Wednesday, November 14, 2012

AT/Little Cove Mountain Trail Loop

This is a nice loop trail using Appalachian Trail near Buchanan, Virginia and near the National Park Service's Peaks of Otter Recreation Area.  It takes about an hour and a half driving time from Charlottesville, taking Interstate 64 west to Interstate 81, then exiting at Buchanan and taking State Route 43 to its intersection with the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The trailhead is about five miles south of the Peaks of Otter section of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

My hike was 11.8 miles because I wanted to complete an entire section of the Appalachian Trail.  If you are just looking for a loop hike and aren't in it to add to your A.T. total, the hike described below includes a really nice 7.3 mile loop that starts and ends at Va. 614 east of Arcadia, about 4.6 miles from Exit 168 on Interstate 81.  I highly recommend this hike.

For my trip, I combined this section of the Appalachian Trail with a side trail, called the Little Cove Mountain Trail, to form a semi-loop trail.  It allowed me to extend my continuous mileage on the AT south another 7 miles.  

I climbed up into the mountains from Buchanan on Route 43, parking for the hike within sight of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  This section of Route 43 is a pretty spectacular drive, as the slopes are steep and the road is windy.  There are few routes through the Blue Ridge in Virginia that are this impressive.  Just outside of Buchanan, a sign warns off tractor trailers and GPS users.

The A.T. has been rerouted where it meets Route 43.  Unfortunately, the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club, which does a spectacular job maintaining this section of trail, has not built a trail between the re-routed A.T. and the only viable parking area.  (Even this spot only fits three or four cars.)  I did not want to walk along the road with my canine hiking companion, so I bushwacked through the woods to find the trail crossing.

The NBATC tells me they have no plans to connect the parking area and the trail, as traffic volumes are low on this road and sight lines are good.  But a fog rolled in at the end of my hike, and I don't believe walking the road was safe.  It would certainly not be a walk I would take with my son's Boy Scout troop.
The Little Cove Mountain Trail's southern terminus
at the Appalachian Trail.

Heading north, the A.T. climbs Cove Mountain from the parking area, gaining about 450 feet before hitting the first of two summits of this mountain at about 8/10ths of a mile.  The second summit is nearly the same elevation, and is about twice as far from the parking lot, as the mountain is actually a ridge.  After topping the second summit, the trail drops down a couple of switchbacks before coming to an intersection with the southern end of the Little Cove Mountain Trail at the 2 miles.

I had a decision to make here.  I wanted to take each trail, but figured that the Little Cove Mountain Trail might be less likely to be properly maintained.  If so, I wanted to be able to turn back early in my hike.  There is nothing worse than being 2/3 of the way through a long circuit hike only to find a trail that is impassible.

At the point where the Little Cove Mountain Trail crosses the
Yellowstone Road, this sign attempts to justify a previous clear cut.
So I first started down the Little Cove Mountain Trail, which dropped through an area that had seen a forest fire a while back, giving nice views of the surrounding mountains as I hiked.  After several switchbacks I crossed the gravel Yellowstone Road at a point where you could park a car but not drive any further.  There was a car parked here, but I never saw its occupant.

Also here was a sign talking about clear cutting that had occurred at some point in the past.  The sign looked pretty old and had clearly been edited when more clear cuts had been made after the original sign was erected.   The trail continues on, just west of a ridge, before crossing the ridge and crossing a grassy roadway.  For the next 3/4 of a mile, from 3.75 to 4.5 miles, the trail is exceptionally scenic.  It is the prettiest part of the entire hike as the trail drops somewhat steeply into the valley created by Cove Creek and Little Cove Creek.  The trail crosses a creek three times on its way south - something to consider if you are hiking in wet season.

