Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Southernmost A.T. Miles in Virginia

I spent Friday and Saturday, October 23-24, 2015, finishing off my final miles of the entire 550+ mile Appalachian Trail in Virginia.  I set a goal to complete this entire trail portion about 5 years ago, and have been chipping away at the miles in earnest for the past 3 years with increasingly long drives away from Charlottesville.

This drive was to Beartree Gap Day Use (Fisherman) Parking, and the drive from Charlottesville took 3 hours and 23 minutes, 237 miles, with no time stopped. Beartree Gap was the location where I ended my previous A.T. hike and their day use fisherman's lot is a great place to park - a small, free USFS lot that is off the highway and hidden from those drivers, yet only 10 minutes off of the trail. It even has a porta-potty and trash cans.

The plan was to park here, hike into Damascus, and then shuttle back to the car using the host of the hiker hostel my dog and I stayed at that night.  This is really the best way to do it, as I'd rather be waiting for a shuttle in Damascus - where there is stuff to do and other ride options and cell service - than at a remote USFS parking lot that probably doesn't have any of those things.  After the shuttle, I would park the car at the hostel until our entire hike was complete later the next day and we returned home.

Near the entrance to the parking lot is a paved trail that splits right almost right away, taking you along the south end of Beartree Lake.  You can see the beach on the other side of the lake. Take a right at the end of the trail, and follow a purple blazed trail across U.S. 58 and reach the A.T. at the 0.6 mile mark. After reaching the A.T., I took a right to go southbound, and started climbing. Though not a big climb (300 feet), it had me stopping to strip a layer almost immediately. After a short ridge walk, I lost all that elevation, then climbed again to hit the high point of the both days' hikes at the 2.3 mile mark - 3438 feet.
Beartree Lake, looking north, from Beartree Gap Trail on the way to the AT.
A blue-blazed side trail leads to the Saunders Shelter right at the hike's 3 mile mark. I wanted to see the Saunders Shelter - it is the southernmost shelter in Virginia, and while hiking I was thinking about how I had passed by many shelters not situated right on A.T.  The Saunders Shelter is in a pretty spot with some flat ground behind it. The shelter itself was clean, though there was a ton of graffiti all over the exterior. In fact, it was the most graffiti-filled shelter I remember seeing in Virginia.  LNT!

Saunders Shelter

Lots of graffitti!
Shortly after returning to the A.T. from the Saunders Shelter access trail, the trail descended via 18 switchbacks from about 3400 feet to about 2500 feet. Near the bottom is a side trail to the Virginia Creeper Trail - this appears to have been an earlier alignment of the A.T., which then continued south on the Virginia Creeper Trail. Looking at the map, I thought that the A.T. merged into the Creeper Trail and I'd be competing with bikes for space, but the A.T. parallels the Creeper Trail. While the A.T. stays to the north of the Laurel Creek, the Creeper Trail crosses back-and-forth several times. This is an area with strong beaver activity.
Beavers attack trees on the A.T. near Laurel Creek.
Right in this area, I ran into a couple of guys that probably qualify as the strangest two characters I encountered in my entire 550 miles of A.T. Though clean cut, they were dressed head-to-toe in black, including black referee sneakers and black external frame backpacks, these two guys asked me if there were any springs along the trail in the near future. "We have been hiking up from Damascus and we are getting thirsty," they explained. I had two Nalgene bottles filled with water - one for me that I had frozen the night before and one to pour in the dog's bowl. I offered them the water in the dog's bottle. After some protests, they proceeded to drink 2/3 of the bottle, and when I told them to pull out their water bottles and I'd pour them the rest, was told, "our bottles are too deep in our packs for us to get out." Really?

They told me that they were missionaries, out to tell hikers about Christ. When I asked how that was going, they told me that they haven't had a lot of luck, because "folks on the trail seem to be in such a hurry!"

They then asked me where I lived, and when they determined I lived over a three hour drive from our meeting spot, asked if I knew of anyone that would put them up for a few days because it was supposed to get cold soon and they wanted to wait until it warmed up again. This, from a couple of guys who had been on the trail for a total of 5 miles! I couldn't help them and moved on, but it wasn't 5 minutes before the trail crossed a small stream with clean water. Somehow, I don't think those guys will get very far.

