Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Back on the Brown Mountain Trail, 8 Months after the Fire

I led a hike the first weekend in December on Shenandoah National Park's Brown Mountain Trail, taking scouts from my troop on the trail.  It is really hard to keep up with young scouts on the prowl for rocks to climb, so I did not get the number of comparison photos I had hoped to obtain, showing May and December views from the same perspective.  But I did get some new photos, which are copied below.  Overall, the landscape had changed dramatically from when I last hiked the trail in May. There was no "burn smell" at all! The forest is clearly healing.

The photos below shows the changes to the trail from May to December, with a May shot directly above the December photo.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Hanging Rock, Shawvers Run Wilderness, Jefferson National Forest

The point of this blog is not to tell you about the most popular trails in Virginia - quite the opposite. This blog exists in no small part because the author believes there are so many great hiking opportunities in Virginia that hikers do not have to swarm to the top half dozen hikes in the state. Most hikers out there probably aren't interested. But as of next year, I will have been hiking in Virginia for 25 years and yet I still hike a new trail within a two hour drive of my home nearly every time I head out hiking. We are extraordinarily lucky to live so close to so many exploring possibilities!

This voice in the wilderness is not getting heard.  Witness the following message from the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, which oversees the A.T. and other trails in the area known as the "Triple Crown," sent in late October. These are among the most popular trail destinations in the state:

OVERCROWDING ON VIRGINIA'S TRIPLE CROWN - McAfee Knob, Dragon's Tooth, Tinker Cliffs. If you are thinking about hiking one of these destinations on a Saturday - and especially if you are thinking about camping on a SATURDAY night - think again. Here are the numbers from LAST SATURDAY: Our volunteer and paid ridgerunners counted the following numbers on the Triple Crown section:
McAfee Knob - 415 hikers (200 backpackers)
Dragon's Tooth - 299 hikers (20 backpackers)
Tinker Cliffs - 129 hikers (45 backpackers)

RATC photo showing overcrowded conditions at the McAfee Knob traihead
on Route 311 near Roanoke on a recent afternoon.  
According to the RATC, the four miles to McAfee Knob and back from the trailhead at Rt. 311 sees more trail wear than the other 116 A.T. miles plus side trails that the club maintains. A subsequent article in the Roanoke Times included an estimate that McAfee Knob visitation during the peak months of April to October has grown more than seven-fold since 2011!

According to the article linked above:
The surge in traffic has been attributed in part to growing interest among Virginia Tech students — now estimated to make up about half of the McAfee Knob hikers when school is in session — and to things like a string of backpacking websites promoting the idea of tackling the “Triple Crown,” a relatively new moniker bestowed on the neighboring peaks of Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs.

What is the solution?
Shifting destinations, particularly on busy days, reduces the stress on places like McAfee Knob and offers hikers a better, less gridlocked experience.

(BTW - I believe the term "Triple Crown" comes from Leonard Atkins' book, "50 Hikes in Southern Virginia," first published in 2002. Let me know if you believe differently.)

What are the takeaways here? Basically, go during the week, and don't go when the leaves are changing. Leave other hikers to clog up trails leading to McAfee Knob or the Old Rag summit in October, and enjoy the relative quiet of lesser known trails. But, year round the Triple Crown section of the Appalachian Trail is so crowded that special regulations are in place, just for this section of trail: Link.

Coincidentally, I hiked with members of the same Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club the same week that the RATC issued the overcrowding update. The group hiked to a spot that we agreed was a combination of Tinker Cliffs and McAfee Knob. And we hiked some added miles - 10 miles total that day - without seeing a single other person. Wouldn't you rather experience a great view without going elbow-to-elbow with the 400+ other hikers going to the same spot on the same day?
Enjoying the view at Hanging Rock.  The orientation is to southwest.
This view is very similar to views experienced at Tinker Cliffs and McAfee Knob - spectacular!
The main access road is along the ridge on the left side of the photo, past the tower you can see on the ridge.
The viewpoint is from a spot called Hanging Rock, located in the Shawvers Run Wilderness in the Jefferson National Forest. The view from this vista is virtually identical to the Tinker Cliffs view, with a long ridgetop defining the eastern portion of the panorama, and open fields in the center valley.

