Thursday, October 30, 2014

James River Face Wilderness Loop Hike, October 23, 2014

I have hiked trails in the James River Face (JRF) Wilderness at least half a dozen times in the past 20 years, but never explored all of the trails.  Because they extend in every direction like bicycle spokes, it is hard to do more than one trail per trip, and the distance from Charlottesville is 85 miles - not insignificant!  This time, I did a nice loop hike that not many people from these parts ever experience.

A recent re-design of the Appalachian Trail maps that come with the guidebooks shows that two trails I'd never taken in JRF could be done as a loop hike when combined with the Glenwood Horse Trail.  Despite visions of a rutted, rocky pit full of manure (as I have experienced near Mt. Rogers on horse trails), I decided to give this loop a go.  I needed to measure one of these trails for the PATC - the Balcony Falls Trail - so I had more incentive to make the trip.  My plan was to hike up into the wilderness on the BFT, take a trail I had never taken before that parallels the Appalachian Trail, then return down via the A.T. and the Gunther Falls Trail.  Then I would take the Glenwood Horse Trail back to my car.

Locher Tract Parking
The hike starts at a Jefferson National Forest picnic area called the Locher Tract - an old farm and shale mining site that now has a privy, parking area, and some bird watching trails. The area is open year-round, though the privies are only open from mid-March to the end of November. You get there by driving down Interstate 81 to the Natural Bridge exit, taking U.S. 11 to Natural Bridge then taking a left onto Va Rt 130 towards Glasgow. Take a right in Natural Bridge Station onto Arnold's Valley Road (there is a sign for Cave Mountain Lake and another for Yogi Bear's Campground here), then a left onto James River Road (following the signs for Yogi's). You will pass the Yogi Bear Campground - a big operation on both sides of the road - and follow signs to the end of the road for the Locher Tract. There is parking for at least a dozen cars.

Carpenter bees have gone after the JRF Wilderness sign on the
Balcony Falls Trail.
At the end of the parking lot near the privies is a large kiosk and a trail sign for the Balcony Falls Trail. The trail is very easy to follow as it winds its way through relatively flat woodlands over the first 1.5 miles or so of the hike. After the 1.5 mile mark, the trail climbs at a consistent 11% grade for the next 1.8 miles, climbing from 790 feet to 1830 feet over 24 switchbacks before briefly leveling off at the 3.75 mile mark. Then it starts another climb, ascending from 1850 to 2600 feet over another 1.8 miles, climbing at an easier 7.5% grade. Just after the first switchback, the hiker crosses into the JRF wilderness, where I stayed for the next 10+ miles.

Sign found at the end of the former fire road,
now in the middle of the woods.
After the 24 switchbacks and at about the 3.0 mile mark, the hiker reaches a ridge that starts to take you away from the James River and the realization occurs - the Balcony Falls Trail has no views of Balcony Falls on the James River. What isn't clear is why, at about the 4.0 mile mark, there is a trail sign in the middle of the woods, away from any trail intersections or overlooks. Back home after the hike, after loading the data onto a topo map (Map), I determined that the sign is located where the trail originally ended, back before JRF became Virginia's first federally designated wilderness way back in 1975. Until that point, there was a fire road that ended here. Now, everything is overgrown, though it becomes obvious that the trail is on an old roadbed shortly after this point. But this means that the sign here is at least 40 years old.

View from the A.T. looking south at Thunder Ridge Wilderness.
I followed this road for the next 3.8 miles, crossing the Appalachian Trail, paralleling a different part of the A.T., then again crossing the A.T. just after meeting the Piney Ridge Trail. Along the way, I passed several nice vistas of the James River, a couple of thousand feet below the trail.

At the first A.T. intersection, a hiker has a choice. The Balcony Falls Trail ends, and the old fire road becomes the Sulphur Springs Trail (SST). You can take the SST to explore more of the JRF Wilderness, or you can take a right (south) on the A.T. hike a half mile to the Belfast Trail, and head back down to the car on the Gunter Ridge Trail.

