Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Primer for Bushwacking in Shenandoah National Park

Going off trail in Shenandoah National Park is not something I have rushed into. Rather, it is part of a natural progression of exploration within the park.  The progression goes something like this:
1. Explore the really popular trails within the park - Old Rag. Jones River Falls, Trayfoot loop, Dark Hollow Falls, Turk Mountain - there are tons of them.
2. Explore the less popular and harder trails in the park, once I feel I am in shape for the challenge - Rocky Mount, Rocky Top, Jones Mountain. These still have great views, but the views require more work.
3. Complete the Appalachian Trail within the park.
4. Attempt to complete all the other trails and fire roads, at least those near where I live.
5. Complete trails and fire roads in the Northern District, further away from my house and nearer to the teeming megalopolis in Northern Virginia (ugh!)
On the old road from Stanardsville to Swift Run Gap,
looking for the Big Bend School site.
I presently exist somewhere within Item #5, above. Only after that does bushwacking float to the top of my hiking list. Why? It wasn't until my friend Diane gave me her old PATC Map from the early 1980's, which she used as a Girl Scout, did I notice that many old roads and trails that used to be mapped in the park are no longer found on maps. So I never even thought about it for a long time!

There is also the feeling that all the best stuff in the Park has trails leading to it. (Not true!) But there is also the hassle of going cross-country through prickly Greenbrier - one of the more evil creatures in Virginia. Or having to climb over many downed trees. Or even the fear of ending up someplace completely exhausted, and having to cut my way back to civilization. And then there is the issue of the calendar - "bushwacking season" is when the leaves are down and the understory is not growing. Basically, November to March or early April.

It turns out that your average bushwacker isn't just wandering aimlessly through the forest. Many of the folks who engage in the sport are out in the woods with definite goals in mind.  What are they looking for? The history of Shenandoah National Park offers much in the way of treasures.

As nearly everyone who visits the Park knows, Shenandoah as a national park is the product of many purchases nearly 100 years ago - purchase made by the Commonwealth of Virginia, not the federal government. The government "purchased" many small properties owned by mountain folk who lived at subsistence levels through farming or raising livestock in the mountains. Evidence of these old homesites and their access roads are found throughout the park.

Below is an account of a bushwacking adventure I had with some members of my scout troop, and below that are detailed instructions on how to locate these old roads and structures, using a GPS, old USGS topographic maps, and the software program that goes with my GPS, Garmin Basecamp. Basecamp is a free program (Link) that can be used to work on GPS data of all kinds - even if you do not have a GPS, you can download hiking data from places like Hiking Upward (for local hikes) or Wikiloc and work the data to your needs.

The plan with the Scouts was to get them off of the current trails to force them to work on their map and compass skills. I also wanted to stay on a south slope as much as possible, to stay away from potentially icy trail descents and the potential for injured scouts on the north side of mountains this time of year.  And I wanted the challenge of finding some of these old trails. I had no idea how nice some of these routes are!

My idea was to have us find our way to an old Fire Road that was found on the map Diane gave me but is not on current trails, called the Big Bend Fire Road. (I am told that the NPS "erased" this road about 25 years ago because hunters were using it to enter the park and poach wildlife.  But you can't totally erase an old road.) Scouts probably wouldn't be too interested in finding an old road, though.  I needed to come up with something else.

Current USGS topo map shows roads we searched for and the old Big Bend Fire Road.
I went to this great website (Link), and found my way to a a 1947 topographic map of the same area. The map showed me that some of the trails on the current topo map were dirt roads in 1947, and some were even paved roads (dashed lines vs. solid lines). Below is the 1947 map with my GPS track from the Scout hike. It also shows an old school site that predates the National Park.  That was our ultimate goal for this hike.   And, as fellow adult leader Ed pointed out to me, not a single scout figured out that we were all headed to school on a vacation day!

1947 USGS Topo with our route added (in red) and my legend (in blue). Compare the roads in the 1947 map
with the current map, and you see that many of the trails today were roads in 1947.

We parked at the old monument on U.S. 33 at Swift Run Gap then hiked into the Park, heading northbound on the A.T. After less than a mile, the A.T. crossed through an open cut in the forest, where a gas line and power transmission lines cut through the park. The boys were given the option of cutting downhill at this point to find an old road crossing, or to continue north and find a different old crossing. They opted to continue north and I had to hope that my GPS had a fairly accurate waypoint showing where the old road met the A.T.  I had no idea whether we would find the road.

