Central Ridge & Valley wilderness areas, 2014

So Close & Yet So far: wilderness pairs offer long drives, few hikes

The long ridge of Potts Mountain runs for miles along or near the Virginia-West Virginia border north of Interstate-84 between Pulaski and Roanoke. Six wilderness areas on or close to Potts could offer interesting backpacking opportunity in remote country—with a few connector trails. The areas are on the same or parallel ridges in pairs only 1 to 5 miles apart.

Instead we accessed them with “out and back” hikes and hours of driving—thanks to minimal or no trails in wilderness. The primary access is Appalachian Trail (AT) which crosses four of the wilderness areas—and even connects Peters Mountain and Mountain Lake.

Outside the AT, these are lightly visited wilderness areas; we only encountered visitors off AT on spur trails close to roads and near developments.

Connector trails between these wilderness areas could open up several days of backpacking opportunities. Wilderness should be more than something to view from the road or pass by on AT.

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Barbours Creek & Shawvers Run

Barbours and Shawvers are a mile apart along Potts Mountain, but we drove 40 miles between trailheads to access both.

In June 2014 we camped at The Pines: an empty, well-maintained campground on boundary of Barbours Creek Wilderness (namesake pines, probably planted, were mostly lost to bark beetle mortality). We hiked the only trail, 2.5 miles along Lipes Creek falls and pools; then steep switchbacks to terminus at 3590 feet on Potts Jeep Trail at wilderness boundary.

We then doubled back on forest roads to access Shawvers Run via the improved Potts Mountain Road. The only trail of a half mile—marked by a beautiful kiosk—is to Hanging Rock views of trailless wilderness to the northwest and private land in the valley below.

We could have hiked these two areas—only a mile apart on adjacent boundaries—as an overnight backpacking trip. Since there are no connecting trails, such a hike would require sharing Potts Mountain Jeep Road with vehicles and bushwhacking through trailless Shawvers Run drainage. But a few more trails would greatly improve visiting these wilderness areas.

East Brush Mountain & Brush Mountain

In July 2014 we hiked the two wilderness areas along western slope of long Brush Mountain ridge separated by a power line corridor. AT is only trail in East Brush Wilderness; we saw many hikers there but no one in virtually trailless Brush Mountain Wilderness.

At the junction for access road to the ridge, we disappointed a group of bright-clad AT thru-hikers trying to hitch into town; we were heading into wilderness, not out. Near East Brush Mountain trailhead that meets AT, there are benches and a monument/viewpoint—maintained by veterans—honoring a local WWII hero who died in a plane crash in area. From camp on ridge near Brush Mountain, we hiked AT “out and back” northeast to Trout Creek trailhead that evening and northwest down to Craig Creek next morning. Both ridge hikes were scenic; ridge down to Craig Creek through oak-pine and along drainages lined by rhododendron “trees” crossed with several wood bridges. We heard hikers passing camp late into evening and met a few on each hike including guy sprawled on a bench, drying his clothes after rainy days—as usual, there was little solitude on the popular AT.

To visit Brush Mountain, we drove a muddy road along wilderness boundary; stopping and walking into the wilderness in a few places but with little desire to bushwhack very far. Then we drove 37 miles through Blacksburg, north on US-460 and east on paved Craig Creek Road to seek the only route into this wilderness shown on map. Passing along private land for 9 miles from state road turnoff, we spied a parking lot, gate, and sign—Foot Travel Welcome—indicating public land and old logging road up Hazelnut Hollow. On far side of creek was a new Brush Mountain Wilderness sign. The road split half mile up; both forks ended in “landings” (cleared areas where logs are piled for hauling out). Ridges above landings might be nice off-trail ascent in leaf-off season. There is a “wilderness” campsite in open trees on Craig Creek near trailhead.

Wilderness visits could be greatly enhanced by building a mid-slope trail, perhaps connecting road on top to spurs for viewpoints or campsites. A trail would not seriously detract from bushwhacking opportunity for off trail purists; the terrain map shows about 70 ridges dropping from the boundary road along Brush Mountain ridge.