I packed out this trash.
I took the longer route, because I had never been on some of these trails before. But although it was about 3.75 miles longer than heading quickly back to the car, the entire 4.25 miles never deviated more than 250 feet in elevation. That seemed almost flat, after gaining 1850 feet over the previous 4 miles.  Even this route had a bug-out option, where I could have switched back to the A.T. at about the 6.7 mile mark - the two trails are only about 50 feet apart, coming together after skirting opposite sides of the high point known as the Hickory Stand.

Hickory Stand as seen from the Gunter Ridge Trail.
At the 8.0 mile mark, and almost exactly 3 hours into my hike, I reached the Piney Ridge Trail. I hiked that trail earlier this year with a group from the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club (link). Fifty feet away is the second intersection with the A.T. I headed north on the A.T. here, passing some really nice vistas and a busted up geocache that I cleaned up and packed out.  It took some time to find the geocache, so it was the better part of another hour before I reached the Belfast Trail at the 10 mile mark. I was on the Belfast Trail for less than 10 minutes before encountering the Gunter Ridge Trail after 0.4 more miles.

Panorama looking west from Gunter Ridge Trail.
Soon it was time to drop in elevation.  Over about 2.75 miles, the Gunter Ridge Trail dropped 1450 feet at a 10% grade, utilizing 18 switchbacks before coming to the JRF Wilderness boundary. The trail then crossed Little Hellgate Creek and ended at the Glenwood Horse Trail.  From there, it was about two and a half miles of level hiking back to the car, following this orange blazed trail.

New trail sign at end of Gunter Ridge Trail.
With one hitch.  The Glenwood Horse Trail kind of disappears at the parking area known as the Hellgate Creek Horse Trailhead. No trail. No blazes. So here is how you get through there. Take a left to the main road when the trail ends at the entrance to the parking area. Then take a right on the main road until you come to a fork and each prong has a USFS gate. Follow the left gated road and you are back on the trail. From the gate, it was about 0.7 miles northeast before coming to a prominent trail on the left. Though it is unmarked, it is obvious. That trail follows an intermittent stream and has views of several rock walls on the left. It leads to the access road to the Locher Tract.
Glenwood Horse Trail

Bottom line on this hike - It is a great workout, though it is not the first hike I would recommend in the JRF. Most hikers head towards the Devil's Marbleyard on the Belfast Trail or the highest point in the Wilderness - Highcock Knob, or hike the portion between the James River Foot Bridge and the Matt's Creek Shelter. If you have already done those and are looking for something different, this is a good loop to take. And between the Balcony Falls and Gunter Ridge Trails, the Gunter has more views.


Hike details - Hike as taken.
PATC Difficulty Factor: 386.0
Total Distance: 16.4 miles 
Total Time: 5 hours, 57 minutes, including stops.
Steepest Uphill: from 1.6 miles to 3.2 miles; 11.8% average grade.  

Starting Elevation: 724 ft.
Low Point: 724 ft.
Highest Point: 2658 ft.
Difference: 1934 ft.

Hike details - Shortcut version (take A.T. directly from Balcony Falls to Belfast Trails).
PATC Difficulty Factor: 286.9
Total Distance: 12.5 miles 

Total Time: 4 hours, 34 minutes, including stops.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The A.T. to Chestnut Knob Shelter in SW Virginia, October 8, 2014

Day 1

I have reported earlier on my quest to complete the Appalachian Trail through Virginia.  Because my friend Marit had scheduled a trail race on the New River Trail and offered to shuttle a friend and me back to my car, I planned a short backpacking trip to Southwestern Virginia to cover the Appalachian Trail between Virginia 42 in Ceres and U.S. 52 near Bland.

The trip served several purposes.  I was able to complete 32.7 additional Appalachian Trail miles and now less than 14% of the state's 550+ miles remain unhiked.  I had some new lightweight backpacking equipment that I was able to test out in advance of a talk I am giving next month for my local Boy Scout Council to adult scout leaders, including testing out my Gossamer Gear Gorilla backpack (a subject for a later review, but it performed flawlessly).  It was a chance to check out Burke's Garden - a Virginia bucket list location!  I got to hike some of "the most remote and least traveled" A.T. miles in Virginia.  And I was able to see the early fall colors and spend some time with Pete, a friend and another Scout leader who enjoys lightweight backpacking.

