White Oak Leaf

In the shenandoah valley, autumn rain falls on our cabin. Sitting inside, I got a great view of all the different oak leaves falling. I shot this leaf with my telephoto lens. No tree represents Virginia better than the white oak.

Shot on sony a6000 with sigma 100-400mm

Return to St Mary’s Wilderness – Raphine, VA

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St Mary’s Road is very well maintained, with a parking area before the trail head.

8/6/2022 – It’s been 6 years since I’ve stepped foot in St. Mary’s Wilderness, located in the vast and spectacular George Washington National Forest. I’ve hiked and camped here before in the Spring and Fall however I’ve never hiked through in the heart of summer – for good reason. The trail on this hike is generally poorly maintained because it is a designated wilderness area. Pink ribbons tied to branches outline the trail and most easily visible during spring and winter when the trees are bare. I wanted to take my son and my brother to this area to beat the summer heat and swim in the cold spring waters and to get to the St. Mary’s waterfall – where there are deep pools and cliff jumping. 

St. Marys Wilderness Falls – April 2016
St. Mary’s Wilderness – October 2016

We arrived on Saturday morning at approximately 10:00am. The parking lot was full but we had no trouble finding parking on the side of the roads. The directions to the trail are very straight forward and the road is well maintained. The summer heat brought numerous visitors, all with towels and bathing suits ready to dip in the ice cold spring waters. The lush green vegetation blanketed everything including parts of the trail.

I realized early into the hike that we were not going to make it to the waterfall. There was heavy rain the days prior and everything was wet and it took plenty of time to navigate with my son. So we decided to just take it slow and enjoy the hike. He’s currently into mushroom identification, and he spent a good amount of time combing the forest floor. The butterflies were also in full force, so he marveled at the sight of dozens of them near the stream. He made hiking sticks with his trusty laplander folding saw. I let him pick one of the deeper pools to swim in as promised before the trip. He was thrilled at the idea of swimming in ice cold spring water.

After a much needed swim and some lunch. We slowly made our way back to the car. As we left, my son reassured me that we were coming back to get to the falls next time. He had an awesome time in St. Mary’s Wilderness.

Sherando Lake – Lyndhurst, Virginia

  • Elevation: 1820 ft
  • Location: Sherando Lake Recreation Area, 96 Sherando Lake Rd, Lyndhurst, VA 22952
  • Latitude : 37.919724, Longitude : -79.01
  • Date: 10/21/2021

The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests contain almost 2 million acres, with most of these acres in Virginia (1,664,110 acres). The remainder is mostly in West Virginia (123,629 acres) and then Kentucky at 961 acres. It is home to some of the most beautiful mountain lakes in Virginia. Lake Moomaw and Switzer Lake are two of my favorites. I’ve heard much about the popular Sherando Lake, which is probably the most popular of the lakes given it’s ease of accessibility and plethora of facilities and amenities. Many people come here to swim, camp, hike and of course fish the stocked trout.

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During a week long trip out to the Blue Ridge Mountains, we made a day trip to Sherando Lake to check it out. With  2 little ones in tow, we hiked an easy trail around the lake at 1.4 miles with very little elevation gain of about 100 ft. The spring-fed lake is small at 25 acres, but picturesque. The entrance to the lake is magnificent, with small stone bathhouses and small bridges that cross meandering creeks. There is a designated beach area for swimmers which I’m sure is packed during the summer months. The trees were starting to turn in late October and the air was crisp.

If you are thinking about heading to Sherando Lake for a day trip or for a camp out, just do it. You won’t be disappointed. (For the paddlers out there, make sure you bring your own canoe/kayak, there are no rentals on site.)

Directions

Location: Sherando Lake Recreation Area, 96 Sherando Lake Rd, Lyndhurst, VA 22952

From I-64: Take exit 96 just east of Stuarts Draft. Turn south onto State Route (SR) 624 and continue. At Lyndhurst, the road changes to SR 664/ Mount Torrey Rd, but there is no distinct turn. Continue south on SR 664 approximately 8 miles to the entrance to Sherando Lake Recreation Area on the right.

