Today, I’m hiking with Allen Sweetser, and he brings a friend, Brenda Black. Knowing I have Allen’s vehicle available, I make this a shuttle hike. We drop a car at the Schoolhouse Gap parking area, drive to Rich Mountain Loop Trail, and hike up Crooked Arm to Scott Mountain which skirts along the park boundary for 3.6 miles before ending at the top of Schoolhouse Gap Trail. Total mileage is 8.5. The weather forecast is bleak, and it is raining steadily at our designated meeting time. However, a last minute look at the radar before heading out holds the promise of drier skies for a good part of the day, and as if to prove it, the rain eases appreciably as we load the cars.
By the time we shuttle to the trailhead, the rain picks back up again. I decide to put on rain pants (thank heavens) but opt to leave my rain coat open to avoid sweating so much while climbing Crooked Arm. Convinced the rain will be short lived, I also decide to leave my camera out. I have a nifty little holster for it as protection and figured that would work fine in a little rain. Off we go, covering the half mile on Rich Mountain Loop quickly and attacking Crooked Arm with gusto.
I hiked down this trail in May with its narrow ruts and many switchbacks and remarked how challenging it would be in wet weather. Well, here I am in very wet weather slogging up a trail that acts more like a little creek. There is one interesting note in all the mud. Intermittently, there are brief sections of soil that are a brilliant coral color – a bright reddish orange – quite distinct from the rusty and tan browns that predominate on the trail. What rock or mineral could account for the coloration? Iron perhaps? And why is it only in these brief narrow patches? The geologic map put out by the park is not detailed enough to help, depicting the entire section as part of the Snowbird Group of Pigeon Siltstone and Metcalf Phyllite.
It is still raining heavily when we reach Scott Mountain. I have mixed feelings about this trail. Parts of it are very rich, and there are some really neat plants here. It basically traverses the rim of White Oak Sink, a limestone “window” in the park with its own unique botanical blend. The problem with Scott Mountain Trail is it continually threatens to dump you straight down into the sink. The trail is very narrow and slanted in numerous places throughout its length and some of the worst of these sections are also very rocky and just plain treacherous. One false step and you’re in White Oak Sink the hard way. So imagine trying this in pouring rain, then add the officially dubbed “Damned Chestnut Oak Acorns.” If there is anything more dangerous to life and limb than a trail full of wet rolling acorns, it must be a narrow, rocky trail slanted sideways down a steep mountainside full of wet, rolling acorns in pouring rain! Oh my God. I try to keep my mind on the plants but find myself continually asking, “Will either the fricking rain or this fricking trail EVER END?”
A few of the plants we see are Jack-in-the-pulpit in fruit, Ebony Spleenwort fern, Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis), Devil’s Bit, Filmy Angelica, Pink Turtlehead in flower, False Goatsbeard, White Goldenrod, and Pale Jewelweed. Near the end, limestone buffers the soil pH allowing Shagbark Hickory, Purple Cliffbrake fern, Redbud, Eastern Red Cedar, and Autumn Goldenrod (Solidago sphacelata) to grow there. We pass a large Tulip Poplar with a large hole in it up high — a perfect bear den. There are several pines, one is a Virginia Pine, that appear to be weeping soap suds from the trunk in the rain. The bubbles puddle at the base of the tree. I would love to know what that phenomenon is all about. There’s a little toad hopping across the trail. I guess he’s OK with this lousy weather. Since my camera is at hand, I do take a few pictures, but the holster and its contents get drenched.
It takes us over three hours to reach Schoolhouse Gap. We seek some respite from the rain under the eaves of a cabin just outside the boundary at the trails junction and eat lunch. I really have to pee, and I really dread it because my ass is the only body part still dry. On the way down Schoolhouse Gap, it actually stops raining, but by this time we’re too tired, wet, and chilled to care. The park records two inches of rain for the day. We do meet two horsewomen coming up Schoolhouse Gap. Each group is surprised to see the other. One rider notes, “I don’t consider myself crazy, just determined.” Well, that makes five of us.
Back at the hotel, after a hot cup of tea, I crank up the heat in my room and lay out all my soaked gear and clothes. Five hours later everything is dry, and I’m hoping for a little sunshine tomorrow.