Monday, November 21, 2011

Cellar Mountain Trail/Cold Spring Trail Loop: September 30 and November 2, 2011

The Cellar Mountain Trail is a seldom used trail in perhaps the most visited Wilderness Area in Virginia - Saint Mary's Wilderness.  Folks in Charlottesville who know of only a handful of trails in the mountains all seem to have hiked Saint Mary's Wilderness to see the waterfalls.  But the Cellar Mountain Trail doesn't go to a waterfall; instead it climbs the mountain that looks down on the Saint Mary's Falls.
Kiosk at the trailhead.

I had never hiked this trail, and it is one I've wanted to check off of my list for a while.  So while I was out this way checking on possible campsites for my son's Boy Scout Troop, I decided to do an out-and-back hike.   I also wanted to check some aspects of the trail for a volunteer job I do with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's Map Committee.

Overview looking southwest on Cellar Mountain Trail.
The Cellar Mountain Trail starts at about 2000 feet in elevation at a parking area off of the Coal Road (FDR 42), which connects St. Mary's to the Sherando area.  There is an information kiosk at the trailhead, and hikers pass through a livestock gate immediately after hitting the trail.  The trail itself wanders through the woods past a spring before climbing steeply to a fantastic lookout at about 2600 feet that views southwest along the ridgeline.

And just up the trail from this viewpoint I was excited to see what appeared to be a mature chestnut, complete with fruit.  It was off the trail, so I just took a photo and marked a waypoint on my GPS, and brought the photo back to one of the adult leaders of my son's Scout Troop who is also a professional forester.  I had read that mature chestnut specimens do occur, though they are exceedingly rare.  But the forester burst my bubble, saying he couldn't tell from the photo, but that the tree I had seen was probably the similar chinquapin.  (I am sure glad my son enjoys Scouts.  I'd hate to have to make him go...)

Chestnut or Chinquipin?
The trail continues to switchback up the mountain until it reaches a ridge top at about 3200 feet.  There are several views along the ridge, and a nice campsite with a small fire ring right at the beginning of the ridge.  At this point, the plant growth starts to overtake the trail and the hiker has to push through overgrowth.  The trail itself is still very visible if one looks at the ground, but vegetation makes the going tougher.

Is there really a trail in here?
I pushed through this all the
way to the end of the trail, at a parking area off of FS 162A.  (This parking area is at the end of a road recommended for clearances much higher than found on my Outback.)  Throughout much of this overgrown section of trail there is not much elevation gain, with the hike topping out just over 3500 feet.  In fact, there was a slight downhill trend as I approached the parking area.

After I reached the parking area I walked the Big Levels Road for a while, as the PATC map I used (Map 12, Edition 11) indicated that the trail ended at a road that continued in each direction.  I eventually figured out that this was wrong and returned down the Cellar Mountain Trail in the opposite direction.

After pushing my way back through brush on the level portion of the Cellar Mountain Trail and reaching the campsite mentioned previously, I discovered that my beloved Garmin GPS was no longer attached to my belt!  One of the branches must have taken it off of me and I never noticed.  So I turned around and hiked back to the last spot I was sure I had the GPS, at the Big Levels Road.  But despite the 1.5 mile extra walk in each direction, I failed to locate my GPS.
Upper end of the Cellar Mountain Trail.

I never would have thought such a loss would affect me so much, but I was at a loss for the next week without my GPS, until I finally decided I had to purchase a replacement.  I ended up buying a similar, but newer model, the Garmin GPSmap 62s, which has some fantastic new features as well as some frustrating aspects compared to my familiar, older model.  I will do a GPS review at some point on this site.

Almost exactly a month later I returned to the Cellar Mountain Trail, with both my new GPS and a strengthened resolve to make sure it doesn't escape me.  This one was looped on my belt using the wrist strap.  Most of the leaves had fallen by this time, making the ground easier to see, but increasing the likelihood that my GPS would be covered and not found.  I again looked for the old GPS, but to no avail.  My hope is that I'll one day get a call from some honest hiker or hunter, as you cannot turn on the GPS without my name and phone number coming up.

Cellar Mountain Trail from the Big Levels Road.
Having hiked the ridge of Cellar Mountain four times in the past month, I decided to do something different and take the Cold Spring Trail back down the mountain.  The Cold Spring Trail would take me back to the Coal Road, which I could then walk for a mile or so back to my car.  Curiously, the latest edition of the PATC's own Hiking Guide to the Pedlar District, which I had in my pack, described this as "an unmarked trail down the mountain" without even naming the trail.  But it was listed on the PATC map as a light duty road that went back down to the Coal Road.  That was what I hiked to confirm.