Hanging Rock is actually a much easier hike than McAfee Knob, as it is less than half a mile from the trailhead parking lot with a total elevation change of 100 feet. It is further from Roanoke and Virginia Tech than the Triple Crown, and probably requires at least an AWD vehicle to get to the trailhead. Simply take Rt. 311 north past the A.T., past New Castle, until the road summits Potts Mountain. At the summit is a small brown Forest Service sign that says "Potts Mtn Road." That is 177.1 shown below. Then take Potts Mountain Road to the trailhead, marked below by the red arrow.
Map from the trailhead kiosk shows the location for parking access to Hanging Rock.  
Note that I did not get there using that route! My group took a rough ascent on Forest Road 176, shown at the right side of the map, and started with the group at the spot marked "Potts Cove.' We took trails described below to Potts Mountain Road, and walked the road to the trailhead. If you wish an easy hike to a spectacular overlook, follow the directions above. What follows is a description of a much more circuitous route, taken with members of the RATC who know the trails in this area very well. Trailhead directions are at the end of this post.

Our group started hiking at Potts Cove, and within several hundred yards came to the beat up wooden trail sign shown below. Jefferson National Forest specializes in beat up trail signs! I am told that, in addition to the portion we hiked, the Cove Trail also follows Cove Branch down towards the Potts Arm Trail, but it is not possible to follow it all the way due to downed trees from a derecho a few years back.

Nevertheless, the sign is very important to this hike, as less than 100 feet past the sign, you will cut right off of the old road. There is no sign here and the turn would not be obvious without knowing this information!  To quote the former trail maintainer, “hug the edge of the creek.” Miss this turn and you will follow the road into a swampy area that becomes a dead end. Fork to the right instead, as shown in the photo.  This turn may be marked by ribbons (I even saw a Christmas ornament as a marker), but markers used presently are not permanent.  Start looking to the right almost immediately after the old trail sign.  If you have a GPS receiver, the approximate location of this turnoff is N37° 34.949' W80° 09.689'.

We continued on the main trail (occasionally blazed yellow) crossed a stream, and eventually came out on the road after 1.7 miles of trail and 950 feet of ascent.
Trail starts by going around a gate and over an old wooden bridge.
The USGS topo says that the trail used to be a jeep road.
The signs indicate that the Cove Trail heads in one direction, and access to the Potts Arm Trail is in another.
The Trails Illustrated map shows the Potts Arm Trail ending at the Cove Trail at this same spot.
This could be due to the Forest Service eliminating trail portions in recent years.

The Cove Trail was pretty easy to follow, though there were some obstacles along the way.

There were half destroyed trail signs at several points along the trail.
An intersection did not seem to be required for placement of this sign.
 We took a left on the road and walked past some very nice houses during the 1.4 miles of basically level road walk. No cars seen. No other people. After the 1.4 miles, on the right was the trailhead parking for our main destination - Hanging Rock in the Shawvers Run Wilderness. It was an easy half mile walk to the overlook, where we all had lunch.

The Potts Mountain Road was level and untraveled.  It connects several radio installations (one is behind the trees to the right) some vacation homes, and a fire tower.  And it connected our trails.

A view from the road of one of the vacation homes.

The Hanging Rock trailhead parking lot holds 6-8 cars.  No cars were there on this day.

The view from Hanging Rock, south towards the Paint Bank Fish Hatchery.
The town of Paint Bank, Virginia is on this side of the far ridge on the right, just past the notch in the middle ridge.
The far ridge is Peters Mountain, over which several miles of the AT passes on its southern end, near Pearisburg.

In the face of a stiff wind, I posed for the requisite selfie on Hanging Rock. In my vintage Cubs hat.
(How about those Cubs?)
After lunch, we took a journey that I don't expect the reader to replicate (at least not without an equally knowledgeable hike leader, and I had the best), but include it anyway for reference.  The best way for a newbie to experience Hanging Rock is via an out-and-back. We returned to the road and headed south for a time until we passed the private property. We bushwhacked through the forest to the Potts Arm Trail, which sits on a ridgetop and heads back towards our trailhead. Portions of the Potts Arm Trail no longer exist on "official" maps because its western terminus takes the trail through the private property we saw on the road. I assume that the Forest Service sold off land and cut off the trail (if so, why can't they keep an easement for the trail, at a minimum?).

