Monday, March 18, 2019

Forge Mountain Trail, Goshen WMA

I've been over Forge Mountain several times, but stayed away from putting the hike on hikingupward because the start of the trail is a little hard to follow.  Here is how it works.

Start in the same parking lot where the swinging bridge at the beginning of the Jump Mountain hike.  Instead of crossing the bridge, head back to VA 39 and cross the road.  Directly across the road you may see a white blaze.  That blaze signals the Guy's Run Trail.  You are going to follow that up a little valley for a couple hundred yards before the trail cuts diagonally out of the valley to the right. It may be hard to see.  You'll go up about 20 feet in elevation and level out in a somewhat swampy area.  You should see some cut logs in the area.
Trail start as seen from VA 39.

As you approach Forge Mountain, it can also be a problem following the trail again.  I remember my first time going through a downed tree that had been sawed - it was obvious that I was on the trail.  But I could not tell where the trail went next.  After a while I figured it out - it cut up the slope to the right at an angle and then switchbacked to the left.  You may see some white blazes, but really, you need to feel for the trail here.  Once you get past here, though, the rest of the trail is pretty easy to follow.
T Intersection.  Take a left onto a woods road.
At 0.4 miles from your car, the Guy's Run Trail comes to a T intersection at an old road.  To the right, the trail goes out to the Guy's Run Road, which climbs all the way to the summit of Big Butt Mountain.   It can be a great way to return to this point., instead of retracing over Forge Mountain.

For now, take a left on the road, which is the beginning of the Forge Mountain Trail.  It continues for a while and then cuts right, heading directly up Forge Mountain. The climb can be steep at times.

At 0.8 miles, keep an eye to the left of the trail for a sign telling you about a side trail to a small overlook that has a view of Lake Merriweather to the north - which is surrounded by Boy Scout camps from the DC area. The viewpoint could use some trimming.
See the sign on the left for the overlook.
View from first overlook.
Other than that, you will head straight up Forge Mountain without switchbacks.  During the warmer months, you will notice a lot of Sassafras along the climb.
Sassafras defines the trail.

At 2.2 miles, you will have crested and begin to see an overlook on the left.  Stay away from the edge at first, as the overlook is better 50 yards further.  Be sure to stop - this is the money spot of this hike, with views east of Big Butt Mountain and beyond to the Blue Ridge.

The Forge Mountain Trail continues past this overlook to crest near the eponymous rock, shown above, before dropping down to an area cleared for power lines at 3.1 miles.  There is a trail under the power lines, and a trail continues on the other side.  That trail is easy to see during the winter but much harder to see during the growing seasons.

There are many options past this point, and I've now taken all of them.  To the right, you can follow the trail under the power lines,  It takes you to some great views before dropping precipitously as a bushwhack to Guy's Run Road and the other end of the Guy's Run Trail.
Near the summit of Big Butt Mountain, a trail heads back to Forge Mtn.
To the left, the trail under the power lines takes you down to the Laurel Run Road, which comes out on 39 at the picnic shelter in Goshen Pass.

