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



Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Wilhoite Wagon Trail Loop, Shenandoah National Park

The Wilhoite Wagon Trail (WWT) is located on the eastern end of Shenandoah National Park, south of Graves Mountain Lodge and north of the Rapidan River Fire Road.  Some maps may have the trail written as the Wilhite Wagon Trail.  The trail crosses through both the Shenandoah National Park (SNP) and the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area (RWMA) - crossing between the two types of tracts.  Parts of the trail are overgrown near the top of Doubletop Mountain as of this writing, though I have personally contributed to opening parts of it back up.  The SNP portion is in really good shape, even though it is not "officially" maintained - it is not one of the SNP trails that Potomac Appalachian Trail Club volunteers officially maintain as a part of the trail club's agreement with the National Park Service.  The RWMA portion has sections that are overgrown with Mountain Laurel, as does the Doubletop Mountain Trail, which follows the ridge summit of the mountain that the WWT climbs.  There is no mountain bike use on these trails (since part of the trail is in SNP which does not permit mountain bikes on trails).  There is occasional horse use (accomplished with "extreme" difficulty), however I've never come across evidence of recent horse use.  Western portions may have some off road vehicle use, but I avoided this region on my most recent ascent - which I describe here.

Trails in this area offer spectacular solitude for established trails in Northern Virginia.  Strava's heatmap, which documents trail use by subscribers to that app, shows literally nothing in the area.  There are no entries on Alltrails or GaiaGPS.  There is one listing on, but it is one that I uploaded when I first started hiking in this area back in 2010. 

You do not receive a lot of help hiking around here, as there are trail signs and only occasional blazing - mostly in the RWMA. The National Geographic/Trails Illustrated map for the area does not show a trail here, however the PATC Map 11 SNP Central District map does show the trail.  I was out here because of the PATC map, which is undergoing a revision as of this 2023 writing.  I needed to confirm that the WWT was still in hikeable shape.  (So, it is clear that I am biased, but this paragraph presents just two of the many reasons PATC trail maps are the best maps for Shenandoah National Park - more trails listed and trails are checked by actual hikers.)

Hiking in this area sometimes requires pushing through overgrowth, and I attempted on this hike to open up some of the most overgrown sections as I passed through. Sections provide a great example of what trails would become if no one volunteered to clear them. I found that clipping back Mountain Laurel often involved chopping relatively thick stems - these plants had not seen trimming in decades.  As a result of this overgrowth and lack of signage, few people end up using the trail, which is a shame.  The trail itself is never hard to follow, and overgrowth is never so excessive that a hiker will lose the trail.  However, near the start of this loop is a National Park sign advising that this trail is "recommended for experienced hikers only" - a caution I do not remember encountering anywhere else in the Park.

The real attraction of the trail, besides the solitude and enjoying a trail that was clearly built with great care at least 80 years ago, is a wonderful overlook at the top of the mountain, near where the eastern portion of the WWT merges into the ridgetop Doubletop Mountain Trail.  I'll get into that later.

I've written about the WWT in the past, but it has been some time since I've been back.  I'd heard that the road into the area was in rough shape - and it was!  (Chapman Mtn Road/Quaker Run Road, SR 649.) But I ended up parking next to a Toyota Yaris, which has a really low clearance.  So careful driving in a low car got that driver there.  My 4Runner had few problems, but there were times that movement was slow.  As they say, "your results may vary."  A good resource to determine current road conditions is at this link, maintained by people who own cabins along the access road: Link

The WWT has been around for a really long time.  Below is a scan from my personal copy of the PATC's Map 10, Sixth Edition, Copyright 1946.  The blue highlighting shows a trail that very closely approximates the present location of the eastern WWT and a part of the Doubletop Mtn Trail.  (This is the earliest version of this map that I have access to.)  Beating the drum again, but the PATC has been mapping Shenandoah National Park area trails decades longer than anyone else - and map revenues get returned to the Park in the form of funding trail maintenance tool purchases.  None of the Club's map competitors can claim that.

It is also interesting to notice how many trails from this 1946 map still exist today, such as trails to Bear Church Rock and along the Staunton River.

Mile 0.0: Parking is at the intersection of the Chapman Mountain Road and Blakey Ridge Fire Road, which is on a ridgetop after climbing up on the Chapman Mountain Road.  GPS: N38° 27.358' W78° 21.653'.  There are multiple parking spots off to the left as you reach the ridge.

