June 24, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Big Walker Mountain is one of the most prominent mountains in Southwestern Virginia’s valley and ridge province. From its rise as mere hill in Washington County (see my description of it in the Saltville Loop article), Big Walker rises to 3500’ above sea level, and all the way from Saltville to the New River beyond Pulaski it is the main dividing ridge between the great valley that contains Route 11 and Interstate 81 and the valleys to the north. In fact, it is so prominent and without any significant gap that the engineers who built I-77 created a tunnel to go through it.
The Southwest Virginia Cyclists use the primary and secondary highways that cross Big Walker Mountain for many of their training climbs. They also sponsor two organized rides over the mountain each year, the Mother of a Metric and the Big Walker Mountain Century Ride.
This past weekend, Saturday, June 18, 2011, was the 8th Big Walker Century Ride. The Big Walker Century has four ride options, including a metric century (100 kilometers) and an English century (100 miles). This was the second year I did the metric century with a buddy from Abingdon. There were about 100 riders who toed the start line in the morning.
The conditions turned out to be good for a long distance ride. The morning started out cloudy, a bit chilly, and threatening rain. As the ride progressed the skies cleared somewhat, and we had partly sunny weather for the tail end of the ride. The ride starts and finishes in Wytheville. The beginning of the ride this year began with a typical peloton mass start in downtown Wytheville at 7:30 AM. There was a police escort for at least the first 15 miles. This ride usually starts out at a pretty hard pace. The local pack of Southwest Virginia Cyclists leads the peloton, and they are usually hammering pretty hard following the police car. This year there were about 100 cyclists in the peloton.
This year involved an inauspicious start as I was cut off in the peloton by an errant rider within the first five miles. I was driven off the pavement. Like the famous decision of Lance Armstrong to take a short cut in stage 9 of the Tour de France in 2003 in order to avoid the crash with Joseba Beloki, or the quick decision of many professional riders to go off the pavé in Paris Roubaix to avoid crashes, I had to make a split second decision to avoid a crash and went off Route 11 at 30 mph. I drove into the gravel shoulder and feathered my brakes to slow, standing on the pedals and leaning back so as not to endo.
While I was fortunate the incident occurred where there was a shoulder that allowed me to decelerate without flipping or crashing, I was unfortunate in that it occurred on a stretch of road just before the beginning of a long hill. With adrenaline pumping and my heart pounding, I came to a stop, looked up, and saw the back peloton receding towards the distant top of the hill. Having lost contact with the peloton and with no forward momentum, I then realized I would have no draft for next 15 or so miles to the base of the climb; the lead pack was gone, not be seen again for the rest of the ride. I eventually caught up with my buddy James, and we rode the rest of the ride more or less together.
The climb up Big Walker Mountain on Rt. 52 is a moderately difficult climb of 1000 vertical feet at a 5% gradient (from 2400’ to 3400’). The climb takes 30-45 minutes. The gradient is consistent—there are no very sharp spikes in the gradient, thus allowing a cyclist to get into a good rhythm.
Coming from Wytheville, when you reach the top of the mountain on the metric century ride you go left (west) down Old Mountain Road, aka County Road 621, which is a narrow single lane road with great views down the valley. County Road 621 actually resembles many of the mountain roads in Europe with its solid white lines on both sides and proximity to the side of the mountain, sometimes without any guard rail to prevent going off the side. (Last year the organized ride went right at the top of the mountain continued down Route 52.)
The most scenic part of the ride is definitely on the north side of the mountain in Rich Valley. The valley is fairly narrow with mountain scenery on both sides.
The climb up the backside (north side) of the mountain on Route 52 is about 700 vertical feet at a 5.2% gradient (from 2700’ to 3400’). The gradient on this climb is also consistent. This is just a bit steeper climb with tighter switchbacks than the climb up the south side.
We finished the ride in 3 hours, fifty minutes at an average speed of 16.4 mph. We also spent about 20 minutes out on the course stopped at aid stations; they were well-stocked and had lots of goodies for re-fueling.
