Friday, September 4, 2020

Gauley Mtn/Tea Creek Loop, WV

I spent a weekend in August camping in the Monongahela National Forest with friends, and going out on day hikes.  I had been out to the Tea Creek area just last year (Link), and this year's outing gave me a chance to explore more of the trails.  Whereas I started last year's hike from lower elevations at the Tea Creek Campground, this year I started a hike from the Highlands Scenic Highway, starting high, dropping down mid-way, and then slowly regaining elevation over the last third of the hike.  This loop goes really deeply into the Tea Creek trail system over its 13.5 miles.  It would make a good overnight backpacking trip for an experienced hiker.

If you go, you will find hikes in both Tea Creek and nearby Cranberry Wilderness to be soggy during the driest times.  Downpours are common and stream crossings frequent; expect wet feet because your Gore-Tex boots are not going to cut it here. One hiking colleague happily traversed this loop in Chaco sandals - and he is the most experienced hiker I know.  So if you have comfortable hiking sandals, you'd be well served to bring them on this hike.

This is a well-known mountain biking area.  You may encounter bikers and you will certainly see their tracks in the muddy trail.  Always be alert, however we crossed paths with no trail users of any kind hiking this loop on a Saturday in August.

Mile 0.0 – Start the hike in a parking area just off of the Highlands Scenic Highway that holds 8-10 vehicles.  Be sure to check out the Little Laurel Overlook across the highway from the trailhead at the beginning or end of this hike, as you will find the best vistas in this area on turnoffs from the highway. The overlook also has a covered picnic table and a set of privies. At the trailhead, there is a kiosk and trail sign for the Tea Creek Mountain Trail, but this loop is not using that trail.  Instead, start the hike by going through the gate at the beginning of the parking lot and follow the metal signs through the meadow.
View of Parking Lot.  Though a trail starts behind the brown sign, we did not take that trail.

Follow trail past fence into field.

Signposts and mowing denote the trail through the field.
Mile 0.3 – Drop somewhat steeply after the meadow turns to forest and come to a trail intersection that includes a trail map of the area – these maps are common at major trail intersections in the Tea Creek area. Turn right here onto the Right Fork Connector Trail (TR 411) and hike through some dark spruce woods.  You will return to this spot at the very end of this loop hike.

After leaving the field, drop down to the first intersection, and turn right.

Major trail intersections have signposts with a map to help keep you from getting lost.

Hiking the Right Fork Connector (TR 111) through a dark forest of Red Spruce.

Mile 0.4 – Pass the intersection for the Tea Creek Interpretive Trail (TR 489), continuing straight. 
Mile 0.9 – The Right Fork Connector Trail ends at an intersection with the Gauley Mountain Trail (TR 438).  Take a left onto the Gauley Mountain Trail. 

Gauley Mtn Trail
Mile 1.7 – Pass through a small meadow, providing a rare glimpse to the sky on this loop.  The trail on this part of the loop is relatively level, following contours as it zigzags north.

Mile 3.3 – The eastern end of the Red Run Trail (TR 439) meets the Gauley Mountain Trail here.  For a shorter version of this loop, you can take the Red Run Trail 1.8 miles, where it ends at the Right Fork Tea Creek Trail (TR 453), then take a left two miles back to your vehicle, for a loop of 7.1 miles. (Note that the posted trail maps state that TR 439 is 2.5 miles long – it is not.  It is 1.8 miles long.)  For the longer hike described here, continue straight on the Gauley Mountain Trail, passing over the first of two high points on this hike.

Determining the next route at the Gauley Mtn/Red Run Trail intersection.

Red Run Trail as seen from the Gauley Mtn Trail.
Mile 4.2 – Turn left on the Bear Pen Ridge Trail (TR 440).  You now leave the Gauley Mountain Trail, which continues another 1.4 miles until it ends at a Forest Service Road.  Over the next 3/10 mile, the Bear Pen Ridge Trail climbs up to the second of two high points on this loop. Despite the relatively high elevation, the trail remains wet much of the time.

Gauley Mtn/Bear Pen Ridge Trail intersection.

Climbing to the highest point on the trail.

So much moss on trails in this area!
Mile 5.9 – The trail passes the first of two Adirondack style shelters found along this loop, in a clearing so small that it would be hard to stick a tent on the ground here.  This is the more remote, and therefore more likely to be unoccupied, of the two shelters you encounter on this loop, however it is also less than half way through this loop. 

Mile 6.4 – Pass a small chair made of flat rocks piled on each other. After this point, the trail drops over 900 feet over the next 2.8 miles – descending gradually until you reach the second shelter. 

Mile 6.6 – Descend to an intersection with the Tea Creek Trail.  