Start the hike by heading north, across the road you came in on, and going around a closed gate.  There may be multiple "No Trespassing" signs here, but hiking the road is not trespassing - private land is to the right of the road.  You will pass the SNP park sign shown earlier in this post.

Mile 0.2: The first dirt road coming in from the left is the Wilhoite Wagon Trail.  There is no sign here.  Turn left and ascend slightly usng the old road.

Mile 0.4: Cross a power line cut, which gives a limited view to the east.

Mile 0.5: Another woods road comes in from the right.  Stay to the left.

Mile 0.8: Reach the summit of Chapman Mountain (no views) and travel through a grove of Mountain Laurel.  The trail descends briefly before ascending again. 

Mile 1.5: As the trail ascends, there are multiple examples of careful stone cribbing that was constructed to support the trail.  A lot of work went into creating this trail, by workers who are now long gone.

Mile 2.0: The Wilhoite Wagon Trail leaves Shenandoah National Park and enters into the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area (RWMA). You can see this by observing large red paint marks on multiple trees and a metal "NPS Boundary" strip sign that was moving in the wind on one of the nearby trees to the left of the trail. 

The RWMA consists of multiple land parcels adjoining Shenandoah National Park.  This parcel is the best one for hiking, but it is a hunting area administered by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.  As a result, we do not advise hiking here during Deer Hunting Season.  The Virginia DWR website has current hunting seasons.  The Virginia DWR also requires hikers to have either a current hunting or fishing license, or a "Restore the Wild" Membership.  

Mile 2.5: Be on the lookout for an old road coming up from the left.  There is no sign here, but this road is the 4WD Trail, and it is the trail we will use to return in this description.

Mile 2.9: After pushing through the thickest of the Mountain Laurel, and just before the Wilhoite Wagon Trail meets the Doubletop Mountain Trail, on the left is a large, flat, open rock face about 20 feet off of the trail.  Make your way out to this rock for the best views of the hike.  

From here, you can see Jones Mountain to the southeast over to Fork Mountain (with radio antennae, shown below) to the southwest.  During the winter, you can see a road climbing from the Rapidan Road up to the summit of Fork Mountain.  Otherwise, there is very little evidence of human interaction from this overlook.

This is a great spot for lunch!  After hanging out here for a while, you can choose to hike a little further up to the ridge if you want - it is only about 50 feet further.  But this hike description turns around here and heads back down slope.  

Mile 3.2: On your right, look for an old road that climbs up steeply, ending at the Wilhoite Wagon Trail. This is the trail shown on the PATC trail map and the map I created below as the "4WD Trail." That is probably a good name for it, because no other vehicles could make it up this road.  There is no sign here, but the road is pretty obvious if you are keeping an eye out for it.  Take a right here and decend.    The descent starts at a 37% grade - not for long, but it is straight down the mountain to a point a couple of hundred feet where the road cuts right and the slope lessens. 

Mile 3.6:  Another woods road merges into this trail, coming downhill from the right. Here is a photo of the merge looking back after passing the intersection.

Mile 3.7:  The trail levels out briefly, then cuts left.  It seems that this trail traces the boundary of Shenandoah National Park, staying in the RMWA and out of Shenandoah.  I don't think this is a coincidence.

Mile 4.2: The 4x4 Trail descends to the Rapidan River.  You want to work your way across the river.  You can either continue on the 4x4 as it turns right along the river and reaches the Rapidan Road just prior to bridge crossing on the road (to the left is a nice campsite - the photo below shows the access to that campsite, along with the river).  I chose to rock hop - more adventure! (And fewer steps.)  And I made it across dry, this time.  I reached the Rapidan Road on the other side and turned left.

Mile 4.7: Pass a road to the right, which climbs up to Fan Mountain - you might have seen this road from the overlook on Doubletop Mountain.  There is a kiosk a little off the road here, but the map on that kiosk is really pretty terrible.  There is also a campsite next to the kiosk - and a wealth of other campsites along the road and river.  Note that a regulation effective January 1, 2021 makes it unlawful to camp in Wildlife Management Area property without written authorization.  More information can be found here: Link. The Virginia DWR states that there is no charge for such an authorization "at this time."  The emphasis is mine - because DWR is always looking for new ways to charge users: first by charging hikers, then kayakers using DWR river access points - so I'd wager money that they will be looking to add revenue via campers in the future.  (Not a criticism, just an observation of fact.)