Training on Big Walker
I have done the Big Walker Mountain climb many times on my own without any organized ride. This is one of the best training rides in Southwest Virginia. Route 52 has a good, steady gradient and is generally wide for a mountain road in this region. The climb is similar to the climb over Route 421 near South Holston Lake in Bristol, Tennessee.
One way to approach this climb without riding on Route 11 (the busiest stretch of the organized century ride) is to start in Rural Retreat, Virginia (Rural Retreat is ½ mile to the south of Exit 60 on I-81). Park in one of the municipal parking areas or church parking lots in downtown Rural Retreat.
From your starting location, take Main Street north back towards the Interstate. You ride under the I-81 at Exit 60 and will be on Black Lick Road, aka County Road 680. Continue north on Black Lick Road. Black Lick Road eventually junctions with Route 52. Make a left on Route 52 and you will approach the Big Walker Climb. Once you reach the top of the mountain you can go down the backside, or simply return back to Rural Retreat. From this point you can follow the directions from the cue sheet from the organized ride, which is set forth below.
At the top of the mountain there is the Big Walker Country Store. This is good place to refuel. There is also a lookout on the north side of the mountain and some scenic vistas from the store itself.
Cue Sheet for Big Walker Mountain Metric Century Ride
Start Head southwest on S Main St toward N 4th St
0.43mi Turn right onto N 12th St
0.43mi Head northwest on US-11 S/N 12th St toward W Monroe St Continue to follow US-11 S
1.1mi Slight left onto US-11 N/W Lee Hwy
13.19mi Turn right onto Kimberlin Rd/State Route 682
13.2mi Head north on Kimberlin Rd/State Route 682 toward Mt Airy Rd/State Route F-015
14.2mi Head northeast on Kimberlin Rd/State Route 682 toward Ridge Top Dr
Continue to follow Kimberlin Rd
16.41mi Turn left onto Blacklick Rd/State Route 680
16.42mi Head north on Blacklick Rd/State Route 680
18.53mi Turn left to stay on Blacklick Rd/State Route 680
19.18mi Turn left to stay on Blacklick Rd/State Route 680
Continue to follow State Route 680
23.51mi Turn left onto U.S. 52 N/Stony Fork Rd (Note this is the junction I describe in the alternative trip from Rural Retreat)
23.52mi Head northwest on U.S. 52 N/Stony Fork Rd
Continue to follow U.S. 52 N
30.81mi Head southeast on U.S. 52 S/S Scenic Hwy W toward Old Mountain Rd/State Route 621
30.82mi Turn left onto Old Mountain Rd/State Route 621
33.66mi Head west on Old Mountain Rd/State Route 621 toward VA-42 E/W Blue Grass Trail
33.76mi Sharp right onto VA-42 E/W Blue Grass Trail
38.69mi Head east on VA-42 E/W Blue Grass Trail toward U.S. 52 S/S Scenic Hwy
38.7mi Turn right onto U.S. 52 S/S Scenic Hwy
39.41mi Turn left onto State Route 617/Waddletown Rd
39.42mi Head west on State Route 617/Waddletown Rd toward U.S. 52 N/S Scenic Hwy
39.43mi Turn left onto U.S. 52 S/S Scenic Hwy
Continue to follow U.S. 52 S
42.87mi Head east on U.S. 52 S/Stony Fork Rd
Continue to follow U.S. 52 S (Note that if you are going back to Rural Retreat, you need to watch for Black Lick Road, aka County Road 680, after coming off of the mountain, you would make a right onto Black Lick Road and follow it back into Rural Retreat)
53.04mi Head east on N 4th St toward W Ridge Rd
53.04mi Turn right onto W Ridge Rd
53.92mi Head southeast on W Ridge Rd toward N Petunia Rd
55.97mi Turn left onto N 4th St
55.97mi Head southeast on N 4th St toward W Ridge Rd
55.98mi Turn left onto W Ridge Rd
56.09mi Head northeast on W Ridge Rd toward Tazewell St
56.1mi Turn right onto Tazewell St
56.44mi Turn right onto W Spiller St
56.44mi Head southwest on W Spiller St toward N 4th St (you are in downtown Wytheville)
June 21, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Tommorrow the Town of Abingdon will officially open the new Alvarado Station on the Virginia Creeper Trail during a ceremony at the site of its construction. Earlier this week I drove out to Alvarado for an evening run and an inspection of the new facility. Painted white with green trim, the new Alvarado Station matches the design and colors of the restored train stations further up the trail at Green Cove and at Whitetop.
