Sherpa Guides > Virginia Mountains > Valley and Ridge Province III > The Dry River Ranger District

The Dry River Ranger District

[Fig. 25] With 227,000 acres, Dry River is the largest ranger district of the George Washington National Forest. Forming a long northeast/southwest-trending rectangle, the district lies in the Shenandoah Mountains west of Harrisonburg, taking in the northern tip of Augusta County and western side of Rockingham County. It also spills over Shenandoah Mountain into West Virginia to the base of the mountain. Running along the district's western side in Pendleton County, West Virginia, is a tributary of the Potomac with the lanky name of South Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River.

Much of the activity on the Dry River Ranger District centers around small lakes and along the main river drainages, especially in the southeastern corner. Draining the eastern slope of Shenandoah Mountain are three rivers—the North River (southern end of district), the Dry River (central part), and the North Fork of the Shenandoah River (northern end). Several small, man-made lakes have been created on these rivers. Three campgrounds and four picnic areas are positioned to take advantage of the scenery, good fishing, and recreation connected with the rivers and lakes in the Virginia portion of the Dry River District. The rest of this expansive tract is left to those who enjoy following backroads and trails. Backcountry camping is permitted anywhere within the national forest unless posted.

Camping and picnicking are available at North River, Hone Quarry, and Todd Lake recreation areas. Picnic tables are also located at Shenandoah Mountain (on FR 85 near Reddish Knob) and at Blue Hole Picnic Area (on North Fork of the Shenandoah at the northern end of the district).

Above North River Campground is Elkhorn Lake, a 54-acre reservoir with a threefold purpose—to provide flood control, a water supply for the city of Staunton, and recreation. Its reputation as a fishery for largemouth bass and stocked rainbow trout makes it a popular destination for anglers. Channel catfish, bluegill, and green sunfish also swim beneath the deep green surface. Elkhorn has three handicapped-accessible fishing platforms and a dirt ramp for small boats (no gasoline motors). Other stocked lakes in the district include Hearthstone Lake off FR 101 west of Stokesville, Hone Quarry on FR 62 off VA 257 west of Dayton, and Briery Branch Lake on VA 924 off VA 257 west of Dayton.

Todd Lake Recreation Area

[Fig. 26(8)] Todd Lake is snugged into the secluded Trimble Mountains southwest of Bridgewater. The 20-acre recreation area has a sandy beach on a 7.5-acre lake, camping, hiking, and picnicking. The lake is open for swimming, boating (no motors), and fishing. Campsites and picnic grounds have tables, grills, restrooms, flush toilets, warm showers, and a waste disposal unit. Hiking trails include the 1-mile Todd Lake Trail and the 4-mile Trimble Mountain Trail.

Dry River and Switzer Lake. Dry River, from which the district takes its name, is not really dry. During the doldrums of summer, though, it disappears from view beneath the rocky rubble of the bed. Sometimes only pools are left here and there to indicate the river is not dead but in hiding. Water flows beneath the porous surface, connecting the pools.

Dry River runs southeastward through the heart of the Dry River District along US 33. In a 14-mile stretch of river above Rawley Springs, on the eastern edge of the district, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries stocks trout in spring when water levels are high enough. Game department signs along the road lead anglers to the stocked section. The river drainage is on the eastern slope of Shenandoah Mountain. A dam on the Skidmore Fork of the river, high in the Shenandoah Mountains near the West Virginia line, forms deep Switzer Lake. (Don't be confused by another stream called Skidmore Fork in the North River drainage to the south.)

Switzer Lake's water is clear and cold enough year-round to support what is called a "put-and-grow" population of brook trout. The game department stocks fingerling brookies which grow to catchable size in a few years. Tiger and brown trout have also been stocked in the past. Anglers who don't mind the lack of facilities have caught brook trout up to 3 pounds and tigers and brown trout up to 4 pounds.

The lake also supports warm-water species such as nice-sized largemouth bass and crappie. When the bass and crappie aren't biting, there are small but abundant bluegill and pumpkinseed and hybrid sunfish, rock bass, and bullhead catfish.

Access is by trails along the west bank and by a primitive boat launch (no gasoline motors—this lake provides Harrisonburg's drinking water). Also, a road leads to the upper end of the lake. Early in the morning or at dusk, a quiet wildlife watcher can sometimes see deer, gray foxes, raccoons, and other animals come to water's edge to drink. Belted kingfishers (Ceryle alycon) plunge headlong into the lake for salamanders or minnows that rise to the surface. The lake is accessible by FR 227 off US 33 west of Harrisonburg, near the West Virginia state line.

Elkhorn Lake, Todd Lake Campground, and North River Campground: From the junction of VA 275 and US 250 west of Staunton, drive about 15 miles west on US 250. Turn right on VA 715 and drive about 4.5 miles (road becomes FR 96) to FR 95. For Todd Lake Campground, go left on FR 95 and drive about 2 miles. Go right on FR 95A and continue about 3 miles to campground. For Elkhorn Lake and North River Campground, from FR 96 go right on FR 95. Follow signs to Elkhorn Lake or, for the campground, continue about 2.5 miles to intersection with FR 95B, go right and follow signs.

Hone Quarry Campground: Take VA 257 west of Dayton about 10 miles. Go right on VA 62 and follow signs.

Hiking the Dry River District

A total of 163 miles of mountainous trails gives plenty of options to casual hikers, serious backpackers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, bird watchers, and hunters. Backcountry camping is permitted in the national forest unless posted otherwise.

Wild Oak National Recreation Trail. [Fig. 26(9)] Three trails—Chestnut Ridge Trail, Hankey Mountain Trail, and North River Trail—are combined to form this 26-mile loop along ridgetops around the North River headwaters. The white-blazed circuit hike was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1979. Each of the three sections has steep sections that make a challenging though scenic day-hiking opportunity. A multiple-day backpacking trip is made possible by completing the loop.

The well-maintained Wild Oak Trail also connects with several other trails, which include the Bear Draft Trail (2 miles), White Oak Draft Trail (2.8 miles), Dowells Draft Trail (4 miles), Bald Ridge Trail (8.3 miles), Tearjacket Trail (1.3 miles), and Grooms Ridge Trail (4 miles; all trail distances are one-way). A topo map or a district map, available from the ranger district office, and a compass will help with routing decisions. Hikers can combine nature study with their trek by carrying a notebook and identifying the 40 species of trees and 50 species of wildflowers listed on the route. The Wild Oak Trail gets its name from the variety of oaks along the way, which include scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), black oak (Quercus velutina), northern red oak (Quercus borealis), blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica), white oak (Quercus alba), chestnut oak (Quercus montana), and post oak (Quercus stellata). In the understory are blueberries, deerberry, azalea, mountain laurel, witch-hazel, and dogwood.

Birds a hiker might hear or see include American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus), wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus), tufted titmouse (Parus bicolor), white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis carolinensis), Carolina chickadee (Penthestes carolinensis carolinensis), brown creeper (Certhia familiaris americana), ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), and a variety of woodpeckers, owls, sparrows, and warblers.

Those hiking during hunting seasons, especially during the two-week deer season each November, should wear blaze orange and expect plenty of company on the trail. This area is prime hunting territory.

North River Gorge Trail. [Fig. 26(10)] This beautiful 4.2-mile footpath leads through hardwood forest along a particularly scenic stretch of the North River. The North River forms from runoff from the 4,000-foot summit of Shenandoah Mountain several miles to the west. The river gathers strength as it is funneled through a gorge between Trimble Mountain and Lookout Mountain.

The trail has gentle grades, but it requires hikers to ford the North River nine times. During periods of high water or freezing weather, the stream crossings may be treacherous or impossible. Spring and summer streamside wildflowers include jack-in-the-pulpit or Indian turnip (Arisaema triphyllum), partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), and trillium. A shrubby understory of black willows, hazel alders, rhododendron, wild hydrangea, and arrowwood thrive in the damp mist. Trail maps are available from the district office in Bridgewater.

Trimble Mountain Trail. [Fig. 26(11)] This is a 4-mile loop with excellent views of Reddish Knob and Shenandoah Mountain to the west and North River Gorge to the east. The yellow-blazed trail begins near the entrance to Todd Lake Campground, and its gentle grades follow a deer path along the ridge of Trimble Mountain. Bordering the trail are thickets of mountain laurel with strong, twisted wood. The evergreen shrubs have shiny leaves and produce profuse white or pale pink blooms in early June. Several varieties of moss and fragile lichens also grow along the path.

Eroding rock from the Paleozoic Era may expose fossils of plants from an ancient sea. The rock comes from the Pennsylvanian Period of some 300 million years ago, when algae were plentiful and ferns grew from seedlike bodies. The first reptiles were evolving, but dinosaurs would not develop for another 75 million years. At about the halfway point, a stand of dead trees is a reminder of the devastation that ice storms can cause. These trees were damaged by a heavy icing on Easter, 1978.

Wildlife in the area includes the white-tailed deer, wild turkey, ruffed grouse, raccoon, and gray fox. The gray fox, unlike its cousin the red fox, occasionally climbs trees and prefers open forests to fields. It rarely invades a chicken house, relying instead on its expertise at mousing. Woodpeckers such as the downy woodpecker, redheaded woodpecker, and yellow-bellied sapsucker are common along sections of the trail.

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