From Charlottesville, the trailhead was a 214 mile drive, which took a little under 4 hours to complete (3 hours, 24 minutes moving time).  Most of that is interstate - first west on I-64, then south on I-81, then north on I-77 before getting off in Bland and taking Virginia Rt 42 to the trailhead in the tiny town of Ceres, Virginia.  (Map.)  (Note that there is a pretty nice looking motel in Bland called the Big Walker Motel, if you want to get on the trail early.)  There is a small parking lot where the A.T. crosses Rt. 42, containing only one other vehicle, owned by a young Wytheville doctor we met who was just checking out the trail and returned to his truck before we left the lot.
Pete greets several SOBO thru-hikers at the Knot Maul Shelter.
The total weight of my backpack with everything except food and water was under 15 pounds - definitely a new record for me.  And I achieved this despite carrying a 4 pound tent, so there is still much room for improvement.  I was glad for the light load, as the A.T. started climbing almost immediately, at a 16% grade (about 850 feet per mile) for the first half mile before dipping slightly and reaching the Knot Maul Shelter at about mile 2.0.  This shelter is considered a "dry" shelter as there is no water immediately available, but there were multiple stream crossings very soon after we passed the shelter.  We crossed Knot Maul Branch, then Lynn Camp Creek before climbing Lynn Camp Mountain and descending to cross a dirt road with a small parking area.

This section of the A.T. was opened in 1981 after extensive land purchases from a coal company.  It is very remote and consequently quite different from the northern Virginia A.T. miles that are most familiar to me.  At the same time, it seemed much like the A.T portion around Dismal Falls that I completed over the 4th of July.
Crossing Lick Creek on Day 1.
At about 5.75 miles the trail hits its low point for day one - 2285 feet - where the trail crosses Lick Creek.  (The parking lot was higher at 2620 feet.)  We popped over another small hill before crossing the only semi-major road of the day and starting our really big climb of the trip - 2160 feet over five miles, taking us to 4400 feet at the Chestnut Knob Shelter.

The last mile of that hike is over mowed land maintained by the Piedmont Appalachian Trail Hikers group, a Greensboro, NC based trail maintenance club.  It reminds me of the A.T.'s crossing over Cole Mountain near Amherst, which is also mowed.  Because the focus was on what was ahead of us, it was startling to turn around and see the view shown in the photo above - looking down on nearby ridges to the southeast before the higher mountains of the Mt. Rogers area come into view.

Along the ascent were a couple of small ponds, the first in the open grassland and the second in some woods.  In addition, one of the hikers we met at the Knot Maul Shelter told us about a piped spring running strong about 2/10ths of a mile southeast of our overnight shelter, the Chestnut Knob Shelter. There was a sign in that shelter giving directions to the spring. So there was plenty of water just off of the A.T. to the south of the Chestnut Knob Shelter, though there is very little for several miles to the north.  We filled up with treated water using a Sawyer Mini Filter, a lightweight, truly great water treatment system that incredibly is available on Amazon for under $20.  I learned from my colleague Pete's filtration use that an inexpensive Sawyer gallon water pouch makes filtration go a lot easier than my quart sized pouch.  A purchase for next time...

We heated up some of that water to make dinner - Zatarain's Reduced Sodium Red Beans and Rice that I had cooked at home then dehydrated. We added in some of my wife's homemade spaghetti sauce, also dehydrated. It worked out great and I will definitely add this to my list of future meals on the trail.

At the end of the day and the top of the mountain is the Chestnut Knob Shelter.  The shelter is a wonderful place to spend the night, and we had it all to ourselves.  The shelter is an old Fire Warden's cabin, with four walls, a door and 8 bunks inside.

