Humpback Rocks

Project documenting the old growth and special forests along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shennandoah National Park in Virginia and North Carolina.

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Humpback Rocks

Post by dbhguru » Tue Nov 23, 2010 4:24 pm


On the morning of November 17th, Monica and I said our goodbyes to our friends Nancy Weiss and Carol Wise in Charlottesville and headed west for the Blue Ridge Parkway. We were anxious to start collecting information for our planned book on the Parkway. We had given the project a lot of thought in the preceding months and the time had come to dive in. The title Monica proposed is “In Search of the Gnarled and the Majestic – a Guide to the Exceptional Forests of the Blue Ridge Parkway.” This title resonates well with me because it allows me to concentrate on the niche that my tree measuring fills and it is guaranteed to provide information to the public not contained in other popular guides and coffee-table books on the Parkway. We seek to break new ground. The idea for the book and proposed title also resonates soundly with our Virginia friends who stand to play an important role in connecting us with people and sources of historical information relevant to the sites we will showcase.

So it was with high expectations that we headed for the Parkway. But first we had to get there and the route via I-64 reminded me of how removed Interstate driving is from the natural rhythms of the land. You can’t sense much about nature dodging 18-wheelers vying for road dominance. Monica is no fan of the Interstate travel, but she is not as acid in her criticisms of Interstate travelers as I am. However, it is all relative; I-64 is tame compared to I-81. But once we left the hustle and bustle of I-64 and turned onto the Parkway at Rockfish Gap, we experienced a welcome rush of relief. Life in the fast lane had abruptly ended as quickly as it has begun and the sense of tranquility sent soothing signals to our brains. Our adrenaline levels could subside. From what had been a frantic human and machine-dominated world, we effortlessly rolled into a world of forests, streams, and mountains - a land of long vistas, gnarled trunks, and cascading waters. We had returned to our southern mountain home, a home that periodically calls to both of us.

For me, our annual visits to the Parkway are not only returns to boyhood haunts, visits down memory lane so to speak, but driving the Parkway has evolved into a ritual that rekindles the bonds I have to the southern Appalachians. For Monica, visiting our Parkway home is still a developing experience, and yet I think it is pleasingly familiar to her. She fell in love with the Parkway on our first visit, and now the southern Appalachians are her territory. She is melding with the mountains and valleys, their moods, their history, and even their music. Special places like Virginia’s charismatic Peaks of Otter call to her no less compelling than to myself. She has become an unabashed fan of the Parkway as the quintessential, meandering motorized path through scenic mountains.

Of course, all who travel the Parkway in a contemplative state of mind learn to appreciate its gentle curves, curves that faithfully follow the pleasing contours of ancient mountains. The superb engineering allows the traveler to become one with the ridges and hollows. One climbs to a summit and then dips into a secluded cove, only to return to the heights. Snaking across ridges and through the coves is repeated countless times for a distance of 469 miles. I know of no other southern Appalachian roadway that holds the traveler so close to the beating heart of those timeless blue ridges. Other roads are too steep, to curvy, or too heavily traveled by people trying to get to their destinations as quickly as possible. In the mindset of today’s harried travelers, negotiating mountain roads is more an impediment than joy. The Parkway, traveled as it was meant to be traveled, is sheer enjoyment. When I’m far from that thread across those long, misty blue ridges, I think fondly of my many past experiences. In my mind’s eye, I visualize the Parkway as a thin gray ribbon winding its way through forests in the sky. I dream of returning to it, and know that each return is destined to evoke deep emotions and provide new spiritually based experiences for me. But alas, I’ve strayed too far; what of Monica’s and my book project, the primary reason for our return? What did we accomplish on this trip?

