Monday, March 31, 2014

The Appalachian Trail over the New River and Peters Mountain

This is the story of a Boy Scout backpacking journey that did not exactly go as planned, but it still provided a great learning experience. The group of six scouts and three leaders was following a plan I developed to backpack over three days and two nights hiking approximately 21 miles on the A.T. north from the New River in Pearisburg, Virginia. Of the nine participants, only I completed the original route.

When I plan a hike, I try to utilize as many resources as I can - maps, elevation profiles, guidebooks, and, if available, blog postings and observations from friends who have hiked the section. In this case, I came up with a hike that did not seem difficult on paper - a two hour climb on Friday, then a relatively minimal amount of elevation change on Saturday over about 12 ridgetop miles before dropping down off the mountain at the end of the hike with less than half a mile to complete on Sunday.  This would ensure an early departure.

On about 10% of my hikes the route seems much more difficult than the data would suggest. Northern Massanutten trails are on this list, and so is the last 10 miles of the A.T. before Harper's Ferry.  This weekend I added to this list. The climb up the mountain was a difficult one for one of the adults, particularly given the weight he was carrying. Because his legs were giving him problems, the three adult leaders discussed the option of turning back on Saturday. I traded backpacks with him part way up the mountain, and he had a heavy load. As a group, we will be working harder on lessening our pack weights before heading out again.
On the bridge over the New River during a brief quiet moment.
The hike started out on the south end of the U.S. 460 bridge crossing the New River.  (Route from Charlottesville to trailhead: Link.)  The mile-and-a-half of trail north of the New River is the most spectacularly ugly section of the A.T. I have ever witnessed. Walking the bridge is kind of interesting, though cars are whizzing past at interstate speeds.  At least you can look through the fencing at the river and railroad tracks.
On the north side, the trail drops down some concrete steps and passes by a giant plastics plant.  The plant is really enormous, and should be credited for not stinking like the paper mills in Maine can do. After a short walk up a private factory road, the trail exits asphalt and heads into the woods.  But the winter woods could not shield us from the factory view.

Update: The A.T. has since been rerouted between the New River and the Rice Fields Shelter.  I returned later in 2014 to hike the reroute.  Link.

Soon we crossed a road, where we were greeted by a large sign stating that this is the road to the plant's dump.
Stay out of the dump.
After about an hour of hiking (Scout time...), we came to Clendennin Road, where we had agreed we would meet one of the shuttle cars.  (Link to shuttle route: Link.) Two adults shuttled a car to the end of our hike then returned in one car to a parking area 1.5 miles into the Scouts' hike to join the group. But the parking area did not exist.  It was totally taken over by construction equipment.  Instead the car parked on the grass on the side of the road.  Fortunately, all of this trail is on the endangered list, as it will be replaced by a major realignment in the next year or two - stretching from the New River almost to the Rice Field Shelter, away from the factory and off of what I am told is the single longest piece of private property crossed by the A.T. over its entire 2100+ mile length.
Looking toward the factory on Clendennin Road when meeting the shuttle vehicle.
It took the scouts another couple of hours to hike the 3 miles to the ridge top, climbing from 1740 feet to 3275 feet at an average grade of 9.6%.  This is a pretty steep climb, especially with backpacks, and one of the leaders was feeling no love from his legs, thanks in part to his heavy pack.  I switched packs with him after 2.3 miles from the car drop (3.8 miles total) and his pack was at least 10 pounds heavier than mine.  On the way up the mountain, we crossed paths with an older guy who was a 1965 Va Tech grad and member of the football team ("back when they played teams like VMI.")  He seemed borderline offended that a group from Charlottesville (home of the rival University of Virginia) would be hiking the A.T. so close to his beloved university.  He spent 5 minutes on the trail telling us how much he hated UVA and hoped they would lose the basketball game that night.  None of us ever said we had any affiliation with his rival - we were suspect merely because of where we live. And now you know why I will never put a UVA sports sticker on my car and leave that car at a rural trailhead.
Rice Fields on top of Peters Mountain.
We decided to camp earlier than planned, tenting behind the Rice Field Shelter.  The shelter itself was only big enough for 8 and we had 9, so it was an easy choice to set up the tents in respect for the thru-hikers. One thru-hiker was already in the shelter and 2 more joined him, while a stealth fourth thru-hiker arrived after I was asleep and set up his tent not more than twenty feet from mine at 11 PM that night.
We asked permission of the thru-hiker first arriving if we could use the picnic table and he had no problem with that.  In turn, we tried to stay quiet as the hiker napped during our dinner.

