Note: the Golden-Winged Warbler Trail is not officially recognized at the time of this writing in November 2022. The trail club that is pushing for its official recognition, the Piedmont Appalachian Trail Hikers (PATH) is currently working its way through the approval process. But the trail is blazed and can be hiked. After approval, maintenance on this trail will no doubt increase.
The Golden-Winged Warbler Trail (“GWWT”), located on the Bland County/Smith County line, is part of a small loop when combined with the Appalachian Trail (“AT”) at Tilson Gap on Big Walker Mountain. The trail is named after a songbird whose population in the Appalachian Mountains has fallen by an estimated 98% in recent years. Link. The area around the GWWT is considered prime habitat for this species. It also is exceptionally beautiful with wonderful vistas!
There are multiple locations to park for this hike. This hike description assumes a longer option that includes some additional Appalachian Trail miles before and after the loop, parking at a public parking lot where the Appalachian Trail crosses Virginia Route 42 next to the private O’Lystery Picnic Shelter. You may also park your car at the Quarter-Way-Inn, an AT Hostel just up VA 610/Old Rich Valley Rd from the loop, even in the off season. You would need to email the owners first. There is also a small pull off right next to the Appalachian Trail on VA 610/Old Rich Valley Rd on the south side of the road to the west of the trail, and PATH anticipates that improved off road parking in this area will be implemented after the GWWT is fully recognized. Just doing the loop would give you a hike of 3.9 miles, and you would miss some of the spectacular scenery experienced on the AT when coming southbound from Route 42.
Mile 0.0 – Park at an AT lot where the AT crosses Virginia Rt. 42. The lot is on the Northbound side of the road, and is next to a picnic shelter. In the woods behind the parking lot is the best campsite on this hike, with several flat areas for camping near Possum Creek. The AT crossing is a little hidden here, as it does not cross at the parking lot. Walk back out to Rt. 42 and take a right. The AT crosses about 50 yards down the road. Start the hike by ascending through some woods.
Mile 0.4 – Leave the woods and hike through pasture land with wonderful views east to Big Walker Mountain. The trail is somewhat eroded and easy to follow here, but it is also marked by fence posts with white blazes.
Mile 1.1 – After climbing a stile, come to the Shady Grove Road. Right here is the lowest elevation on this hike. Cross the North Fork Holston River on the road bridge and take an immediate right onto the trail, marked by an AT sign. Be sure to check out the deteriorating old Tilson Mill upstream from the bridge.
Mile 1.2 – Come to another stile after paralleling the river for a short distance, part of the way is on boards placed by the trail maintaining club because the land is often wet. Cross a farm road and ascend through woods about 425 feet over the next 0.9 miles.
Mile 2.3 – At the upper end of a working cattle range, descend to a sign for the Golden Winged Warbler Trail. Your return will take you back to this spot. To the left through the field is the GWWT, which follows the old AT alignment. Take a right and follow the Appalachian Trail. (Note that the next 2.2 miles of AT are not shown on maps produced by National Geographic/Trails Illustrated, as of the writing of this guide. The new alignment opened in 2018, after the federal government bought the farm - known as the Tilson Farm - and added it to its National Forest holdings.)
Mile 2.8 – Cross the Old Rich Valley Road (Rt 610) and begin an 800 foot elevation gain over the next 1.7 miles. Much of this ascent follows the old Black Lick and Plaster Bank Turnpike, originally constructed during the Civil War to carry gypsum. You will start by traversing more fields, then enter into the forest on the north slope of Big Walker Mountain. When my group hiked this portion of the AT, the question was, ‘why did the AT move from its old route?’ I asked a leader of the Piedmont Area Trail Hikers (PATH), which maintains this section of the AT. I was told that the AT “was relocated in this area because [the previous alignment] was right on the boundary of the property (or easement) and the trail corridor for several hundred yards was rather narrow (maybe 20 or 30 yards). The present location was [relocated onto] on an old commercial road (Plaster Bank Road) which makes for a better grade and easier maintenance.”
Mile 3.4 – About halfway into your climb up the north slope of Big Walker Mountain, come to a switchback with a nice vista looking west towards the Burkes Garden area.
Mile 4.5 – Reach the highest point on this hike, about 3400 feet elevation, as you reach Tilson Gap on Big Walker Mountain. During the Summer months, you may go through some weeds just before reaching the high point.
Look for a double white blaze signaling a change in AT direction, and a golden blazed tree behind that to your left, signaling the start of the GWWT.
As of this writing, there was no trail sign here, though one will likely be installed in the future. If you wish to hike further south on the AT to camp, there are multiple wonderful campsites at the base of this trail’s downslope, about 1.5 miles away, on the banks of Reed Creek. (Although these campsites are not part of this hike description, they are probably the nicest campsites along the AT for a long distance in either direction.) If you aren’t camping, however, don’t start heading downhill. Instead, take a left here onto the GWWT, looking for the golden yellow blazes to help you through areas where the old AT alignment is not clear. The trail descends through a rocky slope. Hiking sticks are very helpful here, as is a keen eye for upcoming golden blazes.
Mile 5.6 – The trail levels out somewhat and follows the original easement back towards the Old Rich Valley Road (Rt 610) – you can tell because it is a thin corridor of woods sandwiched between open grazing lands.
Mile 5.8 - A stream crosses this section of trail, providing a possible camping opportunity. Be on the lookout here for the trail to leave the wooded strip and angle left into a nearby field. I missed that because I was looking at a nearby farm and its wonderful tree, then I found myself on an overgrown trail wondering what happened!
Mile 6.0 - After angling though a field towards a gate, following some posts with yellow blazes, come again to the Old Rich Valley Road (Rt 610). There is an old stile here that is overgrown with plants. You don’t need to use it to get out to the road. But you will need to climb the stile on the other side of the road. I found myself climbing in front of a large, somewhat interested group of spectators! At this point, the trail is a little hard to follow. Head left along the fence line and look for blazes. There will be a small grove of trees ahead of you, and the trail cuts uphill away from the road in this small grove. If the trail is not well marked (it wasn’t when I hiked this section), look for the GWWT sign that you passed at the beginning of this loop. It is visible on the hillside.
Mile 8.6 – Cross Virginia Rt. 42 and head to the right back to the starting parking lot and your vehicle.