At the 6.7 mile mark, the A.T. is detoured onto the Creeper Trail. The reason for this is a bridge wash out on the A.T. I think if I were to do this section again, I'd try the creek crossing, as later observations had me thinking this crossing would still be possible. According to the USFS:

A section of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (A.T.) near Straight Branch and US-58 east of Damascus, VA, has been rerouted indefinitely due to the complete washout of the Straight Branch A.T. Footbridge during a high water event in May 2013.  The reroute (detour) follows portions of the Beech Grove Trail (#4552) and Virginia Creeper Trail (#4575).  This detour is expected to be in place for the foreseeable future, as A.T. management partners plan for the construction of a replacement footbridge.

Here, the detour is very prominently indicated.
The detour direction is indicated clearly.
After only 0.2 miles on the Creeper Trail I came to a bike trail parking area, with bathroom.  (Keep this in mind if needed, even after the detour on the A.T. ends.) Unfortunately, there was so much activity here that it was easy to miss the poorly marked A.T. signs. I hiked another mile on the Creeper Trail before concluding that I was no longer on the detoured A.T. After hiking that mile back again, I saw that the A.T. follows the access road to U.S. 58, crosses the road and follows the Beech Grove Trail about 0.2 miles before reconnecting with the A.T. This is a very short detour - don't do what I did!

Here, it is nearly impossible to see the detour, and I missed it.  Can you see it?
It is marked on a metal strip that is behind the bike leaning against the rock on the opposite side of the road.
I went up and looked at the kiosk, which said nothing about the detour, before continuing past the bathroom on the bike trail.

Back on the A.T., I had my last major ascent of the day. But to call this "major" is an overstatement, as it ascended only 640 feet over 1.75 miles before leveling out, and then dropping 900 feet over 1 2/3 miles. At the high point, the A.T. intersected with the Iron Mountain Trail, which was the original A.T. alignment, before the trail went through the Mt. Rogers Highlands. Today, hiking the Iron Mountain Trail makes for some nice multi-day loop hikes with the A.T. I would not trust the shelters on the IMT, though, as when I camped with the Boy Scouts at the Cherry Tree Shelter in 2012, it was falling apart. Link.

Iron Mountain Trail connects with the Appalachian Trail.

View on the Appalachian Trail, a little north of Damascus.
Soon after passing the IMT, the sounds of road noise increased, and I soon came to the wooden steps that descend to U.S. 58.  I had seen these several times from the road on various trips, but never used them.  Cross 58, and you are back on the Virginia Creeper Trail - both trails merge coming into Damascus.
Appalachian Trail descends to U.S. 58 before crossing and joining the Virginia Creeper Trail again.

On the combined Creeper/Appalachian Trail, entering the Damascus town limits.
Just in town, next to the sign below with mileages to many different places (including the northern and southern termini of the Appalachian Trail), the A.T. splits from the Creeper Trail. Although I was glad no longer to be sharing a trail with some pretty fast cyclists, the trail through Damascus is surprisingly hard to negotiate. The point where the trails split is obvious; the direction the A.T. takes is not. It actually follows U.S. 58, with blazes on telephone poles and not a lot of room off the highway.
In Damascus, you CAN get there from here!
The A.T. is sometimes hard to follow in Damascus.  Note the white blaze on the telephone pole,
though there isn't much room along the highway to walk.
The A.T. goes right through downtown, past multiple bike rental/shuttle businesses and Mt. Rogers Outfitters, a camping store that is legendary among thru-hikers. I checked it out, and it was a good place but nothing spectacular. I still bought a hat advertising their business, along with a "Virginia A.T." patch - promised myself not to get one until I actually completed the state, and cheated by one day. They also helped me decide where to eat that night, by calling in a "to go" order at the burrito place around the corner, Hey Joe's.
There are multiple hiker/cyclist hostels in Damascus.  This is Crazy Larry's Hostel/Store, as seen from the trail.
One of the many bike rental/shuttle places in downtown Damascus.
Another hiker hostel - Hikers Inn.
The A.T. heads down this multi-colored sidewalk past Mt. Rogers Outfitters.
Around the corner from Mt. Rogers Outfitter was Hey Joe's Burritos,
my fine dining destination for the night.
I took my burrito and my hat to my bed for the night, at Woodchuck's Hostel. Hostel owner Chuck had put up with multiple false starts as I searched for the best weekend to finish the trail, and shuttled me back to my car when I showed up at his hostel. There was always activity at his hostel, with a couple of great kids and some friendly dogs wandering around the yard. I recommend Woodchuck's Hostel - it was further off the road than the other hostels I observed in town, and Chuck is a nice guy.
Entertainment at Woodchuck's Hostel, with Chuck tossing the beanbag.
On my shuttle, I was able to ask Chuck about Damascus and the hostel industry and how a guy from Montana ended up with a hostel in Damascus. He was a great conversationalist. And I enjoyed the hostel, though the only other guy staying there that night was in the same room as my dog and me, and he was up multiple times using the bathroom in a loud manner (if you catch my drift). I could have done without that guy.