You will follow Tea Creek for the next 1.7 miles of this loop, though it often feels like you are hiking in Tea Creek.  This trail closely follows Tea Creek, with eight creek crossings, along with a crossing of the Right Fork Tea Creek.  None of these crossings will prove easy most of the year. Your hike pace will be its slowest during this part of the loop, as you stop to negotiate the best way to make it across Tea Creek without getting dunked. When crossing, the rocks can be slick and the stream banks high. Keep an eye out for blue diamonds to help you determine whether to cross. And while you are at it, also keep an eye out for something else blue – the rare Blue Crayfish (Cambarus monongalensis) – not much bigger than your thumb.  One of the hikers in our group found one on this trail section, though they are usually burrowing underground.

Mile 8.4 – Your last crossing is over the Right Fork of Tea Creek, at the lowest elevation of this hike. After this crossing, come to a somewhat confusing trail intersection on your left.  The maps indicate that this is the Right Fork Tea Creek Trail (TR 453), which later meets North Face Trail (TR 450).  But the sign seemed to indicate that the trail was the North Face Trail.  Either way, turn left onto the side trail, and quickly start gaining elevation while passing behind and above the second Adirondack shelter.  As you pass the shelter downslope on your right, look to the left for the best campsite on this loop, with room for 3-4 tents. This campsite is not visible from the more popular Tea Creek Trail below.

Tea Creek Shelter, as seen from the trail.
Mile 8.9 – Keep an eye out for a trail sign denoting the “Right Fork Trail.”  (This would seem a better name than the unwieldy “Right Fork Tea Creek Trail” shown on maps.)  At this sign, you switchback up the mountain, while the North Face Trail heads straight ahead.  The trail continues to climb using an old railroad bed, and turns to parallel the Right Fork Tea Creek, which you crossed just before the shelter.  For more than a half mile, the trail is much higher than the creek, but you can look down to see the water tumbling over and around rocks from the trail high above.

Mile 11.2 – Cross the stream you observed earlier from above.
Mile 11.5 – Pass the western end of the Red Run Trail (TR 439).  Early in this loop you passed the eastern end of this same trail.

Mile 11.6 – Cross the Red Run stream.
Mile 11.8 – Cross Right Fork Tea Creek again, and shortly afterward, pass a small campsite.

Mile 13.2 – Come to the intersection with the Right Fork Connector Trail (TR 411) after passing a small pond and evidence of lots of beaver activity.  

Keep straight, ascend steeply for a brief period, then come out on the meadow you passed through at the very beginning of this hike. 

Mile 13.5 – After following the signposts and crossing through the gate, return back to your vehicle.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Short Wild Oak Trail Loop from Braley Pond Road

I took a small group of hikers out to the GWNF North River District on August 15th, and we were surprised by the amount of flooding out this way.  It had been generally wet for several days, but we did not expect the levels of water we experienced - the 3rd or 4th highest water levels at any point in the past two years.  You can see from the chart below that the water levels were very high compared to normal.

If we would do any hiking, it would have to be a high trail, so we parked at the Braley Pond Road parking lot for the Wild Oak Trail and headed uphill to the Dowell's Draft Trail, east of the road.  This turned out to be a great hike, as we took the old (pre-mountain bike) version of the trail on the way back.

Over 5 miles, we ended up hiking only about 25 feet of trail twice.  And the old trail alignment, even though superseded 4-5 years ago, was still in really nice shape.  The lack of use meant it was soft with pine needles.  And we didn't have to worry about mountain bikers screaming down the trail at us.  We shouldn't have had to worry about that anyway, given the wet trail conditions, but we still came across one biker who apparently doesn't care about tearing up muddy trails.

This summit has a Wild Oak Trail sign even though there is no intersection here.
I'm guessing the Dowell's Draft intersection used to be up on this summit,
based on the USFS basemap shown in the map below.

Below is a map I constructed showing the old and new alignments of the Wild Oak Trail.  When combined with the Dowell's Draft trail and the Betsy Trail, it creates a loop hike about 5 miles long that has only 25 feet of common trail over its entire distance.
The exact route we took was the new WOT alignment to the intersection with the Betsy Trail, then we stayed on the WOT until we intersected with the Dowell's Draft Trail - just after an intermediate summit on Hankey Mountain, then we took the Dowell's Draft Trail to its intersection with the Betsy Trail.  We took the Betsy Trail back to the Wild Oak Trail and turned back towards the parking lot.  Just after this intersection, the old WOT alignment cuts left and we took that.  I always thought that the old and new alignments combined again (or at least intersected), but they never do connect.  The old alignment is a little tougher than the newer section.  You can see this below by comparing the first two miles with the last two miles of the elevation profile.  At the beginning is the new alignment.  At the end is the old alignment.  In between is a heart popping climb!

