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Sugar Hill: A Microcosm of Central Appalachian Ecology

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Maps of Sugar Hill and the surrounding area.

Exploring Coba ruins

In its hey day, 900 to 1400 years ago, Coba was a massive Mayan city of 55,000 people.  Aroid growing amid tree roots at CobaRaised white roads (sacbeob) linked parts of the city together and also extended as far as 60 miles to other population centers.  The city of Coba was located on the shore of a lake, which is quite unusual in the Yucatan, and is along the dividing line between drier thorn forest to the north and wetter rainforest to the south --- an ecological paradise.

Bicycle taxi

Today, you can explore the ruins at your leisure by walking down the newly cleared Mayan ruins in the junglesacbeob (or by renting a bicycle or taking a ride in a bicycle taxi.)  Although the site is full of tourists, they feel like a different ilk than those you'd find elsewhere in the Yucatan.  Most are European, and they kept their voices low and reverent (and I couldn't understand a world they were saying, so I just assumed they were talking about history and culture instead of whether to stop at Wal-Mart on their way back to Cancun.)

Avenue through the forest at Coba

Best yet, except for clearing broad avenues between ruins, the management left most of the native tree cover in place.  If you take one of the many uncharted side paths for a short distance, you can leave all of the tourists behind and imagine you're walking through the jungle during Mayan times.  Granted, the trees are nearly all young secondary growth, but here and there an ancient behemoth dominates the landscape, and in between there are all kinds of smaller plants and animals to keep you occupied.  In later posts, I'll showcase the amazing fauna that seemed quite happy to have their pictures taken, so here I'll just mention the dozens of epiphytes that kept me snapping photos for the first half hour before we were able to tear ourselves away from the entrance.  (The epiphytes are pictured a little further down on the page.)

Mark exploring stelae and tunnels at Coba

The modern day site of Coba is set up in a Y, with the entrance (and medium-sized ruin complex) at the west end, a junction (and small ruin complex) after about a half mile walk, Map of Coba ruinsand then another half mile walk in each direction to reach the other two main sites.  On the south end of the Y (taking a right at the junction), the Macanxoc group consists of 8 stelae --- huge stone tablets upon which historical events were inscribed.  I highly recommend starting in this direction since it is much less travelled and allows you to get a real feel for the natural history of the area without hordes of tourists boxing you in.  Then backtrack to the junction and take the other avenue, heading northeast, and you'll end up at the Nohoch Mul group, the tourist mecca --- a huge pyramid you can climb to look out over the forest.  During our visit, we felt like the strolls between ruins were walking meditation, and by the time we ascended the pyramid, we were nearing enlightenment (marred only by the crowds at the end.)

Epiphytes at Coba

Fossil in the rocks at Coba
Although you could walk the entire site in an hour or two, we spent more like four hours there, which allowed us to gently stroll and really experience everything.  You can hire a tour guide at the entrance, but we preferred to just bring a book (Mexico: A Hiker's Guide to Mexico's Natural History has a short chapter on Coba) and immerse ourselves in the site.

Coba pyramids

Curving young leafAlthough cruise ships try to scare you away from booking outside tours, we're coming to believe that you get twice the experience for the same money by going on your own.  For $59 apiece, we could have spent two hours each way packed into a tour bus with fifty other people and then spent a scant two hours at the site in a press of humanity that would have shielded us from the real world.  Instead, we spent $140 to hire a private driver (Anthony, who is an employee of Vicente Rodriguez, who you can contact by email at who picked us up at Calica and got us to the site in a mere hour and fifteen minutes, leaving us double the time Our driver, Anthonyto explore the ruins.  Granted, we did have to pay around $20 for parking and admission, but contrary to what various internet sources report, we had no trouble using American money for this.  Anthony let me practice my Spanish on him, telling me about his garden (banana and orange trees, chile peppers and tomatoes), his three kids, and his home in the outskirts of Cancun.  And at the end he led us to a buffet restaurant overlooking the lake, where we tasted authentic Mayan food for $12 apiece.

Restaurant at Coba

Me in front of a big treeStone pillars at Coba
Our experience at Coba, although compeletely different, matches and perhaps exceeds our glorious day at Serpent Mound a year and a half ago.  The combination of nature, walking, and glorious ruins make this my top recommended side trip in the Yucatan.  Plan an entire day, or two if possible, and go --- you won't regret it.

