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A Return to The Channels

Three years ago I failed… I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

If you are anything like me, you plan your hiking trips to the last detail. You know where the trailhead is, you know the length, the terrain, etc. This relieves a lot of stress and anxiety when starting out on the hike. I did 99% of this last time I took my kids to The Channels of Virginia. I still ended up failing because I couldn’t find the sign that would lead us to the actual channels. We looked around but I was full of fear. I hadn’t lead my kids on a hike quite like that. We had done short hikes. Easy hikes. One really long, dumb, flat hike. This was different. We were all by ourselves in the middle of no where. There was the large fire tower looming above me and it made me a bit dizzy to look up at it. And I didn’t see the sign. We had a wonderful lunch on the top of the mountain and returned and I always felt so frustrated that we hiked all that way and missed it.

My daughter is getting ready to leave for college in three weeks. I try not to think about it too hard because I will cry. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very happy for her. I’m excited for her. But I will miss my girl. Badly. Especially when movies come out that we’d see together. Anyway… before I get too teary-eyed writing this… She plans on studying geology in college. I always told her we needed to get back to The Channels because they are a cool rock thing here in Virginia. She was a bit annoyed at having to complete the hike again. But we planned our weekend and tackled it this past Saturday.

The Trail

The trail to The Channels isn’t hard, per se. It is steep in part but not bad. I guess I find it pretty easy because I don’t have to step up to hike it. You can generally walk it but the incline can be hard at times. It will get your heart pumping. It is, however, only 3 miles. We were laughing because it felt like we made it there pretty quickly (compared to last time). It took us just about 1.5 hrs to hike there. If you’re an avid hiker you can do it in less time. While there aren’t a lot of views from the trail during the summer, it is still beautiful. If you don’t talk, you have complete peace and quiet. There were wildflowers blooming all around us. And, lots of bugs. The flies were quite annoying (no wind). I’d say wear a hat in the summer – it seemed to help me.

Once you reach the top, you’ll see the fire tower and walk past it. You should, then, see the sign. It seemed so easy this time. I don’t know how we missed it last time. There is a trail prior to the fire tower and that takes you to a flat portion of the mountain. I think I was just distracted by it. We took a couple of “three years later” photos and continued down the path to The Channels. They didn’t disappoint. They were so very cool. It was a good 10 degrees cooler in there and it was fun to walk around. You really can’t get lost as they do end from all directions. You can shimmy between rocks, climb over them, or just stand in awe of the formations. We spent a good amount of time exploring.

As we exited, there was a large black cloud above us. I ran over to the other portion of the mountain top for a few photos and we headed back to the car. Obviously, the trip back was really fast. We were sweaty. Hungry. And satisfied. I was so happy we were able to do this hike. I think she was really “wowed” by The Channels. My son did his 14 year old thing but she was really impressed and that made me happy. I can see myself hiking this trail again. I really enjoy it. I would like to plan it when the rhododendrons are blooming – they line the trail and the trail down to The Channels. I bet it would be beautiful!

You can find the trailhead at the intersection of Hayters Gap Road and Raven Ridge Road in Jefferson, VA. There is parking for quite a few cars. You’ll climb about 1200 ft in elevation and the round trip hike is around 6.2 miles (depending on how much you explore).

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Muir Woods National Monument

If you hike, you know about John Muir. And if for some strange reason you don’t, research him now. He was basically the “father” of the National Park System and pushed for Yosemite. He was also involved with creating other parks such as Sequoia, Mt. Ranier, and Grand Canyon. His name is everywhere in northern California.

My daughter and I were excited to stand next to some Redwoods and decided to go to Muir Woods National Monument. This is a small-ish park just outside of San Francisco. If you’re headed to that area of California everyone will tell you to visit. And by everyone, I mean everyone. And everyone visiting WILL visit and the park will be crowded. They have instituted a parking reservation system to limit how many people can be there on any given day. There are ferries you can take as well (they also require a reservation) and then a shuttle bus to the park. Even with these reservations, it still gets crowded but not overwhelmingly so.