After enjoying Hanging Rock, we continued on the Potts Mountain Road past private property,
and then bushwacked back around to the Potts Arm Trail.

Towards the end of our bushwhack, we crossed under a power line cut, which gave us a great view to the east.
We hiked east on the Potts Arm Trail approximately 4.2 miles until it ended at a Forest Service Road. It traveled through a wonderful and remote section of forest, located between the Shawver's Run Wilderness and the Barbours Creek Wilderness. The hike leader peeled off early to grab his truck, and, when we reached the end of the trail, he shuttled the other drivers back to the parking lot while the hikers waited at trail's end. I doubt I would have ever hiked the Potts Arm Trail without the hike leader's guidance, and I am grateful for the opportunity to experience it.
The Potts Arm Trail was easy to follow, with a couple of minor exceptions.

Near the end of the Potts Arm Trail, the route crossed the Cove Branch
of Barbours Creek on this bridge.

Trailhead Directions: This is a really remote trailhead - in fact, I don't think there are more than a handful of trailheads in the George Washington National Forest that can match it.

From Charlottesville, I took I-81 south to Exit 156 north of Daleville and south of Buchanan, 100 miles from Charlottesville.  At Exit 156, I traveled west 3.2 miles until I came to U.S. 220.  After taking U.S. 220 north only 1.5 miles, I turned west again (left) on Herndon Street, immediately after the Dollar General store.  This is Rt. 606, and I took this west over a mountain ridge 11.3 miles to a T Intersection at Rt. 615.  After a left onto 615, I drove only 1.5 miles until I turned right onto Rt. 611 at the Cross Roads Church.  I took 611 west for 4.5 miles, and just after crossing Barbours Creek I took a right on Rt. 617 and drove north for 2.3 miles until I took FR 176 shown on the map above.  I followed FR 176 for 3.6 miles until it split, and I took the left branch another 1.1 miles to the parking area.  The last portion of the trip was on rough roads, and the final 4.7 miles took nearly 25 minutes to drive.  Total distance from Charlottesville was 129 miles, and total drive time was 2.5 hours.  (I returned heading north to I-64 at Low Moor, and traveled 135 miles in just over 3 hours.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Buck Mountain Trail, George Washington National Forest

The Buck Mountain Trail is a low usage trail located in the North River District of the George Washington National Forest, in Augusta County.  It packs a tough workout and much solitude - when I went, it was my hiking group and the bears - nothing more!  It is a great place to go if you really want to get into the mountains and not run into other folks (though you may come across mountain bikers on the weekends). Despite its low use, however, it is well maintained by a member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.

Because of other commitments, my group didn't make it to the end of this trail.  We didn't even summit Buck Mountain (though we came close).  I will have to go back to check this one off totally. But it was a very enjoyable workout through beautiful and remote country.

The trailhead is at Hearthstone Lake, which is on the Tilman Road, just inside of the GWNF and halfway between the Wild Oak Trailhead and the road to the summit of Reddish Knob. (Map.)

Hearthstone Lake is accessed from a rough road off of the Tilman Road that is marked with a sign.  It isn't a long drive to the parking lot, but the first few hundred yards are really beat up.  Don't be taking your Prius here!  The road climbs up and then drops down before switchbacking into a small parking lot.  The trail starts at this switchback.
Parking lot with lake in the background.
So what brought me here?  I scheduled the day off from work a month ahead of time to celebrate a personal milestone with friends. We had originally planned to check off another trail I've never hiked in Shenandoah National Park's North District.  Then the Washington Post's weather forecast included calls for heavy rain "along the eastern slopes of the mountains in northwest Virginia" with a possibility of flash flooding. Heading west vs. north from Charlottesville proved to be a good choice, as we only observed a few sprinkles while hiking, but Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park measured 5.69 inches of precipitation over 24 hours on the day we hiked.

We chose the trail after the October, 2016 issue of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's newsletter highlighted the trail in its "Volunteer of the Month" feature, as that volunteer maintains this trail. Link.  The fact that this trail is well maintained made it a very appealing choice for a late September hike - less overgrowth! Interesting facts about the trail from this article included:
  • The Buck Mountain Trail runs through the heart of the Little River Roadless Area, the largest Inventoried Roadless Area on National Forest land in the Eastern United States. (Wikipedia defines "Inventoried Roadless Areas" as a group of United States Forest Service lands that have been identified by government reviews as lands without existing roads that could be suitable for roadless area conservation as wilderness or other non-standard protections.)
  • The Buck Mountain Trail lies within a proposed 12,500 acre Little River Wilderness portion of a larger proposed 90,000-acre Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area. Link. 
  • The article describes the Buck Mountain Trail as "one of the most remote trails east of the Mississippi." (I believe there are more remote trails nearby, such as this one: Link.)
  • The article states, "This is not a trail for slackers. It is a 12-mile hike with 2,000 ft. elevation gain and three river crossings just to check it out."
Challenge accepted!

Actually, I have hiked part of this trail before.  It was about 20 years ago, before any of us had GPS receivers to record our movements.  I turned around at a point where a sign marked a side trail that went up the mountain.  The Trails Illustrated map, however, shows just one trail.  Did I remember this right?  Maybe I would find out.  Or maybe my memory deceived me.

View of the earthen dam at Hearthstone Lake, as seen from the parking lot.

Looking upstream at Hearthstone Lake.

Look for this sign at the switchback in the road on the way to Hearthstone Lake.
Note the permitted uses on this trail: Hiking.  Mountain Biking is not listed.
The Buck Mountain Trail climbs slowly over its first 2.8 miles.  It averages a consistent and barely noticeable 2.6% grade over this length, as it gradually makes its way through the valley made by the Little River.  There are beautiful rock formations along the way, and much evidence of bears, including very fresh scat.
The Buck Mountain Trail is marked with this blaze.
Stone cairns mark the stream crossing.

Some of the river bed crossings were dry. After our third crossing, marked by stone cairns, we came to the sign I remembered. It is on the opposite side of the Little River from what I remembered. It inaccurately states that Buck Mountain is 1 trail mile away, and the North Fork, Little River trail section lasts 4 miles. We followed the Buck Mountain segment, and it was further than just one mile.

The trail sign I remembered from two decades ago.  
Next to the trail intersection was a small campsite with a fire ring.

Immediately after the trail fork, the Buck Mountain Trail starts climbing, and it means business.  It climbs the mountain at a 23% grade for about the first half mile, and then moderates only slightly. For 1.5 miles, it averages a 17% grade - a grunt.  Multiple water bars have been installed, and are critical to preventing erosion on the trail.  
The trail steeply ascends Buck Mountain.

I want to go back and explore the Little River Trail, which I am told is no longer recognized by the Forest Service (which explains why it is not on the Trails Illustrated map).  (It is certainly in rougher shape than the main trail.) My 25 year old Forest Service map for the entire GWNF shows the Little River Trail climbing all the way up to Reddish Knob, though a friend who knows these woods better than just about anybody tells me that several have looked for that trail's ascent and not found it.

The USFS map seems to indicate that the old trail climbed with the river, which would make sense. Comparing old topographic maps with the latest version, however, I believe the ascent may have left the river and started before the current end of the Little River Trail, making it much harder to locate. Maps below reflect my theory about the location of the climb. A search is better done after the leaves have dropped and is best when there is a thin dusting of snow on the ground, as old trails light up then.  Maybe I will return some Sunday in December (no hunting on public lands in Virginia on Sundays) or sometime after the new year.  No doubt it will be a tough search!

Red Eft (Notophthalmus viridescens)

The Forest Service doesn't make these maps anymore.  This map of the area shows a more extensive trail system than exists today, and indicates that the Little River Trail leads out from Hearthstone Lake, with the Buck Mtn Trail a side trail.
This is how I remember the trail system from 20 years ago.

