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Johnny Molloy

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Humpback Rocks: Highland beauty and pioneer history

April 17th, 2014 9:38 am by Johnny Molloy

Humpback Rocks: Highland beauty and pioneer history

A couple enjoys the view from the Humpback Rocks looking to the west.Photo/Johnny Molloy

Up Virginia way, on the north end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, stands the Humpback Rocks, an outcrop that opens to mighty vistas of the Blue Ridge. The walk to the Humpback Rocks starts out at the Humpback Rocks visitor center, where you can visit a highland farmstead featuring numerous authentic buildings.
From the farmstead you can make a 5-mile loop hike, first heading up to the Humpback Rocks, where incredible panoramas await. After leaving the Humpback Rocks, you can join the Appalachian Trail on an alluring woodland ramble, then trace the historic Howardsville Turnpike, which takes you back to your starting point.
Take advantage of starting this hike at the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center. Inside, you can enjoy interpretive information about old-time mountain farms as well as the area history. You can also shop, get maps, water and use the restroom; picnic too. The visitor center is the first significant stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway if you drive from its northern terminus at Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro, Virginia.
This highland mountain trek starts on the appropriately named Mountain Farm Trail. It leaves the visitor center, tracing the old Howardsville Turnpike. More about that later. Here you will leave the parkway visitor center and visit the site of the William J. Carter Farm. Although no structures remain from Mr. Carter’s farm, the on-site log structures are authentic. They were locally purchased, dismantled and put back together here, creating a period farm.
Mr. Carter obtained his farm as part of a settlement land grant from the state of Virginia, which was inducing settlers to set up shop in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The first building you will see is the log cabin. This quintessential wooden structure is permanently associated with the American frontier. And with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of trees, log cabins could be built from the woods that a pioneer cleared to create his farm. The William J. Carter Farm is designed to replicate an 1890s farmstead, so the buildings reflect that time. A split rail fence surrounds the farm, and piled stone fences also run through the tract. The log cabin home is a simple structure with a stone chimney – and there were plenty of rocks in these mountains. Ask any subsistence farmer trying to plow through the stony soil in these Virginia highlands.
Ahead is another building, a storage shed with a base of rocks and topped with wood. It is the most architecturally scintillating of the buildings here. Farms back then faced the same dilemma we do today. What do we do with our stuff? Some stuff was not good enough for the house, not right for the barn, but too valuable to lie outside in the elements. The barn stands in an enclosed stone and wood fence, for livestock. Its wood shingle roof would be pricey in today’s market, but back then, the wood was easy to get, all it required was a little sweat equity.
The pen you see was used to hold swine just before slaughter. Here pigs would be fed corn to sweeten the meat. The rest of the year, the pigs were allowed to forage on their own in the woods. Almost every Virginia mountain homestead had a spring. In fact, the stream location drove the house location in most instances. The William J. Carter Farm was no different. Here you see a covered spring box to keep out the critters, as well as create a cool environment to store things like milk and butter.
Your hike follows the old Howardsville Turnpike to Humpback Gap and a parking lot on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The farmstead is left behind but rest assured this gap was cleared as pasture during Carter’s day. The fields in Humpback Gap were created by a process known as “deadening”. Living trees were girdled, which killed them over time. They were left standing to cure, then felled and used around the farm, ultimately leading to an open grassy pasture.
Now the hike changes from a leisurely interpretive stroll to a climb to the Hogback Rocks. During the days when the Howardsville Turnpike was in use, the Humpback Rocks, known back then simply as “The Rocks”, were a landmark wagon drivers used to note their progress. The ascent to the Humpback Rocks is challenging on a wide and well-used path that used to be the Appalachian Trail. Nevertheless, the view from this massive outcrop is more than worth it.
The William J. Carter Farm is visible from the Humpback Rocks, but quite small. Beyond stretches the crest of the Blue Ridge, leaving north into Shenandoah National Park. To the west, the mountain chain drops off to the Shenandoah Valley, which is backed by hazy mountains marking the West Virginia border. To the east falls the Piedmont. The promontory has numerous viewing locales and on a busy day hikers will be scattered atop it, soaking in the scene from horizon to horizon.
Our hike joins the Appalachian Trail, descending from the Humpback Rocks on a series of switchbacks that moderate the grade. This pleasant woodland walk gives you a chance at repose and reflection, especially since you are going downhill. Woe to hikers going the opposite direction! After a while, the Appalachian Trail joins the Howardsville Turnpike. This road connected towns west of the Blue Ridge to those on the east side, passing through Humpback Gap. It is easy to see residents of the Carter Farm sitting on their front porch, watching and waving at passersby on the Howardsville Turnpike.
Even though the old turnpike was mostly cleared of rocks and leveled off, wagon riders still faced a bumpy ride. The walking is easy today. You will cross a few streams flowing off Humpback Mountain before returning to Humpback Gap. From there, backtrack through the William J. Carter Farm to complete the hike. Consider returning to the visitor center to learn more outdoor opportunities on the Blue Ridge Parkway. During summer weekends farm demonstrations, gardening and period reenactments are engaged at the William J. Carter farm.
For more information, contact the Blue Ridge Parkway, (828) 298-0398, www.nps.gov/blri. To reach the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center from exit 99 on I-64 near Waynesboro, Virginia, take the Blue Ridge Parkway south for 5.9 miles to the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center on your right. The interpretive trail leading through the mountain farm and to the loop part of the hike leaves south from the visitor center.

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