Our homemade chicken waterer makes leaving home for a week worry-free.
Map of the Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area

Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is located on the western end of Brumley and Clinch Mountains in Washington Co., VA. The WMA encompasses approx. 6,400 acres, inclusive of a 61 acre lake.

Access to the WMA is from Hidden Valley Rd. on US 19 North. The road hardtop terminates at an area near the top of the mountain referred to as Low Gap. At Low Gap there is a small parking area on the left where the west end trailhead for the new Clinch Mountain Trail is located and another trail emanates that follows the base of the cliffs. Here the road becomes gravel and splits to the right and left. The road to the right (Skycraft Rd.) continues up the mountain for approx. 1.5 miles. Going left (Hidden Valley Rd.), the road meanders down to the lake where there is a trailhead at some boulders and gate on the right for a trail along the lake’s south shore, a turnoff to the right for the boat ramp, another turnoff to the right a little further on for the primitive camping area, terminating at the dam parking area.

Elevation along the ridges of Brumley and Clinch Mountains that surround Hidden Valley undulates between approximately 4,000 and 4,200 ft above sea level. At Low Gap, elevation is approx. 3,780 Ft.; Hidden Valley Lake is approx. 3,600 ft.; and at the base of Brumley and Clinch Mountains approx. 2,000 ft. above sea level.

style="font-style: italic; font-family: Nimbus Sans L;">Richard Kretz is a photographer and naturalist who chronicles his adventures in southwest Virginia at  Stay tuned to read more of his writeup on Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area, or click on the tag for "hidden_valley" to read previous posts in this series.

Posted Tue Nov 9 07:00:04 2010 Tags: maps

Bridge along the Virginia Creeper TrailThe Virginia Creeper Trail is a rails-to-trails project in southwest Virginia that attracts visitors from around the world.  Mark and I joined up with a couple of friends last weekend to enjoy the gentle downhill ride from Whitetop to Damascus.  Although this stretch (the most popular part of the trail) is 17 miles long, it was easy enough even for me --- and I haven't been on a bike in over a decade.
Virginia Creeper Trail Map
For $25 apiece, we rented a bike and were driven to the top of the hill, making the day very simple and worry-free.  We chose The Bike Station a bit at random since there are five other outfitters in Damascus and all of them have comparable prices.  It turns out that The Bike Station is run by a trio of very pleasant brothers, and we're glad we stumbled upon them. 

A family prepares to ride down the Virginia Creeper TrailI picked one brother's brain while he ferried us uphill, learning that 95% of the visitors to the Creeper Trail are non-locals, and that those of us who like to avoid crowds should shun July, August, and October.  In fact, he said that the weekend we chose was one of the slowest ones in a long while, which made me happy.  The Creeper Trail is extremely family friendly, and I'd say that half of the other bikers had kids along for the ride.
Mark sitting on a rock
Unlike everyone else, we took it slow and kept our brakes on a lot of the way rather than zipping along at the speed of gravity.  (We certainly didn't have to pedal, except for a bit at the very end.)  Even so, I felt like the scenery was whizzing past way too quickly.  The upper parts of the trail pass through northern hardwood forest and the lower parts through cove hardwood forest, following a beautiful creek for most of the distance.  Old railroad trestles come at regular intervals, giving beautiful views, some from 70 feet in the air.  We stopped a few times just to soak in the scenery.

It seemed like we had barely been on the trail at all before we reached Green Cove Station.  We had to explore the old train station, though we passed on the modern candy being sold behind the counter.  Scythe with grain basketHistoric medicines lined the shelves, and one of our friends noticed a bottle of mercury (not for sale) --- clearly, the station dated back to snake oil salesman days.  In the back room, old timey farming utensils caught my eye, including this scythe with grain basket.  I have to admit, though, that some of the old tools looked like they came out of my barn --- surely they weren't all that old.

Two thirds of the way from Whitetop to Damascus, we stopped at the only restaurant along the trail --- the Creeper Trail Cafe in Taylor's Valley.  The Cafe is a basic hamburger joint, but Mark and I shared the most food-like options on the menu and really enjoyed them --- cream of broccoli soup and a chicken salad sandwich.  Servings are large, so I highly recommend the route of picking a soup and sandwich and sharing --- our friends Playing in the creek along the Virginia Creeper Trailordered a meal apiece and had to throw a third of each one away to make room for the world famous chocolate cake.  The cake was a beauty --- three stories high --- and was quite tasty, although Mark thought it didn't quite live up to the hype.  During the shuttle ride up, our driver quipped that the Creeper Trail is the only biking trip on which you'll gain weight, due to the "fat free" chocolate cake.

