Sunday, April 13, 2014

Laurel Forks Over-Nighter

For months, I have been kind of intrigued with an overnight hike into the Laurel Forks area.  This is a very rugged mountainous area in the George Washington National Forest on the West Virginia - Virginia border.  My guidebook showed a great 14 mile loop that could be a long day hike or a perfect over-nighter.  So after some planning, and cancelling those plans once for wintry weather, I went there this past Friday and Saturday (yesterday).

Just reaching this area from my house is an adventure.  It is almost a 4 hour drive, and you actually approach it from the West Virginia side.  One must drive, via switchbacks, over three mountain ranges after crossing the Blue Ridge.  The red circle on the map below gives the location.
This hike was my first time solo backpacking in, well, decades.  I had asked a friend but he could not go.  I know that some would consider going on a trip like this dangerous, but it is not like I was being air-lifted into the Gates of the Arctic.  You just need to be careful and self-reliant, and err on the side of caution, which I did twice on this hike.

Ah, the best laid plans!  I had planned on the 14 mile figure of eight route that my guidebook had described.  But my first adjustment came about an hour into the hike when I could not find the correct trail.  On my route map below (I started and ended at the top left, and Friday's trek is shown in the red route, Saturday's in the blue), you will see a route that headed west for a while, marked by an upwards facing purple arrow.  This is where I spent nearly an hour going back and forth trying to find a marked trail before I gave up and continued across the trail that I was on.  The guidebook said the junction was at 1.5 miles and exactly at that point, the GPS showed a trail coming in on the right.  As it turned out, the junction was about another 0.3 miles, but by that time, I had wasted so much time that I decided to just keep going.

Now, look at the lower right and you will see another track, indicated by the leftwards pointing purple arrow, where I turned around.  Here is the story on that:  It was about 3:30, and it was clear that a storm was coming in.  I had passed a really nice camp site about 1.5 miles back.  If I continued along the route that I planned, I would do a loop and reach essentially the same spot about four miles later.  The thought of hiking in the rain only to have to set everything up in the rain was not that appealing.  So I turned around and went back, and got everything set up just before the rain started at around 5PM.
Here is the elevation profile for the first day.  I hiked just 6.8 miles instead of the 10.4 planned, and it was mostly downhill.
And here are two elevation profiles for the second day.  Why two?  Well, my GPS battery was dying and so I saved the track to date and started another one.  It was mostly uphill as you can see, and the total was 3.6 miles.  So my total hike, including diversions, was 10.4 miles.  Total elevation gain and loss was about 2,600 feet.

This was a really nice hike. It started out at about 3,700 feet in elevation, and coniferous forests were the rule.  It was so pleasant hiking along here, like being transplanted to the "north woods."
Do you see a trail here?  Neither did I!  This was the point where I gave up the idea of hiking the "outer loop," and just continued straight across.  I did find the trail later, but had already spent so much time that the more direct route seemed like a better idea.  If I could do it over again, I would have taken the "outer loop" trail, since I ended up not hiking most of the "figure of eight" part anyway.

You can see that spring has not yet really come to Highland County, Virginia, although they are no doubt collecting sap from maple trees in parts of the county.
This part of the George Washington National Forest is very rugged, a land of streams, ridges, and valleys.  There is very little level land anywhere.  At one point the area was so heavily logged that railroad tracks were built.  Many of the trails follow the old railway beds, and you can find leftover pieces of industrial equipment scattered about.
This is Laurel Fork, a major stream.  On my hike, I did at least 12-15 stream crossings, and never got my feet - except here.  There is no way to cross without fording it, it is simply too wide and too deep.  I swapped my hiking boots for my Tevas.
Heck yeah, it was cold!  I got to cross it again a while later when I gave up on the second loop and came back this way to camp.
I spied this cave high up a steep ridge, and felt compelled to check it out.  Maybe I could find a rattlesnake there.  So I clambered up the very steep slope, camera at the ready, and what did I find inside? ...
Just the skull of this unfortunate beaver!  This area used to have lots of beavers, and when things go well, life is good.  But eventually, they cut down trees faster than they can possibly grow, and they have no choice but to leave or starve.  Also, at some point, the juveniles are forced to leave home to find their own territory.  In either event, it is a very dangerous time for them as they wander through forests without the protection of their pond.  I wonder what this unlucky fellow's tale was?
Once I retraced my steps and crossed back over Laurel Fork, I set up camp under the rhododendrons by Laurel Fork.  It was a gorgeous site to camp.  Because I don't do anything harmful to the stream, like wash dishes in it or bathe, I don't mind camping by a stream.  And this one was well used - there were at least three fire pits, including a huge and elaborate one near my tent.  I would have loved to have had a fire, but the rain started just after five, and continued for hours.  I ate my meal cooked in a bag standing under the rhododendrons, and crawled into my tent by 6PM!  I came out twice when the rain stopped, but it would almost immediately start raining again.  I finally took a walk at dusk in the rain, and then went to bed for good.  At about 10:30 I awoke to answer Nature's call, and it was clear and cold, with a beautiful moon.
My hike out Saturday was mostly uphill, and lovely Buck Run was my companion for much of it.  I encountered the only other people I saw during my trip, a father and his daughter camping along Buck Run in a tiny level area.  They had hiked down in the dark and rain Friday night.  No thank you!
I think that this is wood sorrel.  It reminded me of shamrocks.
This is typical of the deciduous forest in early spring in the mountains.  I heard very few birds.  As far as wildlife, I saw four ruffed grouse (and heard one drumming), three mergansers, a kingfisher, a couple of small birds, including a small woodpecker, and a red-backed salamander.  Walking along this section of the trail, I continually heard male woodpeckers drumming on trees.  I am not sure which species, though, but they were not pileated woodpeckers - something smaller.
As I regained all of the elevation lost the day before, the conifers returned.
This used to a beaver pond many years ago.  Doesn't it look like something out of Maine or Minnesota, not Virginia?  I didn't see any type of tree that a beaver would eat, and the stumps of trees that they had cut down were so old that they were covered in lichens.  Now this area is a bog, but probably still has some wildlife value due to making the area more diverse.
My trek to Laurel Forks ended just after this point.  Even though it didn't go quite as planned, I enjoyed seeing a brand new area and camping out along the way.  It would have been perhaps a bit more fun to have another person along, but there is also something to be said for being the only human being in a particular spot among the 7 billion or so of us in the world.


  1. That was some hike. Wow, it all looks so beautiful.
    I couldn't see a path at all in the one picture.
    Too bad you had a rainy night.
    I'm impressed that you go all alone and spend the night out there. I wouldn't be so brave to do that.
    Sounds like you had a great hike.

  2. It was a wonderful hike, but a bit frustrating at times. All in all, it was fun. I was fine going alone - I've not been solo backpacking in a very long time - but would have enjoyed having a companion. My next trek will be four days long to a pretty remote area, and I am going with a friend as of this moment.