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.

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