Sunday, January 22, 2023

Shenandoah Mountain Trail - Bath County

This post details a 7 mile out-and-back hike on the southernmost section of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail in Bath County, Virginia.  This is a moderate hike with several short steep climbs and features a wonderful view at its northermmost point.  There is much solitude to be found on this trail - you may come across some mountain bikers, but your odds of finding another hiker are nearly nil.

The Shenandoah Mountain Trail is one of the longest and oldest trails in the George Washington National Forest.  It stretches over 37 miles riding the ridge of Shenandoah Mountain and dates back over 100 years - it is perhaps the first trail ever built in the Shenandoah National Forest - the precursor to today's George Washington National Forest.  Many hikers have experienced the Shenandoah Mountain Trail (SMT) north of U.S. 250, as it heads north from Confederate Breastworks to Ramseys Draft Wilderness.  South of U.S. 250, however, relatively few hikers have experienced this trail.  It is so long that it is actually best traversed by mountain bike.  And heatmaps show that mountain bikes traverse the entire length of the trail, including, illegally, within the boundaries of Ramsey's Draft Wilderness.  (Bikers have told me that "It is OK, because the trail is the wilderness boundary, so riding on the western edge of the trail keeps you outside of the boundary."  But that is wrong - the boundary extends past the trail and riding bikes within the wilderness violates federal law.)

At its southern end, the SMT is a very remote and wild trail.  It requires driving south from West Augusta and US 250 over 20 miles into Bath County.  But parts of the drive are spectacularly beautiful, and paved roads extend all the way to the trailhead.  It is an especially good Winter hike, because the conditions of the access roads are excellent.  

Perhaps the hardest thing about this hike is finding where the trail starts.  So I will go into detail on that.  Drive south from US 250 at West Augusta through Deerfield.  After Deerfield, you will pass through some large farms and into Bath County.  There are wonderful views of Walker Mountain to your left and Shenandoah Mountain to your right, with Chestnut Ridge straight ahead.

Take the Deerfield Road all the way south to Rt 678, Indian Draft Road - 22.2 miles from US 250.  Take a right on 678.  This road is marked by number only, and not by name.

Take Indian Draft Road until you see the Cowpasture River on your left.  There is a wide parking area on the side of the road just before the bridge over the Cowpasture River.  Park here, making sure to leave nothing of value visible to anyone who might take an interest in an unmanned vehicle.  You will start by walking back east on the road for a quarter mile, retracing the last bit of driving you made.  

Look for a telephone poll on your right, with a support cable that crosses over the road onto the slope on your left side.  On that slope, you will see a Carsonite trail marker (a flat metal post planted in the ground) and several blazes.  This signals where the trail starts, and is pretty easy to see when walking along the road from the west.  (It is a lot tougher to see when coming from the east.)


This segment is a recent addition to the Forest Service trail inventory.  It climbs via a couple of switchbacks to a ridge at the top, where the trail then follows an old woods road.  The trail originally continued east on that woods road along the ridge into private property before reaching the main road.  This new segment keeps the trail on Forest Service land.  (And, not suprisingly, heat map data shows most bikers ignoring this trail and continuing on the ridge to Indian Draft Road.  Trespassing?  Or does the landowner - the Ft. Lewis Lodge - allow it?  I don't know.)

Once it reaches the ridge, the trail heads left, continuing uphill and away from the national forest boundary.  There are nice winter views of the Cowpasture River and the Ft. Lewis Lodge - a spectacular bed and breakfast open April through October.  

Near the top of the ridge, the trail curves to the right away from river views and into the mountains.  You need to keep an eye out for the curve.  A tree is blazed yellow, but it is some distance from the curve in the trail and easy to miss.

From here, you drop away from the occasional road noise of Indian Draft Road and into the National Forest.  My hiking companion noted when hiking this portion that the sense of quiet is truly amazing here.  You hear nothing except forest sounds - not even any airplanes.  For a section of forest so close to paved roads, this is a truly remote area.