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

North River Trail, GWNF

This posting is part of my effort to document trails in the North River District of the George Washington National Forest that don't have much in the way of online descriptions.   If you are interested in hiking trails in this area, I recommend obtaining the book, "Shenandoah Mountain Trails: A Guide to Trails on Shenandoah Mountain in Rockingham and Augusta Counties, Virginia." The book is written by Timothy Hupp of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and can be ordered from the Club's online bookstore.  This trail is also described in another PATC publication available from the same place - the Great Eastern Trail guide for Virginia.

The North River Trail (#539) is a 4.6 mile long trail climbing from FDR 95 (North River Road) up to FDR 85 (Shenandoah Mountain Road).  Climbing this trail takes the hiker to the very headwaters of the North River.  It should not be confused with the North River Gorge Trail (#538), which is further east near the main parking for the Wild Oak Trail.

The North River Trail starts at a small traffic circle just off of FDR 95, between Camp Todd and the Shenandoah Mountain Trail's trailhead - west of the Wild Oak Trail.  This traffic circle had a fire pit in the middle, which makes me think it might sometimes be used as a campsite.  There are a lot of roadside campsites off of FDR 95.  If someone is camping here, it might be tougher to park here and hike the trail.  An alternative would be to continue on FDR 95 until you reach FDR 85 and turn onto that.  FDR 85 heads north to Reddish Knob and accesses the other end of this trail.

There are a couple of nice little campsites just off the trail within the first several hundred yards.  The nicest one is right on the North River to the left as you walk back from the circle.  The other one is on your right as you begin hiking the trail.

Hiking any water following trail in Summer usually involves a balance.  You like the fact that water is nearby and cooling, but the same water also attracts Stinging Nettle, which is usually short and not an issue earlier in the season - but not in Summer!  The Nettle is present along this trail, but was not impacting the trail itself, making this a good summer choice if you want a moderate climb.

The trail starts out very mellow, climbing over the first 2.7 miles at a somewhat meek 3% grade.  It follows the course of the North River, crossing it multiple times with many delightful views of the river, and often seems to be following an old road bed.  

Shortly after the gate, the trail climbs away from the stream and becomes more steep, ascending at a 9% pace for almost a mile before dipping briefly and then climbing again at the same pace for another half mile after returning to a stream fork.  By this time, the trail has come to a T intersection, with trails heading east to the Little Bald Knob Road (FR427), or west to the Shenandoah Mountain Road (FR 85).  There is a large campsite just west of this intersection.  I checked out both directions, but heading left (west) is the better hiking route.

Mountain bikers use the this trail, even though it is often wet and their bikes leave deep channels. 

The bikers seem to come more frequently from the east, via the Little Bald Knob Road and the trails that access that road, because it is a shorter access to the trail coming from the north if you are headed generally south.  The trail is unmarked where it meets Little Bald Knob Road, except for a blazed tree. Note that this part of Little Bald Knob Road is behind a seasonal gate, so its northernmost section (including from the Reddish Knob Road to this trail) is open to vehicles from September 1 through December 31 each year.

The Great Eastern Trail, which extends from New York to Alabama, also uses the eastern prong of this trail southbound, then turns onto the main North River Trail, heading to the North River Road.

To the west, the trail ascends though a field of Black Cohosh and becomes somewhat overgrown.

It passes a pipe with a small stream of water dropping out.  This is the source of this branch of the North River.  I drank from it without a filter, as it comes right out of the mountain.  It was great!  

The trail reaches the Reddish Knob Road (FDR 85) just north of an area somewhat speciously known as the Shenandoah Mountain Picnic Area.  Although there is a hiker sign here, it is very easy to miss this trailhead if driving the road, due to Summer overgrowth.  The Reddish Knob Road here basically follows the boundary between Virginia and West Virginia, on the crest of the ridge that forms Shenandoah Mountain.

The Trails Illustrated map for this area shows the Shenandoah Mountain Picnic Area as featuring picnic tables and an outhouse.  It has neither.  In fact, it is just an overgrown parking area, as shown in the photo below.

The best selling point for these maps is that they are basically a hiker's only option.  But their accuracy is consistently a problem, as these maps are constructed based on data they obtain from online sources and not from actual "boots on the ground" input.  They do send the maps to the local ranger districts for input - I once attended a meeting at the ranger district office which oversees this area and they had a revision on their conference table for review.  But this is not a priority for rangers who are already stretched thin, so a lot of errors never get caught.  This one is relatively minor, except for someone in the area who really needs an outhouse!  Walking around this lot, it does not appear that it has been used as a picnic area for decades, since probably before the first version of this map.  

It is, however, perfect for parking if exploring the North River Trail from the north.

I turned around at this lot and retraced my route back to my vehicle at the south end of the trail.  Other hikers would do the same, unless a shuttle vehicle was left here.  

My numbers: 
Hike Length: 9.7 miles
Hiking Time: 4:06 hours, including 28 minutes stopped.
Ascent: 600 feet
Stream Crossings: 7 each way.