Hike Twenty-three: Virginia’s Peaks of Otter Flat Top Mountain

It’s warming, which means we had an excuse to hike Virginia’s Peaks of Otter again.  I say again because we attempted this trail a few weekends ago . . . when there was a winter storm advisory . . . when a large amount of snow was expected . . . and when below freezing temperatures were on their way.  Needless to say, the weather won that day because when we arrived to the Jefferson National Forest, we were greeted with thick fog and temperatures so cold that I refused to leave the car after a brief roll-down of my window.
IMG_2493.JPGAndrew didn’t mind either — He had stepped out to look at a map or something and raced back to the car.  I’ve never seen a man run as fast.  Then we drove, forlorn and irritable, back home.  Hike done before it even started.

Sometimes hiking is like that though.  Sometimes you just cannot go — for whatever reason — and I’m trying to learn that is okay.  I’m trying.

So weekends passed until Andrew and I were discussing hiking again.

“Peaks of Otter?” I asked nervous.  Even if it was warmer here, that did not mean it was warmer there.

“Know what?” he hesitated.  I held my breath.  “Let’s go for it.”  I didn’t need more convincing.

So back we drove to Jefferson National Forest where we were greeted with a blue sky, sun, and green meadows.  Essentially, a completely different view from our last visit so I leaned out the window to take pictures as Andrew swirled around the mountain.

We came for the Peaks of Otter consists of many trails.  However, two of the toughest mountains are also the most well-known: Flat Top and Sharp Top.  We had grand desires to hike both in one day, making it a little under ten miles, but (cut to the end of story) after a pretty good climb up Flat Top, we were worn out, breathing heavy, and ready to relax our legs.  Therefore, here is a breakdown of Flat Top Mountain:

  • Six-point-two miles
  • 1,540-foot elevation gain
  • Level Four of Five Difficulty

We set off on the unblazed trail, which was fine with us because Nature lead the way — She seemed to whisper in yellows as various types of daffodils, unusual dogwoods, and fluffy dandelions spotlighted our path.

This is the unusual species of dogwood tree that is strangely named Cornelian Cherry.

Following our path down, we crossed by a calm blue lake located in front of a lodge.
IMG_2759This was the Lake Trail, and it gave a marvelous view of Sharp Top Mountain.
IMG_2765Sharp Top is the most crowded mountain in the Peaks of Otter whereas Flat Top, on the other hand, is more secluded.

IMG_2774.JPGReaching Flat Top a couple miles later, we were warned the first one-point-four miles is straight up, lacking practically any switchbacks.  This made our walk exhausting from the start.
IMG_2785IMG_2804The pops of purple scattered along the path were appreciated not only for their beauty but because they gave me reason to pause on the incline.IMG_2768.JPGIMG_2791
Up and up we continued towards the blue sky.IMG_2794Soon a spur trail appeared on our right . . .IMG_2805This meant we were point-six miles from boulders that were a short distance from our first lookout.
IMG_2808Flat Top Mountain, I soon learned, has a way of teasing hikers — The name sounds dry and mundane, and maybe that is why this trail is more secluded.  However, I’m here to promise you the views are the opposite.  I could see for miles and miles, past the point of vision because land and sky blurred together.
IMG_2837.JPGIMG_2842IMG_2844Each look-out tempted me to stay and I found myself thinking, “Surely the sights cannot get better than this.”   Every time, though, I was wrong in the best way possible.IMG_2841

Crawling down from the boulder, we skipped over white flowers called Blood Root that were sprinkled around the massive rocks.  They popped through the brown leaves and dirt seeming full of excitement.  Their bright white petals stretched, making me think the flowers were awakening from sleep, as their little yellow faces, yawning and reaching further still, absorbed the sun’s rays.IMG_2811IMG_2813IMG_2822.JPGIMG_2819IMG_2820Our summit view was a little over two miles away where we could see the boulders jutting from the mountain in the distance.
IMG_2845.JPGWe set off towards that distant spot until the mountain top appeared to curve before us.
At the summit, we darted left of the trail to avoid people that were at the main look-out on the right, and I was happy we did — The view all around us was incredible and we sat on the rocks for many moments, talking and eating our lunch.
IMG_2879.JPGIMG_2873IMG_2874IMG_2876IMG_2875IMG_2895IMG_2877Leaving the birds and one view, we walked to the right of the trail where we pass US Coast and Geodetic Survey markers and a sign informing us that the summit of Flat Top Mountain is 4,001 feet.IMG_2903.JPGIMG_2905IMG_2901Next, we stepped through the trees and onto smoothed boulders.  Dangling our legs over the mountain, all was calm and peaceful as we cuddled into one another, looking out at our wide view of Bedford and beyond.  We were reminded Bedford lost more men than any other US city of similar size as it was home to the nineteen men that died in Normandy during the first phase of World War II’s D-Day landings.
IMG_2924Below us, the Bedford reservoir could be seen — a bright turquoise blue — and next to us, red buds slowly swelled on trees before opening.
IMG_2906IMG_2907IMG_2908IMG_2910IMG_2909IMG_2935.JPGStanding to go, we turned to walk back down the mountain and our steep declining trail.  Bits of spring we had missed on the way up rose from the ground in vibrant colors.
IMG_2940IMG_2942.JPGSoon, we were at the parking lot where we decided our legs were too sore to trek up Sharp Top Mountain.  Opening our vehicle’s doors, we got inside — happy with our decision to go home and full of appreciation for even a few hours walk in the woods together.



