Sunday, May 31, 2015

Comparing Shenandoah National Park Trail Maps - Which is Best?

Update: After writing this comparison, I found an updated version of the Trails Illustrated Shenandoah National Park Map.  Below I have edited the bullet points to indicate the areas where the map has improved since the version I originally reviewed.  I give National Geographic credit - they had found and corrected many of the errors I noted in my original review.

I occasionally come across people online asking whether to purchase trail maps for Shenandoah National Park from National Geographic/Trails Illustrated or from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. I own both sets on my iPad (and PATC in print), and thought it might be helpful to offer some detail on each.

As an up-front disclaimer, know that I am a member of the PATC's Map Committee, and am very involved in advising on map revisions.  The Maps Committee presented me with the PATC's Hawksbill Award in 2014 for my volunteer work over the past year to their map updates (Link). Given this information, you may interpret my clear preference for the PATC maps and my comments below as bias. But I hope that National Geographic reads my list of their map's shortcomings and corrects every one of them.

My review of the National Geographic` Shenandoah map comes from an app they sell that I have loaded on my iPhone and iPad. It is really a spectacular deal - $4.99, not just for Shenandoah, but for 15 National Park maps. (Link.) I recommend it highly - if it still exists. For $4.99, you get the right to download HD versions of Trails Illustrated maps for many of the most popular national parks. If your phone or tablet has the storage space, download all of them and never be bored on the bus or in line for lunch again.  I wish they had the same product for the other Virginia trail maps they produce. (It does not appear to be available for the Android and may no longer be available in any version.)

The PATC also offers apps with their maps. The Shenandoah app is available in Android and iPhone versions and costs $3.99 for the iPhone version. (Link.) Though this app is less expensive than the NG app, it only covers Shenandoah National Park. As of the writing of this post, the app also does not contain the current print versions of the maps - the app has not been updated since 2012.

In print, my overwhelming preference is for the PATC maps. This isn't just because I submit updated data for revisions. Here are some of the biggest reasons:

  1. PATC has been producing trail maps for Shenandoah National Park dating back to 1933. PATC's maps predate the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's guides and maps of the area.
  2. PATC members are not only updating the map information, they are maintaining the trails.  So any changes to any trail in the park is communicated to the Maps Committee before that change is even made.
  3. PATC has a group of volunteers that measure each of the trails using GPS units and feed that data to a central database. This database is used by the PATC Cartographer to confirm trail locations and alignments. The database includes photos of every important point along the trail, and this database is used by the National Park Service to check trail statuses. The group is called the GPS Rangers, and is described here. Every foot of trail and fire road within the park has been measured and entered into the database - many of them have been measured by multiple volunteer technicians. National Geographic cannot match this collection of data.  
  4. PATC regularly revises its Shenandoah maps. In the past 50 years, the map for the Central District was revised 15 times, in each of the following years:  2013, 2008, 2003, 2000, 1997, 1995, 1992. 1988. 1986, 1980, 1977, 1975, 1972, 1969, 1965. I cannot tell how often the National Geographic maps are revised.
  5. Trails Illustrated's Shenandoah map contains a lot of errors that I have noticed when looking it over.  I have collected many of them below. I hope that the folks at National Geographic ("NG") implement these changes into their next revision. Below is a list in progress, and may change as I find more differences.
  6. In print, every single Trails Illustrated map I own shares a common problem - it is very difficult to tell what year the map was produced.  You have to really look at the fine print to find it.  It is generally found near the contact address for National Geographic Maps, but for my Yosemite Map #206 for example, this means completely opening up the map to search for the date. For my Mount Rogers Map #786, I find that information without opening the entire map, but it is not on the cover. PATC maps give the revision date prominently on the front cover. See below:

