Merry Christmas

"My Three Evergreens", A Winter Scene on Whitetop Mountain, circa 2010
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The Whitetop Hike: Route 601 to Buzzard Rocks

The three-mile section of the Appalachian Trail from Route 601 to the top of Whitetop Mountain rewards hikers in all seasons.  In the late fall and winter, vistas open through the canopy on the mountainside, and the generally clearer skies provide better long-range views.   

Hawthorn Berries Contrast Against an Azure Sky on Whitetop
 
This is a staple hike for our family; it’s distance is just about right as a challenging, yet quite doable hike for children.  (It’s also a great training hike.)  In late November, my son Isaac and I did this out-and-back hike up to Buzzard Rocks, the name of the rocky outcroppings at the base of the bald on Whitetop.  The majority of this hike is in the deep forest, but in the last 1/4 you leave the larger hardwoods behind, go through some smaller scrub-like trees, and eventually come up onto the large Whitetop bald that is visible from most high points in Abingdon.
 
The view from the top of Whitetop is one of the best in Virginia.  Here is the classic mountaintop shot from our hike:
Vista from Whitetop
 
During the summer, this hike can be the quintessential AT walk through a “tunnel of trees” until you reach the very top.  In winter, however, you can look up and down the mountain at the various boulders and formations, and you can peer deep into the forest.  In the photo below, the leafless canopy affords a view of the top part of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina.  During summer you can’t see this until you get to the balds:
 
Grandfather Mountain View from the Appalachian Trail Between Route 601 and Buzzard Rocks
 
Here, you can see the treeline giving way to the balds as my son and dog climb the trail.  Note also that there was snow on the trail.  It is invariably significantly colder up on the balds than below, usually to the tune of about 20° if there is any wind.  It is almost as if you break out into the jet stream.
 
Emerging from the Trees Below
We were treated to a large, migrating flock of goldfinches when we arrived at the bald.   
Migrating Flock of Goldfinches on Tall Hawthorn Bushes

The large Hawthorn bushes with their clumps of red berries reminded us that fall was almost over, and the Christmas season fast approaching.  Soon similar berries would adorn mantles and wreaths as holiday decorations in people’s homes far below. 

Outcroppings near Buzzard Rocks
  
Hawthorn Bush with Berries Screens View of Iron Mountain and Clinch Mountain
 
The big-ticket item—the main reason to do this hike—is the fabulous view from the top of Whitetop.  The Whitetop bald is one of the largest individual balds in the Appalachian Mountains. 
 
Looking into North Carolina
 
The vistas are superb from the bald.  In the accompanying article, I have put together a panoramic photograph showing how expansive the view is.  The photos in this article do not capture how open it is on top of the mountain.
 
High Altitude Cirrus Clouds Give Way to Long Stratocumulous Cloud on the Horizon
 
The winds picked up while we were at the summit; I estimated they were in excess of 30 or 35 mph.  The ambient air temperature felt like it dropped about 30° from when we were below treeline.  We only had on t-shirts, and we began shivering.  Fortunately, I had come prepared:  Out came the down jackets, the hats and the gloves.
 
Isaac Thiessen in the Puffy Jacket
 
It was extremely windy; note in the photo below how the wind has inflated my pants:
 
Eric Thiessen in the Puffy Vest

The Whitetop hike is not only a fabulous hike; it’s relatively close to home.  Coming from Abingdon, you never leave Washington County (except perhaps while on the trail at the summit).  At about 23 miles from Abingdon to trailhead, the Route 601-Buzzard Rocks hike is the closest access point to Whitetop and Mount Rogers from Abingdon.

 

Whitetop Panorama

These two panoramic photos taken from a recent trip to Whitetop Mountain show the expansive vista to the southeast at the summit. 

If you click on them in an updated browser, they should open in a much larger format that is pretty awesome viewed on 16:9 monitor.  There is a slight overlap in the two photographs, but together they form almost a single, panoramic image.

As I state in the main article, the views at the top of Whitetop certainly justify the climb to the summit.

