Monday, May 7, 2018

Piney Mtn Trail, Warm Springs District, GWNF

During the latter part of 2017 I collected GPS waypoints for an upcoming guidebook detailing the Virginia portion of the Great Eastern Trail, a long distance trail under development that would run from New York to Alabama to the west of the Appalachian Trail. Although much of the GET uses existing trails and roads, portions are still to be built and other portions use abandoned Forest Service trails. One of these sections utilizing an abandoned trail is just north of Warm Springs.  Curious, I took a couple of hikes out there to check out the section. This is a somewhat complex investigation to make, and is probably only of interest to someone thinking about completing the Virginia portions of the GET.

The GET uses many miles of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, along Highland County's eastern border. At the south end of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, the GET uses nearly 8 miles of paved road, passing Fort Lewis before traveling generally south on a route just east of Tower Hill Mountain, mostly on Westminster Road. The portion I hiked was on the Piney Mountain Trail (found on the Trail Illustrated Map #791, Trail Number 453) over Warm Springs Mountain and Piney Mountain.  Looking at old topo maps of Warm Springs Mountain shows a network of intriguing trails, but unfortunately the reality is that much of this network no longer exists due to private landholdings on the summit.  Further south, summit land is owned by The Nature Conservancy, and there is a trail on their land that heads north from the Route 39 crossing of Warm Springs Mountain (there is a parking area and overlook here), but it only goes for about a mile and a half (Map.) and no longer includes portions following a steep ridge of Warm Springs Mountain that look like the most interesting portions of trail.
View of western trailhead.  The sign notes that it is 7.0 miles to FR 358,
but fails to tell you that at 7 miles, you are reaching that road for a 2nd time.

I hiked a section of Warm Springs Mountain north of Route 39 from the trailhead on VA 614, which connects US 220 north of Warm Springs with Burnsville, VA.  There is a sign on the side of 614 a little over 1/2 mile north of the US 220 intersection. (Note: this is the only trail sign you will see on this hike.) The GPS coordinates are: N38° 06.294' W79° 45.779'.  My intent was to hike the Piney Ridge Trail to the summit of Warm Springs Mountain, drop down the east slope of Warm Springs Mountain and cross FR 358 (found on the Trails Illustrated map, but not on the USGS Topo) before finding what is called the "Old Piney Mountain Trail" which connects to the eastern access - Bath Alum Ridge Road, a forest road.  (It was my belief that Bath Alum Ridge Road is gated part of the year based on previous observations taking waypoints, but it appears now that the road is open year round.)  I would then return via the same trail after reaching the eastern trailhead. This is a complicated area to negotiate, which enhanced its appeal.

Descending from the summit of Warm Mountain,
heading east.
The Piney Mountain Trail heading east from the west climbs steeply to start - a 28% grade over the first 0.2 miles, which is twice the standard AT elevation gain.  It eases up for a while before ascending at a 24% grade for the last half mile to the summit of Warm Springs Mountain.  There are parts of the trail that are somewhat overtaken by Mountain Laurel - not enough to cause problems staying on the route, but enough that you are pushing through branches for much of this portion of trail.  After 1.8 miles the trail summits and turns are marked by ribbons on trees.

I first headed south on the summit, off trail, 0.2 miles towards the summit of Bonner Mountain, a high point on the Warm Springs Mountain.  I was looking for possible vistas, and finding no overlooks, returned to my original  route.  There was little indication of a trail on the summit (in fact, I returned via a route that was 20-30 feet from my route out), but I knew to stay on the summit until a trail descended on my right.  I found that trail rather easily due to some log cuts,
Eastern slope of Warm Springs Mountain.
though there was no trail evident continuing on the summit, even though one shows on the USGS map and I had read descriptions of others continuing to House Rock.  (House Rock does not even provide an overlook and it would have added an extra mile to the hike, so I skipped it.)

The eastern slope of Warm Springs Mountain was much more open than what I had experienced to this point - perhaps there had been a fire sometime in the past.  The trail location was very visible, and the overgrowth was surprisingly absent.