We wouldn't change a thing about our trip down the trail, but next time we might choose to pack a lunch and stop along the creek for a picnic.  We had fun clambering around on the rocks, and could certainly have stayed longer at several spots along the trail.  In fact, I could easily have spent a couple more hours along the Creeper Trail, even though I suspect that no one else lollygagged around for anything like the 5 hours it took us to travel 17 downhill miles.

Relaxing beside the creekWant to visit the trail?  The best place to start planning your trip is the online Virginia Creeper Trail Guide.  Stop by their website to see a list of outfitters, to download trail maps, and more.

Find time to enjoy life with Microbusiness Independence.
Posted Mon Sep 13 19:18:40 2010 Tags: maps
Anna and Maggie Monteverde habitats
Map of Monteverde and the surrounding area

Costa Rica map, showing MonteverdeAnna:

Can you imagine spending eight hours drawing plants within a day's walking distance of your home?  Then repeating the endeavor every day for four months?  That's what we did in the spring of 2001, and I seldom felt a hint of boredom.

I had chosen Monteverde carefully...and not just for the expatriate American Quaker community that meant I could get by with limited Spanish.  Costa Rica is basically a chain of mountains, wet on the Caribbean side, dry on the Pacific side, and topped by cloud forests on the highest ridges.  Since Monteverde sits near the peak of the Cordillera de Tilaran,  we could easily walk to four completely different habitats and explore all of the niches in between.  I quickly discovered that rainfall was the most important factor in determining which plants and animals we would find on our journeys.

Atlantic slope rain forest

The Atlantic slope of the Cordillera de Tilaran is nearly aseasonal in its rainfall pattern, with storms from the Caribbean dropping water here year round.  The average annual rainfall in Monteverde cloud forestthis area is staggering, reaching 23 feet in certain areas, and the wetness leads to lush plant growth.  The result is called the Atlantic slope rain forest and is the only true rain forest we experienced during our stay.  We would visit this area only once, so you'll have to wait for this adventure.

At the top of the mountain (above about 4900 feet in elevation) lies the cloud forest.  Although the cloud forest has less rainfall than on the Atlantic slope (a mere 10 feet on average per year), frequent mists from low-lying clouds keep the cloud forest in a constant state of damp.  You'll notice that several pages of my sketchbook (like the one at the top of the page) are wrinkled or smudged from the damp conditions, even during the "dry season."  We often made a trek up to the cloud forest to explore the epiphytes and other unique features of this diverse forest.

But the easiest habitat to reach was right outside our door --- the Pacific slope seasonal Pacific slope seasonal forestforest.  The town of Monteverde lies in the mountain's rain shadow and has a notable dry season from November to May.  Even though the total annual rainfall in the Pacific slope seasonal forest (around 7.5 feet) is nothing to sneeze at, six months without rain does away with some of the jungle-like features seen in cloud forests and Atlantic slope rain forests.  In fact, as you descend the west side of the Cordillera de Tilaran, conditions become drier and drier until you reach patches of forest that lose their leaves for the dry season.  We took several walks down the side of the mountain to explore this much drier forest, which I consider a fourth habitat type.

Monteverde dogsMaggie:

After the thrill of my life, I am lounging back in the hotel before supper.  The thrill occurred while Anna was drawing and I decided to explore the paths.... 

Eventually our accumulated dogs and I came to the road which we followed briefly before coming to another side path.  It looked like the place to be.  So I followed it to a few buildings which I found to be the library, Friends meeting house/(church), and Friends’ school.

I was ecstatic as I explored the library.  It was empty, even of librarians.  In fact, it runs on the honors system.  I rushed back to tell Anna and to bring her to my magnificent find. 
I am excited to attend the Friends meeting tomorrow since I imagine we will meet many local Quakers.

Posted Wed Jul 14 07:00:03 2010 Tags: maps

April Cain, a St. Paul native now living in Richmond, emailed me some fascinating information to supplement my tale of Oxbow Lake's construction.  She wrote:

"Oxbow Lake exists because of my father's "impossible dream" of moving the Clinch River so that it would not flood South Saint Paul almost every year."