It really was a wonderful place. The trees tower over you making you feel very small. The moss and ferns make you feel like you’re in a different world full of fairies and tiny, little, cute things. The main trail is basically a big loop. You can make it shorter by crossing over one of many bridges but don’t do that. Instead, go left (most people will stay straight). You’ll get to a portion of the trail that goes up higher. Go there. It isn’t a hard hike. But not a lot of people were on it. We often had it to ourselves and it was wonderful. We heard an owl hooting but could not spot it. I like to think it was one of the rare Spotted Owls (it was most likely a Barred Owl but one can dream). Unfortunately, there was a tour group made up of teens. They proceeded to yell, scream (yes, scream – who knows why) and were very loud. They pierced our experience. They wouldn’t move on the narrow path and walked two-by-two making us get off the trail and onto vegetation. I don’t know why you’d go to Muir Woods and act that way but then they aren’t my kids.

Standing in a Redwood
So much beauty along the trail

Off of the main trail, there are other trails you can take that lead outside of the official park. I bet these are wonderful but we had other places to go so we didn’t venture down them. One day, maybe. As we turned to go back out of the park, there was a family stomping around an area that said, “Endangered vegetation. Please do not go off path and do not walk on vegetation.” They were having a blast doing it. They were in the water, flipping rocks, and disturbing everything. I couldn’t help it. I yelled at them to stop. I told them they were off trail and it was wrong. They just laughed. It bothered me so much. I probably embarrassed my daughter but she’ll live. It was a deliberate act.

I wish I had taken more like this but from farther back to show just how amazing they look.

I was sad to have to leave. We were there right around noon so my photos aren’t great. The light was bad and I didn’t want to use my tripod to get any longer exposures. If I would ever return, I would go first thing in the morning. Maybe even hike in to get the very first light. I bet it would be beautiful.

Cool Spring Battlefield

Sometimes I debate with myself if I should share a place or not. Many of us photographers are not disclosing locations of photos because those locations can be overran with people hurrying to get a photo. I do hikes that I don’t share but I decided to go ahead with this post. Why? This is conservation land that is protected and I want people to know what is possible. This wonderful nature preserve sits next to Shenandoah River and is in Clarke County.

Shenandoah River as it runs through Clarke County, VIrginia
Shenandoah River

Cool Spring Battlefield sits on land that, just a few year ago, was a golf club. When a friend told me about it ages ago, he said, “you know, the old golf club.” Well, I am not a golfer so I wasn’t sure. I did some research and located the area and headed there last year. I loved it. The care of the land is under Shenandoah University. They use it for learning but are also allowing the land to grow back to its nature habitat. There are paved trails that were once for golf carts and some unpaved trails. And the place is huge. I only went a little ways my first time there. This time, I wanted to go to the end. It was well worth it because there is a section that climbs quite a ways and you have a beautiful view of the rolling countryside located on the opposite side of the river.

Beautiful View

I went pretty early in the morning and was blessed with a mostly empty park. The peacefulness was needed and I enjoyed the silence. While walking, I passed a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron. I was sad to have disturbed it. I attempted a photo but it was just a bit too far away and behind some tall grass so I couldn’t get a good focus. More on the herons later… As you reach the far end of the trail you’ll hear a waterfall. While it is not very large, it is pretty. I’m excited to return to photograph this waterfall in the spring and then again in the fall. I think the scene will be even better! It started to snow pretty heavily while I was attempting photos of the falls so I eventually had to stop. The flakes kept landing on my lens and I couldn’t wipe them away fast enough.

Waterfall at end of former golf course

The trail continues on past the waterfall. There is a ranger/park sign structure with a sheet of paper and pen. You are required to sign your name and state where/how far you’ll be hiking. This is a safety requirement and everyone should comply with it. The River Trail eventually meets up with the Appalachian Trail. I’m definitely going to be returning for that section of the hike.

If you like birds, one of the highlights of the park is the Great Blue Heron Rookery located across the Shenandoah River. It is quite a beautiful sight. When I have been there, the sky has been gray so they look like vampires hanging out on the branches with their nests. I counted 13 along with several nests. It is a sure thing that you’ll see herons when you visit this park. As always, please respect them and give them their space.