Descending the Little Cove Mountain Trail there are nice views to the west of Cove Mountain, which the A.T. Climbs.
Photos do not do justice to this exceptionally scenic section of trail.  
At 4.7 miles into the hike the trail crosses Jennings Creek and comes out on Route 614, also known as the Jennings Creek Road.  This road connects the Blue Ridge Parkway and Interstate 81.  As a result, there is some traffic on the road.  Where the trail meets the road there is a hiker sign, a pulloff and the bridge is very visible.  It makes a good place to leave the car if you only want to hike the 7.2 mile circuit hike, and don't want to add the 2 miles of A.T. each way to Route 43.  In addition, walking along this road is much safer than walking along Route 43, due to wider shoulders and less traffic on Route 614.

A bridge crosses Jennings Creek at the northern terminus of the
Little Cove Mountain Trail, at Rt. 614.
I didn't need to worry about the condition of the Little Cove Mountain Trail, as it was in great shape - well blazed and very easy to follow.  It is not as long as the A.T. heading north but is steeper, if that is a concern for you.

From the bridge I turned left on the road and walked along a road that was once a section of the Appalachian Trail.  According to a topo map I have, the A.T. intersected with the road right where the Little Cove Mountain Trail comes out, though it had come down from another mountain.  I wonder if that is why there is such a nice bridge over Jennings Creek here.  I walked 0.8 miles to the present A.T. road crossing at the Panther Ford Bridge.  Local legend has it that a woman and her child were killed eons ago by a mountain lion here, giving the bridge its name.  There is a parking area here, at the lowest point on the hike - 951 feet.  It is important to note that this is also the last part of the trail with a reliable water source.  There is a conspicuous sign on the trail letting hikers know that the section's trail hut does not have a spring - a rarity along the Appalachian Trail.

The A.T. climbs swiftly for 4/10ths of a mile before leveling off somewhat, but the trail generally climbs steadily from the road for 1.75 miles, reaching 1720 feet.  During this climb, the trail first passes through a couple of horse stiles where it intersects the Glenwood Horse Trail (at 6.7 miles) then it intersects with the Buchanan Trail (at 7.0 miles).

View from the Appalachian Trail looking southeast towards
Buchanan, Virginia
These two trail crossings illustrate why having more than one map is sometimes a good idea.  When hiking this area, I prefer the maps that came with my A.T. Guidebook because they have a better level of detail than the National Geographic/Trails Illustrated maps.  I prefer them even though my copies are now more than 20 years old.  The A.T. map showed the Buchanan Trail but didn't have the Glenwood Horse Trail.  Meanwhile, my Trails Illustrated Map (Lexington/Blue Ridge Mountains, #789) shows the horse trail but not the Buchanan Trail.  Each trail is obvious when crossing (the horse trail isn't marked by name, but has "no horses" signs on the A.T.), but neither map was giving me the full story.  I have a list of errors I want to send to Trails Illustrated for their various Virginia maps, and I will have to add this to the list.

The trail leveled off for a while, and at 8.6 miles came to a nice overlook.  I stopped here to lunch, as I had read that this is the only good viewpoint on this part of the A.T.  Although cold season hiking meant that I could see other vistas through the trees, this was the best place to stop.  

Cove Mountain Shelter, as seen from the Appalachian Trail.
The trail through here was easier than I expected.  The A.T. Trail Guide I consulted stated that I was in the middle of "10 knobs and 9 sags, ranging from 1,933 feet to 2692 feet, traversed in the next 4.0 miles."  But those knobs and sags were barely perceptible as I made my way southbound, as can be seen from the elevation profile at the end of this posting.  I might feel different, though, if I were thru-hiking with a heavy pack.

A few hundred feet later I came to the Cove Mountain Shelter, seen in the photo from the A.T.  The shelter had a requisite log book, where I documented my visit.  This shelter was originally located just north of Highcock Knob in the James River Face Wilderness Area, but was moved after wilderness designation.  This makes me wonder why other shelters have not been moved out of wilderness areas, such as the Matt's Creek Shelter which is still in the James River Face Wilderness.