The latest USGS shows a couple of trails in the area.  I've enhanced the Buck Mountain Trail in Blue, and the Little
River Trail is in Red.  According to this map, the Little River Trail ends at BM 2351 and does not climb Reddish Knob.

This 1944 topo map shows the Little River Trail turning out of the river valley before BM 2351 (circled),
and heading straight up the mountain towards Reddish Knob.
Or maybe this is a totally different trail.

I have overlayed the older trail onto the current USGS Topographic Map.
Maybe I will be able to find the trail sometime in the future.
Note how it goes straight up a steep incline - not many old trails out this way had switchbacks.

Here is the trail overlaying the old topographic map onto my Garmin Basecamp software.
The trail is now entered into my GPS for use the next time I am out this way.

PATC Difficulty Factor: 217.7
Total Distance: 9.3 miles
Total Time: 4 hours, 47 minutes, including stops.

Low Point: 1682 ft.
Highest Point: 3483 ft. 
Difference: 1801 ft.
Total Altitude Gain: 2545 ft.

Be sure to check out other hikes on www.wanderingvirginia.com.  Thanks!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Overnight Backpacking Recommendations for Scout Leaders in the Central Virginia Blue Ridge

Backpacking is the activity that allows scouts to best learn about the outdoors and practice leadership skills in a place where it matters. Backpacking trips also allow leaders to stress Leave No Trace concepts that all young outdoorspeople need to learn. For these reasons and more, I believe every scout troop should be taking their scouts on a backpacking trip or two every year.  My troop generally goes out once in the Spring and once in the Fall.  We also backpack in February to a cabin.

I often receive inquiries about the best places to take a scout troop (both boy scouts and girl scouts) on an overnight backpacking trip.  Below I have laid out my thinking on choosing the best location and given several alternatives.

For the purposes of this exercise, I am assuming a relatively inexperienced group.  We usually assume an inexperienced group in the Fall, and then plan for a more experienced group in the Spring.

1. I stay out of Shenandoah NP because most folks in my troop don't have a park pass. (Of course, you can hike in from outside the park for free...)
2. I also stay out of SNP because, frankly, the A.T. doesn't get more than 500 yards from the Skyline Drive in most places, and I want the boys to get more of a feeling of wilderness than that.
3. SNP may also have limitations on the size of the group.  I know that federal wilderness areas limit group size to 10 and much of SNP is in wilderness, though I don't know if the group limits apply in national parks.
4. I have learned the hard way that newer scouts need to camp near a privy, which limits options to along the A.T. at shelters. Digging a cathole is a terrifying thought to some of the younger guys, and can keep a young scout from going on an outing or ever going backpacking again.
5. I want a reliable water source, so I make sure to pick a shelter near a stream or strong spring - especially in late summer/early autumn.  All of the choices below meet this requirement.
6. I don't want to have to shuttle vehicles at the beginning or end of the hike, at least with the youngest scouts.

Based on that, I take the troop out to the A.T. in the George Washington Nat'l Forest south of SNP.  There are 3 spots I have used with my troop, listed in order of preference:

1. Cow Camp Gap Shelter.  Just north of where the AT crosses U.S. 60. It is a combination hike, starting on the Old Hotel Trail, and returning on the A.T.  We did this one in September, 2016 and a variant in June, 2011.  2 days, 6.4 miles. Link. Benefits: Nice, large campsite that is sufficiently far from the actual shelter that the scouts do not impact any A.T. thru-hikers.  (Photo below.)  Easy loop that the youngest scouts can enjoy.  Option for dropping some scouts and leaders off at the U.S. 60 AT crossing for a much harder hike in - 2000 foot elevation gain. (We split into two groups.) Clockwise main loop gives the great payoff on the 2nd day - the hike over Cole Mountain is perhaps the single greatest mountain view in Central VA - on a clear day, you can see mountains from SNP to south of Roanoke - over 90 miles.  Cons: Parking spot is harder to find than others on this list (but should not be a problem - take U.S. 60 west from Amherst and about a mile past the Appalachian Trail crossing follow signs for Mt. Pleasant Scenic Area).  No bear poles, so need to hang bear bags from trees.

2. Johns Hollow Shelter. Just north of where the AT crosses the James River.  We did this one in September 2015. Just under 2 miles to shelter from trailhead.  Benefits: Easy hike in from trailhead, and first part of the hike is exceptionally pretty, along a creek that is crossed twice on bridges.  Make camp, then dayhike up to Fullers Rocks, which has a spectacular view down to the James River and is a tough, but manageable, hike that qualifies the boys for the Camping MB requirement that they hike a 4 mile backpack and gain 1000 feet on the same outing. Photo below of troop from Fullers Rocks. On other side of parking is the longest pedestrian-only bridge on the A.T - over the James River.  We let the boys cross that at the end of the hike, and they loved it.  Probably the least likely to have crowds of the three sites listed. Cons: campsite is closer to shelter than in #1.  No bear pole, so need to find trees to hang bear bag. Because of the bridge and river use, the trailhead parking can be crowded, but there are options across the road/downstream. Likely the longest drive from points north and east. (We do not hike south of the bridge because we have a bigger group than the 10 person limit for federal wilderness areas.)

3. Maupin Field Shelter.  Hike in from Reid's Gap, where Blue Ridge Parkway meets the road to Wintergreen Ski Area. My troop did this 2 years ago. Benefits: Closest trailhead to the north and eastern access.  Not a long hike in, but long enough to qualify for 4 mile backpack for Camping MB. It is the northernmost portion of this map (Link).   Dayhikes can then go into the wilderness area, with two trails heading into wilderness from camp. One dayhike can go to a spectacular view at Hanging Rock on the A.T. on th way to the summit of Three Ridges (see below), while another can qualify for the 1000 foot climb after descending to a waterfall on Campbell Creek (Mau-Har Trail, starting behind the shelter).   This location has bear poles in campsites. There is an easy (and pretty flat) alternate access from the BRP at Love Gap, on a trail maintainer's access road, in case you have an adult that cannot handle going up hills but still wants to camp with the group. Boys get experience in a federal wilderness area (camp is just outside of wilderness). Cons: this campsite can be exceptionally crowded, though there is lots of space to camp.  I counted over 50 tents when we last camped there - it seems to be very popular with the Tidewater crowd, perhaps because the Tidewater App Trail Club maintains this section of trail.

Two more caveats!

1. Every scout knows to take a map.  What you may not know is that maps you download from online are limited in scope.  A scout troop a couple of winters ago had to be rescued off of the A.T. after an overnight snowfall because the map they got off the internet did not show bug out routes to the north of their campsite.  The absolute best and most accurate maps are Potomac Appalachian Trail Map 12 (covering the A.T. and nearby side trails from Rockfish Gap to the Tye River) and Map 13 (covering the Tye River to the James River Face Wilderness).  Make sure you get versions that are clearly marked "2015" on the front cover.  Older editions (2011 or 2010) are sometimes found in camping stores and are not nearly as accurate.  Be Prepared! (Full disclosure: I coordinated the revisions of the PATC maps listed and my name and photos of my troop on the trail are on the maps.  But I would not put my name on them if they weren't the best resource out there.)

2. Leaders need to know how to set up and need to use Bear Bags.  At least 4 sections of the Appalachian Trail have been shut down to camping in 2016 because of aggressive bear activity - just in Virginia!  This occurs because hikers and campers don't take proper precautions.  Never cook near the tents.  Never store the "smellables" near where you sleep.  Keep them away from you.  If you don't know how to set up a bear bag, or what should be in a bag, check Youtube for videos on how and why to set a bear bag up.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Wild Oak Trail, Revisited 2016

The Wild Oak Trail is a loop trail west of Staunton and Churchville, Virginia near Ramsey's Draft Wilderness.  The WOT is included in the U.S. Department of Interior's list of National Recreational Trails, which makes it one of "only" 1200 trails nationwide.  I had hiked portions of it over my first 20 years in Virginia, then decided to attempt the entire loop as a dayhike beginning in 2012 in order to really test myself.

Turkeybeard growing right next to the trail. 
The trail is officially measured at about 25.6 miles, and Wikipedia reports that, “due to the trail's difficulty (circumnavigating the trail requires 7,850 feet of total ascent) and length, it sees little traffic.”  It has only 3 road crossings and a couple of stream crossings, and the entire route normally is recommended as a three day backpack.  The trail has become increasingly popular with trail runners and mountain bikers since the Wikipedia source was written, so it is not as empty with trail users as the description might imply.

The first time I tackled this entire trail was in 2012 and I started too late in the day and too early in the year.  As a result of an 8:30 start on March 15, 2012, my hiking partner, hiking dog, and I found ourselves hiking in the dark for the last couple of hours in our hike, and we did not finish until 9:30 at night after 12 hours and 49 minutes of hiking.  (Link.)  The GPS measured our distance at 27.4 miles and our ascent at 7951 total feet.

My second hike of the entire trail was with only my hiking dog was the following year, and we finished the trail on May 15, 2013 in 11 hours and 38 minutes, though the distance was measured at 27.9 miles (a half mile longer) with about the same total ascent.  So I carved over an hour from my previous total, though my actual moving time increased, meaning I moved slower than the first time when I was not stopped. I hiked the loop in a clockwise direction this time, just to see how it might affect my time.  So what made this hike longer?  There had been a reroute of the trail around the summit of Lookout Mountain.  Since I had hiked this portion in the dark the year before, I never noticed a difference until comparing my GPS tracks.

Old map of the WOT I picked up at the original trailhead (marked by the big dark arrow on the right) back in the 1990's.
Red lines show approximate location of changes to the WOT after 2012.
There is also now a parking lot on FDR 96, where sections B and C meet.
I've given a lot of thought to again attacking this loop, but the confluence of having the proper fitness level and the right time of year did not make a return feasible again until this year.  The right time of year is especially tough - there are long, dry stretches of trail, which means that I either need to bring a lot of water or I need to hike when it is cool enough that I don't lose a lot of hydration through perspiration.  I trained this Spring to take some older scouts from my Boy Scout Troop to Philmont Scout Reservation in New Mexico in late June this year, and a cool day in early June was perfect to put my fitness to the test.

One of the changes I made was to start the hike in a different place - parking on the Braley Pond Road rather than further east near the Girl Scout's Camp May Flather in Stokesville.  I figured that the new start location would allow me to get the two big climbs out of the way early in the hike - climbing the Dividing Ridge portion of this loop up to the edge of the Ramsey's Draft Wilderness is especially steep, and I would get this checked off first thing on my latest loop. I recommend starting here, and will do so for any future attempts at this loop.

After the first climb I skirted the edge of Ramsey's Draft Wilderness before dropping down to a Forest Service Road at "Camp Todd." From there I took a new route.  Studying another backpacker's GPS data, I discovered that, by walking about a half mile up the forest road (west), I could cross a bridge over the North River and turn right onto a trail which took me back to the main WOT loop and allowed me to avoid a swollen stream crossing.  Though longer, this was a nice route and I didn't have to worry about coaxing the hiking dog over the river.  This alternate route appears to have been in place since around 2010 (Link).

View looking southeast from the trail as it climbs Little Bald Knob.
This is probably the best view of the entire hike.
I had started even earlier on my third loop than I had the last time, starting at 6:10 AM.  I was across the North River by 8:30 and summited Little Bald Knob at exactly 10 AM.  I was really crushing it!  I had completed the two biggest ascents and hiked 9.6 miles and still had two hours left of the morning. I set mental hopes of getting to next road crossing, near the Girl Scout Camp, by noon, a goal that mostly involved cruising downhill.

What I always forget, however, is just how long a hike it is from this point to the eastern edge of this loop.  And then back again!  I didn't cross the road until 12:45 PM, reaching the 16.3 mile mark upon this crossing.  At least, I figured, I only had about 10 miles left and still had a good chance of crushing my old time.

After I crossed the road, I came to a suspension bridge over the North River and started climbing again.  There have been a few changes to this part of the trail since I last hiked it.  A switchback has been lengthened to smooth it out - I think this was done to improve the mountain biking experience. And further on, the trail has been re-routed so that it no longer climbs Lookout Mountain (mentioned earlier in this post) - a change that occurred between my hikes in 2012 and 2013.  (Link.)

Crossing the North River near Camp May Flather.

View northwest towards Little Bald Knob.
The WOT passes the Shaffer Hollow Trail - not sure where this goes or whether it even exists, but there is a nice sign for it.  It then comes out on a road that is open during hunting season, which it then follows for several miles. This is always the least attractive part of the loop, and is made less enjoyable when it is encountered more than 20 miles into the hike.  The grass was pretty high in spots, which made me glad I was wearing lightweight longer pants - this looked like a tick haven.

In the middle of the road portion of the hike, at 22.4 miles, a road meets our route that heads down to the North River, part of a much shorter loop hike that fords the river a bunch of times. Hiking Upward reported on it years ago, though the data for the Lookout Mountain portion is clearly old (Link.) After hiking past a gate serving as the end of the road, I was back on full time trail again, and came to the scene in the photo below.  There is a sign for the White Oak Draft Trail, but no trail really exists. The trail meets U.S. 250 at a point where bridge construction closed the trailhead for probably a year. The forest took back the trail in the meantime.
See the trail sign here?  No sign of the actual White Oak Draft Trail,
which heads down to U.S. 250 from the ridge top - way too overgrown.
At about the 26 mile mark, after I had started my last descent of the day, the WOT had again been rerouted, inserting a couple of switchbacks where the original trail went straight down the mountain. Just as I crossed the original trail route again, I came across a trail sign leaning up against a tree, showing the first intersection with the Dowell's Draft Trail. It looked like I went to the left here, as it looked like another new switchback had been cut into the mountain. But I eventually figured out I was wrong, and the WOT continued over the top of the ridge. It was pretty overgrown here, because the mountain bikers use the Dowell's Draft Trail as a switchback to climb Hankey Mountain from the Braley Pond Road. Fewer hikers use the original trail. And on a regular hike, it would make sense to take the Dowell's Draft portion even though it is longer. It would not be a bad idea to eliminate the original alignment here.

The detour probably added 0.2 miles to my hike, and where the WOT meets the second branch of the Dowell's Draft Trail things got even more surprising. I had hiked the remaining portion of this loop last Fall, when hiking a 16.7 mile loop that nudged Ramsey's Draft Wilderness and passed by Braley Pond. (Link.) Since October, however, the entire remaining portion of the WOT, between the second Dowell's Draft intersection and the Braley Pond Road, has all been rerouted, eliminating the single steepest section of the WOT.

The WOT is longer now, and more gentle, with a total elevation gain that no longer matches what it was five years ago. The trail changes definitely helped me feel less fatigued when I finished up the hike, compared to my recollection in previous years.  I am told that the renovations are the result of federal funding for mountain bike use. It is clear that the new route is designed to turn this part of the trail into a mountain bike playground, as you can see from the photo below showing a cut log just ripe for some Mountain Dew laced wild man to hit when bombing down the mountain, video camera attached to his helmet. If you choose to hike this trail, be alert for company - I saw a couple of bikers at about the 22 mile mark and they were my first human contact that day.  I gave out quite a scream when they came speeding my way, and appreciated that they slowed up and didn't laugh at me!
A new portion of the WOT near the Braley Pond Road has a number of
mountain bike fun zones. 
By my measurement, the WOT is now a 29.4 mile loop. But there is no guarantee that the WOT currently exists as I describe it. There was a small excavator in the Braley Pond Road parking lot at the beginning of my hike, and it was gone at the end, 12 hours later. There are still steep parts of this loop.  But trying to figure out where I was in relation to the original trail helped keep me entertained towards the end of this long hike.  Every time I finished hike in previous years, I vowed never to do it again.  This time, I was merely unsure whether I'd tackle the loop again - an improvement!
Old WOT route to the left and new route to the right, between the intersection with Dowell's Draft Trail
at the bottom and Braley Pond Road at the top.
Hike details:
PATC Difficulty Factor: 808.3 (a new record)
Total Distance: 29.4 miles (another new record)
Total Time: 11 hours, 57 minutes, including stops (17 minutes total).

Low Point: 1939 ft.
Highest Point: 4378 ft. 
Difference: 1681 ft.
Total Altitude Gain: 7635 ft.