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?

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