Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Crawford Mountain Wanderings

This is an account of searching for and hiking a trail that the Forest Service discontinued some years ago, located on Crawford Mountain. For me, the best hiking is all about exploring, and I've already explored all of the current trails out this way.  I'm glad I finally checked the box so I know I've explored this area, but there is nothing Instagram-worthy in this account.

About Crawford Mountain

Crawford Mountain is located in the George Washington National Forest's North River Ranger District - the largest district in the GWNF and my favorite for hiking.  It is just north of  Elliott Knob, the highest point in Northern Virginia and is connected to Elliott Knob via trails that run the crest of Great North Mountain.  Both Crawford Mtn and Elliot Knob are prominently visible as I descend on Interstate 64 into Waynesboro.  

Crawford Mountain does not have a vista that equals that of Elliott Knob (few places do!), so it does not attract the same level of interest from hikers.  And Crawford Mountain, at 3766 feet elevation, does not match Elliott Knob's 4460 foot height.  But Crawford Mountain has three trails to its summit, providing unique experiences.  They include:

  • The Chimney Hollow Trail from the northwest, with a trailhead on US 250 marked by a prominent trail sign.  This is the single most accessible trail in the North River Ranger District because its trailhead is on a major road.
  • The Crawford Knob Trail from the east, which has been painstakenly resurrected over the past two years by members of the Southern Shenandoah Valley Chapter of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.  The transformation of this trail is absolutely remarkable, and hiking it is highly recommended!
  • The Crawford Mountain Trail from the south, which connects to the North Mountain Trail and Elliott Knob.
All three trails converge near the summit of Crawford Mountain.  The Crawford Mountain Trail and Chimney Hollow Trail show the most use - perhaps because they are part of an annual Autumn trail run that starts and ends in a nearby Boy Scout camp and summits both Elliott Knob and Reddish Knob.  The Crawford Knob Trail shows virtually no use, which is a shame now that it is in great shape.  If you are looking for a trail that is in great condition and offers guaranteed solitude, the Crawford Knob Trail is your answer.

Also on Crawford Mountain but discontinued years ago by the Forest Service is a continuation of the Crawford Mountain Trail, striking out northeast from where the three existing trails converge.  According to old Forest Service maps, the Crawford Mtn Trail used to go northeast all the way along the ridge before coming out onto private property northeast of the National Forest land.  Jim F - who gets primary credit for organizing and conducting the rehab of the Crawford Knob Trail, wanted to find the old Crawford Mtn Trail and asked me to join him on a fairly warm February Presidents Day holiday.  This post details the steps we took in this effort.

There is a season for everything, and winter is definitely the season for bushwhacking.  We did this hike in February, and every February I think that the clock is ticking and I need to get these kinds of hikes off my list fast before the leaves come out and everything starts growing again.  

Pre-Hike Research

I'm going to get into the weeds now, geeking out about maps.  Feel free to skip this portion if it isn't your thing.  I am a "maps guy."  Always have been - I remember cleaning out gas stations of their complementary highway maps as a 3rd grader.

In order to explore decommissioned trails, you will need to review multiple maps.  The map most hikers use when hiking out in the North River District of GWNF is National Geographic/Trails Illustrated.  I documented my issues with Trails Illustrated maps eight years ago (Link).  These maps suffer from errors that are never corrected, but sometimes they are the only current choice for trail maps.  That is the case on Crawford Mountain.  Below is a screenshot of their current map of the area, along with a track showing the hike we took over Crawford Mountain - each map shown in the series below includes the track I recorded on our hike, designated by a blue line.  After ascending via Trail #489, the Chimney Hollow Trail, we left current trails until we reached Forest Road 1761 at the top of the map, which is an access road for large electrical transmission wires.

The above map makes it look like we were more out on our own than we really were, however - at least for part of the hike.

The next most common source is USGS Topographic Maps.  Eleven years ago I documented my love of USGS maps on this site (Link), and about how the technology had changed my access to these maps since I purchased hardcopies covering parts of this area back in the early 1990's when I first moved to Virginia and started hiking here.  The technology has changed further in the meantime, and links on that description do not exist today.  I use an annual subscription to GaiaGPS after hiking friend Tony convinced me to spend the money.  

GaiaGPS.com gives a lot of added value for the cost, including showing private property lines, which will show up on the maps below.  Gaia also has a free version.  You can determine whether Free vs Subscription is better for you by looking at this: Link. But you won't get the Nat Go maps or the private property layer unless you lay out $40 per year. Many hikers I know instead use AllTrails.  AllTrails does not have the NatGeo map option found in premium Gaia, and I find the hiker tracks to be of pretty limited use - Gaia tracks seem to be better quality, though there are fewer of them.  The dealbreaker is the maps collection, as Gaia has a ton of maps not found in Alltrails (Link).

The maps copied here come from subscription level Gaia GPS.  I can plan a route and look at it over multiple maps.  Then I can load those maps into my iPhone, or load waypoints into my Garmin GPSMap 66i, a model I use because I can also use satellite communication through this receiver. (I consider satellite communication to be one of the "10 Essentials" of off trail hiking.) The map below shows the Gaia topo layer.  Note towards the upper right there is a split in the trails, shown with a red arrow.  We were looking for the trail marked only with a distance - 1.0, but did not find it.  More on that later.

