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Cedar Run Falls, Shenandoah National Park

Cedar Run Falls

Cedar Run Falls

Access to Cedar Run Falls is at mile 45.6 on Skyline Drive, directly opposite of the trail to Hawksbill Summit.  The falls are reached by following Cedar Run Trail 1.7 miles down the mountain–and I do mean down!  The first warning was a pair of exhausted hikers struggling up the trail as we descended.  They assured us that seeing the falls was worth the trip, but it did get a little bit confusing:  the descent is so steep that the entire upper end of the stream is one waterfall after another.

Could this be it?

Could this be it?

Fortunately, I have a hiking book downloaded to my Kindle (cellphone app, in this case), and I generally know what’s coming before we get there.  I knew we had to cross Cedar Run to view the waterfall from the other side, and generally stream crossings in spring can be problematic.  However, the stream was running pretty low for late March, and that proved to be good and bad.  The crossing was pretty easy, but the waterfall was less spectacular than it could have been.

All of this raises a big question: was the difficult descent and the 1250′ of elevation gain on the way out a little bit too much bother for a five minute view of a low-running stream rolling down a long cascade?  No, not really.  I would like to make this journey when the water is running a little bit higher, but I was pretty satisfied with the fruits of my labor.

The long view of Cedar Run Falls

The long view of Cedar Run Falls

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!

Exploring the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship, Loudoun Heights, Virginia

This structure simulates a chimney and offers a nesting place for chimney swifts.  This is at the trailhead, so we learned something new before the hike even started!

This structure simulates a chimney and offers a nesting place for chimney swifts. This is at the trailhead, so we learned something new before the hike even started!

The Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Srewardship (BRCES) is one of those places that I’ve seen on a map, but I never really gave hiking there a whole lot of thought.  For starters, in my mind, I had its location somewhere south of where it actually is, but that’s nothing new; my sense of direction is poor to the point of being almost legendary.

This  spring house is just to the right of the "chimney" and is in phenomenal condition.

This spring house is just to the right of the “chimney” and is in phenomenal condition.

The trails are in great condition and are easy enough for kids of all ages!

The trails are in great condition and are easy enough for kids of all ages!

Somewhere, along the way, I read about a series of hikes that the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) hosted over the summer, and a 5+ mile tour of the BRCES was among them.  By the way, you can bet that me and my blazing fifteen-word-per-minute typing skills will defer to acronyms for the remainder of this post!  So, anyway, I learned about BRCES by reading up on past PATC hikes…

This is a pretty nice overlook, and the specks in the distance is a birding group that arrived earlier in the day.

This is a pretty nice overlook, and the specks in the distance is a birding group that arrived earlier in the day.

The trails in this park are, for the most part, a twisting maze of loops, and the plan going in was to bear left whenever possible and try to adhere to an outer loop of sorts.  However, the weather took a turn for the worse, and when the rain came, our journey through BRCES became an obvious two-parter to be completed at a later date.

On the map, this is labeled as one of the historic cabins along the Farmstead Loop.

On the map, this is labeled as one of the historic cabins along the Farmstead Loop.

This turned out to be a semi-tricky stream crossing.  We did notice a few small fish in Piney Run.

This turned out to be a semi-tricky stream crossing. We did notice a few small fish in Piney Run.

While Mother Nature didn’t exactly cooperate with us, we did learn that the BRCES has a history of cooperating with Mother Nature.  This nearly 900 acre tract of land has ten miles of hiking trails (we only did 3.2), and also offers educational opportunities, camping, and a bit of history.  We also learned that the Loudon Wildlife Conservancy offers a free bird walk on the fourth Sunday of every month–excluding December–but there are also on-site controlled hunts in November and December, so before hiking, it’s best to consult the website (www.blueridgeconter.org).

Another of the historic cabins. This is the most  striking of the three.

Another of the historic cabins. This is the most striking of the three.

Sometime in the near future, Candee and I plan on checking out the “lower” end of the center.  Nevertheless, we’ve seen enough to say that a walk in the BRCES is a great hiking and learning experience.  We enjoyed the old derelict cabins and the beautiful stream, and we even chanced upon three deer and several patches of colorful mushrooms.  The center is 45 minutes from Martinsburg (less than 15 from Harpers Ferry), so it’s a nice side trip from Antietam Battlefield, the C&O Canal, etc.  I kind of wish that we had given it a look sooner.

I really liked the rustic trail signs.

I really liked the rustic trail signs.