We needed those 4 walls that night.  The wind at 4400 feet was very strong and the temps were cold.  There was a sign in the shelter saying that the rear top bunk is under a hole in the roof, and we could see other roof holes before the sun went down.  But with the help of a couple of foam earplugs (I never camp without them), I slept great!

That night the skies were clear but we saw few stars because of a spectacular full moon that illuminated our view for miles.  Day 2 and Day 3 reports forthcoming...
Inside the Chestnut Knob Shelter from the front door.
Looking towards the front door, inside the Chestnut Knob Shelter

Chestnut Knob Shelter under a full moon.
Elevation Profile for Day 1 - VA Rt 42 to Chestnut Knob Shelter
Hike details, from my GPS:
PATC Difficulty Factor: 344.2 (one way)
Total Distance: 12.1 miles 
Total Time: 5 hours, 46 minutes, including stops.

Low Point: 2285 ft.
Highest Point: 4444 ft.
Elevation Difference: 2159 ft.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Scaling Elliott Knob from the West

Elliot Knob is located west of Staunton, Virginia and is the highest point in the George Washington National Forest.  It is the 3rd most prominent mountain in Virginia, behind Apple Orchard Mountain and Mount Rogers (List).  The mountain tops out at 4462 feet in elevation, over 400 feet higher than Hawksbill Mountain, the highest point in nearby Shenandoah National Park.
Elliot Knob and North Mountain as seen from Deerfield, to the west.
Elliot Knob is a popular day hike because the views from the top are fantastic.  Most folks probably approach the peak from the north, as the trail starts on the ridge where Old Parkersburg Turnpike crosses the crest and does not require much climbing.  Or they also come from the east, as it is close to nearby towns and features a small waterfall, though there is also a steep road to the top.  There is also access from the south, which is also on the ridge but the trailhead is further from Staunton and Charlottesville, and on a windy forest road called Hite Hollow Road.  Few people use this trailhead because of access.  Ditto for the western access, which requires the longest journey from most of civilization.  That was my ascent.

About 15 years ago when staying with friends in Deerfield, a tiny hamlet in western August County, I was dropped off south of the mountain and, after summiting Elliot Knob, hiked with several folks down the western slope on the Cold Springs Trail to a car shuttle.  I remember the Cold Springs Trail to be a really steep drop, but had never returned since I started collecting GPS data on my hikes to confirm.  Recent news of a fighter jet pilot who crashed in the Deerfield area had me thinking again of this trail (News Link). On Saturday, September 20th I had the excuse to return, as I had to resupply my son who was camping nearby at the Boy Scout camp in Swoope.

Sign at Cold Spring Road
The directions to the trailhead are given at the end of this posting.  The trailhead is marked by a trail sign on Cold Springs Road, and though I remembered a parking area on my last trip, my memory had deceived me.  Instead, I was met by a rutted road with several small turnoffs.  I used one of these as my parking spot.

Walk up the road a little ways and you pass an old campsite and cross a small creek before the trail cuts left at 0.6 miles to climb at a pretty constant 17% grade, which translates to 900-1000 feet gained per mile. There are many steeper trails in this part of the George Washington National Forest.  

The trail is well constructed, hugging the western slope of the mountain.
While climbing up the mountain, I marveled at how nicely constructed the trail was - the forest service knew how to build trails back in the day.  At 2.2 miles, the Cold Springs Trail ends at the North Mountain Trail - you are almost to the top.  Take a left here and follow the trail a short distance, through a grove of pine trees that would be a great place to camp, then take a left on the gravel access road that comes up from the eastern slope and Virginia Route 42.  There are a number of antennae near this point, including television transmitters for the local PBS station.  
Cold Springs Trail ends at the North Mountain Trail.
Just after starting uphill on the road is a nice rock to sit on while soaking in the beauty of the Deerfield valley, shown below.  You can see the town of Deerfield, along with Walker Mountain to the south and Shenandoah Mountain to the west.  
At the 2.5 mile mark you reach the top.  At the very summit is a wonderful rarity - a still standing fire observation tower that provides a 360 degree view.  Note, however that the tower is surrounded by fencing and I would never recommend that anyone trespass onto the tower, even a hiker who wishes to proceed at his or her own risk! Here is a video of the fire tower I found on Youtube: Link.
Fire Tower at the top of Elliot Knob.
In the spirit of that warning, I cannot say how I obtained the photo below.  You will have to draw your own conclusions.  But the photos should confirm that Elliot Knob is a worthy destination, from any direction - especially on a clear day - even though this climb seems rather easy compared with many of the hikes I tend to report on.  Check it out sometime.

