Saturday, May 27, 2017

GWNF's Tower Hill Mountain Trail

Any list of trails in the George Washington National Forest would have to include the Tower Hill Mountain Trail near the top among the most obscure.  Located in the Warm Springs Ranger District, the THMT climbs Tower Hill Mountain, located between Shenandoah Mountain and Warm Springs Mountain.

USGS topo maps show the THMT originally climbing Tower Hill Mountain and continuing north on the ridge for the entire length of the mountain - over 10 miles.  But the current Trails Illustrated map shows it currently listed at only 1.3 miles long.  I was in the area, and figured that by hiking it I would be able to determine why the trail is so much shorter today than it had been in the past.

The trailhead is on Rt. 624, Westminster Road, south of Ft. Lewis and north of Bath Alum on Rt 39. There is space for a couple of cars off the side of the road and signs telling drivers they are approaching the trailhead, along with a mileage sign at the actual trailhead.  Here is a map of the trail:

The trail climbs steeply from the start, traversing a forest of Tulip Poplar, Sassafras and White Pine. The undercover contains a lot of invasive Garlic Mustard and some Stinging Nettle.  The trail is well blazed with blue blazes, which is helpful as there are a couple of spots where the trail is tough to follow without the blazes.  Over the first 0.4 miles, the trail climbs at a stiff 21% grade before bending to the right and leveling off.  At 0.7 miles the trail climbs again, going from a 6% grade to a 24% grade before reaching the ridge at 0.9 miles.  The trail then moves northeast until it ends at the national forest boundary.  The trail originally continued over private property, and although "no trespassing" signs appeared to have been ripped off of the trees, I chose to respect the boundary and turned around.

I returned the same way I came.  There were no views during the entire hike.  The TSGS map indicates that a spot called "Chimney Rocks" is at the south end of the ridge, a short bushwhack from where the trail reaches the ridge. Google Earth doesn't show anything other than tree cover on this part of the mountain, however, and I saw nothing indicating a trail going that direction.
National Forest boundary at the end of this trail.
My maps show that the national forest owns the land just below the ridge line on the west side of Tower Hill Mountain and a trail could easily be constructed, which could return to the ridge top and meet up with the old trail when the national forest boundaries include the ridge again.  But even if the Forest Service was agreeable to new trails on our national forest (and they are not), it would be questionable why we would want one here.  There does not seem to be anything worth hiking to, such as a rocky outcrop providing a view or a waterfall. I'd leave this one as it is.

The benefits of this trail include fitness (it is a steep climb to the ridge), wooded landscape, and seclusion (it is doubtful you will encounter another hiker in this remote area).  But the trail is short, has no views or highlights, and will be terribly overgrown in the summer with plants that include Stinging Nettle.  I do not plan to return.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Old A.T. on Cove Mountain near Buchanan

Earlier this week was a spectacular January day, and I celebrated by getting out on the trail.  I ended up on the Little Cove Mountain Trail, which is located between the Peaks of Otter resort on the Blue Ridge Parkway and Interstate 81, south of Natural Bridge.  

It is the 4th time I've been down hiking in this area, dating back to 2012 when I first hiked here as part of my quest to complete the entire A.T. in Virginia (link). I come back even though it is a 90 minute drive to the trailhead and there are lots of closer trails. 

There are several good trails here, but I was always curious about the area because I have a 1974 edition guide to the A.T. that describes the AT back then coming out of the mountains at the bridge which is the northern end of the Little Cove Mountain Trail. (And this explains why there is such a great bridge for an otherwise minor trail.)  
Bridge at northern end of Little Cove Mtn Trail
crosses Jennings Creek.

I've always been curious to find the old A.T. route. And I thought I had but a friend who really knows these woods told me that I hadn't gotten it right after the 3rd time here. The USGS topo confirmed that the trail I used on Trip 3 was not the A.T., as the topo still shows the older route of the A.T. 

