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Highroad Guide to the Virginia Mountains

By Deane and Garvey Winegar

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Sherpa Guides > Virginia Mountains > Valley and Ridge Province II > The Shenandoah Mountains

The Shenandoah Mountains

Two ranger districts of the George Washington National Forest [Fig. 25]—Deerfield Ranger District and Dry River Ranger District—lie end-to-end in the Shenandoah Mountains west of Staunton and Harrisonburg.

Long Shenandoah Mountain which dominates the scene has its beginnings in northeastern Bath County at Green Valley. The ridge runs northeastward along the western borders first of Augusta County then of Rockingham County. The two ranger districts take in Shenandoah Mountain and most of the mountainous area to the east, ending at the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley.

Deerfield Ranger District

The Deerfield Ranger District of the George Washington National Forest spreads across 164,183 acres of western Augusta County, eastern Highland County, and northeastern Bath County. The Cowpasture River defines the western boundary. Scenic highways (US 39 on the south and US 42 on the east) roughly define two sides. US 250, which connects the city of Staunton in Augusta County to the town of Monterey in Highland County, runs along the border for about 3 miles on the northeastern edge. Then the boundary veers northwest of US 250 taking in the headwaters of the Calfpasture and Cowpasture rivers. The line goes across the top of Hankey Mountain and around the north side of Ramseys Draft Wilderness connecting with the southern corner of Pendleton County, West Virginia.

The national forest lies mostly in three large tracts around a Y-shaped valley of private land. Great North Mountain and Crawford Mountain lie end-to-end to make up one tract on the eastern side. The southern end of long Shenandoah Mountain forms a second tract on the district's western side. At the top of the Y is Walker Mountain, the third tract, which rises from the valley floor southwest of the village of Deerfield, separating Deerfield Valley along VA 629 from pretty Marble Valley along VA 600.

VA 629 runs the entire length of pastoral Deerfield Valley, passing by farms outlined by long white fences, past churches, swinging bridges, country stores, old log cabins, forested hollows, rocky creeks, and mountain backdrops—a road as appealing and full of charm as many with official scenic status. The placid Calfpasture River flows first through Deerfield Valley, between West Augusta and Deerfield, then veers south into equally bucolic and lovely Marble Valley along VA 600. Where it passes close to the highway, the river adds beauty to the landscape but its waters are considered nonnavigable, which puts it off limits for recreation.

Mountain slopes in the Deerfield District are forested with typical eastern deciduous hardwoods interspersed with pines. Hardwoods include such trees as chestnut oak, northern red oak, white oak, shagbark and pignut hickories, red maple, tulip poplar, and American beech. A sequence of blooms comes in spring from understory trees and shrubs: first from shadbush then Eastern redbud, flowering dogwood, mountain laurel, deerberry, and blueberry. Hemlocks, sycamores, and thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron line the ravines.

The creamy white blossoms of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) sprout almost magically from the leaf litter of forested slopes in spring. Occasional sprinklings of large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), painted trillium (Trillium undulatum), or the foul-smelling purple trillium (Trillium erectum) add their colors of white, pink, and magenta. In late summer, roadsides are dotted with blue from chicory (Chichorium intybus), yellow from black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), white from Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota), and even occasional patches of red rasp- berries warmed by the sun.

Two recreation areas—Mountain House and Braley Pond—offer fishing, hiking, and picnicking. Although there are no developed campgrounds, the district is highly prized by seekers of solitude for its 124 miles of hiking trails. Backpackers, mountain bikers, anglers, hunters, and horseback riders take advantage of national forest policy of allowing backcountry camping anywhere. A third recreation area—Confederate Breastworks—attracts those interested in Civil War history.

Augusta Springs Watchable Wildlife Area. [Fig. 26(18)] This 50-acre tract on the eastern end of Great North Mountain is a department superstore to wildlife. It has marshes, open grassy fields, and an oak-hickory upland forest.

The open fields attract such species as meadowlark, bluebird, goldfinch, bobwhite quail, red fox, rabbit, vole, and mice. White-tailed deer, gray fox, bobcat, and woodcock are just a few examples of animals that benefit from a combination of woods and fields.

Wild  turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) Turkeys can fly well for short distances but prefer to run.Marshes are typically rich with life. There are varieties of dragonflies, damselflies, crane flies, salamanders, turtles, snails, and nematodes. Canada geese feed in both the marsh and the field. The yellow-striped heads of baby wood ducks peek from the holes of large nest boxes. The marsh can be a noisy place in spring and summer with spring peeper frogs, cricket frogs, and pickerel frogs clamoring for attention from the opposite sex.

The Augusta Springs area is attractive to humans as well. A half mile of boardwalks make it easier to get close to wetland critters that usually must be viewed from long distances. Among the watched wildlife are beaver, muskrat, water snakes, red-winged blackbirds, great blue herons, green herons, great egrets, and spring and fall migrating waterfowl. The area is managed as part of the National Watchable Wildlife Program. Federal and state agencies, conservation organizations, and private businesses cooperate to enhance wildlife habitat and build public viewing stations.

Braley Pond Recreation Area. [Fig. 26(16)] Situated at the north end of scenic Deerfield Valley, Braley Pond Recreation Area is an ideal spot for picnicking, fishing, and hiking. The 4.5-acre pond was constructed by the U.S. Forest Service for flood control. Artificial reefs and other fish structures have been added. Keeper-sized rainbow trout are stocked, and largemouth bass, bluegill, and channel catfish have been introduced. Bank fishing is possible all the way around, and hand-carried boats without motors are allowed.

The picnic area is set in a stand of white pines. Surrounding the recreation area are remote, undeveloped mountain lands offering good hiking, hunting, camping, and photo opportunities. Primitive camping is also allowed among the trees of the recreation area.

Mountain House Picnic Area and Confederate Breastworks. [Fig. 26(12,13)] Mountain House is a day-use picnic area near the site of a former wayside on the old Parkersburg Pike (now US 250) across a series of mountain ranges to Parkersburg, West Virginia. A tollhouse constructed here before the Civil War became a popular rest stop in the late 1800s. Ramseys Draft Wilderness Area trailhead is located on the access road behind the picnic area.

The Confederate Breastworks are on Shenandoah Mountain about 2 miles west of Mountain House Recreation Area. Here, Confederate soldiers constructed a long trenchlike fortification in 1861 or early 1862 to protect the valley from invasion by Union forces from the west. Troops that built the fortifications were probably members of the 12th Georgia Infantry Regiment serving under General Edward "Allegany" Johnson. After a breach in the fortifications, General Johnson pulled back. With the arrival of General Stonewall Jackson, Union troops were rebuffed at the Battle of McDowell (May 8, 1962) and driven back into the Jackson River Valley toward West Virginia.

A short loop trail follows the remnants of the breastworks, and the trailhead for the northern 7.1-mile section of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail is here. The panoramic view of the Cowpasture River Valley to the west is, by itself, worth the stop.

Hiking the Deerfield District. An extensive trail system totaling 124 miles makes hiking a highlight of the district. Some trails are long, running along mountain ridges, giving backpackers a challenge and rewarding them with outstanding views. The terrain is rough and mountainous, but, for the most part, trails are wide, well signed, and well groomed. The notable exceptions are the Ramseys Draft Wilderness trails, purposely left in a more natural state.

Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) The copperhead is a pit viper with a sensory pit between its eyes that detects prey.Wanderers on district trails see or find signs of white-tailed deer, black bear, wild turkey, ruffed grouse, bobcats, mink, and gray squirrel. Bird watchers on a spring morning are treated to the songs of migrating warblers and indigo buntings. On summer nights, bone-tired hikers slip into their sleeping bags on Shenandoah Mountain to be lulled to sleep by the hoot of a great horned owl or haunting call of a whip-poor-will.

In fall, hikers along ridgetop trails walk a carpet of fallen red, yellow, and gold leaves beneath red maples, tulip poplars, and white and red oaks. Above them, hawks and other birds of prey ride the updrafts along the ridges heading south ahead of winter. A light January snowfall requires a traveler to engage his four-wheel drive to cross Great North Mountain on US 250 on his way to frozen Braley Pond where his footprints will be the only sign of a human.

Shenandoah Mountain Trail. [Fig. 26(14)] This 30.7-mile path, blazed with yellow diamonds, follows the ups and downs along the crest of Shenandoah Mountain for the entire length of the district. It features excellent views of Deerfield Valley to the east and Cowpasture River Valley to the west. In the fall, the foliage of red maples, birches, locusts, chestnut oaks, scarlet oaks, and tulip poplars is brilliant against evergreen hemlocks, pines, rhododendron, and mountain laurel.

The long, linear Shenandoah Mountain Trail connects with several old roads and other trails to provide shorter loop hikes. Skillful grading of the trail on the mountain's rough terrain can be credited to the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) who built it in the 1930s. Because of the trail's gradual changes in altitude, cross-country skiers and mountain bikers also use it. However, where the 7.1-mile section north of US 250 meanders into and out of Ramseys Draft Wilderness, biking and skiing may be difficult. In keeping with the intent of the wilderness, trail maintenance is limited to what is necessary for safe passage. Parts of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail are designated as especially suitable to horse travel. The district office can provide a brochure.

North Mountain Trail. [Fig. 26(20)] Solitude and spectacular views are the rewards for taking this 14.5-mile path along the ridge of Great North Mountain. Though steep in places, the trail is suitable for day hiking, backpacking, and horseback riding. It passes just below the 4,458-foot peak of Elliott Knob, one of the highest points of the George Washington National Forest and the site of an old fire tower. (Another unrelated North Mountain Trail is in the New Castle Ranger District.) Where the North Mountain Trail terminatess on the northern end, the 8-mile Crawford Mountain Trail begins.

The altitude at Elliott Knob is sufficient for trees more typical of northern forests such as red spruce, yellow birch, and sugar maple. However, many other complex factors such as soil composition, weather, slope orientation, and distance from other pockets of high-altitude trees also influence which trees take hold in a particular area. With the exception of a few scattered examples of northern species near the summit, Elliott Knob is not a holdout for alpine flora and fauna in the way that the Laurel Fork area is in northwest Highland County, farther west.

Near Elliott Knob, the 2.2-mile Cold Springs Trail [Fig. 26(19)] descends steeply down the western slope of North Mountain Trail to the Cold Springs Road (FR 77). This was the route to the fire tower which was in use in the 1950s. Rock ledges provide views of Deerfield Valley.

Ramseys Draft Wilderness Area

[Fig. 26(15)] The 6,519 rugged, steep acres of Ramseys Draft Wilderness lie on the southeastern slope of Shenandoah Mountain and on the north side of US 250 about 20 miles northwest of Staunton. The word "draft" is an old mountain word for "creek." Ramseys Draft, in the headwaters of the Calfpasture River, flows through the middle of the wilderness. The creek begins in the northeastern end of the wilderness as a right and left fork on either side of Hardscrabble Knob which, at 4,280 feet, is the area's highest point. The branches merge and flow southwestward through the wilderness to exit at the southern end.

About 29 miles of trails allow access around and into this wilderness. However, heavy rains from hurricanes Camille in 1969 and Agnes in 1972 and major flooding in 1985 changed the course of streams and caused severe washouts on some trails, most notably on Ramsey's Draft Trail, which is the main artery through the wilderness. An impressive mature forest—a magnet to nature lovers—lies at the heart of this wilderness. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the virgin stream-bottom stand of cove hardwoods, white pine, and hemlock is more than 300 years old—one of only a handful of virgin tracts of its size in the East. Most trees in this tract, located between the right and left forks of Ramseys Draft, are original growth.

The journey is not easy across rough wilderness terrain to reach the big evergreens and hardwoods, but getting there is half the fun. Those who make the trek are invariably stunned when they arrive to stand beneath forest giants that were already a century old when the country declared its independence. There's a desire just to touch the massive trunk of a hemlock that is more than 300 years old. Hikers stand in amazement as they look up at the towering canopy of white oaks and tulip poplars which may climb to heights of 120 feet or more.

The exhilarating scene is tempered by sadness, though. The giant hemlocks are obviously diseased, slowly succumbing to the persistent attack of the forest pest called the wooly adelgid (see Ghost Forests). With no remedy in sight, the aged evergreens will one day be gone, allowing sunlight through the canopy to begin anew the succession of understory plants that culminates in old-growth forest.

Galax (Galax rotundifolia) Also called “coltsfoot,” galax is widespread in the mountains. It is evergreen but may         turn purple or bronze  in winter, and it is often used as a    holiday decoration.Ramseys Draft Trail. [Fig. 26(15)] This 7-mile trail (14-mile round trip) leads up Ramseys Draft through a mature forest managed essentially as wilderness since 1935. To the northwest is the ridgeline of Shenandoah Mountain, and to the southeast is Bald Ridge. At about 4 miles into the wilderness, the creek splits into a left and right fork at the base of Hardscrabble Knob. The large stand of virgin forest begins here and follows the left fork away from the trail. The trail accompanies the right fork around the east side of Hardscrabble Knob, and then it climbs to the 4,282-foot summit from the back side. Circuit hikes are possible with trail connections at the northern end of the wilderness.

A major flood in 1985 changed the course of Ramseys Draft in places and washed out much of an old road that once served as the Ramseys Draft Trail. Even before that time, hikers had to make 13 stream crossings. With its wilderness designation, the Draft is being left in its disheveled state. The trail is sometimes hard to follow even with orange blazes.

Just hiking the 4 miles up the draft to the old-growth forest—an 8-mile round trip—can easily take a day's time. Despite the arduous hike, Ramsey's Draft Trail is so heavily used that rangers are concerned it may lose its wilderness character. Hikers should tread lightly, stay on paths, and be careful not to harm vegetation. Other wilderness areas may offer more solitude. Because of numerous stream crossings, the hike should not be attempted in periods of high water. The debris-strewn path slows hiking and can sap the strength of the unfit.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) The dogwood’s wood is shock resistant and used in tools and as shuttles in cotton mills. The energy-rich berries provide fuel for birds and squirrels.Six other trails provide access to Ramseys Draft. These include Shenandoah Mountain Trail (north and south ends), Bald Ridge Trail, Sinclair Hollow Trail, and Wild Oak Trail (two sections). A map of the wilderness and its trails is available from the district office in Staunton.

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