There is also a gravel road from the east side of Whitetop that goes to the summit of Whitetop.  It is Route 89, and it connects to Route 600 near Elk Graden.   Route 89 is usually open even in winter, although it is covered in snowpack and requires a 4 x 4.

Abrams Falls

In Washington County, Virginia, less than a score of miles from Abingdon, is one of the most impressive series of waterfalls in Virginia. 

Abrams Falls

This October the owner of Abrams Falls, who is an acquaintance and client of mine, graciously took my son Karl and I for a viewing and photography shoot of the falls. 

This is a special place worthy of protection and preservation.  It’s almost hard to believe such a natural formation exists on private property, right in the most populous county in Southwest Virginia, unknown to most people who live here.

Front View of Abrams Falls

There is a series of waterfalls here, the major of which is a plunge-type waterfall of about 70′ that continues with a secondary cascade waterfall that drops over a series of ledges for another 15 or 20′.  The main falls drop into a large, natural amphitheatre of sedimentary rock that forms a semicircle  of 180°.   Below the falls, Abrams Creek continues to flow through a 500′ deep, extremely steep, horseshoe-shaped gorge for over 1/2 mile.

Boy in Foreground Shows Scale of the Falls

The size of these falls can be appreciated in the photo above.  Note the boy in the foreground on the right of the photo; he is almost 100′ from the base of the falls. 

Abrams Falls create their own micro-environment.  Mist and moisture at the base of the falls make for conditions that allow certain rare plants to grow.  

Abrams Falls – The Main 70′ Plunge

Upper Falls

The falls are located on private property not currently open to the public.  There is no road directly to the falls.  To get to the falls, one must hike in for about a mile.  There is not any developed trail to the falls.  There are two semi-trails that property owners and trespassers have used.  Numerous trespassers have died or been injured over the years trying (without permission of the landowner) to see the falls.

Abrams Creek has several additional noteworthy falls.  On our hike, we passed the first, unnamed cataract below.  The fall colors were either at their peak, or just slightly past their peak, and made for a great backdrop.

Abrams Falls - The First Cataract

There is another waterfall, I will call it the Upper Abrams Creek Falls, and it is impressive in its own right.  It is about a 15-20′ cascade waterfall that spans about 40 feet across.  It is at the Upper Falls that the mountains begin to close in to form the gorge.

Abrams Falls - The Upper Falls
Abrams Falls - The Upper Falls - The Full Second Cascade

The Gorge

The mountainsides become quite steep downstream from the Upper Falls.  Our hike left Abrams Creek at this point, and we began to climb up the mountainside in order to take a safer way to the main falls.  This path also allowed us to better view the horseshoe-shaped gorge.  The hiking here was strenuous.

The Upper Falls - The mountainside entering into the gorge

The photograph below shows the opposite side of the gorge.  This gorge is so closed in that it is difficult to photograph in a way that conveys how steep and deep it is.  It reminded me of a miniature version of the New River Gorge in West Virginia, or perhaps even more the Russell Fork Gorge.  There are rock outcroppings and cliffs on both sides of the Abrams Creek Gorge.  Abrams Creek flows about 500 vertical feet below the highest point of the trail.

Abrams Falls Gorge

We traveled to a point at the top of the mountain that allowed us to view the horseshoe shape of the gorge, and then we began our descent into the amphitheatre where the main falls are located.  This descent was quite steep.  As we descended, we could hear the ever-increasing sound of the falls crashing on the rocks below.  In the photo below, the property owner leads the way down the path toward the falls.

Abrams Falls - Descending into the amphitheatre

The Amphitheatre

The amphitheatre is formed by 70-80′ cliffs that surround the falls.  The photo below is from about 3/4 of the way down into the amphitheatre and shows the steep cliff face.

Abrams Falls Cliff

When there is high water, the force of the creek and the falls must be incredible.  In the photo below, you can see a large tree that is up against the opposite canyon wall.  This tree was about 35′ in length, and could not have been moved even if we had tried to do so. 