At my 3.9 mile mark, having dropped from 3700 to just under 2000 feet elevation, I crossed FR 358, Jordan Run Road. This forest road is open in April/May and from September 1 through the end of January.  I saw no traffic, but there was evidence of recent activity.

There was a campsite here, though I am not sure that a site right next to an open road is appealing to anyone who is a non-hunter.

Jordan Run Road to the right, Piney Mtn Trail WB to the left.

Campsite on Jordan Run Road.

I continued on the Piney Mountain Trail past the road, and after about 0.2 miles came to a trail that went left that I thought could have been the unmarked portion of the GET.  I decided it was not after a little exploration; it looks instead like a logging access road or some kind of fire road.  The actual side trail connected at about a half mile from the Jordan Run Road, at N38° 04.984' W79° 43.630'.

A 2011 trail condition description notes a rotted signpost here, but I did not see one.  The Piney Mountain Trail continues along the crest of Big Piney Mountain in a somewhat SE direction, and reconnects with the Jordan Run Trail at its end, a little north of VA 39.  The section I turned onto was referred to as the "Old Piney Mountain Trail." It is easy to follow, but I only went a short distance on it this day, because I was tired and did not feel up to climbing over and around some extensive blowdowns about 0.2 mile down the old trail.  I really was unsure whether I was on the proper route, given the lack of signs, and would not confirm that I was correct until I could overlay my GPS track on a USGS Topo.  Map.

View of Old Piney Mtn Trail, near Bath Alum Ridge Road, FS 465.
Three weeks later I was again in the area, and was surprised to see that the access road to the eastern portion of this trail was ungated.  Figuring that I had a limited timeframe to explore the remaining Old Piney Mountain Trail without hiking in a couple of miles from a closed gate, I decided to drive down the road to see if I could find the other end.  (It turns out that this road, the Piney Mountain Road, FS 465, is open all year.  Also open is the access road from the main road - Hester, FS 1325 - which isn't shown on the USGS but is on the Trails Illustrated map.)  The road, though unmarked at its intersection with Dry Run Road (Va 609), is easy to find, located on the left when heading north from VA 39 just after the turnoff for the Bath County Shooting Range. The road was in good condition.  Though I did not have GPS coordinates for the trail intersection with this road, it was not hard to locate, at a point where the road makes a sharp left turn, at N38°05.337' W79° 42.814'There was no trail sign here, but there was an area for vehicles to pull off, and the trail looked like it had been used regularly.

This part of the trail was also open and somewhat dry, like the eastern portion of Warm Springs Mountain. It had several exceptional views to the east, through a gap to hiking hotspots including Jump Rock and further to The Priest and Rocky Mountain in the Blue Ridge.

I didn't have my GPS track from my previous hike on the trail, so I had to guess, based on the downed trees I came across, when I I had met the former part of my hike.  There were plenty of downed trees to choose from!
Unfortunately, I guessed wrong and turned around too early.  So I still have a little gap in my completed portions of this trail, and will have to go back again someday.  I should have just hiked to the top of Big Piney Mountain - I know I would have met up with my former hike that way - but I could see another hiking destination from this trail, and I wanted to have enough time to catch the view from the top of Chimney Rocks.

In the grand scheme of things, I am not missing much of the trail.  But perhaps I can convince a group to head out here sometime for a shuttle hike between this trail and the Bear Roak Trail to the north - still active - and a walk on the summit of Warm Springs Mountain connecting the two.  Who is up for an adventure?

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Chimney Rocks, Tower Hill Mountain, Warm Springs District, George Washington National Forest

Last May, as part of my never-ending quest to hike as many GWNF trails as I can, I completed the Tower Hill Mountain Trail. The Tower Hill Mountain Trail climbs its eponymous mountain and ends at private property.  It used to continue for over 10 miles across the long ridge of Tower Hill Mountain, but the forest service now recognizes only the southernmost 1.2 miles as public trail. After hiking the trail, I wrote about it on this blog, asking, ‘Is this all there is? Why does this trail still exist?’