Shockeys Knob Circuit: 6.5 Miles in the Sleepy Creek WMA

Our starting point: the parking area and the white blaze of High Rock Trail

Our starting point: the parking area and the white blaze of High Rock Trail.  This is the Brush Creek Access Area.

Elevation profile for today's circuit hike

Elevation profile for today’s circuit hike

Today’s hike started at a small parking area off of Historic Packhorse Trail, a dirt road about two miles out of Glengary on Route 45 (Apple Harvest Drive on some maps).  The small lot is well-hidden:  in fact, a local resident we asked didn’t know it was there, and I wound up driving past the split turnoff three times before finding it.  The best advice I have is to look for a turn on the right that is divided into an upper and lower option.  In this case take the lower (left hand) route.

This is early in the hike along High Rock Trail.  There are some signs of fall color, but the greens of summer are still holding strong.

This is early in the hike along High Rock Trail. There are some signs of fall color, but the greens of summer are still holding strong.

The skies sporadically changed from partly sunny to cloudy and back all day long, and the prospect for a cold soaking loomed large from beginning to end.  Likewise, I’m not one to take cues from the weather man, and my attire was more in tune with the recent heatwave than the sudden cold snap.  As a result, things were a bit uncomfortable in the strong winds at higher elevations.

The High Rock Trail is pretty easy to follow, but these blazes are pretty confusing.  If they were opposite of each other on the tree...ummm...maybe.

The High Rock Trail is pretty easy to follow, but these blazes are pretty confusing. If they were opposite of each other on the tree…ummm…maybe.

From the gate, our walk began on an unfamiliar end of a familiar trail.  The High Rock Trail follows a forest service road for about 1,5 miles before taking a sudden left.  Last week we headed in from the opposite direction and took a right, but for the next .7 miles (heading up the mountain) we briefly took the same course as the previous week’s hike.

Getting started on the Mini Knife Edge Trail.  Unfortunately, this would have, what's for me, a "normal" ending.

Getting started on the Mini Knife Edge Trail. Unfortunately, this would have, for me, a “normal” ending.  Look for a white blaze near the end of the formation along the Tuscarora Trail.

At the top, we took a right (northward bound) on the Tuscarora Trail and went in search of the Mini Knife Edge Trail, which traverses the narrow topside of High Rock.  The view is spectacular, but about sixty feet out, the rock narrows to about three feet in width, and my old enemy–acrophobia–reared its ugly head.  Looking down, roughly 150 feet of air was the only buffer between the top and bottom of the cliff, so I made as graceful of a retreat as possible.  Candee turned around with me because, at that point, I literally needed to be talked off of the ledge.

Shockeys Knob Overlook--looking to the west along the Tuscarora Trail.

Shockeys Knob Overlook–looking to the west along the Tuscarora Trail.

After my bout with heights, we retraced our route back to the High Rock/Tuscarora junction.  Over the next couple of miles, a forest road (bearing right on the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail) turns into a narrow footpath  and weaves its way through both public and private land, all while bobbing up and down along the top of the ridge.

Looking out from the Tuscarora Trail

Looking out from the Tuscarora Trail

Between High Rock and Shockeys Knob Shelter, we did come across the occasional pile of bear scat.  However, with a stiff breeze blowing, the only sounds were flailing tree limbs, and we even swayed a bit on the overlook near the four mile point of the hike.  I’m guessing that the bears we didn’t hear were probably the same ones that smelled us from a mile away in the breeze.

The rustic Shockeys Knob Shelter has a beauty all of its own.  It's even equipped with a metallic tree branch ornament.  Very cool!

The rustic Shockeys Knob Shelter has a beauty all of its own. It’s even equipped with a metallic tree branch ornament. Very cool!

After the long stretch atop the ridge, a white-blazed trail leads to Shockeys Knob Shelter, a rustic, three-sided resting place for both long-distance hikers and overnight campers.  About fifty yards from the shelter, there’s a bright red bear pole that allows campers to hoist their food bags well above the reach of our furry friends.  Bears, of course, are a problem, but trailside shelters are notorious for housing mice and other varmints with an equal liking for human food.

Bear pole.  It also works for mice, but a kamakazi squirrel might have a chance at raiding a food bag.

Bear pole. It also works for mice, but a kamakazi squirrel might have a chance at raiding a food bag.

Beyond the shelter, the Tuscarora Trail heads down the mountain in a series of switchbacks, and at about the halfway point, a left on the Millrace Trail starts the homestretch of the hike by continuing the descent.  At the walk’s lowest point (see profile), the trail crosses Brush Creek before a moderate uphill stretch back to the parking area.

