Sunday, July 23, 2023

Neal Run/Neal Run Spur/Hidden Valley West Trails

This hike was a part of my 2023 effort to hike the trails in the Hidden Valley area of the Warm Springs Ranger District in the George Washington National Forest.  

I've been coming to this part of Virginia for over thirty years now, and spent my honeymoon nearby.  But I've never hiked the trails in Hidden Valley, mainly because they are a couple hours drive away, the trails are not very tough, and I've had other hiking priorities. But now I'm working on all trails in this district, so I've been coming out here on days when I can get on the road very early.

The Hidden Valley Recreation Area has a really nice campground, and I stayed here my previous time hiking here.  

There are some trails that begin and end in the campground, and I hiked them when camping here, but they weren't very interesting and I did not write them up.  (What is it about trails around National Forest camping areas?  None seem very interesting.)

I came back a couple of months later for a day trip, seeking to check off two or three trails I had yet to encounter.  On the way out, I realized that I had forgotten a critical piece of equipment - maybe I left a little too early.  I was without hiking shoes (I wear trail runners from Hoka, and have been wearing Hokas for well over 10 years - late 2011 or early 2012). I usually store them in the back of the car, and wear Crocks when driving.  This time, I only had Crocs - so I had to hike in them.  I've done that before, but my feet don't like them as much as Hokas.

I chose the Neil Run Trail, the Neil Run Spur Trail, and the Hidden Valley West Trail to complete.  Not a lot of miles, but it was going to be a hot July day and I was in Crocs.  

Let's get the spoiler out of the way right away.  None of these trails were that great.  And none of them were as long as shown on the map because they were overgrown at their far ends.  (All are out-and-back with dead ends.)  The fact that the trails are not as shown on the maps I reviewed was a bit of a problem, as described below.

I started out at the main parking area, circled on the photo below.  The three trails I hiked are also circled.  After crossing over the Jackson River and passing the Warwick Mansion B&B, I hked north up FS 241 until I reached a brown hiker sign.  I then hiked back south on an old, gated woods road.  The map below shows that road as being open and a parking area at the south end.  That no longer exists.  

At the south end of the old road, I took a right and the trail became very overgrown.  The Neil Run and Neil Run Spur are really for hunter access.  They even open them up to disabled hunters to use motorized equipment during the hunting season.  They get you into the woods but don't take you to any outstanding locations.  A carsonite signpost states that the "road" is open to "4-wheels, atv's, and cycles," but closed to other motorized vehicles.  

The trail climbs and the vegetation becomes much shorter.  For much of the climb, the forest is very thin on the right and much thicker on the left, signifying that the woods had been thinned of the prime timber at some time in the past.  At about the 1.5 mile mark into the hike an old woods road descended to the left.  It wasn't on any map, and I figured it might be the road taken back in the day to haul timber out.  It looked like a shortcut on the way back, because it dropped down towards the Jackson River near the end of the Jackson River West Trail, as shown on my maps.  

At 2.3 miles, there was a split in the trail.  There was even a trail sign here, though the sign was flat on the ground.  I've seen this on other trails in the Warm Springs District - the signs are new, but they are attached to posts sitting flat on the ground.  

I cut right first and hiked to the end of the Neil Run Spur Trail.  The end wasn't the same as what the map showed - where the map shows a dogleg right there was an overgrown turnaround, and after that the trail petered out to nothing.

I had a somewhat similar experience on the Neil Run Trail.  It climbed and steadily became more overgrown until I reached a large down tree and there was no evidence of the trail after that.  I retraced my steps to reach the old woods road at 4.6 miles.  From here, I dropped steeply on a well defined old roadbed until I reached the bottom of the slope at Mile 4.9.  

When the slope ended, I encountered a stream crossing amid incredible overgrowth.  I wasn't in woods anymore, and moving was tough.  I took off my pant legs and socks, and crossed the creek.  The water felt great!  In fact, I thought about hiking the creek all the way to the Jackson River, but it took me too far out of my way and the creek got deep in sections.  So I exited on the other side and fought through all kinds of plants, getting scratched up along the way.

