Thursday, January 22, 2015

Buena Vista's Reservoir Hollow Trail

The Reservoir Hollow Trail is in the George Washington National Forest near Buena Vista, Virginia. On a sunny January Saturday, my friend Larry and I found ourselves down in Buena Vista (pronounced like "view" with a "B" - "Beu-na Vista")  helping the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's GPS Rangers surveying crew obtain precise GPS measurements of trails in the George Washington National Forest.

Older trail maps and hiking guides list several trails in the Pedlar District of the GWNF ascending from two different streets in the city of Buena Vista, and ending at either the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), the top of Elephant Mountain, or U.S. 60 about 2/3 of the way towards the BRP. These trails consist of the Reservoir Hollow Trail, the Elephant Mountain Trail, and the Indian Gap Trail, and are collectively known as the Elephant Mountain Trail System.

South of St. Mary's Wilderness, these trails and the Whetstone Ridge Trail are the only choices in the GWNF Pedlar District west of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I had tried hiking the Indian Gap Trail last July. Here are examples of what I encountered.
Most of the trail was laid out in an open area due to a power line cut.
This shot shows hanging cables and totally overgrown vegetation in July.
In the trees, an easily followed trail.  Too little of the trail was like this.
I had enough patience for about a mile of this overgrowth before turning around, because most of the trail seemed to be under a power line cut that allowed plant growth to be uncontested.

I later inquired with the Forest Service about the Elephant Mountain Trail System, and received the following reply: "As for the trails listed below – I can confirm that the Elephant Mountain System is not active."  

So these trails were not on our list to explore. Until, that is, we drove up U.S. 60 towards the BRP and came across a big brown hiker sign, at a point where the maps indicate the Indian Gap Trail ends (N37° 43.722' W79° 18.859'):

Hiker sign on U.S. 60.
 We pulled off - there is room for 4 or 5 cars on the side of the road.

Parking on U.S. 60
 And we hiked in a few hundred yards, just to check things out, before coming across this sign.

Mileage sign, near U.S. 60.  Here is what the sign used to look like: LINK.
 There are a couple of things to notice about this sign.  First, this sign did not strike me as one you would see on a trail that is "not active." And second, the maps indicated that the Indian Gap Trail ends here, and not the Reservoir Hollow Trail. We later found out from the Forest Service that the Reservoir Hollow Trail is still active, but none of the rest of the "system" remains in use.

Since my attempt to get here by trail last summer started at 21st Street and not, as stated on the sign, at 12th Street, we dropped a car here and drove back down to Buena Vista to find 12th Street and the other end of this trail.

We returned west on U.S. 60 until we came to U.S. 501, and we headed south on 501 looking for 12 Street.  Complicating our journey was the fact that 12th Street has a gap in it, so the trailhead is actually accessed using 13th Street. But we eventually found our way to the trailhead, which was marked by another new mileage sign:

Parking seemed a little sketchy on this end, as we passed numerous "No Parking" signs (we interpreted those to mean "No Parking right here.") And we passed another sign that said "Public Right of Way... Foot Travel Only." But the best parking spot was off the road just beyond that sign so we parked there, just before the city police shooting range.
Gates and signs greeted us, though we parked back behind all this.
We saw no shooters at the range.
The trail itself was easy to follow and had been maintained. There were 6 stream crossings before we started to gain elevation, and at the 0.7 mile mark we went by a large concrete container that looked like an old pool, but we believe it is really the old city reservoir. Once we started to climb, it was at a relatively easy 13% grade, which translates to about 700 feet per mile.
Larry waypoints one of several stream crossings in his Garmin GPSmap 62S.
View from the trail.  We started back in the gap in the mountains.
 The trail was easy to follow at all times, and after two miles we came to the following sign:
 Below is another perspective of that sign, showing the trail going by the sign, and rocks indicating that you should stay on the trail. I figured that this was the beginning of the old Elephant Mountain Trail, but we did not have time to explore that trail at the time. Was that also active? We didn't know, but at the start of the day we didn't think any of these trails were active.
Trail sign on the Reservoir Hollow Trail, as seen from off the trail.
About 0.2 miles after the trail intersection, we inadvertently got off trail.  The light cyan line represents the way we should have gone. The dark cyan shows the route we took. We didn't realize we were off our intended route until we came upon the Blue Ridge Parkway at a point near Indian Gap that is invisible from the road - the maps indicated that the trail didn't meet the BRP.  So we bushwacked downhill until we came to the intended trail. We figured that the trail would be evident when we crossed it, as most of the time our trail was easy to follow. We did find the trail again, after a bushwack shown on the map below.