Looking south from the Appalachian Trail as it climbs Cove Mountain.
Route 43 can be seen winding its way up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Back on the trail, altitude adjustment continued in earnest a short distance from the hut, as the trail headed uphill.  The A.T. curved eastward here, giving me a nice view northward of the section of Route 43 I took into the mountains from across the steep Bearwallow Valley.  I was hiking over the top of the section that amazed me on the drive up to the trailhead.

Between 9.5 and 10 miles into my hike, the view switched back over towards the valley created by Jennings Creek, and I found myself on the edge of a forest that no longer existed, clearly due to a forest fire some years back.  As happens after all forest fires, the land is slowly healing itself, and I estimated that the fire had occurred more than two and less than five years ago, based on the growth I was seeing.

A later Google search come up with a Roanoke Times article from July 2008, indicating that a fire had closed this section of the A.T. and the Little Cove Mountain Trail.  The article noted that the fire "consumed more than 500 acres," and officials believed it had started due to lightning.  Forest Fire News Article.  This must have been the source of the charred trees I also saw at the beginning of the Little Cove Mountain Trail.  There is also a news report about a 57 acre fire on Cove Mountain back in the spring of 2012, but I don't think the growth would be this far along after such a recent fire.
Evidence of a previous forest fire is clear in this photo, which looks back northwest from the Appalachian Trail,
near where it rejoins the Little Cove Mountain Trail, about 9.75 miles into the hike.
The A.T. follows the ridge top shown behind the burnt tree as it ascends from Jennings Creek.
The climb leveled off as I returned to the A.T./Little Cove Mountain intersection, this time at 10 miles into my hike.  From here I retraced my steps back to the car.  

If you are interested in taking this hike, the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club has a map online that you can print out.  I don't think it is quite accurate, as it shows the Little Cove Mountain Trail dropping all the way down to the Yellowstone Branch of Jennings Creek after its first road crossing.  In fact, the trail stays near the top of the ridge between road crossings.  But the U.S.G.S. topo map for this area does not show the Little Cove Mountain Trail at all, so the RATC Map is more useful.  RATC Map

Elevation Profile of this hike.
A hiking friend expressed amazement that I would drive solo from Charlottesville to take such a hike, and whether a trip of this distance is worth the time and gas required is a reasonable question.  I really enjoyed this hike, but 90 minutes each way is a long drive - about the edge of easy day hiking distance.  If I were going away for the weekend, I'd probably go a little further and check out McAfee's Knob or return to the Dragon's Tooth.  But there are good, funky restaurants in Lexington and in Buchanan that could be combined with a hike in this area.  And, at some point, it is the only way to get out and see new sections of the Blue Ridge.  So yes, Iva.  I think it was worth it.  And I'd like to go back out and rehike the loop during a different season to see the differences.  Maybe I'll convince some others to make the drive with me.
Trail map showing the A.T./Little Cove Mountain Trail loop.
My trailhead on Rt. 43 is off this map to the lower left.
Hiking Time/Distance Breakdowns:

Rt 43 to Little Cove Mountain Trail: 47 minutes.  1.8 miles
Little Cove Mountain Trail to Jennings Creek: 1 hour.  2.7 miles
Jennings Creek Road from Little Cove Mountain Trail to A.T.: 15 minutes. 0.8 miles
Jennings Creek Road to Cove Mountain Shelter: 1 hour 14 minutes (not including lunch time). 3.1 miles
Cove Mountain Shelter to Little Cove Mountain Trail: 42 minutes. 1.4 miles
Little Cove Mountain Trail intersection to Rt 43: 42 minutes.  1.8 miles

My GPS Data:
PATC Difficulty Factor 264.1
Total Altitude Gain 2947 feet
Total Distance 11.83 miles
Low Point 1007 feet above sea level
High Point 2724 feet above sea level
Time of Hike 4:53 hours: minutes

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