Differences Between Maps


  • PATC indicates each milepost on the Skyline Drive. NG only gives every five miles, making it harder to coordinate with others on a meetup location on the Drive.
  • PATC indicates whether there are parking restrictions on roads that intersect with trails outside the park. NG does not; it only indicates whether there is a parking lot.
  • PATC assigns a slightly different look to horse trails, with a horseshoe in the line.  PATC assigns different colors, which makes PATC's maps easier to differentiate between trail types.
  • NG lists mileage between trail intersections - a nice feature.
  • NG includes all of Shenandoah National Park on a single map - this can be either a plus or a minus.  NG also includes coverage of some of Massanutten Mountain to the west of Shenandoah National Park.  You have to purchase maps of Massanutten separately if going with PATC versions.
  • NG indicates the trails where dogs are prohibited.  PATC does not.  This is a nice feature.
  • NG includes a listing of data on SNP waterfalls.
  • NG lists capacity at the long distance A.T. huts.
  • NG's SNP map retails for $11.95.  PATC's maps are listed on the club's website at $6.40 apiece, but on the REI site for $10 apiece.  So PATC coverage of the entire park costs more, but it is less if you are just hiking in one section. 
Central District
  • NG indicates that the Pine Hill Gap Trail ends at the Hot Short Mtn Trail.  It doesn’t.  It ends at a point earlier than that and becomes the Hazel Mountain Trail.
  • NG shows an unimproved road to the summit of Hot Mountain, coming off of the Pine Hill Gap Trail.  The NPS hasn’t recognized that road in many years.  I found it still existing on a 1977 edition PATC map, but gone on the 1986 edition PATC Map.  When you hike to this spot, there is no indication that a road ever existed here, other than an old concrete mileage post.  (This has been corrected on the latest edition of the NG map.)
  • NG incorrectly labels the Hot-Short Mountain Trail as the “Hot Mtn. Short Mtn. Trail.”
  • NG indicates that the trailhead for the Broad Hollow Trail on the SNP eastern boundary can be accessed by road from two directions.  Not true.  (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG shows Old Rag Parking to be the small lot that was closed several years ago.  (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG omits the cave and falls on the Hazel River just off of the White Rocks Trail.  (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG fails to indicate the location of the tunnel on the Skyline Drive near Mary's Rock, found on the PATC map.  (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not clearly mark the name of the trail exiting the Skyline Drive at the Pinnacle Overlook, MP 34.1.  It is the Hannah Run Trail. 
  • PATC indicates that views can be had at both Millers Head and Bushytop, near Skyland.  This is information not found on the NG map.
  • PATC shows where camping is permitted and prohibited near the summit of Old Rag.  No indication from NG.
  • NG does not label the Whiteoak-Cedar Run Link Trail, found on the PATC map. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not label the Lewis Falls Trail, in the Big Meadow area.  It is labeled on the PATC maps. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not show the parking area in Big Meadows at the Rapidan Road, found on the PATC map.
  • NG does not show the parking lot at Bootens Gap on the Skyline Drive near MP 55. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not label the McDaniel Hollow Trail or the Jones Mtn Trail between Jones Mtn Cabin and the Staunton River Trail.   (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not show that public roads end next to the PATC Meadows Cabin. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not show the Wilhite Wagon Trail, the Doubletop Mountain Trail, The Hunter Trail, or the 4WD Trail in the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area, which borders the SNP near Hoover Camp.
  • NG does not show the FAA Relay Tower on top of Fork Mountain - a major visual landmark in that area.
  • NG does not show the Graves Mountain Lodge or the Chapman Mountain Horse Trail that connects to the Lodge.
  • NG does not show or label the Conway River Trail.
  • NG incorrectly labeled the Meadows School Trail as the "Meadow School Trail."
  • NG does not label the Bearfence Trail. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG misspells the "Slaughter/Conway Connector Trail" on its latest edition.  
North District

  • NG does not show the Traces Trail, around Mathews Arm Campground, shown in the PATC map.  (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not indicate the name of the Weddlewood Trail, shown on the PATC Map.  (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not show the Little Devil Stairs Overlook, on the Skyline Drive near MP 20, shown on the PATC map. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG refers to the Gravel Springs Hut on the A.T. as "Gravel Springs Hut (PATC)."  This is not a PATC cabin, but is a 3 sided hut for A.T. thru-hikers, open to anyone to use. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • PATC shows a waterfall on the Jordan River near the Mt. Marshall Trail.  This is not shown on the NG map.
  • PATC shows an access trail to Tom Floyd Wayside from the north, not found on the NG map.
  • PATC shows the extent of A.T. Corridor Land boundary on land between the Compton Gap Trail and U.S. 522.  Not shown on NG.
  • PATC shows the Possoms Rest Overlook on the A.T. just south of the Tom Floyd Wayside. Not shown on NG.
  • NG indicates that State Route 619, near the Northern Entrance to SNP, does not cross the Shenandoah River.  This is wrong. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
South District
  • NG incorrectly labels the Big Run Loop Trail as just "Loop Trail."
  • Only PATC's map shows current boundaries of "A.T. Corridor Lands" - National Park Service lands next to Shenandoah National Park's South District that are not part of Shenandoah.
  • NG's 2015 map edition does not show the Appalachian Trail reroute over Calf Mountain, completed by the PATC in 2014.
Conclusion: Although NG maps have improved substantially with the 2015 edition of their Shenandoah map, overall I believe the attention to detail is why the PATC maps remain superior.  

Additional Disclaimer: I purchased both sets of maps with my own money and do not receive free maps as a member of the PATC Maps Committee.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Big Draft Wilderness, WV - May 2015

When I would tell both new and experienced hikers from my part of Virginia that I planned to hike the Big Draft Wilderness, the reaction was the same.  "Where is that?"  Most had never heard of it. Big Draft doesn't have the gravitas of the "bucket list" West Virginia wildernesses, like Dolly Sods or Cranberry.  But, located just a few minutes north of White Sulphur Springs and Interstate 64 just over the Virginia/West Virginia border, it is probably the most accessible of all the West Virginia wilderness areas for hikers from Central Virginia.
After all the bigger wilderness signs in Virginia,
this one looks like someone left it in the dryer too long.
My latest wilderness sign selfie features a personal size sign!
Big Draft is the smallest of all current West Virginia wilderness areas.  Big Draft is also a new wilderness, as it is was named to the system in 2009.  It contains only a few trails, including one that I had wanted to check out for a long time - the Blue Bend Loop Trail.  A weekend Boy Scout teaching obligation had me nearby in Covington, Virginia, so I extended the weekend by checking out this trail and one other to qualify another wilderness area for the Dirty Dozen Wilderness Hike Challenge,- my 13th completed wilderness area - my "Dirty Baker's Dozen" hike.

Access to Big Draft Wilderness is from the Blue Bend Recreation Area, in the far south portion of the Monongahela National Forest.  Blue Bend includes an exceptional campground, with 20 beautiful sites along Anthony Creek.  The campground also has a CCC-era pavilion, flush toilets, and warm showers.  Park in the day use area (no fee) and follow signs to a footbridge over Anthony Creek, which feeds into the Greenbrier River.  

On the other side of Anthony Creek, most folks will take a left, as it leads away from the wilderness border and towards a riverside beach.  Trails are easily followed here, but not well marked.  I went straight past a kiosk with a map, and that took me where I wanted to go - onto the Blue Bend Loop Trail, taking the loop clockwise.

Every trail description I read before this hike described the trail in a counter-clockwise direction, which means taking the trail along Anthony Creek for about 1.5 level miles before climbing over Round Mountain.  I wanted to front load my elevation gain, so I climbed the mountain first.  I think the trail descriptions I saw recommended the opposite direction because I passed the three nice overlooks early in my hike.  So within the first mile-and-a-quarter of my 12 mile hike, I'd already burned the best views of the entire day.  Each overlook was in the same direction, and each was at a switchback when the trail was at the farthest east points in the loop.
The view northeast from the highest of the three consecutive views
at switchbacks on the Blue Bend Loop Trail.
Topping the mountain took 1.75 miles of trail and nearly 1000 feet in elevation.  The trail was in great shape the whole way - not a given in West Virginia, where trail miles vastly outnumber the volunteers and forest service professionals available to keep them maintained!  It gave me hope for the rest of the day; hope that wouldn't always be maintained...

I was interested to see the trail shelter that predated this area's establishment as a wilderness area. From the descriptions in trail guides I had read, I pictured this shelter sited along the trail when it was following a ridge, possibly with views to the south nearby.  But it wasn't anything like that.  Instead it was in a wooded area that dipped down from the rest of the trail, with no views to be found nearby. It was also in a sloped area, so there isn't much opportunity to camp nearby - limiting my interest as a boy scout destination.
Trail shelter on the Blue Bend Loop Trail.

Although you can't really tell from this photo,
camping around the trail shelter was not optimal.
After the shelter, the trail wraps around the mountain, hugging sometimes steep slopes before descending to Anthony Creek.  From here, I headed west on the Anthony Creek Trail.
The Blue Bend Loop Trail descends from the shelter to Anthony Creek
and the intersection with the Anthony Creek Trail.
If you look at the elevation profile for this hike, you might think that I had completed the hard portion of the hike.  After all, there is not more than about 120 feet elevation difference over the remaining 9 miles of my hike.  But you need to look more closely at the chart.  Every time I stop there is a little "blip" in the line - kind of like looking at tremors on an earthquake graph.  So the portion of the hike coming down from the shelter had only one stop until I got to the bottom.  Notice the number of blips after I get to the bottom.  I was stopping all the time, and it wasn't to catch my breath.  The stops were because the trail was blocked by a downed tree or downed vines.  It was hard to get around many of them because the slope down to Anthony Creek was steep and stinging nettles were growing on the sides of the trail.  While the Anthony Creek Trail provided many nice views of Anthony Creek (along with an occasional fisherman in the water), I would have enjoyed more doing the loop trail twice.

Anthony Creek from the eponymous trail.
A trail's quality today is dependent in part on when it was last maintained.  Perhaps if you take this same hike the trail will have been cleaned up and you will find this to be a delightful trail.  I did not find such a trail, and do not recommend the Anthony Creek Trail.
Another Anthony Creek view, from the trail.
Anthony Creek Trail heads towards the Blue Bend Campground on the left,
and the South Boundary Trail on the right heads towards its trailhead on Big Draft Road.
Forest Service Trail Map for Big Draft Wilderness: Link.  (Slow to load.)

This is a typical campsite in the USFS Blue Bend Campground.
It is probably site number 10, next to Anthony Creek.
The hike started and ended at the Blue Bend Campground and Recreation Area. This is an exceptionally nice, wooded campground with 21 campsites along Anthony Creek. Nearby, Anthony Creek has a swimming beach.  It is a popular fishing destination. There is a live campground host, flush toilets and warm showers (free to campers). While I wish there was an option for non-campers to use the showers, the campground makes a very nice base from which to explore the southern portions of Monongahela National Forest and/or bike the Greenbrier River Rail-Trail, about 4.5 miles away.

There is an adjoining day use picnic area with free parking and pit toilets. The day use area is the jump off point for non-campers who want to hike these trails. There are also beaches along each side of Anthony Creek that are accessed from this parking lot. And the picnic area has a large, depression-era picnic shelter with an enormous stone fireplace. This can be rented - I think it said it cost $25 to reserve.  That area could handle a very large group.

The picnic Shelter at the Blue Bend Campground is huge and reservable.
It is a similar design to the shelter at Sherando Lake in the GWNF.
The fireplace in the shelter.
Another area for groups is the nearby Blue Meadow Group Campground.  It is about a quarter mile up the road and on the other side of the access road, which travels between Anthony Creek and the group campground.  Group campers need to come down to the Blue Bend Campground to use showers.  The Blue Meadow facility is reported to be more open than the wooded Blue Bend Campground, and better equipped for tents.

As a side note, I was greatly assisted in my hike planning by my copy of the Monongahela National Forest Hiking Guide, written by Allen de Hart and Bruce Sundquist for the West Virginia Highlands Concervancy.  There is now an 8th Edition (2006) available (link), though I used the 7th Edition (2001). These folks have been publishing these guides since 1972, and cover virtually every trail in the Monongahela National Forest.  It is also available in CD format (Link) (Sample Chapter).  I recommend it highly, even though it takes some getting used to at first - there are many abbreviations that require some decoding.  You can see this in the sample chapter, linked above.  But these authors really know their trails, and profits are plowed back into conservation efforts in the state.  A win win.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Shenandoah National Park - Hazel Country Wilderness, May 2015

I had banked some extra hours at work that I used on a relatively cool May day to explore some trails in Shenandoah National Park’s Central District, that criss-cross each other in the wilderness.  These trails are all in what is known as the Hazel Country, and I hiked several, including the Sams Ridge Trail, Hazel Mountain Trail, Pine Hill Gap Trail, Broad Hollow Trail, and the Hazel River Trail (hiked in that order).  Smaller loops are easily accomplished out here.

These trails are best accessed from parking outside the Park, coming in from Virginia Rt. 231, which is the spectacularly beautiful road connecting Madison to Sperryville, and is on Wandering Virginia's Top 10 favorite road segments in the Commonwealth.  Also, it is among the most dangerous to drive, at least for me, as I spend too much time looking at the summit of Old Rag, and not enough time looking at the road in front of me.

I've put off exploring these trails because I didn't know where to leave my car.  Fortunately, I found instructions on Facebook, and I am giving them to you so you can arrive knowing where to park. Take Rt. 231 to Rt. 681, which is just north of where 231 crosses the Hazel River.  Rt. 681 goes past some really nice houses and turns from pavement to gravel before you turn right onto Rt. 600, just after 681 crosses, again, the Hazel River.  Follow 600 until just before a bridge, shown in the photo below.  The bridge crosses, again, the Hazel River.  Park at the wide spot on the right. There is room for only two or three cars here.

View of the parking spot, which is the wide spot on the right.
The bridge just ahead is your clue that you've found parking.
Just before the bridge ahead on the left is the road to the trails.
After walking down the road towards the Park, you will see concrete posts directing you to the trailhead for the Hazel River Trail.  This is also the trailhead for the Sams Ridge Trail, even though these posts don't tell you that.  I followed the road past the trailhead, thinking Sams Ridge must start further up the road.  I turned around when it looked like I was about to end up in somebody's front yard.  Sams Ridge Trail starts about 100 feet up the Hazel River Trail.  Trail Map Link.
This road takes the hiker to the Sams Ridge Trail and Hazel River Trail.
Look at the tree on the left, and there is a small sign saying "hikers only."
That is how you know you are going down the right road.
It starts out by climbing on land outside the park, and does not enter the park for good until the 0.6 mile mark.  And it climbs steeply.  Or is it that I am out of shape?  Not sure.  Then again, after reviewing the data, the Sams Ridge Trail climbs for over a mile at an average 19 percent grade.  That is steeper than the run-of-the-mill SNP trail.  But it brings you deep into Hazel Country very fast.

Ladyslippers along the Hazel Mountain Trail
"Hazel Country" is the term generally given to the area on the northeast portion of Shenandoah National Park's Central District, an area drained by the Hazel River. This area originally had homes and orchards, and most (if not all) of the trails in this area used to be roads accessing those properties. There are additional roads throughout this region that were not maintained.  The current version of the Appalachian Trail Guide for Shenandoah National Park, 14th Edition, 2012, states that a spring near the end of the Sam's Ridge Trail is "to the right 200 feet down the abandoned Sams Run Trail." The 1973 Seventh Edition also highlights the "abandoned Sams Run Trail."  So Sam's Run Trail has been abandoned for over 40 years, but is still referenced in the trail guide.  (I would edit that out at this point!)  Sams Run Trail is so old that it isn't even found on current topo maps.  Some photos of homesites along Sams Run can be found here: Link.  I'll have to check it out sometime, but as Bill Fawcett - seer of all things off trail in Shenandoah - said about a month ago, "bushwhacking season is done" until the next frost.

Now, this entire area that once contained homes is federally protected wilderness.  It is amazing that wilderness exists in the eastern part of our country, and this wilderness can exist nearly right next to nice housing and small farms – virtually as soon as you cross the National Park boundary.  Even more amazing is the fact that many of the areas we now call wilderness in Shenandoah were once villages and farms where people lived.

Vistas were a rare occurrence on this hike.
The Skyline Drive cuts near the top of the far mountain in this photo.
At one point, coming back into the park on the Broad Hollow Trail after I looped out of its boundaries coming down the Pine Hill Gap Trail, I encountered a woman leading a small group of hikers.  “Did you see the old house foundation about a quarter mile behind you?  My guidebook tells me that there is one just ahead.” But going uphill I am less observant, and honestly, the forest is so thick here that I am not sure that I could see it anyway.

I got talking with the group of hikers.  They were very interested in what it is like to maintain a section of the A.T. after I told them that I did that, and I told them a story about Scoutmaster Me, the supposed “forest expert,” telling my scouts on a nearby hike about the Chestnut blight of 100 years ago and how it had such a huge effect on these mountain lands as all the chestnuts are long gone.

After I was done with the hike, one of my assistant scoutmasters, a professional forester, privately corrected me.  “They aren’t gone.  They are still all around us but they can’t grow old enough to fruit because the blight persists to this day.”  He then showed me chestnuts all around, including some that were showing the effects of the blight.  And I did the same to this group – there was an immature chestnut, maybe 15 feet high and two inches thick, right next to where we were talking.  But its trunk was already showing the effects of the blight.
Chestnuts, and their long sawtoothed leaves, line the Pine Hill Gap Trail.
How amazing is it that, nearly 100 years after the blight wiped out chestnuts across the east, changing mountain economies and perhaps paving the way for the federal government to purchase mountain lands for national forests, the chestnut still struggles to life from its old root stock?

Shenandoah boasts the largest wilderness acreage of any unit in Virginia.  Like the chestnut, the wilderness land is coming back – totally different than in the days before federal protection - taking back the cleared lands of previous generations.

All four trails hiked start on Shenandoah National Park's eastern boundary at about the same elevation and climb to the same place - a flat area between Hazel Mountain and Catlett Mountain, inside the Park.  Below are Elevation Profiles for each trail, showing distance and elevation as the trails climb.

It is also possible to park at the bottom of the Pine Hill Gap Trail, as shown in the photo below.
Hiker vehicles at the eastern end of the Pine Hill Gap Trail.
This permits a smaller loop hike involving the Pine Hill Gap Trail, Hazel Mountain Trail, and Broad Hollow Trail.  You need to be careful on weekdays, though, not to park in or near the area marked for the school bus to turn around.  As you can see from the photo, parking on the east side of the road near an old mobile home is your best bet.  You get there by following the same route as the earlier parking directions (Rt 231 to Rt 681), but don't turn off on Rt. 600.  Stay straight, and that should take you to this area.
From the road, the trailhead for the Pine Hill Gap Trail is pretty easy to see - look for the concrete post on the old road to the right of the gate in the photo below.

The trailhead for the Broad Hollow Trail is harder to pick out from the road.  It is right next to a stream and next to a farm entrance.  The photo below shows the trail and concrete post circled, as seen from the road.  Not easy to see in the lush growth - so look for the tree marked "462 Weakley."

For the day, 12.8 miles total hiked, including an estimated 9.9 miles hiked in wilderness based on wilderness boundaries found in Potomac Appalachian Trail Club Map 10 – the best map available anywhere covering this region.

Catlett Mountain from a rocky overlook just off of the Hazel Mountain Trail.
This overlook was near where the Hazel Mountain Trail became the Pine Hill Gap Trail.

Hike details:
PATC Difficulty Factor: 342.1
Total Distance: 12.8 miles 
Total Time: 5 hours, 37 minutes (including stops)
Low Point: 994 ft.
Highest Point: 2615 ft.
Elevation Difference: 1621 ft.

Like what you see?  Check out my other blog postings!  LINK.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mountain Lake Wilderness

Mountain Lake Wilderness is one of the more popular wilderness areas in Virginia, and I would guess that the reason is a combination of the fact that it is near the main campus of Virginia Tech and it has some spectacular overlooks that can be accessed using relatively easy trails.

I had been through here before, as part of a nearly 22 mile killer day hike back in December, 2013 (Link), where I concluded that this region is too far from my home to make for an enjoyable day hike experience.

I had always wanted to get back here, though, because I wanted to enjoy some of the overlooks and also because I needed to hike a one mile portion of the A.T. that I believed I missed when I blew through here the first time. On my way back from a 3 day backpack in SW Virginia, I dropped by here to check off those boxes, and also to obtain the 10 wilderness miles required in this wilderness area for the Dirty Dozen Wilderness Hike Challenge - my eleventh completed wilderness.

I had backpacked 9.6 miles on the A.T. over 4 hours earlier in the day, and was tired - mostly from the 17.3 mile backpack the day before. And I was sore, from tripping over the pencil-point end of a tree on the trail 24 hours earlier that still has the nail of my big toe an ugly purple as I write this four weeks later. But this wilderness was not that far out of the way of my return route so I decided to check it out near the end of the day. On the way to the trailhead, I was really impressed with the Mountain Lake Lodge, which I drove by. I thought it would be run down, but it looked like a pretty great place to stay with lots of interesting activities.

I was less impressed with Mountain Lake itself, said to be one of only two natural lakes in Virginia. The lake itself looked about half full. I have since learned that this lake actually goes through cycles every 400 years where there is less water (Video) and the lake is "actually healing itself." The lake and the land around the lake is managed by a conservancy.

A few miles past Mountain Lake I came to the trailhead for the War Spur Overlook.  This is an easy loop trail that leads to a great overlook. This area is a big plateau, and I was on top of the table. As you can see from the elevation profile below, the northbound A.T. goes over the plateau for several miles, then drops big time into the valley you look down into from the War Spur Overlook - going from 4067 to 2165 feet elevation over 3.4 miles, a descent of over 1900 feet! After descending steeply, the A.T. crosses War Spur Branch right at the War Spur Shelter, and exits the wilderness. The A.T. then climbs back up to nearly 3550 feet over the next 2.6 miles (outside of the wilderness), resulting in one of the larger elevation changes over any 6 mile sections of A.T. in Virginia.
The War Spur Shelter, taken during a December, 2013 hike on the A.T.
I wasn't about to try that again on this day, sticking instead to the top of the plateau.  Don't think me a wimp - did I say I had already backpacked almost 27 miles over the previous couple of days?

The War Spur Overlook is a pretty popular hike for Virginia Tech students, as it isn't too far from campus and it is a pretty easy hike with a spectacular payoff at the overlook. I ran into 6 or 8 students in my short time out here. The War Spur Overlook is on a side trail from the loop trail. In my research, the descriptions always said that it is well worth the side trip to experience this overlook. I think that goes without saying - why else would you be on this trail if you weren't interested in going to the overlook? The rest of the loop is in the woods and contains little to entice the hiker. The whole point of the loop is to get  you, the hiker, out to the one rock that can give you the big views.
The view north from the War Spur Overlook.
After taking the Loop Trail and the War Spur Connector Trail (which linked this day's hikes with the A.T. through here that I had already completed), I drove up to where the Mountain Lake Road crossed the A.T. When I hiked this in December, 2013, I missed part of the A.T., taking the present Potts Mountain Trail instead. The PMT is the old AT alignment, and the new AT is not far off of the PMT, but I want to be accurate in my AT experience. I went back this day and covered the unhiked AT mile before connecting back with the PMT and continuing west.  I hoped to make it to the White Rocks overlook, but I didn't have a map to confirm its distance, and chose to turn around about a half mile short because the sun was getting low on the horizon. This trail was easy to follow (though no longer blazed) as it is an old roadbed.
Large field in the waning sun, on the Potts Mountain Trail.
I walked past this site of an old lookout tower, and lamented how few of these artifacts are standing anymore.
Site of the former Stony Creek Lookout Tower, 4128 feet elevation.
Near the end of my hike I spent some time watching the sun heading low over the Wind Rock Overlook.  This is a very easy walk from the Mountain Lake Road - only about 0.2 miles from parking and just off of both the A.T. and the Potts Mountain Trail at  N37°24.857' W80° 31.166'. The views are spectacular - equaling many along this part of the A.T. that require much more work to obtain.  Not to be missed!
The sun sinks low from the Wind Rock overlook, looking west.
Another view from Wind Rock, looking northwest.
Is this all worth a special trip from Central Virginia? Probably not. But there are a lot of things to do in the area, so it can be a part of a weekend getaway. I think this is a really beautiful part of the state.
Panorama from Wind Rock.
Google Maps shows how to get to this area from Charlottesville - about 3 hours.
Directions from Charlottesville:
Take Interstate 64 west towards Staunton, then turn south on Interstate 81.  Stay on I-81 to the Blacksburg (Virginia Tech) exit, and take U.S. 460 past Blacksburg, Exit 118B.  Follow US 460 for 18 miles west past Blacksburg/Virginia Tech. Pass the small town of Newport, then take right on Rt. 700, Mountain Lake Road. Follow Rt. 700 past the Mountain Lake Lodge, past the UVA Mountain Lake Biological Station, to either a parking area for the War Spur Loop or (a little further down the road) the A.T. road crossing.  Both parking areas are well marked by Forest Service signs.

Like what you see?  Check out my other blog postings!  
LINK, and scroll down for earlier posts.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Rough Mountain Wilderness Bushwack

The Rough Mountain Wilderness (RMW) is located on Rough Mountain, one ridge east of Douthat State Park and one ridge west of the Rich Hole Wilderness, just north of Interstate 64 west of Lexington.  Although I have hiked the RMW several times before, most recently on September 11, 2014 (Link), I had always accessed the wilderness the same way - trying to find the Crane Trail, the only established trail in this wilderness.

The book "Wild Virginia: A Guide to Thirty Roadless Recreation Areas Including Shenandoah National Park" recommends accessing the RMW from the north and bushwacking over the top of the ridge. The book, however, calls this the "loneliest hike in Virginia."  Because I had already done the Crane Trail as part of the Dirty Dozen Wilderness Hike Challenge, I decided to complete my 12th required wilderness as a bushwack.

"Bushwack" is kind of a scary term.  I really like trails - I seldom get misplaced on one (and never "lost"), and they are easier to move on, sometimes they are kept up, and there is less likelihood that I'll come back with a tick attached to my skin.  There really is a season for bushwacking in Virginia that coincides with bare tree season.  Once spring growth starts in earnest, it becomes harder to make your way through the woods without a trail.  When the leaves are down, it is easier to see distant points and navigate accordingly.  

