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.

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