Monday, June 7, 2010

Cloud Dancing on Skyline Drive

June 6, 2010

Staunton, VA to Hagerstown, MD

Skyline Drive twists along the high ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 glorious miles through Shenandoah National Park. Our goal today was to drive the Drive from end to end. We failed to reach our goal, as you will see, but the journey was a grand success nonetheless.

After traveling just ten miles in our first 45 minutes on Skyline Drive, analytical Dick pointed out that we would not be able to continue to stop at every overlook and still be out of the park by dark. But with over 500 miles of hiking trails and the mountain laurel in resplendent bloom, we had to get out of the car to explore at least a little bit.

Our first hike was the Frasier Discovery Trail, a 1.3 mile loop that ascended about 400 feet to reveal some spectacular panoramic views and overlap with a segment of the Appalachian Trail. We made it a butterfly walk, photographing all the butterflies we could find along the way so that we could identify them using our Butterfly Field Guide later.

After our first hike, we drove to a pleasant picnic area in the woods, made sandwiches, and planned our next hike, to Dark Hollow Falls.

The Dark Hollow Trail descended steeply for nearly a mile to the base of the falls. Dark Hollow got darker and darker as we were enjoying the seventy foot tall falls and trying to capture their beauty in our photographs. Shortly after we started back up the trail, the sky let loose a deluge, and within minutes the trail became a waterfall. It was a perfect illustration of a fact we learned from one of those overlook signs this morning—an inch of rain in the mountains translates to 200 million gallons of water running down to supply the needs of people in the valley below. The rain inspired us to actually scramble up the sloppy slope faster than we went down.

We were soaked despite our rain jackets. Worse still, as soon as we drove out of the parking lot, we realized the clouds had descended just as we were traversing the highest point of the drive. At 3,680 feet, we were in a windy low visibility cloud bank.

It was about twenty miles to the nearest road off the mountain, and we took it gladly, even though we were thirty miles short of our intended finish line. The tranquil rural landscapes of the Shenandoah Valley—lots of livestock and rolling fields of hay and corn—were a welcome relief from the wind-tossed clouds up in the higher elevations.

We took a small detour on our way to Hagerstown to find the first Washington Monument. The citizens of Boonsboro, MD were the first in the country to honor George Washington with a monument when they constructed this tower resembling a 35 foot tall beehive in 1827. It stands high on a hill overlooking the town, and like the Washington Monument we all know, it has steps inside leading to an observation deck. We skipped the steps and the view—our low country legs were telling us they had experienced enough climbing for the day.

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