Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Tea Creek Trails, July 26, 2019

The Tea Creek area of the Monongahela National Forest is home to a network of interconnected trails offering a challenge to any level hiker.  Like its neighbor just to the south - the more famous Cranberry Wilderness - the Tea Creek trail system presents a physical and mental challenge to complete that far exceeds trail lengths and elevation gains, thanks to rugged terrain and wet conditions. Unlike Cranberry Wilderness, trails are well marked and are being reconstructed after multiple floods, due to the efforts of private mountain biking groups.  This loop hike begins and ends at the Tea Creek Campground that is maintained by the USFS.

I stayed at the Tea Creek Campground. What a delightful place! 
Large, private, quiet campsites for a great price - $10, but I paid only $5 because, as owner of a federal National Parks pass (valid for 5 more days), I qualified for a discount.

But I was unprepared for the temps.  It had been so hot in Charlottesville for so long that I just brought a summer bag and a wool blanket, and that would not have kept me warm in the tent.  So hiker dog and I slept in the back of the 4Runner instead.  It meant that we could not enjoy the sounds of Tea Creek when we slept that night.

Driving up the road to this campground brought back memories for me.  Two Julys previous, I completed a 33.3 mile backpack in Cranberry Wilderness next door that included my toughest hiking day ever - 24.6 miles over 13 hours that included a trail that disappeared over the last 7 miles of the day. I was so spent at the end that I got sick when I reached my car.  This trip went easier, but the trail was still a lot tougher than it looked on the map.  On this loop, I got soaked and pelted with hail.  I slipped into Tea Creek during one crossing.  I came home with boots that took multiple days of cleaning to get rid of the mud.  Those boots had been waterproof in the past, but not on this outing.  Even the dog looked spent halfway through this loop!

As related in the trail description below, this area went through some devastating flooding in 2016 - most of the state was designated a disaster area.  Because these trails are open to mountain bikes, the bikers have been working hard to rehabilitate the trails after the floods.  Some of the trail work is amazing!  I don't think these areas would remain accessible without this work.  So a big thank you to those rehabilitating the trails. How you got the tons of gravel dropped on the trail miles from any road is an amazing mystery!

Here is a description of the loop I took when camping here.  11.7 miles, 1700 feet ascent, 6 hours to complete.  Slow!  Because there were tough conditions.

Mile 0.0 – If you don't camp there, you start the hike in the parking area at the front of the campground.  To your right you will see a kiosk and trail sign for the Williams River Trail, which you will use at the very end of this loop.  There is a hand pump here and parking for 6-10 cars.  The campground is relatively large with 28 private campsites – including some along Tea Creek. Start the hike by walking up the campground road on your right, straight up the road you used to enter the campground.  Pass the campground pit toilets on your left, then several campsites. 

Mile 0.3 – Come to the end of the public road, where there is a turnaround. The trail will be on your left – it is a woods road behind a gate marked as the Bannock Shoals Trail.  Go around the gate and start up the Bannock Shoals Trail (unblazed).

Mile 0.6 – In a small open meadow, look for a sign announcing the blue blazed Turkey Point Connector Trail.  You could continue straight on the Bannock Shoals Trail and get to the same place, but it takes a lot longer and doesn’t seem as interesting.  Take a right onto the Turkey Point Connector Trail. 

Mile 0.5 – The Turkey Point Connector Trail starts with a mild climb on an old woods road before  the trail leaves the road, switches back, finds another woods road, and begins climbing more steeply, reaching a grade of 20 percent for a while before the trail ends at the top of the mountain – one of the steeper trails in the entire state.  The trail is very rocky in parts, and looks much like several of the trails in Cranberry Wilderness to the south.  Although it would seem like a rough descent, this trail is reportedly popular with mountain bikers, and tire channels could be seen in every wet spot on the trail – indicating recent bike use.  Be alert!
Mile 2.1 – Reach the crest of the mountain.  The Turkey Point Connector Trail ends here and the blue blazed Turkey Point Trail begins, but it is difficult to determine exactly where the switchover occurs. The top of the mountain is supposed to be circled by a small loop trail that is part of the Turkey Point Trail, but there was no evidence of a loop during a July hike – perhaps it would be more visible during the Winter.

Mile 2.7 – After a brief level period, the trail begins to climb again while passing through an interesting area with large boulders.