View looking northwest past Crawford Knob.
Trail Map.

Hike details.
PATC Difficulty Factor: 153.4 (out and back)
Total Distance: 5.09 miles 
Total Time: 2 hours, 48 minutes, including stops.
Steepest Uphill: from 6.4 miles to 6.6 miles; 22.2% average grade.  

Average elevation gain: 7.9% up Hemlock Ridge, 9.7% up Peters Mountain.
Starting Elevation: 2492 ft.
Low Point: 2470 ft.
Highest Point: 4501 ft.
Difference: 2031 ft.

Directions to Trailhead: 
From Charlottesville, drive west on I-64 to the Staunton bypass, which is the first exit after merging south onto I-81 and is known as State Route 262.  From here, you can go one of two ways.  

You can exit west onto the Parkersburg Turnpike (Rt 254), then take a right onto Old Parkersburg Turnpike (Rt 688) just after driving through Buffalo Gap (0.7 miles after the road becomes Rt 42 - there is a church at the turn).  Stay on this over the mountain and back down the other side before turning left onto Cold Spring Road after just under 6 miles.  Drive 3.7 miles to the trailhead.

OR, you can stay on the Staunton bypass until you reach U.S. 250, drive west through Churchville, take a left on Rt 629 in West Augusta (Deerfield Valley Road), then another left after 3.1 miles onto Old Parkersburg Turnpike where the road forks.  Then look for Cold Springs Road, take a right and follow that 3.7 miles to the trailhead.  

The parking lot's GPS coordinates are N38° 10.583' W79° 20.456'

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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hoka One One Trail Runners - How Well Do They Wear?

I have been wearing shoes manufactured by a company named Hoka One One (pronounced "Oh-nay Oh-nay") since back when they made hiking boots and produced all their shoes in France.  Since then, the company was purchased by Deckers Outdoor, the parent company for UGG, Teva and other footwear brands, and they seem to have quit making the boots.  Those boots were exceptionally comfortable, and their thick padding was the only thing I could wear hiking without pain after I injured my feet.  On the downside, the foam base meant that the boots did not last like others I owned, but that was a worthwhile trade off.

Because I could no longer obtain the boots, I decided to do two things.  First, I switched to the Hoka One One trail runners, and have since purchased 3 pairs of them, called Stinsons.  Second, I decided to research how I could lighten my load when out backpacking, and have made several purchases designed to put less stress on my feet and ankles when out on overnights, including a Nemo Nocturne +15 sleeping bag (2 lbs. 11 oz), a Thermarest NeoAir XLite mattress (12 oz), and a Gossamer Gear Gorilla Backpack (1 lb. 10 oz).  I figure that this way I will not need the extra ankle support that the Hoka boots used to provide.  I will report on each of these products in separate postings, as I want to provide an update on the shoes here.

The manufacturer of Hoka Stinsons claim that more cushioning, a wide, stable platform, super-light materials and a rockered profile will help deflect stress and make you feel like flying. Indeed, flight is a constant theme in both their advertising and their logo.  The company claims that even the word Hoka is comes from the ancient Maori language in New Zealand and roughly translates to "now it is time to fly."

Everyone has an opinion about boots – when someone inquires on a Facebook hiking page about the “best” boots, there are hundreds of experts just dying to chime in.  For me, these Hokas are the best shoes.  If you are considering them, you might want to know how well they wear.

