Maps of Sugar Hill and the surrounding area.
In its hey day, 900 to
1400 years ago, Coba was a massive Mayan city of 55,000 people. Raised
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
Today, you can explore
the ruins at your leisure by walking down the newly cleared sacbeob
(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.)
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.)
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, and
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.)
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.
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
email@example.com) who picked us up at Calica and got us
to the site in a mere hour
and fifteen minutes, leaving us double the time to
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.
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.
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 http://www.pbase.com/diggitydogs/clinch_mountain. 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.
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.
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
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.
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. Historic
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
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"
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.
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
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
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 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 this
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
the top of the
mountain (above about 4900 feet in elevation) lies the cloud
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.
the easiest habitat
to reach was right outside our door --- the Pacific
slope seasonal forest.
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.
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
Eventually our accumulated dogs and I came to the road which we
briefly before coming to another side path. It looked like the
to be. So I followed it to a few buildings which I found to be
library, Friends meeting house/(church), and Friends’ school.
was ecstatic as I explored the library. It was empty, even of
librarians. In fact, it runs on the honors system. I rushed
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.
April Cain, a
St. Paul native now living in Richmond, emailed me some fascinating
information to supplement my tale of Oxbow Lake's
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.
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
"Oxbow Lake exists because of my father's "impossible dream" of moving
so that it would not flood South Saint Paul almost every
"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."
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!
Length: 1.0 mile
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
Length: 1.0 mile
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.
Length: 1.2 miles
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.
Length: 0.3 miles
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.
Length: 0.3 miles
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.
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
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.
Length: 0.3 miles
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.
Length: 1.9 miles
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.
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.
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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.
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.