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Glade Mountain

Driving south along I-81 in Wythe County, you cannot help but notice that there is one aesthetically appealing mountain on your left that notably rises from the valley floor much closer to the interstate than the surrounding mountains.  This is Glade Mountain. 

View from Glade Mountain

The mountain becomes visible to the south of the interstate just past Rural Retreat (Exit 60).  Glade Mountain parallels the interstate for almost 10 miles, receding only as you approach Atkins (Exit 50). 

Glade Mountain is part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and lies entirely in the Jefferson National Forest.  It is distinctive in that it is separated from the main part of the recreation area, yet is one of the largest mountains in terms of mass within the area.  Despite its proximity to I-81, it is seldom visited other than by local Wythe and Smyth County residents and Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.  Thru-hikers get their first view of Virginia’s valley and ridge mountains when they cross the mountain.  Glade Mountain affords views of Big Walker Mountain, Clinch Mountain, and even part of East River Mountain (the West Virginia state line) to the north.

Most out-of-the-area hikers pass up Glade Mountain for other more written about and better known mountains further down the interstate.  This leaves Glade Mountain to those of us who appreciate its solitude.  I have hiked this mountain on several Saturday afternoons, and the only other hikers I have ever met on the mountain are a handful of thru-hikers in spring and early summer on their way north.  I also once met a single thru-hiker on his way south in the fall.

The AT crosses Glade Mountain on a north-south axis.  The base of the trail leaves the Settlers Museum of Southwest Virginia in Groseclose, and after about ½ mile through the forest heads up the mountain in a due south direction.  Once climbing the mountain, the trail parallels a very small creek (about 1-2 feet in width).  In June the mountain laurel on the north side of the mountain bloom profusely.

Mountain Laurel Thicket at base of Glade Mountain

The northern section of the trail (the side closest to the Settlers Museum) has huge rhododendron thickets and mountain laurel thickets.  At some points you travel through a tunnel of rhododendron that barely allows room for a backpack. 

Mountain Laurel on Glade Mountain

The trail travels uphill for about 3 or 4 miles, crossing Forest Road 86 (identified on some maps as Forest Road 644).  The trail continues south and higher up the mountain to the Louise Chatfield Shelter, a fairly nice shelter on the mountainside close to a year-round creek.

Chatfield Memorial Shelter

The trail then continues for another approximately 1 ½ to 2 miles to the top of the mountain.  There are a few places on the trail where the trees open up enough for a brief view of the valley and to the north.  The views are much better in winter, when the canopy does not obscure the view.  Towards the summit there are expanses of ferns over four feet in height under the trees.  There is no designated spot or clearing that identifies the location of the summit.

Massive Ferns

The trail then descends the south side of the mountain until it crosses Forest Road 86 again, eventually crossing Route 16 approximately 4 miles further. 

Forest Road 86 forms a band around the entire mountain about ½ way up from the base.  Forest Road 86 is open to mountain bikes (and even off-road vehicles), and can be combined with the AT to form a large loop run (approximately 12 miles). 

Rhododendron Tree Over Trail

Directions

Access to the trailhead of this mountain is easy.  Simply take Exit 54 off of I-81 and follow the signs to the Settlers Museum.  The trailhead is about 6 miles from the interstate.  More detailed directions are here:

From I-81 South (follow signs to the Museum):

1. At bottom of exit ramp at Exit 54 on I-81, turn left

2. Continue about 0.1 mile to Rt 11

3. Turn left on Rt 11, travel 1.3 miles to Rt 679

4. Turn right on Rt 679, travel 0.8 mile to Rocky Hollow Road

5. Turn right on Rocky Hollow Road, continue 1.2 miles to Museum

6. The Settlers Museum is on your left.

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Wythe County Brown Trout

This 12″ brown trout was caught (and released) today in Wythe County on a Royal Parachute Madam X, aka PMX, a dry fly that is a terrestrial pattern similar to a Royal Wulff with a caddis-type hackle and rubber legs.  It looks a little bit like a lot of different types of insects and is an attractor fly as well.  The brown trout hit the dry fly pretty hard, which was a nice ending to an otherwise quiet day on the water that seemed to be mostly about casting practice.  But with temperatures reaching 96 degrees in the region, wet-wading and fishing a cool mountain stream was a nice start to the Labor Day weekend.
Wythe County Brown Trout