The older A.T. route went through the Middle Creek Picnic Area then followed the access road to the Jennings Creek Road before turning onto the bridge, requiring a road walk of nearly half a mile. (The current A.T. is almost a mile further west, and only uses the Jennings Creek Road to cross Jennings Creek before ducking back into the forest.)

In 1974, A.T. hikers heading southbound crossed the bridge and then passed the Cove Creek Lean-to (sited way too close to the road!). This shelter is now long gone, and a campsite exists in its place.

According to the old guidebook's southbound directions, 1974 hikers then "Turn right. (Ahead is trail to Little Cove Mtn.) Ascend steeply for 0.4 m. on wide trail up east slope of Cove Mtn. toward ridge crest."

I finally found the old A.T. this week and I hiked it after completing a variation of the longer loop linked above. As shown by the GPS tracks on the attached map, I got most of the old trail. I didn't get all of it, as I clearly went off trail when I got near the present Glenwood Horse Trail. It is basically invisible from the Little Cove Mountain Trail today, and hiking it is essentially a bushwhack. Below is the view from the Little Cove Mountain Trail, and the old A.T. is in this photo.  Try to find it before scrolling down and viewing the same photo with the trail marked. 

Do you see the old A.T. location in this photo taken from the Little Cove Mtn Trail?  
Here it is again with the location marked. Virtually invisible, but generally easy to follow once I get around the curve.
Still, it was basically a bushwhack.
The trail was so invisible here, I wasn't really sure I had found it until I crested the curve at the right end of the photo.  All that could be seen was a slight depression in the land heading uphill to the right.

Further away from the Little Cove Mtn Trail, the old A.T. becomes more visible, with a depression in the land
and moss along the sides of the old trail. This section definitely saw some boot treads back in the day. 
Here is another photo of the old A.T., again showing a clear trail route.

The old trail meets the present Glenwood Horse Trail at a point where the old woods road turns into a trail.  The photo below shows a grassy area that probably used to be a turnaround, and a much thinner trail to the back, marked with orange blazes for the horse trail. I missed this connection (and did not confirm that until I returned and overlaid my route on the USGS topo map), as I instead reached the present horse trail on an old road.  But I probably only missed about 200 yards of trail.  

Glenwood Horse Trail where it starts using a superseded portion of the A.T.

From this point, the Glenwood Horse Trail uses the old A.T. until it intersects with the present A.T. You can see from the photo below that this is definitely a trail, and you will see an old white A.T. blaze if you look carefully at the tree in the photo. The blaze has been painted black, so it is not obvious.  Likely other white blazes have been painted over with the present trail's orange blazing.

Present Glenwood Horse Trail uses the old A.T. as it traverses Cove Mountain
I wish these old sections of the A.T. were maintained when on public lands, but understand the fiscal constraints the Forest Service and Park Service operate under these days.  So for now, whenever I can find them, I'll be bushwhacking the old trails and imagining what it was like to hike the A.T., circa 1974.
Here is a close up of the old white blaze and the painting that tries to hide it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Back on the Brown Mountain Trail, 8 Months after the Fire

I led a hike the first weekend in December on Shenandoah National Park's Brown Mountain Trail, taking scouts from my troop on the trail.  It is really hard to keep up with young scouts on the prowl for rocks to climb, so I did not get the number of comparison photos I had hoped to obtain, showing May and December views from the same perspective.  But I did get some new photos, which are copied below.  Overall, the landscape had changed dramatically from when I last hiked the trail in May. There was no "burn smell" at all! The forest is clearly healing.

The photos below shows the changes to the trail from May to December, with a May shot directly above the December photo.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Hanging Rock, Shawvers Run Wilderness, Jefferson National Forest

The point of this blog is not to tell you about the most popular trails in Virginia - quite the opposite. This blog exists in no small part because the author believes there are so many great hiking opportunities in Virginia that hikers do not have to swarm to the top half dozen hikes in the state. Most hikers out there probably aren't interested. But as of next year, I will have been hiking in Virginia for 25 years and yet I still hike a new trail within a two hour drive of my home nearly every time I head out hiking. We are extraordinarily lucky to live so close to so many exploring possibilities!