Hike Twenty-two: Virginia’s Spy Rock

I’ve been avid to hike longer trails, paths leading to camping, and I didn’t want to wait anymore.  Winter has stretched itself endless, and I was no longer going to be patient.  Camping was on my mind so camping was where I would go!  As expected though, winter protested something strong and fierce — The weekend we planned to go, there was a winter storm advisory and heavy snow headed our way and below freezing temperatures.  But my wilful personality knows no bounds . . . I just needed to convince Andy.  I knew if I worded it right, he would see this as a challenge and if there is one thing Andrew doesn’t back down from, it’s a challenge.  So the words “training for the Appalachian Trail” may have been used, and a “let’s go” from him may have been said.

So we pulled out our massive packs and began stuffing them while our rascals looked and smelled and wormed their way into our gear.
IMG_2853IMG_2822IMG_2817All was glorious and happy so we set off into the mountains.  And were greeted with this.
IMG_2493.JPGAs we drove, the snow became deeper and the visibility, less.  We watched as the temperature dropped past thirty degrees and reached the twenties.  Then roads were closed.  Then “No camping” signs were seen so in the end we had to turn back.

I was miserable, to say the least.

We waited, leaving our packs packed as if willing winter to end.  And it sorta worked.  The following weekend carried warmer temperatures and beautiful weather so we were out once more, this time to George Washington National Forest’s Spy Rock:

  • We chose hiking Crabtree Falls to Spy Rock, which is fourteen miles.  (However, there are shorter trails to Spy Rock.)
  • 3,610-foot elevation gain
  • Rated Level Four of Five difficulty

I was eager for this hike: First, Spy Rock had been on my To Hike List since I started, but I was also happy for Andrew to finally see Crabtree’s waterfall.  You may remember Crabtree Falls was my starting-out second hike, which I intended to invite Andrew but admittedly forgot him, only remembered I forgot him when I was at the mountain’s summit.  He hasn’t let me live this down so I was happy to finally put an end to the fact that he had not hiked the Crabtree Trail. (More on this story in my This is Us post.)

Anyway we set off on a pleasant day, a day so lovely it begged pulling over to take pictures on the way up.  Whenever I snap pictures, I see people rushing by the moments I have paused at — They believe the destination is more important than the journey.  I disagree, strongly.  In the past, I was too focused on the destination and missed appreciating the journey there.  This is why I hope to always pause and not only appreciate the path but also reflect on where it started and where it is headed.IMG_2501.JPGIMG_2503.JPG
Pulling into the parking lot, we pulled on our packs and began walking.
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Crabtree Falls is made of a series of waterfalls — understandably called the lower, middle, and upper falls — where the water flows from Crabtree Meadows to the Tye River.  In all, the waterfalls drops 1,080 feet though hanging valleys rare to the area.
IMG_2508.JPGIMG_2512IMG_2514IMG_2517Continuing past the lower falls, the neighboring mountains came into more view.