Fly Fishing Secluded Water with a Neighbor

Notwithstanding that the local watershed continues to be low and unreplenished due to lack of big storms, there is still some good fly fishing to be had towards the end of this summer in the high mountains. 

Working a Section of a Creek in August

This August fellow Abingdonian, outdoorsman, and neighbor John Hortenstine, my son Karl, and I took a mid-week, evening fly fishing trip to one of our local trout streams in Southwest Virginia.  John took us out to one of those relatively unknown spots that anglers usually don’t reveal on websites. 

Blindfolded and sworn to secrecy before we were allowed to enter his car, John drove us to a secluded stretch of water where we were treated to some nice fishing.  Once on the water, John and I took turns working the various pools as we worked our way upstream.  Karl started several pools downstream and brought up the rear as a sweeper, fishing each of the downstream pools after they were rested for a while and documenting our trip with photography. 

Only John was getting all the action when we started out.  While he might contend it was solely due to the skilfulness of the angler in question, at the time I suggested it was the fact that he was using a lighter tippet (the final part of the line that connects the leader to the fly), and that the fish were more interested in the particular pattern, or type, of fly he was using.  John caught several nice fish right out of the gate, while my dry fly was just getting some rises and some looks, but the trout were ultimately not interested in the Parachute Adams I was offering.

SW Virginia Rainbow

When the water is super low, your approach is a big part of the fishing.  “Spooking” the fish by a clumsy approach will dampen, if not totally destroy, your chance of catching trout.  While the water is not always extremely clear in the Appalachians, when it’s low like it is right now in late summer, the fish will easily spook if you are not cautious.  Even poor or unnecessary false casting of the fly line (where the line shoots out over the water before the actual cast of the fly out onto the water) will spook a rising trout in these little creeks.

Stealthy Approach to Trout-Laden Pool

Of course, the flip side to the low water is that you have a better chance of actually seeing more of the trout in the pools and other places where the fish are more likely to be holding in the smaller water.  We saw several trout at a time in some of the pools, and a few were lunkers. 

An additional benefit to being quiet on the water is that you may see additional wildlife.  About halfway through our fishing, a small deer busted through the brush at the bank less than 100 feet from where we were fishing, and stopped right in the middle of the stream.  It froze for a few seconds when it saw us.  Then it crossed and was gone.

As we were fishing in this fashion, John had one rise—and a sip, or take—by a particularly large trout in a 2 foot slow-moving pool of clear water.  The top part of the trout actually broke the surface of the quiet pool as it opened its jaws and slowly and deliberately sipped the fly.  I immediately estimated this trout was 18-22 inches!  It was clearly visible in the water since the entire length of the trout was only an inch below the surface at the time it sipped the fly.  We both watched mesmerized.  Seeing a take like that is impressive on any level, but when it is your fly that is being taken it can send chills up your spine.  You draw in your breath with a silent gasp and your heart skips a beat.  This is what a dry fly fisherman lives for. 

There was a momentary pause—we both knew this was a great fish.  Then, timing it properly, John attempted to set the hook . . . but just at that moment the lunker ejected the fly as deliberately as he had taken it.  The fish turned and returned to his lie at the bottom of the pool as the leader and tippet with the fly attached was withdrawn back towards us.  The whole thing almost seemed to happen in slow motion.  Watching it was agonizing, but awesome.

