Thursday, June 5, 2014

Cellar Mtn Trail and Cold Spring Trail in St. Mary's Wilderness - June 1, 2014

I came across a hiking blog called Hiking Shenandoah a while back, written by a UVA student, who says he reads this blog "for some really off-the-beaten-path hikes around Charlottesville." This account should satisfy that reader, as there aren't many hikes more "off-the-beaten-path" than this one.  Admittedly, I have written about this hike before, back in November, 2011.  Link.  It would be interesting to see the changes during that time.  

The Cellar Mountain Trail is located in the St. Mary's Wilderness, just up the road from the trailhead for the uber-popular St. Mary's Falls hike.  It is about an hour drive from Charlottesville (Map).  The trailhead is a small parking area off of the locally infamous Coal Road, also known as Forest Service Road 42.

A side note. Locally infamous?  A friend who is a prosecutor in Augusta County has warned me away from this place, saying he prosecutes a lot of incidents occurring on the Coal Road, a dirt Forest Service Road which links St. Mary's Road with the Mt. Torry Road in Sherando.  And on the way back from this hike I came across a USFS Ranger, so I stopped and asked her about her knowledge of a trail that I don't believe officially exists anymore.  She didn't know the trail, as she said she was law enforcement.  But she said the Coal Road "is the single most crime infested forest road in the entire state of Virginia."  "Lock up your car and hide your valuables when you hike off of this road," she told me.  As a result, a notice at the trailhead states that alcohol is prohibited within 500 feet of the Coal Road and St. Mary's Road.  

Consider yourself warned!

The parking lot holds maybe 6 cars, but I have never seen another car in the lot.  And it is somewhat hidden from the Coal Road.  

There is a kiosk at the trailhead giving this information and warning folks that break-ins have occurred at this parking lot.  If you are still willing to risk going further, the trail continues past a livestock fence and a sign telling you that you are entering St. Mary's Wilderness - the part nobody travels.  The trail passes the only water source on the trail .04 miles into the hike - a spring next to the trail.  

At 0.7 miles you come to the singular highlight of the Cellar Mountain Trail, an overlook that looks southwest along the ridgeline.  Sublime.  
The view from the best overlook.

There are other views after several switchbacks, including the one below from the trail, looking west across the Shenandoah valley to the Goshen Pass area.
View from the trail at about a mile into the hike.
After two miles, much of the ascent is complete.  The elevation has increased 1500 feet from 2000 feet to 3500 feet.  There is a small, dry campsite here.  
Campsite at 3500 feet.
 From this point, it is into the thick overgrowth.  Eyes often need to be trained down, looking for depressions in the land that indicate you are on the right path.  There are no paint blazes on trees, and the overgrowth often totally obscures the trail.  The trail rides a ridge (so really, how lost can you get if you just stay on the ridge?), passing by but not over the 3645 foot summit of Cellar Mountain, and giving occasional views down into the St. Mary's River valley below.

My GPS read 3.4 miles when I reached trail's end, though the 10 year old Hiking Guide to the Pedlar District claims the trail is only 2.8 miles long.  This same guide doesn't even seem to recognize the Cold Spring Trail, however, calling it only an "unmarked trail," despite being labeled on the PATC maps.  At trail's end, just outside the Wilderness boundary, is a much larger parking area than where I parked.  But it is a rough road to get here and is best only accessed with a high clearance vehicle.  

The Cold Spring Trail starts right where the Cellar Mountain Trail ends.  It becomes overgrown immediately, as can be seen by the photo below indicating the state of the trail just inside the wilderness boundary.  
This photo shows the Cold Spring Trail near its highest point.

Another Cold Spring Trail photo.
The trail descends via several switchbacks with views of Cellar Mountain, and the growth really does not keep the trail from being easily followed.  I did have one problem keeping with the trail, when it crossed a talus slope - a rock slide - but I found the trail again a little downhill from where I expected it and stayed with it until several crossings of the Cold Spring Branch after descending the mountain.  

After the stream crossings and passing another campsite, the trail uses an old road bed that was very wet.  It was difficult navigating the low branch cover and keeping dry feet.  The road heads straight into somebody's backyard at the 5.0 mile mark.  While there were no "No Trespassing" signs and while I believe Virginia law allows me to use easement represented by the roadbed, I wasn't going to test my understanding of Virginia law in the face of a landowner.
The trail continues past this shed.  Or not.
 I backtracked to where I passed the trail sign shown in the photo below and bushwacked across Forest Service property along the boundary with the private landowners.  The boundary was often marked by red blazes on trees or Wilderness Area signs, and it was a relatively easy 0.7 mile walk around the properties to the Coal Road.  
Trail sign near the Wilderness boundary with private landowners.
It had moved since the last time I took this trail.
A twenty minute walk down the Coal Road brought me back to the car, for a hike loop totaling 7.1 miles.  Not one car passed us during those twenty minutes.

Here is a map of my hike, including the bushwack at the top of the circle.  I think combining the two trails with a bushwack is the best way to accomplish this trail.  MAP.

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