Soon we were at the middle section of the falls.  Each portion is different — For instance, the middle is a single drop of ninety feet over moss-covered rocks, which are closer to trees and plants.
30070557_10160264676265711_1198481789_o copyIMG_2528IMG_2540Moving up still, we followed switchbacks that twisted again towards the water.IMG_2580IMG_2542IMG_2572With the upper falls in sight, we trekked on until we reached the top of the falls, which plunges 200 feet over a cliff.30074411_10160264676375711_126667292_o copy30074463_10160264676185711_687035536_o copyIMG_2563Above the upper falls is a lovely vista of the area, but our journey didn’t end here.
IMG_2592Moving back to the Crabtree Falls Trail, we followed Crabtree Creek for a little over a mile.
IMG_2594This part of the hike was one of the most beautiful — The sun streamed in at the right angle, making all appear rich and colorful.IMG_2600IMG_2604IMG_2608.JPGIMG_2607IMG_2597Crabtree Falls Trail leads to Crabtree Meadows, which we passed it on the right.
IMG_2611IMG_2612Trekking on, we reached a forest road that intersects our beloved Appalachian Trail.  There, we were greeted with more amazing views.IMG_2616Turning south on the white blaze, we had a camp destination in mind: a small site on a grassy clearing.  With about three miles left to go, the sun began to drop behind neighboring mountains.  Soon pastels lit the sky, which gave way to a blues blended together as if in a watercolor painting.IMG_2613IMG_2624IMG_2703.JPGIMG_2636And that is where camped for the night, our first camp of the year — Tucked behind large boulders and nestled above plush tan grass, we pitched our tent on the edge of a cliff face with a look at the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Passing up the opportunity to build a fire due to the freezing temperatures, we crawled into our tent and cuddled up under our sleeping bags, listening to the wind howl and shake our little tent.  Unable to stake in a portion of our rainfly due to the rockface, the rainfly became more like a flag, thrashing back and forth throughout the night, starting on Andy’s side when we went to sleep until it whipped around to mine when we woke.  I normally love listening to wind howl but it does keep me on edge when camping in the mountains, probably due to our ghostly-experience at Dark Hollow Falls, which I couldn’t seem to get out of my mind despite the fact that I felt safer at this spot more than any other we’ve camped in.

“Chap?” I whispered as he was about to fall asleep.

“Lass?” he whispered back.

“Chap, if I have to pee in the middle of the night, will you wake up with me?  You don’t have to come outside but just in case something happens to me — I fall off the cliff or get attacked by an animal or killed by a person — will you just be awake to account for me not coming back?”  This seemed a logical request.

“Okay,” he answered and the wind roared louder.

“Chap?” I whispered again.


“Will you stay awake with me for a bit?  I feel safe here but I haven’t gotten used to the sounds of the wind yet — It’s making me nervous.”

“Of course,” he responded and I immediately felt grateful to have him by my side until he let out the loudest pattern of deep-breathing snores and I knew he had fallen asleep after the word ‘course.’

This is how our camping normally goes — He is able to pass into deep sleep the moment his head hits the pillow while I seem to do the opposite and waken.  I never sleep much when we camp — I am too alert — so morning can never come soon enough.  This morning though was exceptionally beautiful with fiery pinks and oranges, melting to purples and blues, all stretched out in a calming sky.
“Good morning,” Andy whispered to me when he woke, hearing me get back into the tent.

“Hiya,” I whispered back.  “What would I have to go to convince you to get up right now and hike Spy Rock on the chance we could catch a incredible sunset?”  I knew I’d need to do a large amount of convincing and that he could fall asleep again — in the middle of conversation — just as easily as he did last night.

“Is the sun rising now?” he asked, yawning.

“Yes, just barely coming up — It’s the most vibrant of colors.”  I held my breath.  I hike for sunrises and sunsets, never seeming to be in the right place at the right time.

“Alright, let’s go,” he said without hesitation, surprising me.  And so we were off, racing against the rising sun.
IMG_2640Packing essential supplies in the top removable portion of my pack, we ditched our tent and gear then headed back on the AT towards Spy Rock, which was a mile and a half away.
IMG_2641IMG_2642But if the rising sun was what we aimed to see on the summit, time was running out — The intensity of the sky’s color was fading faster and all around was slowly becoming lighter.
IMG_2645Finally at the base of Spy Rock, we rock climbed, scrambled up.  There are no paths or blazes here: You simply pick a route and keep trying until you reach the top.

IMG_2683.JPGIMG_2691.JPGAt the top, we watched as the last light oranges and pinks faded into a very cloudy sky.IMG_2659IMG_2654Spy Rock is rewarding to say the least — It is a massive rocky dome boasting a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains, which Andrew was able to capture here.
360 degree view

A southern view, showing all of the following major mountains from left to right: The Friar, Tobacco Row Mountain, The Cardinal, Mount Pleasant, Pompey Mountain, and Cold Mountain.
A closer look at the Piedmont between The Friar and Tobacco Row Mountain.
Looking west, a close Maintop Mountain, followed by a sharp peaked Torry Ridge, distant Trayfoot Mountain and Bucks Elbow Mountain, then Devil’s Knob, Wintergreen and Humpback Mountain, Black Rock, and Three Ridges are seen from left to right.
A closer look at the distant Trayfoot Mountain and Bucks Elbow Mountain.

