Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Abingdon Adventure - Day 3

After completing two iconic Virginia hikes, I was delighted when we had the opportunity to check off another. Like the previous trails, what they lacked in mileage was more than made up for in distinctiveness. Conveniently, the trail was located half-way between Abingdon, VA and the DC area, so it served as the perfect rest stop on our way home.

The trail was none other than the Blue Ridge Tunnel. The Blue Ridge Tunnel, as the name suggests, is a hike whose primary feature is that you make your way through a railway tunnel. But this isn't just any tunnel, it took 8 painstaking years to create and was completed in 1858. At that time, its length of 4,237 feet made it the longest tunnel in the United States. Because it predates dynamite and heavy machinery, it remains the longest tunnel in the US built using hand tools and black powder.

So this isn't just a hike through a tunnel; it's a hike through history.

The most stunning statistic I've read about the tunnel is this: 26 feet. That's the average number of feet per month that were excavated on each side. (In 1851, just 19 feet a month were blasted on the east side!). That seems glacial considering the hundreds of men working on the project.

This article from the Richmond Daily Dispatch summarized the state of affairs 3 years into the project:

The Blue Ridge tunnel

We have recently heard many inquiries made as to the condition and prospects of the Blue Ridge Tunnel, and the likelihood of its being completed within the present century. We are unable to give our readers any precise information on the subject. The rock at which Col. Crozet is tapping is not exactly as accessible as a "hollow beech tree." Its flinty heart refuses to be enforced or entreated. ... The contest between the iron and the rock is wearing out the iron, while the rock shows little sign of suffering. ... People complain that Col. Crozet does not go through the mountain. Col. Crozet, no doubt, would be glad to do so, but the mountain will not let him. To those who insist that Col. Crozet shall be removed, we reply that they would better undertake to remove the mountain, which seems to deserve it, on account of its in hospitable treatment of Col. Crozet and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Who knew newspaper's of the 1850's could be so snarky? I'm impressed!

Success finally came late in 1856 when the two sides of the tunnel met and were mere inches off:

On Monday morning last, at an early hour, the workmen in the western end of the Blue Ridge Tunnel perforated hole, about two inches in circumference, through the mountain, and, in tho language of Gen. Gordon, "daylight now shines through the blue Ridge." This event caused great joy on the part of the workmen, and every one of them immediately laid down their tools to spend the rest of the day in a frolic.

So accurately had been all the calculations made by Col. Crozet, that the augur holes from both ends of the tunnel were only half an inch distant from each other, when they met, and the length of the tunnel as computed by measurement on the outside, over the top of the mountain, and as accurately measured inside, after the perforation, was less than six inches.

Even with this success, it would take nearly two more years for the tunnel to be opened.

We parked our car at the eastern trail head, and walked the .6 miles of flat terrain to the entrance of the tunnel. The sun was out and we had baby L in the stroller. Approaching the tunnel, the conditions dramatically changed as we found ourselves in the shade of the mountain and cold air pouring from the mouth of the tunnel. We took countless pics at the opening and then made our way inside.

We could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and as promised it was pitch black and quite chilly inside. It was also fairly busy, with many families taking advantage of the hike as a post Thanksgiving activity. So as ominous as the pitch black tunnel was, the mood remained jovial.

Shira and baby L, now out of her stroller an being snuggled by Shira, went as far into the tunnel as to be in total darkness. Shira then had her fill and returned to the sunshine outside. I went deeper, though I didn't make it as far as the western entrance.

Over all the experience was a worthy one and I highly recommend this hike. Hopefully we'll be back in the area in the future, minus an 8 week old, and I'll be able to convince Shira to walk the entire length of the tunnel.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Abingdon Adventure - Day 2

What drew us to the Abingdon Virginia area, and our plan for today, was to summit Mount Rogers, the tallest peak in Virginia. But we had a small disruption to our plans. By small, I mean an adorable 4 week old foster placement. I'm all for taking little ones hiking, but even I thought attempting 9+ mile trek with possibly winter conditions and a reduced window of daylight was a bad idea.

Ultimately, we kept Abingdon as our Thanksgiving adventure destination and brought baby L along with us. We decided to hike in the Mount Rogers area, but scaled the hike to something a bit more child friendly. This article suggested that the 4 mile, out and back, Wilburn Ridge Trail would be a good fit for us. While the AllTrails description and reviews were lackluster, we trusted and were richly rewarded.

The specs on the trail were basic: proceed 2 miles North on the Appalachian Trail, followed by 2 miles back. Thankfully, that terse description doesn't begin to do the trail justice. For one thing, because of the unique bald ecosystem, there's no dense tree cover to obstruct views. Everywhere we looked we saw postcard-perfect vistas. In the summer, the lack of shade is no doubt a hinderance. But on our 55° and sunny day, the open area was perfect. And then there are the famous Grayson Highlands State Park Ponies.

When we've seen wild horses in the past, we were quite content to keep our distance. But these ponies, my gosh, are judiciously adorable. The group we found was interested in little more than munching grass and letting us photograph them. While the signs in the area insist that you don't touch them (they bite and kick!), of course, people were petting them. But at least nobody was feeding them. We spent quite a bit of time photographing the ponies and they were definitely the highlight of this hike.