I think I will be finding myself bushwacking more and more.  I enjoy exploring trails the first time, but am not as big a fan of returning to areas I've already explored.  Virginia has a lot of trail miles, but in places like Shenandoah National Park there are a lot of trails found on older maps, but haven't been on current maps for decades.  The Rocks Mountain Trail, near Riprap, is an example.  Exploring is like peeling an onion - a series of layers.  Layers include: Popular Trails, Less Popular Trails, Nonexistent Trails, Bushwacks along ridges or to former structures, etc., Pure Bushwacking with no goal in mind. 

Rough Mountain is about as easy a bushwack as you can get - it is one long ridge, and you are either on the ridge or you are not.  And I had bushwacked Rough Mountain in the past, over ten years ago, and found it to be relatively easy going (other than the steep terrain) because it is so dry that lush undergrowth never develops.
Parking is about 0.2 miles off of Virginia Route 42,
next to dumped construction debris.
Rough Mountain Wilderness was established by Congress in 1977 along with several other wilderness areas closest to this tract - Rich Hole, Barbours Creek, and Shawvers Run.  It is presently the 3rd largest wilderness in Virginia at 9300 acres, and will increase to 10,300+ acres after the proposed addition is established as wilderness.  (Map).
My guidebook instructs hikers not to block the gate, but it is obvious
that no vehicle has gone past this point in a long time.
The parking lot is accessed from a forest road, with directions given below.  It is one of those roads you could drive past every day for a year and never notice.  It leads a short way to a small parking area at an old gate.  The road beyond hasn't been used in years.  You will need to navigate a blowdown nor more than 20 yards after the gate.  Overall, however, the roadbed makes a nice trail.

The hike starts by heading south on the old roadbed, cut into the side of the mountain.
Eventually, the road dies out and a worn path makes its way up to the top of the ridge.  Blowdowns sometimes create a need for alternate routes, but generally the path is easy to follow.
The bushwack follows the ridgeline and is never difficult to follow.
There is a path to follow.
Once on the ridge line, it is a roller coaster.  Rough Mountain itself is a series of peaks, and each one got higher as I moved further south.  After starting out at about 1350 feet in elevation, I ascended to 2044 foot peak then dropped before ascending to a 2205 foot peak, descended again before climbing to 2423 then 2485 foot peaks.  The final peak was just over 2700 feet, according to my GPS. (Rich Hole Wilderness, just to the east, was higher.)  Some of the peaks required short but exceptionally steep climbs, as is shown by the Elevation Profile at the end of this post.  I was huffing on the uphills and skiing through the leaves on the downhills!

Though I was generally hiking under tree cover, in a couple of places the view opened up. Photographs from these spots are shown below.
Near the southern end of the hike the ridge opens up onto a field, giving great views to the south.
The high point to the left in this photo is Rough Mountain's highest point and my southern end of the hike.
I turned around after reaching the top of that peak.
This is a view to the northwest, showing the Cowpasture River valley.
Someone cut trees here to enhance the view.
Rough Mountain, as seen from the site of a former fire tower
located just outside of the Rich Hole Wilderness.  Griffith Knob
is the defining feature, and it is further south on Rough Mountain than I hiked.
In the valley is Pads Creek and the Buckingham Branch rail line used by Amtrak between
New York City and Chicago, operating as The Cardinal.
At my southern terminus, I did a little loop, as I found myself on a plateau.  There are some potential campsites, but camping would require hauling water up the mountain.  This wilderness seems best suited for day hikes.
How to get there: Take Interstate 64 west past Lexington to Exit 29.  Turn north (right) on Virginia Route 42 and drive a long way, over 15 miles, to Forest Road 462 on the right.  FR 462 is just after an S curve in Rt. 42 and is marked by a small brown sign on the gravel road.  Take this road 2/10 of a mile to the parking area pictured above.  Follow the road on foot past the gate.  Where the road takes a sharp right turn and ends is about the northern boundary of the proposed wilderness extension. Look for an established path that may be marked by pink ribbons and follow it to the ridge.  The ribbons end before the present wilderness boundary begins.

PATC Difficulty Factor: 256.6 (both ways)
Total Distance: 9.6 miles 
Total Time: 4 hours, 26 minutes (including stops)

Low Point: 1415 ft.
Highest Point: 2721 ft.
Elevation Difference: 1306 ft.