From the previous site on the Thomas Jefferson Loop of the VBWT:

About 1 mile down Sherando Lake Road from SR 664, head right for a small parking and lake access area or left for parking, lake access, restrooms, information, camping, and hiking trails.

From Royal Oaks, travel north on SR 814 for 3.6 miles to SR 664. Continue straight onto and follow for 0.6 miles before turning left onto Sherando Lake Road.

To return to the interstate, return to the Blue Ridge Parkway and follow it south to SR 56. Turn right and follow this to I-81. From here, turn north to begin the Forest Trails Loop or south and start the Rockbridge River and Ridge Loop.

Frazier Discovery Trail – Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

  • Distance: 1.3 mile loop
  • Elevation: 2852 ft
  • Elevation gain: 462ft
  • Rating: Easy (although still some steep segments)

The Frazier Discovery trail is a 1.3 mile circuit hike on Loft Mountain in Shenandoah National Park, notable for several great overlooks. With an elevation gain of 462 ft, it is labeled as one of the easier trails in the park, we found it perfect for our small hikers (4 and 2 years old). Located at milepost 79.5, it is closest to enter from the Southern end of the park at Rockfish Gap (approx 20 miles). There are several overlooks on your way to the trail head, so take your time getting there.

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Make sure you take the time to pull on one of the beautiful overlooks as you make your way to Loft Mountain.
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View from one of the outlooks from Skyline Drive near the Rockfish Gap Entrance to Shenandoah National Park.
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The beginning of the trail. Cross Skyline Drive on foot to begin.
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Trekking poles are helpful but not mandatory. A hiking stick can be just as good.

We parked at the Loft Mountain Wayside Camp store and information center and crossed the road (skyline drive) to begin our hike. Hiking on a Tuesday, we were fortunate enough to have the mountain to ourselves. It appeared that the leaves were changing colors slightly later than normal. I find that peak fall color in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountain region is last week of October and early November.

The trail is well marked, and frequently traveled. There are plenty of rocks so hiking boots are definitely recommended. Unlike several other trails through Shenandoah National Park, there was no stream or river bed on this hike….But the views were killer. Have fun out there, and be safe.

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Overlook from Frazier Discovery Trail on Loft Mountain
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Don’t forget snacks!

Things to bring:

  • hiking boots (highly recommended)
  • water
  • map
  • compass
  • trekking poles (helpful)
  • dress appropriately
  • snacks
  • camera
  • helpful maps below

Humpback Rocks – Blue Ridge Parkway, Milepost 5.8

The Blue Ridge Parkway spans a total of 469 miles, weaving though the scenic mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Millions of visitors flock to the parkway, especially in the fall time, to experience the rich geology, wildlife, history and tradition of this special parkway. Spanning over two states, the blue ridge parkway is divided into four sections: Ridge, Plateau, Highlands, and Pisgah. The Ridge Region (northernmost region) is the region I’ve naturally explored the most by proximity.

A short 1.5 hour drive from Richmond, VA, Humpback Rocks is an easy day trip.

 

It begins in Afton, Virginia at the southern end of Skyline Drive where Shenandoah National Park ends. It runs through the beautiful George Washington and Jefferson National forests and is known for its beautiful rolling pastures and waterways. At milepost 5.8, is Humpback Rock, one of the most popular hikes in the ridge region. It is probably the best bang for your buck hike in the region, a short (but very steep 1.0 mile hike) will take you to the top of the rock formations for a breath taking view of the blue ridge. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) has been focusing of late on physician wellness and health” during residency. As a way to combat, burnout and fatigue, they are encouraging residency programs across the country to embark on retreats to discuss difficult topics and to better connect with one another. April 27, 2019 – A short 1.5 hour drive and we were away from the hospital and into the mountains. It was a chilly spring day and the skies were clear. It still amazes me, how nature has the ability to recharge and kickstart that internal engine…..further emphasizing the importance of keeping these special areas preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Before the hike

The crew on top of a mountain

Philpott Lake – Bassett, VA

For those that are interested in canoe camping, Philpott Lake in southwest Virginia just may be the best place to learn. This massive 3000 acre reservoir spans across three counties (Henry, Franklin and Patrick counties) and was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (from 1948-1952)  in order to help control flooding from the Smith River as well as generate hydroelectric energy and serve as a place for recreational activities.