Mile 6.2: Pass a Shenandoah National Park concrete marker signaling the Park's Graves Mill Trail.  Did you know that this used to be a viable road in the Park?  That changed one day in late June, 1995 after a monumental amount of rain that had trees sliding down mountains. Link. I remember riding in a Jeep that traversed the old road prior to the flood, driven by a friend who still lives in nearby Wolftown. At this intersection, you are at the low point of this hike.  The road must climb at the end of this loop in order to get back to your vehicle.  (Note that you could also park at the kiosk described at Mile 4.7 and bookend your hike with road walks at each end of the loop - avoiding that end of hike climb.)

Mile 6.8: After a climb of just over 250 feet elevation, reach your vehicle to end the hike.

Alternatively, you could hike past the overlook to the Doubletop Mtn Trail, take a left for a half mile, then split left onto the western portion of the Whihoite Wagon Trail.  That takes you back down to the Rapidan River Road, which you then use to return to your vehicle.  This loop is 9.0 miles long.  Although I have not hiked the extended loop since 2017, a recent hiker told me that it is in good shape.

Elevation Profile of described hike:

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Crawford Mountain Wanderings

This is an account of searching for and hiking a trail that the Forest Service discontinued some years ago, located on Crawford Mountain. For me, the best hiking is all about exploring, and I've already explored all of the current trails out this way.  I'm glad I finally checked the box so I know I've explored this area, but there is nothing Instagram-worthy in this account.

About Crawford Mountain

Crawford Mountain is located in the George Washington National Forest's North River Ranger District - the largest district in the GWNF and my favorite for hiking.  It is just north of  Elliott Knob, the highest point in Northern Virginia and is connected to Elliott Knob via trails that run the crest of Great North Mountain.  Both Crawford Mtn and Elliot Knob are prominently visible as I descend on Interstate 64 into Waynesboro.  

Crawford Mountain does not have a vista that equals that of Elliott Knob (few places do!), so it does not attract the same level of interest from hikers.  And Crawford Mountain, at 3766 feet elevation, does not match Elliott Knob's 4460 foot height.  But Crawford Mountain has three trails to its summit, providing unique experiences.  They include:

  • The Chimney Hollow Trail from the northwest, with a trailhead on US 250 marked by a prominent trail sign.  This is the single most accessible trail in the North River Ranger District because its trailhead is on a major road.
  • The Crawford Knob Trail from the east, which has been painstakenly resurrected over the past two years by members of the Southern Shenandoah Valley Chapter of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.  The transformation of this trail is absolutely remarkable, and hiking it is highly recommended!
  • The Crawford Mountain Trail from the south, which connects to the North Mountain Trail and Elliott Knob.
All three trails converge near the summit of Crawford Mountain.  The Crawford Mountain Trail and Chimney Hollow Trail show the most use - perhaps because they are part of an annual Autumn trail run that starts and ends in a nearby Boy Scout camp and summits both Elliott Knob and Reddish Knob.  The Crawford Knob Trail shows virtually no use, which is a shame now that it is in great shape.  If you are looking for a trail that is in great condition and offers guaranteed solitude, the Crawford Knob Trail is your answer.

Also on Crawford Mountain but discontinued years ago by the Forest Service is a continuation of the Crawford Mountain Trail, striking out northeast from where the three existing trails converge.  According to old Forest Service maps, the Crawford Mtn Trail used to go northeast all the way along the ridge before coming out onto private property northeast of the National Forest land.  Jim F - who gets primary credit for organizing and conducting the rehab of the Crawford Knob Trail, wanted to find the old Crawford Mtn Trail and asked me to join him on a fairly warm February Presidents Day holiday.  This post details the steps we took in this effort.

There is a season for everything, and winter is definitely the season for bushwhacking.  We did this hike in February, and every February I think that the clock is ticking and I need to get these kinds of hikes off my list fast before the leaves come out and everything starts growing again.  

Pre-Hike Research

I'm going to get into the weeds now, geeking out about maps.  Feel free to skip this portion if it isn't your thing.  I am a "maps guy."  Always have been - I remember cleaning out gas stations of their complementary highway maps as a 3rd grader.

