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

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!

Happy New Years

screen-shot-2016-12-29-at-10-57-53-pm
The North Fork of the Shenandoah River

We spent Christmas in a cabin along the Shenandoah River, just west of Shenandoah National Park. The weather was warm enough to paddle, so we paired up siblings and went head to head in canoe races up and down the river. It was rare for all of us to have a holiday break together so we naturally had to make the most of this occasion. I had never been to the town of Shenandoah (population 2354 in 2013) before this outing. And as we drove through this sleepy town, it was hard for me to imagine that this place served a key role during the civil war. There were three iron ore furnaces around this town which smelted raw iron into pig iron. Apparently in the days before the war, this pig iron was shipped down the Shenandoah River to Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. During war time, these goods were transported by wagon to Gordonsville, VA and then subsequently by rail to Richmond where it could have been used at the Tredegar Iron Works. Both of these Virginia mountain towns now are peaceful and quiet as can be. I was especially impressed by Gordonsville’s display of Christmas Lights. It was certainly a welcoming sight while driving through the winding, dark and foggy roads of the mountains.

I just realized that I have not been able to produce any new videos of canoe trips this year. I have several projects in the works right now but they have yet to be polished. I’ve been very happy overall with the performance of the Sony a6000 both as a still and video camera. Lately I’ve been experimenting with different lenses and shutter speeds in videography and have been able to catch some pretty decent footage. For our trip in Quebec, I also brought along an external audio recording device to see how the audio quality would compare to the native mic. Here is a demo reel of random shots I was able to capture in 2016.

2016 Demo Reel: by John Le

As the holidays come to a close and a new year around the corner, I look back at how much time I was able to spend with family and friends and the total number of nights I camped outdoors. While it was a good year for paddling and hiking, the total number of nights I spent outdoors, totaled just five. Four of those nights were in the La Verendrye Wilderness Reserve of Quebec, Canada and the other night was spent camping in St. Mary’s Wilderness. I’ve made up my mind….in 2017, I’m going for double digits. Happy New Years to all!

dsc04209
Gordonsville, Virginia – all decked out for Christmas. In the middle of the Virginia mountains.

Rip Rap Trail – Shenandoah National Park

south
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.

dsc03880
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.

dsc03866
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.

 

Crabtree Falls/Spy Rock – Montebello, Virginia

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-8-20-49-pm
Richmond to Montebello, Virginia

The changing of the seasons is always a special time in Virginia. Although the summers can be uncomfortably hot and humid, I’m always sad to see it go. Before the official end of summer, we traveled out to the Blue Ridge Mountains in George Washington National Forest to hike Spy Rock, near Montebello along Route VA 56 West. The hike is of moderate difficulty at 3.2 miles and we paired it with a quick run up Crabtree Falls, the tallest waterfall in Virginia.

In the mountains, the climate was noticeably different; it was at least 10 degrees cooler and the earliest hints of yellow and orange leaves signified that fall was already here. The trails at both hikes were packed filled with people as we expected on a pretty Saturday. We parked at the Montebello Trout Hatchery because the main parking lot was already full. This gave us a nice opportunity to examine the rainbows, browns and brook trouts that were being raised. While only the brook trout is native to Virginia, the browns and rainbows are a popular trout species to raise since they grow to massive sizes and promote a healthy fly fishing culture in the Virginia mountains.

dsc03589
Spy Rock at 3980ft provides a 360 degree view of the Blue Ridge Mountains

The hike up Spy Rock took us along a rocky road for the initial segment until it intersected with the Appalachian Trail to take us to the top of Spy Rock. The view atop is impressive, allowing a full 360 degree view of central Virginia. We ate a quick lunch and made our descent and back into the car along VA 56 to Crabtree Falls. We then ascended the first mile up Crab Tree Falls to view the lower falls. The water was slow flowing at the end of summer but still a magical sight. On the way home we visited the Albermarle Ciderworks for a cool drink and dinner in downtown Charlottesville. I am sad to see summer go but excited for all the things fall has to offer: camping, changing colors, harvests and of course the start of the holiday season. Cheers to Summer 2016.

 

Tenkara Days – Rapidan River, Shenandoah NP

The Rapidan River is one of my favorite rivers in Virginia, especially the segment which courses through Shenandoah National Park. The flowing cascades, peaceful scenery and good population of brook trout has earned this river a top 100 trout stream spot according to Trout Unlimited coming in at #38.

DSC02604
Shenandoah National Park

The Rapidan plays a significant role in history as well. Originally named the Rapid Anne river after Queen Anne of England it has since changed it’s name to “Rapidan”, a combination of the words “rapids” and “Anne”. The river was also the site of numerous, bloody, civil war battles. After the war, it’s beauty continued to attract visitors from all over. It even caught the eye of one of the US Presidents. During the Hoover administration (1929-1933), Camp Hoover was built by President Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover to serve as their wilderness getaway, where they fished these pristine waters. The camp still stands today, although officially named Rapidan Camp now and open to the public, situated at the beginnings of the Rapidan River.