This voice in the wilderness is not getting heard.  Witness the following message from the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, which oversees the A.T. and other trails in the area known as the "Triple Crown," sent in late October. These are among the most popular trail destinations in the state:

OVERCROWDING ON VIRGINIA'S TRIPLE CROWN - McAfee Knob, Dragon's Tooth, Tinker Cliffs. If you are thinking about hiking one of these destinations on a Saturday - and especially if you are thinking about camping on a SATURDAY night - think again. Here are the numbers from LAST SATURDAY: Our volunteer and paid ridgerunners counted the following numbers on the Triple Crown section:
McAfee Knob - 415 hikers (200 backpackers)
Dragon's Tooth - 299 hikers (20 backpackers)
Tinker Cliffs - 129 hikers (45 backpackers)

RATC photo showing overcrowded conditions at the McAfee Knob traihead
on Route 311 near Roanoke on a recent afternoon.  
According to the RATC, the four miles to McAfee Knob and back from the trailhead at Rt. 311 sees more trail wear than the other 116 A.T. miles plus side trails that the club maintains. A subsequent article in the Roanoke Times included an estimate that McAfee Knob visitation during the peak months of April to October has grown more than seven-fold since 2011!

According to the article linked above:
The surge in traffic has been attributed in part to growing interest among Virginia Tech students — now estimated to make up about half of the McAfee Knob hikers when school is in session — and to things like a string of backpacking websites promoting the idea of tackling the “Triple Crown,” a relatively new moniker bestowed on the neighboring peaks of Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs.

What is the solution?
Shifting destinations, particularly on busy days, reduces the stress on places like McAfee Knob and offers hikers a better, less gridlocked experience.

(BTW - I believe the term "Triple Crown" comes from Leonard Atkins' book, "50 Hikes in Southern Virginia," first published in 2002. Let me know if you believe differently.)

What are the takeaways here? Basically, go during the week, and don't go when the leaves are changing. Leave other hikers to clog up trails leading to McAfee Knob or the Old Rag summit in October, and enjoy the relative quiet of lesser known trails. But, year round the Triple Crown section of the Appalachian Trail is so crowded that special regulations are in place, just for this section of trail: Link.

Coincidentally, I hiked with members of the same Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club the same week that the RATC issued the overcrowding update. The group hiked to a spot that we agreed was a combination of Tinker Cliffs and McAfee Knob. And we hiked some added miles - 10 miles total that day - without seeing a single other person. Wouldn't you rather experience a great view without going elbow-to-elbow with the 400+ other hikers going to the same spot on the same day?
Enjoying the view at Hanging Rock.  The orientation is to southwest.
This view is very similar to views experienced at Tinker Cliffs and McAfee Knob - spectacular!
The main access road is along the ridge on the left side of the photo, past the tower you can see on the ridge.
The viewpoint is from a spot called Hanging Rock, located in the Shawvers Run Wilderness in the Jefferson National Forest. The view from this vista is virtually identical to the Tinker Cliffs view, with a long ridgetop defining the eastern portion of the panorama, and open fields in the center valley.

Hanging Rock is actually a much easier hike than McAfee Knob, as it is less than half a mile from the trailhead parking lot with a total elevation change of 100 feet. It is further from Roanoke and Virginia Tech than the Triple Crown, and probably requires at least an AWD vehicle to get to the trailhead. Simply take Rt. 311 north past the A.T., past New Castle, until the road summits Potts Mountain. At the summit is a small brown Forest Service sign that says "Potts Mtn Road." That is 177.1 shown below. Then take Potts Mountain Road to the trailhead, marked below by the red arrow.
Map from the trailhead kiosk shows the location for parking access to Hanging Rock.  
Note that I did not get there using that route! My group took a rough ascent on Forest Road 176, shown at the right side of the map, and started with the group at the spot marked "Potts Cove.' We took trails described below to Potts Mountain Road, and walked the road to the trailhead. If you wish an easy hike to a spectacular overlook, follow the directions above. What follows is a description of a much more circuitous route, taken with members of the RATC who know the trails in this area very well. Trailhead directions are at the end of this post.