Heron Rookery with great blue herons and nests
Heron Rookery

What I love about this place is that it is a wonderful example of land conservation. Closer to me, in Loudoun County, Goose Creek was a golf course. I saw just last fall that it closed. They will be building houses on the land now and have already built a storage unit. This golf course ran right next to Goose Creek (duh) and it, too, could have been conserved instead of being turned over to more development. Granted, Cool Spring was a historic area due to the battles that took place during the Civil War and that probably went a long way in protecting it from development. However, this is a great option for future golf courses that go under. Let the land grow back naturally and preserve the trails for runners, bikers, hikers, etc. I found out, after emailing a word of thanks to those who administer the land, that there are thousands of acres of land protected around the former course and across the river. I think it would add up to close to 4,000 acres. That is remarkable.

If you decide to visit Cool Spring Battlefield, please respect the rules. Your dog stays on a leash. You Leave No Trace. No fires. Respect the land and stay on trails as much as possible Let’s keep the land pristine and beautiful.

First Day Hike – Welcome 2019!

If you only knew how long I sit around wondering where to hike, you’d laugh. I go through blogs. I open up my maps. I peruse my waterfall book. I can never decide. Maybe that’s because I have so many wonderful options? I knew I wanted a waterfall. That much was sure. This past Sunday my son and I set out for an off trail hike in Shenandoah to a big waterfall but due to my wonderful hydration bladder leaking and soaking my sweatshirt, we didn’t go. It would have made me very cold to hike with it like that and my base layer wasn’t warm enough. Ugh. We had fun roaming Big Meadows for a bit and driving Skyline.

I needed something new so I decided on Kilgore Falls in Maryland. It would be a 2 hour drive but I figured that was better than 3 hours to other ones I considered. I slept poorly and almost scrapped the whole thing yesterday morning but I saw an inspiring post on Instagram so I dragged myself out of bed and went.

As I was driving, I was willing the sun to stay behind the clouds. I felt like I had to hurry (I didn’t). I passed some beautiful farmland scenes that I would have liked to photograph but I really felt a need to get to the trail. I finally arrive and, boom, the trail doesn’t open until 10:00 am. 10:00 am? Really? That is so late. So crazy. I ran and used the port-a-potty (which I am happy to say was incredibly clean) and wondered what to do. I decided to zip on over to Conowingo Dam. I have wanted to go for a long time and figured this was my chance. I didn’t know if I’d see any eagles but had nothing to lose.

I got there and walked around a bit. I wasn’t seeing a lot of activity other than vultures. Whoopdedoo. I see those everyday around my house. And then I heard this sound. It was loud and sounded like birds could be fighting. Nope. Quite the opposite. It was two eagles getting it on (cue Marvin Gaye) on top of the electric tower. I obviously didn’t have my super telephoto lens with me but did have my 18-200mm. I zoomed in as best as I could to grab a photo. I was quite amused. When they were done, they just sat there. I guess they were being in the moment of what just took place. I figured this was a good time to head back to the trail head.

Eagles up high making new eagles

Hooray it was open! I was a bit worried about the number of cars I saw and thought there might be too many people for good photos. Thankfully, they were no where to be found except for one photographer. Walter. I thought he was packing up to go but he was interested in getting to the other side of the creek where the best photos would be. The water wasn’t super deep but it would be cold. We were both interested in avoiding that. So we walked. And walked. We followed the creek for quite a ways to see if there was a better place to cross over. Nope. It just got deeper. Like to my thighs deep. We turned around and walked back to where we started. I finally got the courage to walk up along the side of the big boulder and did get my feet wet. I thought, “I can do this!” so I walked out a bit more for a better photo. I turned and walked back and Walter decided to go. We ended up getting photos of each other in the process which was cool. As I stood there waiting, two young adults walked up and just walked across the creek without hesitation. I had to laugh. Youth. Never afraid. Bold. And it was then I knew I was walking across too. So when Walter returned we made our way across the creek. It wasn’t so bad. Cold, yes. But worth it. The other side of the waterfall was beautiful and made for great photos.

Walter on one side of the waterfall
I heard leading lines were a thing
Kilgore Falls in Black and White

The things we do for photos…. It ended up being a great way to spend New Year’s Day. I met a great photographer (go see his work). We had fun. I saw eagles mating.