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 Cathedral 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

Cathedral 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 Cathedral 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 Cathedral 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 Cathedral 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.