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:

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