Monday, April 23, 2012

Appalachian trail: Damascus to Wilbur Dam Road

Starting Point: Damascus, VA
Ending Point: Wilbur Dam Road, TN
Distance: 38 Miles one way (plus a couple miles of road walking)
Break Down: Day 1--15 miles to campsite just south of 421
                       Day 2--11 miles to Iron Mt. Shelter
                       Day 3-- 12 Miles to Wilbur Dam Rd      
Date: April 20-22, 2012
Trip highlights: Damascus is a great place for hikers, easy grade, Nick Grindstaff monument, Views of Holston Lake and Lake Watagua, Views from Old Osborne Farm.
Osborne Farm

Jon, Ashley, and I had been planning a 30 mile hike on the Art Loeb Trail in Pisgah National Forest for a couple of months.   When one third of our party had to back out (owning a business requires responsibility) and the weatherman started talking about thunderstorms; Jon and I decided to reconsider the trip.

After work on Thursday night we met at Jon's house to consider new plans. We weren't opposed to hiking in thunderstorms, but Art Loeb's 6000+ foot open ridgelines didn't seem like the best place to endure one.  We considered a loop in Shining Rock but decided against a four hour drive for a rainy hike.  We looked at the Falls Lake section of the Mountains to Sea Trail and at a couple state parks West of Charlotte but nothing seemed to wet our hiker's appetite.  At around midnight I finally came to the conclusion that we take a two and a half hour drive to Damascus and just kind of wing it.

At 8:00 the next morning I was back at Jon's to pick him up.  After gassing up the car and scouring the earth for a cup o'joe (State Street why you no have coffee??), we hit the highway by 8:30.  We arrived in Down Town Damascus exactly three hours later, which was fairly good time after the traffic in Boone and our not-so-quick stop at Espresso News

We went into Mount Rogers Outfitters to see if they recommended  any particular hikes.  The Guy behind the counter (who, in the 15 minutes we interacted with him, consumed a quite impressive number of bananas) had several suggestions--Fox Creek, Iron Mountain Loop, Grayson Highlands--but after looking at a couple maps, we decided to just head south on the Appalachian Trail and keep going with the "winging it" mentality.  Our friend Nick said he might be able to meet us on the trail on Saturday so we confirmed with Banana Man that the parking lot on 91 was a good spot for overnight parking.

Eager to hit the trail, we grabbed a quick bit to eat at Cowboy's, registered our car for overnight parking at Town Hall and started south.

The trail goes right through the middle of town, crosses a park, then heads into the woods behind a neighborhood.  The trail picks up about 1500 feet in the first three miles, making the start of this hike a bit of a work out but not a spirit-breaker.  In a little over an hour we came to the Tennessee/Virginia Border.  Despite our afternoon start, we were moving faster than three miles per hour and were making pretty good time.

The trail continues to gain elevation for another mile or so but then gently levels out.  We reached the Backbone Rock Trail and decided to fill up our water bottles.  The map indicated that there was a water source but two day-hikers told us that it was 3 miles down to the creek so we decided to trek on to the next source.

  After passing through a nice stent of Hemlocks, we came to Abingdon Gap Shelter.  We chatted with a few thru-hikers and took advantage of the shelter's water source but kept our break short.

Several rock structures, old foundations and an old demolished fire tower line the trail for the next several miles.  We headed on towards 421 and decided to camp at the first campsite south of the highway.  We ate dinner, hang our food, and went to bed fairly early.  A hoot owl carried on all night just out side of our tent.

Jon's cell phone had service near 421 so we tried to contact Nick.  We had no luck and after several attempts we concluded that he must not have been able to meet us after all.  This left us with the dilemma of whether to hike back to Damascus or to try and hitchhike from one of several road crossings.  We packed up camp and decided to keep heading south and either hitchhike from 91 or from Watagua Dam.

South of 421 the  trail leads through a wooded ridgeline that offers some good views, including views to the west of Holston Lake.  There were a couple of good campsites along the trail  before reaching Double Springs Shelter.  The shelter has a good water source right on the trail.  The sky had been cloudy all morning, but when we reached the shelter it looked like it could start pouring and minute.  We put on our rain gear and pack covers and kept hiking.
View from ridge south of 421

A couple miles past the shelter, the trail comes to the Old Osborne Farm.  The sky, which could not make up its mind, decided to clear up right before we reached the farm.  This allowed for great views of the farmland and surrounding mountains.  The meadow had one bull grazing and several old buildings and fences.   The trail passes through the farm for close to a mile until you reach 91.

We came to the parking lot on 91 and decided to try calling Nick one more time.  He didn't answer so we ate a quick snack and moved on.  About a hundred yards past the highway, a church had left a cooler full of soda and Little Debbies.  we enjoyed a little trail magic then kept on going.  Not 50 yards further we came to a couple guys listening to the radio and sitting under a large blue tarp.  They offered us a cold beer and told us to tell other hikers on the trail to stop by for a beer and a burger.

They had thru-hiked in 1997 and had soon afterward moved to Damascus.  We swapped trail stories for a few minutes then headed down the trail, telling passing NOBO hikers about the trail magic ahead. 

three and a half miles on, we came to the grave of Nick GrindStaff, a hermit that lived on Iron Mountain until his death in 1923.  A water source is located on a spur trail near the monument.

About a mile past the grave we came to Iron Mountain Shelter.  We set up our hammocks and ate lunch while lounging around.  when we heard thunder, we took down our hammocks and went into the shelter.  Several hikers came through to eat lunch but most moved on, anxious to get closer to Damascus.  Although it wasn't quite 3:00, we decided to stay at the shelter as opposed to moving on and call it an eleven mile day.  A thru-hiker named Column was in the shelter recovering from a stomach bug and another hiker from Florida tent camped outside the shelter.  Column was in the ER 2 nights before and hadn't taken a zero day.  He was having trouble keeping food down so we offered him Coconut powder and tea. 

Jon and I looked at the map and debated returning to 91 in the morning or pressing on to Watagua Dam.  by the time we went to bed we were pretty set on making it to the dam.

We woke up early to a fogy morning and, after coffee, breakfast, and wishing Column good luck, we were on the trail by 7:30.  We made it 7 miles to Vandeventer Shelter at a little after 10.  We stopped for a snack and some more coffee.  Behind the shelter would have been one of the most impressive views along this section of trail, but all we could see was fog.  I can only imagine how impressive a sunrise from the rocks behind the shelter would be. 

The fog began to lift at we hiked on past the shelter.  Pretty soon we began to catch glimpses of Watagua Lake.  A couple of quick elevation gains keep this section interesting, but its mostly down hill from the shelter. We stopped  for a few minutes at a overlook off the trail and were impressed with the views of the lake and surrounding ridges.  several Thru-hikers and a couple ridge-runners past us.  We started back on the trail and soon came to nice grove of pine forests which offered a nice change in scenery.

Five miles past Vandeventer Shelter we Came to Wilbur road.  We decided we better start thinking about how to get back to Damascus, so we figured we should try to hitch a ride from there and If we had no luck continue four miles to Watagua Dam and try to hitch from 321.  It wasn't yet 1:00 so we had a lot of daylight to work with.

Several Cars passed with no luck.  a minivan carrying three generations stopped but they were heading in the opposite direction.  They offered us cheese and cracker, which was much appreciated.  We were about to give up and head to 321 When two ETSU students, Lenny and Christian, Offered us a ride into Hapton--where they said we would have better luck getting picked up.

We accepted the ride and headed to Hampton.  After interesting conversation ranging in topic from hiking to HAM radios, they dropped us off at the trail head of Laurel Trail on 67.  After about an hour, a guy in a pick up on his way to Mt. City, TN stopped and offered us a ride.  He dropped us of at a Rite Aid a quarter mile from 91.  We started walking towards 91 and then headed north on the highway.  We walked about two miles beside the highway before a man named Raleigh picked us up.

Raleigh was on his way to a town just passed Damascus to help a friend whose transition had died.  He grew up in Winston Salem, NC and had some great stories to tell about everything from big foot to gold mining to  dogs getting stuck in attics.

He dropped us off in Damascus and it hit us how great a weekend we had had.  We stopped at Quincey's Pizza in Damascus, which was filled with hikers.  The hiker who camped outside of the shelter last night and another hiker we had met on the trail named Calves were eating at the bar so we joined them.  A German couple that we had talked to on the trail the day before came in soon after.  The pizza was great I recommend the Philly Cheese-Steak Pie. 

After some catching up with fellow hikers, we headed back to Greensboro.  We agreed that winging it from Damascus is an occurrence that we will experience again in the future. It really is a great town for hikers.

Oh yeah, I haven't forgotten about you Art Loeb.  We will meet soon, on a day of my own choosing when you least expect it--and you will be conquered.