St. Mary’s Wilderness

St. Mary’s Wilderness is in the George Washington National Forest in Augusta County.  St. Mary’s River, a small river that is better characterized as a large creek, empties a large drainage area on the west slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  It’s about three hours from Abingdon via I-81.   In fact, it’s as close to Washington, DC and Richmond as it is to Abingdon.In April 2011 I hiked and did some trail running up the main St. Mary’s “trail”—if you would call it that—on a weekend trip to the Shenandoah Valley.  The last time prior to this that I hiked in the St. Mary’s Wilderness was as a student and member of the Washington & Lee University Outing Club in the late 1980s.  Unlike most hiking areas, St. Mary’s Wilderness has become more inaccessible since my trips there when I was in college. 

There is a sign at the entrance to St. Mary’s Wilderness that states that the trail was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  There was a well-established trail prior to the hurricane.  Now it starts out as a trail but within a half-mile deteriorates to sporadic rocky areas and only remnants of a trail.  There are numerous areas where the “trail” is blocked by blow-downed trees, and where the trail meanders or peters out and then reappears several hundred feet further along the river.  The trail also runs along some embankment areas that are somewhat dangerous, requiring hand-holds on tree branches.  This trail could be challenging with a large, heavy pack for these reasons. 

Due to limited time, I was only able to get several miles up the trail, so I cannot comment on the further reaches of the trail.  However, the lower areas are not in very good condition.  In fact, the conditions were so poor that I carefully retraced my hike back to the entrance parking lot, to make sure that I had not missed the trail somehow.  Considering that this was early in the season, with the leaves not fully out and the underbrush not obscuring the trail, I do not think was this the case.

While there are interesting cliff faces, views up the gorge, and glimpses of the Blue Ridge mountains above, the reason to hike this trail is the St. Mary’s River itself.  The river is clear, runs over a light-colored stone bed, and has a couple of waterfalls.  There are also numerous deep pools, several which are suitable as swimming holes or places to take a dip on a hot day.  Here is a typical deep water pool:

The St. Marys River is purportedly a good trout fishery.  The river is not part of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ stocking program, however it is a designated special regulation trout water.  Only single hook artificial lures may be used; no bait may in possession of the angler; and all trout less than the minimum—for St. Mary’s River, a 9-inch minimum—must be released.

Comprising 9,835 acres, St. Mary’s Wilderness is one of the largest federally designated wildernesses area in Virginia.  Under the Wilderness Act of 1964 a federally designated wilderness is described as:  “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Although designated as a wilderness, it is not remote compared to many areas of national forest southwest of Roanoke in the Abingdon area such as the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, parts of the Clinch Mountain Ranger District, or the Cherokee National Forest in Upper East Tennessee.  St. Mary’s Wilderness  is nonetheless remarkable for being such a large, contiguous wilderness area so close to the major metropolitan areas of Virginia.

Here are some additional thumbnail photos of the St. Mary’s Wilderness.  Click to enlarge them.  

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Footbridge over Straight Branch

This is the Appalachian Trail footbridge that crosses Straight Branch Creek near Damascus, Virginia.  This photograph was taken on Saturday, July 9, 2011.  If you click on the photo and enlarge it, you can see the white blaze on the anchor tree on left of the footbridge in the background.  In order to obtain this composition, I waded into the center of the creek and set up a tripod.  I slowed the shutter speed slightly in order to capture the movement of the water in the foreground.

Tour de Rocky Top: A Twisty, Thirst-Quenching Metric Century

The Tour de Rocky Top is a metric century ride in Knoxville, Tennessee organized by Race Day Events, a private race organization.  This ride is unique in this region in that it starts and finishes at a large pub, Barleys Tap Room.

I did this metric century on Saturday, July 2, 2011.  The ride went through downtown, across the Tennessee River, and out into the country to the south and east of Knoxville towards the Smoky Mountains.  The ride never got into the mountains, but had many rollers, totaling about 3,000′ in total elevation in climbing (and descending) in the 62 mile course.   There were three well-stocked aid stations on the ride.

The staging area for this ride was excellent.  It began right next to Barleys Tap Room.  Adjacent to the tap room is a six lane off-ramp/overpass.  The City of Knoxville has turned the area under the overpass into a very large parking lot.  This was a perfect area to park and leave vehicles in the shade while cycling.  The ride started cool but became quite hot.  Who would have thought riding in Knoxville in July under a noon sun could get hot?  On the negative side, there was no place to shower at the end of the ride.  You pretty much had to just change into street clothes next to your car or go into Barleys and use the restroom to do so.

This is definitely more of true “tour” than a race.  While there may have been a lead group pushing the pace at the front (I don’t know if there was or not since I was at the back side of the starting line), there were about 45 turns on the course.  Every time you got up to speed or began to proceed in a good rhythm it seemed like there was a turn.  And many of these turns were not your gradual “bear to the right or left” turns, but true 45 degree turns on small country roads, several at stop signs.  So this ride was not conducive to a personal best time record, but it was nonetheless a pleasant tour of the countryside around Knoxville.  The race organizers did a good job of getting the riders out of and back into the downtown area on roads with relatively slight traffic, which was impressive.

I finished the ride in approximately 4 hours.  Actual riding time was about 3 hours, 40 minutes.  The average speed on my odometer was 16.2 mph.

The ride ended on a great note.  The ride ended at Barleys Tap Room, a restaurant with excellent pizza in the old town section of Knoxville.    The Barleys in Knoxville is an open, unfinished warehouse with brick interior walls, large rough-hewn beams, and a nice garden patio.  Barleys had two large flat screen TVs showing coverage of the first day of the Tour de France.  Watching part of “the” Tour with several hundred fellow cyclists after doing a century ride was a nice way to start off the Independence Day weekend.

A note on getting to the ride:  The venue is about 1 hour, 50 minutes from Abingdon.  It is a straight shot down I-81.  It makes for an early morning to do the trip in one day.  There are several nice hotels in downtown Knoxville close to the race staging area, and there are lots of restaurants and boutique stores in this area of Knoxville.  Going down the evening before would probably not be a bad idea.