Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Cole/Cold Mountain Appalachian Trail Hike

Long Mountain Wayside
I have been doing volunteer work for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club measuring trails using a GPS receiver since May of 2013, which has cut down on the number of posts on this blog.  It doesn't mean I haven't been hiking - I have hiked more miles in the last 6 months than in any similar period in my life.  But much of the hiking I have done does not translate into interesting blog posts. I have hiked many trails I had hiked before, and a few that I had never hiked but needed measurements.  I hiked 70% of all trails and fire roads in the Southern District of Shenandoah National Park.  And now I am working on measuring trails between Rockfish Gap (Interstate 64) and the James River.

One such measuring event brought me back to the Long Mountain Wayside, which is on U.S. 60 between Amherst and Buena Vista, Virginia.  This is where the A.T. crosses U.S. 60.  (Map and Directions from Charlottesville: Link.) From here, there is a steep climb northbound to the top of Bald Knob (which isn't bald).  I did this hike two-and-a-half years ago, and it was a tough slog.  Link.  But I am in better shape now, and was looking forward to the challenge.

I take these hikes a little slower due to measuring protocols for the GPS data.  I stop at each switchback for 9 seconds, to make sure that a datapoint shows the full length of the switchback.  And I waypoint every road crossing, stream crossing, trail intersection, vista, and unusual feature along the way - stopping to measure the waypoint for at least 30 seconds.

At the summit of this hike, I found myself on top of Cold Mountain (also called Cole Mountain - I wish somebody would just decide one name or the other!)  Cold Mountain has one of the truly great vistas in Virginia, as the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club mows the summit, keeping trees from taking over. Thank you NBATC!
And even though I know that Cold Mountain has a really great vista, it still takes my breath away every time I see it.  This time, I had a smartphone app called "Peakfinder" that helped me identify many of the peaks I could see from the summit.  Above are captioned photos showing that I could see mountains all the way from Trayfoot in Shenandoah National Park in the north, to McAfee Knob near Roanoke in the south.  

Dark Pine Forest on the Old Hotel Trail
You don't have to travel the hard way to see this vista like I did, though.  Most folks drive to a parking lot much closer to the summit.  Directions to that lot are provided by Bryce over at Hiking Upward.  I have taken pre-school kids up the mountain from the parking lot described in that post.  Be sure to bring a kite!

From the summit, I followed the Appalachian Trail north to the parking lot above, which is on Wiggins Spring Road - a Forest Service road.  Access to this spot from U.S. 60 is well maintained and well marked by the Forest Service.  A short walk down the road brought me to the Old Hotel Trail, which is a 3.5 mile trail back to the A.T.

Wolf Tree on the Old Hotel Trail
 The Old Hotel Trail makes a popular 5.8 mile loop with the A.T. over Cold Mountain that is moderately difficult and described by Adam and Christine at Virginia Trail Guide - with their typically fantastic photos taken at a prettier time of year.  Christine accurately estimates this to be about a 3 hour hike for most folks.

The Old Hotel Trail passes a giant Wolf Tree - a White Oak, in an area that, if it was near a spring, would be the single greatest campsite in Virginia.  I have camped there with my son's Boy Scout Troop (Link).

After hugging the side of Cold Mountain, the Old Hotel Trail crosses a stream then marches past the Cow Camp Shelter - one of the A.T. thru hiking shelters - before returning to the A.T. at Cow Camp Gap.
Bald Knob from the Old Hotel Trail
There is an old trail that continues past the A.T. at this point, and ends at one of the access roads.  It is no longer blazed, and I am not sure it exists anymore, but I could see it from the A.T.

While climbing Bald Knob again on the A.T. returning to my car, I could hear a fighter jet streaking through the sky - something that is a pretty regular occurrence down this way.  The dog would freeze at the sound, and I would scour the now cloudy sky.  I briefly saw the plane at one point, banking sideways around a mountain at a lower elevation than we were hiking.

Near the top of Bald Knob I came across wreckage from an earlier training mission.  The current AT Guide to Central Virginia says the remains are from a Navy Fighter jet that crashed in October, 1978, killing two occupants.  The guide also states, “Physical evidence of the crash is now barely discernible.” You can judge from the photo below whether that statement is accurate.

Cow Camp Shelter
Airplane wreckage
Hike Details:
Total Altitude Gain 5515 feet 
Total Distance 14.2 miles
Lowest point 2082 feet above sea level
Highest Point 4118 feet above sea level 
Time: 5 hours, 54 minutes

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