Thursday, September 18, 2014

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act - in the Rough Mountain Wilderness

The Crane Trail in the Rough Mountain Wilderness is one of the first hikes I reported on this blog.  I hiked it during February back in 2009, over five years ago.  In the previous report, I recounted how hard it was to find this trail - it had taken me 3 trips to find the trail, and even then I only hiked half of the trail.  I've always wanted to come back and check out the entire length of the trail.

A couple of months ago, I hiked the incredible House Mountain Trail with some of my favorite hiking companions - folks with the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club.  During that hike, we talked about "hard to hike" trails.  Since this year is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, we decided to hike the Crane Trail.  Nobody else had ever hiked the trail; I am not sure they had even heard of it. But my fellow hikers were intrigued by the challenge this hike presents, and we ended up with 8 strong hikers exploring the Rough Mountain Wilderness.

This appears to be a Marbled Salamander, and was found on the railroad tracks.
Getting to the trailhead is an event in itself.  (Driving directions are at the bottom of this post.)  But unlike my previous three trips to the area, I drove the rutted forest road all the way to the final parking area.  I had always wimped out in the past - hiking 20 minutes on the final access road because I was afraid the Subaru couldn't make the trip.  But it wasn't a problem driving the to the final parking lot.

After parking in the small lot - it probably holds 5 vehicles - it was a little bit of a puzzle trying to get up to the railroad tracks while avoiding some wet, swampy spots.  After you get up to the tracks, you head north for a mile.  You will know when you have reached the trail's start when you reach a small bridge taking the tracks over Pads Creek.  It is the only bridge on the walk. Look in among the brush to the left (West) and you will see a trail sign and an old kiosk.

Once it starts climbing the mountain, the trail is very easy to follow.
But you haven't found the trail yet!  At least the first 700 feet of the trail do not exist anymore. Blowdowns and overgrowth have obliterated the trail.  Save yourself some effort, and follow the drainage heading west from Pads Creek at this point.  After travelling up that drainage for several hundred yards, take a right off of the drainage and look for the old trail alignment.  It will be a depression in the ground.  The further upstream you go, the easier the trail will be to find.  If you have a GPS receiver, set it for N37° 54.689' W79° 40.775'.  The trail should be pretty obvious by this point.

By the time the trail really climbs Rough Mountain, it is easy to follow and really nicely constructed. Our group did some vegetation clipping, doing our part to keep the woods from totally reclaiming this trail.  The trail takes a couple of switchbacks and, 3.1 miles from the parking lot, crests Rough Mountain.

Looking west from the Crane Trail.  Douthat State Park in the distance.
I had never gone further than this point before, and was excited to check out the trail heading back down the other side of the mountain.  The Crane Trail on the west side of Rough Mountain was in great shape - much better than on the east side.  And on the way down there were some pretty views through a thin cover of pine trees of the Cowpasture River valley and of Beards Mountain in Douthat State Park.  I hiked the trail all the way to the edge of the National Forest boundary, turning around at the 4.5 mile mark of the hike, where the trees were marked with red boundary paint.  There was no sign telling me to turn around or not trespass.  Maybe the neighbors figure that so few hikers would ever make it to this spot that it isn't worth the trouble.  The folks living around here have their own private trail into the wilderness, and they know that the woods behind their property won't ever be developed.  Pretty sweet.
The Crane Trail west of the Rough Mountain summit is in nice shape.

No sign saying "private property," just some red banded trees showing the boundary.
We all followed the trail back the same way we came, and I was interested to see how far I could go on the old trail alignment before it gets lost in the woods.  We did lose it again on the return, though we were nearly within spitting distance of the railroad tracks.  Blowdowns eviscerate the trail about 500 feet from the kiosk.  After a little bit of wandering around in the brush, we found our way to the trailhead.  I suggest getting down to the streambed and taking that back to the trail's start.

After the requisite mile return along the railroad tracks, the two groups piled in cars and headed back to our respective meeting places.  For the Charlottesville group, it was a 95 mile drive taking 2 hours. The first 12 miles were off pavement, and we averaged 20 mph over these roads, taking a little over 35 minutes.  The rest of the drive averaged 65 mph.

Topo Map of the hike.  The trail is missing between the two points shown on the map.

Hike details.
PATC Difficulty Factor: 244.6 (out and back)
Total Distance: 8.9 miles 
Total Time: 4 hours, 35 minutes, including stops.

Low Point: 1320 ft.
Highest Point: 2568 ft.
Elevation Difference: 1248 ft.

To get to the trailhead: Take Interstate 64 West past Lexington to the Goshen exit, Exit 43.  Follow signs towards Goshen, staying on Rt. 780.  Just as you come to a little burg named with a sign, "Little California," take a left onto Rt. 633, Rockbridge Alum Springs Rd.  There should be a sign for a religious camp here.  You'll pass the camp and lose hard pavement.  The forest road will snake its way through a gap in Mill Mountain, then drop down to an intersection with Pads Creek Road.  Take a left here and go past the Bubbling Springs campsite (privy).  You will have to ford Pads Creek before coming to a road to the right that heads uphill off of Pads Creek Road about 0.8 miles after the stream ford.  Follow this side road 1.4 miles until it ends at a small parking area.  Leave your car and head north next to the railroad tracks for a mile until you come to a small railroad bridge over the creek.  The trailhead is just west (left) of this bridge.

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