Fortunately, my waypoint was accurate and we had many sets of eyes looking for the old road. Consequently, Ed spied the roadbed almost immediately.  Below is a photo of us at the point where the roadbed meets the A.T. You could walk by here a hundred times and never notice the old roadbed, but if you are looking carefully for a road, the rocks along the side of the trail give the old road away - they are cleared out for about 12 feet where the old road met the A.T. In fact, as you can see from the 1947 map above, the A.T. uses an old road bed for its track. Vehicles and horses used to intersect at this very spot, though it isn't easy to see now.
Scouts stop on the A.T. where an old road once met the current trail's track.  An adult leader is working with a
Tenderfoot Scout on his map and compass skills at this point, while others wait to descend on the old road.
From here, we hiked 1.1 miles over the next 40 minutes, descending 770 feet at a 12.6% grade. Much of the time was in the old roadbed, which was still depressed compared to the ground around it, and was often lined with rocks. I was amazed at how easy it was to follow this old road bed, especially considering it had been only a dirt road on the last map showing its location, a map that is almost 70 years old. We were not in the old road bed the whole time, as fallen trees made it too difficult to follow at times, but we never lost sight of the road bed over the entire descent.
Downed trees made it hard to stay in the roadbed at times, but rocks along the sides
made it very easy to see where the old roadbed was going.
Another photo taken on the first old road we accessed after leaving the A.T.
Snow and ground depression makes the road easy to follow, decades after the road was last used.
We made it to the end of the old dirt road, and came to another road, where we could either turn right or left but no longer go south.  We chose a left (east) so we could search for the old Big Bend School site. I did not have a waypoint for this site, so we had to go according to the location on the 1947 map. Predictably, we did not find evidence of the school.

I have since gone back to an 1892 topographic map of the area, and I believe that the road we hiked back on is the original road to Swift Run Gap. Here is why: You can see from the photo of the 1892 map below that the road had many sharp turns (not as big a deal in the days of horses pulling buggies as it would have been 30 years later). I am not sure, though, why Shenandoah National Park's boundaries are marked on this map (in green), since the park did not exist then. The series of switchbacks that takes the road north and above Swift Run (near the red cross in the center right of the photo) appears to match the location of the Big Bend Fire Trail and the final crossing of Swift Run (right next to the word "Gap") also coordinates with the route we took.
1892 USGS Topo showing an earlier routing of what later became U.S. 33.
According to the Greene County Historical Society, this road was originally built by the Rockingham Turnpike Authority in the mid-1800's and extended from Harrisonburg to Gordonsville via Swift Run Gap and Stanardsville.  The turnpike helped bring Shenandoah Valley produce to a train station in Gordonsville, where it was then shipped to DC and Richmond. Although the road we walked may have received traffic for many years, it has been many years since it received much traffic after being superseded. Nevertheless, the quality of the construction is still evident and the old roadbed provides a delightful route through the woods, as can be seen below.
Ascending to Swift Run Gap on the original road to the top

Below you can see how the old road hugs the side of the mountain.  The snow along the sides of the road light up from a distance, making the old road's location briefly visible when descending from Swift Run Gap on U.S. 33.

The road crosses a stream bed at a point where a channel has been constructed.
The scouts chose the more adventurous route across the stream bed.
Early on in our bushwack, the Scouts even found an old car, which was the highlight of the trip.  This provided an excellent opportunity to extol on the virtues of Leave No Trace.  We explained that this car would not still be there if it were located in a more popular part of the park, and the boys took care around this relic, so that it would be there for the next person to experience.

When we headed back, we had to use a natural gas pipeline/power transmission cut in the mountain, shown in this blog's first (and most current) topo map.  The old road we used died out in the side of the mountain after it got very close to the present U.S. 33, likely taken over by the current road.  Our hike lasted 7.0 miles over 4.5 hours, with a total ascent of 1425 feet.  The boys all agreed that the experience was a blast, and I am ready to head back out there and explore the entire length of the former Blue Bend Fire Road through a very rarely visited section of Shenandoah National Park.

Inserting GPS Waypoints to Help Find Old Roads and Trails.

