How often do we neglect the beauty in our own back yards? As I wrote about with Blackwater Falls, places within close driving range, we may drive through rather than drive to. Here we go again, visiting a location that we have neglected for 20 years, the George Washington National Forest, specifically the section on Massanutten Mountain.
Twenty years ago, on our honeymoon, we hiked Big Schloss along North Mountain. This is the boarder between West Virginia and Virginia. As we approach our 20th anniversary, we hiked another section, Bird Knob, one mountain range to the east. I’m gald to say, that we might have taken a little longer for the 8 miles of scramble and amble, but we found our way back to the car in about 4 hours.
The George Washington National Forest includes many of the southwest to northeast angling mountain tops between Roanoke and Winchester, Virginia, inlcuding the boarder counties of West Virginia (Greenbrier, Pocahontas, Pendelton, Hardy, and Hampshire). Along with Shenandoah National Park, the National Forest essentially boarders the towns and farm land of the Shenandoah Valley. Massanutten Mountain is an uprise between the north and south forks of the Shenandoah River, ranging from Harrisonburg to Strausburg/Front Royal. About half way along the mountain is the New Market Gap, which General Pope’s Army of Virginia marched over to it’s eventual defeat at the 2nd Battle of Mannassas. As I hiked, I pondered those young men, dressed in wool and poor footwear, carrying their gear, trudging over those rocks following Lee’s units. My feet began to hurt.
The Bird Knob hike begins… well, we are not sure. Our 20+ year old guide book referred to a picnic spot and trail head just east of the ranger station. We did not find this. We stopped at the ranger station, to find that some time ago budget cuts closed it. But, there were a couple of picnic tables in the shade and a sort-of-maintained paved nature trail to the east. A ways down, we found a trail head that might have just been where 1st graders ran into the woods to get covered in poison ivy. We decided to give it a try to see if it lead anywhere. Our intuition paid off and we eventually found the poison ivy and the orange blazed trail.
The first mile is the most demanding, both in terms of invasive species of plants and rock scrambles. But, once up this, the view points were pleantiful and the terrain more level. The ridge top walk makes a long loop through shading pines, oaks, hickeries, and black cherries. Look carefully at your feet for boot height wildflowers and ferns. Though Linda lamented that we were too far into summer for many flowers, we found pleanty of small blooms.
Along the walk are several “wildlife viewing” fields. These are essentially bushwacked meadows along the ridge. One had been dammed to form a small lake from a seasonal stream. With pleantiful rain this year, the lake was full, the forest green, and the pathways a bit muddy here and there.
This mountain top walk is relatively remote, for its proximity to Washington, D.C. (about 2 hours drive). We saw no one else over our time there, except for someone sitting in a van with the A/C running when we returned to our car. Once up the initial climb, except for an occasional airplane ascending on its way west, we heard only wind, bird calls, the flutter of vultures soaring on the western updrafts, and the crunch of our boots. On the last mile back, we could pick up the sound of cars, motorcylces, and trucks gearing down for power to make the pass, then compression of engines to slow the curves back down.