The trail heads generally eastward through remote forests along ridges, sometimes with steep dropoffs on either side of the ridge.  There are a couple of really steep climbs in this part of the hike, especially at the 1.5 mile mark.  Overall however, the trail is relatively well blazed and easy to follow.  In winter, there are nice mountain views in the distance.

At the 2.5 mile mark, the trail drops down and crosses Rt 627, Scotchtown Draft Road.  This is a dirt forest service road that provides a closer parking option to the overlook that is our destination.  

There is also a trail mileage marker here which has a pretty unique feature - one that slams home the remoteness of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.  Check out the sign.

Ignore the fact that it refers to "State Rt. 250" when the highway is actually U.S. 250 - a federal highway.  When do you ever come across a trail mileage sign that includes a landmark 25 miles away?  I cannot think of another sign with such a distant landmark anywhere in Virginia.

Continue north on the SMT from this road, passing another Carsonine post and a small maker stating that this is part of the Great Eastern Trail, a new long distance trail that goes from New York to Alabama.  

The trail starts ascending with real purpose now.  Not as steeply as in earlier portions, but steadily and unrelenting.  Notice after about a mile that the forest changes as you cross a section that is on the edge of a shale barren  - trees are much less prevelant compared to the rest of the forest after the road crossing.  The trail will take a right following the contour of the mountain.  Keep an eye out for a metal arrow on a tree to the left of the trail and, at the same point, a side trail heading to the right.

Climb steeply to to the open point on the mountain.  Many distant locations can be seen from here, including Rough Mountain Wilderness and Warm Springs Mountain.  If you look carefully, you can see Scotchtown Draft Road, which you crossed on your way here.  This is truly one of those "photographs do not do it justice" locations!

Retrace your steps from here back to your vehicle.  Note that, on your way back, there is one point where the trail south of Scotchtown Draft Road is difficult to follow when heading south.  If you are a ridgetop and suddenly do not see any blazes on the trees, you may have gone straight on a ridge when the trail cut right down off of the ridge.  Keep an eye out for blazes!

Hike distance: 7.3 miles
Total Ascent:  2163 feet
Minimum Elevation: 1703 feet
Maximum Elevation: 2875 feet

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Hiking the AT over Burkes Garden - without backpacking

I am providing guidance for a small group of folks who have a goal to finish the AT in Virginia.  Some of these folks are not backpackers.  Although we may backpack at some point, we haven’t started doing it yet, and – as of this writing – the group has hiked 40 segments of the Virginia AT and completed over 388 miles of the 550+ Virginia AT.  We stared in June of 2019, and hike on weekends when the three main folks (including me) are available. 

For a long time, day hikes were easy.  But as the unhiked portions of trail have gotten increasingly far from our Charlottesville homes, planning has become more of a challenge.

The single hardest section to plan for in all of Virginia, in my opinion, is the AT where it crosses Burkes Garden, in SW Virginia north of Wytheville and south of Tazewell.  The only road access to center portions of the hike is a treacherous, windy dirt road with steep dropoffs, and I wanted to do this section without long drives between trailheads.  Below is the plan I developed, which worked really well.

Day 1: Left Charlottesville early morning. We then dropped Car One (a Ford sedan) where the AT crosses Virginia Rt 42, near Ceres, Virginia (Map).  We dropped extra gear into the Ford and took only our dayhiking gear with us.

We then drove back in Car Two (a Toyota 4Runner) back towards Bland a short distance to “downtown” Ceres, and drove north on Virginia Rt 625, Poor Valley Road.  Virginia 625 was a road better suited for a 4Runner than a Ford sedan.  We climbed up over and dropped back down into the Poor Valley, where there were a number of houses pretty much right on the road. We drove 8 miles off of 42 to the AT crossing and a small parking area.  It took a long time to get there – probably close to a half hour.  The trailhead is on Google maps as “Appalachian Trail – Chestnut Ridge Trailhead.”  (Map).

