Saturday, August 16

great falls national park

Editor's note: I am going to take a different approach to this trip report. The idea is to present a shorter description, but with more details on logistics and trail suggestions, as opposed to my earlier post on Old Rag which was a pseudo-article. After reading the following post, take a moment to read Part I and Part II of my Old Rag trip report. I am curious as to which style you prefer (maybe a toss-up of the two, or maybe I should just stop writing).

Great Falls (click for bigger image)

Weekend escapes: Great Falls National Park
Great Falls NP is an 800-acre park encompassing a section of the Potomac River that advertises both jarring waterfalls and the river's deepest gorge, all within 15 miles of Washington, DC. Great Falls Park actually straddles the Potomac, splitting the park into both a Virginia side and a Maryland side (each state argues its side is the best). Regardless, either side allows access to rugged banks and rapids you would never expect from a relatively calm river that winds its way from West Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay.

After paying the $5 entrance fee, it's best to make a quick stop at the visitor center for a map and some history. Great Falls, along with other parks along the Potomac, is a historical site of colonial commerce. The Patowmack Canal, the remains of which are visible throughout the park, has the distinction of being the nation's first canal to use locks. In the early 20th century, an amusement park run by the W&OD Railway established picnic grounds on the Virginia side that are still used today.

The actual falls can be accessed near the visitor center. While several outlooks provide excellent picture opportunities, the only way to really experience the falls is to climb down to the riverbank for a close-up (do so with caution, an average of seven drownings occur per year).

The park is nestled in the country's eighth largest metropolitan area, which is reflected by the number of visitors. On the weekends, large groups with coolers, coals and meat, producing the sweet smell of BBQ, frequent the picnic grounds. Fortunately, the crowds can be left behind once on the trail. The River Trail is easily the most scenic and most popular of the approximately 15 miles of hiking trails within the park. The 3.3-mile (round trip) trail hugs the cliffs of Mather Gorge and offers magnificent views and excellent side trips down the cliffs to the river.

For those who seek a little more adventure than simply walking, Great Falls will not disappoint. Many of the trails permit mountain bikers looking for some action within riding distance of Washington. Kayaking is also very popular on the class 5-6 rapids at the falls and the class 2-3 rapids in Mather Gorge. And if that isn't enough, there are hundreds of routes along the gorge for rock climbing. Most of the climbs are about 50 feet and range in difficulty between 5.8 and 5.12 (the majority are 5.10 and higher). However, be ready to top-rope because trad climbing is not permitted for environmental reasons. In any case, many of the cliffs are relatively smooth and require crack climbing, always a fun way to spend the afternoon.

Friday, August 8

old and ragged (part II)

Editor's Note: I intended to post the rest of my Old Rag trip report this past weekend; however, I got distracted and nothing went according to plan, including a trip out to the mountains. I place the blame entirely on video games and a surprisingly delicious combination of pomegranate-flavored yogurt and vodka (no complaints here!). In any case, if you have not read part one and need some context, you can do so here. Otherwise, enjoy part two below.

The Blue Ridge Mountains are a physiographic province of the Appalachians, but lie just east of the bulk of the larger mountain chain. Bordered on the east by the Piedmont and the Great Valley on the west, the Blue Ridge contains the tallest mountains in eastern North America, the highest point being Mount Mitchell in North Carolina at 6,684 feet. The Blue Ridge itself is defined by two physiographic sections, Southern and Northern. Each section contains a National Park and is connected by the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway: Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south and Shenandoah National Park in the north.

The Blue Ridge Mountains

The defining feature of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and consequently its namesake, is the bluish hue when seen from a distance. The blue glow of the gently rolling mountains, caused by the release of hydrocarbons, is a calming contrast to the sheerness of the eastern Sierra's escarpment or the breathtaking (literally) and deadly upper reaches of the Himalayas.

About two miles from the Old Rag parking lot, a discreet, obviously un-maintained trail casually breaks from the Old Rag Fire Road and disappears into the thick forest of Corbin Hollow. The Robertson Mountain Trail briefly parallels the Brokenback River before the river gradually ascends Corbin Hollow and the trail begins a rapid climb up the Eastern ridge of Robertson Mountain, one of Shenandoah's best kept secrets.

At 3,296 feet, Robertson Mountain is five feet higher than Old Rag and, fortunately, is devoid of hikers due to its more popular southern neighbor. While the summit can be reached from Skyline Drive on the west, the eastern trail is a worthwhile challenge: 1,700 feet of elevation gain in only a mile and a half. After three hours of hiking in hot, humid weather, a climb I normally would have sprinted became an exercise in dragging feet and taking quick breaks to catch my breath.

View from Robertson Mountain Summit

I reached the summit following a solid hour of hiking. Much to my dismay, the summit was covered in evergreens and every view was partially blocked by foliage. Not to be denied an overlook, I traipsed around the summit and found a small clearing that featured a rock outcropping looking over Weakley Hollow and Robinson River towards the south. Quite content with this find, I spent the next hour temporarily liberated from the chains of the real world, lying on the rocks and taking in the awesome expanse before me.