Our group started hiking at Potts Cove, and within several hundred yards came to the beat up wooden trail sign shown below. Jefferson National Forest specializes in beat up trail signs!  I am told that, in addition to the portion we hiked, the Cove Trail also follows Cove Branch down towards the Potts Arm Trail, but it is not possible to follow it all the way due to downed trees from a derecho a few years back. Trails Illustrated's map shows the Cove Trail existing only to connect to the Potts Arm Trail. The USGS topo map shows the Cove Trail connecting to the Potts Mountain Road. Link.  It is clear that this area has not seen a lot of love! We continued on the main trail (blazed yellow) and eventually came out on the road after 1.7 miles of trail and 950 feet of ascent.
Trail starts by going around a gate and over an old wooden bridge.
The USGS topo says that the trail used to be a jeep road.
The signs indicate that the Cove Trail heads in one direction, and access to the Potts Arm Trail is in another.
The Trails Illustrated map shows the Potts Arm Trail ending at the Cove Trail at this same spot.
This could be due to the Forest Service eliminating trail portions in recent years.

The Cove Trail was pretty easy to follow, though there were some obstacles along the way.

There were half destroyed trail signs at several points along the trail.
An intersection did not seem to be required for placement of this sign.
 We took a left on the road and walked past some very nice houses during the 1.4 miles of basically level road walk. No cars seen. No other people. After the 1.4 miles, on the right was the trailhead parking for our main destination - Hanging Rock in the Shawvers Run Wilderness. It was an easy half mile walk to the overlook, where we all had lunch.

The Potts Mountain Road was level and untraveled.  It connects several radio installations (one is behind the trees to the right) some vacation homes, and a fire tower.  And it connected our trails.

A view from the road of one of the vacation homes.

The Hanging Rock trailhead parking lot holds 6-8 cars.  No cars were there on this day.

The view from Hanging Rock, south towards the Paint Bank Fish Hatchery.
The town of Paint Bank, Virginia is on this side of the far ridge on the right, just past the notch in the middle ridge.
The far ridge is Peters Mountain, over which several miles of the AT passes on its southern end, near Pearisburg.

In the face of a stiff wind, I posed for the requisite selfie on Hanging Rock. In my vintage Cubs hat.
(How about those Cubs?)
After lunch, we took a journey that I don't expect the reader to replicate (at least not without an equally knowledgeable hike leader, and I had the best), but include it anyway for reference.  The best way for a newbie to experience Hanging Rock is via an out-and-back. We returned to the road and headed south for a time until we passed the private property. We bushwhacked through the forest to the Potts Arm Trail, which sits on a ridgetop and heads back towards our trailhead. Portions of the Potts Arm Trail no longer exist on "official" maps because its western terminus takes the trail through the private property we saw on the road. I assume that the Forest Service sold off land and cut off the trail (if so, why can't they keep an easement for the trail, at a minimum?).

After enjoying Hanging Rock, we continued on the Potts Mountain Road past private property,
and then bushwacked back around to the Potts Arm Trail.

Towards the end of our bushwhack, we crossed under a power line cut, which gave us a great view to the east.
We hiked east on the Potts Arm Trail approximately 4.2 miles until it ended at a Forest Service Road. It traveled through a wonderful and remote section of forest, located between the Shawver's Run Wilderness and the Barbours Creek Wilderness. The hike leader peeled off early to grab his truck, and, when we reached the end of the trail, he shuttled the other drivers back to the parking lot while the hikers waited at trail's end. I doubt I would have ever hiked the Potts Arm Trail without the hike leader's guidance, and I am grateful for the opportunity to experience it.
The Potts Arm Trail was easy to follow, with a couple of minor exceptions.

Near the end of the Potts Arm Trail, the route crossed the Cove Branch
of Barbours Creek on this bridge.
Trailhead Directions: This is a really remote trailhead - in fact, I don't think there are more than a handful of trailheads in the George Washington National Forest that can match it.