At this parking area, we left the 4Runner, which stayed there until the end of our trip.  I was a little worried about leaving a car in such a remote location for a couple of days, but we ended up having no trouble. 

We then hiked southbound on the AT a distance of 6.8 miles – a good amount because we had a 3 hour drive from Charlottesville to get here.  The hike featured an ascent of 1700 feet, and a descent of 2050 feet.  It took our group 4 hours going southbound through wonderful fall foliage.

When we hiked this, a bridge was out over one of the streams we had to cross.  I did not have any issue hopping some logs, but others chose to wade barefoot.  We completed the hike by reaching the Ford Sedan at Rt 42.  We all then took the Ford Sedan back to Bland and spent Saturday night staying at the Big Walker Motel. 

Day 2: This was the Big Day of Hiking – we ascended on the AT to Burkes Garden and stayed overnight in the Burkes Garden Hostel.  We drive our only vehicle – the Ford sedan - to a parking lot on Suiter Road just past the AT crossing and footbridge. (Map). This is about 15 minutes from the Big Walker Motel and about 20 trail miles north of where we left the 4Runner the previous day.  We parked the Ford Sedan here and hiked southbound over a bridge crossing of a small river.  We needed bigger packs than a normal dayhike because we would need to bring two days of food.

At the beginning of this hike, you start climbing almost immediately.  There used to be another trail in here somewhere (I’ve never found it for sure) that followed a streambed and was the “low water” AT.  The route I’ve always taken here (this is at least my 3rd time here) is the former “high water” AT.  It is now the full time AT and I could not find evidence of the previous alignment.  After about a 650 foot climb, the trail levels off and you pass a bench constructed by PATH – the Piedmont Area Trail Hikers – which maintains the AT through this part of Virginia.  There used to be a side trail back down to the road here, but it looks like it is no longer maintained.

From the 1 mile mark to the 3.1 mile mark, the trail stayed mostly level and was a delight to travel.  The next 1.2 miles after that dropped in elevation 750 feet, descending to Jenkins Shelter and a crossing of Hunting Camp Creek.  We stopped at the Jenkins Shelter and met a couple of southbound hikers who would also end up staying at the hostel that night.

The tough part of the hike was between about Mile 3 and Mile 7.2, where we climbed 1750 feet.  After that we hiked along a ridge with relatively minor ups and downs, though they were still tough when tired.  We crossed one road with a small parking area – one of two routes into Burkes Garden.  This was at about the 9 mile mark, a little after a side trail to the Davis Farm campsite, which we did not visit.  The campsite was too far off the trail to explore on a long hiking day, even though there is supposed to be a nice view there.

We continued on to Walker Gap, where we crossed a road then landed in a small parking area.  The parking area surprised me, because I did not remember it from my last hike through here, and I had always read that there was no road access to the AT here.  Although past the point where the State maintains roads, the road was in good shape and could provide a shuttle option for other hikers.  It is a little confusing in here – cross the road a keep going, then come to the parking lot.

From the parking lot, we descended 300 feet over 0.8 miles until coming to the Burkes Garden Hostel, which is part of the farm on the right in the photo above.  This hostel was new in 2022 and was a delight to experience.  There were three other hikers staying in the hostel - the two we met that morning and a northbounder who started out camping but ended up in the hostel after the dew outside started building up.  I enjoyed my time with each of them.  The two women in my group each rented rooms in the main house, but I opted for the more Spartan accommodations in an old barn, where there were a dozen or so mattresses on the floor up in the loft.  I was plenty warm due to extensive insulation. 

The owner was a whirlwind!  A very social person, she is also handy with a saw and built the accommodations herself.  An amazing amount of work must have gone into this facility.  I thought that staying here was a bargain.

One bonus at the hostel was very good wifi.  The owner said that all of Burkes Garden has premium access because one of the residents used to work for a communications firm and he applied for grants to upgrade the area.  She said that internet inside the bowl that is Burkes Garden is much better than anything that surrounds it, even in the town of Tazewell.

