isn’t any electricity in this remote outhouse, but it is equipped with a skylight that allows sunlight and moonlight to aid the user when nature calls.  The fun didn’t stop there; the two shelters are labelled as “snoring” and “non-snoring,” so campers should know their sleep-type before picking a resting place.

Heading toward Chimney Rocks

Heading toward Chimney Rocks

Our first look at Chimney Rocks from the back side

Our first look at Chimney Rocks from the back side

Beyond the shelter, it’s just over a mile to the Chimney Rocks Overlook, and the Appalachian Trail ascends approximately 900′ along the way.  In a few spots it’s fairly steep, and the last of the snow and ice on the sunny side of the mountain made for an interesting climb.  Near the top, the Chimney Rocks Trail crosses the AT, and a .1 mile detour leads to a great view that includes the Waynesboro Reservoir.  This set of rocks is easy to climb–unlike Sunset Rocks–and the view can be enjoyed by nearly everybody, even those of us with a fear of heights.

Looking toward the...ummm...northeast (I think) from Chimney Rocks

Looking toward the…ummm…northeast (I think) from Chimney Rocks

The Waynesboro Reservoir is in the distance

The Waynesboro Reservoir is in the distance

Beyond the rocks, our travel plans included another mile on the AT before reaching a pipeline.  From here, we walked uphill roughly 100 yards and took a left onto a forest service road (Chimney Rocks Road) that started us back down the mountain.  The road meets up with the other end of Chimney Rocks Trail, but we continued straight until our blue-blazed route took a left at a Y intersection and dropped sharply toward Tumbling Run.  At about the five-mile mark, the trail hugs the bank of the stream all of the way back to the shelters, and from there we reconnected with the stretch of the AT that we started on in the morning.  A half-mile later, we were back at our starting point.

Heading back down the mountain on the snow-covered fire road

Heading back down the mountain on the snow-covered forest service road

This is the other end of the Chimney Rocks Trail.  Stay straight on the forest service road

This is the other end of the Chimney Rocks Trail. Stay straight on the forest service road!

The final stats were a moderate 6.2 miles, with a combined elevation gain of 1100′, but this short trek has a little bit of everything: an overlook, a stream, a country road, and even a bit of human ingenuity.  There really wasn’t anything not to like.  So far, this is our best hiking experience in Michaux State Forest, and I would highly recommend it.

Tumbling Run.  If you look closely, you can see a plank bridge that crosses the stream near a PATC cabin that's available to rent for the night

Tumbling Run. If you look closely, you can see a plank bridge that crosses the stream near a PATC cabin that’s available to rent for the night

Ball’s Bluff Battlefield (Leesburg, Va.)

Sign at the park's entrance

Sign at the park’s entrance

The history of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff (October 21, 1861) is neatly laid out on the many interpretive signs in Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park.  The gist of the story is that a Union patrol provided misinformation to General Charles P. Stone, which led to an embarrassing Union defeat.

The really cool insignia on the cemetery gate!

The really cool insignia on the cemetery gate!

A look into the tiny cemetery.  All but one stone is marked as unknown.

A look into the tiny cemetery. All but one stone is marked as unknown.

The retreat was also a disaster, in that not enough boats were provided to to get the troops back across the Potomac, and one or more allegedly capsized as the Federals tried to escape the bloodbath (1,000 Union casualties, 300 for the CSA).  On the Maryland side, folklore has it that the C&O Canal is haunted by Union troops who died during the escape.  This section of the towpath is known as Haunted House Bend, and for years after the battle canallers reported seeing the ghosts of soldiers who died during the battle.

The layout of the battle

The layout of the battle

I first read about the Ball’s Bluff hike in the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s Hiker’s Guide to Civil War Trails in the Mid-Atlantic Region.  With snow still lingering in the local mountains, we opted for the ‘burbs again today.  While reading about this hike, I noticed that the map in the book is pretty confusing.  Upon our arrival, we found that the map at the kiosk is even worse!  Don’t worry about it…

Walking through the crusty remnants of what was a 30+" snow on the Orange Trail

Walking through the crusty remnants of what was a 30+” snow on the Orange Trail

Exploring the twisted maze of trails is actually very enjoyable.  A small, walled cemetery is the virtual center point of the park, and every trail and turn seemed to lead us back to within sight of it. Throughout the walk, we flipped a figurative coin at every junction and enjoyed reading the signs along the way.  In the past, most of our hikes have been pretty regimented–one wrong turn could easily ruin the day–so being whimsical was kind of refreshing.