As stated above, the only downside to the boots was that they wore out pretty quickly.  I did not have any data on this, so when I bought my first pair of Stinsons, I decided to keep track of my mileage in the shoes, much like runners do.  Since I keep an Excel Spreadsheet of my miles anyway, it was an easy task.  I figured I would keep a pair for 350 miles as my primary shoes, then switch that pair to street walking while a new pair becomes my primary hikers.

I currently have just under 450 trail/road miles on my first pair (purchased almost exactly a year ago from a local running store for $145), 140 miles on my second pair (purchased in April from REI for $136), and 0 miles on my third pair (purchased in July from REI for $127).  REI does not appear to sell Stinsons anymore, and Hoka is coming out with a new version, the Stinson Evo or the Stinson ATR.  This would seem to explain the decreasing sale prices at REI.

The photos show the first pair – with 450 miles, and the unused pair.  It is clear that the original pair have seen some use, as much of the tread is worn off and the base looks ready to crack in several places.  Nonetheless, the shoes remain surprisingly comfortable.  Every time I wear another old pair of hiking boots (such as when I do trailwork or even mow the grass), my feet tell me I should have chosen the Hokas.  Even the old ones.

Wear is particularly pronounced near the small toe.
Old and new as seen from the top.  Note the wear on the front edge of the shoe.

The toe seems particularly beat up after 450 trail miles.

Each set of shoes come with an extra pair of inserts and a pair of traditional shoe laces.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Shenandoah's Pocosin Hollow Trail

As a side note, I have been doing a lot of volunteering over the past 18 months for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's Maps Committee and GPS Rangers to help increase the accuracy of their already superb maps.  As a result, I've done a ton of hiking (Over 500 trail miles during the past 12 months), but don't blog about the vast percentage of these miles.  This is because either (1) I am hiking a trail that I don't think is worth reporting on, or (2) I am hiking a trail that has already been reported on a million times - do you really need my voice added to the chorus telling you about Shenandoah hotspots like Old Rag or Mary's Rock?  I didn't think so.

As a result of my volunteering, I occasionally come across a trail I would otherwise have little desire to check out, and it surprises me by being absolutely delightful!  The Pocosin Hollow Trail in the Central District of Shenandoah National Park is one of these.  I used flextime to get away from on the first day of Autumn to check it out.
It is about a 9.4 mile hike to the SNP eastern boundary on the Pocosin Hollow Trail.
The trail is accessed from the Skyline Drive via the Pocosin Fire Road, which is a little south of the Lewis Mountain Campground in SNP.  There is parking just off of this fire road, but the turnoff, around MP 59.5, comes up quick and is easy to miss.  The road is blocked to regular traffic (though not official park vehicles) about 100 yard off of the Drive and after space for vehicles to park.

Take the road downhill about 1.2 miles, past the Pocosin Cabin and the turnoff for the Pocosin Trail, to come to the Pocosin Hollow Trail on the left.  The road and trail each drop at a consistent 8 percent grade until the first crossing of Pocosin Creek, at about 2.7 miles into the hike.  After that, the trail climbs briefly to an old road on the north side of the Creek, before descending to cross three more times.
The lower portions of the trail parallel Pocosin Creek.
I thought the creek crossings were exceptionally pretty and worth the trip.  And you are far away from the Skyline Drive with no overlooks, so chances for solitude are great.  Over the entire Pocosin Hollow Trail, out and back, my dog and I saw only a grouse and a black bear.

Not sure this sign has much utility any more.  Twenty years ago next summer!  I remember this flood well.
Belated thanks again to the volunteers who cleared these trails after this devastation.

The trail continues outside the park boundaries, but I did not follow it.

Hike data:
PATC Difficulty Factor: 200.6 (out and back)
Total Distance: 8.5 miles 
Total Time: 4 hours, 07 minutes, including stops.

Low Point: 1342 ft. (at the Shenandoah National Park eastern boundary)
Highest Point: 3200 ft. (at the start and end of the hike)
Elevation Difference: 1858 ft.

Like what you see?  Check out my other blog postings:  LINK.