On The Old At: Day Hike On Big Walker Mountain, Va
Hey, from Blue Heaven, Chapel Hill, NC, the Southern Side of Heaven. Tonto here to fill you guys in on my latest trail adventure. After a two year hiatus, last week I planned a road trip to fill in sections of the Appalachian Trail skipped on my 2013 attempted thru-hike. Back then, after hiking 625 miles, I had to get off the trail due to what turned out to be a major stress fracture in my right knee. The doctor said I had to refrain from backpacking for a year. Last week decided to finish three sections of the AT missed back then. The itinerary was a 12 mile section from Sugar Run Gap north to the town of Pearisburg, VA, a 9 mile section over Pond Mountain to the east of the town of Hampton, TN, and a 24 mile section from Sams Gap north to the town of Erwin, TN.
In the middle of last week I packed gear, food for four days, two liters of H2O and departed Chapel Hill at 9:30am heading north for Pearisburg, VA. To the north of the city of Waynesboro is a highway tunnel where I-77 passes under Big Walker Mountain. I recalled that from 1955 to 1977 the former route of the Appalachian Trail followed the ridge of Big Walker Mountain from the Crawfish Valley (the current AT route passes north through the valley) going east for over thirty miles to High Rock. From there the old AT turned north off Big Walker Mountain into Skydusky Hollow following back roads to the village of Crandon and continued into Lickskillet Hollow east of Jenny Knob. In 1960, the US Forest Service constructed four shelters along that section of the AT. In 1978, the official AT route was relocated off Big Walker Mountain to the north onto Garden Mountain near Burkes Garden. In 1981, the shelters on Big Walker Mountain where relocated onto the new AT route on Garden Mountain. West of US52, twelve miles of the old AT route on Big Walker Mountain have been renamed the Walker Mountain Trail. The US Forest Service has designated the yellow blazed trail multi-use and open to equestrians, mountain bikers, and hikers.
I was in no particular hurry, so, on a whim I decided to take a side trip to check out the former AT route on Big Walker Mountain. Exiting the interstate near the village of Bland I took US52 west and in a few mile the road switch-backed up the north-side of Big Walker Mountain to the top of the ridge, There I turned off at Big Walker Lookout into the parking lot behind the general store, a rustic building of rough sawn lumber that houses a tourist gift shop and refreshments. Located to the side of the store, at an elevation of 3,405 feet, stands a 100 foot steel framed structure resembling a fire-tower. For a fee of $6 intrepid tourists access the tower on a swinging bridge then climb a long flight of steel stairs through the interior of the structure to an observation platform that gives a panoramic view of mountain peaks in five different states. The trailhead to the yellow blazed Walker Mountain Trail (the Old AT) is accessed a short distance from the rear parking lot of the general store.
From the US Forest Service trailhead sign, the Walker Mountain Trail is a double track dirt road that enters a shady hardwood forest for about a hundred feet then veers left off the road becoming a rocky single track. The trail ascends steeply several hundred feet through the hardwoods onto a narrow ridge. The main trail continues, with minor ups and downs, along the ridge for a quarter mile to a side trail on the right. Taking the side trail for a short distance lead to a rock outcrop providing an outstanding view of the Stony Fork watershed and Garden Mountain to the north. I stopped to take a few pictures and returned to the main trail. Continuing west within a few hundred feet the main trail passed under Monster Rock, a massive rock ledge about 30 feet high that overhangs the the trail. In my research trying to discover old AT routes I've found several vintage trail journals online that mention Monster Rock as a major feature on the the Old AT. Here I was nearly forty years after the major relocation passing under that feature. I continued along the ridge for another three quarters of a mile before turning around and hiking back to the parking lot at Big Walker Overlook.
Even at elevation it had been a rather hot day in June for hiking. I went inside the general store for a cold drink. The store was empty and I rambled around looking for a drink cooler. The middle aged woman behind the counter pointed me in the right direction. While purchasing a can of Coke I began to chat with the lady behind the counter and turned the conversation to the old AT route that had passed by the store. Being a long time local she remembered the trail passed that way and pointed out an old black and white photograph tacked to the wall near the restrooms and I went over to check it out. The shot showed a group of hikers standing under a large Appalachian Trail sign with a view of the general store behind them. Judging by the hair styles, clothing, and large outdated external frame packs, the photo was most likely taken in either the late 1960s or early 1970s. I went back to the counter and noticed that they also served ice cream. After purchasing a cone of hand scooped home made ice cream I exited with my refreshments, took a seat in the shade on the front porch of the store to relax. After knocking off the ice cream and drink I climbed into my truck, rolled down the window and took the road down the mountain heading east for Pearisburg and the next leg of my hiking road trip, but, I'll stop here and save that narrative for another time.