Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Raccoon Branch Wilderness, Virginia

Raccoon Branch Wilderness is located in southern Virginia in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, just south of the Mt. Rogers Headquarters. At 4223 acres, it is on the small side for Virginia Wilderness areas, as it is the 19th largest of 24 areas in the state. It is also one of the six newest Virginia wilderness areas, achieving federal wilderness status in 2009. This is a report on the hikes I took in late April, 2015 inside this wilderness.

The wilderness has three major trails running through it, and several more minor trails, which are all detailed below. The Appalachian Trail runs through the wilderness for 3.9 miles north of Dickey Gap and south of the Trimpi Shelter access trail. The Virginia Highlands Horse Trail zigzags east-west through the wilderness, crossing the Appalachian Trail. And the Dickey Knob Trail climbs from the Raccoon Branch Campground, just outside the wilderness to a reportedly great view and the foundation of an old fire tower - I did not hike this trail.

The Raccoon Branch Campground has 20 sites, water, and restrooms with flush toilets.  There are no showers here.  The campground is open year-round and receives moderate use. From what I saw, users were primarily of the RV/trailer type, with only one tenter. The campground is close to Rt. 16, so camping may be subject to road noise. I used this campground as a trailhead for my first hike in this wilderness - up the Horse Trail to the 1 mile long Bobby's Trail, to the Appalachian Trail.  Day use in the Campground cost $3.00. There is also a small parking area outside of the campground on the north side of Route 16, but I did not know about that when I hiked here. I believe that parking is free at the outside parking area, located where the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail crosses Rt. 16.

Raccoon Branch Campground, just outside of the wilderness boundary.
I parked in a campsite after paying and leaving a stub on my dash.
In the background is Dickey Knob - a trail climbs to the top of that mountain.
Also nearby is the Hurricane Campground, with 29 campsites. A non-electric site currently costs $16 per night, and there is also a day use fee. That campground has access to the A.T. a couple miles south of Dickey Gap, so potentially a car could be parked there.  Hurricane Campground has showers (though we did not use them, a neighboring couple told us that April showers are warmer at the bathhouse in the front of the campground). It also has a nice large field and a stream running by many of the campsites. It is a delightful place to camp - probably my favorite USFS campground in Virginia.

I hiked up the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail because I needed to get 10 miles in this wilderness in order to complete another check in my 12 wilderness "Dirty Dozen Wilderness Hike Challenge," A trail from the campground links to the Horse Trail after crossing a pedestrian bridge over a stream and then taking a left at a T-intersection (to the right is the Dickey Knob Trail).

The wide Virginia Highlands Horse Trail goes through a meadow surrounded by forest.
Prior to receiving wilderness status in 2009, there were 14 wildlife openings
in this area, maintained by mowing.  Wilderness status eliminated this maintenance.
I expected the horse trail to be pretty dug up, but it was in great shape - very wide and fairly smooth. What it wasn't was dry. It is clearly an old roadbed, and that road forded the Raccoon Branch stream multiple times. My feet were soaked halfway through my hike!  

Eventually, the road became a trail, and the trail kept working its way uphill in the valley between Dickey's Ridge and Bobby's Ridge until the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail took a sharp left and the hiker-only "Bobby's Trail" kept going straight. Bobby's Trail took me to the A.T., but not before passing the site of the former Raccoon Branch A.T. shelter. There is no shelter here anymore, but there is still a privy and a steadily weakening picnic table, along with an excellent campsite next to the now-small Raccoon Branch stream. This would be a great group campsite - such as for a Scout troop hiking the A.T. - and is just off of the Appalachian Trail - about a 5 minute walk. After reaching the A.T., I retraced my steps, and re-wet my feet, completing 6.9 miles.

Privy at the former Raccoon Branch Shelter site.
Former shelter site, showing level campsite, picnic table and stream (in foreground).
Picnic table and fire ring at former shelter site.
The next day, I hiked through the Raccoon Branch Wilderness again as a part of an Appalachian Trail section hike that took me and two companions from Dickey Gap to U.S. 11, nearly 30 miles north. The A.T. though this wilderness seemed like a totally different place. While I thought of Raccoon Branch Wilderness being like the photo of the meadow above, on the A.T. it hugged the side of a mountain, cutting across steep slopes and providing views of Mt. Rogers in the distance.