Cellar Mountain from the Cold Spring Trail.
The Cold Spring Trail starts from the same parking lot about 100 feet from the end of the Cellar Mountain Trail.  This lot is one of the few sections of either trail not within the boundaries of Saint Mary's Wilderness.  The Cold Spring Trail was not nearly as overgrown as the Cellar Mountain Trail had been, perhaps because it drops back down the mountain almost immediately, rather than going along a ridge.  It had great views of Cellar Mountain as it descended.

The trail eventually drops down off the mountain and crosses the stream from Cold Spring several times.  By this point, it is clear that the trail is on an old road that is no longer used.  I came to a sign announcing the trail to hikers just starting the trail, then I ended up in someone's yard, as shown from the photos below.
At the bottom of the Cold Spring Trail is a sign for hikers.
But the trail itself exits the woods next to a private building.
I came out of the woods in someone's yard.
(Straight ahead is the trail, while the driveway curves to the right.)
At no point was there a sign telling me to turn around.  So I walked down the road (it appeared to service three different houses) all the way to the Coal Road.  At that point there was a sign saying "No Trespassing," but it wasn't prominent.  If the trail I was walking on really was an old road as it appeared, I should have an easement under common law to use the way.  But I am glad I didn't meet up with anyone for fear I'd have to argue the finer points of ancient property law to the end of a gun barrel!

When I got back home I checked several of my guidebooks.  Hiking Virginia's National Forests, 6th Edition ©1998, describes this part of the trail as a "short level stretch will bring you to a gate, which marks the wilderness boundary.  A bit farther along is a Forest Service steel gate barring access for motorized vehicles.  The trail ends on FDR 42, just opposite a dirt road, which is posted."  Nothing about houses or trespassing.

Wild Virginia: A Guide to Thirty Roadless Recreation Areas IncludingShenandoah National Park ©2002, specifically features this loop over a couple of pages, but regarding the area in question states only that "the wide, easy-to-follow trail exits the wilderness and intersects with FR 42."

Hiking Virginia: A Guide to Virginia's Greatest Hiking Adventures ©2004, is full of errors and is the least trustworthy of my hiking guides.  It doesn't cover this trail but has a map of Saint Mary's Wilderness that indicates the Cold Spring Trail links back up with the Cellar Mountain Trail without ever reaching the Coal Road.  I wish!

The only accurate guidebook is the best book on Virginia hiking, Allen de Hart's The Trails of Virginia: Hiking the Old Dominion.  I have an older edition, ©1995 (older than any of these other books), which states that the trail "descends 1 mi. on switchbacks to a convergence of streams and springs.  It ends 0.3 mi. farther at the wilderness boundary and private property.  Backtrack."  Yup.

Elevation Profile, Cellar Mountain/Cold Spring Loop.
I spoke to a ranger with the Pedlar District about the Cold Spring Trail.  He told me that they had considered a link trail as shown on the map in Hiking Virginia, but decided against it because this is in a wilderness area and they don't want to add trails to wilderness areas.  In fact, he thought the Forest Service should basically decommission the Cold Spring Trail because he didn't think there was a public right to access via the private land along the Coal Road.  He agreed that I should recommend to the PATC that they change their map to indicate that there is no access over private property.

Along the Coal Road it was a 25 minute walk to cover the final 1.4 miles.  Not a single car passed as we walked back to our vehicle.

This experience has reinforced my resolve to contribute where I can to maintenance of the trails.  I now carry my Gerber Sportsman's Wood Saw in my hiking pack.  It is lightweight and does a good job on trees. I need to also get a pair of high end pruning shears, perhaps these, but I am still researching (and am open to suggestions).  I would like also to find more time to join some of the various work crews that give back to the trails, such as the Flying McLeods or joining the PATC's Charlottesville Chapter on their work trips.  Perhaps I can get the Scouts out there clipping.  As hikers, we cannot let these trails fall back into disuse - we owe it to future hikers!

Hike Details:
Total Altitude Gain 2440 feet 
Total Distance 6.4 miles
Lowest point 2021 feet above sea level
Highest Point 3528 feet above sea level 
Time: 3 hours, 13 minutes

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Laurel Fork: October 15-16

The weather guy in Charlottesville said that leaves in Highland County and west were at peak the weekend of October 15th, so it seemed like a good time to head further west than normal and test out some new equipment on an overnight backpacking trip.  It was just me and the dog, and it was the first overnight for the dog – so I was really testing her out, too.

The first of many stream crossings
I chose an area of Virginia that has been on my hiking bucket list for many years, Laurel Fork Primitive Area in the George Washington National Forest.  The drive took me a couple of hours, but I stopped along the way to look at the scenery, make a telephone call, and uncover a couple of geocaches.  There were lots of motorcycles out on the road, as the leaves were in the Autumnal glory.  