In order to explore decommissioned trails, you will need to review multiple maps.  The map most hikers use when hiking out in the North River District of GWNF is National Geographic/Trails Illustrated.  I documented my issues with Trails Illustrated maps eight years ago (Link).  These maps suffer from errors that are never corrected, but sometimes they are the only current choice for trail maps.  That is the case on Crawford Mountain.  Below is a screenshot of their current map of the area, along with a track showing the hike we took over Crawford Mountain - each map shown in the series below includes the track I recorded on our hike, designated by a blue line.  After ascending via Trail #489, the Chimney Hollow Trail, we left current trails until we reached Forest Road 1761 at the top of the map, which is an access road for large electrical transmission wires.

The above map makes it look like we were more out on our own than we really were, however - at least for part of the hike.

The next most common source is USGS Topographic Maps.  Eleven years ago I documented my love of USGS maps on this site (Link), and about how the technology had changed my access to these maps since I purchased hardcopies covering parts of this area back in the early 1990's when I first moved to Virginia and started hiking here.  The technology has changed further in the meantime, and links on that description do not exist today.  I use an annual subscription to GaiaGPS after hiking friend Tony convinced me to spend the money. gives a lot of added value for the cost, including showing private property lines, which will show up on the maps below.  Gaia also has a free version.  You can determine whether Free vs Subscription is better for you by looking at this: Link. But you won't get the Nat Go maps or the private property layer unless you lay out $40 per year. Many hikers I know instead use AllTrails.  AllTrails does not have the NatGeo map option found in premium Gaia, and I find the hiker tracks to be of pretty limited use - Gaia tracks seem to be better quality, though there are fewer of them.  The dealbreaker is the maps collection, as Gaia has a ton of maps not found in Alltrails (Link).

The maps copied here come from subscription level Gaia GPS.  I can plan a route and look at it over multiple maps.  Then I can load those maps into my iPhone, or load waypoints into my Garmin GPSMap 66i, a model I use because I can also use satellite communication through this receiver. (I consider satellite communication to be one of the "10 Essentials" of off trail hiking.) The map below shows the Gaia topo layer.  Note towards the upper right there is a split in the trails, shown with a red arrow.  We were looking for the trail marked only with a distance - 1.0, but did not find it.  More on that later.

Back to the USGS Topographic Maps.  Below is the USGS map showing the bushwhack portion of our hike. It does not show a trail fork - only the trail that drops off of the mountain.  This would seem to provide an argument that the route we planned to descend did actually exist.

The map above shows where we went off of the discontinued trail and went straight down the slope.  We did so because there was no evidence of an actual trail here.  We had to drop anyway, so if we were going to bushwhack, and straight drop downslope was our best option as we would intersect fastest with the road that way.  We didn't need a compass for this; we knew that if we continued downhill long enough we would intersect the road.

GaiaGPS also has maps developed by the Forest Service.  I love these old maps!  When I was in high school, I went out west with a school group.  Before leaving, I wrote Forest Service offices in multiple western states asking for maps.  Back then they mailed them out for free!  So I left for my western odyssy armed with trail maps for multiple national forests - many with names I remember off the top of my head to this day, such as Inyo, Plumas, Stanislaus, Kaibab, Lassen, and Mendocino.  The Forest Service does not make these maps anymore, apparently ceding the work to NatGeo due to budget cuts.  (Though you can occasionally find them for sale - I purchased a Monongahela National Forest map for $16 a year ago when in West Virginia.)

Below is the National Forest layer in GaiaGPS.

Notice that unlike the USGS map, this map does not show a trail dropping from the crest down to the power line road.  It only shows the trail continuing north east along the ridge.  This turned out accurate, but other parts of this map were less accurate, as you can see that the power line road tracks quite differently from the track we recorded.

So when we started on our exploration, we did not know whether we would see evidence of any former trails.  Below is a description of our findings.

The Hike

We started out by dropping a vehicle next to the Forest Service gate on the access road about a mile east of the Chimney Hollow trailhead.  I'd never been up this road, but it goes back behind some houses to a parking area just before a stream ford.  It provides good access to this part of the forest, undoubtedly used primarily by hunters. After dropping vehicle #1, we parked the 2nd vehicle at the Chimney Hollow Trail parking site, located just west of the trailhead sign on US 250.

We ascended the Chimney Hollow Trail, passing nice views to the south of the Deerfield valley.  When we crested, the Chimney Hollow Trail ended.  There, we intersected with and continued on the Crawford Mountain Trail.  A little to the north, the Crawford Mtn Trail intersects with the Crawford Knob Trail and both trails officially end.  Continuing straight on the Crawford Mtn Trail brought us onto the discontinued portion of the trail.

I've tried this a couple of times in the past on solo hikes, but greenbriar vines and the distance from my  vehicle discouraged me from going too far.  The old trail is tough to precisely locate, as well, though it is hard to get lost if you hike along the ridge.  This time, we powered past the greenbriar (going around it) and detoured around multiple downed tree trunks.  We each had GaiaGPS loaded into our phones, and used that as a check against wandering off trail.

After about 5 minutes of walking, the old trail became very obvious and was easy to follow.  At this point, we had just passed the high point of the hike.  Most of the former Crawford Mtn Trail was gradually downhill from here. You can see from the photo below that leaves were compacted from other hikers (likely hunters) and trees had a gap.

There was even evidence of recent trail work.

At a point about 1.5 miles from the Crawford Knob Trail intersection, the trail forked, and the better maintained section went left, not straight.  we thought that this might be a trail around an obstruction, so we followed it.  It became quickly evident, however, that this was an ATV trail that was headed down the mountain.  We retraced our steps back to the original trail and followed that.  The trail was much more overgrown for the rest of the ridge, leading us to believe that the other parts of the trail are being maintained by ATV riders.  Below you can see the ATV trail dropping off the ridge at a point shown in our hike track, but not on any map as a trail.

The trail was more overgrown after this point, and as we approached the fork showin in one of the maps above, the trail pretty much disappeared.  We spent some time looking for the descending trail, and failing that, headed straight downslope.  

The descent was exceptionally steep at first (a 57% grade), and we dropped through a patch of mountain laurel, making the descent even tougher.  After we escaped the mountain laurel, we stopped for lunch, then descended along a creek bed as the slope lessened.  

Eventually, slowly, we made it to the power line access road, which we followed back to our vehicle.  I'd been on the road back in 2013 and remember it as a tedious hike.  This time, I was glad for the boredom after the excitement of the bushwhack.

Note that for all of my issues with NatGeo, that was the only map that correctly showed the route of the power line access road.  The Forest Service map had multiple mistakes and the USGS map didn't have the road at all.

 We think we located the other end of that ATV trail.  You can see it in the photo below, taken near one of the electric towers.  It is circled in the photo below.

If I were to ever return, I think I'd take the ATV trail down the mountain.

Hike Data
Length: 11.2 miles
Total Ascent: 3593 ft
Total Time Required: 7:17
Stopped Time: 1:58
Total feet wet from stream crossings near the end: 2.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Shenandoah Mountain Trail - Bath County

This post details a 7 mile out-and-back hike on the southernmost section of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail in Bath County, Virginia.  This is a moderate hike with several short steep climbs and features a wonderful view at its northermmost point.  There is much solitude to be found on this trail - you may come across some mountain bikers, but your odds of finding another hiker are nearly nil.

The Shenandoah Mountain Trail is one of the longest and oldest trails in the George Washington National Forest.  It stretches over 37 miles riding the ridge of Shenandoah Mountain and dates back over 100 years - it is perhaps the first trail ever built in the Shenandoah National Forest - the precursor to today's George Washington National Forest.  Many hikers have experienced the Shenandoah Mountain Trail (SMT) north of U.S. 250, as it heads north from Confederate Breastworks to Ramseys Draft Wilderness.  South of U.S. 250, however, relatively few hikers have experienced this trail.  It is so long that it is actually best traversed by mountain bike.  And heatmaps show that mountain bikes traverse the entire length of the trail, including, illegally, within the boundaries of Ramsey's Draft Wilderness.  (Bikers have told me that "It is OK, because the trail is the wilderness boundary, so riding on the western edge of the trail keeps you outside of the boundary."  But that is wrong - the boundary extends past the trail and riding bikes within the wilderness violates federal law.)

At its southern end, the SMT is a very remote and wild trail.  It requires driving south from West Augusta and US 250 over 20 miles into Bath County.  But parts of the drive are spectacularly beautiful, and paved roads extend all the way to the trailhead.  It is an especially good Winter hike, because the conditions of the access roads are excellent.  

Perhaps the hardest thing about this hike is finding where the trail starts.  So I will go into detail on that.  Drive south from US 250 at West Augusta through Deerfield.  After Deerfield, you will pass through some large farms and into Bath County.  There are wonderful views of Walker Mountain to your left and Shenandoah Mountain to your right, with Chestnut Ridge straight ahead.

Take the Deerfield Road all the way south to Rt 678, Indian Draft Road - 22.2 miles from US 250.  Take a right on 678.  This road is marked by number only, and not by name.

Take Indian Draft Road until you see the Cowpasture River on your left.  There is a wide parking area on the side of the road just before the bridge over the Cowpasture River.  Park here, making sure to leave nothing of value visible to anyone who might take an interest in an unmanned vehicle.  You will start by walking back east on the road for a quarter mile, retracing the last bit of driving you made.  

Look for a telephone poll on your right, with a support cable that crosses over the road onto the slope on your left side.  On that slope, you will see a Carsonite trail marker (a flat metal post planted in the ground) and several blazes.  This signals where the trail starts, and is pretty easy to see when walking along the road from the west.  (It is a lot tougher to see when coming from the east.)


This segment is a recent addition to the Forest Service trail inventory.  It climbs via a couple of switchbacks to a ridge at the top, where the trail then follows an old woods road.  The trail originally continued east on that woods road along the ridge into private property before reaching the main road.  This new segment keeps the trail on Forest Service land.  (And, not suprisingly, heat map data shows most bikers ignoring this trail and continuing on the ridge to Indian Draft Road.  Trespassing?  Or does the landowner - the Ft. Lewis Lodge - allow it?  I don't know.)

Once it reaches the ridge, the trail heads left, continuing uphill and away from the national forest boundary.  There are nice winter views of the Cowpasture River and the Ft. Lewis Lodge - a spectacular bed and breakfast open April through October.  

Near the top of the ridge, the trail curves to the right away from river views and into the mountains.  You need to keep an eye out for the curve.  A tree is blazed yellow, but it is some distance from the curve in the trail and easy to miss.

From here, you drop away from the occasional road noise of Indian Draft Road and into the National Forest.  My hiking companion noted when hiking this portion that the sense of quiet is truly amazing here.  You hear nothing except forest sounds - not even any airplanes.  For a section of forest so close to paved roads, this is a truly remote area.

The trail heads generally eastward through remote forests along ridges, sometimes with steep dropoffs on either side of the ridge.  There are a couple of really steep climbs in this part of the hike, especially at the 1.5 mile mark.  Overall however, the trail is relatively well blazed and easy to follow.  In winter, there are nice mountain views in the distance.

At the 2.5 mile mark, the trail drops down and crosses Rt 627, Scotchtown Draft Road.  This is a dirt forest service road that provides a closer parking option to the overlook that is our destination.  

There is also a trail mileage marker here which has a pretty unique feature - one that slams home the remoteness of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.  Check out the sign.

Ignore the fact that it refers to "State Rt. 250" when the highway is actually U.S. 250 - a federal highway.  When do you ever come across a trail mileage sign that includes a landmark 25 miles away?  I cannot think of another sign with such a distant landmark anywhere in Virginia.

Continue north on the SMT from this road, passing another Carsonine post and a small maker stating that this is part of the Great Eastern Trail, a new long distance trail that goes from New York to Alabama.  

The trail starts ascending with real purpose now.  Not as steeply as in earlier portions, but steadily and unrelenting.  Notice after about a mile that the forest changes as you cross a section that is on the edge of a shale barren  - trees are much less prevelant compared to the rest of the forest after the road crossing.  The trail will take a right following the contour of the mountain.  Keep an eye out for a metal arrow on a tree to the left of the trail and, at the same point, a side trail heading to the right.

Climb steeply to to the open point on the mountain.  Many distant locations can be seen from here, including Rough Mountain Wilderness and Warm Springs Mountain.  If you look carefully, you can see Scotchtown Draft Road, which you crossed on your way here.  This is truly one of those "photographs do not do it justice" locations!

Retrace your steps from here back to your vehicle.  Note that, on your way back, there is one point where the trail south of Scotchtown Draft Road is difficult to follow when heading south.  If you are a ridgetop and suddenly do not see any blazes on the trees, you may have gone straight on a ridge when the trail cut right down off of the ridge.  Keep an eye out for blazes!

Hike distance: 7.3 miles
Total Ascent:  2163 feet
Minimum Elevation: 1703 feet
Maximum Elevation: 2875 feet