There were several large, ordinarily immovable pieces of wood that looked like they had been thrown around down into the gorge.  It reminded me of the way you might see random timber lodged against the walls of a Southwestern U.S. slot canyon from flash floods.  I would surmise Abrams Creek is also susceptible to flash flooding.

Side Wall of the Amphitheatre

While the main plunge is the central scenic feature, the cascades at the base complement it and complete the falls.  In the front-on photo of the falls below, you can see how the cascades spread out beneath the plunge.

Abrams Falls - The Main Lower Cascade

The falls are a true plunge-type falls.  Viewed from the side, they look like a bridal veil.  There is actually room to get behind the falls, but the rocks are extremely slick, and it would have been dangerous to approach any closer that we did.

Abrams Falls - Side View

The mist from the falls can be felt 50′ from the base of the falls.  The roar of the falls at the base of the amphitheatre makes conversation difficult.  The whole experience of being at these falls—a completely natural, pristine, and extraordinary place so close to Abingdon—was quite remarkable. 

Abrams Falls - Misty Bottom of Plunge

NOTE:  The photos here are published with permission of the landowner.  Please enjoy these photos, and at this time appreciate this place through them.

These falls are not on public property.  It is illegal to trespass on private property in Virginia.  This trip and photo shoot was conducted at the invitation of the landowner.  The general public is not invited to visit the premises at this time. 

There have been fatal and other serious accidents involving illegal trespassers at Abrams Falls.  Respect the landowner of this property, and do not attempt to visit the falls unless you have permission.

Fox Creek

One of the gems of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is Fox Creek.     Nestled between the south side of Iron Mountain and the north side of Mount Rogers, Fox Creek flows east through about 5 miles of National Forest before entering private property down the mountainside. 

Fox Creek

Lower Fox Creek

The lower section of the creek that lies within the national forest flows through a miniature gorge.  Large boulders and timbers create numerous beautiful pools of water.  Fox Creek Falls, a fan-type cascading waterfall, is a much photographed feature.  The photo below shows Fox Creek Falls from a side angle, a less traditional view.  (Click on any of the photos in this article to enlarge them.)

Fox Creek Falls

The two trips we took to Fox Creek in October revealed remarkable foilage on the moss-covered boulders.  Although past their peak vibrancy, the leaves created a tapestry of color that I needed to capture with the camera.

Fallen Timber and Boulders Create a Striking Foreground

The first day we arrived in the middle of the afternoon.  The sunlight was too harsh for good photography, so we came back the next day in the later afternoon.  The boulders in the creek are quite large; in the photo below, you can see my son Isaac playing on one of them.    

One of the Larger Pools
Autumn Leaves Dress Up Huge Boulders

Upper Fox Creek

The upper part of Fox Creek is formed when Lewis Fork Branch joins the Fox Creek headwater.  At this point, the creek becomes a full fledged, albeit small, trout stream.  A modest, high elevation valley forms between Mount Rogers and Iron Mountain.  The National Recreation Area has a large, split rail fence that runs along Virginia Route 603 for several miles.

Along this section of road is the trailhead for the Mount Rogers Trail, Grindstone Campground, a parking lot for the Appalachian Trail, the Fairwood Horse Camping Area, and the entrance to the unimproved road that goes up to the Scales area of Pine Mountain.

One Entrance to Upper Fox Creek

Fox Creek in this area is a small, swiftly moving creek with a gentle gradient remiscent of a Midwestern trout stream or an Eastern chalk stream as much as typical freestone stream.  However, the flow of the creek is variable as it is dependent on runoff from Mount Rogers.

Stalking Wild Trout

The views up and down the valley are Western-like.  In fact, much of the Mount Rogers area reminds many people, including me, of the West.  It’s like a little slice of the West dropped into Southwest Virginia.

Evening Glow in Fox Creek Meadow
Fly Fishing for Wild Trout

The large meadows along upper Fox Creek provide many starting points for short hikes.  There are also numerous places to begin longer hikes up Mount Rogers or Iron Mountain. 

Another Entrance to a Meadow in Fox Creek