Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Anthill/Slate Lick Loop, GWNF

This posting is part of my effort to document trails in the North River District of the George Washington National Forest that don't have much in the way of online descriptions. The Slate Lick area, northwest of Harrisonburg in the George Washington National Forest, is tough to find - I had to stop the car in multiple church parking lots to review my map.  Once you are in the area however, it is a delightful place surrounded by mountains. You will pass many dispersed, stream-side car campsites as you approach the trailhead within the National Forest, so it is easy to make this into a relaxing weekend trip with a basecamp and a nearby loop day hike.

Directions: Link.  

This loop features two very different trails.  The Anthill Trail climbs over 2,500 feet (leaving you to wonder who came up with that name because it is no anthill!), while the Slate Lick Trail slowly loses elevation in a forested stream valley.  They are connected by the Gauley Ridge Road (FS #240), which drops steeply between the two trails.  A nicer hike is to follow the loop clockwise, hiking the Anthill Trail first, as it avoids a steeper climb that is open to the sun on the Gauley Ridge Road.

Mile 0.0 – Start the hike in a parking area at the end of the public access portion of FS #230.  This parking is primarily used by fisherman accessing Slate Lick Lake, a forest service lake about a half-mile west of the parking area.  At the end of the parking lot is a closed gate for a Forest Service road you will take back to your vehicle.  Do not take this, but instead retrace your route briefly back the way you drove in.

Mile 0.1 – Take a right onto FS #1279.

Mile 0.3 – Pass a car campsite off of the road on your left. 

Mile 1.1 – A rough road that quickly turns into a trail enters from the right.  Continue on the main road.  Shortly after this, the road fords Buck Lick Run.

Mile 1.2 – Come to a closed gate.  A sign here says that the road beyond is open by permit only for permanently disabled hunters.  Continue on the road, heading uphill at a moderate clip.

Mile 1.8 – The road levels off at a point where multiple forest roads that are more overgrown converge. A small sliver of private property connects on your left (east). Although the road here continues downhill to a small lake you cannot see from this location in summer, look to the right for a metal marker signifying Trail #422.  Follow this, traversing on a grass covered old woods road.

Mile 2.6 – Reach a point where the old road ends at a turnaround.  Years ago, the trail started here, and it is still possible for those with a permit to drive to this point.  Beyond this, you will not be following a road but will be on a singletrack trail, occasionally marked by faded yellow blazes, that rides a ridge as it ascends heading west.

Mile 4.2 – On your left is an opening in the trees allowing for a partial vista southeast, where the southern end of Massanutten Mountain is clearly visible.  After this, the trail drops off the ridgetop and climbs the north side of the ridge.

Mile 4.8 – The trail travels through a section of forest that appears to have experienced a fire at least 10 years ago.  The taller trees here are dead, and the undergrowth is heavy in summer.  The trail is still easy to follow, but you are sharing the trail with many plants.  Unlike National Forest trails to the south and north of here, the trails on this loop are not maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.  Without maintenance, the trails can get somewhat overgrown. 

Mile 5.0 – The trail breaks out of the forest and greets the Gauley Ridge Road (formerly known as Vepco Road), FS 240, which is open to the public from April 1 to December 31 each year.  There is a small wildlife pond on your left.  You will descend this road to the Slate Lick Trail, but before you do you should ascend the road to the nearby power lines for the best view of the hike.  This adds 0.3 mile each way to your distance, and passes by a very nice car campsite with a big view.  Once you have gotten up to the cut created for the transmission lines, turn around and descend on the Gauley Ridge Road via several switchbacks after passing the spot where the Anthill Trail ended.

Mile 6.2 – The road passes under the power lines again, with a tower access road on your right. Stay on the main road.

Mile 7.1 – Reach the bottom of the ascent.  Maps may show a small pond on your right, but that does not exist. On your left is a large car campsite that a family has clearly adopted as their own, even placing memorial plaques on the site for deceased family members.  Pass another campsite on your right shortly afterward. 

Mile 7.4 – Just after crossing Slate Lick Branch, look to the right for a small, open, grassy area.  The Slate Lick Trail starts here, though there is no sign at the road.  You have to walk past the grass to the edge of the woods to find the trail sign.  Follow the Slate Lick Trail, blazed occasionally yellow, which slowly descends through stream bottomlands and crosses the stream several times.

Mile 10.5 – The trail connects to an old gravel road that runs along Slate Lick Lake, a dammed lake that had no one fishing it on an August Saturday afternoon.  Follow the road along the south end of the lake, passing over the dam and a sign with fishing regulations.