The latrine at the Rice Field Shelter is a true outdoors experience.
That night, the boys enjoyed the spectacular view across the valley into West Virginia.  Considering the weekend was projected to have much rain, we felt very lucky to enjoy the sunset from the Rice Field viewpoint on a mountain that forms the border between Virginia and West Virginia.
The Money Shot.
The adults discussed the option of returning back to the vehicles the next morning because of the leg difficulties one adult was experiencing.  The decision was cemented as soon as we listened to the weather report on the NOAA radio transmission I received that night from the top of the mountain. The Blacksburg report stated that, in addition to rain, expectations the next night were for consistent 35 MPH winds and gusts exceeding 60 MPH. The transmission warned of extensive tree downings and widespread electrical outages. The leaders were unanimous in agreeing that this was not tenting weather. And, while we could have utilized the shelter in the area where we expected to camp, the shelter has a capacity of 8 and we had 9 hikers. And 3 thru-hikers had stayed in the shelter next to our tents the night we camped, so we could have exposed others to risk if we filled up the shelter.

Because we had a car shuttled to the end of our expected hike, the adults agreed that I would leave early and solo hike the 13 miles to that car, while the other two adults would descend directly to our starting trailhead.  Here is a map of our route: Link.  We came up from the south, and the Rice Field Shelter is marked with a point on the map.  The rest of the group retraced their steps.
Downed trees make it difficult to follow the trail ahead.

The next morning was misty and ripe for rain when I started off.  Though sizable amounts of rain never materialized, the threat was constant. Hiking the original planned route on Saturday confirmed for me that we made the right choice turning back, as there were literally hundreds of downed trees and branches on this section of trail, which caused difficulty following the trail. The number of downed trees was truly extraordinary - a thru-hiker commented the same to me - and makes me wonder whether the trail organization charged with maintaining this part of the A.T. is up for the task. At one point, I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get under a particularly large downed section.  I have since taken the unusual step of writing to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to highlight the poor condition of this section of trail.
I had to crawl under this one - there was no other way.

This experience confirmed that we made the right decision to turn the group around at the Rice Field Shelter - information we would not have if I hadn't gotten the vehicle using the trail. Was it the right decision to have me head north on my own?  It turned out well, and I am certainly experienced at solo hiking.  But I am not sure I made the right call.

The uphill section north of Dickenson Gap, about 8 miles into the hike, was particularly grueling.  I hit a wall here, and really slowed down.  In no small part, this was due to the fact that I brought very little water and could not replenish my supply on the ridge top. Though I hiked with a portable filter, I left the bulk of the water with the group, figuring I could obtain water along the way.  And I had very little to eat because I needed the fluids to digest the food.  By the time I reached the wide switchbacks heading down in the valley of the stream called the Pine Swamp Branch, I was spent.  But at least I could stop and get water out of the stream, using my backup filter.  And this part of the trail was exceptionally beautiful!

I'd like to say that I beat the other group down the mountain and returned up to help bring gear down. But they had been waiting over an hour for me when I arrived.  And I was totally wiped - glad that another adult was doing the driving.  After meeting up around 1:30 PM and stopping for fast food, we were back in Charlottesville around 6PM.

I have learned a few important lessons on this trip. First, the group should always bring a weather radio - I am very glad I spent the extra money to purchase a transistor containing that option, especially since I really purchased it to listen to a UVA basketball game that I failed to stay awake late enough to experience. Second, I need to get better information before heading out on a trail I have never hiked or stick to familiar locations. Sometimes plans turn out spectacularly well - as when the troop hiked Mt. Rogers on some trails I had never taken (though not all). But there is a risk that is totally separate from the extremely low risk of getting lost on the A.T. Part of the requirements for Backpacking MB is to discuss lessons learned and future adaptations. We will be doing that.

