Hints of spring are here — the pear and dogwood trees, forsythia, daffodils are blooming. Baby leaves seem to glow a bright green as they grow, slow and shy, and the sun rises and sets at different times now.
I’m ready for spring. So is Andy. It seems each day he asks, “When will it turn green again?” Trust me, if a change of seasons could happen through his sheer willpower, it would have been spring at the start of November. That’s because we are ready: ready for more trails, ready to start camping, ready to get lost in a green forest surrounded by only plants, wild animals, and each other.
February managed to find us out on below-freezing trails every weekend. We hope that will be the same for March, though that does mean our hikes would be decided suddenly.
“Do you want to go hiking tomorrow?” I’d whisper to Andy as we were seconds from sleep late on a Saturday night.
“Sure,” he’d say, drifting into dreams, so I’d rise to set my alarm clock before sleep overtook me too.
We try to be great planners — we do — but ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time when we are out adventuring, there are at least three different moments we turn to one another and say, “Why in the hell didn’t we plan this more? How does this keep happening to us?” I guess we know the answer to those questions: Spontaneity seems to have seized my life since I met Andy, and while it’s so gosh darn exciting and rewarding and we have crazy stories to tell, there are times when we laugh about how we’d like to have that point-one percent of calm, serenity, peace. Amazingly, this hike was that point-one percent. It was unruffled, tranquil so that in the end, this hike turned out to be one of our favorites thus far.
Here’s more on Shenandoah National Park’s Moormans River:
- Five-point-seven miles
- 460-foot elevation
- Rated Level Two of Five difficulty
Our drive was a shorter distance than most, and immediately we were rewarded with those deep blue mountains that have formed the base of who Andy and I are together.
Winding around the Blue Ridge Mountains, we paralleled Moormans River until it greeted the Sugar Hollow Dam.The dam was supposedly used in the opening scene of the movie Evan Almighty. On the other side was Charlottesville’s foggy Sugar Hollow Reservoir.
And that word, foggy, is the perfect way to describe this hike. It had rained for days here and the sun was still covered by clouds so fog drifted above the saturated ground while water drops dangled from limbs, making each droplet appear illuminated like white Christmas lights.
It was a beautiful day though because ‘beautiful’ does not have to be synonymous for ‘sunny.’ The temperature was warm, welcoming us into the forest.
We began by walking beside Moormans River, heading north, to the yellow-blazed Moormans River Trail. These waters were once prime places to catch trout native to the area. However, that changed in June 1995 when eleven-point-five inches of rain fell, which triggered many landslides. The landslides dramatically altered the land. For instance, canopies over the river that once provided needed-shade in the summer were now gone, and that set forth another reaction: Two thirds of the water’s trout habitat was destroyed. The picture below shows how most of the land looks — The roots of trees are dangling after the ground below was washed away.
Recovery was evident though — The area had an energy all its own as spots of green seemed to explode, casting their vibrant hues beside the steely blues of the river and muddy browns of the land. Life is continuing here, and it was colorful and loud.Even the puddles seemed magical. Their glossy tans and greys made me feel as if I’d stepped into a watercolor painting — The reflection of bare, spindly trees merely brushstrokes so that my gaze darted down and up, down and up to confirm what was real. I was seeing the forest anew.
Soon, large puddles caught Andrew’s eye too: “Frog spawn!” and he pointed. Sure enough, the puddle was filled with frog eggs.
The glassy orbs clung to one another in bulk, allowing them to be easily picked up and analyzed. I imagined baby tadpole eyes looking up at me in wonder as I looked down at them with identical amazement.The eggs have anywhere from six to twenty-one days until they will be broken by little hatching tadpoles. Then, depending on the frog, tadpoles remain in that stage anywhere from six weeks to eight months before growing legs, losing the tail, and hopping away. Placing the eggs back into the puddle delicately, I hoped to myself that the water would remain high enough for the cycle to take place.
Walking again, we would pause more to dart back and forth to the foggy river bank where the water flowed strong and cold.
And that is how the rest of our hike went — zig-zagging back and forth from trail to water.
