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