The Clinch River's original route is easy to pick out on this map of the St. Paul area.April pointed me to Do or Die or Get Along: A Tale of Two Appalachian Towns by Peter Crow.  The book devotes most of a chapter to the four years of meetings and deal-making required to reroute the river.  An unlikely trio of HUD, TVA, and the state highway department banded together to get the job done, united in the goals of moving the town out of the floodplain, providing a commercial district and space for a wastewater treatment plant, and opening up a path for a new highway through St. Paul.

The group needed to get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to reroute the river, and that in turn required a positive recommendation from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the EPA.  Unfortunately for the plan's proponents, the portion of the Clinch River that ran through St. Paul was chock full of endangered mussels, and neither Fish and Wildlife nor EPA were thrilled by the idea.  In the end, Senator John Warner had to pull some political strings to move the project along.

Whether or not the river rerouting was good for the Clinch River's aquatic life, residents of St. Paul were largely in favor.  Tom Fletcher, one of the players in the drama, described what now stands in the river's place:

"This whole area that houses all these buildings, the river went right through the middle.  It is a shopping center, which features both Food Lion and Food City.  It has a bank, a Hardee's, a Pizza Plus, a Dollar General, a Family Dollar, Rite-Aid Pharmacy, Riverside Medical Clinic.  We have a space here that we use as a softball field for our high school team.  We have a Chevron, an Exxon, another pharmacy, a Burger King.  There is a plaque in the bank where the center of the river used to be."

Posted Tue Mar 30 08:31:26 2010 Tags: maps
Map of Sugar Hill, The Pinnacle, and High Knob in southwest Virginia

I urge you not to end your exploration of Appalachian ecology at Sugar Hill.  Southwest Virginia is chock full of other fascinating natural areas, like the high elevation plants and animals found on High Knob and the unique limestone community at the Pinnacle.  You can even uncover ecological stories in your own backyard.

In this final chapter, I am highlighting two of the most intriguing natural areas found nearby.  I hope you'll consider these attractions a jumping off point for your own explorations.  I'll be sharing more local trails on the Clinch Trails blog, so check back often and tell me about your adventures!

<--Back to Human Signs                  On to High Knob-->
Posted Thu Mar 4 20:31:51 2010 Tags: maps

Map of the Oxbow Lake Loop TrailLength: 1.0 mile

Difficulty: Easy

Summary: The Oxbow Lake Loop Trail is the perfect warm up or cool down for a day spent exploring Sugar Hill's trails.  The wide, level trail is by far the easiest in the trail system as it circles around the man-made Oxbow Lake.  Lake waterfowl like Pied-billed Grebes and American Coots are often in evidence.

Posted Wed Feb 24 16:33:01 2010 Tags: maps

Map of the east half of the River Trail at Sugar HillLength: 1.0 mile

Difficulty: Easy

Summary: The East Half of the River Trail begins at Bryce Beah and runs through young forest to end at Oxbow Lake.  River wildlife abounds and giant Solomon’s seals near the trailhead are not to be missed.

<--Back to Pete's Rock                                                 
On to Animal Signs-->
Posted Sun Feb 7 18:56:15 2010 Tags: maps

Map of the west half of the river trail.Length: 1.2 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Summary: The West Half of the River Trail follows the curve of the Clinch River from St. Paul Falls to Bryce Beach.  White-trunked sycamores arch over the water and spring-blooming Virginia Bluebells and Celandine-Poppies grace the floor of this floodplain forest.

<--Back to Millipedes                                        
On to Nourished by High Water-->
Posted Fri Jan 29 13:25:17 2010 Tags: maps

Map of the Marlene PathLength: 0.3 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Summary: The Marlene Path winds down the west side of Sugar Hill, through a dry, oak-hickory community.  A canebrake marks the location of Native American fires while millipedes and Burdick's Wild Leeks can be found on the forest floor.

Posted Mon Jan 25 13:42:38 2010 Tags: maps

Map of the Cliff TrailLength: 0.3 miles

Difficulty: Difficult

Summary: As you scramble up the Cliff Trail, you are passing through a nearly untouched forest, past massive cliffs draped with Walking Fern, Red Columbine, and other rock-loving species.  But watch out --- the trail is narrow and can be slippery during wet weather!  This trail is the shortest way to reach the Frenchman's Settlement from the parking area.

