Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Brew-Hiking the Shenandoah Valley - Two days in Roanoke (part 2 - doing it!)

This morning as I plan my second two-day trip to Roanoke, I came to realize I hadn't posted anything following last week's trip when The Oelander and I hiked Mill Mountain's Star Trail for the twilight views of twinkling city lights and sunset-framed mountains dotting the skyline.

We loved both hikes - more to come on these later - but Parkway Brewing's Majestic Mullet Krispy Kolsch was the star of the weekend. We took an insulated growler along  and toasted the hiking life as we arrived at the summit, standing in the glow of the famed neon star until sun's light finally faded and a twinkling celestial canopy came into view high above the expansive Roanoke valley.

Today I'll be taking the two-hour drive south from Harrisonburg once again to explore more trails. I'm not sure which I'll end up taking, but I'm looking into doing a sunset hike this evening to Read Mountain's summit at Buzzard Rocks and a day hike tomorrow at Peaks of Otter.

I'll be hiking alone this weekend but I do plan on stopping in at Soaring Ridge Craft Brewery for a post-hike beer at some point. These trips are part of ongoing research, of course, so I may have a second beer (or third). In any case, it's my mid-week "weekend", so I'm going to make the most of it as always!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Brew-Hiking the Shenandoah Valley - Two days in Roanoke (part 1 - planning)

Hey reader, 

Later today I'll be doing an urban sunset hike to watch the lights come up over Roanoke (hoping my friend Laura and her daughter come along to join in the fun); then tomorrow I'll be doing one of the most iconic hikes on the Appalachian Trail. Oh, and of course there will be a brewery visit in between!

A buddy of mine, trail name The Oelander, will be along for the ride. Being a college student can be hard - or at least that's what we all think at the time, right? - so he's getting a get-out-of-jail card for the next two days while I'm off on my regularly scheduled midweek "weekend". Luckily I'm off work for the next 48 hours, and I plan to squeeze the marrow out of every moment.

This afternoon we'll be heading down the highway to a place known as the Star City of the South, Roanoke, Virginia. After dropping the dogs off at the motel, we'll head out to fill a growler at a local brewery - probably Parkway Brewing Company or Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers. We plan to enjoy a toast as the lights come up in the valley and the big neon Roanoke Star flickers on at the top of Mill Mountain. 

To brew-hiking! 

Also, we'll swing by Blue Ridge Hydroponics and Home Brewing to pick up some ingredients for our next batch (still waiting on the Belgian Tripel to fully ferment; could a coffee porter be in our future?).

Post-hike we'll be heading to a local establishment famous for its great food and hearty brews - there are several places we're considering actually, so I look forward to reporting back on where we ultimately decide to tuck in and splash back an ale or two.

In the morning, we'll wake when we're able and head out to the trailhead en route to McAfee's Knob. This iconic knob is located about 3.5 miles in, and its views are pretty damn spectacular from what it looks like on the multitude of shots I see daily on Instagram. It's one of those bucket-list hikes, surely among the top of the top photographed spots along the A.T.

Well, it's time to pack up and head out fairly soon, so I'll log off and leave part 2 until I get to it later this week. Thanks for reading. Ciao for now.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

My Labyrinth of Grief

By Brian Schwarz

The day after my mom lost her battle with cancer, I got in my car and headed for the mountains. In search of a summit that would take me to a place far above the pain, I landed in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in a free fall of grieving.

I booked into a local motel, and I hiked the next day. But the short trek I took to the summit left me unusually exhausted. The reality was, escaping the emotions that were welling up inside me was not an option. Somehow, I would have to work through them.

“Sit with your pain,” the hospice therapist told me. “Be in it.”

Days on end with curtains drawn ended when I realized I needed to venture out for some exercise, lest my body and mind deteriorate beyond recognition. Lacking energy for a hike but wanting to get out and walk, a quick Google search led me to find trails at the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum and Botanical Gardens at James Madison University.

As I pulled into the parking lot at the arboretum, I noticed a sign for a labyrinth. Considered a metaphor for grief, I knew that many people walk a labyrinth in search of peace and understanding, often after the loss of a loved one. So I made my way up the gravel path to a stand of pines, at the center of which I saw light colored stones arranged in a seemingly simple but complex pattern, and a stone bench there at the entrance.

I sat for a while and contemplated what I was about to do. Feeling tired, and sad, and more alone than I had ever felt, I considered giving up, going back to my motel and hibernating until this terrible nightmare faded to black. My best friend for life was gone! I thought, “How could walking through some confusing setup of rocks do anything to change that?”