We took to the road on a Thursday morning with clear, blue skies. It was an easy, and flat 3.5 hour drive from Richmond to the town of Bassett, Virginia. Upon arrival to the lake, we were impressed with how clean and organized the park seemed to be. We stopped by the visitor’s center to ask for some maps and it reminded of very much of a welcoming center you would see at an Ontario Provincial Park. There were stuffed animals on display, with fish species charts that covered the walls. From the visitor center, we were at a great vantage point and had a beautiful view of the Philpott Dam and Lake, sparkling blue in the sunlight. We were eager to paddle these waters.

We would be camping on Deer Island, a spot where visitors can visit if they wished to do some primitive camping. In order to get there, we got back in the car and drove to the Salthouse Branch Launch Point. Here we met a friendly ranger and paid our $20 per night camping fee. We reassured us, that if we would need anything at all throughout the night, that there would be a ranger on call 24/7. We parked the car right next to the beach and launch site and began unloading our gear. Once again, this is a very well kept lake, and the launch site had every facility we could have asked for, clean bathrooms and showers, picnic tables, and water fountains. We loaded our gear off a small dock next to the public beach and set out for the quick paddle to Deer Island (less than 0.5 miles). There wasn’t a single soul camping on Deer Island so we took our time circling the land until we found a suitable campsite…..#20. The campsite was immaculate without any signs of garbage. Once our camp was set up and the firewood had been cut, I went in for a refreshing dip.

While we were camping in Virginia, my brother Brian had been on a week long road trip up north in Manitoba, Canada. He was driving home to Virginia and would be joining us at Philpott Lake before we all head back to Richmond together. He was exhausted from spending days on the road. At midnight, we paddled back out under a full moon and cut through the fog on the water back to the Salt House Branch Landing. We helped him load his gear and we brought him back to the campsite. The orange glow of our campfire guiding us home.

He was tired and covered in camping scars, after run ins with poison ivy, black flies and mosquitos. He was certainly happy to be back in Virginia, where they were literally no mosquitoes at our campsite. We were not complaining but we were wondering why there were no bugs. I wonder if this is due to the fact that Philpott is a man-made lake. The elements that make a natural ecosystem where mosquitoes would thrive are not there. I have no idea, but we are not complaining. No need for a bug shelter or even bug spray for that matter.As we cooked him some dinner, he shared tales of his adventures up north, we listened intently by the fire and our group once again reunited. The last time the three of us were together was one year ago, when we paddled our way through La Verendrye Wilderness Reserve, in Quebec.

Brian solo camping at Kwasitchewan falls, Manitoba.

In the morning, we paddled out to the access point for a luxury shower at the Salt House Branch beach. This was truly glamping. The washrooms at Philpott Lake, just like everything else was very clean. This was something I could get use to on canoe camping trips. It turned out to be a very lazy day for us. Brian was exhausted from his road trip, so we took it easy and explored the surrounding forest. We made fires from pine sap, cooked and relaxed. No ambitious goals, just us and the lake. Before we knew it, the sun was coming down, and the forest was cooling off. We went on more night canoe paddles and explored the other launch sites. We met a friendly ranger and a police officer and spent some time talking to them. The ranger was clearly interested in our canoe camping ensemble and asked where we were from. Turns, out that he had been to Ontario…. many times. He hunted and fished in the backwoods of Ontario near and was very familiar with Algonquin Park. Small world.

In summary, Philpott Lake is a clean, beautiful, and fun place for anyone interested in primitive canoe camping. It is the perfect place to learn all of the motions involved in canoe camping. The short paddles to the campsites make it very feasible for all ages, and the access to clean facilities make it seem like clamping. There are rangers and campers around so there is also plenty of support. The rangers patrol throughout the night at the access points to keep everyone safe. On a scale of intensity, this experience fits in between car camping, and canoe back country camping… although much closer to car camping. I would love to come back to try our hand at fishing the famous Walleye populations in this lake, perhaps in the spring time.

