Wild Ideas: A slow, short walk up Pine Hill Gap Trail   

Fellow hiker Robin Williams heads back into the open portion of Pine Hill Gap Trail along the side of Hot Mountian.
Fellow hiker Robin Williams heads back into the open portion of Pine Hill Gap Trail along the side of Hot Mountian. Photos by Pam Owen

Recently Robin Williams, a friend and fellow master naturalist, and I were looking around for trails into Shenandoah National Park that would be easy enough for us to get some exercise and enjoy nature while we mend from some health issues. Pine Hill Gap Trail, at the end of Rolling Road (off F. T. Valley Road/Route 231) looked like a good prospect, so on a nice, seasonably cool but sunny day in early December, we set off to check it out.

Neither of us had ever hiked the trail, which starts on an old forestry road. The first third of a mile was through a gully, with Pine Hill on the left (south) side, and Hot Mountain on the other. The gully which followed and crossed a small stream along the park boundary, was boggy in spots but not steep.

Passing through a forest of mostly mixed hardwoods, white pine and mountain laurel, we moved out of the gully, bending north up a short, steeper section along the side of Hot Mountain. The trail was much drier there, and the forest opened up a bit to reveal glimpses of Old Rag Mountain, not too far off to the southwest.

Going past and through more patches of mountain laurel, the trail curved around the hill, heading northwest into denser woods. All along the trail we’d found clusters of baby pine trees, ranging from a few inches to a few feet tall, offering some green relief from the otherwise brown forest floor. We found quite a few scorched trees and logs from a not-too-recent fire. Towering above the young pines were some adult pines — likely the parent trees — mixed in with hardwoods, but few pines in the midstory, between the forest’s floor and crown.

Robin checked a branch that had fallen from one of the mature pine trees and, finding five needles at the end of each twig, determined it was a white pine. Checking some of the other pine saplings here and in the gully on the way back, we found that they were all also white pines.

What triggered all these young pine trees to spring up at apparently about the same time? Was it the fire that left behind blackened wood? Fire would have opened the forest canopy, which could have triggered germination of the seeds. But, when I later checked with Jack Price, another master naturalist who also serves on the Shenandoah National Park Association board and lives close to the trail, he said that the 2000 fire was the last in the area that he was aware of.

A pine nursery springs up on Hot Mountain in the aftermath of a forest fire along Pine Hill Gap Trail.
A pine nursery springs up on Hot Mountain in the aftermath of a forest fire along Pine Hill Gap Trail.

So when did the pines sprout up and why were there few taller pines in the midstory? Although I contacted some park staff I know for answers, no one was sure but some scenarios were offered. I plan to do a bit more research and report back.

Judging by the acorns everywhere along the trail, a mix of oak trees are also plentiful along this section of the trail. Robin found an acorn, which, after much reference-checking, we determined was probably from a black oak. She also found a nice-looking gall, although neither of us had a clue as to which insect made that. What I do know is that such galls hold insect larvae and, as such, serve as caches of food for insect-eating birds in winter. On one large, rotting log I also found some large oyster mushrooms, battered by the elements.

With both of us not in the best shape for a serious hike, Robin and I were happy to find the trail not only pretty and interesting but also not precipitously steep, with stretches that were relatively flat. The flatter areas offered good spots to take a break and explore the surrounding forest. But, looking at the trail ahead of where we stopped, which was fairly steep for a short stretch to a ridge, and feeling my ankle barking, we decided the half mile or so we’d already hiked was enough for this outing.

We took our time exploring the gully on our way back. The exposed roots of large, elderly trees clung to the gully’s banks like huge, gnarled fingers — or, in one case, an octopus, as Robin noted. Although we’d only heard a few birds during the hike and had not seen any other animals (not surprising, considering we arrived just before noon, when most wildlife is less active), we found plenty of evidence that this gully was a rich, diverse ecosystem.

The dead and dying trees along the trail, especially the ones hanging onto the gully’s bank, were riddled with holes among the exposed roots, showing signs of animal activity along with erosion from rain and snow melt. Woodpeckers had turned some of the trees into apartment complexes, and rodents likely were using the holes among the roots for caching food, while signs of ant and other insect and bird activity were also abundant.

As I was looking at all the pines along the trail, I thought about how they might attract different bird species than where I live, where conifers are scarce. “That part of the trail is a good birding area in the spring and early summer,” Jack had commented in his email. “I often go up there and see a variety of woodland song birds including a number of woodland warblers.”

Robin and I agreed that we’d like to return to the trail when we are in bettering hiking condition. We imagined how nice it would be to not only see migrating birds but also the mountain laurel blooming in the spring.

© 2016 Pam Owen

Pine Hill Gap and Broad Hollow circuit hike

For a good, six-mile circuit hike, try taking Pine Hill Gap Trail to Broad Hollow Trail, by way of the Hazel Mountain Trail. For more about the complete circuit hike — with photos, a printable topo hiking map, three-dimensional views of the trail, comments and more — go online to Hiking Upward.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 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.”