I also had to cross through a pond with lots of beaver activity - though I never saw any beavers or a dam.  My progress was really slow, progressing only 0.3 miles in just over 30 minutes.  

Just as I got to the Jackson River, I realized that I had passed right over the point where my GPS indicated that the Jackson River West Trail was located.  If it had been there I would have seen it, so I continued into the river and walked upstream in the water back toward my car.  

At a point where the GPS told me that the trail came very near the river, I got out, climbed up the bank, and failed to find a trail.  But I was in a meadow and moving was easier through chest high grasses than it had been in the river.  

I never saw evidence of the Jackson River West Trail until I got to the Warwick Mansion.  Then, I found the trail - an old road then a mowed section of grass that ended at the river about 100 yards further upstream from where I got out.  I hiked the whole thing, just to check that box.

In all, I hiked 6.6 miles in just under 4 hours.  I still have a couple of Hidden Valley trails to finish off, but I know they will be in better shape than what I experienced because I've seen Facebook postings about recent work done to them.  

My Route shown in Orange.  (Previous Hike in Blue.)

I didn't have the energy for any more hikes, so I took the long way home, driving back through Burnsville, the Bullpasture River Gorge, and McDowell before taking U.S. 250 back home.  Some days, the trip to the trailhead and back is the highlight of the day - especially when that drive takes you through Highland County.

Little Mare Mtn Trail/Brushy Ridge Trail

Trails in the George Washington National Forest's Warm Springs District can be hit-or-miss. Sometimes, a trail is virtually non-existent.  Other times, a much more remote trail can be in really great shape.  Trail maintenance out this way appears to be accomplished mostly by a mountain bike group called the Alleghany Highlands Trail Club - they have my thanks. If a trail is useful to mountain bikers, such as it has been used for an event, the trail will be in great shape. This is one of those trails, as I confirmed several weeks after hiking this trail - I ran into the guy who directed this trail's renovation while I was hiking another trail, and it was the Alleghany Highlands Trail Club which opened this trail back up.

This description covers the Brushy Ridge and Little Mare Mountain trails, which connect to each other and combine for a generally north/south route extending from a little north of Douthat State Park to a little south of Virginia Rt. 39.  They are found on the eastern side of Warm Springs Mountain, east of the Homestead Resort.  Hiking these trails is best done using a car shuttle. Hiking these trails on a couple of Spring weekends, I saw no other users on the trail.  Strava's heatmap shows that these trails get a moderate amount of mountain bike use and low hiking use.  Because of the mountain bike use, the trails were in relatively good shape: obstructions like down trees were often cleaned up, however growth encroaching on the trail was often an issue.  This meant I had to push through wet vegitation on this hike.

I hiked this trail with a small group, heading south to north.  We parked in a parking area just off of Smith Creek Road, which is a forest service road that cuts west just north of Douthat State Park. 


There is a house at the turnoff from the Douthat State Park Road that was made out of a railroad boxcar, which is my landmark for the road.  The Brushy Ridge Trail actually ends at Smith Creek Road, but there is direct access from the parking lot and most people clearly start from there.  The condition of the trail between the parking lot cutoff and the road is noticeably inferior.

Mile 0.0: The trail access is via a short side trail in the southeast corner of the parking lot. The actual trail is about 50 feet from the parking lot.  You turn left onto the trail, which is blazed twice - blue is for the Brushy Ridge Trail, and yellow is for a longer equestrian route.  On your left, the forest is very thin - I believe this area was logged at some point.  On the right, the forest is much less thin, making me think that the trail was a boundary for a tree harvest. The trail itself starts out wide and grassy, following an old road bed.

Mile 0.4: The trail soon cuts right off of the old road bed.  Keep an eye out for this turn.  

Mile 0.6: From there, the trail drops down to cross over a stream.  This was the hardest part to follow over the first half of the hike.  The trail cuts right after the stream, though some of the stones seem placed to look like the trail cuts left.  

It continues to climb through a section of forest that was not very thick, but I found very pretty.

