Tag Archives: Iron Mountains

Happy 75th Birthday, Appalachian Trail

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.  (To be precise, it was finished on August 14, 1937.)  The trail is 2,180 miles long, has over 250 three-sided “shelters,” and links innumerable other trails through 14 states.

180 Degree View as the A.T. Approaches Thomas Knob Shelter, Mount Rogers, Virginia

For three-quarters of a century people from all over the United States–indeed, from all over the world–have been trekking up and down the Appalachian Trail, or A.T., as most folks in the know refer to it.  In commemoration of this milestone, this weekend I hiked a section of the A.T. between Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain.

View from A.T. approaching Mount Rogers’ Spur Trail, at 5500′

Founded by a small group of hikers, particularly one forester named Benton Mckaye, who envisioned an East Coast “super trail”, the Appalachian Trail Conference started work on the A.T. in the 1920s.  By 1930 the trail began to take form as small groups of volunteers worked up and down the mountains of the East.  According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, this was not a government project but the accomplishment of private, local clubs who mapped and routed sections of the trail, negotiated with private landowners and governmental agencies, and did the physical labor to build it in their respective areas.

To this day, although the A.T. is now owned by the governnment, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the many volunteer organizations are critical to the maintenance of the trail. 

View from A.T. into North Carolina it approaches the Mount Rogers’ summit

After World War II, volunteers renewed development of the A.T.  In 1948, Earl V. Shaffer, an Army veteran who served in the Pacific Theater, completed the first “thru hike,” or continuous hike of the entire A.T., reportedly in order to “walk off” the stress of the war.  In the years since, the A.T. has become a cultural phenomenon in addition to being an outdoor experience.  Every year hundreds of individuals from all walks of life attempt to thru hike or section hike part of the A.T., seeking solace, self-exploration, or temporary escape from urbanity on the trail.

Balds on Mount Rogers – Whitetop Mountain Looms to the South

In 1968, the United States Congress passed the National Trails System Act, and the A.T. was the first completed national trail designated a National Scenic Trail.  This added the A.T. to the system of national parks.  The A.T. links two national parks (the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Shenandoah National Park), and includes Abingdon Outdoors’ own Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.  While the A.T. has always crossed the MRNA, the trail used to traverse the Iron Mountains to the north of Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain.  It was re-routed over Mount Rogers and Whitetop due to scenic beauty of these highest mountains in Virginia.  The old shelters on Iron Mountain are still maintained as part of the Iron Mountain Trail.

Cabin Creek Bald Panorama in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area

Most folks—like myself—have no intention (at least no immediate intention) of hiking the entire length of the A.T.  Most folks hike part of the trail in a day, or at most over the course of a weekend or for a week or two.  The trail is also frequently utilized by the Boy Scouts and by church and civic groups for hiking and camping trips.

Southbound on the A.T. on Mount Rogers

The trail is designed not to be easy:  It randomly meanders and seldom takes the easiest path from point “A” to point “B”.  At points it certainly appears as if the A.T.’s designers purposely placed obstacles such as rocks and roots in the way.  This keeps the trail challenging.

Root Strewn Section of the A.T.

The A.T. is different things for different people:  A place for solitude and meditation; a place for a communal outdoor experience; a training ground for other pursuits; a naturalist’s place to study flora and fauna.  Perhaps Benton MacKaye best answered the question, “What’s the ultimate purpose of the Appalachian Trail?” 

He said, “To walk.  To see.  And to see what you see.”

Happy Birthday, A.T.  . . . See you on the trail.

View from the Appalachian Trail on Mount Rogers
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The Next Season Approaches

Hiking today with my daughter and faithful hound up on Forest Road 90 and the Iron Mountain Trail amidst the still lush, dark green foliage I saw a few leaves (just a very few, mind you), that seemed to be anxious for the next season. 

First Fallen Leaves on Iron Mountain, August 4, 2012

Most traveling for summer vacations is finished or nearing completion;  we are well into the 2012 Summer Olympics;  young people and teachers are gearing up for a new school year;  and here in Abingdon the Virginia Highlands Festival is in full swing.  I can sense a collective sense of just a bit of anticipation all around as we know the summer is slowly drawing to an end.  There’s still time to get outdoors and enjoy this season, though, which I encourage you to do.

Seng Mountain National Scenic Area

This article reviews the newest federally protected area in Southwest Virginia, the Seng Mountain National Scenic Area. 

Rowland Creek Falls

In 2009 the United States enacted the Virginia Ridge and Valley Act of 2008.   Sponsored by Senator John Warner (R-VA) and Rick Boucher (D-VA), the Act preserved over 50,000 acres of wilderness areas in the western part of Virginia.  Part of the Act created the Seng Mountain National Scenic Area, a 6,500 acre tract, and the Bear Creek National Scenic Area, a 5,500 acre tract (I will review the Bear Creek National Scenic Area in a future article).  See 16 U.S.C. § 546b.  The designation of these tracts as “scenic areas,” as opposed to “wilderness,” was a compromise to allow continued non-motorized recreational use by cyclists (mostly single track mountain biking).

Some groups and individuals have known about this part of the northern ramparts and mountainsides of Iron Mountain for a long time.  The Seng Mountain area has been part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area for 25+ years.  The scenic area designation simply gives it more protection and makes permanent the designation of the area as one for the limited recreational uses enumerated in the statute.  Ok—enough with the legal mumbo jumbo—let’s talk about the area itself:

 The area is located in the southern section of Smyth County and is about 30 miles as the crow flies from Abingdon.  Its boundaries are roughly Route 600 (Skulls Gap) on the west, Hurricane Campground on the east (off of Route 16), Forest Road 84 near the top of Iron Mountain on the south, and private land near the Stony Battery community on the north. 

There are two major single track trails that cross the scenic area, Jerrys Creek Trail on the west side, and Rowland Creek Trail on the east side.  Each of the trails follows a small creek that runs down the mountainside.  The high point in the scenic area is Round Top Mountain, 4626′. 

Mountainsides Draw Close Together to Form Miniature Gorge

In mid-April my family and I drove to the upper trail head of Rowland Creek Trail.    Our starting point was at 3850′.  You reach this trailhead by traveling on FR 84, which is a gravel forest road.  Getting to the trailhead from Route 600 takes about 20-25 minutes. 

This is an unusual mountain hike, in that the hike starts the top, so you start hiking downhill, and return going back uphill.  Rowland Creek trail starts out wide as it descends around Seng Mountain, down towards the headwaters of the creek below.  The area forms a mini-gorge, as the mountainsides are steep and drop quickly down into Rowland Creek. 

Rowland Creek Trail - Steep Switchbacks

 Where we started, on FR 84, there were no leaves.  However, within a half mile of going down the trail, we descended into the foliage of springtime.  The protection of the gorge-like formation protects the trees below from the elements, creating a micro-climate that is much milder than at the top. 

Leafed Out Trees Below Contrast with 4000'+ Bare Ridge Lines

After several switchbacks, you arrive at the headwaters of Rowland Creek.  There are some nice potential campsites at the upper end of the trail, within easy walking distance of the creek.

Moss Covered Rocks and Boulders
Photo by Karl Thiessen

One thing we noticed is that the trail was quite moist and rutted out from horses near the creek.  It is probably extremely muddy after rains.  The trail roughly parallels the creek the rest of the way down the mini-gorge. 

The area along the creek is lush.  We spotted numerous flowers.  A bit of research shows that the trilliums we saw are native to the Southeastern United States, particularly in mountainous, gorge-like hollows such as that on this trail.  They bloom in April or May at the earliest, while sunlight reaches the forest floor before the trees are fully leafed out.

Southern Red Trillium
Photo by Karl Thiessen

One thing we were not anticipating, but had some fun with, were the creek crossings. 

Rowland Creek Crossing Number 1

While none of the creek crossings were too difficult, we were hiking after several dry days.  The trail could likely become completely washed out, and the creek crossings more difficult (at least to get across without getting soaked) under wetter conditions.

Rowland Creek Crossing 2

Even our dog, Magnus, was enjoying the creek crossings (here is creek crossing 3): 

The highlight of this trip is most definitely Rowland Creek Falls, a 50′ cascade-type waterfall that drops down a series of stairs for about 80-100′. 

Upper Rowland Creek Falls

The falls are not directly on the trail, so we needed to go down a hill in order to get some clean shots of the cascades.

Multiple Cascades

My son Karl made it all the way to the bottom and took some nice shots of the lower end of the falls, including this photo:

Lower Rowland Creek Falls
Photo by Karl Thiessen

 Below is a map of the entire scenic area.  Rowland Creek Trail and Jerrys Creek Trail can be connected by either FR 84, or an older, no longer used forest road that parallels FR 84 about 100′ downslope of it.  This loop is about 12 miles in length.  It is also used by mountain bikers, although there are sections that are very difficult due to the grade and the wetness near the creek beds.    

Seng Mountain Map

Autumn Arrives in Southwest Virginia

This past Sunday afternoon my sons Isaac, Karl and I went for a five mile loop hike on the Iron Mountain Trail / Forest Road 84 off of State Route 600 in Smyth County.  These photos were taken at the Skulls Gap scenic parking lot, which is about 3500′.  The colors are starting to change at higher elevations and all foliage is taking on that golden hue in the evening that signals autumn has arrived.  Click on any of the photos to enlarge to appreciate the panoramic views.

View from Skulls Gap of the Valley
View from Skulls Gap of the Valley. Clinch Mountain is barely visible on the horizon.
Skulls Gap Parking Lot