From Charlottesville, I took I-81 south to Exit 156 north of Daleville and south of Buchanan, 100 miles from Charlottesville.  At Exit 156, I traveled west 3.2 miles until I came to U.S. 220.  After taking U.S. 220 north only 1.5 miles, I turned west again (left) on Herndon Street, immediately after the Dollar General store.  This is Rt. 606, and I took this west over a mountain ridge 11.3 miles to a T Intersection at Rt. 615.  After a left onto 615, I drove only 1.5 miles until I turned right onto Rt. 611 at the Cross Roads Church.  I took 611 west for 4.5 miles, and just after crossing Barbours Creek I took a right on Rt. 617 and drove north for 2.3 miles until I took FR 176 shown on the map above.  I followed FR 176 for 3.6 miles until it split, and I took the left branch another 1.1 miles to the parking area.  The last portion of the trip was on rough roads, and the final 4.7 miles took nearly 25 minutes to drive.  Total distance from Charlottesville was 129 miles, and total drive time was 2.5 hours.  (I returned heading north to I-64 at Low Moor, and traveled 135 miles in just over 3 hours.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Buck Mountain Trail, George Washington National Forest

The Buck Mountain Trail is a low usage trail located in the North River District of the George Washington National Forest, in Augusta County.  It packs a tough workout and much solitude - when I went, it was my hiking group and the bears - nothing more!  It is a great place to go if you really want to get into the mountains and not run into other folks (though you may come across mountain bikers on the weekends). Despite its low use, however, it is well maintained by a member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.

Because of other commitments, my group didn't make it to the end of this trail.  We didn't even summit Buck Mountain (though we came close).  I will have to go back to check this one off totally. But it was a very enjoyable workout through beautiful and remote country.

The trailhead is at Hearthstone Lake, which is on the Tilman Road, just inside of the GWNF and halfway between the Wild Oak Trailhead and the road to the summit of Reddish Knob. (Map.)

Hearthstone Lake is accessed from a rough road off of the Tilman Road that is marked with a sign.  It isn't a long drive to the parking lot, but the first few hundred yards are really beat up.  Don't be taking your Prius here!  The road climbs up and then drops down before switchbacking into a small parking lot.  The trail starts at this switchback.
Parking lot with lake in the background.
So what brought me here?  I scheduled the day off from work a month ahead of time to celebrate a personal milestone with friends. We had originally planned to check off another trail I've never hiked in Shenandoah National Park's North District.  Then the Washington Post's weather forecast included calls for heavy rain "along the eastern slopes of the mountains in northwest Virginia" with a possibility of flash flooding. Heading west vs. north from Charlottesville proved to be a good choice, as we only observed a few sprinkles while hiking, but Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park measured 5.69 inches of precipitation over 24 hours on the day we hiked.

We chose the trail after the October, 2016 issue of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's newsletter highlighted the trail in its "Volunteer of the Month" feature, as that volunteer maintains this trail. Link.  The fact that this trail is well maintained made it a very appealing choice for a late September hike - less overgrowth! Interesting facts about the trail from this article included:
  • The Buck Mountain Trail runs through the heart of the Little River Roadless Area, the largest Inventoried Roadless Area on National Forest land in the Eastern United States. (Wikipedia defines "Inventoried Roadless Areas" as a group of United States Forest Service lands that have been identified by government reviews as lands without existing roads that could be suitable for roadless area conservation as wilderness or other non-standard protections.)
  • The Buck Mountain Trail lies within a proposed 12,500 acre Little River Wilderness portion of a larger proposed 90,000-acre Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area. Link. 
  • The article describes the Buck Mountain Trail as "one of the most remote trails east of the Mississippi." (I believe there are more remote trails nearby, such as this one: Link.)
  • The article states, "This is not a trail for slackers. It is a 12-mile hike with 2,000 ft. elevation gain and three river crossings just to check it out."
Challenge accepted!

