Monday, January 5, 2015

A.T. Loop Around the James River

I led the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club - Charlottesville Chapter’s post-Christmas hike, which was short on participants but long on variety.  Four hikers met up in Charlottesville and met a fifth hiker at the trailhead. I chose a loop hike that included some sections I'd never taken before, along the Appalachian Trail where it crosses the James River.

We parked at a large parking lot on U.S. 501 where the A.T. meets the James River. The parking lot is large because it is at the north end of the single longest pedestrian foot bridge on the entire A.T. This is a very popular spot on a warm summer day, though it is illegal to jump from the bridge into the water.

An Appalachian Trail sign signals to drivers on U.S. 501 between Buena Vista and the James River that this
is the parking area for the A.T.
The group took the Appalachian Trail south over the James River Foot Bridge and into the James River Face Wilderness. After crossing the river, the A.T. hugs the slopes above the James River before cutting into the wilderness along Matt's Creek. The Matt's Creek Shelter is only about 2 miles from the parking area and is an ideal introductory backpacking location for young backpackers - little elevation gain, nice campsites, a picnic table next to the shelter, a reliable stream, and a privy.
Approaching the north end of the Foot Bridge.

The bridge is a long one.
I took my son and a buddy for an overnight at a campsite at the Matt's Creek Shelter when they were 9 years old and this is a nice loop for new backpackers. At the time, I did not know where the old A.T. alignment was located, so we walked along U.S. 501 for the last half of our hike. This post presents a better option.
Hiking the A.T. along Matt's Creek.

Group photo at the Matt's Creek Shelter.
This year's crew took a break and group photo at the Matts Creek Shelter before retracing their steps northbound on the A.T. as far as the Matt’s Creek Trail – also known as the high water trail for the A.T., an alternate route when the James River floods. This was the A.T. alignment for several decades before the Foot Bridge was completed, though it isn't the original A.T. alignment. This portion of the hike is the single biggest uphill of the entire loop, gaining about 500 feet in less than a mile. Lunch was at a semi-overlook high on a bluff over the James River, where the group watched trains, kayaks, hikers and automobiles from above. Everyone was amazed that they could lunch in tee shirts during late December.
Looking down on activity along the James River.
The group then descended to U.S. 501 where we crossed the James River on the original A.T. route, dating from its inception to the completion of the Foot Bridge. There wasn’t a lot of extra room on that bridge, so everyone waited until a couple of large trucks cleared the bridge before making their way across.  
Original backpack in 2009, crossing on the U.S. 501 bridge.
On the north side of the James River, the group turned left on 501 at its intersection with State Route 130.  We passed the dam substation (complete with public port-a-potty) before crossing the road to the north side and entering the woods at Cashaw Creek. This is the first creek under the road after crossing the James River, and the trail is on the west side of the creek.  (It is not the dirt road you pass before the creek.)  There is a small gravel parking area here (room for maybe 4 cars), and a large boulder keeps cars from using this former woods road. We made our way up the trail along the creek only about 100 yards total. About 50 yards after a small stream crossing of a Cashaw Creek tributary is the unmarked pre-2000 Appalachian Trail alignment to the left, which followed a beautiful stream bed. The trail crosses the stream before climbing at a steep 16% grade for a quarter mile. The entire way, the trail was in great shape, and staying on the trail was never a problem - it clearly cut through the forest and was easy to follow.
Gravel pull off on U.S. 501/Va 130 at Cashaw Creek, looking east.

Entrance to Cashaw Creek Trail, as seen from U.S. 501/Va 130.
Cashaw Creek is to the right of the boulder, seen through the trees.

Climbing steeply on the old A.T. north of the James River after leaving Cashaw Creek.
The trail came out at a dirt forest road that the group hiked, though we later determined that the old A.T. must have continued past that road – it was not visible at the time. Taking the forest road to the left brings you to the same spot as the trail. Drop downhill on the road, cross another creek called Rocky Row Run, and take a left past a fire ring until you reach the present A.T. alignment. I have reported on this section before (link) and my memory was correct - this is a really pretty section of trail through a small canyon along a scenic stream and crossing twice on Lincoln Log style wooden bridges while taking everyone back to their original parking area. In all, the loop was 7.5 miles long, with elevation ranging between 650 and 1350 feet. A relatively easy hike, but watch the kiddies closely if you take this hike - the U.S. 501 bridge is a little nerve wracking.
Rocky Row Run from the A.T.
The old A.T. alignment north of the James River presents an interesting issue. This is a perfectly good trail that combines for a really nice loop hike. But my conversations with the Forest Service concerning revisions to the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's map for this region have not convinced the Forest Service to authorize that trail segment to be included on map revisions. Apparently, the USFS is under some mandate not to increase recreational trail miles in the Virginia National Forests. So they don't want a perfectly fine trail included on the maps we hikers purchase. But nothing prevents us from hiking the trails anyway. If this trend continues, there may be an increasing number of hikes you hear about through sites like this one that take you on "unauthorized" trails.
Elevation Profile
This Loop Hike Map should clarify our route: MAP.

Hike details.
PATC Difficulty Factor: 193.3
Total Distance: 7.5 miles 
Total Time: 4 hours

Total Elevation Gain: 2280 feet 
Starting Elevation: 731 ft.
Low Point: 691 ft.
Highest Point: 1352 ft.
Difference: 661 ft.

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