Mile 11.5 – Continue on the road until you return to the parking area, just after a closed gate.

My Details: 
Distance: 11.5 miles
Time Required: 4:55
Moving Time: 4:21 (I stopped and talked to a camper near the high point)
Minimum Elevation: 1340'
Maximum Elevation: 2931'
Total Ascent: 2000'
Elevation Profile:

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Something Worth Checking Out for Hikers: Strava Heatmaps

A friend alerted me recently to a new data source that I have found incredibly addicting, called Strava Heatmap, published by Strava.

Strava is an internet service designed to track outdoor exercise and is most normally used by runners and bikers, rather than hikers.  Nevertheless, I've had a free Strava account for several years, linked to my Garmin Connect account.  It proved useful mainly for notifying me, via my Garmin watch, that hikes I'd loaded onto Garmin Connect had been recorded. I never paid much attention to it otherwise.

As an aside, I upload hikes to the cloud for a couple of reasons. (1) Hard drives containing my GPS data regularly fail, and this provides a backup.  (2) Online can easily track miles on my various hiking boots, trail runners, and other equipment, and even my dog.

Those hikes go to Strava and are recorded as runs, though I've recently determined that I can change them to walks or hikes, because I don't run.  

Strava collects all "public" data they receive, aggregate it, and publish it in the form of a heat map.  A heat map visualizes the data, showing the location of each track one of their users makes, and the more people that go over the same trail, road etc, the brighter the line on the map.  Because so many runners use it, the brightest lines are often ovals on local high school tracks.  

Some details: 

  • The heatmap shows 'heat' made by aggregated, public activities over the last two years.
  • The heatmap is updated monthly.
  • Activity that athletes mark as private is not visible.
  • Athletes may opt out by updating their privacy settings.
  • Areas with very little activity may not show any 'heat.'

The data technically isn't "Hiking" data, but trails show up and show relative use - by trail runners and by hikers like me that have an account.  And that is the catch - you have to have a Strava account to see the maps.  

Here is an example of what it shows - this is the Hone Quarry region of the GWNF west of Harrisonburg and northeast of Reddish Knob.  I've named the various trails in this area.  The lighter the line, the more it has been traveled on foot over the past two years.  (You can also do bike routes and a combined bike/pedestrian.)

What this shows me is that the Hidden Rocks Trail in the lower right is very popular, as is the Cliff Trail and the waterfall trail off of the Slate Springs Trail.  Much less popular is the Mines Run Trail and, in the upper left corner, the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.  

There is so little use that the decomissioned Rocky Run Trail is barely visible just north of the Hidden Rocks Trail, but what this tells me is that the old trail might be passible and is worth checking out in the future - another level that the Heatmap can be helpful.

There are some settings that I switch on whenever I get onto this site.  First, I set it to pedestrian use - a little shoe in the legend.  Then I make sure both "Map" and "Labels" are selected (instead of "Satellite").  Labels helps tell you where on the big map you are located, though it is still sometimes hard to figure out where you are.  It is kind of like flying in a plane at night - big cities light up and their streets are very visible.  From there, I find my way to the trails area I want to look at.  

Here you can see the Harrisonburg area from a high level - Harrisonburg and Bridgewater to its southwest are seen, as are ski trails at Massanutten, east of Harrisonburg.  Only Harrisonburg is labeled, but it gets me to the Hone Quarry area, which is on the far left end of this view.

It is interesting also to explore on the Biking level, as I can check a trail for relative mountain bike use on a trail I am considering exploring.  This can affect whether I leash my dog, or even whether I bring her.  And it can make me save a trail to hike during the week, when biker use is lower. 

It can also show illegal mountain bike trail use!  Below is the heatmap for the Ramsey's Draft area.  The red portion of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail and the trails around Hardscrabble Knob are all within the boundaries of Ramsey's Draft Wilderness, and bike use inside the wilderness is strictly forbidden under federal law.  The lines are red, indicating less use than the neon white lines on the bottom of the photo, which show the Bald Ridge, Bridge Hollow and Road Hollow trails - all part of a popular (and legal) mountain biking route.

I have run into bikers who legitimately did not know that the Shenandoah Mountain Trail travels well inside of the boundaries of Ramsey's Draft Wilderness (it does, and riding that part of the trail is illegal).  But the trails to Hardscrabble Knob are so far inside the Wilderness that there is no doubt these users knew that their presence was illegal.

I have probably only scratched the surface of this new resource.  I've found it very useful and recommend it.  If you do use it, and find something different and interesting, please leave a comment!

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.