John's Nice 'Bow Caught on a Dry Fly

 Setting the hook with a dry fly on a rising trout is much more difficult than on a nymph or streamer (let alone setting the hook using spinning tackle), because with the dry fly there is a longer period between the fish’s actual strike, or take, of the fly and the moment to set the hook.  Getting the timing just right to set the hook while the fly has been taken, but before it is ejected, is challenging.  While there are sometimes violent strikes, if the trout are rising and merely gently sipping surface flies, the angler must concentrate, time the hook-set perfectly, and generally use more finesse to catch the fish.  A large trout like the one we almost caught may be even more finicky, as it may have been caught before and is probably even more cautious than most fish.  It takes a lot of skill, and also a little bit of luck, to catch a seasoned trout on a dry fly.

My Turn
 After a while, we finally switched out my rig to use a smaller (6X) tippet and to change my fly to a pattern similar to the one John was using. Within a few minutes I started to get some rises and more interest from the trout.  I had several takes, but also was unable to set the hook.  Towards the end of the evening, however, I caught a beauty, too:
 
My Colorful August ‘Bow

In the end, there was plenty of wealth to spread around.  Last but not least, Karl got into the action with a nice, fat rainbow in one of the largest pools we fished.  He now has the fly fishing “fever,” too:  He is getting his own fly rod for the fall. 

This was a great little evening of fishing.  Willing trout, close to home, and a cool summer evening:  It’s hard to beat that. 

P.S. — John did not really blindfold us; we were, however, truly sworn to secrecy!

Karl's Chunky Rainbow

 All photos in this article by Karl Thiessen.

The New River, Part I: Alleghany and Ashe County, North Carolina

This is the first of a short series of articles that will examine the New River, the largest river which flows through Southwest Virginia, and the source of great outdoor opportunities in the region including paddling and fishing.

Canoeing the New River in the North Carolina "High Country" - Click to Enlarge

Purportedly the second oldest river in the world (only the Nile in Africa is older), the New River predates the Appalachian Mountains (themselves some of the oldest mountain ranges in the world).  Geologists explain that this river existed before the tectonic shift that caused the uplift of the Appalachia range.  The river more or less continued its present-day path during the tectonic shift, cutting through the mountains as they were created.

The New begins high in the mountains of northwestern North Carolina. The New actually starts as two rivers, the North Fork and South Fork of the New. These two forks join in Ashe County before flowing north and west through Virginia into West Virginia. The mighty New ends when it confluences with the Gauley River to form the Kanawah River, which flows into the Ohio River at the West Virginia/Ohio state line.

In the 2001 bestseller Far Appalachia, author and radio host Noah Adams travelled the length of the New River from North Carolina to West Virginia, recounting the scenery, his interactions with local residents along the way, and his autobiographical musings about his own family’s heritage in the region.  In the book, Adams notes that there are two views as to the source point, or the true beginning, of the New.  On the South Fork, it is somewhere near Blowing Rock; on the North Fork, it is somewhere on the upper part of Snake Mountain, one of the highest peaks in northwestern North Carolina.  (As an aside, Blood, Sweat and Gears, the well-known challenge century road bike race that starts and ends in Valle Crucis, NC every June, traverses the high road over Snake Mountain.  I can attest it is very difficult climb on a road bike.) 

My son Karl and I did our own “section” paddle trips and travels to different parts of the New River Blueway, or paddle trail, over the course of this summer.  For non-hiking readers, a “section” hike is the partial completion of a long trail, like the Appalachian Trail, in “sections”.  Most hikers on the AT, for example, are section hikers, not thru hikers.  We applied this concept to the New River, taking on several distinct sections of the river to observe and experience the river along its course.  This article is the trip report about the first section.  In June we travelled from Abingdon to Ashe and Allegheny County to paddle a 13-mile stretch of the South Fork of the New (above the confluence).  This section of the New is part of the New River Paddle Trail in North Carolina.  An excellent map of the New River Paddle Trail in North Carolina is here.

This section of the New is also recognized as a National Scenic and Wild River.  National Wild and Scenic Rivers

possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, [and] shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.

This section of the river is also part of the North Carolina New River State Park (there is also a New River State Park in Virginia, but that is for the next article). We elected to paddle the section from Wagoner Road to Route 221. The trip is about a five or six-hour paddle, not including stops.  Here was our route:

Wagoner Road to Route 221

In North Carolina the New River is still a moderately sized river.  Both the North Fork and the South Fork are navigable.  There are apparently some trout in the upper reaches of the New River, most notably high on the North Fork section.  However, where we were paddling the river was already somewhat warm (compared to trout waters).  The section of the New from the confluence to the Virginia state line is supposed to be a fairly good smallmouth fishery.  We were above that section.  We fished the 13-mile stretch of the South Fork intermittently with light spinning tackle, and did not catch anything.

Yes, That's Really Rhododendron on the River! - Click to Enlarge

The flora up in the North Carolina High Country is a bit different from down in the New River Valley in Virginia.  For example, there were rhododendron on the banks of the river and stands of pine trees mixed in with the hardwoods.

Make no mistake, although moderately sized, this is still a powerful river.  There are numerous boulders and riffles that I imagine cause current changes to a much greater extent when the river is at a higher cubic feet per second (CFU).  We ran the river in low water, however it is probably quite a different river during the springtime.  On this section of the New, where it is designated a National Scenic and Wild River, there are relatively few homes or other signs of development.  You go through whole sections of river where the trees come right down to the water, and there are no homes visible up river or down river.

Geese and Goslings

 On this paddling trip, we saw geese, beaver or otter, osprey, and ducks.  There were also hunting blinds set up in some of the open fields along the river.  The water along the 13-mile stretch we paddled was mostly flat or moderate Class I rapids.  There were a few submerged rock shelves over which we had to paddle, and we almost bottomed out in a place or two.

Overall, this is a nice paddle trip.  It may be a bit long for some folks.  There are shorter alternatives along this route, and both up river and down river from the section that we completed.  The New River State Park has several access points.

One thing we did not do, that should be done if you are in the area, is have breakfast or lunch at Shatley Springs Inn, an old inn and restaurant that is a true old-timey place renowned for its family style dining with delicious North Carolina country food. 

Breakfast at Shatley Springs and/or a canoe trip down the New would be an excellent day trip down from a camping trip in the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area in Virginia. We have in fact done this in the past. 

Cumulus Clouds Over the New River

Directions

It takes about 1 1/2 hours to drive from Abingdon to the Route 221 Bridge crossing (where the New River State Park is located, and where we rented our canoe).  From Abingdon, drive to Damascus, then up Route 58 past the Beartree Lake area.  Up on the mountain, Route 58 makes a sharp right-hand turn.  You can continue on Route 58 through Whitetop, or instead stay straight on Route 603, aka Konnarock Road.  Either one will eventually take you to Route 16/Route 58 south.  I prefer going via Route 603 over to Route 16, as it is a straighter road.

At Route 16/58 head south to Mouth of Wilson.  Drive through Mouth of Wilson.  Here Route 16/58 split.  To get to the New River State Park at the Route 221, bear left and stay on Route 58.  After about 1 mile there is a junction with Route 93.  Turn right on Route 93.  This turns into Route 113 at the NC state line.

Drive on Route 113 for about 8 miles, until it junctions with Route 221.  (At this intersection is a BBQ restaurant called Motleys.)

Make a right on Route 221.  Route 221 is a very twisty road, taking you through the small community of Scottsville, NC (just a few homes and churches) and after about 5 miles on Route 221 you will see the signs for the New River State Park.  A nother mile or so and you will cross the New River.  Immediately on the right there is an old General Store with inadequate parking right on Route 221.  Behind this store is New River Outfitters.

Note:  There are plenty of other outfitters in the area.  National Geographic makes an excellent map of the entire New River watershed, it is Map 773, New River Blueway, and it contains names of most of the outfitters in NC, VA, and WV with their locations identified clearly on the map. 

Note:  This area of North Carolina is very rural, and the roads are very twisty.  Getting around is not intuitive until you know the roads.  Carry a good map, use a GPS, etc.  In addition, this makes getting to and from the canoe/kayak drop off points difficult.  This is another reason using an outfitter in this area is good idea.

Abingdon Cupola and Steeple

This photograph was taken on the morning of Sunday, June 26, 2011.  I awoke early to get ready for the first of several paddling trips we have taken this summer on the New River.  In each trip, we left Abingdon early in the morning and witnessed a great sunrise as a sort of prologue to the adventures ahead of us on the river. 

On the first morning, as I prepared our fishing tackle and provisions in the kitchen I noticed the sky was a brilliant pink and purple in the East as the sun began to rise.  I drove to Main Street and took some quick photographs of the scenic skyline of Abingdon.  Note you can see right through the shutter-adorned window of the Washington County Courthouse cupola.  In the foreground is the Sinking Springs Presbyterian Church steeple.

The photo below shows more of the skyline.  The purple periphery framed the pink background of the rooftops.  The dramatic sunrise was an auspicious start to our first trip to the New River this year.

Southwest Virginia Fly Fishing

This weekend was a fly fishing marathon of sorts.  My son and I covered three different streams in three days, shopped for fishing gear and talked fishing with numerous people about fly fishing, researched fishing opportunities around the region, and caught some nice fish while escaping the oppressive heat that seems to have taken the nation hostage this summer.  On Sunday afternoon, I caught my first large rainbow trout since purchasing a new fly rod. 

Southwest Virginia Rainbow Trout
Beautiful Rainbow on a Sunny Afternoon

As you can see from the photo above, this fish was about as long as my forearm from elbow to the middle of my hand.  We estimated him about 15 inches and about 2 pounds.  I caught him with a nymph in about 1 1/2 feet of water near a cut bank.  My rod was a 5 wt, and I was using 6X tippet.   He jumped once and ran twice, the second time pulling line out from the reel.  We enjoyed that sweet whine of the drag as the trout pulled the line as he straight-lined it up river.  We had about a five minute fight to get him close enough to bring him in, and we promptly released him.

The Catch
 

The Release

This is a great time of the year to get up into the mountains for recreation since it has been so hot lately.  We enjoyed temperatures in the low to mid 70s most of the time we have been fishing this weekend.  That said, the water is extremely low, so the fish may not be as responsive as at other times of the year.  The heat puts a lot of additional stress on trout, who require the colder water to survive.  We therefore have minimized the length of fights or playing the fish out too long, as in the heat it is difficult for them to recover.

Fly Fishing Somewhere in Southwest Virginia

The Southern Appalachians boast some of the best fly fishing in the Eastern United States.  That declaration, while seeming strange on its face—fishing for trout, a cold water fish, in The South?actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it.  Streams and rivers originating from springs and filtered runoff from mountains, relatively remote pockets of forestland, and steep valleys providing lots of cover and protection from the heat of the sun combine to make the streams of this region good for trout.  Within a 60-mile radius from Abingdon there are numerous “blue ribbon” trout streams in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee that provide first class fly fishing opportunities.  Many are tight creeks and smaller streams, but there is definitely some wonderful fly fishing in this area.

Little Southwest Virginia Rainbow

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is a good place to start to get some basic information on regulations and fishing locations in Southwest Virginia.  Abingdon is fortunate to have an excellent and well-equipped fly fishing shop, Virginia Creeper Fly Shop, whose owner Bruce Wankel is always welcoming, provides useful information, and also guides local waters.  Mountain Sports, Ltd. in Bristol also sells fly fishing specific gear and has knowledgable staff about fly fishing in the region. 

Here is a map of the major trout streams in far Southwest Virginia(including the Abingdon area) and a map of the major trout streams in the area to the north and east in Southwest Virginia (including Wythe and Grayson counties).

All photos in this article taken by Karl Thiessen.

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.  

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.

Big Walker Mountain and the 2011 Big Walker Mountain Century Ride

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

The 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 Climbs

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)