Bath County locals know why.  A little off of the established trail is an overlook on top of a cliff known as Chimney Rocks. The view is what makes this trail worthwhile, even though the trail doesn’t exactly take you to the overlook.  With the instructions in this description, you can find your way to the view, though I recommend that you bring a GPS receiver and enter in the coordinates for Chimney Rocks, listed below.  I do not recommend this hike to families hiking with young children because of the cliff overlook.

I developed the following directions for a trail description to be found on the Hiking Upward website. 

Mile 0.0 – Parking is on a wide spot on the southbound side of Westminster Road.  Both road approaches have a sign warning you that the trailhead is just ahead, which makes it much easier to find the trail. There is a trail sign just off the road where the trail starts. 

Mile 0.3 – The blue blazed trail climbs steeply right at the start, then crosses several old roadbeds before making a wide switchback.  Although the trail levels out, don’t mistake this for the top of the mountain.  Continue after the switchback on a wide trail.

Mile 0.8 – Near the mountain summit, the trail may get a little harder to follow, depending on the time of year.  The trees are frequently blazed, however, so keep an eye for another blue blaze.  At the top, the trail curves to the right and virtually every tree sports at least one blaze.  The trail at the top goes in a northeast/southwest direction. When the climb has leveled off, instead of following the established trail north, take an unblazed social trail south towards the view.  (If you wish to continue north on the blazed trail, you will continue another half mile before reaching the forest boundary.)
It is a steep dropoff from Chimney Rocks.

Mile 1.0 – The trail weaves among the trees for approximately 0.2 mile.  You should stay generally to the left side of the ridge top, dropping slightly in elevation.  Keep an eye out for a grove of pine trees ahead and to your left.  If you use a GPS receiver, the coordinates for the viewpoint are N38° 05.430' W79° 41.747'.

Mile 1.2 – Return to the trail, taking care to look for the part of the trail with many blue blazes.  (At worst, you will overshoot it slightly and find yourself on the trail a little northeast of where it ascends to the summit.) 
View across the Dry Run valley SW towards Piney Mountain

Mile 2.1 – Follow the trail back down the mountain to your vehicle.  

Seneca State Forest, West Virginia

Seneca State Forest in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, is one of my favorite destinations, and it is well worth the 2.5 hour drive each way from Charlottesville.  I've been here at least 5 times and stayed overnight twice, over the past 15 years. There is still plenty of new stuff to see the next time I return.  Below is a version of a write up I completed for Hiking Upward detailing a loop hike there.

Radio Telescope at the NRAO.
Don’t be fooled by the “State Forest” part of Seneca’s name.  Arguably the crown jewel of West Virginia’s state forest system (and West Virginia’s oldest state forest), Seneca is more like a state park.  This facility offers many great options in an area under 12,000 acres, including a nice campground, a beautiful lake, rental boats of all kinds, mountain trails, a long distance hiking trail bisecting the park, rental cabins, and even a unique place where you can spend the night. Plus, if you bring a family with children, you can enjoy the fact that this area is near the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which means absolutely no cell service.  Because this is in a “quiet zone,” you can even see real, working pay phones on the drive here – there is one at the park entrance! (Note: you can also obtain a Seneca State Forest Trail Map  outside the front door of the headquarters building at the park entrance.) Nearby, you can find train excursions and one of the nation’s best bike trails, the Greenbrier RiverTrail.
Younger versions of my son and me on the Greenbrier River Trail.

If you can reserve a night there, this loop features a most unusual and spectacular place to sleep. The high point in this loop passes under a converted fire tower with two bunks and the best outdoor porch for miles.  It has no electricity (so bring a lantern), and the facilities are way back down on firm ground – a lot of steps from your bed.  But the views are unparalleled, and you might even spot a fire in the distance, like I did, when a friend and I stayed there in April, 2017. If you can grab an overnight in the tower, the views on this hike rate five stars.