The new Alvarado Station has restrooms and has a nice parking lot that will accommodate more vehicles at this area of the trail. The additional parking at this section of the trail will hopefully take some pressure off the parking areas at Watauga Road and in Abingdon on busy weekends.
Over the years Alvarado has become a more interesting spot on the trail. The Abingdon Vineyard and Winery, a small winery across the South Fork of the Holston River, is a day-trip destination in and of itself. While personally I am usually too engaged in exercise on the trail to stop for a glass of wine, it would be a pleasant break if you were taking a more leisurely ride on the trail. The winery is located less than a half-mile down the road from the Virginia Creeper Trail. You could easily ride your bike there from the trail. The wine tasting room is at the junction of a small creek and the South Fork of the Holston River.
There is also a small store/restaurant called the Old Avarado Station that is right next to the Town-owned, new facility. The store has cold drinks, snacks, baked goods, and barbecue. The location of this store is the “last stop” when you are travelling from Damascus to Abingdon on the trail, or is the first stop on the way from Abingdon to Damascus that has food or drinks.
For those unfamiliar with the area, Alvarado is a locality on the Virginia Creeper Trail about 8 miles from Abingdon and 5 miles from Damascus. By car it is reached by taking Route 58 east in the direction of Damascus.
About 6 miles from Abingdon, turn right on Osceola Road, aka County Road 722. After a mile or two Osceola Road turns into Alvarado Road, aka County Road 710, which crosses the North Fork of the Holston River. About 100 yards past the bridge there is the parking lot and new Alvarado Station.
June 17, 2011 § 1 Comment
This is the second installment in a series on cycling routes near Abingdon. The “Saltville Loop” is one of the more often ridden, middle-length cycling loops in Abingdon and Washington County. It is popular because the roads are relatively low in traffic (especially the backside of this loop) and have only a few moderate climbs. Below is a further description and directions for the ride. Click on any of these thumbnail photos to expand them.
Distance: Approximately 46 miles
Time: Approximately 3 hours @ about 15 mph
Difficulty Notes: Some moderate climbing on hills; big rollers, especially on the middle section of the first half of this route
The Saltville Loop is one of the major training routes used by the local cyclists in Abindgon. The route generally follows the valleys between Abingdon and Saltville, which is in Smyth County. Because the route generally follows the valleys, there is only one sustained climb, which is on Route 80 from the intersection with the North Fork of the Holston River back up to Old Saltworks Road.
There are some beautiful farms on Old Saltworks Road. After about 8 miles into this ride, the hill that parallels Old Saltworks Road on your right (immediately to the south of the road) that gets higher and higher is the beginning of Big Walker Mountain. Further to the east, towards Marion, Big Walker Mountain rises to almost 3500′ above sea level.
Poor Valley Road on the way back from Saltville provides excellent views of Clinch Mountain. Coming from Saltville, after about 5 miles on Poor Valley Road you will pass Big Tumbling Creek and the Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area, one of the largest wildlife management areas in the Commonwealth of Virginia with over 30,000 acres.
This route starts in downtown Abingdon at the Jockey Lot of the county courthouse or as an alternative may start at the Coomes Center.
- From downtown, travel on Valley Street east until it turns into Walden Road. From the Coomes Center, make a right out of the Coomes Center and travel down to Walden Road. Make a right on Walden Road.
- Travel on Walden Road until you intersect with Old Saltworks Road (also known as County Road 740). Turn left onto Old Saltworks Road.
- Travel on Old Saltworks Road until you reach the T-bone junction with Route 80. Turn left here onto Route 80.
- Travel for about 1 mile. You will approach an area of open fields. The road makes a fairly sharp left turn at this point. About 100 yards past this point there is a junction with Old Saltworks Road, aka County Road 745. There is a sign for Saltville. Turn right here to stay on Old Saltworks Road, aka 745.
