Monday, March 16, 2015

Appalachian Trail to The Priest and Little Priest Summits

Spring fever combined with a Spring Break holiday at my job took me out to the Tye River Valley to climb The Priest on the Appalachian Trail on a beautiful March Thursday.  Spring is also a time to get the legs in shape, and my legs didn't quite feel ready for Three Ridges, northbound on the A.T.  Though Three Ridges is not quite as high, I think it is a tougher climb.  That is on the list in the near future!

I have hiked The Priest in Spring numerous times, dating back twenty years.  This is at least my fifth summit of the mountain from the Tye River - so there is not a lot of surprise left in the mountain, at least on the Appalachian Trail.  It is a great workout, climbing from 1000 to 4000 feet over 4.5 miles. When training for Yosemite's Half Dome five Springs ago, I climbed this trail twice in one day. Never again!
The always spectacular view, 2/3 of the way up The Priest on the A.T.
Although this climb is a spring tradition, I was also hiking as part of the "Dirty Dozen Wilderness Hikes Challenge" in which I need to hike 10 or more miles in 12 different southeastern wilderness areas by September 1.  This would be number 5, so I am behind schedule (though I have some smaller hikes that could count if I return and complete a total of 10 miles).  A standard ascent of The Priest is 6.9 miles, including the return, so in order to get the full 10 miles I needed to come up with some additional miles within the boundaries of the wilderness area.  I decided to also summit the nearby Little Priest, located within in the wilderness area.

A number of maps show a trail from the A.T. to the Little Priest summit.  The intersection is a short distance south on the A.T. from the shelter access trail.  The GPS coordinates for this point are N37° 49.161' W79° 04.478'.  

There is no sign here, nor is there evidence on the ground that hikers might turn off of the A.T. at this spot.  I had to follow the contour of the mountain in a south-southwest direction.  It was easier for me to find the correct spot and head in the right direction because I have a great file in my Garmin GPS receivers (I had three of them on me during this hike) called "My Trails," available from GPS File Depot.  Sometimes the trails are a little off compared with my own experience (such as when I look at a receiver and it claims that the trail I am standing on is 100 feet to the right).  Checking during this hike, the locations were spot on, so I felt good about getting off the trail where I did.

The View from the Valley.
Then came the amazing part.  Not more than 100 feet off of the A.T., the former Little Priest Trail magically presented itself - wide and clear.  It was even blazed with regular orange markings!  It was like someone didn't want folks hiking this trail and purposefully obscured its intersection with the A.T.  But once you made the jump, the water was great!
Little Priest Trail opens up into a gentle and easy to follow path.
This boot found on the Little Priest Trail looked jarringly like a severed leg!
When you think about it, it makes sense - the only part of an abandoned trail that needs to be hidden is where it meets another trail, so folks don't wander off onto the abandoned trail by accident.

The trail had some blowdowns along the way, and that made the trail sometimes a little hard to follow, but the blazes helped a lot.  I always find that old trails are hardest to follow in the saddles between mountains, and this trail was no exception.  The USGS topo for this area also shows an old trail heading down to the valley from the saddle, and I think I followed that route briefly before checking a GPS receiver and determining that I needed to change course.  Also confusing me was the fact that the blazing changed colors from orange to yellow in the saddle, and at first I thought the yellow blazing might indicate some kind of boundary.  Climbing Little Priest, the trail was blazed yellow.
No problems following the trail up the Little Priest.
Yellow blazing with axe marks.  Definitely NOT Leave No Trace.
The trail up to the Little Priest was well marked and easy to follow, but there isn't much to the Little Priest summit.  Like many summits in the Virginia mountains, this one was wooded.  There were views between the trees, but I doubt a summer hiker would see much of anything.
The view from the summit of the Little Priest was
nothing special.
In all, the portion of the hike off of the A.T. was 3.2 miles long and took me an hour and 50 minutes. My total hike was 13.1 miles and took 6 and a half hours.

UPDATE: I inquired with the Forest Service, and they surprised me by telling me that the Little Priest Trail is not abandoned after all.  They consider it an active trail.  Though the Forest Service did not, I should add, "as long as you can find it."

Hike details, from my GPS:

USGS Topographic Map: Map of Little Priest/AT Hike.

PATC Difficulty Factor: 411.0 (both ways)
Total Distance: 13.1 miles 
Total Time: 6 hours, 33 minutes (including stops)  Moving time: 5:53

Low Point: 997 ft.
Highest Point: 4070 ft.
Elevation Difference: 3073 ft.