Posted Thu Jan 21 15:26:20 2010 Tags: maps

Geologic Provinces from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
In addition to being a great spot to view medicinal plants, Sugar Hill has geological significance.  Geologists divide the earth into hundreds of physiographic provinces, each of which represents a unique land form and helps determine the type of plants and animals which will live there.  Sugar Hill is located within the Ridge and Valley Province, a portion of the Appalachian Mountains where the underlying rocks have been folded like a crumpled up carpet into a serious of parallel ridges divided by long river valleys.  Sugar Hill is wedged into the Clinch River valley north of the Clinch Mountain, a ridge that runs in a nearly straight line for about 150 miles from Burke’s Garden, Virginia, to Knoxville, Tennessee.

Just north and west of Sugar Hill, however, the form of the land changes.  Here on the Cumberland Plateau, the land more closely resembles a crumpled up paper towel with stream valleys running in all directions.  The elevation on the Cumberland Plateau is also higher than that in the Ridge and Valley Province and different plants and animals call this region home.

Ecologists call the border of two ecosystems an ecotone --- for example, the shrubby plants growing along the fence between a pasture and the forest form one type of ecotone.  Ecotones often contain more types of plants and animals than can be found in either of the two ecosystems they divide, a phenomenon known as the edge effect.  So it should come as no surprise that Sugar Hill, located on the border of two physiographic provinces, is home to such a diversity of life.  Keep your eyes open for misplaced Cumberland Plateau species as you hike the trails around Sugar Hill.

<--Back to Twinleaf                  On to Spotted Mandarin-->
Posted Wed Jan 20 14:26:00 2010 Tags: maps

Americorps Trail MapLength: 0.3 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Summary: The Americorps Trail curves around the northeast side of Sugar Hill through lush cove hardwood forest, acting as a shortcut to the North Half of the Loop Trail.  Dense stands of Black Cohosh, Blue Cohosh, and Twinleaf coat the forest floor.  Keep your eyes open as well for the rare Spotted Mandarin and Goldenseal.

<--Back to Dodder                  On to Medicine Growing Wild-->
Posted Wed Jan 20 12:00:11 2010 Tags: maps

Map of Sugar Hill's South Half of the Loop TrailLength: 1.9 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Summary: The southern half of the Loop Trail begins at the Frenchman’s settlement where a foundation and chimney mark the home of the region’s earliest coal baron.  From the settlement, the trail runs through fields with amazing views of the surrounding countryside before dropping down to parallel the River Trail.  Keep your eyes open for Eastern Meadowlarks and other old field species.

Posted Sun Jan 17 15:14:39 2010 Tags: maps

Map of the north half of Sugar Hill's loop trailLength: 1.1 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Summary: The north leg of the Loop Trail runs through lush beds of trilliums above Oxbow Lake, then curves west to parallel the Norfolk and Western Railroad. Rare species, unparalleled diversity, and a carpet of early spring ephemerals are all signature features of this rich cove forest.  Turn the trail into a short loop by returning to the parking area along the Cliff Trail, or into a long loop using the south half of the Loop Trail.

Posted Fri Oct 23 12:41:40 2009 Tags: maps
Trail map for Sugar Hill
Trail map courtesy of Sugar Hill's official website.

<--Back to Plan Your Visit                     On to North Half of Loop Trail-->
Posted Thu Oct 22 17:10:43 2009 Tags: maps

Driving directions to Sugar Hill
To reach Sugar Hill, follow Alt. Rte. 58 to St. Paul. Coming from the west, turn right at the first stoplight. Coming from the east, turn left at the second stoplight. In either case, drive to the parking lot at the end of the road. The trailhead is located across the Oxbow Dam from the parking area.

Sugar Hill's trails are open to hiking, mountain biking, and fishing as long as users pack out their litter and keep dogs under control. No horses or motorized vehicles are allowed. Biking requires an intermediate experience level around the Sugar Hill Loop while the River Trail provides an easier biking experience over flat ground with some sandy and rocky spots. Keep in mind that the Oxbow Lake Trail is owned by the town of St. Paul and walking only is allowed on that particular pathway. All users visit at their own risk and should not deviate from the trails, try to pet, feed, or catch wildlife, or to remove any plant.

<--Back to Why Sugar Hill?                    On to Sugar Hill Trail Map-->
Posted Thu Oct 22 17:04:41 2009 Tags: maps

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