Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Maple Springs Trail, GWNF North River District

The Maple Springs Trail is the most convenient mountain trail to Harrisonburg, Virginia.  Nevertheless, after the first mile, it is very seldom hiked.  Which is a shame, because a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club volunteer recently spent 80 hours rehabilitating a trail that had become overgrown.  I hiked it with that volunteer and with several others from the Southern Shenandoah Valley Chapter (SSVC) of the PATC.

It is important to note that the SSVC recently entered into an agreement with the North River District of the George Washington/Jefferson National Forest to maintain many of the trails west of Staunton and Harrisonburg in that District. As a result of this agreement, work that the SSVC had been doing for several years will be tallied and submitted to the Forest Service.  I have agreed to take on several of the trails in that district.  They aren't the most convenient trails to my home, but many of them desperately need the work.  So I signed up to be responsible for several of my favorites.

To get to the Maple Springs Trail, drive west on U.S. 33 from downtown Harrisonburg.  Approximately 11 miles west of downtown is a road on the left to Rawley Springs.  Take that road, being careful to watch for traffic coming in the other direction (sight distances are not great here), and follow it all the way to the back of the neighborhood.  You will see some nice, kind of funky, houses along the drive.  There is a parking lot in the back that holds about eight vehicles.
Parking lot, complete with a guy tracking his bear dogs.
At 5.1 miles each way, the Maple Springs Trail is one of the longer hiking trails in the North River District.  (The Shenandoah Mountain Trail and trails in Hone Quarry and to the summit of Reddish Knob are longer.)
Rocks next to parking lot.
Adjoining the parking lot is a small cliff face that is reportedly popular among local climbers, though we did not see anyone.  Start the hike by going past the gate preventing vehicles from going further on the road. You are immediately treated to a beautiful view of Gum Run looking upstream. 

 Right after that, the trail crosses Gum Run for the first of many crossings.  The trail along Gum Run is the prettiest part of this hike, particularly in mid-October!

The trail follows Gum Branch for the first 1.7 miles, crossing it multiple times.  The trail can be rocky at times, and obviously, can be treacherous during times of high water. Follow the yellow blazes, freshly applied in the Summer of 2019.

For the first two miles, the elevation gain is relatively gradual.  After the trail leaves the stream bed, it starts to climb.  Over the next 3.2 miles, the trail gains nearly 2000 feet in elevation.  The trail gets steep on occasion - it isn't for hikers who are out of shape.  It averages a hefty 19% grade between miles 2.2 and 3.2.

There really aren't any views on this hike, at least while the leaves are out.  It climbs 5.1 miles before reaching a woods road, after an elevation gain of 2378 feet.  We turned around at that point.  What it gives you is some pretty stream crossings, a good workout, and much solitude.  Your chances of seeing someone else on this trail are remote.  If this appeals, check it out - the trail is in great shape.

Monday, September 9, 2019

South Piney Mountain Trail, Warm Springs District, GWNF

The South Piney Mountain Trail is located in the Warm Springs District of GWNF, off of VA Rt. 39 as it climbs Warm Springs Mountain heading west.  I was out here on September 8, 2019, scouting for some trail work I'm coordinating on the Great Eastern Trail in early October with the PATC and a local hiking Meetup group.

If you have a social media account, I'm sure you've read people's posts where they express amazement that they went on a hike and never saw another hiker the entire time.  This is a hike where I would have been amazed if I had seen another hiker.  I believe nobody had been on this trail in months.

You can't even get to the trailhead without some major effort.  Both the northern and southern trailheads are located on Jordan Run Road, a dirt road off of Virginia 39, about halfway up Warm Springs Mountain.  The turn comes really fast - you better hope nobody is behind you climbing the mountain!  And it is gated part of the year.  The first 3 miles are open all year, but much of that is over a private property easement and is really rutted.  At the 3 mile mark is a gate that is open April and May, and then again September 1 through January 31. (This coordinates to Spring and Winter hunting seasons, with a month extra in the Fall so hunters can scout the area for game.) During the other five months of the year, the remaining 3.5 miles of Jordan Run Road are gated. Although the southern trailhead is only 0.2 miles beyond the gate, there is no place to park or turn around at the gate, to my recollection.
Map of loop hike, traced in Red.
Red road at bottom is Virginia Rt 39, heading west over Warm Springs Mtn.

When you reach the southern trailhead, there's no trail sign or evidence at the road that a trail even exists.  I spent several minutes on the road looking for a trail's existence before I saw something that looked like it might be a trail.  The area was marked by a pink ribbon on the road, with a wide spot on the road to park, and my GPS indicated that the trail met the road where I parked.  Only after I looped back at the end of the hike did I see a tree with a blue blaze down below the road - but though I took a photo, I don't see the blaze on the tree in the photo.
View from Jordan Run Road of the trail's southern end. 
The trail becomes more obvious after crossing the downed log near the center of the photo.

Jordan Run Road looking south at the southern trailhead for the South Piney Mtn Trail.
GPS coordinates for the trailhead are N38° 03.568' W79° 45.004'.

I didn't continue further north on Jordan Run Road because there was a section of roadway that was very muddy and rutted.  I was alone, and did not want to get the 4Runner stuck on some remote dirt forest road 90 miles from home.
Beyond Hiking Dog, the road is muddy and rutted across its entire width.
The 4Runner is 2WD, and I wasn't going to chance getting stuck.
Before turning northbound, the trail heads southeast as it drops in elevation to cross the headwaters of a stream named Jordan Run.  This stream drains the eastern slope of Warm Spring Mountain before turning east next to Virginia Rt. 39 and eventually emptying into the Cowpasture River. (The Cowpasture winds south until it meets the Jackson River from further west.  These two rivers combine to form the James.)

This part of the trail is very pretty, as it makes its way through thick groves of Magnolia, crossing Jordan Run, and starting its climb to the crest of Big Piney Mountain.

It is clear that this trail was once maintained. 
These cuts would have been beyond my abilities on this hike.

The trail crosses Jordan Run at this point.

I spent a lot of time on this part of the trail, armed with a pair of loppers, attempting to make the trail passable once again.  The first mile of this hike took me 1 hour, 25 minutes as I attempted to open up the climb to Big Piney Mountain.
This shows the change in a part of the trail I worked on.
It is hardly at Appalachian Trail level standards, but at least the trail is now visible.
The part of the trail I worked on is newer than the original Big Piney Trail, which maps from the 1940's show coming up from the southeast, rather than today's southwestern end.  The trail across the long crest of Big Piney Mountain shows up on USGS topographic maps dating back to 1946.  I gave up on trail work because I still had a majority of my hike in front of me, and I hoped that once I reached the crest of the mountain and started traversing its long length, I'd find the trail in better shape.

View of Warm Springs Mountain from South Piney Mtn Trail.
I was too optimistic.

Once on top, the trail was generally easy to follow (just stay at the center of the ridgetop!  Once I thought the trail left the ridge top, and I needed to bushwhack my way back to the crest to find the trail again).  At some point, someone painted blue blazes on trees at regular intervals (this could have been 30 years ago, though).  And the ground often showed evidence of previous trail use,  There were corridors without large trees along the ridge line - straight as an arrow for times. So the trail was not very hard to follow.  But it was overgrown and in need of a good bushhog.  There is just too much to clear out without mechanical help - 100 volunteers with loppers probably could not clear this trail in a day because it was let go too long.

Trail goes straight ahead.

An example of the overgrown trail.