Compelled to at least try, I took my first step into the labyrinth. Then a second. And a third. Before long I was slowly making my way up, down and over, along a path that still made no sense to me in my mind. I knew where I was going – I could see the labyrinth’s center, and I focused on the large stone there, as I could envision myself collapsing on it once I arrived – but the way to the center made no sense to me at all.

Still, I walked. I stopped focusing on where I was going and finally succumbed to the path, looking down at my feet, trusting them to help me make my way to the center. My mind fell blank. Or was it lost in a sea of sullen nostalgia?

When I arrived at the center, instead of collapsing, I stood up on the rock, took a deep breath, and stretched my arms to the sky. Then I looked down, hoping to make sense out the labyrinth’s complex yet simple design. Did I feel something different now than I had when I started, I wondered? I didn’t feel better, per se, but I did feel something like understanding creeping in. I laughed at the absurdity that I would ever understand.

My walk out of the labyrinth was different. Each step made my heart feel heavy, as if the weight of it all were rising up through my chest and into my throat. Finally, as I was reaching the beginning, which is also the end, the heavy burden burst out of my eyes. Rivers of grief flowed down my cheeks, and a guttural moan escaped my control, lifting me up from the inside.

It was time to go home.

Brian Schwarz is a freelance writer and adult educator based in Harrisonburg, VA, the heart of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. For more information on labyrinths, read this article from the blog Seven Ponds: Embracing the End of Life Experience.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Right on trend, I'm Straight Outta Megalopolis!

I have to admit, I haven't seen Straight Outta Compton - the movie that inspired this meme - but I just had to jump on the trend! Make your own "straight outta" meme at

Straight Outta Megalopolis

Saturday, November 15, 2014

15 Hikes within Two Hours' Drive of Washington DC Metro Area

by Brian Schwarz, hike leader and geophile

The Washington Metro Area - known by locals as the DC metro or the DMV to include Virginia and Maryland - is home to some exceptional hiking. From rambles through urban watersheds to suburban-ring mountain hikes and wilderness treks, this area provides diverse outdoor appreciation opportunities during all four seasons.

Fun strenuous hiking along the Western Ridge Trail in DC's Rock Creek Park
An hour beyond DC's urban core, you'll find The Bull Run Mountains in Virginia and Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. Within a two-hours' drive, the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains rise above the Piedmont foothills, and they carry with them the Appalachian Trail. These prominent mountains of the Appalachian Range span two national parks on either side of the Potomac: Shenandoah National Park and Catoctin Mountain. 

It's a pretty incredible thing, if you stop to think about it, and I've been thinking about it fairly often as I'm currently in the planning stage for group hikes I'll be leading in this section of Mid-Atlantic America over the course of the next year. 

Hiking diversity throughout the Mid-Atlantic DC Metro Area and beyond!
Below is just a primer list of hikes great DC Metro hikes. I've personally hiked all but one of these sometime in the past three or four months. If you're interested in coming along with an experienced hike leader on any of these, keep an eye on my Facebook page, Hiking Megalopolis.

  1. Rock Creek Wilds Hike (DC) - the northern woods of Rock Creek Park, from Military Road up to the mouth of the valley, above the piedmont-to-plain fall zone
  2. Rock Creek Bluffs Hike (DC) - the southern scrambles of Rock Creek Park, in the fall zone; excellent conditioning hike to prepare for more challenging hikes, like the Billy Goat Trail at Great Falls Maryland
  3. Ridge and Valley Hike (DC) - circuit thru-hike of Rock Creek Park, above and below the fall zone
  4. Northwest Tributaries Hike (DC) - Rock Creek and Potomac tributaries, local neighborhood trails
  5. Southeast Hills and Gardens Hike (DC) - national botanical garden sits atop hills rising above the Anacostia River
  6. Sugarloaf Mountain Northern Peaks Hike (MD) - a well-worn piedmont monadnock with a summit and several sub-summits
  7. Catoctin Mountains Hike (MD) - several prominent overlooks with piedmont, valley and mountain views
  8. Cunningham Falls Hike (MD) - a prominent rock outcrop and the base of cascading falls
  9. Maryland Heights Hike (MD) - prominent rock outcrop a Appalachian gap along a ridge overlooking historic town and confluence of Potomac and Shenandoah rivers
  10. Great Falls Maryland Hike (MD) - popular rock scramble and side trails on the east side of Great Falls along the fall zone
  11. Bull Run Mountains Hike (VA) - rock outcrops at the high point of a piedmont Appalachian Blue Ridge mountain outlier that rings in Northern Virginia suburbs
  12. Sky Meadows Hike (VA) - hike from a historiv farm up through a wooded hollow to the AT on a unique meadowed ridgeline then descend with breathtakimg valley views 
  13. Old Rag Mountain Summit Hike (VA) - the number one hike in the area - and not just according to me; strenuous, at the 10 mile range, wilderness, difficult rock scramble, summit, stay for sunset, night hike past abandoned graveyard and site of a long-gone town in a mountain hollow, perfectly darkened for superior star gazing
  14. Great Falls Virginia Hike (VA) - varied opportunities in C&O Canal National Historic Park, including a strenuous rock scramble along dramatic Potomac River bluffs
  15. Rollercoaster to Ravens Rock Hike (VA) - apparently a strenuous up-and-down, out-and-back along mountain ridges to striking rock outcrop known alternately as Ravens Rock and Crescent Rock; this is the only of the 15 hikes within two hours of the DC Metro Area that I haven't done as of the time publishing this article
Best hike in the DC Metro?: Shenandoah National Park's Old Rage Mountain
While there isn't a ton of description this list, I will blog about several of these hikes over the next month or so, and as the weather allows, I'll be doing more scouting of local hikes throughout the winter as I gear up and strengthen up so I can begin taking on the Dirty Dozen Wilderness Hike Challenge, sponsored by The Wilderness Society and Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, which I have from now to September 2015 to complete (hiking 10+ miles in 12 separate designated wilderness areas in the southeast United States, that is).