Going straight across the power lines will take you to the Cooper's Knob Trail, also white blazed.  It can be hard to find in growing season - I did not find it the first time I hiked this area in October, but when I hiked it in mid-March, it was very easy to see.  This trail climbs over Cooper's Knob then drops down to a road at 4.1 miles. This road, to the right, connects with the Guy's Run Road and to the left, summits the 3451 foot high Big Butt Mountain at 5.9 miles.  The Big Butt summit, though now tree covered, once included a fire tower which must have had a commanding view of many surrounding counties.  Near the top of Big Butt is another trail, which heads back north towards the power line cut.  It is essentially a bushwhack, though it contains occasional white blazes, as shown below.
Ridge coming down from Big Butt Mountain seems like a blazed bushwhack.
If you take this route back from Big Butt summit, be sure to stay on the ridge top.  After a while, the road that seems to be the trail cuts right (east) down the mountain - do not follow this!  Staying along the ridge, you will sometimes see a trail and sometimes not, until you reach the power lines.  Turn left (west) and follow the power line road down to Laurel Run.  There is a road here which could take you out to a shuttle vehicle on 39 (by far the best option!), or you could climb the power line road back up to the end of the Forge Mountain Trail.  This climb is brutal!  If you do this, be sure to follow the road behind the metal gate to the right.  I am not sure where the road to the left goes.
Under the power lines.
A hike up Forge Mountain, over Cooper's Knob, summitting Big Butt Mountain, then following the ridge back to the power lines and back to the Forge Mountain trail, is 12.8 miles with 4075 feet elevation gain.  The elevation profile is shown below.
A hike up Forge Mountain, then down the power line cut to Guy's Run Road and looping back to the beginning of the trail via the Guy's Run Trail, is shorter and easier at 7.9 miles, though the drop off of the mountain is a steep bushwhack.  The Guy's Run Trail is not marked from the Guy's Run Road, but it starts as a gated road on the right, next to a campsite, that quickly crosses Guy's Run.

Looking down at Guy's Run from Forge Mountain, under the power lines.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Middle Mountain Trail/Douthat State Park

Middle Mountain forms the western boundary of Douthat State Park.  This loop hike starts and ends in the George Washington National Forest, and clips the northeastern corner of the State Park.  This is a hike best taken during the winter because of a lack of open viewpoints.

Parking at wide spot in the road.

Swift climb from trailhead.
Mile 0.0 – Park at a wide spot in Smith Creek Road, just after the road crosses Wilson Creek.  There is parking for 3 or 4 cars here.  At first, you may not see the blue blazed trail leaving the road because the trail sign is gone – only a post remains.  It is on the other side of Wilson Creek from where you parked.  You drop down next to the creek before ascending.  The ascent is a quick one as the slope of Middle Mountain is steep, but a series of superbly constructed switchbacks make the ascent a relatively easy one.  The Civilian Conservation Corps likely built this trail during the Great Depression, based on a review of historic topographic maps. After several switchbacks, look down, and it seems like you are directly above the road and the creek. 
Trail as seen from Smith Creek Road
Mile 0.8 – Paint blazes on the trees indicate a fork in the trail, however there is no trail sign at this intersection.  You will return on the trail to the left (the Brown Mountain Connector Trail), but should now take the trail to the right.  The Middle Mountain Trail now sports both a blue and a yellow blaze for the rest of your hike on this trail.  The yellow blaze represents the Allegheny Highlands Trail System, a 63 mile system of hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails connecting Douthat State Park with George Washington National Forest lands in Bath and Alleghany counties.  Up until this point of the hike the trail has been “hikers only,” but your route now opens up to horses and mountain bikers at this intersection.
Intersection with Brown Mtn Connector Trail.
Mile 2.9 – You will continue to climb for the entire time you hike the Middle Mountain Trail, with wintertime ridge top views of Douthat Lake, the sawtooth mountains to the left and additional mountains to the right.  The high point of the hike is at a trail intersection.  You are now about 1000 feet higher than the start of this hike and are in the northeastern corner of Douthat State Park.  Take the orange blazed trail to your left, leaving the crest of the ridge and descending for nearly two trail miles, into Douthat State Park on the Salt Stump Trail. Note that Douthat State Park prohibits camping outside of designated campsites. If you choose to make this an overnight backpack, the ridge of Middle Mountain is probably your best bet. 
Ascending Middle Mountain Trail.
Middle Mtn Trail intersection with Douthat's Salt Stump Trail.
Mile 4.1 – After hiking along the slope of Middle Mountain, come to a trail intersection with the yellow blazed Pine Tree Trail on your right.  Continue on the orange blazed Salt Stump Trail to the left. 
View from trail of Douthat Lake, far below.
Mile 4.4 – Cross a stream. 

Salt Stump Trail.

Mile 4.7 – Another trail intersection.  Take the trail signed Brown Hollow Trail to the left, which is both yellow and blue blazed.  At this intersection, the trail exits Douthat State Park and re-enters the George Washington National Forest.  The forest composition changes dramatically here, becoming a thick canopy of relatively young trees.  This area appears to have been clearcut at some point in its history.
Trail Intersection.