I am exceptionally proud of the boys who accepted this challenge.  They showed great flexibility when plans changed and they had to be returned home early.  They offered to take on extra pounds to help make it easier on a fellow hiker.  And they never complained that the weather or the activity wasn't what they hoped it to be.  I hope to get the chance to lead them again in the future - on the trail.

Addendum:  Shortly after our return, I learned of another troop's plight the same weekend on the Appalachian Trail between our hike and Charlottesville, at the Seely-Woodworth Shelter.  The troop woke up to several inches of snow on the second night of a 15 mile backpack.  They apparently felt that the boys would have difficulty returning the seven miles to the cars, and called a local rescue squad for help.  The squad advised the troop by phone to continue north on the A.T. to an exit trail, and met the troop along that trail.  When their plight first hit the news, I searched the net and came up with the troop's website and a notice advertising the hike that is no longer posted.  In the troop website's description of their hike, they stated that they were basing the trip on Hiking Upward's Tar Jacket Ridge backpack and gave a link to that hike on the site. The map Hiking Upward posts with that hike does not show other accesses to this shelter, and it really doesn't need to.  This appears to be a very experienced troop with top notch adult leadership. But I am guessing that the troop did not have the PATC Map 13, the Trails Illustrated edition for this area, or an A.T. Guidebook, so they didn't know how to get down to the closest road.  I think they would agree that they should have been prepared. They should have been prepared for the weather, even though snow was not in the forecast - the actual forecast was bad enough to confirm that we should pull our boys from the trail.  And the end of March does not mean the end of snow at 3800 feet elevation in the Blue Ridge.  But I do not fault a leader for calling for help, given that he probably knew there were closer trailheads than a return to their cars (but didn't have access to finding them), and he was responsible for the lives of several young boys with a potential icy and snowdrift laden hike ahead of him.

My experience preparing for hikes in the White Mountains necessarily includes knowing the escape routes in case of weather issues above timberline.  I try to apply that to all my hikes and constantly tell people that my favorite piece of outdoor equipment is a good map.  A $10 purchase would have likely made a big difference in their day.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Piney Ridge Trail and Matts Creek Trail in the James River Face Wilderness

On Thursday, February 27, 2014, I lead a diverse group of folks on a group hike in the James River Face Wilderness, through the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club.  We started by ascending the Piney Ridge Trail into the Wilderness until it ended at the Appalachian Trail.  We then took the Appalachian Trail north to the Matt's Creek Trail.  We hiked the Matt's Creek Trail back to a car drop and then shuttled about 2.5 miles back to our original trailhead.  Topo map of hike: Link.
Parking lot off of Hunt Club Road
The hike started at the Piney Ridge Trailhead parking on Hunt Club Road at about 800 feet elevation.  (Map and Directions from Charlottesville: Link.)  There is a sign on the road that directs cars to the grassy field that is the parking area.  Within the first tenth of a mile, hikers pass a gate that prevents vehicles from passing (park in the grassy field, or you will need to reverse back down the road), and the trail leaves the road.  The trail ascends steadily, and enters the Wilderness Area about 1.5 miles, after about 1000 feet of elevation has been gained.

I have read that the Piney Ridge Trail was the original alignment of the Appalachian Trail, so it has been around a while.  It was a very scenic trail, with many wintertime views south toward Highcock Knob in the JRF Wilderness.  The trail ends at the Sulpher Springs Trail, after about 3.4 miles, at about 2550 feet elevation.  Forty yards from here is the Appalachian Trail, which we took northbound.  We could have taken the Sulphur Springs Trail in the same direction, but the A.T. seemed like more of an adventure.
Piney Ridge Trail ends here.
Sulphur Springs Trail is to the left.
For the next 2.4 miles, the A.T. maintained a relatively stable elevation, fluctuating between 2500 and 2700 feet elevation.  During this time, the A.T. met the end of the Belfast Trail - another access trail - and the Balcony Falls Trail and the other end of the Sulphur Springs Trail.  After the intersection with the Balcony Falls Trail and Sulphur Springs Trail, the route lost all of the elevation previously gained and then some, dropping 1700 feet over the next 2.6 miles.  I had not hiked this section of the A.T. in 20 years, and was surprised both at its scenic beauty and the fact that I have absolutely no recollection of anything observed the first time I hiked these miles.
View of Thunder Ridge Wilderness and
Petites Gap Road from the A.T.