Mile 0.0 – Once inside Seneca State Forest, follow the main road until you pass over the dam that creates Seneca Lake.  Park on the left just after crossing the dam.  There is a privy here, along with parking for about eight vehicles. At the far end of the parking lot is a sign for the Thorny Creek Trail.  Do not follow this!  Instead, head back to the lake.  The blue blazed Thorny Creek Trail heads along the north (non-road) side of Seneca Lake, starting where the rental boats are stored.
Hike starts here.

Mile 0.4 – The Thorny Creek Trail passes the end of the Fire Tower Trail just after you pass a sign facing the other way telling riders to dismount along the lake.  The Fire Tower Trail here is virtually invisible, but that is OK, as you do not want to ascend on the Fire Tower Trail.  Check out the elevation profile between miles 3.00 and 3.75, when I descended – this trail has an elevation change that is between a 25 percent and 35 percent grade – exceptionally steep!  Instead, stay on the Thorny Creek Trail and save the Fire Tower Trail for your descent.

Mile 0.5– Intersect with the Hill Top Trail, which heads east to the campground and the park headquarters. (There are no campsites along the trail.) Stay on the Thorny Creek Trail.
Seneca Trail Shelter
Mile 1.1 – The trail crosses several feeder streams to Little Thorny Creek before crossing the main stream and continuing in a green tunnel of Rhododendron. 
Mile 1.7 – Ascend and turn left onto the Loop Road, a seldom used park road. The road climbs somewhat steeply.
Mile 1.9– On your right is a sweet little trail shelter, complete with a couple of picnic tables and a fireplace.  This does not appear to be designed for overnights, but only for picnicking.  This shelter is on the Allegheny Trail, a 300+ mile trail that winds through West Virginia.  The yellow blazed trail heads north from the shelter on a singletrack.  The Thorny Creek Trail ends here, and this loop continues on the loop road, which is also blazed yellow as part of the Allegheny Trail.
Best porch for miles around!
Mile 3.1 – At a road split, the Allegheny Trail goes right.  You will want to take the road left uphill to the base of the Thorny Mountain Fire Tower (elevation 3458), built in 1935. Parking and facilities here are for tower renters, as are the views from the stairs.  Respect the privacy of those staying here, and pass through only to look for the Fire Tower Trail,
Looking up the Fire Tower Trail towards the tower.
Note the old utility pole with trail marker, circled.
which starts as a wide grass cut to the left of the tower and then descends steeply, marked with red squares on the old utility poles that no longer service the fire tower.
Mile 3.7 – Return to the Thorny Creek Trail and turn left to walk along Seneca Lake back to your vehicle.
Mile 4.2 – Reach your vehicle.  This is one of several loops that can be found in Seneca State Forest, so if there is time, consider additional hikes.

Map of trail route: Link.
Total ascent: 750 feet.
Fire in the distance, as seen from the fire tower in April, 2017.

Friday, February 9, 2018

James River Face Wilderness Explorations

I headed out into the James River Face Wilderness this week with a group to explore some old trails and bushwhack in the wilderness - stuff I don't like to do when out solo for fear that no one would ever find me again.

We started out hiking the Piney Ridge Trail, which is the original AT alignment back in the 1930's.  The Piney Ridge Trail today is one of the lesser used JRF access points, and I was surprised to find 5 vehicles already in the lot when I arrived.  Clearly the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club, which does some incredible trail work in this part of the state, was out exploring today.

My colleagues arrived a few minutes after I did, and we all headed up the Piney Ridge Trail.  The trail starts by continuing up an old woods road past a closed gate.  A sign for the trail is shortly after this point. Older guidebooks indicate that the trail was originally an old road, but I did not see any indication of this.

The Piney Ridge Trail offers an excellent workout, climbing nearly 1600 feet over its 3.5 mile length.  Along the way are nice winter views and a small lookout, just off trail to the right, at the 2.6 mile mark.  I had never seen this overlook before, having hiked right past it on previous hikes on this trail.

