Sunday, July 21, 2013

A.T. Near Roanoke: Catawba Mountain ( Rt. 311 ) to Dragon's Tooth Parking Lot

On February 21st I joined the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club for its third Tuesday hike of the Appalachian Trail.  I don't recall now why we moved it to Thursday; probably due to weather.  This day was a spectacular one as you can see from the photos, with incredible blue skies.  In Virginia, there are few months better for hiking than a crisp February day.  On the other hand, it is impossible to determine what day that might be more than a few days in advance.
Sawtooth Ridge from further south on the A.T.
The past couple of weeks the group had done two sections of the Appalachian Trail near Roanoke.  On this day we headed further south on the trail, heading towards, but not reaching, the rock monolith known as Dragon's Tooth.

We started at the same starting point for the previous week's hike over McAfee Knob - State Route 311, about 10 minutes west of Interstate 81.  We headed over an area called Sawtooth Ridge (a part of Catawba Mountain), but I found the area wasn't as tough as it looked from the road.  The trail doesn't go over each peak in the sawtooth, but skirts around a lot of them.  The ridge lasted for 3 miles, and took us a little under an hour and a half as a group.  

When we reached Beckner Gap, the trail dropped off of Catawba Mountain and into a valley where we crossed several styles designed to keep animals from roaming, and various tributaries of Catawba Creek.

We eventually climbed back up to obtain spectacular views from Viewpoint Rock, climbing along a thin rock ridge.
The view from Viewpoint Rock

A short distance after Viewpoint Rock we reached Lost Spectacles Gap, so named because a Roanoke club volunteer lost his glasses here.  We took the blue blazed trail back 1.5 miles to our vehicles in the large Dragon's Tooth parking lot.  

A Short A.T. Hike, Just North of the James River

The view from the Purgatory Mountain Overlook on the BRP.
On Monday, July 15th I was up at 4 A.M. to drop my son and his Scoutmaster off at the Waynesboro Home Depot so they could take a charter bus to the Boy Scout National Jamboree in West Virginia.  It was a beautiful morning and, even though it promised to be hot later, I could not pass up the opportunity to head out to the Blue Ridge Parkway and finish up several very small sections of the Appalachian Trail that I had not completed.  (One of the three was not more than 100 yards, but I want to be complete in my completions!)

The first two sections were nothing to write about, as they were within sight of the Blue Ridge Parkway and really not very interesting.  (The view from the BRP itself, though, was spectacular!  At least until the heat burned off the low level clouds.)  I was expecting to be similarly underwhelmed with the day's third section, but was very pleasantly surprised.

The view from the Foot Bridge of a rain-swollen James River.
The section of the Appalachian Trail just north of the James River is relatively new.  Back in 2000, the A.T. moved its James River crossing from a somewhat nerve-wracking route along the side of the U.S. 501 bridge to a special pedestrian bridge specifically for the Appalachian Trail.  Named the "James River Foot Bridge" after thru-hiker Bill Foot, who negotiated rights over a long period of time.  It was constructed on piers from an 1881 railroad bridge. The bridge and its parking lot have proven very popular with locals - so popular that the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the bridge, has had to implement restrictions on partying and swimming in the area.  Link.

When the Foot Bridge was opened, the A.T. was rerouted to meet U.S. 501 at the bridge.  Because much of my A.T. hiking in this area dates to before the bridge was completed, I needed to come back here and hike the reroute so I could say I had hiked a continuous section of the A.T.  This was my last section, completing a continuous section of about 250 miles.

As I stated, I expected to be underwhelmed, because this section was designed to link two existing parts of the trail.  But I could not have been more wrong.  This is one of the more delightful sections of trail that I have seen in Virginia.

First bridge, looking from the northern end of the trail.
The trail starts by crossing Rocky Row Creek on a nicely constructed wood bridge.  It then hugs the side of a slope, held there by expert construction of log barriers.  Because of the steepness of the ravine, the noise of U.S. 501 becomes nearly imperceptible almost immediately.    The trail then crosses the stream again, and climbs the ravine on a series of steps that show great craftsmanship in their construction.
Another shot of the first bridge.
The trail drops quickly to the second bridge.
Check out the construction of these steps.
 After a little over a mile, the trail climbs out of the ravine to cross the Hercules Road.  It was at this point that I turned around, as I had previously completed the A.T. north of this road.  The Trail here heads north past the Johns Hollow Shelter (where I spent part of a migraine-shortened November night back around 1994), and up to spectacular views from Fullers Rocks.

According to the current Appalachian Trail Guide for Central Virginia, the trail that parallels the creek "was part of the original 1930 A.T. [alignment]."  The bridges were built in 1999 by the Forest Service, Konnarock Trail Crew (an A.T. trail crew that takes on big projects throughout Virginia), and volunteers from the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club.  It was a job well done.