I went back the next day and started the hike from U.S. 60, intent on figuring out where we messed up. The spot where we lost the trail is shown below, and it is important to note if you plan to take this trail from the City of Buena Vista to U.S. 60 like we did. This part is not at all obvious. You need to know that it is two tenths of a mile after the dual trail signs, and there is a small pile of rocks (a "cairn") at this point. The trail really looks like it should go to the right here, and the trail to the left is not obvious at all.

When I returned on Sunday, I also took the Elephant Mountain Trail, which is supposed to end at the summit of Elephant Mountain. This trail is no longer maintained, but it was generally easy to follow right up to Elephant Mountain. About a hundred feet or so below the summit, however, the trail seems to peter out with a steep climb required to get to the top. I was hiking alone, so I decided not to risk the final summit, though I was surprised to later find out that there is a geocache at the top. (Link) Then again, it hasn't been found since 2013, so it may not be there anymore.

Elephant Mtn Trail shown leaving the Reservoir Hollow Trail.
Elephant Mountain, as seen through the trees on the trail.
An old trail marker on the Elephant Mtn Trail.
The Elephant Mtn Trail becomes very steep and hard to follow.
I'd like to go back and summit Elephant Mountain sometime, but would wait to do it until I could bring another strong hiker. Heading out the Elephant Mountain Trail to the point where it fades adds another two miles and another hour to the hike, along with an extra 1000 feet elevation gain, total.

Because the trail is relatively short, it is easily done as an out-and-back, particularly if you stay on the established Reservoir Hollow Trail and not the inactive Elephant Mountain Trail. An out-and-back on the Reservoir Hollow Trail is around 8 miles total. And the U.S. 60 trailhead is only 7 miles west of the turnoff on 60 for the Cold Mountain/Pleasant Mountain Trails - less than 10 minutes in the car.
A power line cut provides a little bit of a view as we approach U.S. 60.
A side note.  If in Buena Vista, this non-red meat eater says absolutely do not leave town without experiencing JJ's Meat Shak. They serve wood fired pizza and the best roast turkey sandwich I've ever tasted (get it with provolone and roasted onions). This restaurant was just a trailer and some picnic tables a couple of years ago, and has grown dramatically since then, though the place still has a great semi-finished feel to it. I enjoyed the sandwiches so much that I returned bought three more on the way out of town the next day to take home to the family.

Hike details, from my GPS:

USGS Topographic Map of trails: MAP.

Just the Reservoir Hollow Trail
PATC Difficulty Factor: 119.9 (one way)
Total Distance: 3.7 miles 
Total Time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

Low Point: 908 ft.
Highest Point: 1960 ft.
Elevation Difference: 1052 ft.

Both the Reservoir Hollow Trail and Out-and-Back on the Elephant Mtn Trail
PATC Difficulty Factor: 183.6
Total Distance: 5.7 miles 
Total Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Low Point: 908 ft.
Highest Point: 1960 ft.
Elevation Difference: 1052 ft.

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  1. Hello- Do you happen to have the GPS coordinates of the concrete tank / old city reservoir you located on this hike? I'm attempting to locate it in reference to the line of duty death of a police officer at this location that occurred in 1923:

    1. Hi Chris - I cannot give you the exact coordinates, as the trail looks down on the old reservoir from about 100 yards away. But I stopped at N37° 42.900' W79° 20.401' to look at the reservoir to the south.

    2. hey Chris, ill bet you already found it but the reservoir is really easy to spot and to get to if you start out at the buena vista/ 12th st. entrance to the trail, and head East. you get on the trail and cross over the creek a couple times (i think twice) and you'll see the old reservoir down to the right, just off the trail. i'd say its not more than a mile into the hike. and Jeff, the hike up elephant mountain trail to the peak, while not well maintained, if at all, is well worth it for the scenic views from the peak. but definitely be prepared to bushwhack and rock scramble, as i got off the trail about 4 times at the very top, not far from that photograph you have posted with the old yellow trail marking on it. thanks for sharing this original post; i had seen that sign off US 60 numerous times and wondered just what exactly the trail was that it was marking.


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