Saying goodbye to one of the best views we’ve seen hiking thus far, we headed back down Spy Rock towards the Appalachian Trail.
30125543_10160264676230711_295727800_o copyIMG_2678IMG_2679IMG_268030122989_10160264676150711_2101231650_o copyReturning to our campsite, the blues in the sky appeared burning, and it was under this sky we ate breakfast.IMG_2633IMG_2701The temperature felt as if it were dropping so I layered up — two pants and four shirts under my raincoat — and we set off down the AT.IMG_270930125611_10160264676405711_1201083858_oThe farther we hiked, the more my feet began to slip in my boots under my pack weight.  Previously I had done only day hikes in my Danner boots, which means my thirty pound pack was absent and therefore unable to exaggerate boot issues.  This was the first longer trail I walked with them, and unfortunately it was here I learned the tri-fold tongue issues increased.  I wrote more about these issues in my Gear Review: Hiking Boots II post, which I’ll ruin the ending: I had to return these beloved boots.  Among other issues, the tri-fold tongue prevents the boots from being laced tight so my toes were hitting the front of my boots and the balls of my feet, heels, and ankles were rubbed raw from the sliding movement.  This is why Andrew took pictures like this of me, absolutely in feet-pain and refusing to walk further until I had a good fifteen minutes to rest.  I was miserable and even considered hiking in my socks the last three miles to alleviate the pain.
30074260_10160264676115711_666425255_o copyThose last three miles dragged out too so much so that by the time we got to the car, Andy and I jumped in, ready to rest our sore feet.IMG_2952 copyDramatically more happy with our hiking boots off, we drove home proud of ourselves.  Sometimes people can let the end of a journey, if bad, dampen the experience; but we found the opposite.  Laughing and smiling as we zipped through the mountains, we felt our first camping trip of the year a success — We had jumped from a Level Two to Four, dramatically increased altitude, and went from an average five mile hike to fourteen.  Whatever was in store on our future trails, we felt ready — eager and ready for more journeys and more mountain tales.

Hike Twenty-one: Virginia’s Apple Orchard Falls

I had a headache.  But there was no way I was cancelling this hike.  That’s because my sister was set to come.  My sister is kinda sorta maybe getting into hiking.  She’s hiked area mountains a couple times before, but her interest was piqued after she and her husband made plans to hike on glaciers in Iceland.  What a way to get into hiking, right?  Anyway, I had been dogmatic, obsessive even, begging her to hike with me since I first started.  I pictured us — sister duo, trekking up and down mountains, traveling on trails — we, a force to be taken down.  She though didn’t see it that way so my begging was to no avail . . . until a nameless Saturday when I casually invited her out.  “I could go next weekend,” she responded without hesitation.  I about fainted.

Jumping forward to that weekend, I woke with a major headache.  But there was no way I was cancelling because this hike could be the one that got my sister on future trails.

Let me say here, I’m not actually good at picking out trails.  I normally either:

  • pick one closer to home
  • . . . or pick one farther from home
  • or simply wander to the mountains with a selection of maps then decide once I’m there (which, for the record, isn’t actually safe.  Don’t be like me — Tell someone where you are going.)

However, this was different.  I needed to impress my sister, get her addicted to mountains and hiking boots the way I am.  I needed a hike with mountain summits, waterfalls — all the charm — and that’s when I found Jefferson National Forest’s Apple Orchard Falls:

  • Five-point-six mile loop
  • Level Three of Five Difficulty level
  • 1,680-foot elevation

A storm with high winds and heavy rain rolled through the night before, and we saw the effects of that right away.  It was a slow process to arrive at our hike — dodging massive holes in the last long dirt road and stopping often to jump from the car to remove large limbs from our way.  It wasn’t just limbs though; at one point, it took Andy, my sister, me, and a stranger in the vehicle in front of us to move a tree that had fallen across the roadway.  The four of us shoved and pushed and finally it budged just enough to clear an opening for the stranger’s massive truck to slip by.  Many moments later we too arrived in the parking lot to begin our hike.IMG_2125.JPGIt was a clear, crisp day — The type created for mountain hikes.  The sun shined bright through the bare trees, and the temperature was cool enough to warrant a couple layers comfortably.