Piney Ridge Trail looking west towards the Appalachian Trail.

View from small overlook just off of the Piney Ridge Trail, at the 2.6 mile mark.
The Piney Ridge Trail ends at a place that the NBATC calls "Five Points" because it is a flat area where 5 trail sections converge.  Both the A.T. and the Sulphur Springs Trail intersect, and the Piney Ridge Trail ends.  There is also a small campsite here, and I had visited this same spot four days earlier when leading a PATC-Charlottesville Chapter hike up the Sulphur Springs Trail from the west.

An overgrown old trail seems to continue past the campsite, and we explored that today.  Although overgrown with thigh high bushes, the trail itself is very obvious.  It is clear that, over the years, many sets of boots used this trail.  And as you can see from the circled portion of the photo below, there used to be a trail sign along the way.  The photo shows the trail with a rotting sign post in a spot not near any currently active trail.  There used to be a trail intersection here, with another trail heading east on a ridge. (We did not follow this trail.) 

I thought this could be an old AT alignment, as it connects 5 Points to the old Marble Spring Shelter site that is on the current AT.  But none of the historic USGS maps show the AT using this route, dating back to 1935.  So I now believe that this was a side trail off of the AT and that the post was for a sign directing hikers to the Marble Springs shelter from this side trail.  The trail is not described in any of the old guidebooks I have accessed, dating back to 1950.

This old trail continues behind the signpost above, and then comes out at a campsite on the A.T. near where the Marble Spring Shelter used to stand.  Our group stopped to look at a hollow tree and ponder the actual location of the shelter, but didn't stay long because the wind was whipping through this area.  For some reason, the Marble Spring site is consistently colder than the 5 Points campsite a half mile away.  We headed south on the AT intent on climbing Highcock Knob, but found the trail too icy to continue.  We turned around and returned to the shelter site.

Back at the shelter site, we then took another former trail off of the A.T.  I had seen this trail a couple of years before when passing through here as leader of a group hike, and always wanted to check it out.  
It was described in the 1974 edition of the "Guide to The Appalachian Trail in Central and Southwestern Virginia" as follows: About 30 ft. to the right of the lean-to [east], an unblazed trail to the Blue Ridge Parkway starts in a southeasterly direction, skirting down the right hand slope of the ravine.  With one left and one right switchback, this trail leads 0.8 m. to the Parkway between mile posts 68 and 69.  My next edition of the guidebook is about 15 years later, and there is no mention of this trail.  In addition, the trail is not found on the most current USGS map, though it can be seen on older editions.
Unblazed trail connecting Marble Springs site to BRP.
Amazingly, this trail was in fantastic shape, and I would highly recommend it!  I hadn't expect much even though I'd been part way down it two years ago.  I had driven the BRP several times since learning about the trail and saw nothing from the road, so I figured it had gotten washed away at some point.  But I was looking in the wrong spot.  The trail doesn't come down as close to the rocky streambed as I had thought, and can be seen intersecting with the BRP in the photo below - on the left side of the photo.  The trail took us down along the stream and out of the JRF wilderness boundary, onto the National Park lands of the BRP.

We walked northbound on the BRP, passing the grassy area on the right where cars could park to explore this trail.  But I wouldn't leave a car here overnight without contacting the BRP rangers first.

We crossed another streambed on the BRP, and then went off the road on what looked like an old roadbed.

Unfortunately, it disappeared almost immediately, and we resorted to bushwhacking up the hillside, looking for an old woods road that our hike leader believed was somewhere upslope.  It was a tough climb, but we found the road back within the wilderness and used it to head back in the general direction of our cars.  We stayed within the wilderness boundary for about 1.3 miles on this old roadbed, which is not found on any USGS topo that I could access.
Bushwhacking towards an old woods road.
 Using the old roadbed wasn't always easy, because there was a lot of growth on the road.  But there was a kind of trail that weaved through the growth, making me think that others (probably hunters) have used it.
Pines growing in the old roadbed.
 There were times when the roadbed provided fantastic views to the east.

