Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunset Rocks Trail, Cumberland County, PA

Dave and I did get out for a hike yesterday, and we did end up doing the Sunset Rocks Trail out beyond Gettysburg. Even though getting out there would require about a 2.5 hour drive each way, the weather was forecast to be unseasonably warm, and we had basically the whole day set aside, so we figured what the heck. The hike as planned is a counter-clockwise lollipop, with about two-thirds of the planned 8+ miles on the Appalachian Trail, and the remainder on a side trail that climbs a ridge to a rocky overlook, Sunset Rocks, the namesake landmark for the hike. Guidebooks list the hike at 8.x miles of moderate difficulty due to a few modest climbs and a section of rock hopping on the ridge top. It should take around 4 hours with stops.

To make the most of the day, I got up at 6:00am, was out the door by 6:45am, and was at Dave's house shortly before 7:30.

First bridge over Tom's Run
9:50am - The day is forecast to be in the mid-60's and sunny, but as we shoulder our daypacks and set out from the Fuller Lake Day Use parking area, it is 38 degrees. Dave and I are both wearing long sleeve fleece, which is unusual since neither of us feel the cold easily. From where we parked, the first several tenths of a mile are through the picnic areas in the park, along roads, and past buildings. This would normally be a drudge, but we did see one cool thing. The halfway point of the AT is within a few miles of here, and it is a tradition for thru-hikers to stop at the Pine Grove Furnace general store and eat a half gallon of ice cream. At this time of year the store was closed, but it was fun to see.

We are almost 7/10ths of a mile from the car by the time we finally get out of the main park grounds and turn off Pine Grove Road at the white blazes and follow the AT up the hill into the woods.

Midpoint on the AT... 5 miles down, 2176 to go.
10:47am - We reach a nice stream crossing over a little bridge near the junction of the blue blazed Sunset Trail and the Appalachian Trail. We are about 1.6 miles into our hike. This junction is the end of the "lollipop stick" portion of our route, and we will be going counterclockwise on the AT for a few miles before heading left onto the Sunset Trail and eventually ending up back here. To this point the hike has been relatively easy, with only a few minor ups and downs, and good footing with minimal rocks. It feels good to stretch the legs. Dave and I both discard the long sleeve fleece at this stop, as it is warming up nicely. We stay here for a few minutes and have a drink and take some pictures of the streams, as this is the first picturesque spot we have come to.

11:43am - After having walked for the last couple of miles along wet trails, we reach the midpoint marker for the AT. I am surprised to see it here, as the guidebook I have been using says that this marker is on the AT section that is a part of the Pole Steeple hike several miles from here, but not on this hike. I know that they move this marker around as the length of the AT changes due to rerouting and the like, and I guess they must have done so in this case since my guidebook was published only a few years ago. Dave and I take turns taking pictures of the sign and each other standing by it, as this is a famous hiker landmark. It has been slow going the last mile-plus, as the ground is very wet, with a lot of runoff from recent rains making the trail itself a small stream in many places. We spend too much time watching our feet and not the landscape. Shortly after crossing Michaux Road we would have passed the ruins of Camp Michaux, a WW2 era prisoner of war camp, but we saw nothing obvious as we sloshed by. Apparently this POW camp was set up to hold German naval officers, but was later expanded to include German Afrika Korps officers as well as Japanese officers. It was officially classified as a POW interrogation camp, one of only three in the country. More information on this area can be found here.

Tom's Run shelter on the AT
11:53am - We reach Tom's Run shelter almost exactly two hours after setting out. We have only covered about 4 miles of easy trails, so our pace is not very good, but the soggy condition of the trails and the constant little detours around puddles and marshy spots has slowed us considerably. The shelter area is very nice, with two wooden shelters in very good condition, a half a dozen tent spots, a critter pole for hanging packs, an outhouse, and a number of fire rings. All overlooking pretty little Tom's Run, which can be heard running over the rocks a short ways down the hill. This is my first sight of an AT shelter, and it seems like a very nice spot to spend the night.

A few hundred yards after leaving the shelter area, we turn left onto the blue blazed Sunset Rocks Trail. It continues to be an easy if mucky walk, with fairly run of the mill scenery. We do pass through a nice rhododendron thicket at around this juncture, which is a nice thing. Other than that, it is a lot of the same: waterlogged trails, fire access roads, and fairly ordinary terrain.