This area is so remote that it is best accessed from West Virginia (see map).  It requires driving out U.S. 250 through spectacular Highland County, then turning north on West Virginia Route 28 before reentering Virginia on a dirt Forest Service Road.  This part of the George Washington National Forest is not connected with any other part of the National Forest, and really would make a lot more sense to be administered by West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, which operates a campground nearby.

Evidence of an old railroad
I parked in a picnic area about a mile off of the main road to start the hike.  Three guys in a pickup truck pulled up as I was putting my boots on, and we talked for a while.  They were camping at a developed spot a few miles away, and came over to day hike the area.  I encouraged them to head out the trail straight east as it had quicker access to the main waterway, Laurel Run.  I headed down another path that took me south. 

My path took me though some dark woods that were described as old growth forest (uncut) in one guidebook.  I don’t know if they qualify as old growth, as they appeared to be hemlock, and the old growth hemlock in Ramsey’s Draft had much larger trees.  But it was a dark and mysterious place – and those places are harder to find these days.

This Sugar Maple on the Slabcamp Run Trail was no doubt spectacular
in red a week earlier.
After about a half hour of hiking, I came to a trail intersection that didn’t appear to be marked on my map.  As I was standing by the sign, the three day hikers came walking down the other trail.  Turns out that my map was incorrect, and the trail not on my map looped back up to the parking lot.  They gave me a copy of the crude map provided by the Forest Service at the Picnic Area, a map I had originally chosen not to take.  I now notice that every other map I have found of this area correctly had the missing trail, including the guidebooks that I left home to save weight.

I headed further south, crossed the first of many streams, then ascended briefly but steeply to an old rail bed that hugged the side of a mountain and very gradually gained elevation.  This trail took me west to a parking lot/campsite and the beginning of the Slabcamp Run Trail.  Slabcamp Run is a three mile trail that passes through a wide variety of different areas, including a beautiful field, an old apple orchard, a pine forest, and mixed hardwoods.  It starts at about 3600 feet in elevation and slowly drops to about 2800 feet after three miles.

Trail on old rail bed.
I am grateful to others who came before me and painted blue blazes on trees along this route.  Although it generally follows the streambed of Slabcamp Run for most of its distance, there were many times when a trail was imperceptible.  I pulled myself along, going from blaze to blaze over a leaf covered forest, not sure if I was on an actual trail.  For portions of the trail, I found myself on another old railroad bed, which made going easier.  But as the trail approached the main waterway in the area, Laurel Fork, the trail hopped the stream bed multiple times, and I relied on those blazes to keep me on route.

At Laurel Fork, the trail relies on rocks to cross this stream.  Due to several days of rain before my trip, however, the stream was too strong to try crossing.  There is a link below to some video that shows the strength of the stream.  At first, I tried to work my way off trail north to the next trail, but cliffs en route proved too difficult to overcome.  I backtracked to the spot where Slabcamp Run meets Laurel Fork, and camped in a small site in the mountain laurel for the night.

On this hike I was testing several new pieces of equipment, including some new style, lightweight hiking boots made in France.  I bought the Hoka One One hiking boots because I've been experiencing foot pain over the past year and I thought the cushioning would minimize pain on hikes.  Honestly, they are not very attractive boots.  I look like I am a 5'2" man trying to reach 5'5".  And I think they are wider than my feet should use.  But my feet feel better than they have in a long time wearing them, so I'll continue using them.

I was also trying out my new GPS after having lost my beloved Garmin GPSmap 60csx on a recent hike over an overgrown trail.  After much research, I replaced that GPS with the Garmin GPSmap 62s from REI.  The 62 is an upgraded version of the 60, with some really great additional capabilities as well as some frustrating features.  I'll address that in a separate posting sometime soon.

The GPS proved useful on the return hike on Sunday morning.  Passing through an area I had hiked the day before, it was difficult to tell where the trail headed.  I found myself walking through the woods without finding a trail to guide me.  I found my way back to the trail using the GPS route from the day before.  No amount of map and compass work can help when you know you are within a hundred hards or so of a trail but cannot find the right spot.  The GPS saved me several minutes of searching.
Hiking through an old orchard on Slabcamp Run Trail.
Laurel Fork is far enough from Charlottesville that an overnight is pretty much necessary.  There is a developed campground about 5 miles away, administered by the Monongahela National Forest, called the Island Campground.  I didn't check this out, though I know others who have camped there.  Overall, this was a surprisingly hard hike, despite the relatively gradual grades.  The stream crossings were always dicey - one slip and it would be hard to return to the car, and there was nobody else for a long way.  I was glad I followed proper procedure and left an expected hike itinerary back at the house!

I plan to return, maybe with some scouts, but plan to do so when it has been a little drier.  It will be interesting to compare the area at a different time of year.  I also put together a YouTube video of the trip using iMovie 11 (this program is also an upgrade with some very frustrating aspects - and the reason this blog posting took so long to put up).  Check it out for another view of the area.