You can see the Blue Ridge Parkway in this photo.

Heading in the direction we did, the direction to take was always obvious when other old roads forked off.  Heading in the other direction, one would need to head upslope every time.

The last 2.9 miles were outside of the wilderness, but apparently still in the Jefferson National Forest.  We were almost back to our cars when we had the biggest hurdle of the day - crossing a very healthy Peters Creek.  
 Because we were so close to our cars, some folks just waded through the creek.  I joined those who took shoes and socks off to cross.  Either way, the crossing was really cold!

Map of our route: Map.
Total Distance: 10.3 miles 
Total Time: 4 hours, 15 minutes (including stops totalling 18 minutes)

Low Point: 960 ft.
Highest Point: 2584 ft.
Elevation Difference: 1520 ft.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Shenandoah Mountain Trail, Northern Portion

Many of my recent hikes have centered on Shenandoah Mountain, a ridge mountain west of the Shenandoah Valley that extends for over 70 miles and forms part of the Virginia/West Virginia state boundary.

Early last year, I climbed the highest point on Shenandoah Mountain, Reddish Knob, and recounted that trip in Hiking Upward.  Link.  More recently, I hiked to the top of High Knob, just south of where U.S. 33 crosses the state boundary west of Harrisonburg. This is also on Hiking Upward.  Link.  The hike described here follows Shenandoah Mountain between these two points.
The southern end of the SMT, where it meets the road from
Reddish Knob to Flagpole Knob.
I returned to the area  later in the year to join the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's Southern Shenandoah Valley Chapter for a shuttle hike on the Shenandoah Mountain Trail from a road access south of Bother Knob to U.S. 33. We also used this hike to cut back on vegetation and to assess the equipment needed to relocate larger blowdowns across the trail.  This hike would be really hard to do on my own, as the trail is long and amazingly tough, and the alternative is a very long car shuttle. The SSVC had arranged a member to pick the hikers up at the north end of the hike, saving much time.

This hike is further complicated as, once you reach the ridge of Shenandoah Mountain on the road to the southern trailhead, you turn right at an intersection where, if you turn left, you summit Reddish Knob.  After this intersection, the quality of the road drops dramatically as it climbs towards Flagpole Knob.  It was a long slog to the trailhead, using a four wheel drive pickup truck.  I'm not doing it in my Outback.

And once we got out of the truck at the trailhead, we spied a large RV that was so new that it still had a paper temporary plate, camping next to the trailhead.  The owner came over and talked to us, and told us how he was going to need to repair parts of the RV's undercarriage after bringing it up to the trailhead.  He had brought it up there as a dry run for a June event being held for ham radio operators. So, maybe I could do it in my Outback, but not without pain to the vehicle!
Bother Knob summit.
To head north on this part of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, you begin by heading south. Like a fishhook, the trail curves west, then north to summit Bother Knob about 1 mile into the hike, the high point of the journey, at 4344 feet elevation, only about 50 feet lower than Reddish Knob.  Nearby trees keep Bother Knob from having the spectacular views of its southern neighbor, but the summit itself is not wooded and very open.
North of Bother Knob the trail steeply drops and climbs and drops again while riding the ridge of Shenandoah Mountain. The overall average elevation is dropping ass you head north, so I recommend hiking the trail in this direction.  After summiting Bother Knob, the trail's elevation drops from 4344 down to under 3500 feet before experiencing several short and exceptionally steep ascents.

At the five mile mark, the trail reaches an old woods road, which it uses to traverse the ridge for almost exactly a mile.  At the six mile mark, the trail drops off the ridge to the west (left), as the road continues onto private property.  Off the road, the trail continues the theme of steep ups and downs until it reaches the High Knob Trail at 7.3 miles.  The High Knob Trail drops steeply down to the USFS Brandywine Campground, or it heads up to the ridge and a stone fire tower that is worth seeing! 