*As always, for all visitors and campers, please remember to pack out whatever you bring in. Please keep this beautiful lake clean for all to enjoy and for future generations to come.

Return to White Oak Canyon – Shenandoah National Park, VA

TRAIL MAP OF THE WHITE OAK CANYON AREA

During the hot, summer months in Virginia, the watering holes of Shenandoah National Park are natural sanctuaries for those looking to escape the heat. No trail is better for this than the popular White Oak Canyon Trail. It is the second busiest trail in the park and for good reason – this hike is packed with picturesque pools, natural water slides and waterfalls flowing with pristine, mountain water.

The entire circuit, however, is no easy, feat. For those looking to complete the entire Cedar Run / White Oak Trail circuit, be prepared for a strenuous 8.2 mile hike that covers a steep elevation climb of over 2000ft in rocky terrain.

At the beginning of the circuit, is the Whiteout Canyon parking lot (which can fill up quickly during peak seasons). From here, as you start the trail, you will come to a fork in the road. On the left, will be the Cedar Run trail, and to the right is the White Oak Canyon trail. The entire circuit can be completed in any direction, however it is strongly recommended, to start up the cedar run trail. Completing the circuit in this direction has many advantages. The ascent up cedar run trail is a much more gradual climb with softer terrain. Once you reach the top, the horse trail and white oak fire road will connect you to the top of the white oak canyon trail where you can begin your descent towards the parking lot. Now you can relax and take in the numerous beautiful falls on this side of the trail (you will also have breath to enjoy them).

scouting the falls

Obviously, one does not have to hike the entire circuit to enjoy a good swim. From the parking lot, it is a short 2 mile hike to get to the white oak lower falls. This is probably the most spectacular of all of them. If you’re looking for natural water slides, head to the cedar run falls on the east part of the circuit, where you can check out two awesome water slides. There are also several areas here where you can jump into the pools. Please be careful as this can be dangerous if you have not established the depth of the pools. I bring along a pair of swimming goggles to scout the water for depth and debris before jumping.

Lower White Oak Canyon Falls, the biggest swimming pool on the circuit

There are many other surprises on this circuit. The pools have healthy populations of native brook trout so bring your fly fishing rod. Consider a tenkara rod for these tight spaces up in the mountains. Wildlife here is also abundant and black bear sightings are common, but don’t worry, they tend to keep to themselves. The trail is so busy that the human voices will keep them away. But as always, just be smart and don’t agitate the wildlife, we are visiting their home after all.

On a hot summer day, there’s not a better place to be in Virginia. Be safe, and have fun.

Bring your tenkara rod, to fish for native rookies

resting at the top of white oak canyon

What to bring:

  1. hiking boots
  2. lunch
  3. water shoes (for swimming)
  4. swimsuit and towel
  5. swimming goggles (optional)
  6. plenty of water
  7. water filter (optional)
  8. map
  9. bug spray (especially around the ankles)
  10. fly fishing rod (optional)

 

*As always, please help keep our parks clean. Take nothing but photos, and leave only footprints!

Return to Switzer Lake – George Washington National Forest, VA

Switzer (Skidmore) lake is one of my favorite places in Virginia. This sparkling, blue lake is located high up in the Virginia mountains of George Washington National Forest at over 2000 ft. The reservoir serves as the water supply for the city of Harrisonburg and is also stocked with brook trout. It is the perfect place to paddle in some of the clearest waters in Virginia.

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My friend Min and I have not canoe camped since Quebec in the summer of 2016 and we were itching to get out there. We planned a simple overnighter, despite the impending rain that was forecast to hit hard on our second day. No matter. Rain does little to keep us indoors these days. My brother and I have survived torrential downpours in the backcountry of Ontario in Temagami and Algonquin Park. From these experiences, I’ve learned that the rain can actually bring many positives experiences to a camping trip. For one, there is always an awesome cloud display in the mountains afterwards.  You are also presented with the opportunity to test the quality of your tarp setup in a situation that counts. Ray Mears once said if you wait for good weather to camp, you end up missing half the opportunities to get outside.

