Friday, September 4, 2020

Gauley Mtn/Tea Creek Loop, WV

I spent a weekend in August camping in the Monongahela National Forest with friends, and going out on day hikes.  I had been out to the Tea Creek area just last year (Link), and this year's outing gave me a chance to explore more of the trails.  Whereas I started last year's hike from lower elevations at the Tea Creek Campground, this year I started a hike from the Highlands Scenic Highway, starting high, dropping down mid-way, and then slowly regaining elevation over the last third of the hike.  This loop goes really deeply into the Tea Creek trail system over its 13.5 miles.  It would make a good overnight backpacking trip for an experienced hiker.

If you go, you will find hikes in both Tea Creek and nearby Cranberry Wilderness to be soggy during the driest times.  Downpours are common and stream crossings frequent; expect wet feet because your Gore-Tex boots are not going to cut it here. One hiking colleague happily traversed this loop in Chaco sandals - and he is the most experienced hiker I know.  So if you have comfortable hiking sandals, you'd be well served to bring them on this hike.

This is a well-known mountain biking area.  You may encounter bikers and you will certainly see their tracks in the muddy trail.  Always be alert, however we crossed paths with no trail users of any kind hiking this loop on a Saturday in August.

Mile 0.0 – Start the hike in a parking area just off of the Highlands Scenic Highway that holds 8-10 vehicles.  Be sure to check out the Little Laurel Overlook across the highway from the trailhead at the beginning or end of this hike, as you will find the best vistas in this area on turnoffs from the highway. The overlook also has a covered picnic table and a set of privies. At the trailhead, there is a kiosk and trail sign for the Tea Creek Mountain Trail, but this loop is not using that trail.  Instead, start the hike by going through the gate at the beginning of the parking lot and follow the metal signs through the meadow.
View of Parking Lot.  Though a trail starts behind the brown sign, we did not take that trail.

Follow trail past fence into field.

Signposts and mowing denote the trail through the field.
Mile 0.3 – Drop somewhat steeply after the meadow turns to forest and come to a trail intersection that includes a trail map of the area – these maps are common at major trail intersections in the Tea Creek area. Turn right here onto the Right Fork Connector Trail (TR 411) and hike through some dark spruce woods.  You will return to this spot at the very end of this loop hike.

After leaving the field, drop down to the first intersection, and turn right.

Major trail intersections have signposts with a map to help keep you from getting lost.

Hiking the Right Fork Connector (TR 111) through a dark forest of Red Spruce.

Mile 0.4 – Pass the intersection for the Tea Creek Interpretive Trail (TR 489), continuing straight. 
Mile 0.9 – The Right Fork Connector Trail ends at an intersection with the Gauley Mountain Trail (TR 438).  Take a left onto the Gauley Mountain Trail. 

Gauley Mtn Trail
Mile 1.7 – Pass through a small meadow, providing a rare glimpse to the sky on this loop.  The trail on this part of the loop is relatively level, following contours as it zigzags north.

Mile 3.3 – The eastern end of the Red Run Trail (TR 439) meets the Gauley Mountain Trail here.  For a shorter version of this loop, you can take the Red Run Trail 1.8 miles, where it ends at the Right Fork Tea Creek Trail (TR 453), then take a left two miles back to your vehicle, for a loop of 7.1 miles. (Note that the posted trail maps state that TR 439 is 2.5 miles long – it is not.  It is 1.8 miles long.)  For the longer hike described here, continue straight on the Gauley Mountain Trail, passing over the first of two high points on this hike.

Determining the next route at the Gauley Mtn/Red Run Trail intersection.

Red Run Trail as seen from the Gauley Mtn Trail.
Mile 4.2 – Turn left on the Bear Pen Ridge Trail (TR 440).  You now leave the Gauley Mountain Trail, which continues another 1.4 miles until it ends at a Forest Service Road.  Over the next 3/10 mile, the Bear Pen Ridge Trail climbs up to the second of two high points on this loop. Despite the relatively high elevation, the trail remains wet much of the time.

Gauley Mtn/Bear Pen Ridge Trail intersection.

Climbing to the highest point on the trail.

So much moss on trails in this area!
Mile 5.9 – The trail passes the first of two Adirondack style shelters found along this loop, in a clearing so small that it would be hard to stick a tent on the ground here.  This is the more remote, and therefore more likely to be unoccupied, of the two shelters you encounter on this loop, however it is also less than half way through this loop. 

Mile 6.4 – Pass a small chair made of flat rocks piled on each other. After this point, the trail drops over 900 feet over the next 2.8 miles – descending gradually until you reach the second shelter. 

Mile 6.6 – Descend to an intersection with the Tea Creek Trail.  

You will follow Tea Creek for the next 1.7 miles of this loop, though it often feels like you are hiking in Tea Creek.  This trail closely follows Tea Creek, with eight creek crossings, along with a crossing of the Right Fork Tea Creek.  None of these crossings will prove easy most of the year. Your hike pace will be its slowest during this part of the loop, as you stop to negotiate the best way to make it across Tea Creek without getting dunked. When crossing, the rocks can be slick and the stream banks high. Keep an eye out for blue diamonds to help you determine whether to cross. And while you are at it, also keep an eye out for something else blue – the rare Blue Crayfish (Cambarus monongalensis) – not much bigger than your thumb.  One of the hikers in our group found one on this trail section, though they are usually burrowing underground.

Mile 8.4 – Your last crossing is over the Right Fork of Tea Creek, at the lowest elevation of this hike. After this crossing, come to a somewhat confusing trail intersection on your left.  The maps indicate that this is the Right Fork Tea Creek Trail (TR 453), which later meets North Face Trail (TR 450).  But the sign seemed to indicate that the trail was the North Face Trail.  Either way, turn left onto the side trail, and quickly start gaining elevation while passing behind and above the second Adirondack shelter.  As you pass the shelter downslope on your right, look to the left for the best campsite on this loop, with room for 3-4 tents. This campsite is not visible from the more popular Tea Creek Trail below.

Tea Creek Shelter, as seen from the trail.
Mile 8.9 – Keep an eye out for a trail sign denoting the “Right Fork Trail.”  (This would seem a better name than the unwieldy “Right Fork Tea Creek Trail” shown on maps.)  At this sign, you switchback up the mountain, while the North Face Trail heads straight ahead.  The trail continues to climb using an old railroad bed, and turns to parallel the Right Fork Tea Creek, which you crossed just before the shelter.  For more than a half mile, the trail is much higher than the creek, but you can look down to see the water tumbling over and around rocks from the trail high above.

Mile 11.2 – Cross the stream you observed earlier from above.
Mile 11.5 – Pass the western end of the Red Run Trail (TR 439).  Early in this loop you passed the eastern end of this same trail.

Mile 11.6 – Cross the Red Run stream.
Mile 11.8 – Cross Right Fork Tea Creek again, and shortly afterward, pass a small campsite.

Mile 13.2 – Come to the intersection with the Right Fork Connector Trail (TR 411) after passing a small pond and evidence of lots of beaver activity.  

Keep straight, ascend steeply for a brief period, then come out on the meadow you passed through at the very beginning of this hike. 

Mile 13.5 – After following the signposts and crossing through the gate, return back to your vehicle.

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