Back to the USGS Topographic Maps.  Below is the USGS map showing the bushwhack portion of our hike. It does not show a trail fork - only the trail that drops off of the mountain.  This would seem to provide an argument that the route we planned to descend did actually exist.

The map above shows where we went off of the discontinued trail and went straight down the slope.  We did so because there was no evidence of an actual trail here.  We had to drop anyway, so if we were going to bushwhack, and straight drop downslope was our best option as we would intersect fastest with the road that way.  We didn't need a compass for this; we knew that if we continued downhill long enough we would intersect the road.

GaiaGPS also has maps developed by the Forest Service.  I love these old maps!  When I was in high school, I went out west with a school group.  Before leaving, I wrote Forest Service offices in multiple western states asking for maps.  Back then they mailed them out for free!  So I left for my western odyssy armed with trail maps for multiple national forests - many with names I remember off the top of my head to this day, such as Inyo, Plumas, Stanislaus, Kaibab, Lassen, and Mendocino.  The Forest Service does not make these maps anymore, apparently ceding the work to NatGeo due to budget cuts.  (Though you can occasionally find them for sale - I purchased a Monongahela National Forest map for $16 a year ago when in West Virginia.)

Below is the National Forest layer in GaiaGPS.

Notice that unlike the USGS map, this map does not show a trail dropping from the crest down to the power line road.  It only shows the trail continuing north east along the ridge.  This turned out accurate, but other parts of this map were less accurate, as you can see that the power line road tracks quite differently from the track we recorded.

So when we started on our exploration, we did not know whether we would see evidence of any former trails.  Below is a description of our findings.

The Hike

We started out by dropping a vehicle next to the Forest Service gate on the access road about a mile east of the Chimney Hollow trailhead.  I'd never been up this road, but it goes back behind some houses to a parking area just before a stream ford.  It provides good access to this part of the forest, undoubtedly used primarily by hunters. After dropping vehicle #1, we parked the 2nd vehicle at the Chimney Hollow Trail parking site, located just west of the trailhead sign on US 250.

We ascended the Chimney Hollow Trail, passing nice views to the south of the Deerfield valley.  When we crested, the Chimney Hollow Trail ended.  There, we intersected with and continued on the Crawford Mountain Trail.  A little to the north, the Crawford Mtn Trail intersects with the Crawford Knob Trail and both trails officially end.  Continuing straight on the Crawford Mtn Trail brought us onto the discontinued portion of the trail.

I've tried this a couple of times in the past on solo hikes, but greenbriar vines and the distance from my  vehicle discouraged me from going too far.  The old trail is tough to precisely locate, as well, though it is hard to get lost if you hike along the ridge.  This time, we powered past the greenbriar (going around it) and detoured around multiple downed tree trunks.  We each had GaiaGPS loaded into our phones, and used that as a check against wandering off trail.

After about 5 minutes of walking, the old trail became very obvious and was easy to follow.  At this point, we had just passed the high point of the hike.  Most of the former Crawford Mtn Trail was gradually downhill from here. You can see from the photo below that leaves were compacted from other hikers (likely hunters) and trees had a gap.

There was even evidence of recent trail work.

At a point about 1.5 miles from the Crawford Knob Trail intersection, the trail forked, and the better maintained section went left, not straight.  we thought that this might be a trail around an obstruction, so we followed it.  It became quickly evident, however, that this was an ATV trail that was headed down the mountain.  We retraced our steps back to the original trail and followed that.  The trail was much more overgrown for the rest of the ridge, leading us to believe that the other parts of the trail are being maintained by ATV riders.  Below you can see the ATV trail dropping off the ridge at a point shown in our hike track, but not on any map as a trail.

The trail was more overgrown after this point, and as we approached the fork showin in one of the maps above, the trail pretty much disappeared.  We spent some time looking for the descending trail, and failing that, headed straight downslope.  

The descent was exceptionally steep at first (a 57% grade), and we dropped through a patch of mountain laurel, making the descent even tougher.  After we escaped the mountain laurel, we stopped for lunch, then descended along a creek bed as the slope lessened.  

Eventually, slowly, we made it to the power line access road, which we followed back to our vehicle.  I'd been on the road back in 2013 and remember it as a tedious hike.  This time, I was glad for the boredom after the excitement of the bushwhack.

Note that for all of my issues with NatGeo, that was the only map that correctly showed the route of the power line access road.  The Forest Service map had multiple mistakes and the USGS map didn't have the road at all.

 We think we located the other end of that ATV trail.  You can see it in the photo below, taken near one of the electric towers.  It is circled in the photo below.

If I were to ever return, I think I'd take the ATV trail down the mountain.

Hike Data
Length: 11.2 miles
Total Ascent: 3593 ft
Total Time Required: 7:17
Stopped Time: 1:58
Total feet wet from stream crossings near the end: 2.

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.