Actually, I have hiked part of this trail before.  It was about 20 years ago, before any of us had GPS receivers to record our movements.  I turned around at a point where a sign marked a side trail that went up the mountain.  The Trails Illustrated map, however, shows just one trail.  Did I remember this right?  Maybe I would find out.  Or maybe my memory deceived me.

View of the earthen dam at Hearthstone Lake, as seen from the parking lot.

Looking upstream at Hearthstone Lake.

Look for this sign at the switchback in the road on the way to Hearthstone Lake.
Note the permitted uses on this trail: Hiking.  Mountain Biking is not listed.
The Buck Mountain Trail climbs slowly over its first 2.8 miles.  It averages a consistent and barely noticeable 2.6% grade over this length, as it gradually makes its way through the valley made by the Little River.  There are beautiful rock formations along the way, and much evidence of bears, including very fresh scat.
The Buck Mountain Trail is marked with this blaze.
Stone cairns mark the stream crossing.

Some of the river bed crossings were dry. After our third crossing, marked by stone cairns, we came to the sign I remembered. It is on the opposite side of the Little River from what I remembered. It inaccurately states that Buck Mountain is 1 trail mile away, and the North Fork, Little River trail section lasts 4 miles. We followed the Buck Mountain segment, and it was further than just one mile.

The trail sign I remembered from two decades ago.  
Next to the trail intersection was a small campsite with a fire ring.

Immediately after the trail fork, the Buck Mountain Trail starts climbing, and it means business.  It climbs the mountain at a 23% grade for about the first half mile, and then moderates only slightly. For 1.5 miles, it averages a 17% grade - a grunt.  Multiple water bars have been installed, and are critical to preventing erosion on the trail.  
The trail steeply ascends Buck Mountain.

I want to go back and explore the Little River Trail, which I am told is no longer recognized by the Forest Service (which explains why it is not on the Trails Illustrated map).  (It is certainly in rougher shape than the main trail.) My 25 year old Forest Service map for the entire GWNF shows the Little River Trail climbing all the way up to Reddish Knob, though a friend who knows these woods better than just about anybody tells me that several have looked for that trail's ascent and not found it.

The USFS map seems to indicate that the old trail climbed with the river, which would make sense. Comparing old topographic maps with the latest version, however, I believe the ascent may have left the river and started before the current end of the Little River Trail, making it much harder to locate. Maps below reflect my theory about the location of the climb. A search is better done after the leaves have dropped and is best when there is a thin dusting of snow on the ground, as old trails light up then.  Maybe I will return some Sunday in December (no hunting on public lands in Virginia on Sundays) or sometime after the new year.  No doubt it will be a tough search!

Red Eft (Notophthalmus viridescens)

The Forest Service doesn't make these maps anymore.  This map of the area shows a more extensive trail system than exists today, and indicates that the Little River Trail leads out from Hearthstone Lake, with the Buck Mtn Trail a side trail.
This is how I remember the trail system from 20 years ago.

The latest USGS shows a couple of trails in the area.  I've enhanced the Buck Mountain Trail in Blue, and the Little
River Trail is in Red.  According to this map, the Little River Trail ends at BM 2351 and does not climb Reddish Knob.

This 1944 topo map shows the Little River Trail turning out of the river valley before BM 2351 (circled),
and heading straight up the mountain towards Reddish Knob.
Or maybe this is a totally different trail.

I have overlayed the older trail onto the current USGS Topographic Map.
Maybe I will be able to find the trail sometime in the future.
Note how it goes straight up a steep incline - not many old trails out this way had switchbacks.

Here is the trail overlaying the old topographic map onto my Garmin Basecamp software.
The trail is now entered into my GPS for use the next time I am out this way.

PATC Difficulty Factor: 217.7
Total Distance: 9.3 miles
Total Time: 4 hours, 47 minutes, including stops.

Low Point: 1682 ft.
Highest Point: 3483 ft. 
Difference: 1801 ft.
Total Altitude Gain: 2545 ft.

Be sure to check out other hikes on  Thanks!