Hiking today with my daughter and faithful hound up on Forest Road 90 and the Iron Mountain Trail amidst the still lush, dark green foliage I saw a few leaves (just a very few, mind you), that seemed to be anxious for the next season.
Most traveling for summer vacations is finished or nearing completion; we are well into the 2012 Summer Olympics; young people and teachers are gearing up for a new school year; and here in Abingdon the Virginia Highlands Festival is in full swing. I can sense a collective sense of just a bit of anticipation all around as we know the summer is slowly drawing to an end. There’s still time to get outdoors and enjoy this season, though, which I encourage you to do.
This month we’ve seen more LOVE on the Virginia Creeper Trail. These are pictures taken today at the trail.
The Virginia Creeper Trail has over the years become one of the main tourism draws in the Town of Abingdon. Recent studies have it rivaling the esteemed Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia, in terms of economic impact from tourism.
The LOVE signs, which we Abingdonians have seen some other places around town, are part of an effort to boost Virginia Tourism. The sign usually doesn’t stay for long in any given location, so I wanted to be sure to capture it before the sign is moved. Putting the artwork up in this location was a good idea.
Here is a photo identifying the major peaks visible from Buzzard Rocks, the outcroppings about 200 vertical feet below the summit of Whitetop Mountain. Buzzard Rocks provides one of the best vistas towards Southwest Virginia, looking back into both Virginia and Tennessee. The small communities of Whitetop and Green Cove can be seen in the foreground.
Buzzard Rocks can be accessed via the gravel road 89 from State Route 600 near Elk Garden, via the Appalachian Trail from Elk Garden from State Route 600, or via the climb from State Route 601.
The pointy mountain labeled 3700′ is Fodderstack Mountain. This is a promentory that divides the valley towards Laurel Bloomery in Tennessee. Tennessee Laurel Creek runs down this valley between Fodderstack and the Iron Mountains towards Damascus.
Between the Iron Mountains and Holston Mountain lies Shady Valley, Tennessee. Beaverdam Creek runs down this valley from Shady Valley towards Damascus. On the other side of Holston Mountain is South Holston Lake, the TVA impoundement that is the largest lake in region.
Between Holston Mountain and Clinch Mountain (which is barely visible on the far horizon) is the great valley that encompasses most of Washington County, Virginia, including Abingdon.
For a comparison, here is another view in the evening from the same vantage point, slightly below Buzzard Rocks.
There have been more bald eagle sightings in Southwest Virginia this fall and winter. The sightings are becoming more widespread. I have heard first-hand accounts of bald eagle spottings at Hidden Valley Lake and at Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area, as well as on private land in Washington County between Abingdon and Damascus. Here is a photo my brother-in-law James Bear took of two eagles in December:
The increase in bald eagle sitings was also recently profiled in a local article:
Sightings of bald eagles are still rare enough that people like Osborne and his neighbor are excited to spot one. However, Boynton, a bird watcher himself, says if individuals know where to look, it’s not difficult to see a bald eagle in Southwest Virginia or Smyth County.People regularly spot bald eagles, Boynton said, at Laurel Bed, Claytor and South Holston lakes as well as along the New River. In Smyth County, the wildlife biologist said, eagles can be seen along the Middle Fork and at DGIF’s trout hatchery on Rt. 16 and some private trout farms.
While the bald eagle’s presence has been growing in the region for some time, Boynton did note a new observation that now some nests are being located in Southwest Virginia.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was extremely windy; note in the photo below how the wind has inflated my pants:
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.
In Washington County, Virginia, less than a score of miles from Abingdon, is one of the most impressive series of waterfalls in Virginia.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanksgiving is tomorrow. During this time we often reminisce and reflect on what’s happened in the past year and give thanks for the good things we have in our lives. Along the themes of reminiscence and reflection, here are some tranquil, reflective photos from a trip my son Karl and I took to Hidden Valley Lake one evening in this November.
We approached the eastern side of the lake just as a series of interesting cloud formations developed in the otherwise clear evening sky. The lake was very still—there was no wind—and the reflections looking back toward the sun were magnificent. (Click on any of these photos to enlarge them.)
The leaves had already mostly fallen, but as can be seen in the above photo, there were still oaks on the far side of the lake that clung to some of their dark auburn foliage.
We were the only two people in the valley. There was absolute quiet except for the sound of the rushing water in the distance at the dam.
The air was crisp and had a unique, slightly sweet scent. I have since come to learn that Hidden Valley at one time may have been a high elevation bog. There are some unusual plants in the valley that give off the unique scent in the late fall. I have discussed with Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries that it may be Possum Haw aka Shawnee Haw or Nanny Berry, or it may even be the bark from some of the trees after the leaves have fallen and they are more exposed to the air and sun.
Karl and I went for a hike to explore upper Brumley Creek. The creek’s headwaters are formed from the lake’s drainage, high elevation springs, and smaller creeks in the valley.
Upon our return, most of the clouds had rolled away. In the stillness of evening, the lake made an almost perfect reflecting pool. Faint light and muted features caused the scene to look like an impressionist painting:
Reflecting back on this year, I’ve spent a lot of time in the outdoors with my family. That’s one thing, among many other things, for which I am thankful.
Yesterday morning, November 17, we had the first snowfall in Abingdon. It started after I was already at work, so I didn’t get any pictures of it. It only snowed for a couple of hours; it was not a particularly heavy snow, and the ground was too warm for any of it to accumulate.
Unlike many folks, I always enjoy the first snowfall in town, as it means we’re in the season where we’ll see more of it in the mountains as winter approaches.
Snowy Whitetop on October 29, 2011
However, the snow yesterday wasn’t the first this fall in Southwest Virginia. In the eastern end of Washington County we had noticeable accumlation twice in October.
The first heavy dusting occurred on Saturday, October 1, 2011. When we were camping at Grindstone last month (see my previous article), the campground host told me that it snowed all Saturday that first weekend of October, and there was significant accumulation all over the north side of Mount Rogers.
Mount Rogers and Whitetop, Late Afternoon, October 2, 2011
By the time I took the photo above, the weekend storm cleared out, the sun warmed the day back into the upper 50s°, and most of the snow had melted off of the mountains. You can still see some remnants on the summit of Mount Rogers (on the left side of the photo). The scene earlier in the day was more dramatic; it is a strange contrast to see snow on the mountains behind the green, deciduous trees in the valley before they’ve changed into their fall colors.
The last accumulation of snow in the Virginia High Country this past Spring was May 5, 2011 (see photo here). Therefore, even with the relatively mild fall, those who love snow only had to go four months this year–June, July, August and September–before the sight for sore eyes of a white-encrusted mountain top reappeared in Southwest Virginia.
This past Sunday afternoon my sons Isaac, Karl and I went for a five mile loop hike on the Iron Mountain Trail / Forest Road 84 off of State Route 600 in Smyth County. These photos were taken at the Skulls Gap scenic parking lot, which is about 3500′. The colors are starting to change at higher elevations and all foliage is taking on that golden hue in the evening that signals autumn has arrived. Click on any of the photos to enlarge to appreciate the panoramic views.