Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Crane Trail - February 8, 2009

The Crane Trail is the only established trail in the Rough Mountain Wilderness. The trail cuts over Rough Mountain, which is the mountain just east of Douthat State Park. Although the Rough Mountain Wilderness is relatively close to Interstate 64, it is very difficult to access. Combined with the fact that the only reliable water sources exist just outside of the Wilderness’s boundaries and there are few flat spots suitable for camping, you can just imagine the odds of coming across another user outside of hunting season.

The Crane Trail has possibly the most remote trailhead in the George Washington National Forest. The trail itself only 3 miles long, but requires an out and back hike because private homes and hunting camps block access to Virginia State Route 42 at the western end of the trail. The eastern trailhead is located next to railroad tracks leased by the Buckingham Branch Railroad from CSX Transportation, so access to the trail from either terminus may not be possible without trespassing.

And what a chore it is to get to this trailhead! Take I-64 to Exit 43 west of Lexington, then take U.S. 60 west a mile to S.R. 780. Take 780 north towards Goshen, but turn off pretty quick onto S.R. 633. Here the road turns to dirt and forms ♦the northern boundary of the Rich Hole Wilderness before reaching Forest Road 129 and heading south past Bubbling Springs Campground.  I have never seen anyone camping here, though it seems like a nice place.  Complete with privy!
Bubbling Springs Campground
About a half hour since your tires last saw pavement, you'll need to ford Pads Creek. This ford was built for vehicles with high wheel bases, and it scares me every time I need to ford it (I have done so at least 3 times each way).

About a half mile after fording the creek, a side road heads steeply uphill. This is F.R. 6029. The gate here is likely closed, but I've found that it usually isn't locked. Open that gate (and literally hide the padlock - you don't want someone coming along and locking the gate with your car inside!) Head up a steep incline to a meadow where I leave my car. If you have the right vehicle and feel brave, you can continue on this road, but it deteriorates quickly and I always walk this part. After about 20 minutes the road ends and you have to walk along the railroad tracks. This is the same rail route that Amtrak's Cardinal takes from DC to Chicago, but it is generally pretty quiet.  On one trip an Amtrak train went by just as I came out of the woods, all sweaty and full of burrs.  I wonder what those people thought!
Buckingham Branch Railway at Crane, Virginia
I had made it as far as the tracks twice before, but never found the trailhead. The first time I gave up, and the second time I went off trail to the top of the mountain. I was determined to find the trailhead on my third trip.  Turns out, the map's location of "Crane" on the rail line and the actual location from walking down the tracks are two different places.  I headed further north this time and came to the trailhead, which was marked by a signpost and an old bulletin board.
Crane Trailhead

But as you might imagine, a trail this remote is not often maintained.  I searched all around behind the signpost for evidence of an actual trail heading up the mountain and struck out.  Fallen leaves were everywhere, and they covered up any evidence of trail usage.
Dejected, I started walking back down the tracks to my car.  It wasn't too long, however, before I came across two men, a woman and a dog heading towards me.  We talked, and it turned out that they were looking for the same trail.  What are the odds?

We returned to the trailhead and snooped around looking for clues.  Before long Pete found the way, and the trail was obvious once we started climbing the mountain.  I was elated!

The trail itself was beautifully constructed and enjoyable to hike, with well constructed switchbacks.  Because of the season, we were able to see views virtually the entire way up, though views would be limited during the summer.  We climbed to the top of the mountain and had lunch, then returned the way we came. And driving back, I knew that if my Subaru decided to drown itself in Pads Creek, friends were right behind to get me out. This turned into one of my most enjoyable hikes ever and helped me decide that I should try hiking with groups more often.  I hope I will be able to hike with these folks again.
View from the top
Hike details.
Distance: 8.4 miles (The trail to the top of the mountain and back from the trailhead was 3.4 miles.)
Total Time: 5 hours, 38 minutes, including stops, searching time, and backtracking after giving up.
Steepest Uphill: from 0.75 miles to 1.24 miles after the trailhead; 21% grade.
Starting (Trailhead) Elevation:  1379 ft.
Highest Point: 2543 ft.


  1. I Trout fish in this area. Much easier to access by going through Milboro to the Fire Trail on Rt. 633. One small ford that just about any car could make (across the "South Branch" stream). A couple of nice camping spots along the way, one large area even had a privy when I went by there.

    1. Thanks for the info, Skip. I've seen that road on the map but never used it. I am a little gun shy on the roads around there because I once tried to access Rt. 42 south near Griffith Knob on the forest roads, and it became clear that I wasn't going to ford Pads Creek down that way - though the maps all show the road going through.


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