Meanwhile, if I'm leading hikes with the Sierra Club Potomac Regional Outings and the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, you can find them posted on those clubs' respective MeetUp pages. But last minute hikes and tips on accessing local trails on your own are found only through my blogs, updates for which are always posted on Hiking Megalopolis on Facebook.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Hiking the Great Woods of Philadelphia's West Fairmount Park

by Brian Schwarz, your Hiking Megalopolis guide

Everyone should have access to the woods, regardless of any qualifier you can think of - I mean EVERYBODY! That's why it's so amazing that Philadelphia - a city with shocking income disparity and blocks that are segregated along race and class lines - is home to a public resource so close to the urban core where anyone can gain access to an in-tact contiguous woods, with an easy-to-follow 5-mile hiking loop that leads through the urban wilds and only crosses a busy park road once!

Mountain bikers and competitive cross-country runners already know about sections of these great trails. Still, strikingly few hikers take the time to get to know this truly unparalleled hiking experience. Despite their proximity to the heart of the city, this is not some second-rate hike you do when you can't make it to the Wissahickon, the Reading Prong, Blue Mountain or the Poconos. Hiking the great woods of Philadelphia's West Fairmount Park actually feels like entering the lungs of this great city.

Topo map shows terrain, beneath the trees of West Fairmount's Great Woods
Most people who have been to West Fairmount Park are probably most familiar with aspects of the Centennial District, which includes the Philadelphia Zoo, the Horticultural Center with its Japanese Garden, the Mann Center for Performing Arts and the Please Touch Museum in Memorial Hall. Most also know the many picnic areas and the spectacular view to be seen of the Philadelphia skyline from the Belmont Plateau. But fewer know of the woods that lie east of the plateau, on either side of the ridge where you'll find Chamounix Drive and the multi-use Speedway Trail.

The Great Woods of Fairmount Park can be divided into two parts, Belmont Woods and Chamounix Woods. The Belmont Woods is a unique urban-riparian experience.  Bound by Greenland Drive to the north, Chamounix Drive to the west and the sweeping grassy knoll of Belmont Mansion to the south. It is bound by the Schuylkill Expressway, too, and the trails here dip down below the massive interstate highway taking you into quiet wetland zones where creeks trickle down through a mixed-growth forest. Trees that are hundreds of years younger trees, providing a unique forest experience with a high canopy and a dense understory. It's an experience that rivals and even tops many Pennsylvania state forests, most of which are still quite young in comparison.

The Great Woods of Fairmount Park - Belmont and Chamounix

The Satellite image above shows the near contiguous Great Woods of Fairmount Park. Notice where the Strawberry Mansion Bridge enters the picture, crossing the Schuylkill River on the bottom right of the photo. As the road enters the park it is called Greenland Drive until it reaches Chamounix Drive. Belmont Woods are to the left of Greenland and extend all the way to the edge to the grassy area in front of Belmont Mansion. The woods north and west of Chamounix Road stretch as far north as the Schuylkill Expressway - right up to the I-76/Roosevelt Boulevard interchange - then wraps around Chamounix Hill to continue back to Greenland Road.

Here's the best part - the Great Woods of Fairmount Park is home to an extensive network of wilderness trails that nearly ANYONE can do and where EVERYONE is welcome. That's right - you don't have to be a moneybags or have special equipment and such to enjoy these woods! Just strap on a sturdy pair of shoes, carry water and snacks, and carry a pack so you can haul out any trash you make while enjoying the woods. These are the people's woods!

