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).

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