Peters Mountain & Mountain Lake

Our last wilderness pair visited in July 2014—Peters Mountain and Mountain Lake—again offered many people on AT and few elsewhere, and a circuitous drive between wildernesses.

We found an obscure trailhead for Peters Mountain with old kiosk nestled into brush off Big Stony Creek Road. After weed-clogged connector, well-used AT soon passed Swamp Pine shelter, bustling with thru-hikers. No campsite available on steep trail up creek through thick rhododendrons, oak and hickory; nor on long switchbacks, so we camped on open oak flat just below the mountain. In the morning we passed through a flat with a few eastern hemlock. On ridge we saw sign for “Allegheny Trail” heading northwest, mostly obliterated by logs. We took AT southwest a mile then returned to trailhead, passing an overflow campsite we had missed just above the shelter (still full of people).

Next we explored the only other trail in Peters—Dismal Branch—via maze of roads, unmarked gate, grassy road and a single cairn marker. Downed logs, brushy rhododendron and washouts made 2-hour hike of 3 miles to open basin of hardwoods and a small fire circle. Trail climbed to divide between Dismal and Dixon branches and first wilderness boundary sign. (Map showed Allegheny Trail ¼ mile above). We looped down Dixon and North Fork Stony creeks out of wilderness. Better trail on descent and we soon saw cut brush, sawed logs and yellow paint marks—a trail crew ahead of us! We later learned the Forest Service was building new loop outside the wilderness and would not reopen Dismal—too costly to clear with crosscut saw required by agency regulations in wilderness. Interestingly, blowdowns on multi-use Allegheny Trail were left deliberately to discourage ATVs from using AT.

A slow winding 19-mile drive from Dismal Branch brought us to Mountain Lake Wilderness—which encompasses 4000-foot ridges along the Eastern Continental Divide and three creek drainages dropping to 1900 feet along Johns Creek. Mountain Lake is named for the only natural body of water in western Virginia, which ironically lies just outside wilderness and is fronted by a private resort, housing developments and a university field camp. Confused by branch roads to these developments and unmarked main road, we wandered for some time before we found trailhead into the wilderness, and hiked in a mile to camp in a flat area.

Next day we met AT which allowed visits to both ends of the wilderness. We descended on piney switchbacks to War Spur Shelter (named for War Spur Branch which drops from the ridge to Johns Creek). After a sign leaving wilderness, the AT crossed a road. A truck was parked on road and someone was walking; the only person we saw on July 4th. We had to search to find trail into south end of wilderness: unsigned route 0.1 mile above road. We followed yellow paint marks on faint path up and down small drainages above private land before descent to public land on the creek. After some trail finding, we followed brushy old logging road. Wearing sandals for day hike, I disturbed ground bees in a boggy area; then stood immobile and screaming while bees stung my feet. David kept yelling, “run!” until I finally did.

After false starts and crossing drainages, old road climbed along rhododendron-shaded Johns Creek and up through oak-maple to wilderness boundary—sunny field of weeds in a power-line right of way. We doubled back and camped below War Spur shelter on a creek. Silence punctuated by distant crack of fireworks.

Next day we took steep AT over Pine Mountain and up a cairn-marked connector to Potts Mountain Trail, a grassy road through grassy meadow east to White Rocks viewpoint. Our map showed trailless wilderness to northwest but views and GPS map indicated old roads almost to Allegheny Trail. We completed our loop carrying packs to head of War Spur Branch in old-growth red spruce and hemlock. We crossed the creek just above where it drops 2000 feet to Johns Creek, climbed to popular War Spur Overlook and returned through boggy Salt Pond Mountain. A couple passed us; and a family sprawled along rock outcrops on the overlook.

A little work to link old road routes to Potts, Allegheny and Appalachian Trails with new trails would create premier backpacking loop(s) through Peters and Mountain Lake wilderness—only 7 miles apart on AT.

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Google Map

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