Don't worry that the trails back in these woods are not marked; you can trust all of the trails to lead you eventually to a road. If there is a trail back there that just peters out and doesn't go anywhere - and I haven't found one yet after at least 15 trips to scout trails - then just turn back around and take another route. That's what's so amazing - you're never far from a way out of the woods, yet you could get lost in there for as long as you choose to. These Philadelphia woods are the epitome of the urban wilds.

GPS Map of the Great Woods Hike in West Fairmount Park
The above map shows a recent 5.3-mile hike I took, starting at the Chamounix Mansion Youth Hostel (see the green dot?) and doing a loop of the entire Great Woods Hike. During the hike, I only crossed traffic once - at the intersection of Belmont Mansion and Chamounix Drives, which, as it turns out, is at the three-mile mark, an excellent place to stop and have lunch at the Chamounix Picnic Area.

The road crossings at Ford Road and Greenland Drive each have wooded pedestrian crossings, where if you'd like to exit the woods you may, but you certainly don't have to. Just to give you an idea of how long it would take to do this 5..3-mile loop, I did the entire thing in about three hours, taking several breaks to sit beneath the towering trees and listen to the many birds that call these woods home. Because it is at once so accessible while feeling so remote, you can break up the hike any way you choose and still walk out of the woods feeling refreshed.

So are you ready to explore the Great Woods of Philadelphia's West Fairmount Park? Follow this link to a description of an epic loop hike that begins at Historic Strawberry Mansion, just across Strawberry Bridge in East Fairmount Park.

Also, for more information of other opportunities to explore the urban wilds and other hiking areas throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania and beyond, go to Facebook and like the Hiking Megalopolis community page. Free hikes are often listed. And please, TELL YOUR FRIENDS you saw it on Hiking Megalopolis!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Hiker, there is no trail": FADA at the core of Hiking Megalopolis

by Brian Schwarz, your Hiking Megalopolis guide

The hike is where you make it, but it starts at your own front door
Hiking Megalopolis is all about EVERYONE enjoying the outdoors. At its core, Hiking Megalopolis believes in involving pre-novice, novice, intermediate and advanced hikers around these four concepts: Fitness, Action, Direction, and Adventure (FADA).


Access to the outdoors can be gained at some entry point by nearly everyone. But hiking takes you on an adventure whereby, as you increase your level of fitness through participation, you increase your access to all of the most special places in nature, you know, off the beaten path. It's a progressive model of fitness that begins with you walking out of your own front door and finding the nearest trail. Fitness is not about arriving at some place and being like, yeah, I'm fit. Fitness is a lifelong journey, and Hiking Megalopolis - with its pan-generational approach - supports the fitness journey for individuals as well as their associated communities.


Getting involved in the hiking community means getting involved in both preserving existing trails and working with local, state and federal authorities to open new trails as they are seen to benefit affiliated communities. Action involves supporting these agencies with trail clean-up and maintenance, hiker education with relation to Leave No Trace Ethics, fostering trail etiquette and engaging in trail awareness campaigns.


Trails are more fun when you realize where you are with regard to the historical and geographical elements of the space you occupy. Knowing how to use a map and compass, or even GPS, not only enhances your experience outdoors, but it helps give new perspective on navigating the roads of relationships, careers and other trappings of "the real world". Being in nature alone is like no other experience. Wilderness navigation is a big part of Hiking Megalopolis. Finding your way through nature, and then finding your way safely home, is what Direction is all about.


Underneath it all, like the tangled root system of a tree that's hundreds of years old, Hiking Megalopolis is about Adventure. Reaching to new depths of ourselves through adventure supports our growth as people and as members of the global community. No person can tell you what adventure would actually look like to them until they have experienced it. But those who engage in hiking often experience adventure they didn't even see coming.

In conclusion, I leave you with this sentiment, inspired by Spanish singer Juan Manuel Serrat. He said, "Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar." For the purposes of bringing home the raw truth behind Hiking Megalopolis, I will say this: Hiker, there is no trail; the trail is laid out before the one brave enough to take the first step.

For a better understanding of how Hiking Megalopolis and the FADA core was conceived, you'll find a pictoral and textual representation of my journey throughout the web and on various social media platforms. On Instagram, I'm FitLifeChronicles. For more on Fitness, check out MyFitLife2Day on Twitter, and the MyFitLife2Day blog. For Action and Direction, read the Man of Merit blog. And for Adventure, strap on a sturdy pair of shoes, pack water and snacks into a pack, and head out into the woods for a day of HikeyHikey!