I must admit that the first five miles of the Parkway are rather undistinguished. The condition of the forests reflects the heavy hand of past use. The woods still show signs of being tired. Recovery for them will be a long process, one likely measured in centuries than decades. But then a curve is rounded and a steep ridge comes into full view that commands attention. It could be like of the surrounding ridges, but it isn’t. It is topped by a rather odd-appearing rock formation. We have come upon the Humpback Rocks. The traveler is advised of the rocks beforehand, so the surprise is not complete, but the name intriguing. Did their forms suggest the back of a giant whale or an over-sized hunchback of Notre Dame? More likely, the name is derived from the name of Humpback Mountain, which introduces the same question about the origin of the name. It isn’t clear, but at a minimum, the stony prominence suggests the possibility of a commanding view of the surrounding terrain. I would imagine that the vast majority of visitors travel up to the rock perches to gaze down on the Great Valley to the west. It is a worthy enough reason to climb the 730 to 760 vertical feet from the parking area to the outcropping, yet, the rocks harbor a secret, a secret known only to a few. An old-growth forest surrounds the base of Humpback Rocks, and it is no ordinary pocket of old growth. The geology of the rocks has insured a continuous supply of water and the type of rock (Catoctin greenstone) supplies minerals for plant growth. The combination has produced a Tolkien-like world of picturesque boulders harboring the large, twisted trunks of centuries-old northern red oaks, perhaps equally old black birches, odd clumps of basswood, and a few eye-catching moss gardens; the latter a product of rocks and the continuous seepage of water. I’m sure that in spring the area is a wildflower garden, but that confirmation must await our return in that season.

I cannot count the times I had passed beneath the rocks, confident to motor on toward a presumed superior destination when all the while botanical gold was to be found a few hundred vertical feet above. I was aware of the old growth. Last year Monica and I climbed Humpback Rocks and I commented on the old growth. I had seen the signature of old growth from visits as far back as the mid-1990s, but I hadn’t taken the site seriously until last year. Why hadn’t someone described this haunting old growth forest? A trail runs climbs through second growth and mixed that becomes increasingly old in appearance, until a fork in the path is encountered. Going left takes you directly to the summit through what is clearly old growth. That is the path we took last year. However, the path to the right is longer, circling around, climbing above the rocks to a gap and then descending to the point of intersection with the other path. It is the path to the right, the one I had not previously taken that proved to be the jewel. I counted the rings on a relatively small oak that had been cut after it fell across the trail. A 13-inch radius yielded 265 annual rings. I’m sure many of the trees at the base of the rocks began life between 1700 and 1750. They pre-date the existence of the United States as a country. I would not be surprised to discover trees that began growing in the mid-1600s.

The trail circles around to the ridge crest above the rocks. We reached an altitude of 3240 feet, as best as I could determine. Our total ascent netted us 880 feet of elevation. The summit of Humpback Mountain is 3600 feet. From its summit, the land falls away to the east down to the Piedmont at about 600 feet above sea level. Humpback Mountain must be an impressive sight from the lowlands, perhaps rivaling the Peaks of Otter and Apple Orchard Mountain to the south. The higher summits of the Virginia Blue Ridge rise about 3,000 feet above the surrounding lowlands. This is comparable to the Vermont Green and Taconic Mountains, and about a thousand feet less than the White Mountains in New Hampshire and the Blacks and Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee.

The confirmation of boulder field old growth is not a new experience. I’ve been doing it since the mid-1980s, but this was a joint discovery for Monica and me and very satisfying. We were on a shared adventure, one that would allow us to break new ground and acquire new focuses. There would be the standard tree measurements, but we would spend a lot more time

Altogether, there are around 20 species of trees one encounters on the Humpback Rocks hike. Most, though, are northern red oaks, chestnut oaks, pignut hickories, black birches, and in places American basswood. For the most part, the trees grow in austere conditions so tree size is rather small, but on the west side in the area of seepage, the trees are considerably larger. But it is not purely their size that catches the eye. It is their advanced age characteristics. This is a spot at Neil Pederson would enjoy, a laboratory for interpreting physical characteristics that can be correlated to age class. While the area is old growth in terms of forest age and characteristics, there was use made of the land. Livestock and hogs used the area about 150 vertical feet below the base of the rocks, and the signs still exist, but once the boulder field is encountered, all old growth characteristics assert themselves.

The day of our hike was overcast. I struggled to get good exposures with Monica’s Nikon digital camera, but didn’t do a very satisfying job. Hopefully, the accompanying images give an idea of the forest age characteristics that we encountered. We will return to Humpback Rocks. It deserves an in-depth treatment as one of the primary old growth sites along the Parkway. The images are as follows.

1. Old northern red
2. Up close
3. Downed oak
4. OG along trail 1
5. OG along trail 2
6. OG signature 1
7. OG signature 2
8. Waves of mountains

Please remember, click on the image to expand it. the larger versions are much more compelling than the smaller ones.
Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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