Good thing I was out the door early, as I had to turn around 5 miles from the trailhead because the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed, forcing me to take a 45 minute detour around the Wilderness to access the trailhead. I never saw more than a snowball's worth of snow the entire day. (Directions from Charlottesville: Link.)
The trailhead is visible from the road as there is a large kiosk and several large boulders marking the trail's start, next to a small parking area (see photo below). This trailhead is just before a large bridge over Elk Creek, if heading from Natural Bridge to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The roads are easy to follow - in Natural Bridge Station, follow the signs for the Forest Service's Cave Mountain Lake Campground, then follow the signs leading you to the Blue Ridge Parkway. After a while, the pavement ends and you are in the National Forest. Full Disclosure: I did not have a map of the south end of the James River Wilderness (not prepared!), and still found the trailhead despite the closed BRP and never having hiked this trail before. So it really isn't too hard to find.
|Not a lot of parking at the Sulphur Springs Trailhead.|
|The new trail sign at the trailhead misspells the trail's name.|
|At the trail's intersection with the Appalachian Trail and|
Piney Ridge Trail, the spelling is different on this older sign.
Here it is spelled "Sulfur," but on the topo maps it is "Sulphur."
I am going with the USGS topo map spelling.
|The SST is almost always wide and never steep.|
At the 2.6 mile mark is a large rock on the right side of the trail and some cliffs on the left side. Climb up 4 feet onto the rock for the best viewpoint in all of the James River Face Wilderness. The view looks southwest up the Elk Creek Valley, with Thunder Ridge on the left. No evidence of habitation is visible from this spot - really spectacular!
|The best viewpoint in all of the James River Face Wilderness can be found on the Sulphur Springs Trail.|
Thunder Ridge Wilderness is on the left side of this photo.
|A.T. heading south.|
|The rock line on the right slope is the SST. Probably blasting was done|
in constructing the road, exposing the rock.
Prior to wilderness designation, this flat spot had a history of a trail shelter dating back to 1933, when the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club built the first shelter while constructing the Appalachian Trail. Their website provides the following description:
[In 1933] club members built a wood and tarpaper shelter at Marble Spring, which was twice destroyed (once by bears, then by vandals) and rebuilt. It was reported that Doris Mathews and Louis Doggette mixed the concrete for the foundation of the first shelter with their bare feet.
|Site of the former Marble Spring shelter.|
A short descent off trail takes you to Marble Spring, which is the headwaters of Elk Creek's East Fork, a feeder stream for the James River. The spring was not running particularly fast, as shown in the video below. It makes me think that this spring is probably pretty dry in the summer.
In the opposite direction a trail once existed that reached the Blue Ridge Parkway, according to one of my older A.T. guidebooks. I can see evidence of the trail switchbacking down to the BRP on Google Earth, but doubt that the trail has existed as active for many years. The 4th Edition of Guide to Paths in the Blue Ridge in 1949, stated of this trail, "Forest Service trail leads .8 m. to Blue Ridge Parkway at 4.6 m. from U.S. Route 501 and 2.7 m. from Petites Gap; this trail continues 1.2 m. farther to Peters Creek Road." (Page 14-308h).
After climbing part way up to Highcock Knob on the A.T., I came across a more interesting old side trail. At a point where the A.T. makes a sharp left turn (N37° 34.194' W79° 26.513'), an old, unmarked trail continues straight ahead. I can tell it was well used at one point, based on the moss on the edges and wear in the center of the track. Research turned up the information that this was the original 1930's alignment of the Appalachian Trail and was personally scouted by one of the original giants in the trail's history, Myron Avery. Avery was the Babe Ruth of the Appalachian Trail, credited with building much of the original trail, and a member of the inaugural class in the A.T. Hall of Fame. (Link.) The trail was already superseded by 1949, as the NBATC had constructed a trail over the summit of High Cock Knob, though the summit's "view is obstructed by timber." (Page 14-308i).
|A.T. takes a sharp left at the downed tree branch.|
Original A.T alignment continues straight.
I didn't take that trail on this hike, but continued climbing to the peak of Highcock Knob, at the 4.8 mile mark. At 3073 feet elevation, this is the high point of today's hike and the highest point in the James River Face Wilderness. It is 1622 feet higher than the hike's starting elevation. Unfortunately, it is a tree covered peak, so views are limited, even in Winter. The last half mile is really steep, climbing 431 feet at over 18%, or nearly 900 feet per mile. This is three times as steep as the Sulphur Springs Trail's 6% incline.
|The summit of Highcock Knob has a nice resting spot, but no views.|
|This steep little incline is just south of Highcock Knob's summit.|
|View looking west from a viewpoint at about the 5.6 mile mark. |
It was all downhill from here.
|After leaving the A.T., I followed Petite's Gap Road back to my car.|
|View from Petite's Gap Road near the A.T.|
The Sulphur Springs Trail starts in the valley on the far right end of this photo.
Hike details, from my GPS:
USGS Topographic Map of trails: MAP.
Just the Reservoir Hollow Trail
PATC Difficulty Factor: 222.9 (one way)
Total Distance: 8.8 miles
Total Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes
Low Point: 1425 ft.
Highest Point: 3091 ft.
Elevation Difference: 1666 ft.
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