At around the 6 mile mark according to Dave's handy-dandy iPhone app, we have climbed onto the southern end of Little Rocky Ridge, and the hiking along the side slope has made me begin to feel my right knee. Typical. A little soreness but nothing bad. The climb onto the ridge is no big deal, but it was one of the few times that I have been breathing hard today. It feels good.

Dave at Sunset Rocks
The last 2 or 3 tenths of a mile approaching the overlook is as advertised; rock climbing and boulder hopping. I love this kind of hiking and this is my favorite part of the day. I would have liked it even better if my knee weren't acting up, and I felt more stable hopping from rock to rock. But it was still terrific, and reminded me of the rocky sections east of the North Lookout at Hawk Mountain. Very nice. A few hundred yards from the overlook we leave the main trail, which heads left down the ridge, and continue on a short rocky spur.

1:09pm - We reach the Sunset Rocks overlook. At first I am not 100% sure that we have reached our destination, as there still seems to be some ridgeline ahead of us, but a quick investigation shows that the blue blazes do end here, and there is no more spur trail ahead. We stop and enjoy the view across the valley. We do lament our lack of planning. It is lunchtime, we are at a nice scenic spot, and a sandwich would taste real nice right about now. If we had a sandwich, that is. Unfortunately, all we have are various protein bars, which will keep body and soul together, but that's about it.

After maybe a ten minute stop for a rest, a snack and some pictures, we head back to the trail that heads back down to the AT and will complete our loop. The descent off the ridge is very steep, and I set a very slow pace as this kind of downhill is a killer on my knee. Level ground is fine, uphill is a little sore, but downhill is rough. And this is rough. I feel old at this moment; much older than my years.

Things get better once the slope levels out, and before long we are back at the junction with the AT near the nice bridge (picture at top). We see what appears to be a family in the distance out for a walk, and note that they are all wearing blaze orange. Dave is wearing red (by coincidence) and I am wearing royal blue. We make a bunch of "I am not a deer" jokes and begin retracing our steps back along the AT to our starting point.

2:00pm (ish) - We arrive back at the car, a few minutes beyond 4 hours, and having covered 9.6 total miles according to Dave's iPhone hiking tracker app. Dave is pleased that this first test of the new app has allowed his phone to run on gps mode for a little over 4 hours and still have perhaps a third of its battery life left. I am a little tired, my feet are sore, my right knee is a little sore, but in general I feel terrific. We could hardly have expected a better day for a hike in late November.

Final thoughts - We had a fun hike on a beautiful late fall day, and it was nice to take the time to go somewhere relatively far from home. The hike, while pretty long by my standards, was not tough at all from an elevation standpoint. Other than a few moderate but brief climbs and the one very steep downhill stretch coming down off the overlook, it was mostly flat (or flat-ish). The last two or three tenths of a mile getting to the overlook was a lot of rock scrambling, but that is one of my favorite kinds of hiking, so I loved that part. As for "rating" the hike itself, I would say that it was a good solid hike but nothing spectacular, and while I am certainly glad we did it, it wouldn't go on a list of hikes worth repeating. The overlook was nice, but not "wow". The scenery was typical eastern PA hiking, with a mix of hardwoods and some pine understory, a few pretty patches of rhododendrons, and a few noisy little streams. Time of year may be influencing my opinion, as the leaves were off the trees, and the extensive soggy stretches of trail had Dave and I spending too much time looking at our feet and not enough at our surroundings. But simply put... good but not great.

I wonder as I write this if my recent experiences out west have spoiled my expectations, and in a sense I am sure that they have. But there is more to it than that. Certainly after having hiked Harney Peak, Little Devil's Tower and Teddy Roosevelt National Park, this would pale in comparison, but even by my limited Pennsylvania hiking experience, this was nothing special for Pennsylvania. Hiking around Hawk Mountain and the Pinnacle has better views and scenery in general. The Pinchot trail backpack (summer 2010) had better scenery in terms of mile after mile variety and interest (although granted it was summer). And the up and down in and out of the Port Clinton Gap was a much more vigorous hike if that is what you are looking for. So I don't think I am being too harsh. If Harney Peak was a 9.5, TRNP was a 9, Scotts Bluff and Wind Cave were 8's, and Hawk Mountain is a 7, then this would be maybe a 6. Or a 5.5. If it sounds like I didn't like it, that's absolutely not the case. It as a nice hike, and a great day out with my big brother. But this is a nice hike, not a great hike.

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