Day 3: We could start from the hostel and either hike or shuttle to the trail.  (The hostel offers free shuttles back to the Walker Gap parking lot. I pushed for the shuttle back up the mountain.)  Once on the trail, the first 1.3 miles was uphill, ascending 900 feet – sometimes steeply.  At the top, we stopped at the Chestnut Knob Shelter – an overnight AT shelter that is totally enclosed with rock walls.  I think this is the best shelter in Virginia.  The views are fabulous here!  (The door was missing though, as the trail club was fixing it.)

We descended the rest of the hike, losing 2150 feet over 5 miles and enjoying absolutely glorious views towards the Grayson Highlands for the first mile or so after leaving the shelter.  These were easily the best views of the entire three days.  The rest of the descent was in a forest.  We reached the 4Runner at about the 6.1 mile mark, and took the 4Runner back to Suiter Road where we picked up the Ford sedan and headed back to Charlottesville.

Total: We hiked 27.5 miles over three days. Note that the Burkes Garden Hostel is not open year-round.  You should contact them and inquire before making definite plans to replicate this hike.

We will be back on the AT in December, seeking to check off the Peters Mountain section of the trail, just north of the New River and Pearisburg.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Golden-Winged Warbler Trail, near Ceres, Virginia

Note: the Golden-Winged Warbler Trail is not officially recognized at the time of this writing in November 2022.  The trail club that is pushing for its official recognition, the Piedmont Appalachian Trail Hikers (PATH) is currently working its way through the approval process. But the trail is blazed and can be hiked.  After approval, maintenance on this trail will no doubt increase.

The Golden-Winged Warbler Trail (“GWWT”), located on the Bland County/Smith County line, is part of a small loop when combined with the Appalachian Trail (“AT”) at Tilson Gap on Big Walker Mountain.  The trail is named after a songbird whose population in the Appalachian Mountains has fallen by an estimated 98% in recent years. Link. The area around the GWWT is considered prime habitat for this species.  It also is exceptionally beautiful with wonderful vistas!

There are multiple locations to park for this hike.  This hike description assumes a longer option that includes some additional Appalachian Trail miles before and after the loop, parking at a public parking lot where the Appalachian Trail crosses Virginia Route 42 next to the private O’Lystery Picnic Shelter. You may also park your car at the Quarter-Way-Inn, an AT Hostel just up VA 610/Old Rich Valley Rd from the loop, even in the off season. You would need to email the owners first. There is also a small pull off right next to the Appalachian Trail on VA 610/Old Rich Valley Rd on the south side of the road to the west of the trail, and PATH anticipates that improved off road parking in this area will be implemented after the GWWT is fully recognized.  Just doing the loop would give you a hike of 3.9 miles, and you would miss some of the spectacular scenery experienced on the AT when coming southbound from Route 42. 

Mile 0.0 – Park at an AT lot where the AT crosses Virginia Rt. 42.  The lot is on the Northbound side of the road, and is next to a picnic shelter. In the woods behind the parking lot is the best campsite on this hike, with several flat areas for camping near Possum Creek. The AT crossing is a little hidden here, as it does not cross at the parking lot.  Walk back out to Rt. 42 and take a right.  The AT crosses about 50 yards down the road.  Start the hike by ascending through some woods.

Mile 0.4 – Leave the woods and hike through pasture land with wonderful views east to Big Walker Mountain.  The trail is somewhat eroded and easy to follow here, but it is also marked by fence posts with white blazes. 

Mile 1.1 – After climbing a stile, come to the Shady Grove Road.  Right here is the lowest elevation on this hike.  Cross the North Fork Holston River on the road bridge and take an immediate right onto the trail, marked by an AT sign.  Be sure to check out the deteriorating old Tilson Mill upstream from the bridge. 

Mile 1.2 – Come to another stile after paralleling the river for a short distance, part of the way is on boards placed by the trail maintaining club because the land is often wet.  Cross a farm road and ascend through woods about 425 feet over the next 0.9 miles.