So what is the best way to find these old trails and roads in the park?  I can give you one way. As stated before, I play with data on Garmin Basecamp, a free program (Link) that can be used to work on GPS data of all kinds. I can come up with very accurate waypoints that I ultimately load into my GPS, giving me a heads up on locations where I need to be alert for signs of former infrastructure. Using this hike as an example, I went to the old USGS topo map website described earlier (Link), and found my way to a a 1947 topographic map of the area I wanted our scout group to explore.

I would then take a screenshot of the map I want to work with. In this case, I use a program called “SnippingTool” to take picture of a map that is mostly a 1937 era USGS topo. I am taking this map because it shows a number of old roads in Shenandoah National Park that no longer exist.  It also has a better resolution than earlier maps of the same area.

I save the screenshot created with Snipping Tool as a JPEG file.

Then I open up Google Earth and locate the approximate area where the map I just copied is located. From the top toolbar, select "Add" | "Image Overlay" (Ctrl+Shift+O).

Below is the box that pops up on Google Earth. Give a name to the overlay in the first line, and at the end of the second line below, use the “Browse” button to locate the JPEG file just created.

Once that is loaded, use the third line, the “Transparency” Slide Bar.  I can use this to “see through” the map I have just overlaid, to determine the right place to put the map.

On Google Earth, I play around with the bright green lines to properly line up the map over the satellite photo.  This takes some time to work out. Continue to move the green marks to adjust the corners, edges, center, or rotation of the map JPEG so it matches the satellite imagery beneath the image overlay.  This can be tricky, and sometimes never comes out completely right - sometimes the topo maps aren't completely accurate!

When it seems about right (or at least as good as it will get), click the OK button in the lower right hand corner of the Image Overlay Box (the one with the Transparency Slide Bar, shown above in blue).

Then save the map to the computer.  Under the "Places" menu on the left side of the Google Earth window, right click on the custom map and select "Save Place As..."

Be sure to save the file as a .kmz file and save it to someplace on the computer where it can be found again.  That location will be needed shortly.

Put the Map on Garmin Basecamp
If you put your old map on Garmin Basecamp, you can then work with the data and transfer all your data onto your GPS.  

On Garmin Basecamp, go to “File” in the dropdown menu at the top, choose “New” and then “List Folder.”  This gives you a new folder to play in.  Name it something like “Temp.”  (I always have a “Temp” file for just this reason.)

Once inside the Temp File, go back up to “File” in the dropdown menu.  Find “Import into ‘Temp’… and import the .kmz file you just created.  It will suddenly pop onto your Basecamp program. 

Below is the map overlay that I placed into my program.  I have also included (in red) the line that coordinates with my GPS reading from the hike I took with the Scouts.  You can see that it comes pretty close.  If I had used this to determine the location of the old dirt road we used to bushwack, it would have been very nearly the exact location of the road.

You can use this map overlay to more easily waypoint important points.  I wish I had done this ahead of my hike with the scouts.  The only waypoint I took in advance was where the dirt road meets the Appalachian Trail – we were within 10 feet of the road when my GPS said to look for that road.  But down in the lower right of the map you can see where we looked for the school, and it would appear from the old topo that we were slightly off course.  Note also that the Garmin Basecamp Topo has a different location for the school, northeast of the USGS location – written in blue print is “Big Bend School (Historical).  With more time, we might have found something, but we did not locate anything definitive on this hike.

When I go back, I would mark all the major points, as shown by the blue flags below.

Each of the Blue Flags are waypoints I have added based on locations on the map.  Both the map and the waypoints can be loaded easily into the GPS Receiver via the Garmin Basecamp program.

Returning to the mystery of where the old Big Bend School is located, the 1947 topo would seem to indicate that we should have looked a little further north than where we searched.  I can use the Garmin Basecamp program to give me both a distance and a compass location – great for Scouts learning compass use!

Extreme closeup shows where we looked for the school
and where the 1947 topo shows the school was located.


  1. Fascinating. Thank you for sharing. Lots of great ideas.

  2. Great article Jeff. Thanks for sharing. If you ever need another adult helper along on one of these off trail hikes, just let me know.

    1. Thanks for your interest! I wish I could get more boys out there, but many of them have other commitments.

  3. Thank you for putting so much time into sharing the details of your research and exploration. My dog and I are looking forward to checking some of these old roads out.


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