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.


  1. Cole Mountain and Mount Pleasant are great trails for a beginning backpacking group. I think I know the exact campsite you're talking about!

    I was surprised to see so many of the boys with external frame packs! I don't see many of those out on the trail anymore.

  2. The troop encourages external frame packs for the boys, thinking they are cooler in the summer and expand better with growing boys.


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