Monday, June 27, 2011

Cold Mountain Backpack: June 17-19, 2011

I spent Father's Day weekend in a part of the Virginia mountains where I first fell in love with Virginia hiking. My son and I joined his Boy Scout Troop for a two night, three day trip around and over Cold Mountain on the Appalachian Trail west of Amherst. This is a great intro hike for new backpackers, and one source rates this as one of the top 10 day hikes in Virginia.

Friday night camp with large White Oak to the right
of the fire pit.
Our group numbered 11 adults and about thirteen scouts. The drive from Charlottesville to the Mt. Pleasant trailhead parking lot took about 90 minutes, via U.S. 29 south to Amherst, then U.S. 60 west, past the Long Mountain Wayside where the A.T. crosses the road, then up into the George Washington National Forest.

We started on the Old Hotel Trail Friday evening and only walked slightly over a mile to a campsite I have eyed for years as an ideal overnight location. Surprisingly, we had the campsite to ourselves. I've hiked past this spot several times over the past couple of decades, and always thought how great it would be to camp here. The Scouts were to spend a couple of nights on the trail away from outhouses, and this spot fit the bill perfectly, though it is a dry campsite.

Will and his patrol mates pump spring water
for use while hiking
The campsite was appealing not just because of its beauty and location, but because it could be hiked to over a trail that had relatively little elevation gain. We didn't want to burn the young hikers, but we also didn't want to overtax a couple of dads who have knee issues but wanted to join the group. Nevertheless, our quick hike on Friday night had some huffing and a few kids asking if were there yet.  But after 43 long minutes and 2 breaks as directed by the acting Senior Patrol Leader, we climbed a total of 400 feet to the first night's campsite.

One of the adult leaders is a professional forester and I learned much from him along the trail. We talked a lot about the spectacular White Oak at our campsite - how it must have grown in a field because its branches spread out so far horizontally (one boy climbed the tree by taking a branch that reached the ground and tightroping it all the way to the trunk). And when I asked why the tree was short compared other White Oaks, he observed that it didn't need to grow high to get sunlight.

On Saturday morning we packed up and most of us continued on the Old Hotel Trail. (Two adults backtracked to save their knees and make sure we reserved space for Saturday night's camp.)  Passing an old stone fence that reportedly dates back to the 1800's provided a history moment for the scouts, about how the fences were used to keep cattle and hogs penned in, and the hogs came up from the valleys in the summer to eat chestnuts. But there are no chestnuts any longer because of the chestnut blight that wiped out the trees. I tried to impress upon the boys that this is one of the most important historical developments over the last 100 years in the mountains, but I don't think I got through to the group. Think about it - entire communities based their existence on chestnut trees, from feeding themselves and their animals with the nuts, to using the durable wood for their shelters, and using the bark for tanning. Wikipedia claims that 25% of the trees in the Appalachians were chestnuts.  The trees were all wiped out and, though new ones took their place, the forest isn't the same.

Turkeybeard at 3800 feet elevation.
Several adults brought up the rear of the line with me and we discussed the fate of the chestnut while finding several examples of chestnuts in the woods. Even decades later, the roots of many original trees remain alive and send up shoots, but those shoots develop the blight before they can mature. The shoots were all over the forest, and we could see the effects of the blight on the saplings. We also looked at the chestnut leaves and could see why the chestnut oak is so named, as the leaves look very similar.

We all hiked gradually downhill until we reached the Cow Camp Gap Shelter, which is an A.T. thru-hiker shelter. We stopped for almost an hour, pumping water into our bottles and bodies, some of us using the only latrine we would see on this trip, reading the shelter's log book (and some adding their own entries) and having a snack.

Then came the biggest climb of the trip, up and over Cold Mountain.  The mile long ascent took most boys over an hour, though we were only going from 3,500 to 4,000 feet.

Obligatory group shot at the top of the mountain.
At the top we hung out and talked to other hikers. One woman was section hiking and asked us immediately where we planned to camp.  She said she'd had bad experiences with Scout troops in the past, so she's wary.  But she stayed and had lunch with us when she learned we did not plan to take over an A.T. hut and when we offered to save her from pumping water by refilling her canteen.  She was a great source of information about what works and doesn't work on long distance hikes - I am always interested in the opinions of folks who have the real experience.

After getting a group shot at the summit, we walked along the meadows back down the mountain to our Saturday night campsite.
There are few miles of trail in Virginia as glorious
as the A.T. over Cold Mountain.

