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.

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