- This road travels through the community of Clinchburg, and then continues into Saltville. There is another junction with Route 91. Turn left onto Route 91 which goes into Saltville. This is about a 20 mile ride at this point. Saltville is a good place to take a rest break and refuel if necessary at one of the gas stations with some water or sports drinks.
- Route 91 is Main Street. One of the first roads as you enter into Saltville is Bank Street. Make a left onto Bank Street.
- Bank Street turns into Allison Gap Road. Continue on Allison Gap Road, aka County Road 634, as it leaves town. Allison Gap Road eventually makes a junction with Poor Valley Road. Veer to the left and stay on Poor Valley Road, aka County Road 613. Poor Valley Road is a long, generally flat road that parallels the base of Clinch Mountain for about 10 miles.
- Poor Valley Road eventually junctions with Hayters Gap Road, aka Route 80. Stay to the left on Route 80 which continues parallel to Clinch Mountain (a right here would take you up the south side of Clinch Mountain, one of the largest climbs in Washington County and the subject of a future article).
- Route 80 will take you through the community of Hayters Gap—just a church, schoolhouse, and a few homes), and then goes downhill and follows Wolf Creek until you intersect with the North Fork Holston River.
- Stay on Route 80. At this point the road turns up for the only lengthy climb, about 2 miles at a consistent 4-6% gradient, until it tops out in the community of Lindell. This is the main climb on this ride.
- Stay on Route 80 as it continues through the large area of open fields you passed on the way out. You will pass the junction for County Road 745 on the way out; however, stay on Route 80. From this point, you now simply retrace your route back to Abingdon.
- You will eventually come back to the junction with Old Saltworks Road, aka County Road 740. Make a right back onto Old Saltworks Road.
- Make a right when you reach Walden Road. Take Walden Road back into Abingdon and the start of your ride.
There are several alternative ways to come back from Hayters Gap. The main cycling roads between Abingdon and Saltville, Old Saltworks Road and Poor Valley Road, are described here. These roads combined with the other connector roads described herein make for a good approximate 46 mile training ride.
Another alternative route is to do the whole route in reverse, i.e., in a clockwise fashion taking the route from Abingdon to Saltville via Poor Valley Road first and then coming back to Abingdon via Old Saltworks Road. Coming back from Saltville, a good alternative to hilly Old Saltworks Road is to leave Saltville and take Old Saltworks Road until the junction with Old Mill Road, aka County Road 750. Turn left onto Old Mill Road. Old Mill Road will take you all the way to the Town of Glade Spring, where it junctions with Hillman Highway, aka County Road 609. Turn right on Hillman Highway, and it will take you back to Main Street in Abingdon. This is a fast route. Note that Hillman Highway can have higher traffic than the other route described above.
June 15, 2011 § Leave a Comment
June 13, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In eastern Tazewell County lies Burkes Garden, an isolated, circular mountain valley nicknamed “God’s Thumbprint.” The people who have lived here for generations apparently have known for a long time they own one of the most idyllic mountain valleys in the South. In fact, at one time agents of George Vanderbilt inquired about building his gilded age mountain estate here. The local population refused to sell out, and he instead built his house, The Biltmore, at another location outside of Asheville, North Carolina.
Burkes Garden is the location of a scenic half-marathon called “The Varmint.” Saturday, June 11, 2011, was the 18th consecutive running of The Varmint. The race is named after a peculiarly large coyote that was killing sheep in the valley in 1952. As the story goes, this varmint was difficult to catch or kill, so a professional big game hunter was called in to get the beast. They eventually did get it. The coyote itself can be viewed at nearby Crab Orchard Museum.
Prior to this year I had run this 13.1 mile race a couple of times, so I was curious to go back and see how the race had changed. To get to Burkes Garden, you have to drive over a mountain that separates the valley from the rest of Tazewell County. The road, named Burkes Garden Road (Route 663), is about 2.5 miles in length from the base to the top and climbs considerably; I would estimate somewhat less than 1000 vertical feet. Coming down into Burkes Garden at 7:30 AM, there was a fog which completely engulfed the valley.