Parts of the A.T. were quite slick.

Winter views of the James River and Balcony Falls.

On the other side of the James River, the A.T. climbs back up to Rocky Row.
Crossing Matt's Creek.  There used to be a bridge over the creek.
It is gone now - must have been washed away.
The trail bottomed out at the crossing of Matt's Creek, where there are several campsites and an older shelter.  The shelter has really seen some abuse through the years!
Much abuse shown on this shelter.
There is very little elevation gain between this shelter and the James River.  For this reason, I always recommend a backpack from the James River Foot Bridge to here for families seeking to backpack for the first time with their kids.  The shelter area seems very remote and wild, but it is an easy stroll on the A.T. to get here.

We hiked back to our cars on the Matt's Creek Trail, which was the A.T. before the James River Foot Bridge was built.  Earlier hikers crossed the James on the U.S. 501 bridge, and there isn't a lot of room there for hikers.  Matt's Creek Trail is still maintained, so A.T. thru-hikers can continue north even if the James River is experiencing Spring flooding.  There are a few nice views through the trees on the Matt's Creek Trail, and a lot of mountain laurel that blooms around Memorial Day.  That is the best time to hike this part of the trail.
The Matt's Creek Trail ends at U.S. 501.
Map and Directions from Charlottesville to the trail's end point:  Link.
USFS Information on the Piney Ridge Trail: Link.

Hike Details:
Total Altitude Gain 4776 feet 
Total Distance 11.4 miles
Lowest point: 727 feet above sea level
Highest Point: 2697 feet above sea level
Difference: 1970 feet 
Hike Time: 6 hours, 26 minutes

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Friday, March 7, 2014

Rocks Mountain Fire, Shenandoah National Park

News reports over the past week have told of a wildfire in Shenandoah National Park on Rocks Mountain. Rocks Mountain is on the western edge of the park, just west of the Riprap Trail and northwest of the town of Crimora.

Here is the text of the National Park Service's (NPS) press release:

Shenandoah National Park personnel have determined that the cause of the Rocks Mountain Fire was an illegal campfire.The fire, which was reported to the park at approximately 3:10 p.m. on Friday, February 28, 2014, had burned approximately 450 acres inside Shenandoah National Park before a winter storm brought rain, sleet and snow to the area.

Fire managers visited the fire location just northeast of Crimora, Virginia today and confirmed that a continuous layer of snow still covers much of the incident area.Once the snow melts, firefighters will patrol the area for hot spots.

The following trails remain closed:Riprap, Wildcat Ridge, Rocks Mountain and Paine Run.

C-ville Weekly's photo of the fire
The curious thing about the press report is that the NPS listed 4 closed trails.  One of the trails listed, the Rocks Mountain Trail, is one that has not been found on a PATC trail map since at least 1988.  Here is a comparison of PATC's Map 11, Edition 8 (c) 1973, and Edition 11 (c) 1988:

It is curious that the NPS would "close" a trail that has apparently been inactive for somewhere between 25 and 40 years.

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Saddle Gap Trail/Saltlog Gap Trail Loop

Sometimes it is fun to try finding and hiking a trail that you aren't sure exists.

The Saltlog Gap Trail is not found on any map that I own - including the ATC's map of the Appalachian Trail, the Trails Illustrated map of this area, or the PATC Map 13.* Nobody I knew had ever hiked it, or even heard of it.  For me, it existed only as a destination on a photo of an Appalachian Trail sign at a place called Saltlog Gap that I hadn't personally experienced in about twenty years.  After seeing the photo, I was curious.  The trail must exist, or else why would it be on the sign?