Mile 0.9: It curved to the right and came out on a woods road.  Be sure to turn left on this road, as the trail follows the road for a ways.

Mile 1.5: Keep an eye out on the left as you progress, as the trail drops back off of this road without a sign telling you that you have reached an intersection.  The road straight ahead is the Lasso Loop Trail - primarily for equestrians and not very interesting - and to the left the Brushy Ridge Trail continues.

The trail through here is somewhat overgrown, with vegetation growing tight on the trail's route.  The trail ascends through some very sparce woods, leading me to believe that this would not be a good trail to attempt between July and the first frost - too much sunlight and lots of undergrowth. Notice that the yellow blazing is now gone - those blazes continued straight on the Lasso Loop Trail.

Mile 2.4: The next landmark is the intersection with the Salt Pond Ridge Trail, which forks right.  There was a sign here, but it was on the ground. Take the trail to the left. The Salt Pond Ridge Trail decends to the northern end of the Lasso Loop Trail (the uninteresting equestrian trail described earlier in this post), and then continues on to FR 194, which provides car access to the eastern end of the Salt Pond Ridge Trail. 

Mile 3.2: The hike reaches its high point here, though it is not the summit of Brushy Mountain.  The trail then descends until it reaches the upper end of Little Wilson Creek.

Mile 3.7: Where the trail meets Little Wilson Creek, things get a little confusing. The Brushy Ridge Trail ends here. At the terminus, there is a trail that intersects here and travels into land owned and administrated by The Nature Conservancy, which they call the Warm Springs Mountain Preserve.  A sign dscourages hikers from continuing, but we knew that there is a cabin back there, called Trapper's Lodge, that mountain bikers have stayed at.  Apparently, this is not a public lodge, but if you are connected to The Nature Conservancy, this is a perk you can get, and you bring your friends.  Nobody was there when we visited, but it looks like a nice cabin.

We hung out on the porch during a drizzly rain for a few minutes and had a snack before retracing our steps back to the GWNF and looking for the south end of the Little Mare Mountain Trail.  It wasn't easy to find!  We eventually found it, along with a sign, and climbed steeply from Little Wilson Creek on an overgrown section of trail.  

That trail soon ended at a T intersection with a relatively wide trail that was much better maintained.  We followed this trail to the left (west) for a short distance, but figured that it was headed back to Trappers Lodge and didn't continue.  I asked the trial maintainer I encountered a couple of weeks later, and he confirmed that it comes out of a parking lot just to the west of Trappers Lodge.  So the best way to get through this section is to walk past Trappers Lodge to a parking area, then look for the trail on the north end - take that.

Mile 4.8: A short distance after the two trails meet (described above), there is a short drop then a short, steep uphill.  After this point, the hike is generally downhill, dropping over 1900 feet over the final 5+ miles.  The descent is more gradual than the ascent was, and the trail passes through a canopy of trees with few views, following a ridge as it descends.

Mile 7.4: Reach an intersection with the end of the Little Mare Mtn Spur Trail, which heads off to the west (left).  That trail has not been renovated, and is very overgrown.  Attempting to hike it would not be impossible, but it would be a lot tougher than the main trail.  There appears to be no use on the Spur, according to Strava.  So, while technically still a commissioned trail, the Little Mare Mtn Spur Trail seems pretty unusable.  

Mile 10.0: An old woods road merges into the trail, coming from the right (east).

Mile 10.7: The trail drops off of the ridge it had followed for the past five miles and drops more steeply.  

Mile 11.0: The trail follows an old road and levels off.  There are structures in a field to the right as the trail's route takes it near private property.

Mile 11.4: The trail ends at a small parking area on Blue Grass Hollow Road.  

Despite a lack of views, my group found this to be a very enjoyable trail.  Recommended, though it probably a better mountain bike trail than hiking trail.  I was glad to be able to explore it.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Ribble Trail Loop, Jefferson National Forest

This hike in Southwest Virginia south of the New River takes advantage of a big curve in the Appalachian Trail to form a loop hike in a relatively uncrowded portion of the Virginia A.T.  The Ribble Trail is actually an earlier A.T. alignment, so hikers can experience both the present and former Appalachian Trail.