I was glad that at 15 years old, our Jack Russell Terrier was able to join us on this trip. He thoroughly enjoyed himself although he did not swim much as the current was fast flowing and the waters frigid. We leisurely climbed from stream to stream casting our flies. Before we knew it, the sun was setting and we had been out for over seven hours. Although we caught nothing (no surprise), we had several bites and I got my brother hooked on the sport. He just told me the other day, he was looking for a rod.

While we have fished all of our lives, Tenkara is a whole new ball game. It is a form of traditional Japanese fly fishing without the use of a reel. This allows everything to be packed nicely into my backpack without the need for tackle box or much gear. Essentially it is just rod, line and fly. The rod itself collapses to just over 20 inches. I found Tenkara to be a much more active form of fishing which I thoroughly enjoy. First off, your main target is trout, and here in Virginia, they are found only in the coldest and cleanest mountain waters. A hike of some sort is almost always needed. Secondly, while you’re fishing, you’re constantly casting and moving from one spot on the stream to another. The only thing about this time of year is that it is tick season! I pulled one off myself and a couple off of our dog. Nasty little buggers that on rare occasions can serve as a vector for transmitting Lyme Disease. I always try to be good with tick checks before getting back in the car. Spraying your shoes and lower legs with bug spray will definitely help as well. Ticks are typically found south of the Canada-US border although of late, climate change has changed that, with reports of tick bites becoming more and more common in Ontario.

White Oak Canyon – Shenandoah National Park, VA

The morning air is crisp, and the leaves are beginning their color change, the first day of autumn is officially here. Min and I set out to our familiar backyard, Shenandoah National Park. Instead of scaling the mountains and searching for high altitude vistas. We sought out watering holes, cascades and native brook trout that lived in these crystal clear, mountain streams.

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 3.55.25 AM
The route: From the parking area, we took a left up the Cedar Run trail and crossed the fire road to descend down White Oak Canyon Trail.

Our trip took us past Madison, VA close to Old Rag Mountain, however this time through the Weakly Hollow Road. From there we parked our cars, and headed to the intersection between Cedar Run and White Oak Canyon trail. Instead of going the traditional route straight up White Oak Canyon, I’ve found out from many reviewers of this hike, that the best way to go, is up the Cedar Run trail. It eventually connects with a fire road to close the loop with a descent down the White Oak Canyon Trail. The total circuit would be 8 miles. I definitely recommend this method of approaching the trail for anyone thinking of doing this hike, the climb up Cedar Run is gradual as opposed to the vertical climb up White Oak Canyon. This route also allows you to descend down the fire road instead of climbing it where there really is not much to see.

DSC_0078It was a perfect day for a hike, a cool 65 degrees F in the morning and sunny. The water level was relatively low and some of the of the creek beds were completely dry. Nonetheless, there was still plenty of water to enjoy the beautiful falls. We saw plenty of brook trout in the these streams as well.

BrookTrout
Salvelinus fontinalis (brook trout) are a native fish to the Shenandoah Mountains.

Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) are part of the Salmonidae family and more specifically, a type of char. Other members of this group include arctic char and lake trout. As such, brook trout require water temperatures less than 20 degrees celsius to flourish due to the higher oxygen content. In the mountains, the native fish live relatively short spans of about 3 years, although some may live up to 6 years. Typically, brookies found in the streams grow to around 6-12 inches, larger sizes can be reached if they make it to a lake where food is abundant. They spawn during mid to late fall. Brook trout are amazing fish. I am always in awe at how they are able to survive in such low waters and through times of drought and flooding. Year and year again, they return and swim in the streams of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

DSC_0097The loop took us a solid 5 hours with a swimming break in a pool in a small canyon. The water was absolutely freezing but we knew that this was probably the last chance we would have this year before it gets too cold. As cold as it was, the water felt amazing, to swim with the brookies was also an awesome experience. Some of the watering holes even have natural water slides to enjoy during the hotter months.

Overall, an enjoyable hike and highly recommended as a place to cool off in the summers. If I were to return, it would be in the spring or early summer months with higher water levels and with my tenkara rod in hand.

Watch a video of the falls above

Bear Church Rock – Shenandoah National Park, VA

I was starting to wonder if I was ever going to make it out to the mountains before spring ended. We got our chance on May 16, 2015 when our cousin from Toronto came to visit. It was his first time to Virginia and this would be his   his first hike through the Shenandoah mountains. It was a perfect day for the Bear Church Rock loop (8.5 miles) which initially starts on the Graves Mill trail before steeply climbing the mountain along the Staunton river trail. We included a detour to check out the Jones Mountain Cabin owned by the PATC (Potomac Appalachian trail Club). It was a hot day with some overcast mixed with bursts of sunshine and spring rain. The showers peaked as we reached the top of the mountain to cool us off. Heaven.

Robertson Mountain – Shenandoah National Park, VA

I ventured out with my friends Min and Ronan, to Shenandoah National Forest on the last day of January. We decided to take on the Robertson Mountain Trail which starts near the base of Old Rag Mountain. We left Richmond at 7:00am and began our hike at 9:30am. It was a chilly day at 22 degrees F and a solid 5 inches of snow covering the mountain. The view at the top was well worth it. This trip may have opened doors to future winter camping excursions.