A colorful green blaze contrasts with the muddy Potomac River

A colorful green blaze contrasts with the muddy Potomac River and the ugly gray sky

The Virginia channel of the Potomac and Harrison Island

The Virginia channel of the Potomac and Harrison Island

Today, the battlefield was replete with friendly locals walking their dogs, and we made a few new friends–both two-legged and four.  However, the highlight was walking along the Potomac in sight of Harrison Island.  The bluff itself isn’t very imposing; it’s approximately 600 yards long and about 110′ high at its peak, and at the downstream end the green-blazed trail turns right and heads back toward the (ta-dum!) cemetery.

At Ball's Bluff Overlook, with Harrison Island in the distance

At Ball’s Bluff Overlook, with Harrison Island in the distance

Downstream end of Ball's Bluff

Downstream end of Ball’s Bluff

We live about an hour away from Ball’s Bluff, and the hike was definitely worth the trip.  There’s a bit of a history buff in most of us, and taking a walk through scenery we’d only viewed from the Maryland side was enlightening.  The grass really is just as green in Virginia!  Simply put, this was the latest in a growing number of great hikes.

Grain storage outside of the park.  It looks like they're no longer in use.

Grain storage outside of the park. It looks like they’re no longer in use.

I have a new favorite trail logo.  Don't quote me, but I think this is for the Potomac Heritage Trail.

I have a new favorite trail logo. Don’t quote me, but I think this is for the Potomac Heritage Trail.

Third Winchester Battlefield

Near the main entrance, with the visitor center in the background

Near the main entrance, with the visitor center in the background

Our map showed more trails, but as of yet, some aren't available for hiking

Our map showed more trails, but as of yet, some aren’t available for hiking

Have you ever thought that you may live within thirty miles of an interesting place and know nothing about it?  Our hometown of Martinsburg, WV is within easy driving distance of a lot of things, historical, wild, or both, so Candee and I don’t usually look for places to hike just off of the interstate and a couple of turns beyond suburbia.

"Hi, my name is 149, and I will be your tour guide in this section of the park.  Yes, I will gladly pose for a picture!"

“Hi, my name is 149, and I will be your tour guide in this section of the park. Yes, I will gladly pose for a picture!”

Until a few days ago, I had never heard of the Third Winchester Battlefield.  Just prior to that, I ordered the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s, Hiker’s Guide to Civil War Trails in the Mid-Atlantic Region.  The short chapter on the battlefield relates that the 660 acre park was taken over by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation in 2013, and the PATC also warns that the park hasn’t quite been completed.  In other words, the map in the book shows some of what will be available in the future.  That’s okay.  It’s still a nice hike that we learned about in a really good book.

History, hiking, biking, and...birding.  Who could ask for anything more?

History, hiking, biking, and…birding. Who could ask for anything more?

Crossing Red Bud Run.  This was my favorite part of the hike.  We saw ducks, geese, and a blue heron.

Crossing Red Bud Run. This was my favorite part of the hike. We saw ducks, geese, and a blue heron.

The many interpretive signs along the maze of trails gives a detailed account of the battle (September 19, 1864), but the gist of it is that Third Winchester (also known as Opequon) was the last of the major battles in Winchester.  During the war, control of the town changed hands 70 times, and in this particular battle 3,500 Confederates and 5,000 Federals were killed.  Both General Jubal Early (CSA) and General Philip Sheridan (Union) claimed victory, but a larger percentage of Early’s troops were killed and eventually he was driven further down the Shenandoah valley (PATC 182).

Wide open spaces!

Wide open spaces!

Tree tunnel on Hackwood Lane.  This is just after a side loop into the West Woods.

Tree tunnel on Hackwood Lane. This is just after a side loop into the West Woods.

Our journey of 5.5 miles on mostly wide, well-groomed trails had a total ascent of a scant 130′.  The trails are perfect for bicyclists, and the opportunity to explore a battlefield on a bike is unique.  There are two trailheads–54 Red Bud Road near the visitor center and the lot directly behind Millwood High School–as well as a side access trail from a housing development.  Bear in mind that the lot behind the high school isn’t available during school hours.

Heading through the West Woods loop

Heading through the West Woods loop

One of several split rail fences.  Some are still under construction

One of several split rail fences. Some are still under construction

One of many interpretive signs

One of many interpretive signs

As the park develops, the current highlights include the woods, open fields, and several split-rail fences.  We also enjoyed crossing the wide, marshy Red Bud Run on a plank bridge.  We saw several geese, ducks, and a blue heron.  A sign along the way suggests that the park is a good location to see many species of birds.  Keep in mind that a power line runs through one end of the park and I-81 is within earshot, but the good far outweighs any nitpicking that I can relate.  Third Winchester Battlefield Park is already a good place for a hike or a ride, and it’s only going to get better!

A great place for a bike ride!

A great place for a bike ride!

Entrance from the back lot at Millwood High School

Entrance from the back lot at Millwood High School