November 25 (7 miles, 4.75 hours)
On this crisp 29-degree morning, the day before Thanksgiving, we experienced the first hard frost of the year. Perhaps there were others but it’s the first time that we had to scrape our windows. Truth be told, we took the easy road, turned on the car, hit the defrost button, and went back inside for a little more coffee while the car warmed-up.
When things were sufficiently melted, we decided to head south to avoid any conflict with hunters and pick up some sections in Virginia. Since we were still within an hour and a half’s drive from our house, we shuttled ourselves with 2 cars. We dropped one vehicle just off Rt. 7 at Snicker’s Gap at a parking area on Morgan’s Mill Road, and then drove together to the Blackburn Trail Center through the beautiful rolling countryside. We passed a couple of the ever-proliferating wineries of Virginia. This PATC conference facility is located up a rough 2.5-mile gravel road nestled on the flank of the mountain. We parked at the designated lot beside the remains of 2 stone chimneys and walked up to the Center.
Long time volunteer and the Center’s Overseer, Chris Brunton pointed us in the right direction to the blue blaze trail leading uphill to the AT. He offered a tour of the facility on our return in the afternoon.
The ridge offered a pleasant walk in the open forest. In contrast to jagged terrain of Rockslyvania, the rocks on this section of the Virginia trail were less numerous and much more forgiving to your feet and ankles. The edges were worn and rounded.
Being in the heart of the PATC territory, the trail is well maintained and even had a nice log bench situated at a scenic spot.
After 2 hours of hiking we encountered an inauspicious bulletin board perched on a tree. The typed Hiker Warning, all in upper case, announced that we were about to enter the “Roller Coaster.”
YOU ARE ABOUT TO ENTER THE ROLLER COASTER
BUILT AND MAINTAINED BY THE TRAILBOSS AND HIS CREW OF VOLUNTEERS
HAVE A GREAT RIDE!!!
Wasn’t that gentle man we met at the Blackburn Center the ogre-sounding Trail Boss? Didn’t he construct that tranquil log bench? Could it really be that treacherous? What have we gotten ourselves into?
When we attended the Appalachian Trail Conference this past summer, the Roller Coaster was one of the many hikes offered to the participants. We opted for other events during that week-long event, but the aura of the ominous name stuck with us.
The biennial conference held in Winchester, VA this year was a fun event and Jane even co-lead 3 day-hikes. We’re looking forward to attending the next one to be held in Maine and picking up a few more section hikes. Jane recently received a Service Award and colorful patch from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Conference recognizing her service.
On the AT section map, what we call the Roller Coaster is identified as the Devils Racecourse. Both names conjure up wicked images and only heightened our anxiety. Peeking beyond the warning sign to the trail ahead, it didn’t look too bad. It zigzagged down the side of the mountain through a stand of small oak trees, mostly 6-inches or so in diameter. As we descended down, you couldn’t help but pick up more and more speed. The winding nature of the course and slippery dry oaks leaves underfoot gave the sense of gliding through a giant solemn ski course in the Olympics. It was a nice experience and nobody fell.
At the bottom of the gap, the trail crossed a boulder field that lined the ravine. Uphill a small stream gurgled and coursed beneath the rock. The babbling sound of the water filled the valley, but curiously, the water was not visible. You could stand on the rocks and enjoy the brook sounds without seeing a drop of water. I captured a short video clip to record the agreeable sound. Here’s a link to the 15 second video clip. https://youtu.be/mH_7PkaEX2o
From there it was a steep uphill climb to a beautiful overlook called Crescent Rock, where we had a tranquil lunch. Spindly Virginia Pines with their rugged bark inched to the very edge of the outcropping. The sheer edge of rock dropped to the valley floor several hundred feet below. The rounded hills of the countryside stretched before us as turkey vultures circled in the air. The buzzards gliding overhead paid us no mind. It was a comforting thought, not to be recognized as carrion.
We still had 2 more up and downs on this section of the roller coaster, but it was delightful not to feel rushed or frantic about daylight. Here a fast striding thru hiker overtook us. He still had a thousand miles ahead of him and seemed determined to complete his journey.
The last hill was a serious climb, but we had plenty of time and energy to complete it. At the end, the backside of the bulletin board had detailed instructions on crossing the busy highway, Route 7 to the next section leading to Bears Den Rocks.
We drove back to our shuttle point, and decided to take a look at the Blackburn Center. We meet the delightful Chris Brunton who gave us a tour of the facility. During the summer the Center is used by the wonderful trail crews who volunteer their time maintaining the AT. During the off-season it is available for rent. In fact, a large group from Capitol Hill reserved the facility for Thanksgiving.