A little after the three mile mark, the trail meets another trail that comes in from the right.  This trail has had various names, including the Walnut Tree Hollow Trail, the Big Piney Mtn Trail, and now, it is part of the long distance Great Eastern Trail (GET).  Following this side trail off of the mountain takes you east to a Forest Service road as the GET heads north to New York.  I led a work trip back in June that attacked blowdowns and overgrowth on this section of trail.  We aim to return in October to finish off what we started, and my original plan was to come at this trail section from Jordan Run Road.  But because of the muddy road described earlier, our approach will be dependent having enough four wheel drive vehicles to bring trail workers to the trailhead.  Back in June, we made it almost to the intersection with the South Piney Mtn Trail, so I still hope we can approach from the west.  It is only 0.4 miles from the Jordan Run Road (with virtually no elevation gain), but it is 2 miles and a 600 foot ascent from the Bath Alum Ridge Road to the east.
Note the blue blaze on the tree - one of several subtle indications I was still on the trail.
At this intersection, the GET heads north to the right and south straight ahead.  Because these two segments are designated as parts of the long distance GET, they are the trail segments that need upkeep priority.  Ironically, the section to the right isn't even on the latest Trails Illustrated map of the area, but it has more of a future than the trail I hiked to this point, because of the GET.  The section of trail I hiked to this point is found on that map, and it is called the "Piney Mtn Trail" rather than the older "South Piney Mtn" designation I give it here.

Continuing north on what is now the Piney Mtn Trail/Great Eastern Trail, I reached the Jordan Run Road at a hunter's campsite along the side of the road.  GPS coordinates for this northern trailhead are N38° 05.296' W79° 43.644'. The road here is wide, dry and smooth for a dirt road.  It would be easy to drive past here and not realize a trail crossed the road. There is no sign for the trail here. I took a left here and headed back 3.4 additional miles to my vehicle on this road, completing a loop that measured just under 7.5 miles.  I did not see anyone along the entire hike, even on the road.
Jordan Run Road from where the GET crosses, looking south.

After crossing Jordan Run Road heading northbound.
GET/Piney Mtn Trail heads into the woods at the center point in this photo.
My takeaway from this hike is that I hiked a trail that will soon be so overgrown that it will be unhikeable, despite having existed for close to 75 years. I doubt the Forest Service will even keep it on its lists as an active trail much longer, choosing instead to decommission it. Although this makes me sad - the Forest Service doesn't have the resources to keep the trail clear and there aren't enough hikers in this part of Virginia who care enough to take on the task - the trail itself had little to keep it going.  It was a nice forest route, but had no real overlooks after one small one on the initial climb.  There were no waterfalls, or anything of note along the trail.  It doesn't connect other points, but starts and ends at a National Forest road that is open only part of the year.  It doesn't provide a "killer workout" that will have your heart racing. It is not easy to reach and is very isolated.  Just being isolated is not enough anymore; there aren't any "Instagram moments" on this route.  I didn't see anyone on this hike, while undoubtedly hundreds of hikers at the exact same time were hiking to Virginia landmarks like Old Rag, Grayson Highlands, Mary's Rock, Big Schloss, McAfee Knob, and a handful of additional prime spots where jealousy-inducing selfies can be obtained.

Because of this isolation and trail condition, this loop should not be attempted by hiking novices. But I enjoyed the solitude and the connection to the land the route exhibited, stretching back over 70 years.  Get out here soon (preferably in Winter) if you aim to experience it, and be prepared to push through a couple of miles of brush.

Hike details - 
Total Distance: 7.4 miles 
Total Time: 4 hours, 48 minutes, but due to trailwork only moving for 3.5 hours.

Starting Elevation: 2200 ft.
Low Point: 2094 ft.
Highest Point: 2918 ft.
Difference: 824 ft.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Tea Creek Trails, WV, July 26, 2019

The Tea Creek area of the Monongahela National Forest is home to a network of interconnected trails offering a challenge to any level hiker.  Like its neighbor just to the south - the more famous Cranberry Wilderness - the Tea Creek trail system presents a physical and mental challenge to complete that far exceeds trail lengths and elevation gains, thanks to rugged terrain and wet conditions. Unlike Cranberry Wilderness, trails are well marked and are being reconstructed after multiple floods, due to the efforts of private mountain biking groups.  This loop hike begins and ends at the Tea Creek Campground that is maintained by the USFS.

I stayed at the Tea Creek Campground. What a delightful place! 
Large, private, quiet campsites for a great price - $10, but I paid only $5 because, as owner of a federal National Parks pass (valid for 5 more days), I qualified for a discount.

But I was unprepared for the temps.  It had been so hot in Charlottesville for so long that I just brought a summer bag and a wool blanket, and that would not have kept me warm in the tent.  So hiker dog and I slept in the back of the 4Runner instead.  It meant that we could not enjoy the sounds of Tea Creek when we slept that night.

Driving up the road to this campground brought back memories for me.  Two Julys previous, I completed a 33.3 mile backpack in Cranberry Wilderness next door that included my toughest hiking day ever - 24.6 miles over 13 hours that included a trail that disappeared over the last 7 miles of the day. I was so spent at the end that I got sick when I reached my car.  This trip went easier, but the trail was still a lot tougher than it looked on the map.  On this loop, I got soaked and pelted with hail.  I slipped into Tea Creek during one crossing.  I came home with boots that took multiple days of cleaning to get rid of the mud.  Those boots had been waterproof in the past, but not on this outing.  Even the dog looked spent halfway through this loop!

As related in the trail description below, this area went through some devastating flooding in 2016 - most of the state was designated a disaster area.  Because these trails are open to mountain bikes, the bikers have been working hard to rehabilitate the trails after the floods.  Some of the trail work is amazing!  I don't think these areas would remain accessible without this work.  So a big thank you to those rehabilitating the trails. How you got the tons of gravel dropped on the trail miles from any road is an amazing mystery!

Here is a description of the loop I took when camping here.  11.7 miles, 1700 feet ascent, 6 hours to complete.  Slow!  Because there were tough conditions.

Mile 0.0 – If you don't camp there, you start the hike in the parking area at the front of the campground.  To your right you will see a kiosk and trail sign for the Williams River Trail, which you will use at the very end of this loop.  There is a hand pump here and parking for 6-10 cars.  The campground is relatively large with 28 private campsites – including some along Tea Creek. Start the hike by walking up the campground road on your right, straight up the road you used to enter the campground.  Pass the campground pit toilets on your left, then several campsites. 

Mile 0.3 – Come to the end of the public road, where there is a turnaround. The trail will be on your left – it is a woods road behind a gate marked as the Bannock Shoals Trail.  Go around the gate and start up the Bannock Shoals Trail (unblazed).

Mile 0.6 – In a small open meadow, look for a sign announcing the blue blazed Turkey Point Connector Trail.  You could continue straight on the Bannock Shoals Trail and get to the same place, but it takes a lot longer and doesn’t seem as interesting.  Take a right onto the Turkey Point Connector Trail. 

Mile 0.5 – The Turkey Point Connector Trail starts with a mild climb on an old woods road before  the trail leaves the road, switches back, finds another woods road, and begins climbing more steeply, reaching a grade of 20 percent for a while before the trail ends at the top of the mountain – one of the steeper trails in the entire state.  The trail is very rocky in parts, and looks much like several of the trails in Cranberry Wilderness to the south.  Although it would seem like a rough descent, this trail is reportedly popular with mountain bikers, and tire channels could be seen in every wet spot on the trail – indicating recent bike use.  Be alert!
Mile 2.1 – Reach the crest of the mountain.  The Turkey Point Connector Trail ends here and the blue blazed Turkey Point Trail begins, but it is difficult to determine exactly where the switchover occurs. The top of the mountain is supposed to be circled by a small loop trail that is part of the Turkey Point Trail, but there was no evidence of a loop during a July hike – perhaps it would be more visible during the Winter.

Mile 2.7 – After a brief level period, the trail begins to climb again while passing through an interesting area with large boulders.

Mile 3.0 – An intersection with the Saddle Loop Trail is marked by a trail sign and a map.  Keep going straight on the Turkey Point Trail. 

Mile 3.6 – Intersect with the Boundary Trail at the high point on this loop, just over 4300 feet elevation.  The Turkey Point Trail ends here. Continue to the right, downhill on the Boundary Trail, hiking along the edge of the National Forest lands. 

Mile 4.1 – The forest opens up to the north due to some old clear cuts on private lands.  Some trail guides claim that beautiful views are available towards Cranberry Wilderness on trail sections crossed earlier on this hike, but those views did not exist in Summer.  