Millrace Trail from the Tuscarora

Yellow-blazed Millrace Trail from the Tuscarora

This hike doesn’t have a dramatic gain in elevation, but there are a couple of magnificent views from the top.  High Rock is a stunning rock formation, even if I couldn’t conquer the full out-and-back along the Mini Knife Edge Trail, and the Shockeys Knob Overlook ranks with the best we’ve seen on our many journeys.  On a Sunday, the excursion as a whole promises to be a very peaceful one, but the WMA is currently open to hunters, so hikers beware!  Nevertheless, I would strongly advise anybody to find the right time to take this amazing hike.  It’s definitely worth it!

Crossing Brush Creek.  This is the lowest point of the hike at a bit  under 1000' above sea level.  The high point is slightly over 1800' above sea level--near the shelter.

Crossing Brush Creek. This is the lowest point of the hike at a bit under 1000′ above sea level. The high point is slightly over 1800′ above sea level–near the shelter.

Sleepy Creek WMA: A 9.4 Mile Circuit Hike Including the Tuscarora Trail

Bear Track on the Tuscarora Trail near High Rock

Bear Track on the Tuscarora Trail near High Rock

Tempting as they usually are, our usual haunts really aren’t all that tempting on a holiday weekend.  Granted, I’m relatively sure the Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area was pretty crowded in the vicinity of the lake, but a 9.4 mile circuit that I’ve been wanting to hike near the southern end of the WMA turned out to be a great (and quiet) alternative to fighting crowds in most places.

Great Eastern Trail sign and Tuscarora Trail blue blaze

Great Eastern Trail sign and Tuscarora Trail blue blaze

This hike had a familiar starting point, as I parked on the Hampshire Grade Road across from the Beacon Hill trail head.  From there, Candee and I walked 1.5 miles (on Beacon Hill/Tuscarora) that we’d seen in 2014 before turning left on a forest service road toward Pee Wee Point.  We stayed on the road (Pee Wee Point Trail) for about a mile before taking an abrupt right onto a poorly marked connector trail (.8 miles in length) that displayed one very lonely red blaze on the way to the bottom of the mountain.  The connector proved to be very difficult to follow, but our directions assured us that everything would be okay as long as we kept heading downhill.

Passing a wild turkey habitat area on the next forest service road

Passing a wild turkey habitat area on the next forest service road

The next stage consisted of another mile on a forest service road, as we passed a wildlife clearing before taking a right in the middle of a second clearing onto the white-blazed High Rock Trail.  This trail hosted our hike between the 4.2 and 5.1 mile marks, and after crossing a nearly dry Brush Creek, we headed up a steep hill to majestic High Rock and a sharp right onto the Tuscarora Trail.

Crossing Brush Creek, which was pretty easy  during the dry season

Crossing Brush Creek, which was pretty easy during the dry season

For the next two miles, the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail follows a pair of forest roads, the second of which is a sharp right (leading to Pee Wee Point) that closes the circuit portion of the hike.  At that point, a left turn reunited us with the Beacon Hill/Tuscarora Trail and a 1.5 mile up-and-down back to our roadside parking.

An imaginative blaze on the High Rock Trail

An imaginative blaze on the High Rock Trail

There were a few highlights on the 9.4 mile circuit (with an elevation gain of 1700′).  The first, as mentioned, is a solid, uphill workout on the High Rock Trail.  This was followed by numerous bear signs along the Tuscarora Trail heading away (north) from High Rock.  We met the only two hikers of the day at about the 6.5 mile mark, and as we heard them talking on the ridge above us, a large animal thundered through the woods on our left.  Was it a bear (or possibly bears, as there appeared to be a mother with at least one cub in the area)?  That’s difficult to say, but it’s a definite possibility.

From this vantage point, High Rock Trail drops off to the left and the Tuscarora Trail continues straight  along the ridge

From this vantage point, High Rock Trail drops off to the left and the Tuscarora Trail continues straight along the ridge.  We, however, were heading in the opposite direction.

The Tuscarora Trail and the trails that branch off of it are well-maintained but less crowded than most of our area’s other options.  The Tuscarora itself was created as an alternative route for the Appalachian Trail, and like the AT, it has many rugged stretches.  Unlike the AT, the Tuscarora isn’t a household word, and we were thankful for that over the holiday weekend.

A partial view of High Rock at the 5.1 mile mark.

A partial view of High Rock at the 5.1 mile mark.