Here is a map of the the trails I hiked, with the location of the former shelter noted.  Map.
Mt. Rogers is to the right in the distance.
The A.T. hugs steep slopes.
This showed to me the variety that this wilderness area can offer and the different environments directional slopes on a mountain can create. In total, I hiked 10.8 miles over two days in the Raccoon Branch Wilderness, completing my 10th wilderness experience of 10 or more miles, closing in on the required 12 wilderness areas to meet the challenge.
Selfie next to the wilderness sign.
There are several additional trails in this wilderness. The Hickory Ridge Trail is a foot trail that begins at VA 650 near Dickey Gap and climbs 0.6 miles to its intersection with the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail and Appalachian National Scenic Trail. A short loop using this trail and the A.T. is possible from Dickey Gap. The trail is identified by signs at each end where it meets the Appalachian Trail.  

The Mullins Branch Trail is a foot only trail that enters the area from the north and climbs 2.5 miles up Dickey Ridge until intersecting with the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. This trail was not signed at the A.T., but was obviously a trail. It is reportedly in poor condition, and is also a former A.T. route.  

The Scott Branch Trail is an overgrown trail on the east side of the roadless area that receives light use and is 1.6 miles long. It is no longer found on maps of the area and is likely difficult to follow as it was reported to be overgrown in reports from over a decade ago.

If planning to hike this wilderness, I recommend the Trails Illustrated Mount Rogers High Country Map #318 (Link), rather than the older Trails Illustrated Mount Rogers Map #786. The High Country version contains better coverage of the Raccoon Branch area and includes the recent wilderness designation. The best guidebook for the area is the second edition of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area Guidebook, by Johnny Molloy (Link).

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Thunder Ridge Wilderness, Virginia

As a part of the Dirty Dozen Wilderness Hike Challenge, I recently explored much of the available trail miles in the Thunder Ridge Wilderness.  This federal wilderness area is located just south of the James River Face Wilderness, near Natural Bridge, Virginia.

Virginia currently boasts 24 separate wilderness areas, with designated wilderness in Shenandoah National Park the largest, at 79,000 acres.  Thunder Ridge is at the other end of the spectrum; it is the smallest wilderness in the state at 2,344 acres.  Much of the forest within this wilderness is on steep slopes, so there are only a few trails.  And my choices were further limited because the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed for construction.

Nevertheless, by hiking out-and-back on the Appalachian Trail from where it crosses Petite's Gap Road near the Blue Ridge Parkway, combined with an out-and-back on the Glenwood Horse Trail from the same road, I exceeded 10 miles in the wilderness.  Map.

Petite's Gap Road is a forest service road connecting the Blue Ridge Parkway with Natural Bridge Station.  The road is also the main access to the trailhead for Devil's Marbleyard, the most popular destination in the nearby James River Face Wilderness.  The road is the reason that James River Face and Thunder Ridge are two wildernesses, rather than a single unit.  It was also my only access to this area when I hiked in early April, as the BRP was under construction.

Starting at a parking area on the A.T. at Petite's Gap Road and heading southbound on the A.T., the hiker climbs significantly inside the wilderness - rising from about 2430 feet to 3710 feet over two miles, at about a 12% grade.  After that, the trail drops 320 feet over the next 0.6 miles before rising again until it meets the wilderness boundary.  (It should be noted that the A.T. again enters into the wilderness about 2 miles south of this point, passing through another 0.7 miles.  I did not hike the other portion on this trip.)
View near the top of Thunder Ridge Wilderness, from the A.T.

This is the point where I reached the wilderness boundary and turned around.
The Glenwood Horse Trail in the Thunder Ridge Wilderness is in considerably rougher shape than the A.T.  The trail starts at a switchback in the Petite's Gap Road about a half mile downhill (away from the Blue Ridge Parkway) from where the road crosses the Appalachian Trail.  It is marked by a small forest service marker.  Across the road from the Glenwood Horse Trail is the abandoned Sulphur Ridge Trail, which is in great shape and is the original A.T. alignment through the area.
Highcock Knob in the James River Face Wilderness is seen from the A.T.
The Glenwood Horse Trail is marked by orange diamonds.  It drops away from the road before curving over to a strong stream crossing.  There are several downed trees just after the stream crossing, which makes following the trail a little tough, but the trail in this area is an old road, which channels through the land here.  I followed the channel even when trees prevented me from being in that channel, and within about 100 feet I was back on marked trail.