While it adds another mile to the hike, High Knob has a wonderful fire tower at its summit and it is an awesome structure with a fantastic view. High Knob is most often reached coming from the north - the portion of the trail at the end of this trip.   The Shenandoah Mountain Trail continues straight one mile to a large parking lot on U.S. 33, just below the summit on the West Virginia side. This small portion of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail is by far the most popular hike in this part of the national forest and likely to be the only time you will see other hikers on this route. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Advice for New Virginia Hikers

Over the New Year's weekend I celebrated a milestone.  I first began really hiking in Virginia on December 31, 1992, which is twenty-five years ago.

I still remember my first hike: it was on the Appalachian Trail over Tar Jacket Ridge, culminating at the top of Cole/Cold Mountain.  I remember taking in the view from Tar Jacket Ridge and being absolutely mesmerized!  I grew up near Chicago, after all, and those kinds of views just aren't possible where I came from.

I owned a copy of PATC Map 13 and could not wait to get back down there, so I could hike the relatively new Old Hotel Trail, and come back again and hike the Pompey Mountain-Mt. Pleasant Trail, later named the Henry Lanum Trail. By that April, I had organized a group hike consisting of my friends to hike from the Tye River up to the summit of The Priest, a 3000 foot climb.  I've been back to do these hikes many times since 1993.

I had hiked some in Virginia during the eight months I had lived here since moving from Maine, but my first hike to the summit of Cold Mountain really hooked me.  I've since been back to hike every single trail in the GWNF's Pedlar District where my original hike is located.  And every trail and fire road in Shenandoah National Park.  And every mile of the Appalachian Trail from the Virginia/ Tennessee border north into Pennsylvania - over 600 miles.

Since that first hike, I now have a GPS library of over 250 Virginia hikes. I led trail map revisions for the PATC covering the Blue Ridge from Shenandoah National Park down past the James River - the latest revisions in a series of maps dating back to the 1930's. I've led hikes for the Boy Scouts, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, and the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club. I am leading five hikes this year before the end of March.  I've maintained this blog since 2009.  I write for the website Hiking Upward. I own a large personal library of Virginia trail guides. Yet I am still far from the most knowledgeable person around here when it comes to trails.  There is still much to explore!

But twenty-five years ago I didn't know the local trails and I wanted to know the mountains better. So I joined a hiking group.  They showed me trails around Sherando and taught me that Winter hiking in Virginia is spectacular.  They took me into Three Ridges Wilderness before it was a wilderness - in the snow, when there was no one else there.  They showed me Elliot Knob and its spectacular views. They convinced me to purchase an annual pass to access trails in Shenandoah National Park. I am forever grateful for their expertise and the knowledge those hike leaders passed on to me.
From Ellot Knob.
Thanks to the internet, there are many more options for learning about hikes today, and many groups where you can sign up and participate on hikes. Many more options than I had! But some are much better than others, and here is why.

I cannot recommend strongly enough to new hikers that they hike with one of the local trail clubs.  Most new hikers won't do this - they will join a Meetup group instead. And I like Meetup groups - I am a member of several. There are hiking meetup groups for folks living in every part of Virginia. There are Virginia-based meetups sponsored by outdoors stores.  There are meetups for folks wanting to hike with dogs or with babies.  There are meetups for folks wanting long hikes or short ones.  There are meetups for singles.

But nearly every single Meetup falls critically short in several critical areas if you are an inexperienced hiker.  So before you join any hiking group, ask the leaders these questions:

1. What does your group do to help maintain trails in our area?
Most new hikers don't immediately go out and maintain trails, but without volunteers to maintain our trails, they fall into disuse.  The trail groups I link to at the end of this post all maintain trails in addition to offering hikes.  You don't have to be a member of the trail group to go on the hikes, and you don't have to maintain trails to be a member of a trail group.  But becoming a member of your local trail group allows the group to have the money to purchase the equipment to do trail maintenance.  I believe that every avid hiker owes it to the community to give back a small portion of the time, and am a trail maintainer for a section of the Appalachian Trail, as well as a participant in trail groups maintaining trails in Ramsey's Draft Wilderness. I believe that every hiking group is responsible for promoting a percentage of time devoted to trail work.  Ask your hike leader if s/he volunteers to maintain trails and if the group sponsors trail work - you may be surprised that they do not!

