Back at home now, after my week long trip up to the big city and back. Before going up to NY, I wasn’t quite sure if I there would be much in the way of nature observing opportunities. It’s true that “nature” is everywhere, even in the city there are birds, bugs, atmospheric conditions. But New York is certainly a place where the built, human, environment so overwhelms the natural one that it’s hard, outside of the changes in weather, to get a sense of “nature.” In the winter it’s cold and bleak, in the summer it’s hot; the parks are green and the trees have leaves. But, even in the parks, any greenery you see is tended and landscaped, only in the vacant lots and wastelands is “nature” (mostly in the form of non-native weeds) allowed to do its thing. I did have some nice outdoor experiences while up there, primarily a Saturday trip to Governor’s Island, an awesome new park in the middle of New York Harbor, at the confluence of the Hudson and East rivers. Beautiful views of the city, and a spectacular pleasant summer day.
I was excited about our trip home, as we had been planning on taking our time, meandering through the mountains a bit, and camping along the way. It didn’t take long to feel like I was back in a more natural environment. In Clinton, NJ, just about an hour out of the city, we stopped for lunch, and discovered a lovely picnic area just behind the parking lot of a deli. There was a surprisingly clean-looking creek flowing nearby, with a sign saying that it had been stocked with trout. What a difference a few miles makes!
Another hour’s drive into Pennsylvania, and we decided to call it a day at Blue Rocks Family Campground. The primary natural feature of this location is the blue rocks boulder field, a mile-long stretch of rocks and rubble, upon which the boys and I had an excellent time climbing and exploring.
Later, I was able to get some kid-free time and set off hiking for a couple of hours. The campground was just a mile off of the Appalachian Trail (one of the reasons we chose it), and there was a spur trail that left the camp heading uphill. The region had received some rain recently (indeed, it was storming just an hour before we pulled into the campground), so the ground was pretty wet and squishy, with numerous streams crossing over. I was so glad to be free of the city that I walked barefoot, although I was aware of Pennsylvania’s AT reputation as an endless rockfield. Muddy bits like this on the trail made me glad of my decision.
It only took a short while to climb up to the white-blazed Appalachian trail. By the looks of the wide, heavily traveled treadway, this section gets plenty of use.
On my way up, I saw the same unusual sight that I’ve seen in Virginia– there were lots of chanterelles growing in the compacted soil right in the middle of the trail, and not so many growing in the soft forest litter to the side. Many of them had been trampled by unconscious hikers, and the ones that hadn’t been stepped on were all muddy and unappealing.
Stone staircase near the top of the ridge. This section of trail was in fact pretty rocky, but nothing my farm-toughened feet couldn’t handle!
The hike to the Pulpit Rock lookout was about one and a half miles, and the view, while not spectacular by AT standards, was enjoyable enough. The blue rocks boulder field is prominent on the right side of this photo. Although I didn’t see anyone on the way up, there were a handful of folks at the lookout, some of whom had brought up several glass bottles of hard cider, which they generously passed around.
As I was exploring the immediate area around the lookout, I came across this copperhead curled up in a little crack in the rocks. I’m so glad I saw it before stepping on it, for otherwise you would be reading a very different post right now!
Just another random AT photo, taken on the way down. The grassy plant along the edge of the trail is similar to the one growing along the logging trails at Twin Oaks Community. It looks almost like some sort of tiny bamboo, and I’m guessing it’s some sort of invasive exotic.
Not many mushrooms today. Aside from the muddy chanterelles, I saw some overgrown platterfuls and a couple of withered flushes of oysters, long past edibility. By far, the choice find of the day was this gorgeous chicken of the woods, which I discovered along the trail just a quarter mile or so from our campsite.
It tasted as good as it looked– fried up in some butter, then simmered in tomato sauce for a while and served over noodles. A treat for kids and adults alike!
After dinner, further explorations in the boulder field with my son Sami. I think the boys could have spent days just climbing around on the rocks.
From where we were camped, the sunset was blocked by mountains, but the sky to the east, reflecting the colors of the sunset, was equally dramatic. One of my favorite things about camping out is the opportunity to be outdoors in the mountains in the late afternoon and early morning, magical times that you always miss when only going out for day trips. When you’re camping, you can just have your dinner, then sit out on a rock enjoying the slow transition from day to night…
My oh my what a night! To start with, just before it got dark, we decided to change campsites in order to pitch our tent on a platform right at the edge of the boulder field (our designated campsite was kind of muddy and gravelly). Although our tent was a little bit bigger than the platform, we figured it wouldn’t be a problem if it hung over a couple inches on each side. Unfortunately, it was impossible to stake down the tent when it was set like this. And during the night, when a sudden drenching thunderstorm blew in, the walls of the tent sagged down onto our faces, seriously compromising the “waterproof” nature of the tent. The rainstorm was followed by a steadily increasing wind, blowing down across the boulder field, which had increased to gale force by dawn. I couldn’t possibly sleep with a moist tent alternately flapping around all around me and slapping me in the face, so I got up in the pre-dawn light to explore the boulder field and surrounding forests.
Somehow, amazingly, the rest of the family was able to sleep in, even with gusts of wind that nearly lifted the tent clean off of the platform!
After breaking camp, we took a winding drive through the mountains of central Pennsylvania, making our way by early afternoon to Hancock, Maryland, a spot where just about two miles separates the Potomac River from the Mason/Dixon line. After a picnic lunch along the river, I rented bikes for an hour and set off with the boys to explore the nearby rail trail. Although the ground was dry (I don’t think they got any of the past couple days storms), the forests surrounding the old C&O Canal towpath were bright green.
In other places, the forest opened up, revealing views of the surrounding hills and mountains, also thickly forested.
A couple of miles up the trail, we came to this odd round brick building, which looked like it may have once been the chimney of a larger structure, most of which is now gone.
unsurprisingly, we saw lots of deer in PA and MD. Along the bike route, we saw several little fawns with their momma, and later on, this one fawn all alone. So cute!
We ended the day camping at a little campground between the canal trail and the Potomac river itself. Although it wasn’t an especially hot afternoon, it still felt nice to take a dip in the river, far enough upstream from the city so that the water looked and felt clean, and I didn’t have to worry too much about poisoning myself.
Here’s a spot where a side stream, flowing into the Potomac, crosses under the railroad line, through a small tunnel that must be at least 100 years old, or older. I thought the twin reflections of the tunnel entrance and exit were especially interesting.
The next morning, we made our way to Harper’s Ferry, where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers join forces. I’m not sure why the joined river bears the name Potomac, as the Shenandoah definitely seems like the more voluminous of the two tributaries, and appears to be the primary upstream route. But that’s history, I guess.
The center of this little town, as anyone who’s been there knows, is quite scenic and historic. I took some photos, mostly of the boys, that don’t seem quite appropriate for this journal, although I do like this view of the Virginia Mountains across the river, through the window of the old stone church.
We took a short hike along the AT as it heads out of town, on a trail that was quite dry and dusty, with a surprising lot of broken glass underfoot. The glass looked kind of old, as though the trail was passing through an old dumping area from years ago. We looped back along the canal, much of which was bright green with algae, and filled with wading birds and turtles.
I especially liked the color contrast between the green of the canal and the blue-gray plumage of this egret.
After spending an afternoon at Harper’s Ferry, we loaded back in the car and drove the final few hours back to Twin Oaks. But that’s a story for a different post.