As I approached the race, I was surprised by how many people were there. There were well over 300 people. The Varmint Half-Marathon is run in conjunction with a 5K road race, so some of the people who were there were obviously there for the 5K. Nonetheless, the half-marathon has grown a lot since 2002 and 2004 when I last participated. This year there were groups of runners from Virginia Tech University and West Virginia as well as the more expected contingent of runners from Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee with the State of Franklin Track Club.
The half-marathon is essentially a tour of Burkes Garden. The race is staged and the start/finish line is at a school in the community. Racers travel in a counter-clockwise fashion around the valley. This is one of the more scenic races in the region. You have to appreciate the scenery, because this is a tough and very hilly course. The first six miles are constant hills. Your legs will get pounded. Thereafter the hills continue, but they are less pronounced. The last three miles of the race is one long, slow climb with one small out-and-back detour back to the finish line.
After I ran The Varmint this Saturday I retraced the race route and took some photos of the course. These are presented in the order a runner would see these views during the race. Click on any of the photos in this gallery to enlarge and read a description of them.
The roads are very lightly traveled in Burkes Garden. This would make for a great afternoon family or casual mountain bike ride, or a challenging road bike route if combined with the climb over 663 from Tazewell.
Route 663 actually continues southeast all the way through Burkes Garden and travels up over Brushy Mountain, where it eventually intersects with the Appalachian Trail at the peak of the mountain, then continues down the other side via switchbacks to connect with Route 42 in Bland County. Leaving Burkes Garden Route 663 however turns to gravel and is essentially an unimproved forest road. This could be another mountain bike option as well.
Burkes Garden is one of those increasingly rare places where the beauty of the countryside is simple and still pure. There are no restaurants and no stores in Burkes Garden. There are also no neon or electric signs, no flashy or tacky homes, and no unnecessary distubances to the pastoral countryside. It’s easy on the eyes. It’s just a great place to sit back and relax—especially after 13.1 miles.
June 9, 2011 § 1 Comment
The ascent up Wilburn Ridge is the most spectacular hike in Virginia. I usually avoid superlatives in describing the outdoors, because descriptions such as “most spectacular” are of course necessarily subjective. However, in many years of hiking across the Commonwealth, this route remains my personal favorite. If you are reasonably fit and only do one hike in Southwest Virginia, this should be it.
This hike is one for all seasons: Spring, summer, fall and winter each bring a different hiking perspective. Because of the elevation, the winters can be harsh up here, and summer comes later than it does to the valleys. In the middle of June, the balds boast the largest open rhododendron thickets in Virginia. In the fall, the trees burst forth with color. The peak brilliance of fall foliage occurs several weeks earlier here than in the rest of the region—usually the last week of September or first week of October.
These photos were taken on a day hike on Memorial Day Weekend in 2011. Some the trees were still in the early leafing out stage that has long past the rest of the Virginia. This provided an interesting contrast between the lighter greens of early foliage and the darker colors of the Fraser firs that are spread across the higher elevations.
The following photo taken of hikers ascending Wilburn Ridge shows the grand views from practically the outset of this hike. Click on this photo to enlarge it and appreciate the expansive views into North Carolina along Wilburn Ridge.
Most of Wilburn Ridge is above treeline in “balds,” huge sections of the mountain where there are only grass, underbrush, and rocky outcroppings. This is more like hiking in the Western mountain ranges than anywhere else in the Southeastern United States.
Wilburn Ridge is a ridge climb that is the southern rampart of Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia at 5700′ above sea level. The highest point on the ridge itself is approximately 5500′. The rock outcroppings rise like embattled parapets on a castle as you ascend the ridge. From the northern part of this ridge the Appalachian Trail continues west across additional balds towards the true peak of Mount Rogers, and there is a short spur trail that ascends the final 200′ to the summit. The actual summit of Mount Rogers is forested and has no view.
The trails surrounding Mount Rogers provide views in all directions. There are some outcroppings that provide literal 360 degree views. The further you ascend on this route, the better the views become. In the midsection of the ridge, the views to the southwest show the Appalachian Range that separates North Carolina and Tennessee.
