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.)