We began by crossing the wooden bridge, heading towards the blue blazed Apple Orchard Falls Trail.IMG_2061.JPGIMG_2066IMG_2075.JPGIMG_2191IMG_2198.JPG

There is something comforting about water trails — The ability to see a flowing water next to the path brings a sense of calm.  For this hike, we were either bordering or within sight of water ninety percent of the time.IMG_2203.JPGIMG_2090.JPGIMG_2096.JPGWhat was also special was having my sister and fiance on the same hike.  My sister and I have always been close, but within the past few years our lives rarely cross.  I can go months without seeing or talking to her, which is both heartbreaking and understandable — We have separate lives we are living.  Still, I would love for her and her husband to be around Andy and me more, to get to know him more, to get to know us together more.  This hike provided a bit of that, so I was grateful for this path in the woods that brought us together even for an afternoon.IMG_2085.JPGIMG_2094.JPGIMG_2128.JPG
Onward we wound through the mountain — the bare trees seemed to become the skeletal structure of the forest, and they allowed views to stretch so that sights of neighboring mountains were visible.  And it is sights like this that make me appreciate winter mountains.  Normally, I’m a spring/summer girl.  I love green forests so dense it is hard to see the sun and sky directly.  I will walk yards from my destination for the chance to see or smell a wildflower, and I will consider spotting a hummingbird or butterfly drinking nectar from a flower the highlight of my day.  IMG_2132.JPGStill late-winter hikes provide an opportunity to catch the first glimpse of coming-spring, like these buds on the tips of trees; and there is something special in that — watching the forest be born before it becomes a mature green.
As we do on any water hike, we dart back and forth from the path to water, drinking in all the trail offers.

Look closely — This massive fallen tree split another right in the middle of its two trunks.

I’ve written before of how deeply I notice fallen trees, and this hike was no exception.  Intricate and beautiful patterns were etched into the wood of these.IMG_2205IMG_2206IMG_2308


Continuing through, we reached two bridges, which were about one mile from the falls.IMG_2217.JPGIMG_2216 2.JPGIMG_2234Climbing more steeply, we followed Andrew up.IMG_2297IMG_2303.JPGIMG_2305Then there, in the spotlight from the sun, we reached the bottom portion of Apple Orchard’s 200-foot waterfall.IMG_2318.JPGIMG_2329.JPGIMG_2341IMG_2339IMG_2342
Eager to move higher to witness the top of the waterfall, we continued on while remnants of colder temperatures greeted us.
IMG_2361.JPGScreen Shot 2018-04-03 at 4.19.39 PM.pngWithin sight of the waterfall again, we crossed a wooden platform near the rock wall.
IMG_2365IMG_2366Screen Shot 2018-04-03 at 4.26.20 PM.pngThere, we arrived at the top of the falls.IMG_2397.JPG
The exciting news was that our hike wasn’t over yet — Climbing a set of wooden stairs, we had one last view of the waterfall before a vista.
IMG_2409.JPGIMG_2411IMG_2426IMG_2428This side of the mountain was warmer, allowing flowers to begin to open.IMG_2412However, a couple steps more and thick icicles once again clung to the rocks.
IMG_2434.JPGIMG_2435IMG_2437Interestingly enough, we found this: long needle ice.IMG_2433IMG_2423Needle ice is a natural phenomenon that happens when the soil is above freezing but the air is below freezing.  The ground’s water (that is flowing under the earth) is brought to the surface in a capillary-esque action, forming hollow needle-like columns that freeze, hence the name needle ice.  Normally needle ice is only a few centimeters long; here the delicate ice was at least three inches.IMG_2430
Coming to the end of our hike, we began to walk down the mountain, following the Cornelius Creek Trail as the sun lowered in the sky.
IMG_2451.JPGIMG_2455Then it was time to forge Cornelius Creek two times.IMG_2477IMG_2461IMG_2468IMG_2467IMG_2471The setting sun turned the mountains bright gold. and we followed it all the way to the parking lot.IMG_2476
Before we realized it, our hike was over.  Getting into the car once more and driving home, I lowered the window to snap pictures of the passing mountains.  The sky was a light pink, making all feel soft and warm.IMG_2487.JPG
Often I want hikes to last longer than they do; I want time to slow.  This could be for a variety of reasons: The view is so beautiful that the minutes, hours I have to take it in — It is never enough.  Or the memories created at that spot, on that trail, on that mountain — They are ones I desire to hold onto because I know they will escape and fade, despite my attempts to grasp them.  Or, like this day, I could want the hike to last for a more simple reason: To stretch time in the wilderness with my sister and fiance before life gets in the way again.
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