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  The trail was already superseded by 1949, as the NBATC had constructed a trail over the summit of High Cock Knob, though the summit's "view is obstructed by timber."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:

Check out my other blog postings here.

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