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.

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