Even the boys enjoyed the views along this part of the trail, despite several hauling overloaded packs that they were ready to drop. We hiked down to the road near our original trailhead, then established camp in an old field across the road.  On Saturday night we weathered a few rainstorms and had the honor of witnessing a boy receive his Eagle rank.  Sunday morning we packed up our wet gear and headed home.  Overall, a great way to spend Father's Day weekend.
Troop 1028's Scoutmaster could not join us,
but no doubt he will appreciate the single file
line of hikers.

Shaws Fork/Shenandoah Mountain Trail: June 26, 2011

Nice campground and horse corral at trailhead.
he Shaw’s Fork Trail up Shenandoah Mountain starts near McDowell, Virginia, off of U.S. 250 west of Churchville. I had never taken it before because the Trails Illustrated Map I have indicates that it is a combination of roads and trails, which did not seem interesting.  But once on the trail it is clear that the roads have  not seen vehicular traffic in many years, and it made for a wide, graded trail for the most part, though a couple of areas were unmarked so as to cause confusion about where to go.  It would be fun sometime to get a group to take this trail up the mountain, then head north on the Shenandoah Mountain Trail (SMT) for a mile, then go back down the mountain to a car drop at the Georgia Draft Trailhead on U.S. 250 just east of Ramsey's Draft for a hike that would total around 9-10 miles.

Lines were hissing and popping where the Shaws Fork Trail
met the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.
Instead of heading north on the SMT, I went south when I reached the ridge top.  I had started out from Charlottesville very early, was on the trail at about 8:30, and it was only 10:45 AM when I got to the top of the mountain.  Not late enough, so I thought I would head south on the SMT to at least Tims Knob (3560’).  Maybe there is an overlook.  Then I’d see how I felt, and if things were going well, consider making a loop with another trail to get home by mid-afternoon having completed a hike of about 14 miles.  A notice on the signpost back at the trailhead suggested this as a nice loop for horses, and the horse trail up the mountain had been great.  

At Tims Knob was the most spectacular display of Turkeybeard I have ever seen – hundreds of flowers glowing all over the place!  It kept me going strong and I decided to complete the loop.  I tried texting home from here because I had no idea that I would end up on this trail when I left that morning and thought someone should know where I was hiking, but the text didn’t go through.  Crawford Mountain to the east was blocking me from the towers in Churchville.

Turkeybeard is everywhere on the SMT.
My dog and I were passed by a lone mountain biker a while later. I asked him if we were nearing the road where I would veer off of the SMT and he believed that we were – it was taking longer than I anticipated to make the trip.  We did come to a road, and there was a trail signpost there, but the sign was missing.  I correctly figured this road was part of my loop, and headed downhill on the road.  Coming back up was the same mountain biker.  He told me that trail I was seeking was terribly overgrown and full of blowdowns.  At this point, however, it was quicker to return by continuing forward, as we had gone more than half way around our loop.  And I figured a mountain biker wouldn’t have a lot of patience for a trail with some blowdowns, which would not cause as much problem for us.

Looks like a brand new sign for this trail.
We got to the next trail (which I will call the BRT) and, as you can see from the accompanying photo, the sign marking the trail looked brand new and pristine.  A good indicator!  And there were bright, unfaded yellow diamonds regularly nailed to trees.  Blowdowns were bad at the beginning like the biker had said, but not so bad as to make me think I should have gone the long way back.  But I didn’t realize that I was being lured into a trap and what awaited me was the single worst hiking experience of my life – nothing else has come close to my experience over the next few miles. 

The trail was overgrown at first with ferns, with blowdowns every couple of hundred feet that we had to scramble around.  We had to cross the stream at several points, but the blazes sort of made it clear where we had to go and Gracie lapped up the stream water.  As we got further in, the ferns were replaced by another plant, which turned this hike into hell.  The roadbed was overgrown with 3-5 feet tall stinging nettles (, and there was no discernible trail (other than the flatness of the ancient roadbed used by the trail).  They were so thick that I could not see the dog if she was more than about 4 feet away from me.   It took me a very long time to slowly make my way through all of these nettles, using my hiking poles to push the nettles away from my body as I slogged through the sea of plants.  The pain from the nettles caused me to eventually give up on the trail altogether and instead traverse the slick rocks in the BR creekbed itself to make my way back to the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.  I did this knowing full well that one slip on these rocks could be disastrous as nobody would find me down here.  There was a substantial number of blowdowns across both the trail and the Run, making the route even more treacherous.  
Close up of the Stinging Nettle's stem from Wikipedia.

At one point it occurred to me that I couldn’t keep a very close watch on the trail route from the creek bed.  The map showed the trail heading up the mountain to the left from the creek, at a sharp angle, like 8 o’clock on a clock face, if you are marching toward the twelve.  As I climbed out, I didn’t see anything that looked like either a trail or a roadbed with the carpet of nettles (they were, I assure you, all over nonetheless)  and retraced my steps in the nettles.  I hadn’t gotten too far when I saw a bright yellow diamond on a tree ahead.  Every bit of travel was difficult and painful, so I looked from a distance around that tree, did not see a trail heading up the mountain, and decided there must be a trail continuing in these weeds somewhere. 