Mile 2.3 – At the upper end of a working cattle range, descend to a sign for the Golden Winged Warbler Trail.  Your return will take you back to this spot.  To the left through the field is the GWWT, which follows the old AT alignment.  Take a right and follow the Appalachian Trail.  (Note that the next 2.2 miles of AT are not shown on maps produced by National Geographic/Trails Illustrated, as of the writing of this guide.  The new alignment opened in 2018, after the federal government bought the farm - known as the Tilson Farm - and added it to its National Forest holdings.)

Mile 2.8Cross the Old Rich Valley Road (Rt 610) and begin an 800 foot elevation gain over the next 1.7 miles.  Much of this ascent follows the old Black Lick and Plaster Bank Turnpike, originally constructed during the Civil War to carry gypsum.  You will start by traversing more fields, then enter into the forest on the north slope of Big Walker Mountain.  When my group hiked this portion of the AT, the question was, ‘why did the AT move from its old route?’  I asked a leader of the Piedmont Area Trail Hikers (PATH), which maintains this section of the AT.  I was told that the AT “was relocated in this area because [the previous alignment] was right on the boundary of the property (or easement) and the trail corridor for several hundred yards was rather narrow (maybe 20 or 30 yards).  The present location was [relocated onto] on an old commercial road (Plaster Bank Road) which makes for a better grade and easier maintenance.”

Mile 3.4 – About halfway into your climb up the north slope of Big Walker Mountain, come to a switchback with a nice vista looking west towards the Burkes Garden area.

Mile 4.5 – Reach the highest point on this hike, about 3400 feet elevation, as you reach Tilson Gap on Big Walker Mountain. During the Summer months, you may go through some weeds just before reaching the high point. 

Look for a double white blaze signaling a change in AT direction, and a golden blazed tree behind that to your left, signaling the start of the GWWT. 

As of this writing, there was no trail sign here, though one will likely be installed in the future.  If you wish to hike further south on the AT to camp, there are multiple wonderful campsites at the base of this trail’s downslope, about 1.5 miles away, on the banks of Reed Creek. (Although these campsites are not part of this hike description, they are probably the nicest campsites along the AT for a long distance in either direction.)  If you aren’t camping, however, don’t start heading downhill.  Instead, take a left here onto the GWWT, looking for the golden yellow blazes to help you through areas where the old AT alignment is not clear.  The trail descends through a rocky slope.  Hiking sticks are very helpful here, as is a keen eye for upcoming golden blazes.

Mile 5.6 – The trail levels out somewhat and follows the original easement back towards the Old Rich Valley Road (Rt 610) – you can tell because it is a thin corridor of woods sandwiched between open grazing lands. 

Mile 5.8 - A stream crosses this section of trail, providing a possible camping opportunity.  Be on the lookout here for the trail to leave the wooded strip and angle left into a nearby field.  I missed that because I was looking at a nearby farm and its wonderful tree, then I found myself on an overgrown trail wondering what happened!

Mile 6.0 - After angling though a field towards a gate, following some posts with yellow blazes, come again to the Old Rich Valley Road (Rt 610).  There is an old stile here that is overgrown with plants.  You don’t need to use it to get out to the road.  But you will need to climb the stile on the other side of the road.  I found myself climbing in front of a large, somewhat interested group of spectators!  At this point, the trail is a little hard to follow.  Head left along the fence line and look for blazes.  There will be a small grove of trees ahead of you, and the trail cuts uphill away from the road in this small grove.  If the trail is not well marked (it wasn’t when I hiked this section), look for the GWWT sign that you passed at the beginning of this loop.  It is visible on the hillside.

Mile 6.2 – Reach the sign signaling the GWWT split from the AT.  Continue upslope, and be sure to turn around and enjoy the views of Big Walker Mountain, which you just climbed. Then retrace your steps to your vehicle.

Mile 8.6 – Cross Virginia Rt. 42 and head to the right back to the starting parking lot and your vehicle.