You can hike this loop in either direction.  This description is for a clockwise hike, which allows you to get the major climb completed early in the hike. 

Mile 0.0 – The trailhead is located at a large, unmarked parking area on a US Forestry Road just after the road takes a turn to the left.  It is marked on Google Maps as “Ribble Trailhead.”  On the way to the trailhead, the road passes both the Falls of the Dismal Creek and the Forest Service’s Walnut Flats Campground (open mid-May to mid-December).  This loop’s trailhead itself is located just before a gate on the road, and this gate is closed parts of the year.  If you pass a gate, you have gone too far. 

Take the old road with a gate.  This is the Ribble Trail and should be blazed blue.

Mile 0.9 – Come to a dirt woods road.  This is a continuation of the road that was gated back at the trailhead. Cross and continue. 

Mile 1.2 – Cross another dirt woods road, part of the same road you came in on.  The trail dips just after this then climbs somewhat steeply.

Mile 2.1 – Pass by a small pond and the remains of an old cabin, marked on the USGS map as the “Honey Spring Patrol Cabin.” (Patrol Cabins housed backcountry rangers.) The trail literally passes right next to and around the location of the privy for this cabin, and there is still a shallow hole there. 

Mile 2.2 – The Appalachian Trail crosses here.  To your left, the AT goes about 500 feet to a road (FS 612) and parking area.  Straight ahead, the Ribble Trail ends about 100 feet away at a gated woods road (FS 103) that also has a parking opportunity just outside the gate.  So, if you reach a road, you have gone too far!  Where the Ribble Trail ends at FS 103, just past the AT, you may find an ancient trail sign. Take a right at the intersection with the AT and follow the white blazes southbound on the AT.

Mile 2.9 –
The hike reaches its highest point where the AT takes a right at a woods road.  You can take a left here as well and hike the road to a radio tower where there are reportedly some good views to the north.  We did not take this side route, as we knew we could find similar views later in this loop.  However, other hikers have recommended the side trip and report that there is also a nice campsite - assuming you are ok with spending the night next to a large electronic communications tower.

Mile 5.2 – The AT remains fairly level for a couple of miles without views, and part of the time follows an old road just below the ridge of Sugar Run Mountain.  At 5.2 and 5.3 miles into the loop are multiple overlooks just off the main trail – these provide the best vistas of the hike.  After these vistas there are multiple campsites scattered along the ridge next to the AT.

Mile 6.2 – The AT turns right and begins a steep downhill. 

Mile 7.0 – Cross Dismal Creek for the first of many times.  The trail starts to become much wetter as it parallels the track of Dismal Creek. Thick stands of rhododendron create a “green tunnel” effect.

Mile 7.6 –
A side trail leads a short distance to the Wapiti Shelter.  The hike is level after this point for the rest of the loop. 

Mile 7.7 –
Watch for the trail to take a sharp right turn where it intersects with the end of the gated Lion’s Den Road.  It is very easy to miss this turn and start walking down the road.  Look to the right, and you will see a small bridge over a stream tributary. This is the AT.

Mile 7.9 – After crossing the main branch of Dismal Creek on another bridge, reach a large pond.  There is a campsite here to the left.  Use care in following the trail here, as the AT follows the edge of the pond, then cuts left away from the pond’s shoreline.

Mile 8.3 – Trail crosses a feeder stream over a wooden bridge.

Mile 8.7 – Another stream crossing, another bridge.

Mile 9.7 – Leave the AT, turning onto the Ribble Trail at its southernmost point.  There was no trail sign indicating the Ribble Trail when we hiked here, only an AT sign and some blue blazes on the Ribble’s route.

Mile 10.3 -
Shortly after fording a stream crossing, the Ribble trails emerges from a thick stand of rhododendrons to the trailhead parking lot where you left your vehicle.

Total Length: 10.3 miles

Elevation gain: 2180 feet

Hike time: 6 hours