The next morning I was up early, enjoyed Chuck's waffles, and then hit the trail again by 7:40.  I was ready to finish this up! Heading back to the trail, I hiked through a town park before turning onto a street and taking the trail into the woods.  When you leave the street, it feels like you are walking through someone's yard, but there is a prominent "Appalachian Trail" sign in the yard.
Here is the morning view from the hostel.
A park in town has the old Deep Gap Shelter, formerly just south of the Mt. Rogers Trail on the A.T.
No camping here!
Out-and-back to the Tennessee border took me 2.5 hours, plus 10 minutes sitting at the border and soaking in the accomplishment and texting home. I felt kind of like I was on the edge of darkness, because I have researched many times the miles in Virginia but know nothing at all about the miles in Tennessee.  Virginia is light, but Tennessee is dark. I don't want to know anything about the Tennessee miles, because I don't want to start plotting how to complete those miles. After some 5 years plotting the Virginia sections, I now need to simply appreciate completing Virginia - the longest of any trail section in a single state.
This sign is at the Tennessee/Virginia State Line.  I turned around here, and have no idea where Spivey Gap is.
My A.T. experience by state is pretty much all or nothing. Even though I now have every mile in Virginia, I have no miles in Tennessee, North Carolina or Georgia to the south. I have about half of Maryland's 40 miles, but no miles in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, or Massachusetts to the north. I have completed West Virginia's four miles and a few miles in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Nice fall colors along the trail, which I enjoyed immensely
as I returned to Damascus after completing the entire A.T. in Virginia.
It has been a great trip!  I am really glad that I set the goal to complete the state - it gave my hiking a lot of focus over the past few years, and along the way I saw some great views and more importantly met some incredible folks. I could not have completed this adventure without the help of many folks along the way, and I have attempted to thank each of them. I am most appreciative of the help of others along the way.

Here are topo maps of each day's hikes:
Day 1
Day 2

Driving map:

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Terrapin Mountain Loop - October 14, 2015

Terrapin Mountain is located on the eastern edge of Jefferson National Forest near Lynchburg. West and north of Terrapin Mountain is the Blue Ridge Parkway and Thunder Ridge Wilderness. Because of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Terrapin Mountain seems cut off from the rest of the National Forest. There is no direct access to Terrapin Mountain from the Parkway.

The only current trail map for the area south of the James River Face Wilderness is the National Geographic/Trails Illustrated map (Link). This map is getting a little old - copyright 2007, and it shows the Terrapin Mountain Trail as a simple out-and-back.  Not interesting enough to make the trip from Charlottesville. But when my friend Dave from the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club announced an RATC group hike he called the "Terrapin Mt - Reeds Creek Loop," I was on board. Dave lives nearby and knows these mountains really well, so I figured that he could take us on an interesting journey, even if it meant some bushwacking. No bushwacking necessary, though! There is a nice loop hike here on established trails and closed forest roads - the route just isn't found on the Trails Illustrated map.