Mile 3.0 – An intersection with the Saddle Loop Trail is marked by a trail sign and a map.  Keep going straight on the Turkey Point Trail. 

Mile 3.6 – Intersect with the Boundary Trail at the high point on this loop, just over 4300 feet elevation.  The Turkey Point Trail ends here. Continue to the right, downhill on the Boundary Trail, hiking along the edge of the National Forest lands. 

Mile 4.1 – The forest opens up to the north due to some old clear cuts on private lands.  Some trail guides claim that beautiful views are available towards Cranberry Wilderness on trail sections crossed earlier on this hike, but those views did not exist in Summer.  

Mile 5.7 – Encounter the first of many stream crossings.  Note the old rail ties in the trail after this point – you will see them frequently, as the trail uses an old rail bed. The rails are long gone, but the ties remain in places.  Mountain bike groups are reconstructing trail sections to avoid the ties.
Mile 6.6 – Descend to two stream crossings in rapid order. The second crossing is the main branch of Tea Creek.  You will follow Tea Creek for the rest of the hike, back to your vehicle.  Don’t think that it will be easy however; this is a deceptively tough trail (especially if wet), which will have you descending another 1,000 feet over the next 5 miles.  Just after crossing Tea Creek, you will come to a somewhat confusing trail intersection.  The Boundary Trail ends at the blue blazed Tea Creek Trail, which you take to the right.  Just after that is an intersection for the Bear Pen Ridge Trail.  Stay to the right on the Tea Creek Trail.  This trail forms the backbone for much of the backcountry traveling in this area, so you are most likely to see other trail users during the remaining miles of the loop.
Mile 6.8 – Cross Tea Creek again, and keep crossing back and forth nine times over the next mile and a half. Keep an eye out for blue diamonds to help you determine whether to cross. When crossing, the rocks can be slick and the stream banks high.  This trail can prove both physically and mentally exhausting, but it is very beautiful.  It might remind you of the Ramsey’s Draft Trail in Virginia, though this is a tougher hike.  You should not have too much trouble figuring out where the name of the creek came from, after crossing it a few times.

Mile 7.4 – Traverse a new section of trail constructed by a mountain biking group. Part of the reason this section of trail is so tough is its history – Tea Creek has washed away trail and bridges many times over the years, including in June 2016 due to a storm described as a “1,000-year event -- meaning that much rainfall in a single event occurs only once in about 1,000 years.”  Because of ongoing construction, this will probably be an easier hike as time passes.

Mile 8.4 – You may find that the toughest stream crossing is over the Right Fork of Tea Creek.
After this crossing, pass the trail intersection for the Right Fork Tea Creek Trail, which connects with the North Fork Trail.  Just after that is the one great camping option on this loop: an Adirondack style shelter (one of three such structures in the area).

Mile 11.1 – The hike gets easier after the shelter, with no more major stream fords and less rocky ground.  But at 11.1 miles it leaves the Tea Creek floodplain and climbs part way up the mountainside before continuing south towards the end of the hike. There are stripped areas of mountainside with streams of water coming down, which seems to indicate high volumes of water washed away the soil in the not-too-distant past.

Mile 11.6 – Reach the Tea Creek Mountain Trail and the end of the Tea Creek Trail.  Turn right and merge into the Williams River Trail, which you take over a new pedestrian bridge, which replaced the one washed away in 2016. Underneath the bridge can be seen the line of rocks that hikers used before the bridge was replaced.  Stop for a minute to appreciate Tea Creek one last time before returning to the parking lot, 50 feet further.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Laurel Fork South Wilderness, West Virginia

Not to be confused with a primitive area in Highland County Virginia, West Virginia's Laurel Fork South Wilderness a quintessential wilderness experience in our part of the country.  Once owned by the Laurel River Lumber Company, the company stripped the area of all timber then sold the land to the United States government – the common way for eastern national forests to obtain acreage.  Without road access, and deep within a remote part of the forest, just under 6,000 acres obtained federal wilderness designation in 1983. Only a single forest road separates this wilderness from another 6,000 acres of wilderness to the north.  Along with the Cranberry Wilderness, the Laurel Forks are the oldest federally designated wilderness areas in the state.  The Laurel Fork wildernesses however are much less visited than most other wilderness areas in the state.  As one source stated, this “is not a place you visit on your way to somewhere else.” It take effort to get here, and that makes for a great experience.

Laurel Fork South Wilderness contains 9.5 miles of trails.  This hike follows much of the main trail through the Wilderness, the Laurel Fork Trail, along with the Camp 5 Trail.  This route can be hiked as an out-and-back from either the north or south end of the Wilderness, or it can be completed using a 25 minute car shuttle.  This description will describe the hike north to south as a shuttle, though this hike’s length is short enough for many hikers to complete as an out-and-back day hike.

This route presents much of what is great about this wilderness.  Because it is nearly entirely within federally designated wilderness, we do not recommend that inexperienced hikers attempt this hike. The trails, though generally easy to follow, are unblazed, seldom signed, and can seem to disappear at times.  Cellphone coverage is nonexistent.  The difficulty rating applies more to your remoteness, as there are no hard climbs. It follows two streams for its entire length. Wilderness regulations limit groups to ten or fewer hikers.

Mile 0.0 – Start the hike in the back end of the Laurel Fork Campground. Camping is available here between April 15 and December 1, at a cost of $10.00 per night. There is space in the back of this 15 site campground for a couple of vehicles, behind the campground privy.  Look for the trail sign and map at the back of the campground – this is the start of the trail.  Take a photo of the map if you do not have one with you. 
Parking area, noted from tire tracks.  At back of campground.

Trail starts here.

Mile 0.1 – The trail splits nearly right away, with one path going straight and another trail heading right, a little higher, passing by a piped spring.  The trails rejoin shortly after the spring.

Mile 0.5 – The Forks Trail comes in from the west here.  It is easy to miss this intersection. Down by the river is a grove of hemlocks that create a nice campsite, about 100 yards off trail, with no trail leading to it. We once passed a ranger here, camping with his little girls, who said this is the best campsite in the entire national forest!  From here, the trail varies between looking down at Laurel Fork and coming right next to the streambed always on the west side of Laurel Fork.
Trail looks down on river.

Trail nest to river.

Mile 1.5 – Cross a small stream and come to a trail intersection.  This is the end of the Beulah Trail (T310), which ascends west to FR 14 and then continues to its western terminus at FR 44, about a half mile north of the trailhead for the High Falls of the Cheat.  Continue straight on the Laurel Fork Trail.
Trailhead sign.

Mile 2.7 – The trail enters a level, somewhat swampy area where the trail seems to disappear.  This is the only tough area to follow the route.  Cross through the field, cut through a small area of trees, and come to another field.  Cross that field, and look for a stone cairn in the woods on the other side, which marks the trail.  Do not go upslope, but stay somewhat near the stream.  If you just charge through this area, you should see a defined trail again on the other side of these fields.  Recognize that the fields can get pretty high towards the end of summer, as shown by this photo of the trail here, taken in late July.
May photo.  Trail disappears.

July photo.

Mile 2.9 – Cross a small stream. 
Mile 3.3 – The canopy opens up briefly to provide a view of the nearby countryside before dropping back under cover.  Shortly after this point, at Mile 3.5, the trail reconnects with Laurel Fork and a fine campsite can be seen directly across the stream. The trail is wonderfully dark and mysterious through here, thanks to a large grove of hemlocks that have become a rarity in the past 25 years.

Campsite across Laurel Fork

Mile 4.1 – Travel through a series of fine campsites, located under a grove of hemlocks. In the middle of this grove, the trail crosses Camp Five Run, which can be a somewhat tough crossing in the Spring.  Look for a trail to your right just after the stream crossing.  This is the Camp Five Run Trail.  Leave the Laurel Fork Trail here and turn right onto the Camp Five Run Trail, which follows Camp Five Run.   

Camp Five Run Trail sign.

Campsite at trail intersection.
Mile 5.0 – Encounter the first of a series of four stream crossings within a short amount of time.

Mile 5.7 – Exit the wilderness between a pair of signs and come into an open area with a pond on your right.  This pond is popular with fishermen.  Turn around here if this hike is an out-and-back.

Mile 5.8 – Pass the Middle Mountain Cabins on your left. These are depression-era cabins originally built for forest service workers. The end of the Camp Five Run Trail goes right through the parking lot and access road for these cabins.  Respect the privacy of anyone staying there and continue out to FR 14.  You can leave a car on the opposite side of FR 14 from the access to the cabins, leaving the lot you walk through for renters.  The Camp Five Run Trail is marked at FR 14. 

Mile 6.0 – Cross FR 14 to your vehicle.

This is a pretty easy trail with little elevation gain, but an inexperienced hiker could get lost here. The trail never crosses Laurel Fork.  The length as described is 6.0 miles with a total elevation gain of about 900 feet.  It takes 2.5-3.5 hours to complete.

Trailhead Map:

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Smoke Camp Trail, Monongahela NF, WV

Just off of US 250, just west of the Virginia/West Virginia border, is the Smoke Camp Trail.  Drive by the trailhead 50 times and it is possible you will never notice a trail.  But a trail is here, and it leads to a great overlook that few people know exist.

Hike Length: 4.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1300’
Hike Time: 3.0 hours.
The Smoke Camp Trail climbs from West Virginia Route 28 to the site of an old fire tower via a loop interpretive trail called the Rothkugel Loop.  Though parking is nonexistent on site requiring a short road walk, the hike’s lone vista makes this hike worth the trouble.

Mile 0.0 – Park at a wide spot on the road to Lake Buffalo (Forest Service Road 54), a little off of WV 28 just north of where 28 splits with US 250.  There is parking for 2 or 3 cars here.  Walk from here back to WV 28 and turn right (north), taking care to watch for traffic on the highway.

Mile 0.2 – This blue blazed trail starts 0.2 miles north on 28 from FS 54, behind a large sign and across from a yellow house.
The sign discusses the history of the tract where the hike starts. Trees were planted here in 1907 on land that later became one of the first tracts of the Monongahela National Forest.  Interpretive signs on the Rothkugel Loop, which is the start of the hike, discuss the history of the land, discuss forestry concepts, and illuminate the life of the man who planted the trees, Max Rothkugel.  The signs are informative and interesting, and it is curious that the National Forest created such an interesting exhibit without including even a small parking lot off of the road in front.  Stay to the left at the intersection just inside the forest; you will return via the trail on the right.

Mile 0.6 – After passing multiple exhibits about the forest, come to a trail intersection.  Take a left onto the Smoke Camp Trail and leave the tract of planted trees for a forest of natives.  The trail begins to climb here, and some claim that this trail is among the steepest in the Monongahela National Forest.  It climbed at about a 15% grade, however, which is not unusual in the Appalachians.
Mile 1.0 – Cross a small stream and continue to ascend.  Stinging Nettle can be found among the forest undergrowth uphill from this point.  The nettle does not grow in the trail, and its hollow stems means that a hiking pole can easily take it down, but any hiker who has experienced this plant can tell you that it is well named.  Hiking this trail in mid-May presented no nettle issues, but later in the Summer may be different.  Bring poles if you have them. 
Mile 1.9 – Reach an old woods road and turn left, continuing uphill.  Remember to be alert on your return, so you do not continue past this intersection on the woods road.
Mile 2.1 – The Smoke Camp Trail officially ends at an open, but lightly used forest road (FR 58).  Take a right on this road and continue uphill. 

Mile 2.2 – The road ends at a circle, which encloses a small picnic area with grill and picnic table. The concrete posts that once supported the fire tower are still visible.   There are wonderful views of nearby mountains in the Laurel Fork Roadless Area to the east.  This is the Smokecamp Overlook, which a worker at the National Forest’s nearby Greenbrier Ranger District said was only recently cleared – in 2018 – and few people know about.  After soaking in the views, return via the road to the Smoke Camp Trail.  Take care to follow the route you took up to the overlook.

One of the exhibits at the bottom of the mountain shows a photo of the first and second fire towers, and states that the larger tower was built in 1928 and lasted until the 1950s.
Mile 3.8 – Return to the intersection you passed on the way up, and reenter the Rothkugle Plantation tract.  Continue straight this time, to complete the Rothkugle Loop and read about what happened to forester Max Rothkugle.   
Mile 4.3 – Arrive at the end of the Rothkugle Loop.  Exit the forest and return to WV 28, taking care to watch for traffic on this road.  Take a left (south) back toward your vehicle, taking another left when you return to the Lake Buffalo road.
Mile 4.5 – Return to your vehicle.

Trailhead Parking Location: