Sunday, May 3, 2020

Beards Mtn/Gillam Run Trails, GWNF

If you hike the trails in Douthat State Park, there are several access points that can take you beyond the park's trails into the surrounding George Washington National Forest.  COVID hiking means finding trails that are more rarely used, so I've been exploring the GWNF's Beards Mountain Trail northeast of Douthat.  This trail is most regularly used by mountain bikers, even though it lacks the long descents more common in trails further north in the National Forest.  The first time I hiked part of it, pre-COVID in November 2019, my hiking partners and I saw evidence of bikers but no other trail users.  I returned six months later and encountered a group of three mountain bikers - one of whom said I was the first person he'd ever seen on the trail outside of his group.  Douthat trails will be more widely used.

Below are a couple of hiking options using the Beards Mountain Trail, located in Bath County, in the Warm Springs Ranger District of the GWNF.

Entire Beards Mountain Trail 

It is possible to hike the entire Beards Mtn Trail from its trailhead at the Walton Tract on the Cowpasture River off of Rt 42.  It is a long hike to the first trail inside of Douthat however, at about 7.3 miles each way, with an ascent of 2250 feet.  Add in the closest loop within the park, at 3.4 miles, and you have a very long 18 mile hike.

Walton Tract location is below.  Scroll in, and you can see the pedestrian bridge over the river.

Hiking just a portion of this trail from the north is worthwhile, even without reaching Douthat.  Much of the Beards Mountain Trail is beautiful, with sections of the trail hugging steep slopes and multiple vistas to the east towards Rough Mountain over the Cowpasture River Valley.

The northern access starts at the Walton Tract.  There is space for many vehicles here, and no one else was parked here when we were here.

Mile 0.0 - From the parking loop, head down an old road past a closed gate, going west.  The highlight of this portion of trail is the bridge over the Cowpasture River, which is right at the beginning of the trail.  There are wonderful views of the river from the bridge.  This section of trail is actually the Beards Mountain Spur Trail (#459A).  The blue blazed trail crosses the bridge and starts heading northeast - the opposite direction of Douthat - before hitting a ridge and swiveling southwest.

Mile 2.0 - After ascending along the sides of steep slopes, the Beards Mtn Spur Trail ends at the Beards Mtn Trail.  The sign here says it is 1.8 miles to the Walton Tract, but my GPS read 2.0 miles.

Mile 2.5 - Pass a point with nice views to the northwest.

Mile 3.2 - The trail ascends through a fairly open area which is likely overgrown during the summer.

Views from the top look east towards Rough Mountain.  This is a great place to soak in the views and the solitude.

Mile 5.2 - The Gillam Run Trail merges in from the right.  This trail descends west to a Forest Service road and is described in detail later in this post.

Mile 6.4 - Ascend to the top of an unnamed peak and enjoy views to the northwest, towards Warm Springs Mountain.

Mile 7.3 - Leave the George Washington National Forest and enter into Douthat State Park.  The boundary is marked by a foot high concrete post and multiple yellow boundary marker signs on trees. Douthat Lake is visible in the distance when the leaves are down.

Mile 7.6 - The Beards Mtn Trail ends at an intersection with Douthat's Mountain Top Trail.  This intersection is not noted by a trail sign, so it would be harder to know where to go if you approached initially from Douthat's trails, rather than approaching on the Beards Mtn Trail.  I had hiked the Mountain Top Trail before, and always assumed that Beards Mtn Trail intersected further south, where there is another concrete post and a sign stating that the trail has reached the border of the GWNF.  Although it is obvious that there is a trail heading off at the actual intersection, because it is unmarked it is important to know that the intersection is 0.4 mile north (and downhill) of the concrete post on the trail.

Douthat Access via Gillam Run and Beards Mountain Trails

The Gillam Run Trail starts closer to Douthat than the Walton Tract access.  If you want to include a loop hike inside of Douthat in your hike, starting here is the better option.  Access is off of the Douthat State Park Road heading north out of the park.  The turnoff is FDR 361, located 4.5 miles north of the Douthat Campground A turnoff, at the Oak Grove Advent Christian Church (Map).  FDR 361 is open only seven months of the year: April and May, and then again September, October, November, December and January. These are the better months to access the trail, as you can drive straight to the trailhead.  Otherwise, you have to walk FDR 361 from just past the church, an additional 1.5 miles each way.

I skipped the first trailhead for Gillam Run, as it dropped down by the run and there had been several days of rain prior to this hike.  I didn't want to start off with wet shoes and I knew that FDR 361 crosses the trail again.  Even the 1995 edition of Allen DeHart's must-have classic, The Trails of Virginia, states that the first part of the trail "may be overgrown" because it parallels FDR 361 - 25 years ago.

If the gate is closed, you may want to try this portion of the trail.  It didn't meet the road where my GPS mapping indicated it would be, but was a little further up the road and is clearly marked on the left side of the road by a trail sign.

I stayed on the road, passing a brand new clearcut on my right with large log haulers still on the road.  When the road forked, I cut left until I came to a small turnoff - a possible campsite - about 300 yards short of the trail crossing at the spot highlighted below.

After that, the road drops down to Gillam Run and its eponymous trail, but there were no good parking spots closer to the trail crossing.

Mile 0.0 - Park your vehicle.  Walk further on FDR 361 downhill until you see the trail sign on your right.  A little further up the road is a trail sign on your left, which indicates the other trail section heading west back towards the church you passed on your way in.

Behind the trail sign, the trail starts out pretty overgrown - chiefly by Maple saplings.  You don't have to travel too far pushing through these things before they thin out.  The trail is always easy to follow.  Much of it is completely covered in moss, clearly indicating that mountain bikes seldom use this trail. The trail climbs quickly and steadily, traveling 0.85 miles to its end asceding 788 feet at a grade of 17%.  It isn't long before views across the valley are possible.

Mile 1.0 - Reach the Beards Mtn Trail.  Turn right at this point to get to Douthat State Park.  Follow directions for the Beards Mtn Trail found earlier in this post.

Mile 3.4 - Beards Mtn Trail ends at Douthat's Mountain Top Trail.  I took the Mountain Top Trail to the right here, continuing a descent that began at the state park boundary.  Note where these two trails meet, as the intersection is not marked and you will return to your car via the Beards Mtn Trail. You will notice that Douthat trails are much more regularly maintained than GWNF trails. Shortly after passing this intersection, and before a sharp switchback, is a wonderful view west towards Douthat Lake.

Mile 4.0 - Leave the Mountain Top Trail and take the Mountain Side Trail.  At this point, you are at the lowest elevation of the hike, other than the very beginning and end of the hike.  The Mountain Side Trail is relatively level over its short distance with a small stream crossing and multiple nice vistas.

Mile 5.3 - The Mountain Side Trail ends at the Mountain Top Trail, slightly past the half way point of this hike.  Take a left here and start a big climb, passing this nice view of the Cowpasture River in the distance.

Mile 6.4 - Reach the high point on the Mountain Top Trail.  This is the point where the George Washington National Forest Boundary is noted on the trail, but it is not the intersection with the Beards Mtn Trail back to your vehicle.  (I had always thought it was.) Stay on the Mountain Top Trail and descend.

Mile 6.8 - The Beards Mountain Trail cuts right at an intersection that is not marked by a trail sign.  The trail is otherwise pretty clear here.  Take the right fork to climb the Beards Mtn Trail and exit Douthat State Park.

Mile 9.2 - Arrive back at the intersection for the Gillam Run Trail.  Take this trail to the left, and descend to FDR 361.

Mile 10.0 - Reach FDR 361.  Turn left and ascend the road to your parked vehicle.

Mile 10.2 - Return to your vehicle.

Total ascent for this hike, including the Douthat loop, is about 2,600 feet. Trails described are highlighted in black on the map below.

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