This hike definitely falls within the blog's mission to uncover Virginia hikes not found anywhere else. Hardly anybody knows about this loop, and I couldn't find anything about it online. [Note: this hike has since shown up on a local trail site.] In order to complete this hike, I needed a local to show me the way. Here is a topo of the route (loads slow): Link. This is your best map option if you want to try this hike. The loop itself is in good shape; well maintained with only a couple of "scratch your head, wonder where you go next" points - those points are described and explained below.
Tough morning for one driver I passed on my way to the trailhead.
This was at the intersection of U.S. 501 and Va Rt. 122.
To get to the trailhead from Charlottesville, take U.S. 29 south past Amherst onto the Lynchburg Bypass, then exit at Rt. 130. Take Rt. 130 west about 20 miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Take the BRP south over the James River and get off at the U.S. 501 exit just after the river. Take a right on 501, south towards Big Island. You travel on 501 for only a couple of minutes (just like the BRP) before taking a right on Va 122. Pass by the sign for Big Island Elementary School after a couple of miles, then turn onto Rt. 814 at the white Tabernacle Church of God. Follow 814 until it ends at the trailhead. There was just enough room for our group's 4 vehicles.
Terrapin Mountain from the road.
Blurry photo shows what the parking area looks like.
It is just behind the "End Road Maintenance" sign.
A Boy Scout Eagle Project give us this kiosk,
with a map of the area.  Kiosk is just off of the parking area.
Nice job!
The trail starts out as an old woods road, passing a brand new kiosk with a Forest Service map of the area, which makes me think that the Forest Service is encouraging more recreational use for the area. A local Eagle Scout constructed the kiosk as his service project. At the 0.4 mile mark is a new trail sign. The loop ends here. You should go straight, towards the summit. This trail is steep here, ascending nearly a thousand feet in the first mile.
The first portion of the trail can be rugged and steep.
Near the one mile mark is a confusing spot. The trail appears to come to a T intersection, and both to the right and to the left the trail seems to become overgrown pretty quickly. Neither option looks correct because, actually, neither one is. You go to the left, but after about 10 feet you head back uphill.  This isn't obvious until you head to the left. Our entire group got a little turned around here, as folks rooted around for the correct route. My GPS told me where to go. After climbing a little further past this point, the trail levels off for a while and rides the mountain at about the same elevation before switchbacking and climbing some more.

At 1.4 miles a rocky spot on the right provides this wonderful view.
The payoff is a nice overlook, looking southwest towards the
Blue Ridge Parkway, Appalachian Trail, and James River Face Wilderness.
From here, you can make out the Blue Ridge Parkway as you gaze west and north at the Thunder Ridge Wilderness and James River Face Wilderness.  I could have stayed here all day!
Author gets in the way of a landscape with the
Blue Ridge Parkway faintly visible on the mountain in back.
After that, there are a couple of false summits before the ridge top trail reaches the real summit of Terrapin Mountain at the 2.8 mile mark after a 2250 foot elevation gain.
Beautiful autumn colors on the mountain.

The trail can drop fast at times.  
Just past the summit, the trail cuts to the right (another "not quite sure" moment) before opening up to another rock providing a view west.
Second overlook, looking WNW,
just after the summit of Terrapin Mountain.
The trail continues to drop, passing a strangely located and poorly positioned trail sign. You would think that the trail goes to the left or right at the sign, but no.  It keeps going straight.
This sign makes you think the trail turns here, but it goes straight.
It wasn't going to swivel into position, though Dave did try!
At about the 3.5 mile mark, the trail comes out at a road and a small field.  This is called "Camping Gap," and that road is open all the way to the valley. The road is also a portion of the Glenwood Horse Trail, a 60+ mile route that uses trails and woods roads to wind throughout this part of the National Forest. We could have followed this road to the right about a mile to find the Hunting Creek Trail, which would take us to the Appalachian Trail near the Thunder Ridge Wilderness.
The trail meets a forest road at Camping Gap.
Follow the road to the left for 200 yards to continue on the trail.
Instead, we took a left on the road, followed it about a hundred yards, and dropped down on the continuation of the Terrapin Mountain Trail at a point marked by a sign.
I was lagging behind.
The others were ready to continue down the trail.
The trail then follows a series of old woods roads that gradually drops in elevation until reaching a crossing at Reed Creek at the 5 mile mark. The portion of the loop between the Glenwood Horse Trail and the Reed Creek Crossing is not shown on the Trails Illustrated map. But it is a nice, gradual trail; easy to hike except for moving on a lot of fist sized rocks.
Stream crossing about half way through the hike.
The Reed Creek crossing is really only a little over half way on this hike, but because all of the excitement is over so it seems like later in the journey. The trail crosses back over Reed Creek a mile later, then follows an old woods road (labeled FR 3009 on the Trails Illustrated map) for 3.4 flat miles along the edge of the National Forest boundary before reconnecting with the original trail 0.4 miles from the parking area. No views, but a pleasant walk through the forest.

