Wild Ideas: Fine weather and great fall outings

A note about hiking and guns in WMAs

Hunting is permitted, with the required licensing, during regular hunting seasons in Virginia’s Wildlife Management Areas, so hikers should take normal precautions for hiking there. Phelps WMA also has a sighting-in range that’s open September through March, except for non-holiday Mondays, so users may hear gunshots near the range when it is open.

When my brother, Dana, visited from Alaska recently, we took advantage of some intermittently fine fall weather to enjoy the Autumn Conservation Festival (ACF) at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, and to hike in Shenandoah National Park and the Chester F. Phelps Wildlife Management Area (WMA).

Although there were lots of great exhibits at the ACF, Dana and I were there mostly for the live megafauna. Thanks to a press pass, we enjoyed an excellent tour — led by Paul Marinari, the senior curator of animal operations at the facility — of the red pandas and clouded leopards in their enclosures.

Visitors to the ACF walk up Race Track Hill to see the view of the SCBI campus below and the Blue Ridge beyond.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Visitors to the ACF walk up Race Track Hill to see the view of the SCBI campus below and the Blue Ridge beyond.

I’d been thrilled to see these and other threatened species being studied and bred at SCBI during previous visits, but this year I also got my first view of the maned wolves. On my previous visits to the ACF, unseasonably warm weather had driven the wolves to shelter, but the cooler weather this year made these and the other mammals livelier and easier to view.

After the tour, my brother and I hiked up Race Track Hill to enjoy the spectacular view of the SCBI campus below and the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond. On the way back to the car, we went by the crane enclosures to see these magnificent birds and, beyond them, some recently added plains bison.

I also stopped by the ecology lab to see endangered native wood turtles that were temporarily on display. These research animals were from a joint SCBI and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) study of this species in our area. Although I’d wanted to see the black-footed ferrets, too, the line to get into that building was dauntingly long, so Dana and I decided we’d seen enough and headed out.

A couple of days later, with fine weather once more with us, we drove up to Skyline Drive, where leaf turning was well underway. We took a short hike down to Dark Hollow Falls and along the Upper Rose River Trail, near Big Meadows. The water levels in most streams in our area are low now, but enough water was coming down the falls to make it worth the walk.

Clouded leopards were one of the threatened species on display at the recent Autumn Conservation Festival at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Clouded leopards were one of the threatened species on display at the recent Autumn Conservation Festival at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal.

The rest of the trail led through oaks, maples and other hardwoods whose leaves were reaching their peak colors. I was also glad to see acorns everywhere along the trail, portending relief for native wildlife, after the dearth of such hard mast last fall.

Deciding to continue our walk across Skyline Drive and eventually end up at Big Meadows Lodge for lunch, we inadvertently turned a stroll in the woods into a somewhat frustrating hike — thanks, in part, to an outdated map in my old edition of a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club booklet on circuit hikes we were consulting.

We ended up having to double back several times after getting lost among trailheads, roads, parking lots and turnouts in the lodge area. The upside was that we found a great view of the Shenandoah Valley by accidentally straying from our intended path.

While we saw a few birds and does with fawns (now spotless and looking like smaller versions of their mothers), the critter encounter that fascinated me the most was with an invertebrate. We had stopped along the Upper Rose River Trail, which was actually a fire road, to let some park vehicles get by. A breeze was blowing, and a tiny brown spider clutching her egg sack kept careening into my face. It took me a minute to realize that she was suspended by a single silk thread from the forest canopy high above our heads. I wondered why she had plummeted down from that great height in that breeze, with only that single strand of (albeit strong) silk protecting her and her precious cargo.

Edible “chicken of the woods” mushrooms grow out of a rotting log along the trail to Shenandoah National Park’s Dark Hollow Falls.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Edible “chicken of the woods” mushrooms grow out of a rotting log along the trail to Shenandoah National Park’s Dark Hollow Falls.

We emerged from our lunch at the lodge’s tavern to find dark clouds racing across the sky, high winds, and rain starting to spatter down. After getting lost in another part of the lodge complex once again, we finally found the Dark Hollow Trail, which led us to the car.

The next day the weather had improved, so we headed to Thornton River Trail, near my house. Instead of acorns, nuts were plentiful along the trail from the many beeches growing along it. Other hardwood species were mixed in, along with a few hemlocks.

We stopped at one of my favorite spots, where another, now-overgrown trail branches off and leads down to a stretch along the north branch of the Thornton. The water was low here, too, but enough was running down the mountain to feed a brook that joins the river at that spot. We didn’t see or hear much wildlife, but we did enjoy seeing the last of the fall asters blooming and several varieties of fungi.

Our final hike during my brother’s visit was a reconnoitering trip to the Phelps WMA. This state wildlife preserve straddles the Rappahannock River and covers more than 4,000 acres, mostly in southern Fauquier County, with a narrow strip in Culpeper County.

Before we went, I’d called naturalist Ron Hughes, a lands and facilities manager for VDGIF, for suggestions of hikes that would be interesting to nature enthusiasts. Ron suggested a lovely grassy road (as are most of the trails in the WMA) at the southeast corner of the preserve, near the sighting-in gun range. The trail descends through a forest dominated by beech down to the waterfowl impoundment, a series of shallow ponds that serve as stopping-over points for migrating waterfowl, with the Rappahannock running along the other side of the road.

  Winged sumac is at its peak the second week in October along meadow trails at the C.F. Phelps Wildlife Management Area.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Winged sumac is at its peak the second week in October along meadow trails at the C.F. Phelps Wildlife Management Area.

Most of the ponds, which had hunting blinds along them, were dry from lack of rain when we got there, but Dana and I did enjoy seeing the variety of wetland plants in and around them. One pond, hidden among willows, sycamores and other water-loving trees and shrubs, still held water. It looked like good habitat for small aquatic animals, such as eastern painted turtles, two of which we saw basking on a log.

Around the edges of the ponds, sunflowers and asters were still blooming, and winged sumac was at its peak, providing deep-red accents to the early-autumn landscape. With the glorious fall weather, my favorite part of the hike was when we sat along the edge of one of the now-dry ponds, watching butterflies and other pollinators taking advantage of the remaining blooms, and watching the dragonflies that were hunting the pollinators. We spotted an orange-and-black butterfly that, from a distance, appeared to be a monarch or a viceroy, but was too far away to accurately ID.

Phelps WMA, from what I’ve seen so far, is a good destination for anyone wanting a pretty nature walk with easy, mostly flat trails and a variety of ecosystems to explore. With some exceptions, access to WMAs requires the purchase a hunting or fishing license, or an access permit. (Visit dgif.virginia.gov for more information.)

© 2014 Pam Owen

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 274 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”