And here is an added bonus.  I hike regularly with the Natural Bridge Appalachian Club, linked below.  Often, their Saturday hike routes are the same trails that their Wednesday trail crews cleaned up earlier in the week!  So a hike with the NBATC is almost always on newly maintained trails.

Does your hiking group do this?

2. What training does your group's leaders have in Wilderness First Aid?
Nearly every hiking group is going to ask you to sign a waiver which waives liability if you injure yourself on the trail. But if you do get hurt when out hiking, don't you want your leader to be experienced in the ways to get you back to civilization with a minimum of risk? And shouldn't your leader bear some blame if s/he takes you to a place the leader should have known is dangerous? I re-certified for Wilderness First Aid in January.  Certification lasts two years, and I've been certified three times.  Each time I have to give up an entire weekend for an exhausting 20 hours of classroom and practice time.  Most of the other hike leaders in my trail club have done the same - in fact, my trail club contributes to the cost of recertification!  I feel I owe it to the people who put their trust in me as their hike leader. Anyone can be a hike leader, but not everyone goes through the training.  And without the training, your hike leader won't know what First Aid equipment to bring in case of an emergency. And, while not every trail group hike leader has Wilderness First Aid training, I've found a higher percentage do in the trail maintaining clubs.

3. Has the hike leader actually hiked the trail s/he is leading, or did she read about it in a book or on a website like the one that I write for - Hiking Upward?  Does s/he have maps?
There was a story a few years back about a scout troop that backpacked on the AT near my home.  It snowed overnight and the scout leaders did not know how to get out without retracing their steps over suddenly icy trails.  They didn't know the area and had an insufficient map, so they didn't know they were very near an easy bugout route that would return them to civilization.  Instead, they called the rescue squad and ended up in the newspapers. Remember: anyone can find a hike online and lead a group there.  Because trail groups include members who work on the trails, their knowledge is likely much higher.  At a minimum, your trail leader should know the hike and have hiked it before during the time of year you will be going. (Not just Winter!  I've been on trails totally overgrown and hard to follow in Summer that were easy in other seasons.) When I hike with trail maintaining clubs, often not just the hike leader, but many of the participants also know the trail exceptionally well - and participants often have special interests, like birds or flowers, that can add greatly to the hike experience.

4. How many other hikers are going?  
Depending on the location of your hike, there are federal regulations restricting the number of hikers that can hike together. Areas include federally designated wilderness areas, such as St. Mary's. Devil's Marbleyard, Hanging Rock in Three Ridges, The Priest and Ramsey's Draft.  Does your hike leader know about this restriction and account for it?  If your hike is projected to be in a wilderness area and your hike leader has opened the hike to 15 hikers, there is something not right.

If you are new to Virginia and enthusiastic about additional hiking opportunities, I encourage you to check out and join your local trail maintaining group. There are links below to many of the clubs in Virginia, and most have links to their upcoming schedules and/or newsletters.  You do not need to live near the club to join!  I am a member of several of these clubs. Trail maintaining groups in Virginia include:

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club - Maintains trails in Shenandoah National Park, 250+ miles of the AT, and a large number of National Forest trails.  They have chapters for local areas, including:
PATC Charlottesville Chapter  (Here is a link to their blog describing previous hikes: Link.)
PATC Southern Shenandoah Valley Chapter (Harrisonburg and Waynesboro)
Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club (Lynchburg and Lexington)
Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club (central Virginia including Richmond)
Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club (southeastern Virginia)
Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club (includes Christiansburg, Radford, and Blacksburg)
Outdoor Club at Virginia Tech (open to the public)
Piedmont Appalachian Trail Hikers (mostly North Carolina, with Virginia members)

I know your membership will prove to be a rewarding experience. It has for me.