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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