A sea of stingers.  This IS the trail.
I returned to the creek bed and checked my elevation on the GPS.  It wasn’t any help, first because it had turned off (I later determined that it was off for 34 minutes, and I managed to traverse approximately 0.4 miles during this time, which should give you an idea of what I was slogging through), and because it said I already was at 2500 feet, which was the elevation of the road according to the map.  Eventually I noticed that the slopes heading up from the creekbed were not as steep as they had been previously, and the nettles did not climb the mountain – they stayed near the creek where there was abundant water.  So at 2:45 I decided to go offtrail and head up the mountain heading west.  I could come upon the path that goes up the mountain, and failing that could continue to climb until I reached the road.  Since the road (FS 396) dead ended heading south part way past the trail, I was taking a real chance here that I had hiked sufficiently north on the trail that I could meet up with the road by heading west.  I did not want to think about the consequences if I hadn’t hiked far enough north, however I never felt lost on this hike, even when offtrail.  I could always go back the way I had come, but I didn't want to expend the time or effort.

We headed uphill and after only six minutes came to a trail.  What a feeling!  It headed southwest in the same direction as the trail exiting the river, so we followed it southwest towards the road, even though this took us away from the area we eventually wanted to reach.  Combined with the fact that there was an occasional yellow diamond, I was confident I’d made the right choice and I would soon meet up with the road that would cut back north to an intersection with the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.  After about 15 minutes, however, the trail cut back east, dropped precipitously, and the GPS showed me going in a circle back down to the streambed!  It became clear that I had found the road and taken it back south, rather than finding the trail on its way to meet up with the road.  Looking again at the map, there is a section of the road that exactly parallels the trail, and I must have reached the road at that point.  

I turned around, took the road(trail) and 39 minutes after first finding the trail hiked past where we had originally picked it up.  Heading north, the road/trail edged closer and closer to the stream (at this point not marked on the map as a stream at all) until I was back in a sea of stinging nettles once again.  At least it didn’t last too long this time.  Looking at the map again today, it is clear that the streambed eventually merged into the road so I should have just followed it as far as possible.  But I was too tired and frazzled to look at the map closely enough to determine that at the time.

Tired and in wet boots, I made my way back to the Shaws Fork Trail where I tried unsuccessfully to call home at 4:15 PM, almost exactly 5 ½ hours after last passing the same intersection.  We made it back down without incident except for the dog running off at one point after some critter (showing more energy now than at the beginning of the hike and causing me to add to my mental list of additional ways the hike could suck even worse than it did so far: 1. Lightning strike; 2. Lost keys to the car or the car was gone when I returned; 3. Lose my iPhone from its clip on my pack’s belt; 4. Dog runs off in the woods and I have to somehow find her).   It took us 90 minutes to return from the SMT.
The Shaw's Fork Trail is a very pleasant hike.
Especially after the BRT!
I ended up hiking just over 20 miles in 9+ hours.  It is officially the longest hike I have ever taken.  Total elevation gain: 4347 feet. I should note that I was not wearing shorts on this hike.  Instead I had very lightweight long pants and a long sleeve shirt treated in an insect guard.  I almost never hike in shorts anymore, to guard against ticks and chiggers.

That night I Googled the BRT to see if anybody else had the experience.  This trail is slated to become part of the Great Eastern Trail, as it provides one of the few reliable water sources along the SMT.  (See this photo:  If so, I’m betting nobody has tried it during the summer.  
This map at the traihead promotes the BRT as a legitimate trail.
On the next day I had amazingly little in the way or residual pain, other than a slight headache that I attribute to dehydration, a blister on one foot, and tight calf muscles.  The dog has not moved except to eat and spent our dinner under the dining room table wimpering last night.  
Elevation Profile

So why haven't I named this trail?  I don't want Google searching it.  I spoke with someone from the group called the Friends of Shenandoah Mountain, and she told me that mountain bike groups claim the BRT to be a great resource for them, and a reason this area should never get designated a National Wilderness Area (bikes are not allowed in federally designated wilderness areas).  Clearly, mountain bikers aren't using or maintaining the trail, and I don't want to give them information that assists them - let them figure it out like I did!

Hike Details
PATC Difficulty Factor 425.2 (a new record)
Total Altitude Gain 4347
Total Distance 20.8 (a new record)
 Lowest point 2036 feet above sea level
 Highest Point 3844 feet above sea level
 Time 9 hours, 14 minutes