At the northern end (the highest end) of Wilburn Ridge, you can view almost 100 miles of the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. Clicking to enlarge the photo below, you can see Grandfather Mountain in the foreground on the left side (about 1/4 from the left side). It has a unique “U” shape in the middle of it. The mountains in the middle include Sugar Mountain in North Carolina, while the largest mountains on the center-right hand side of the photo include Roan Mountain that divides North Carolina and Tennessee.
At the northern end of Wilburn Ridge, you can look west back down towards the valley and ridge section of Virginia. In the photo below, you can see where the Appalachian Trail, Crest Trail, and Pine Mountain Trail intersect. Click to enlarge this photo and you can see the horses and riders on the trail. Iron Mountain is the long straight mountain behind them that runs along the top of the picture. In the very upper left of the photo is the valley back towards Abingdon. While not visible in this photo, Abingdon is less than 30 miles as the crow flies from this viewpoint.
To the north, Wilburn Ridge overlooks Pine Mountain. As shown below, Pine Mountain appears as a semi-circular mountain that has huge bald sections but is also partially forested. Pine Mountain has tremendous views itself looking back up to Wilburn Ridge and towards the southern mountains in North Carolina. The Appalachian Trail traverses the entire ridge of Pine Mountain. The Crest Trail can be seen on the left of the photo below. Click to enlarge it for a more detailed view.
The Wilburn Ridge Trail is part of the Appalachian Trail. The quickest way to access the trail is to enter Grayson Highlands State Park and drive to the Massie Gap parking area. A short 1/2 mile spur trail leaves the parking lot and rapidly ascends to meet the Appalachian Trail and Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. This photo shows the view looking up Wilburn Ridge at the beginning of the hike once on the Appalachian Trail.
The views begin immediately climbing the trail. The photo below was taken along the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail less than 1 mile from the parking lot in Grayson Highlands State Park. If you click on it and enlarge it, the horse trail is clearly visible to the left-center of the photo, while the AT is just above it in the center of the photo. These two trails parallel one another during the first 1.5 miles up Wilburn Ridge, until reaching the gate that separates Grayson Highlands State Park from Mount Rogers Wilderness.
The trail alternates between a series of rocky step climbing and traverses across fields. Here is one of the fields showing rock outcroppings both near and far:
The following shows typical trail conditions while descending back down towards the parking lot:
Wilburn Ridge and the surrounding area are known not only for the views, but also for the herds of feral ponies that live in Grayson Highlands State Park and in the high country or “crest zone” of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. This is one of only two areas in Virginia where wild ponies roam (the other is almost 400 miles away on Assateaugue Island National Seashore). The ponies here endure tremendous temperature changes from the heat of summer to the winters at 5000′.
The ponies graze across the high country throughout the summer, preserving the character of the balds. In the winter they migrate to lowers areas of the park. The ponies can be seen on the trails that crisscross the balds:
The photo below shows ponies along Wilburn Ridge. The mountain in the distance is Whitetop.
The Wilburn Ridge Pony Association, a private organization, assists managing these animals. In the spring some of the female ponies give birth, and in the fall the ponies are rounded up, and a certain number of them are auctioned off during the Grayson Highlands Festival.
The ponies are awesome to observe as you are hiking up the ridge. While completely wild, they are not afraid of the hikers and usually continue grazing. I have even experienced them waking up backpackers by grazing close to tents in the early morning hours. Here is a mother with her young:
Here is another young pony up close:
So there you have it: The combination of views, miles of balds which provide above-treeline hiking conditions, wild ponies, and rugged country make this the most spectacular hike in Virginia.
From Abingdon, drive east to Damascus on Route 58. Stay on Route 58 through Damascus. Route 58 itself is a beautiful drive as it parallels Whitetop Laurel Creek. You will continue on Route 58 east until you enter Grayson County; when you reach the community of Whitetop you have about 20 minutes left until you will reach the entrance to Grayson Highlands State Park.
There is a $3 entrance fee to drive into the park. The drive to the Massie Gap parking lot is another 3 miles or so.
The best map for hiking in the high country that is currently published is the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Mount Rogers Map 786, available at the outdoor stores in Abingdon, Bristol, and Damascus.