After having a picnic lunch we continued up to Wilburn Ridge, enjoying the slightly technical trail. One or two reviews on AllTrails suggested there was some rock scrambling to be done on this trail, something I wasn't prepared to do with an 8 week old baby strapped to my chest. Thankfully those claims were over-sold. There were a couple of spots that required some extra care while maneuvering, but I'd hardly call them scrambling. Near the turn-around point there was a cool rock tunnel thing you walk through, and because it's in the shade, it was filled with ice. But even that was more fun than scary. On the return trip, out of an abundance of caution, we took a side trail around the rock tunnel.

Oddly, the hike appears to turn around in sight of a rocky summit. If we'd had older kids with us, I'm sure we would have attempted that last burst of elevation. We would have also explored the countless rock-piles we saw along the way. Baby L and Shira were happy at the turn around point, so I took the win and kept the hike as the parameters described by AllTrails.

The Wilburn Ridge via Appilachian Trail is a great example of a hike where the quality exceeds its quantity. Sure, it's only 4 miles and on paper doesn't look like much. But in-person, the combination of the unique bald environment, amazing views and ponies made it a real winner.

After our hike and a stop back in Abingdon, we headed out for an evening adventure: viewing the Bristol Motor Speedway Lights. The Speedway is in Tennessee, and while it's no longer running NASCAR races for the season, it is open for a holiday light display.

The grounds of the speedway were lit up with an impressive number of light displays. And it was sweet to get to drive both on the drag-strip as well as inside the concourse of the stadium. But the real highlight was the moment when we drove onto the race track itself. We entered on one of the crazy steep banked sides, and the what-the-heck look on Shira's face was priceless. We then got to do a lap around the track. Mind you, our lap time was just a tad bit slower than the 150 Mph record set back in 2011, but it was still a thrill to be up close and personal to such a unique venue.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Abingdon Adventure - Day 1

Standing at at the The Great Channels trailhead I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude and relief. So many out-of-our-control variables had to go just right to make even starting this hike possible, and it looked like the stars were indeed going to align for us. For one thing, after days of bad weather reports that suggested we should scrub our trip, we were given perfect weather of mid-50' and sunshine. For another, 8 week old baby L was contentedly snoring on my chest. L came to us a few weeks ago as our most recent foster placement, and she was certainly a curve ball for the hiking trip we'd had planned for our Thanksgiving getaway.

It turns out that L is an angel, and endured the 5 hour road trip to the trail head without incident. After a minor diaper blowout that occurred when we pulled into the parking area, was she was cleaned up and happily placed in the Moby wrap carrier. Our hike to the channels, which I was sure was going to get derailed, was a go!

The channels hike consists of a 3 mile slog to the top of Middle Knob. Because the leaves had dropped from the trees we got glimpses of amazing views, though none were totally unobstructed. The pay off for the hike begins at the 3 mile mark, when a sweet looking 1930's fire tower comes into view. Thankfully, you can't climb the tower, though it does make a fascinating photographic subject. And finally we had access to the truly interesting part of the hike: the channels.

Following a sign into a wooded area we came across a breathtaking overlook. From there, we chatted with another hiker who explained that we were close to the channels; we needed only leave the overlook and descend down a steep but somewhat hidden trail. We followed her advice and found ourselves immersed in other-world looking rock formations. We had been promised slot canyons, and the channels delivered. Around every corner was another amazing rock formation and space to squeeze into and explore.

The hike to the trail head to the channels is well signed. Once you're in the maze-like channels, however, you're mostly on your own. We noticed some red arrows painted on the walls and initially thought they described a route you could take to see the formations. However, we only ever found the red arrows pointing towards the exit. And then it clicked: you're supposed to wander the channels as you wish, and when you want to return home, follow the red arrows. Very clever. I don't understand why the trail maintainers don't make the system official and put clearly marked (and reflective) arrows and instructions in the channels, versus depending on such a primitive and fragile system.

The All Trails reviews of the trail suggested that the channels would be colder than the rest of the hike; and the advice was on point. I donned a puffy jacket over baby L and myself we both remained quite comfortable the whole time.

While there was a bit of graffiti in the area, I was impressed at overall how pristine the channels were. I suppose that's one benefit of having this hike be in the middle of nowhere with 3 miles and 1,300 feet of elevation gain, to discourage would be vandals.

After 45 minutes of exploring the channels, we decided to call it and headed back to the car. The 3 mile hike was straightforward and before we knew it we were back in a warm car with a happy baby.

The Great Channels had absolutely been a worthy hike for the first day of our adventure and I can't recommend it highly enough. Because the rock formations are so unique, I'd easily put this hike on a list of Virginia greats, along with Old Rag, Billy Goat Trail, section A and the Devil's Marbleyard.

For dinner, we hit Greeko's Greek Cafe. Shira's falafel was ok. The salmon in my salmon souvlaki was very good. But the fries and pita were perfection and made the meal an absolute delight. The staff, like the staff at the Fairfield Inn where we were staying, were exceedingly warm and friendly. This all made for a wonderfully pleasant evening and gave us great vibes for the small town that is Abingdon, VA.

Tired from a long day of driving and hiking, we called it a night after dinner. Tomorrow would be more hiking and I drifted off to sleep hoping it would measure up to today's high quality adventure.

(I then was awoken a few hours later by baby L who was hungry. Ahh yes, the joy of little ones and their tiny tummies!)