Mile 5.7 – Encounter the first of many stream crossings.  Note the old rail ties in the trail after this point – you will see them frequently, as the trail uses an old rail bed. The rails are long gone, but the ties remain in places.  Mountain bike groups are reconstructing trail sections to avoid the ties.
Mile 6.6 – Descend to two stream crossings in rapid order. The second crossing is the main branch of Tea Creek.  You will follow Tea Creek for the rest of the hike, back to your vehicle.  Don’t think that it will be easy however; this is a deceptively tough trail (especially if wet), which will have you descending another 1,000 feet over the next 5 miles.  Just after crossing Tea Creek, you will come to a somewhat confusing trail intersection.  The Boundary Trail ends at the blue blazed Tea Creek Trail, which you take to the right.  Just after that is an intersection for the Bear Pen Ridge Trail.  Stay to the right on the Tea Creek Trail.  This trail forms the backbone for much of the backcountry traveling in this area, so you are most likely to see other trail users during the remaining miles of the loop.
Mile 6.8 – Cross Tea Creek again, and keep crossing back and forth nine times over the next mile and a half. Keep an eye out for blue diamonds to help you determine whether to cross. When crossing, the rocks can be slick and the stream banks high.  This trail can prove both physically and mentally exhausting, but it is very beautiful.  It might remind you of the Ramsey’s Draft Trail in Virginia, though this is a tougher hike.  You should not have too much trouble figuring out where the name of the creek came from, after crossing it a few times.

Mile 7.4 – Traverse a new section of trail constructed by a mountain biking group. Part of the reason this section of trail is so tough is its history – Tea Creek has washed away trail and bridges many times over the years, including in June 2016 due to a storm described as a “1,000-year event -- meaning that much rainfall in a single event occurs only once in about 1,000 years.”  Because of ongoing construction, this will probably be an easier hike as time passes.

Mile 8.4 – You may find that the toughest stream crossing is over the Right Fork of Tea Creek.
After this crossing, pass the trail intersection for the Right Fork Tea Creek Trail, which connects with the North Fork Trail.  Just after that is the one great camping option on this loop: an Adirondack style shelter (one of three such structures in the area).

Mile 11.1 – The hike gets easier after the shelter, with no more major stream fords and less rocky ground.  But at 11.1 miles it leaves the Tea Creek floodplain and climbs part way up the mountainside before continuing south towards the end of the hike. There are stripped areas of mountainside with streams of water coming down, which seems to indicate high volumes of water washed away the soil in the not-too-distant past.

Mile 11.6 – Reach the Tea Creek Mountain Trail and the end of the Tea Creek Trail.  Turn right and merge into the Williams River Trail, which you take over a new pedestrian bridge, which replaced the one washed away in 2016. Underneath the bridge can be seen the line of rocks that hikers used before the bridge was replaced.  Stop for a minute to appreciate Tea Creek one last time before returning to the parking lot, 50 feet further.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Laurel Fork South Wilderness, West Virginia

Not to be confused with a primitive area in Highland County Virginia, West Virginia's Laurel Fork South Wilderness a quintessential wilderness experience in our part of the country.  Once owned by the Laurel River Lumber Company, the company stripped the area of all timber then sold the land to the United States government – the common way for eastern national forests to obtain acreage.  Without road access, and deep within a remote part of the forest, just under 6,000 acres obtained federal wilderness designation in 1983. Only a single forest road separates this wilderness from another 6,000 acres of wilderness to the north.  Along with the Cranberry Wilderness, the Laurel Forks are the oldest federally designated wilderness areas in the state.  The Laurel Fork wildernesses however are much less visited than most other wilderness areas in the state.  As one source stated, this “is not a place you visit on your way to somewhere else.” It take effort to get here, and that makes for a great experience.

Laurel Fork South Wilderness contains 9.5 miles of trails.  This hike follows much of the main trail through the Wilderness, the Laurel Fork Trail, along with the Camp 5 Trail.  This route can be hiked as an out-and-back from either the north or south end of the Wilderness, or it can be completed using a 25 minute car shuttle.  This description will describe the hike north to south as a shuttle, though this hike’s length is short enough for many hikers to complete as an out-and-back day hike.

