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


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