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Our last trip to Switzer Lake was in the fall of 2015, where we spent a day exploring the lake and surrounding areas by foot and canoe. Two years later, I can say that the region has changed very little. The roads have received a marked upgrade. They have been flattened and well paved, even now very suitable for a sedan to navigate comfortably.

We head out on a weekday morning when we knew the campsites would be empty. This lake can be particularly busy during the weekend, so don’t expect peace and quiet. The area is frequented by numerous outdoor enthusiasts, mostly students from the nearby James Madison University campus.

Upon our arrival, we spent some time searching for a place to camp and settled in after an hour of searching. We got to work collecting dry, dead wood, setting up the tarp for impending rain, and fishing and exploring the area. One of the most useful pieces of cooking gear up north is the simple grill grate which can be easily rested between rocks so you can have steaks anywhere you go. Once our fires were hot enough and we created a large enough ember pile, we put on some steaks and corn and listened to the sounds of the forest as we ate. Perfect. The rain eventually did come at around 8:30pm, however it came in intermittent showers and we were more than prepared with our tarp and tent. The rain scared away the last kayaker on the lake so we had the whole area to ourselves.

While you might not get the true, backcountry canoe camping experience in Virginia, Switzer Lake comes pretty darn close. There are also many advantages to camping here versus the Canadian backcountry. First and foremost, the bug situation is infinitely better at this time of year. May and June are peak black fly and mosquito seasons in Ontario and make canoe camping pretty much unbearable without bug jackets. High up in these mountains, the bugs were scarce and we came out with hardly a scratch. We saw numerous frogs, butterflies, caterpillars and hawks. I also sleep a little easier in the Virginia woods knowing that the black bears are generally much smaller. Overall, this place offers a canoe camping experience that can certainly hold it’s own.

*A word of caution, to those interested in camping, I have heard of several who have received fines for camping immediately next to the lake. Apparently it is not allowed, however there are numerous campsites just a short walk deeper into the woods away from the lake. I would call the local forest office before planning a trip here to find out which camping sites are open to use. 

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*As always, for all visitors and campers, please remember to pack out whatever you bring in. Please keep this beautiful lake clean for all to enjoy and for future generations to come.

Rip Rap Trail – Shenandoah National Park

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South Entrance to Shenandoah National Park, Rockfish Gap.

Fall is the busiest time along Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, and it’s easy to see why. The crisp mountain air and the gorgeous colors have us strapping on our hiking boots as much as possible. This last impromptu hike was actually suggested by our friends. They are preparing for a trek through Patagonia and wanted to get some good hikes in to build endurance. They suggested a trail I had never been on, the Rip Rap Trail Loop in Shenandoah National Park. A strenuous 9.8 mile that starts at Wildcat Ridge, then meets up with the Rip Rap Trail to finish the loop. We entered the park through the familiar Rockfish Gap Entrance and parked in the Wildcat Ridge Parking Area.

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Mountain streams

The initial trail is a moderate descent down into the valley where we traveled along side the mountain stream known as Meadow Run. We crossed the streams several times and before beginning our ascent up to Chimney Rock. I would say that the first half of this hike is much prettier than the second half. I am partial however to hiking along the gentle streams as they meander through the valley. This hike is known for it’s beautiful watering hole at the bottom of the valley where two streams merge into one 50ft long watering hole. I’ll try to come back one day in the summer to camp and swim at this location. Peak fall colors seemed to arrive later than ever this year, attributable to the much warmer temperatures we have seen over the past years.

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crossing streams

I often worry about how climate change will impact the fragile environment around us. This would mean hotter summers, longer mosquito seasons, a harsher environment for the brook trout that thrive in cold mountain streams. In Canada the effects can already be seen with ticks on the rise, as they are able to establish more stable populations in the increasingly warmer climates.

For those that have not seen it, Leonardo DiCaprio released his documentary “Before the Flood” last week. It highlights climate change and the barriers we face as a planet in addressing this pressing matter. I highly recommend this film to everyone. I thank DiCaprio for his efforts in raising awareness about global warming, an issue that affects us all.