This entire loop is part of a trail run known as the Terrapin 50K, which is run in March. (Map.) One member of our hiking group, Steve, is a trail runner who has run this race. I am told that the race route goes left at the summit, missing the steep downhill before the second overlook but going instead through a very tight space between two rocks called the "fat man's misery" (Link). Personally, I'll take the overlook, but you can decide for yourself.

The RATC hiking group in general broke into a fast group and a slow group, and I did my best to keep up with the speedier hikers, despite a desire to stop and take photos. I think the slow group struggled, as the first three miles of this hike is a demanding climb. Keep that in mind if scheduling this hike. I liked the challenge, and hope to return here during another season to try the loop again.

Hike details:
PATC Difficulty Factor: 257.8
Total Distance: 9.6 miles 
Total Time: 4 hours, 38 minutes, including stops.
Steepest Uphill: from 0.3 miles to 0.9 miles; 23.2% average grade.  

Starting Elevation: 1286 ft.
Low Point: 1286 ft.
Highest Point: 3544 ft.
Difference: 2258 ft.
Total Altitude Gain: 3464 ft.

Check out my other blog postings here.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Bald Mountain Trail/Dowells Draft Trail Loop

The Wild Oak Trail, in the George Washington National Forest west of Staunton, is a 26 mile loop that is the hardest Virginia day hike I have ever taken.  There are a series of smaller loops out this way that include parts of the Wild Oak Trail.  These include:

Chestnut Ridge/Grooms Ridge loop
North River/Lookout Mountain loop
Ramsey's Draft Summit loop
Ramsey's Draft Trail/Bald Ridge loop

I took a different loop on Peak Leaves Weekend in October.  I really wanted to re-experience the toughest climb on the Wild Oak Trail, but didn't feel like sledding back down that same steep slope on newly fallen leaves.  So I ended up hiking a loop that took me south along the eastern boundary of Ramsey's Draft Wilderness, then back down to Braley Pond, across the Braley Pond Road, then north up Dowells Draft Trail and back down to my car.  Total elevation gain: 5635 feet.  Total Distance: 16.7 miles. Total hike time (including stops): 6 hours, 1 minute.  Topo map of hike: Link (Slow to Load.)

My starting point was at a small parking lot on Braley Pond Road, where the Wild Oak Trail crosses the road.  This spot is well marked with a large sign.  There is space for 3 or 4 vehicles here.  I headed west on the trail, which meant that I did not cross the road.

The trail starts up Dividing Ridge, an apt name for this land.  Though this is no Continental Divide, there is a divide here.  On your left as you climb is the headwaters of the Calfpasture River, which flows south into the James River, passing Lynchburg and Richmond before entering the Chesapeake Bay.  On your right is Mitchell Branch - a much stronger flow.  Mitchell Branch flows into White Oak Run, which becomes the North River, which flows into the East Branch of the Shenandoah, which combines with the Potomac at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia.  From there, it flows through Washington, DC before entering the Chesapeake Bay about 70 miles north of the James River.  Two raindrops on this trail potentially have very different paths to the ocean, via two separate large waterway drainages.
View southeast from the Bald Ridge Trail.

This section of the Wild Oak Trail is steep, climbing from 1960 feet to 3800 feet elevation over 2.5 miles. The first mile climbs at a reasonable 10% grade.  After about a mile-and-a-half into the hike, however, the trail ascends at around a 25% clip, and beginning at the two mile mark, the last quarter mile before the the trail tops the ridge is at a 31% grade.  This is a workout!

At the top of the ridge, the Wild Oak Trail takes a right next to a wildlife pond, at the 2.3 mile mark. I took a left onto the unmarked Bald Ridge Trail. The Bald Ridge Trail goes over Gordons Peak - at 3915 feet elevation this is the high point of the loop, about a half mile south on the ridge. From there, there are constant small elevation changes as the trail rides Bald Ridge. At the 4.5 mile mark, the trail drops off the ridge at a large rocky spot and then hugs the side of the mountain about 30 feet from the summit. This was a welcome relief on a windy October day, as the hike was much warmer when shielded from the wind.
The Bald Ridge Trail has occasional yellow diamonds nailed to trees
to help guide the hiker.  They are few and far between.

The Bald Ridge Trail itself is often hard to locate. It is blazed yellow intermittently at best. The trail itself is followed by looking for a slight dip in the ground, but this is sometimes tough to do when detouring around a downed tree or travelling through freshly fallen leaves. Fortunately, the trail follows the ridge top, and my GPS can give me a more accurate reading of whether the trail is to my left or my right than any map can do. Nevertheless, I do not recommend this trail for the novice hiker, due to the difficulty of getting to Bald Ridge and the remoteness of the area.

Sign shows trail intersection, with Bald Ridge Trail ascending
on the right.
After skirting by the summit of The Peak, the trail leaves the edge of Ramsey's Draft Wilderness and begins a gradual drop to Braley Pond. It passes an intersection with the Bridge Hollow Trail, which leads around The Peak down to Ramsey's Draft near the Wilderness Area's parking lot at Mountain House. Near this intersection is a large, dry campsite on a flat spot to the left of the trail, with a side trail to the campsite.
Braley Pond, from the west.

Another view of Braley Pond, looking back to the west.
On the way down, the Bald Ridge Trail rides ridges and edges around dry stream beds until it reaches a woods road shortly past the hike's 10 mile mark. At this point, it is a flat walk for nearly two miles, past Braley Pond (I went to the right and skirted the south shore), though the picnic area (with privies), and out the entrance road to the Braley Pond Road. A left here for only a quarter mile takes you over the bridge spanning Dowells Draft before crossing the road and re-entering the forest on a forest service dirt road around 11.6 miles into the hike, where the route begins climbing again.

Stay on this woods road. The Dowells Draft Trail, coming up from its southern trailhead on U.S. 250 across the road from the end of the Crawford Knob Trail, quietly merges into the road, then splits left just before the hike's 13 mile mark. Follow the trail (marked by a sign that says only "Trail") and gradually climb the western slope of Dowells Draft as the trail climbs Hankey Mountain on its way to the Wild Oak Trail.
Don't follow the dog!  The trail cuts off to the left.  See the sign?

This photo shows the sign a little closer.
The Dowells Draft Trail forks up here - visible because a sign points the other way.
I am not sure how much longer this sign will be here,
given the condition of its post.
The Wild Oak Trail is marked by a white "i"

After a couple of switchbacks, the Dowells Draft Trail comes to a fork at about the 14.5 mile mark. If you take the right trail, you will ascend to the summit of Hankey Mountain.  Take the left trail to return to the Braley Pond Road, where the car is parked for this loop. The trail drops at a pleasant 10% grade over nearly the next mile, and I thought I was done with uphills after I merged onto the Wild Oak Trail at about the 15.5 mile mark. I was wrong - there were three relatively brief uphills before the car, with the longest climbing at a 16% grade over a quarter-mile. Not a long climb in the bunch of them, but you feel it after 16+ miles of hiking. The downhill at the very end of the hike is most welcome.

Hike details:
PATC Difficulty Factor: 433.6
Total Distance: 16.7 miles 
Total Time: 6 hours, 01 minutes, including stops.
Steepest Uphill: from 2.0 miles to 2.25 miles; 30.0% average grade.  

Starting Elevation: 1954 ft.
Low Point: 1939 ft.
Highest Point: 3926 ft.
Difference: 1987 ft.
Total Altitude Gain: 5635 ft.

Check out my other blog postings here.