Soon, our path took us over Moormans River where our boots were dipped into the water. This would be one of six times total we forge the river, which essentially means by the end we became pros at hustling across.
We were surrounded by beauty — The river, so clear that each and every covered rock glistened with color. Greenstone rock walls, shaped by the running river for centuries, appeared more as gigantic mythic monsters. And the old mountains could be seen peeking over the trees as if they were watching us play by their river.The leaves radiated a crimson color, highlighting the water as we continued by the river’s side.
Soon it was time to cross the river again . . .
After this, our path across went deeper underwater so much so that I chose instead to take off my shoes and socks.
The river rocks were stunning and shimmered an array of pastel colors — purples, teals, reds, maroons, oranges, blues, yellows, reminding me of Lake McDonald in Montana’s Glacier National Park.
Hints of spring could be seen in the forest too — Little plants battled to rise through layers of wet fallen leaves while small lavender flowers seemed shy, dipping their little heads down to avoid eye contact. Mushrooms boasted of their subtle shades as they stretched, decorating rotting tree trunks. It was majestic.
The farther we hiked, the more comforted we were in being alone. In the beginning, we crossed a few people, mainly fisherman. However, after forging the river, we had the forest to ourselves. We felt like children, darting across and splashing in the water, jumping on rocks, laughing. Life was innocent, light, carefree — another magical quality of forests.
There are two falls on this hike. This is the smaller one . . .
but the more impressive fall is about seventy yards up from this, just past the trail marker . . .
At about twenty-five feet high, Big Branch Falls plunges over a beautiful blend of purple and blue-colored greenstone.
Scrambling back and forth over the rocks, climbing beside the falls, we still had the place to ourselves, making it felt sacred, tucked away. I could have stayed next to that waterfall in the middle of the mountains with Andrew for an unlimited amount of time. That’s when I realized the major benefits of hiking a waterfall trail in the colder months: First, there is solitude. Hikes along the water are popular in the summer so swimming holes are normally packed with people. Because of this, I’d rival to say the beauty of seeing a waterfall — without a crowd — is worth it over the ability to jump in a swimming hole. That takes me to the second reason: This magnificent waterfall can actually be seen. In the summer, the waterfall often disappears due to drought conditions.
Beside this waterfall, there appears to be a cave and I wondered if bears seek shelter there because several neighboring trees appeared to be scratched, as if a bear was marking its territory.
Walking back, the water was higher as we reforged the river times again. By the end, our pants and boots were soaked but our feet, dry.
As we walked by the frog spawn puddles, our trail coming to an end, Andrew paused again. “Fish — maybe! There’s something in the pond!” and careful not step on frog eggs, he bent to pick up the unknown animal as the water and leaves underneath quivered.
Instead of a fish though, he found a newt.This is a red-spotted newt, otherwise known as the eastern newt, and it was one of two Andy caught. Despite the fact that the newts can survive on land, they seemed clumsy and fragile once we picked them up so we placed them back into the puddle. There, they would no doubt remain, waiting to feast on the plentiful tadpoles set to escape from the eggs.
In the end, the newt was another wonder we saw on this hike, making Moormans River and Big Branch Falls one of our favorites thus far.
Our drive, once again breathtaking and we paused several times in the roadway to jump out for pictures to remember it.
All too soon, we were back on the interstate where my once wide-awake fiance slipped into sleep in the passenger seat. The grip in his hand continued to loosened as he held mine, and I glanced over at him — Head back, mouth open, he breathed deeply, making me smile. There was something simple, special about this ride — Normally it was me, fast asleep beside him; this time, I was taking us home. I glanced his way again — He was safe and happy with me, and I felt so fortunate. Moving into the slow lane and drifting around potholes so as not to wake him, our drive home took longer than normal. But he didn’t notice — He remained, sleeping and peaceful, until we were twisting around the exit ramp, back home. His eyes fluttered, “Did I sleep the entire way?” I smiled again and squeezed his hand. “I’m sorry,” he told me, “I’m so sorry. You should have woken me.” At the stoplight I leaned over and kissed him. “Never,” I said because there was no other way I could word how our drive home was more than what I could have imagined, how that drive home meant everything to me.