(*Update: since this account was originally published, the PATC has revised Map 13 and included the Saltlog Gap Trail on the new edition, due to this report. Link.)

Although the trail is described in the latest edition of the PATC's Hiking Guide to the Pedlar District, that volume claims that the trail ends at the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The latest edition is, itself, over ten years old. The sign on the A.T. indicates a different end point than the book described.  And the book's author clearly gave up on the trail when hiking it only a short distance starting at the other end - the end the sign doesn't say the trail goes to.  He didn't appear to even try hiking it from the A.T. end.

After confirming with a source from Lynchburg's Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club that the trail does exist and ends at Hercules Road as stated on the sign, I made plans to explore this trail.

I decided to make this a loop hike, ascending the Saddle Gap Trail from Hercules Road to the A.T. just north of Fullers Rocks and Rocky Row, then hiking north on the A.T. to Saltlog Gap, then back down to Hercules Road. (Hercules Road is a paved forest road that ends at U.S. 501 right where the A.T. crosses the James River on the Foot Bridge.  It is often used by hikers climbing to Fullers Rocks and Rocky Row. Map and Directions.)

There is one incredibly important warning that my NBATC contact gave me regarding the Saltlog Gap Trail:

It should only be hiked on weekends!
Trailhead and parking from Hercules Road

This is because the Saltlog Gap Trail actually winds its way through an active quarry.  My interest was definitely piqued when I found that out.

0.0 Miles.  The Trailhead for the Saddle Gap Trail isn't obvious from the Hercules Road, except that it is a couple of miles up the road and has a small parking area at its start - maybe 3 cars max.  I knew I was in the right place thanks to a waypoint I loaded into my GPS and obtained from my GPS software program. There is no hiker sign; only a large boulder blocking an old road.  The boulder has a navy blue blaze painted near its base.

Trail sign near Hercules Road.
Shortly after starting up the trail, but out of sight from the trailhead, was a sign confirming that I was on the Saddle Gap Trail.  There were a couple of small stream crossings before the trail turned into an old woods road and started to climb.  After leaving the woods road at a sharp angle, the Saddle Gap Trail switchbacked gradually up the mountain, giving views through the leafless trees.

2.4 Miles. I arrived at the A.T. after about 55 minutes of hiking - 7 minutes faster than I did 20 years ago when I wrote my time on a map.  I felt good about that - I am competitive in that way.
Saddle Gap Trail ends at Appalachian Trail.  Photo shows trail's end.
After reaching the Appalachian Trail, I headed north for a little over a mile to Saltlog Gap.  The trail did not go over Silas Knob, but instead skirted the summit on its western edge, meaning shade and ice on parts of the trail.
A.T. can be a little icy on the western side of Silas Knob
3.5 Miles. At Saltlog Gap, the sign for the Saltlog Gap Trail was still there.
Saltlog Gap, looking east towards start of Saltlog Gap Trail.
Also there was a sign stating that the Belle Cove Trail is closed following a flood in June of 1995.  I knew this trail was no longer maintained as it had been washed out in a rainstorm.  It is curious, however, that there would be a sign about this trail nearly 19 years after they closed the trail.  I am left with a couple of questions - (1) whether this was the same rainstorm that drowned much of Madison County in June, 1995, within a week of when I got married.  I had always heard that the rainstorm was somewhat isolated to Madison County.  And, (2), why the forest service would be telling us not to take this trail - after all, hunters traipse wherever they want without trails, and the forest service doesn't say anything.  I have driven U.S. 501 where the trail used to end, and it is clearly still forest service land. There must be more to the story.