This route presents much of what is great about this wilderness.  Because it is nearly entirely within federally designated wilderness, we do not recommend that inexperienced hikers attempt this hike. The trails, though generally easy to follow, are unblazed, seldom signed, and can seem to disappear at times.  Cellphone coverage is nonexistent.  The difficulty rating applies more to your remoteness, as there are no hard climbs. It follows two streams for its entire length. Wilderness regulations limit groups to ten or fewer hikers.

Mile 0.0 – Start the hike in the back end of the Laurel Fork Campground. Camping is available here between April 15 and December 1, at a cost of $10.00 per night. There is space in the back of this 15 site campground for a couple of vehicles, behind the campground privy.  Look for the trail sign and map at the back of the campground – this is the start of the trail.  Take a photo of the map if you do not have one with you. 
Parking area, noted from tire tracks.  At back of campground.

Trail starts here.

Mile 0.1 – The trail splits nearly right away, with one path going straight and another trail heading right, a little higher, passing by a piped spring.  The trails rejoin shortly after the spring.

Mile 0.5 – The Forks Trail comes in from the west here.  It is easy to miss this intersection. Down by the river is a grove of hemlocks that create a nice campsite, about 100 yards off trail, with no trail leading to it. We once passed a ranger here, camping with his little girls, who said this is the best campsite in the entire national forest!  From here, the trail varies between looking down at Laurel Fork and coming right next to the streambed always on the west side of Laurel Fork.
Trail looks down on river.

Trail nest to river.

Mile 1.5 – Cross a small stream and come to a trail intersection.  This is the end of the Beulah Trail (T310), which ascends west to FR 14 and then continues to its western terminus at FR 44, about a half mile north of the trailhead for the High Falls of the Cheat.  Continue straight on the Laurel Fork Trail.
Trailhead sign.

Mile 2.7 – The trail enters a level, somewhat swampy area where the trail seems to disappear.  This is the only tough area to follow the route.  Cross through the field, cut through a small area of trees, and come to another field.  Cross that field, and look for a stone cairn in the woods on the other side, which marks the trail.  Do not go upslope, but stay somewhat near the stream.  If you just charge through this area, you should see a defined trail again on the other side of these fields.  Recognize that the fields can get pretty high towards the end of summer, as shown by this photo of the trail here, taken in late July.
May photo.  Trail disappears.

July photo.

Mile 2.9 – Cross a small stream. 
Mile 3.3 – The canopy opens up briefly to provide a view of the nearby countryside before dropping back under cover.  Shortly after this point, at Mile 3.5, the trail reconnects with Laurel Fork and a fine campsite can be seen directly across the stream. The trail is wonderfully dark and mysterious through here, thanks to a large grove of hemlocks that have become a rarity in the past 25 years.

Campsite across Laurel Fork

Mile 4.1 – Travel through a series of fine campsites, located under a grove of hemlocks. In the middle of this grove, the trail crosses Camp Five Run, which can be a somewhat tough crossing in the Spring.  Look for a trail to your right just after the stream crossing.  This is the Camp Five Run Trail.  Leave the Laurel Fork Trail here and turn right onto the Camp Five Run Trail, which follows Camp Five Run.   

Camp Five Run Trail sign.

Campsite at trail intersection.
Mile 5.0 – Encounter the first of a series of four stream crossings within a short amount of time.

Mile 5.7 – Exit the wilderness between a pair of signs and come into an open area with a pond on your right.  This pond is popular with fishermen.  Turn around here if this hike is an out-and-back.

Mile 5.8 – Pass the Middle Mountain Cabins on your left. These are depression-era cabins originally built for forest service workers. The end of the Camp Five Run Trail goes right through the parking lot and access road for these cabins.  Respect the privacy of anyone staying there and continue out to FR 14.  You can leave a car on the opposite side of FR 14 from the access to the cabins, leaving the lot you walk through for renters.  The Camp Five Run Trail is marked at FR 14. 

Mile 6.0 – Cross FR 14 to your vehicle.

This is a pretty easy trail with little elevation gain, but an inexperienced hiker could get lost here. The trail never crosses Laurel Fork.  The length as described is 6.0 miles with a total elevation gain of about 900 feet.  It takes 2.5-3.5 hours to complete.

Trailhead Map: