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.  

GaiaGPS.com 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.