It is a shame the Belle Cove Trail was never rebuilt.  The previous edition of the PATC's Hiking Guide to the Pedlar District (from 20 years ago), said that the Belle Cove Trail was one of the prettiest trails in the Pedlar District.
The Belle Cove Trail is still closed.
From Saltlog Gap, I headed east looking for a trail.  It wasn't an easy search.  Leaves were down, and I could find no blazes or ruts indicating a trail.  After wandering the woods for several minutes, I saw a cut log and descended to it, and found the trail quite clearly.  If you decide to take this loop, this may be the single hardest part of the hike, and note that the trail does not follow the ridge as you might expect, but drops into a small cut in the mountains slightly north of the ridge.
Snow is great for bringing out wildlife tracks.
I am not the only one using this trail.  Bobcat?
There were several nice winter views along the trail, and the trail was both blazed and very clear for the rest of its route.
Saltlog Gap and Bluff Mountain along the A.T., as seen from the Saltlog Gap Trail.

View of the Saltlog Gap Trail, with blue blaze on tree.

The Saltlog Gap Trail winds between rocks.

Saltlog Gap Trail, on right, merges into old woods road.  
5.0 Miles. About 1.5 miles after its start, the Saltlog Gap Trail merged into an old woods road, which is marked on some maps.  This road intersected near the summit of Peavine Mountain.  Shortly after that, I came upon the one outstanding view of the hike, at the edge of an old, unused quarry.  (Don't look down!)  From here I could see the rocks that form Rocky Row, and which cut down to the James River and form Balcony Falls.  On the other side of the James, which is unseen from this vantage, are the mountains of the James River Face Wilderness, and Apple Orchard Mountain in the distance, which is the highest point on the A.T. heading north for the next 1200 miles.
View from Saltlog Gap Trail

The trail then descended to a sharp turn and came out on the edge of an active quarry.

Trail meets quarry.  Decent into quarry on right side of photo.
Trail's route through quarry.  Red line shows trail route.
5.9 Miles. After descending into the quarry in a spot marked on maps as "Slaty Gap," the rest of the hike followed the access road, which is a continuation of the road I parked on, Hercules Road.  It was hard to walk this road and not think I was walking somewhere that I wasn't supposed to be, but there was an occasional but infrequent blue blaze next to the road.
Blue Blaze along quarry access road.
7.2 Miles. And, when I came to the gate closing the road to public use, the Forest Service stated that I was welcome to walk the road.
Road is gated, but USFS tells us that Foot Travel is welcome.
I am not so sure how the Old Virginia Brick Company feels about it, though.  This company mines the area for rock that is used to make its fancy bricks.
Next to the gate, someone appears not quite as welcoming.
There was room for a few more cars to park near the gate, which is 0.2 miles from where I left my car, 7.4 miles from the start.
Parking at the end of the public portion of Hercules Road.
Here is a link to at topographic map of the hike:  LINK.

So, do I recommend this hike?  I will admit that there was a certain appeal to the hike because I was not sure where the trail would take me, and I have eliminated that uncertainty for the reader.  And I think a hike is a good one if it has an occasional view and gets my heartbeat up - others may seek more than that.  This is certainly not the first hike anyone should take in the area.  Nearby is one of the top ten hikes in the state, as compiled by Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club President Mike Vaughn (Link) - Fullers Rocks - which should be hiked first.  Also nearby is the James River Face Wilderness with 26 miles of trails - some really spectacular.  This hike presents a nice loop, however, with some unique visuals.  I plan on hiking it again during another season; just not during the week.

Hike Details:
Total Altitude Gain 2404 feet 
Total Distance 7.4 miles
Lowest point: 906 feet above sea level
Highest Point: 2748 feet above sea level
Difference: 1842 feet 
Hike Time: 2 hours, 52 minutes

Check out my other blog postings here.

Update:  I led a group hike on this same loop on December 26, 2015.  With a group, the hike took somewhat longer, 3 hours, twenty minutes.  The Belle Cove Trail sign still exists, though a meeting with the USFS last January indicated they wanted to eliminate the notice, twenty years after the trail was washed out.  The Salt Log Gap Trail remains difficult to find for its first 100 feet from the Appalachian Trail.  There is an indentation in the ground indicating a trail to the east which heads to a campsite.  The trail is to the left of that campsite, and I again found it thanks to the sawed log mentioned in this post.