Saturday, May 27, 2017

GWNF's Tower Hill Mountain Trail

Any list of trails in the George Washington National Forest would have to include the Tower Hill Mountain Trail near the top among the most obscure.  Located in the Warm Springs Ranger District, the THMT climbs Tower Hill Mountain, located between Shenandoah Mountain and Warm Springs Mountain.

USGS topo maps show the THMT originally climbing Tower Hill Mountain and continuing north on the ridge for the entire length of the mountain - over 10 miles.  But the current Trails Illustrated map shows it currently listed at only 1.3 miles long.  I was in the area, and figured that by hiking it I would be able to determine why the trail is so much shorter today than it had been in the past.

The trailhead is on Rt. 624, Westminster Road, south of Ft. Lewis and north of Bath Alum on Rt 39. There is space for a couple of cars off the side of the road and signs telling drivers they are approaching the trailhead, along with a mileage sign at the actual trailhead.  Here is a map of the trail:

The trail climbs steeply from the start, traversing a forest of Tulip Poplar, Sassafras and White Pine. The undercover contains a lot of invasive Garlic Mustard and some Stinging Nettle.  The trail is well blazed with blue blazes, which is helpful as there are a couple of spots where the trail is tough to follow without the blazes.  Over the first 0.4 miles, the trail climbs at a stiff 21% grade before bending to the right and leveling off.  At 0.7 miles the trail climbs again, going from a 6% grade to a 24% grade before reaching the ridge at 0.9 miles.  The trail then moves northeast until it ends at the national forest boundary.  The trail originally continued over private property, and although "no trespassing" signs appeared to have been ripped off of the trees, I chose to respect the boundary and turned around.

I returned the same way I came.  There were no views during the entire hike.  The TSGS map indicates that a spot called "Chimney Rocks" is at the south end of the ridge, a short bushwhack from where the trail reaches the ridge. Google Earth doesn't show anything other than tree cover on this part of the mountain, however, and I saw nothing indicating a trail going that direction.
National Forest boundary at the end of this trail.
My maps show that the national forest owns the land just below the ridge line on the west side of Tower Hill Mountain and a trail could easily be constructed, which could return to the ridge top and meet up with the old trail when the national forest boundaries include the ridge again.  But even if the Forest Service was agreeable to new trails on our national forest (and they are not), it would be questionable why we would want one here.  There does not seem to be anything worth hiking to, such as a rocky outcrop providing a view or a waterfall. I'd leave this one as it is.

The benefits of this trail include fitness (it is a steep climb to the ridge), wooded landscape, and seclusion (it is doubtful you will encounter another hiker in this remote area).  But the trail is short, has no views or highlights, and will be terribly overgrown in the summer with plants that include Stinging Nettle.  I do not plan to return.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Old A.T. on Cove Mountain near Buchanan

Earlier this week was a spectacular January day, and I celebrated by getting out on the trail.  I ended up on the Little Cove Mountain Trail, which is located between the Peaks of Otter resort on the Blue Ridge Parkway and Interstate 81, south of Natural Bridge.  

It is the 4th time I've been down hiking in this area, dating back to 2012 when I first hiked here as part of my quest to complete the entire A.T. in Virginia (link). I come back even though it is a 90 minute drive to the trailhead and there are lots of closer trails. 

There are several good trails here, but I was always curious about the area because I have a 1974 edition guide to the A.T. that describes the AT back then coming out of the mountains at the bridge which is the northern end of the Little Cove Mountain Trail. (And this explains why there is such a great bridge for an otherwise minor trail.)  
Bridge at northern end of Little Cove Mtn Trail
crosses Jennings Creek.

I've always been curious to find the old A.T. route. And I thought I had but a friend who really knows these woods told me that I hadn't gotten it right after the 3rd time here. The USGS topo confirmed that the trail I used on Trip 3 was not the A.T., as the topo still shows the older route of the A.T. 

The older A.T. route went through the Middle Creek Picnic Area then followed the access road to the Jennings Creek Road before turning onto the bridge, requiring a road walk of nearly half a mile. (The current A.T. is almost a mile further west, and only uses the Jennings Creek Road to cross Jennings Creek before ducking back into the forest.)

In 1974, A.T. hikers heading southbound crossed the bridge and then passed the Cove Creek Lean-to (sited way too close to the road!). This shelter is now long gone, and a campsite exists in its place.

According to the old guidebook's southbound directions, 1974 hikers then "Turn right. (Ahead is trail to Little Cove Mtn.) Ascend steeply for 0.4 m. on wide trail up east slope of Cove Mtn. toward ridge crest."

I finally found the old A.T. this week and I hiked it after completing a variation of the longer loop linked above. As shown by the GPS tracks on the attached map, I got most of the old trail. I didn't get all of it, as I clearly went off trail when I got near the present Glenwood Horse Trail. It is basically invisible from the Little Cove Mountain Trail today, and hiking it is essentially a bushwhack. Below is the view from the Little Cove Mountain Trail, and the old A.T. is in this photo.  Try to find it before scrolling down and viewing the same photo with the trail marked. 

Do you see the old A.T. location in this photo taken from the Little Cove Mtn Trail?  
Here it is again with the location marked. Virtually invisible, but generally easy to follow once I get around the curve.
Still, it was basically a bushwhack.
The trail was so invisible here, I wasn't really sure I had found it until I crested the curve at the right end of the photo.  All that could be seen was a slight depression in the land heading uphill to the right.

Further away from the Little Cove Mtn Trail, the old A.T. becomes more visible, with a depression in the land
and moss along the sides of the old trail. This section definitely saw some boot treads back in the day. 
Here is another photo of the old A.T., again showing a clear trail route.

The old trail meets the present Glenwood Horse Trail at a point where the old woods road turns into a trail.  The photo below shows a grassy area that probably used to be a turnaround, and a much thinner trail to the back, marked with orange blazes for the horse trail. I missed this connection (and did not confirm that until I returned and overlaid my route on the USGS topo map), as I instead reached the present horse trail on an old road.  But I probably only missed about 200 yards of trail.  

Glenwood Horse Trail where it starts using a superseded portion of the A.T.

From this point, the Glenwood Horse Trail uses the old A.T. until it intersects with the present A.T. You can see from the photo below that this is definitely a trail, and you will see an old white A.T. blaze if you look carefully at the tree in the photo. The blaze has been painted black, so it is not obvious.  Likely other white blazes have been painted over with the present trail's orange blazing.

Present Glenwood Horse Trail uses the old A.T. as it traverses Cove Mountain
I wish these old sections of the A.T. were maintained when on public lands, but understand the fiscal constraints the Forest Service and Park Service operate under these days.  So for now, whenever I can find them, I'll be bushwhacking the old trails and imagining what it was like to hike the A.T., circa 1974.
Here is a close up of the old white blaze and the painting that tries to hide it.