Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Ramsey's Draft Wilderness - June 2015

For my 14th wilderness in the Dirty Dozen Wilderness Hike Challenge, I returned to my first wilderness.  And, like all first loves, I have a great fondness for Ramsey's Draft Wilderness.  I hiked RDW extensively when I first moved to Virginia because it reminded me of the state I came from - Maine. 

From the moment you step out of the car and onto the trail, you are in a different place, a wilder place.  And despite having hiked it many times in the last two decades, it still holds secrets that bring me back. At least one person hiked here recently and never came back - the reward is now $25,000 for information on his whereabouts (Link).  There are actually, incredibly, claims of sasquatch activity here (Link). The forest service has managed this area since 1935, basically as a wilderness area.  There are still trails in this wilderness I have never hiked, and former trails I want to find, found on old maps that are no longer printed.

RDW selfie with Gracie The Fabulous Hiking Dog.
Note that I am wearing Crocks...
It is a bittersweet love affair I have with RDW.  I could not hike here for a good ten year period while the hemlocks died here.  When I first hiked it in the early 1990's, there were parts that were dark and primordial thanks to the hemlocks.  The hemlocks made RDW an amazing place to be, with true "old growth" trees all around.  Some of these trees were estimated to be 500 years old (photo).  They are mostly gone now, toppled over thanks to the Woolly Adelgid.

I started coming back about five years ago. When I was a new boy scout leader, the first place I took the troop backpacking was Ramsey's Draft Wilderness. (Link.) That same year, I came out here several times with members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club who live in the Shenandoah Valley to help rehabilitate trails littered with the fallen hemlocks. (Link.) It helped me learn the details of the place, the different seasons and their effects on the trail, and when the RDW can be dangerous.  I know where to look for the invasive Garlic Mustard, where to wonder at the largest Yellow Poplar I have ever seen (amazingly, right next to the old roadbed that used to traverse this valley), and where to find the Stinging Nettle (basically, everywhere off trail).

I come back not often enough.  There are many options for hikers from Central Virginia.  RDW is far from the Appalachian Trail, and I had been concentrating on hiking as much of the AT in Virginia as I could.  Other places beckoned.  I forget how much I love the place until I return.  And on a cool, rainy June day (the best weather in June for hiking, IMO), I returned here with my two favorite hiking partners - Gracie the Fabulous Hiking Dog, and Marit, the toughest hiker I know.

Marit and I ringed the ridges that form the RDW border back in 2010 on an 18+ mile day hike (Link), racing the daylight in November.  Today, we had lower goals and more daylight.  I had one section of trail never completed in this wilderness, a part of the Ramseys Draft Trail which connects the far northern end of the valley with the ridge trail near its north end, at Hiner Spring.  We would approach this trail segment from the south, optimizing our wilderness miles since the rim trails dip in and out of the wilderness boundary and are accessed by trails from outside the wilderness.

Marit shows how to properly cross Ramsey's Draft - wading through the water.
Hiking the Ramseys valley and expecting to stay dry is a sure recipe for heartache and failure.  The trail crosses the stream many times - sometimes for no apparent reason!  Marit and I attacked the quest the same way - we were going to wade through the water from the start. Marit brought old trail runners for the job, while I hiked in Crocs without socks. I brought regular shoes, in case the Crocs became too uncomfortable or the water was especially easy to cross, but I did not change into them until we returned to the car.
Stream crossings are constant.  Dogs are continually hydrated.
The stream was a nice level for this time of year - not the raging torrent it can be some years.  When water levels are high, this can be a dangerous hike. And when it is icy, the stream is no fun to fall into. Early June is one of my favorite times to come here because the water feels great and the Stinging Nettle can be overwhelming by the end of the month. (See this link for more on Stinging Nettle and my miserable experience on the nearby Benson Run Trail, about 5 miles from this spot: Link.)

We hiked through periods of rain, causing us to change into and out of our rain gear. But the wettest time was on the "new" trail section I described earlier, heading up to Hiner Spring.  We never made it to the top because the trail was so overgrown and we were soaked from pushing through the vegetation. (I am coming back with some loppers!) We turned around at exactly Noon and were back at the car by 2:49. We totaled 11.4 miles, of which 10.2 miles were within the wilderness boundaries - though it seems like wilderness immediately, the boundary isn't actually crossed until you come to the wilderness sign.

Hike Details
PATC Difficulty Factor 297.0
Total Altitude Gain 3876 feet
Total Distance 11.4
Lowest point 2250 feet above sea level
Highest Point 3838 feet above sea level
Time 5 hours, 38 minutes  

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  1. Love the TR. Ramseys Draft will always be special to me. Some of the most golden memories of my childhood are of going to Ramseys Draft with my grandfather who helped raise me. He is who took me to the woods hiking the most. Back then we didn't call it hiking. It was just taking a walk in the woods. That first love never left me. Thanks for bringing back some special recollections.

  2. I had such a nice day hiking in this beautiful wilderness. The rain was refreshing and all of the stream crossings were fun in my trail runners. Thanks Jeff!


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