Orange diamond marking the Glenwood Horse Trail can be seen, with Petite's
Gap Road visible in the distance.
There are a couple of sharp turns in the trail before it starts following the same stream that I crossed earlier.  The trail stays significantly above the canyon formed by the stream, and exits the wilderness just after the 2 mile mark.  Elevation decreased from 2230 to 1244 feet.

My GPS messed up on this hike, giving me a distance reading that included a single point from the last time I had turned it on.  Therefore, I didn't know how far I had gone in the wilderness.  So after completing this hike, I returned to the first stream crossing to make sure I had completed the required 10 miles.  I didn't need to do this.  An out and back on the A.T. and a separate out and back on the Glenwood Horse Trail adds up to 10.1 miles within the wilderness, just enough to check this off of my list of wildernesses hiked for the challenge.  Total ascent was 2645 feet over the 10 miles - not exactly an easy day.  But this finished off my 8th of 12 wilderness hikes needed before September to achieve the challenge.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Sulphur Ridge Trail - Former Appalachian Trail Alignment in James River Face Wilderness

On a recent hike in the James River Face Wilderness, I blogged that, while hiking southbound on the Appalachian Trail climbing Highcock Knob, I came across an "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)."

I was back in the area in early April hiking the Thunder Ridge Wilderness, and used some extra time after exhausting that wilderness's trails to check out the abandoned trail in James River Face Wilderness.  I found it mentioned in only one guidebook, Mark Miller's "Wild Virginia," where it was called the Sulphur Ridge Trail.  (This trail should not be confused with the nearby Sulphur Springs Trailwhich is a current trail and is found on trail maps of the wilderness.)

I followed the Sulphur Ridge Trail from Petite's Gap Road to its end at the current A.T. alignment and found it to be in surprisingly great shape.  There were very few trees down over the trail, and some of the bigger ones had been sawed to provide access.  It is a very level trail, with less than a 6% grade over its entire length, and was clearly a road at one time - prior to the area's designation as Virginia's first wilderness in 1975.

The Sulphur Ridge Trail leaves the Petite's Gap Road at this point, where the road
takes a hard curve.  You can see the trail in the center of this shot.
Not much parking here, so you squeeze off the side of the road as shown.
Directly across the road from the Sulphur Ridge Trailhead is the Glenwood
Horse Trail.  It is easier to see from the road as it is marked.
This location is almost exactly 1/2 mile downhill from the A.T. crossing.
This shows that someone has maintained this trail in the past.
Elevation Profile
I don't normally take videos of my hikes, but I thought a 4 minute clip of my experience might help others get an extended look at the quality of this route.

So what use is this trail?  First, it provides the easiest access to the interior of the JRF Wilderness of any of multiple trail options.  Petite's Gap Road at the trail's start has already reached over 2200 feet elevation, so there is little climb needed to get to the interior using this trail.  (Starting at the James River, you are at 900 feet, 1300 feet lower than this trailhead.) In addition, the A.T., though starting at a higher point on the road, climbs steeply over Highcock Knob before getting to the same point as the end of this trail. 

The trail second provides a really nice and easy shuttle hike, starting on the Sulphur Ridge Trail, then taking the A.T. to the Sulphur Springs Trail (shown on trail maps), and taking the hikers back to the Petite's Gap Road.  About 6.5 miles, with only 550 feet elevation gain. 

Third, if you want to introduce a young person to the joys of wilderness backpacking, this would be an easy out-and-back to the nice level campsite at the site of the former Marble Spring Shelter, about 3 miles each way.  There is no privy there (bring a trowel!), but Marble Spring provides a pretty constant water source.  
This photo shows how the trail is level and wide.
And finally, for those who like to ponder the history of the Appalachian Trail, it is always pretty cool to follow the original A.T. route.  Which makes me wonder, why was this route superseded?  I could find nothing on this question in my research, but I would bet that the decision was made, back in the 1940's when this was still an active road into the National Forest before cars were prohibited because of the Federal Wilderness Area designation. At the time, re-routing the trail may have taken the route off of a busier pathway, an active woods road.  That road has not been active now for at least 40 years, which creates an irony.  Now, some 65+ years after the decision was made to re-route the A.T. over the summit of Highcock Knob, the original trail alignment is the less used option - an unmapped trail.

Hike details, from my GPS:

USGS Topographic Map: Map of Sulphur Ridge Trail.

Total Distance: 2.5 miles, round trip.
Low Point: 2233 ft.
Highest Point: 2629 ft.
Elevation Difference: 396 ft.

Links to other trail descriptions in the James River Face Wilderness:

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