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.