After a stream crossing and a brief walk straight upslope, take a right onto an old woods road.  Perhaps this was the access road for the clearcut?

Mile 5.2 – Pass a small wildlife pond on your right. This section of trail may be somewhat overgrown during some parts of the year.
Small pond on right.

Mile 5.4 – Cross another small stream.   
Mile 6.5– Arrive at the end of the forest road open to traffic part of the year. FS125A, Brown Hollow Road, is open April and May, and again from September 1 through the end of January, but is gated the rest of the year.  Continue on this road, over a stream.
Road ahead.
Mile 6.9 – Look for a trail on your left as the road curves sharply left. There is no sign here.  Follow uphill the trail, which is blazed yellow and blue.  Begin an ascent that lasts a little over half a mile; it is your last ascent of this hike.
Along the Brown Mtn Connector Trail.
Mile 8.0 – Complete the loop by arriving again at the Middle Mountain Trail.  Take a right here, to retrace your steps and descend Middle Mountain to your vehicle.
Descending to trailhead.

Mile 8.8 – Return to the trailhead. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Piney Mtn Trail, Warm Springs District, GWNF

During the latter part of 2017 I collected GPS waypoints for an upcoming guidebook detailing the Virginia portion of the Great Eastern Trail, a long distance trail under development that would run from New York to Alabama to the west of the Appalachian Trail. Although much of the GET uses existing trails and roads, portions are still to be built and other portions use abandoned Forest Service trails. One of these sections utilizing an abandoned trail is just north of Warm Springs.  Curious, I took a couple of hikes out there to check out the section. This is a somewhat complex investigation to make, and is probably only of interest to someone thinking about completing the Virginia portions of the GET.

The GET uses many miles of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, along Highland County's eastern border. At the south end of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, the GET uses nearly 8 miles of paved road, passing Fort Lewis before traveling generally south on a route just east of Tower Hill Mountain, mostly on Westminster Road. The portion I hiked was on the Piney Mountain Trail (found on the Trail Illustrated Map #791, Trail Number 453) over Warm Springs Mountain and Piney Mountain.  Looking at old topo maps of Warm Springs Mountain shows a network of intriguing trails, but unfortunately the reality is that much of this network no longer exists due to private landholdings on the summit.  Further south, summit land is owned by The Nature Conservancy, and there is a trail on their land that heads north from the Route 39 crossing of Warm Springs Mountain (there is a parking area and overlook here), but it only goes for about a mile and a half (Map.) and no longer includes portions following a steep ridge of Warm Springs Mountain that look like the most interesting portions of trail.
View of western trailhead.  The sign notes that it is 7.0 miles to FR 358,
but fails to tell you that at 7 miles, you are reaching that road for a 2nd time.

I hiked a section of Warm Springs Mountain north of Route 39 from the trailhead on VA 614, which connects US 220 north of Warm Springs with Burnsville, VA.  There is a sign on the side of 614 a little over 1/2 mile north of the US 220 intersection. (Note: this is the only trail sign you will see on this hike.) The GPS coordinates are: N38° 06.294' W79° 45.779'.  My intent was to hike the Piney Ridge Trail to the summit of Warm Springs Mountain, drop down the east slope of Warm Springs Mountain and cross FR 358 (found on the Trails Illustrated map, but not on the USGS Topo) before finding what is called the "Old Piney Mountain Trail" which connects to the eastern access - Bath Alum Ridge Road, a forest road.  (It was my belief that Bath Alum Ridge Road is gated part of the year based on previous observations taking waypoints, but it appears now that the road is open year round.)  I would then return via the same trail after reaching the eastern trailhead. This is a complicated area to negotiate, which enhanced its appeal.

Descending from the summit of Warm Mountain,
heading east.
The Piney Mountain Trail heading east from the west climbs steeply to start - a 28% grade over the first 0.2 miles, which is twice the standard AT elevation gain.  It eases up for a while before ascending at a 24% grade for the last half mile to the summit of Warm Springs Mountain.  There are parts of the trail that are somewhat overtaken by Mountain Laurel - not enough to cause problems staying on the route, but enough that you are pushing through branches for much of this portion of trail.  After 1.8 miles the trail summits and turns are marked by ribbons on trees.

I first headed south on the summit, off trail, 0.2 miles towards the summit of Bonner Mountain, a high point on the Warm Springs Mountain.  I was looking for possible vistas, and finding no overlooks, returned to my original  route.  There was little indication of a trail on the summit (in fact, I returned via a route that was 20-30 feet from my route out), but I knew to stay on the summit until a trail descended on my right.  I found that trail rather easily due to some log cuts,
Eastern slope of Warm Springs Mountain.
though there was no trail evident continuing on the summit, even though one shows on the USGS map and I had read descriptions of others continuing to House Rock.  (House Rock does not even provide an overlook and it would have added an extra mile to the hike, so I skipped it.)

The eastern slope of Warm Springs Mountain was much more open than what I had experienced to this point - perhaps there had been a fire sometime in the past.  The trail location was very visible, and the overgrowth was surprisingly absent.

At my 3.9 mile mark, having dropped from 3700 to just under 2000 feet elevation, I crossed FR 358, Jordan Run Road. This forest road is open in April/May and from September 1 through the end of January.  I saw no traffic, but there was evidence of recent activity.

There was a campsite here, though I am not sure that a site right next to an open road is appealing to anyone who is a non-hunter.

Jordan Run Road to the right, Piney Mtn Trail WB to the left.

Campsite on Jordan Run Road.

I continued on the Piney Mountain Trail past the road, and after about 0.2 miles came to a trail that went left that I thought could have been the unmarked portion of the GET.  I decided it was not after a little exploration; it looks instead like a logging access road or some kind of fire road.  The actual side trail connected at about a half mile from the Jordan Run Road, at N38° 04.984' W79° 43.630'.

A 2011 trail condition description notes a rotted signpost here, but I did not see one.  The Piney Mountain Trail continues along the crest of Big Piney Mountain in a somewhat SE direction, and reconnects with the Jordan Run Trail at its end, a little north of VA 39.  The section I turned onto was referred to as the "Old Piney Mountain Trail." It is easy to follow, but I only went a short distance on it this day, because I was tired and did not feel up to climbing over and around some extensive blowdowns about 0.2 mile down the old trail.  I really was unsure whether I was on the proper route, given the lack of signs, and would not confirm that I was correct until I could overlay my GPS track on a USGS Topo.  Map.

View of Old Piney Mtn Trail, near Bath Alum Ridge Road, FS 465.
Three weeks later I was again in the area, and was surprised to see that the access road to the eastern portion of this trail was ungated.  Figuring that I had a limited timeframe to explore the remaining Old Piney Mountain Trail without hiking in a couple of miles from a closed gate, I decided to drive down the road to see if I could find the other end.  (It turns out that this road, the Piney Mountain Road, FS 465, is open all year.  Also open is the access road from the main road - Hester, FS 1325 - which isn't shown on the USGS but is on the Trails Illustrated map.)  The road, though unmarked at its intersection with Dry Run Road (Va 609), is easy to find, located on the left when heading north from VA 39 just after the turnoff for the Bath County Shooting Range. The road was in good condition.  Though I did not have GPS coordinates for the trail intersection with this road, it was not hard to locate, at a point where the road makes a sharp left turn, at N38°05.337' W79° 42.814'There was no trail sign here, but there was an area for vehicles to pull off, and the trail looked like it had been used regularly.

This part of the trail was also open and somewhat dry, like the eastern portion of Warm Springs Mountain. It had several exceptional views to the east, through a gap to hiking hotspots including Jump Rock and further to The Priest and Rocky Mountain in the Blue Ridge.

I didn't have my GPS track from my previous hike on the trail, so I had to guess, based on the downed trees I came across, when I I had met the former part of my hike.  There were plenty of downed trees to choose from!
Unfortunately, I guessed wrong and turned around too early.  So I still have a little gap in my completed portions of this trail, and will have to go back again someday.  I should have just hiked to the top of Big Piney Mountain - I know I would have met up with my former hike that way - but I could see another hiking destination from this trail, and I wanted to have enough time to catch the view from the top of Chimney Rocks.

In the grand scheme of things, I am not missing much of the trail.  But perhaps I can convince a group to head out here sometime for a shuttle hike between this trail and the Bear Roak Trail to the north - still active - and a walk on the summit of Warm Springs Mountain connecting the two.  Who is up for an adventure?

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Chimney Rocks, Tower Hill Mountain, Warm Springs District, George Washington National Forest

Last May, as part of my never-ending quest to hike as many GWNF trails as I can, I completed the Tower Hill Mountain Trail. The Tower Hill Mountain Trail climbs its eponymous mountain and ends at private property.  It used to continue for over 10 miles across the long ridge of Tower Hill Mountain, but the forest service now recognizes only the southernmost 1.2 miles as public trail. After hiking the trail, I wrote about it on this blog, asking, ‘Is this all there is? Why does this trail still exist?’

Bath County locals know why.  A little off of the established trail is an overlook on top of a cliff known as Chimney Rocks. The view is what makes this trail worthwhile, even though the trail doesn’t exactly take you to the overlook.  With the instructions in this description, you can find your way to the view, though I recommend that you bring a GPS receiver and enter in the coordinates for Chimney Rocks, listed below.  I do not recommend this hike to families hiking with young children because of the cliff overlook.

I developed the following directions for a trail description to be found on the Hiking Upward website. 

Mile 0.0 – Parking is on a wide spot on the southbound side of Westminster Road.  Both road approaches have a sign warning you that the trailhead is just ahead, which makes it much easier to find the trail. There is a trail sign just off the road where the trail starts. 

Mile 0.3 – The blue blazed trail climbs steeply right at the start, then crosses several old roadbeds before making a wide switchback.  Although the trail levels out, don’t mistake this for the top of the mountain.  Continue after the switchback on a wide trail.

Mile 0.8 – Near the mountain summit, the trail may get a little harder to follow, depending on the time of year.  The trees are frequently blazed, however, so keep an eye for another blue blaze.  At the top, the trail curves to the right and virtually every tree sports at least one blaze.  The trail at the top goes in a northeast/southwest direction. When the climb has leveled off, instead of following the established trail north, take an unblazed social trail south towards the view.  (If you wish to continue north on the blazed trail, you will continue another half mile before reaching the forest boundary.)
It is a steep dropoff from Chimney Rocks.

Mile 1.0 – The trail weaves among the trees for approximately 0.2 mile.  You should stay generally to the left side of the ridge top, dropping slightly in elevation.  Keep an eye out for a grove of pine trees ahead and to your left.  If you use a GPS receiver, the coordinates for the viewpoint are N38° 05.430' W79° 41.747'.

Mile 1.2 – Return to the trail, taking care to look for the part of the trail with many blue blazes.  (At worst, you will overshoot it slightly and find yourself on the trail a little northeast of where it ascends to the summit.) 
View across the Dry Run valley SW towards Piney Mountain

Mile 2.1 – Follow the trail back down the mountain to your vehicle.  

Seneca State Forest, West Virginia

Seneca State Forest in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, is one of my favorite destinations, and it is well worth the 2.5 hour drive each way from Charlottesville.  I've been here at least 5 times and stayed overnight twice, over the past 15 years. There is still plenty of new stuff to see the next time I return.  Below is a version of a write up I completed for Hiking Upward detailing a loop hike there.

Radio Telescope at the NRAO.
Don’t be fooled by the “State Forest” part of Seneca’s name.  Arguably the crown jewel of West Virginia’s state forest system (and West Virginia’s oldest state forest), Seneca is more like a state park.  This facility offers many great options in an area under 12,000 acres, including a nice campground, a beautiful lake, rental boats of all kinds, mountain trails, a long distance hiking trail bisecting the park, rental cabins, and even a unique place where you can spend the night. Plus, if you bring a family with children, you can enjoy the fact that this area is near the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which means absolutely no cell service.  Because this is in a “quiet zone,” you can even see real, working pay phones on the drive here – there is one at the park entrance! (Note: you can also obtain a Seneca State Forest Trail Map  outside the front door of the headquarters building at the park entrance.) Nearby, you can find train excursions and one of the nation’s best bike trails, the Greenbrier RiverTrail.
Younger versions of my son and me on the Greenbrier River Trail.

If you can reserve a night there, this loop features a most unusual and spectacular place to sleep. The high point in this loop passes under a converted fire tower with two bunks and the best outdoor porch for miles.  It has no electricity (so bring a lantern), and the facilities are way back down on firm ground – a lot of steps from your bed.  But the views are unparalleled, and you might even spot a fire in the distance, like I did, when a friend and I stayed there in April, 2017. If you can grab an overnight in the tower, the views on this hike rate five stars.

Mile 0.0 – Once inside Seneca State Forest, follow the main road until you pass over the dam that creates Seneca Lake.  Park on the left just after crossing the dam.  There is a privy here, along with parking for about eight vehicles. At the far end of the parking lot is a sign for the Thorny Creek Trail.  Do not follow this!  Instead, head back to the lake.  The blue blazed Thorny Creek Trail heads along the north (non-road) side of Seneca Lake, starting where the rental boats are stored.
Hike starts here.

Mile 0.4 – The Thorny Creek Trail passes the end of the Fire Tower Trail just after you pass a sign facing the other way telling riders to dismount along the lake.  The Fire Tower Trail here is virtually invisible, but that is OK, as you do not want to ascend on the Fire Tower Trail.  Check out the elevation profile between miles 3.00 and 3.75, when I descended – this trail has an elevation change that is between a 25 percent and 35 percent grade – exceptionally steep!  Instead, stay on the Thorny Creek Trail and save the Fire Tower Trail for your descent.

Mile 0.5– Intersect with the Hill Top Trail, which heads east to the campground and the park headquarters. (There are no campsites along the trail.) Stay on the Thorny Creek Trail.
Seneca Trail Shelter
Mile 1.1 – The trail crosses several feeder streams to Little Thorny Creek before crossing the main stream and continuing in a green tunnel of Rhododendron. 
Mile 1.7 – Ascend and turn left onto the Loop Road, a seldom used park road. The road climbs somewhat steeply.
Mile 1.9– On your right is a sweet little trail shelter, complete with a couple of picnic tables and a fireplace.  This does not appear to be designed for overnights, but only for picnicking.  This shelter is on the Allegheny Trail, a 300+ mile trail that winds through West Virginia.  The yellow blazed trail heads north from the shelter on a singletrack.  The Thorny Creek Trail ends here, and this loop continues on the loop road, which is also blazed yellow as part of the Allegheny Trail.
Best porch for miles around!
Mile 3.1 – At a road split, the Allegheny Trail goes right.  You will want to take the road left uphill to the base of the Thorny Mountain Fire Tower (elevation 3458), built in 1935. Parking and facilities here are for tower renters, as are the views from the stairs.  Respect the privacy of those staying here, and pass through only to look for the Fire Tower Trail,
Looking up the Fire Tower Trail towards the tower.
Note the old utility pole with trail marker, circled.
which starts as a wide grass cut to the left of the tower and then descends steeply, marked with red squares on the old utility poles that no longer service the fire tower.
Mile 3.7 – Return to the Thorny Creek Trail and turn left to walk along Seneca Lake back to your vehicle.
Mile 4.2 – Reach your vehicle.  This is one of several loops that can be found in Seneca State Forest, so if there is time, consider additional hikes.

Map of trail route: Link.
Total ascent: 750 feet.
Fire in the distance, as seen from the fire tower in April, 2017.