Thursday, July 10, 2014

Nelson ROCKS!

Anna’s not much of a daredevil—she likes her feet planted solidly on terra firma. So she just shakes her head and rolls her eyes when I take off to do activities like ziplines, or the BridgeWalk, or the Via Ferrata.

The Via Ferrata at Nelson Rocks Outdoor Center (about a dozen miles south of Seneca Rocks) was indeed one of the most challenging activities I have attempted—but it also provided perhaps the greatest sense of accomplishment (see my story in “Wonderful West Virginia” magazine). I had been interested in returning to Nelson Rocks to fly on their zipline canopy tour, but I wanted Anna to come along as well so she could see the place and better appreciate my personal achievement. Our recent July 4th weekend “staycation” in West Virginia provided that opportunity.

We arrived before sundown on July 3rd to our room at the Nelson Rocks Lodge. I was scheduled for the 8:00 AM zipline tour the next morning—Anna had scheduled herself to sleep in. We enjoyed watching the sunset over Spruce Knob (West Virginia’s highest mountain) from rocking chairs on the balcony outside our room.

Early the next morning, I joined some other nice folks downstairs for the zipline tour. We met our guides, got geared up, and hopped onto a rugged little bus that drove us on a steep road about halfway up the mountain to the cabin area where the zipline tour starts.

The Nelson Rocks zipline tour consists of twelve zips, with three swinging bridges, a ground landing at one point, and a repel from the final tree stand. We were flying through the canopy of hardwood trees nearly all of the time, with only an occasional glimpse through the trees to the North Fork Valley below. We finished within walking distance of the lodge, having zipped most of the way down the steep mountainside. It was great fun, and the other families in our group (from Erie, PA; Canton, OH; and Martinsburg, WV) all enjoyed it a lot.

Above: One of our guides (dressed in red) is shown about halfway across this zipline--typical of many on the Nelson Rock Canopy Tour.
Below: Repelling down about 40 feet from the end of the last zipline.

I rejoined Anna at the lodge for a quick lunch prior to our hike to the mountaintop. Fortunately, we were offered a ride on the “short bus” as it was taking a visiting family and their luggage up to the cabin area. From there we started our trek up the second half of the mountain, occasionally stopping when openings in the trees provided an enticing glimpse of the surrounding countryside.

Above: Anna looks down on a farm in the valley of the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. Spruce Knob is the peak in the distance.
Below: A group who had just completed the Via Ferrata were already at the peak when we arrived. It was a beautiful day!

As we approached the summit, the exposed rocks require some careful climbing to get to the top. Fortunately, pre-positioned climbing ropes help people to better scramble up the final section of rocks. Once on the peak, the view is absolutely incredible—360 degrees (once you peer around a couple of scrawny wind-blown pines) of natural beauty! The farmland and the highway in the valley seem so small below you! Seneca Rocks can be seen to the north, as well as North Fork Mountain to the east and Spruce Knob to the west (seemingly at about the same height). Nelson Rocks’ two parallel rock “fins” extend to the south and up the next hill. Anna was thrilled with this reward for her climb to the top—but she didn’t realize her hike had merely just begun.

Anna scrambles to the top; while I lean against one of the rocks near the peak. The view is absolutely incredible!

Instead of retracing our steps back down to the cabin area and following the road back to the lodge, we took the “Corridor Trail” which zig-zags precipitously down the mountainside, between the two fins of quartz rock (hundreds of feet high in places) used by the Via Ferrata. Being blocked in on both sides by sheer rock cliffs soaring vertically towards the sky is bizarre. It is hard to explain the geological oddity of Nelson Rocks without actually seeing it, but trust me—Anna understands it much better now.

Above: Pay heed to this sign! It is not an easy trail.
Below: A view of the trail near the top. Notice the walls on each side which continue to the opposite hillside, as well as the "rubble" that comprises the trail.

I thought since we would be going down the Corridor Trail, it would be easier than if we had tried hiking it uphill, which would have required traversing about a thousand feet in altitude. However, there is a real challenge to hiking down a very steep path—especially when much of that path is comprised of a jumble of rocks, many of which are loose. In my story about the Via Ferrata, I had likened rock climbing to playing chess, carefully picking your moves and thinking of the implications for your following moves. To some degree, hiking down the Corridor Trail also involved carefully picking your moves, while ensuring your footholds were stable. Perhaps it can be described as “climbing downhill” (which sounds like an oxymoron until you try it). This is not a hike for a novice. Fortunately, Anna is quite the hiker and rock scrambler—she just doesn’t like to dangle in the air.

Hopefully these two pictures give a sense of the steepness, as I took one looking uphill at Anna while she took one looking downhill at me.

We often stopped to take pictures or simply to view the natural spendor afforded by the occasional breaks among the trees that had managed to grow in the boulder field. Except for a lovely large luna moth, we never encountered any wildlife on this trek. However, as I ruminated on that, I realized that this corridor would be a lousy place to live—you can’t go very far to the left or to the right because the walls box you in; your only choice of movement is up or down, and both are steep. Some trees had managed to thrive, but the rocky terrain prevents much undergrowth. So it is not exactly the ideal living environment.

Behind Anna, you can see the bridge in the distance of this tilted picture. The luna moth was about the size of my hands--and fascinating!

One of the highlights of the Via Ferrata is the bridge (although if you ask Anna, she doesn’t think it is substantial enough to be classified as a bridge). This “so-called” bridge, which takes you from the western fin to the eastern fin, is about 250 feet long and about 150 feet above the ground. It is comprised of five cables—one overhead where your safety harness is clipped, two for handrails, and two for holding the slats upon which you walk. These simple 2x4 slats are spaced 18 inches apart, to minimize the weight of the bridge and to decrease wind resistance. As I wrote in my story about the Via Ferrata, it requires some focus and concentration to cross—but it felt good to be able to do it.

Two views of the Via Ferrata bridge that I previously walked across.

So as we “climbed downhill” on the Corridor Trail, I was enjoying the glimpses I was seeing when we first could look down and see the bridge. Eventually, we were level with it, and then we were hiking under it. Even Anna was astounded (at my stupidity?) when she saw the bridge for herself. There is no way she would ever try to cross it! However, it was interesting to see this man-made conveyance floating in the blue sky above the green leaves and between the grey rock cliffs.

Above: This shows the bridge where it meets the eastern wall. Look close and you can see just how "thin" these fins of rock really are--just a few feet wide.
Below: Still following the rocky trail downhill, with the western wall ahead.

Finally, we reached the end of the Corridor Trail, where it joins the dirt road next to the creek that flows through the gap. We had a much smoother walk down the road and back to the lodge. As we walked, we talked about the rugged beauty and unique geology of Nelson Rocks. We agreed that Nelson Rocks is yet another wonderful location in West Virginia that few people know about. However, there is a bit of a risk in letting folks know what a great place it really is. After all, we hope to come back again for more exploration and enjoyment, and we don’t want to see it overrun with tourists! But Anna made it clear that she is only coming back for the hiking, as she intends to keep her boots on the ground. [Methinks we should try "climbing uphill" on the Corridor Trail the next time we visit!]

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