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.

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